Wankfest: The Academic Conference

Conferences, those central rituals of academia, are not all the same. Some are small and intimate, tucked away in a corner of a single university department; others are enormous and as impersonal as the Hyatts and Hiltons at which they are held. But there is nevertheless a certain predictability about the institution: a common promise of what is most enjoyable as well as all that is disgusting about being a working scholar.

The big conferences are typically annual affairs. For North-America-based scholars of South Asia, historians in particular, the most important of these are the AHA (American Historical Association), the AAS (Association of Asian Studies), and the South Asia Studies shindig in Madison, WI. The first is especially notorious. Being the major site of job interviews for historians, the AHA meeting is pervaded by the smell of fear. There is, for instance, a blue-curtained area where the poorer schools (which cannot afford hotel suites) hold their interviews, and rows of young men and women sit miserably with clammy palms and increasingly rancid suits. Even scholars who are not on the market feel a fat icicle penetrate them unnaturally when they walk past: they are transported, for a second, to being twenty-nine, ‘finished’ and unemployed. The AAS is less stressful than the AHA, but even more officious: ‘volunteer’ Brownshirts stand guard outside the conference rooms to make sure that nobody without a badge (i.e., who has not paid the hefty conference fee) gets in to steal the wisdom on offer.

Madison, in comparison, is a laid-back holiday, a sort of fall break devoted to meeting old friends and enemies, and to general debauchery. (It is the University of Wisconsin.) Around midnight, the elevators in the hotels around State Street open their doors to streams of unlikely couplings, booty calls are made, and the halls echo with the muffled cries of intellectuals in ecstasy. I used to go every year when I lived in the Midwest, mainly for the social side of the affair. A good friend from Glasgow, with the look and manner of a young Kirk Douglas, would brush off a small cloud of ardent graduate students, put away an astonishing number of beers, pay for the drinks of his envious friends, and go off to his room to sleep – alone. Curiously juvenile games are played at the panels. One woman used to glare reproachfully at me, to remind me of a disappointing evening in Delhi. Another would always show up at my panels, but inevitably walk out just as I was about to read my paper. I am ashamed to note that I retaliated in kind. Perhaps I started it; it became hard to remember. I enjoyed going to Madison, but I don’t miss it.

There are a fairly limited set of ‘types’ that may be found at any given conference. There is the compulsive self-promoter: usually an ambitious sort who has not managed to climb the ladder as far as he would have liked to. A friend and colleague, who I have known for many years, epitomizes this type. Happy to have found a familiar face in a sea of unfamiliar visages in the ballroom of a generic hotel, clutching your drink coupon, you may find yourself engaged in pleasant conversation with this woman. All of a sudden, she will spot – across the crowded room – an editor or a scholar more famous than either of you. Before you can say what the fuck, she will have shot across the hall like a guided missile. If you sidled up, you would hear the sounds of vigorous posterior-kissing, name-dropping, back-biting and self-praise, interspersed with polite exclamations. (Before you accuse me of biting back, dear reader, please note that I have named no names.) ‘She’s such a good networker,’ a mutual acquaintance says defensively. Indeed she is.

Then there is the acknowledged big shot, more evident at smaller conferences. He knows – or believes, at any rate – that the audience has been waiting for him. His entrance is a strut that would put P. Diddy to shame. Like Diddy, he has his entourage: a small, smug train of favored students and junior scholars. He also has his wife, who is typically a younger Indian scholar and his former graduate student, who has married up and is now well-placed in the field. He is, of course, the subalternist. (Sometimes he is just Ashis Nandy.) He is indulgent to his entourage, but otherwise disinclined to waste time on them: they are beneath him. (It’s all very Gramsci, you shee.) He reserves his egalitarian-democratic impulses for other subalternists, not for subalterns. He may find himself approached by the occasional self-promoter like my friend mentioned above, and he may even adopt one temporarily, but there is no question of friendship or loyalty. If you were a young scholar up for tenure but not a full member of the club, you would be well advised to watch your back.

The panels themselves are often interesting for the wrong reasons, most of them anthropological. We observe, for instance, that academics have not fallen under the spell of the clock: they tend to treat time-limits on individual presentations as an inside joke or a quaint suggestion. Audience members sometimes fall asleep: my old dissertation advisor would do this quite regularly. Nudged awake by his amused neighbor, he would smile good-naturedly and resume his gentle snoring, which never dampened the enthusiasm of the delinquent ignoring the clock. Discussants, particularly women from the subcontinent (for some reason, Delhi more than any other place), often give the impression that they eat their young, tearing into paper-presenters and colleagues with a ferocity that takes your breath away. (At a recent conference, one such spirited historian was asked by her co-panelist – a distinguished anthropologist – whether this was really necessary. ‘You’re a pompous ass,’ she shot back into an open microphone.) When you recover from your shock, you realize that these are people who take the business of being intellectuals extremely seriously. They believe their blathering matters in the world, even when they work on the minute details of Maratha taxation.

Not surprisingly, sooner or later at every conference worth its salt, comes the great Call For. This is an arcane concept and needs some explanation. The Call For is a paper presented, typically, by a big shot. But it is identified as such by a new member of the big shots’ club. The act of pointing it out is, in fact, a ritual of admission into the club. Following the conference, it will emerge – in an edited conference volume, or an article in the American Historical Review, or at least a well-received monograph – that in Washington/Philadelphia/Madison, so-and-so ‘called for us’ to chart some hair-raising new territory, like the intersection of caste, land revenue and Adorno in mid-nineteenth-century Bengal, or the marginality of left-handed women in nationalist narratives of penal transportation. Apparently, while my advisor slept and I doodled airplanes in my conference-issued stationary, the rest of the audience had thrilled to this clarion-call and gauntlet-throw, and some alert young scholar had recognized the paradigm shift. Now this individual had given the signal, and an army of South Asianists, shuddering with purpose and solidarity, was ready to march off into battle against no one in particular, giving the signaler a prominent place in its midst.

Conferences are, I find, rather lonely spaces – even Madison. The longer they last, the more depressing they become. This is, no doubt, due to my inability to regard my own profession with the required seriousness. But it is also because conferences bring out the eroded condition of friendships and old loves, and the fraudulent nature of collegiality, which seldom rises higher than one-upmanship, narcissism and cliquish behavior of the sort patented by middle-schoolers. In the worst cases, you find yourself doing it too. I’m always happy to leave and take a shower.

May 27, 2013