This year’s conference for the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR) was co-hosted by UBC, SFU, and the U of Victoria, and held in downtown Vancouver, just blocks from Stanley Park.
This year’s theme, Romantic Mediations, was particularly productive. I say this mostly because of my own research interest in Romanticism’s popular cultural legacies, but also because of the program’s focused and lively discussions, and, in part, because of the increasingly mediated culture of academic conferences.
The theme directed a lot of attention to the diversity of media forms and the materiality of cultural production in the Romantic period. In the first keynote on Thurs., Aug. 18, William Warner and Clifford Siskin advocated a “history of mediation” as a material and concrete alternative to the more traditional but abstract “history of ideas.” Their presentation seemed both coy and provocative: coy, in that their argument seemed to build (albeit productively, imho) on both Marx and McLuhan without acknowledging either; provocative, in that they styled their talk as an exhortation to adopt their approach. The discussion that followed was feisty: some took issue with what seemed a faddish adoption of computing terminology; some grilled them on their sources and precedents; and some felt they were preaching to the converted, advocating a kind of historical materialism already old very old hat to a field transformed thirty years ago by New Historicism. (For my part, I was left curious enough to at least check out their work, like the Re-Enlightenment Project.)
The theme also prompted a lot of contributions on Romantic theatre and performance, leading me to compile a much better bibliography than that which I’d drawn on to draft the talk I was to give on Saturday (in the second of Danny O’Quinn’s two sessions on “media archaeology”). Fred Burwick’s session on Romantic drama included a paper by Melynda Nuss that I initially worried would moot my own, in her claim that “the technology itself was one of the main items on display” in Romantic theatre. But for Nuss this was premise not thesis for an engaging look at the period’s spectacular “aqua-dramas”: plays on nautical themes, with water scenes that drove the invention of some pretty heavy stage machinery. Subsequently, Friday’s keynote gave me the historical puzzle pieces I didn’t know I’d been looking for, as the Welsh science historian Iwan Rhys Morus gave a tour of the theatrical culture of science in Romantic Britain, and how it gave way to the more professional, less sensational practices of Victorian science. (Now I had more than a better bibliography for my work on the first Frankenstein plays–I had to tweak the paper itself, to give a nod to Morus’ work.)
This keynote took place at SFU’s Woodward campus, nestled between regular downtown and Vancouver’s downtown east side. Strangely, this would not be the only time the conference found itself adjacent to a zombie parade. Moments before the final keynote on Saturday, I was out on the second-storey hotel terrace overlooking Denman Street, alone except for the keynote speaker, Dr Heather Jackson, composing herself before her talk with a crossword. Shouts from the street drew us to the railing, where a hundreds-strong march soon resolved into a mass zombie walk of the kind so popular now.
They staggered down the street. They swarmed a parked bus.
What a perfect performance of re-mediated Gothic. And there I was, caught for once without my camera to re-remediate it. Of course, what with the ubiquity of cameras and the end of privacy and all, most of the zombies brought along their own cameras, documenting the day in sometimes too much detail.
But perhaps I digress. Among the proceedings and festivities, some recurring points of reference that were not zombies also emerged, notably Friedrich Kittler’s history of discourse networks circa 1800 and 1900, and Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s theory of remediation: the “contradictory imperative” to resort to hyper-mediation as a means to simulate immediacy, as a perennial response to new and emergent media. For example: describing a printed text as an improvised performance (the topic of Angela Esterhammer’s fascinating seminar); or, for a more contemporary example, tweeting from a conference discussion in progress (i.e. “hyper-mediating” an immediate, “live” experience) to communicate some of the interest and urgency of the moment.
Ironically, however, the growing intensity of digital remediation and back-channel dialogue that have become a much-discussed trend in the digital Humanities–“conference hacking,” if you will–were not much in evidence at NASSR (held at a hotel with free wireless, no less). I could find only one other delegate, Katherine D. Harris, who was tweeting the proceedings. The listserv seemed dormant during the event, although it has circulated some well-deserved kudos to the organizers since (which I enthusiastically echo); similarly quiet during the event was the NASSR grad students’ blog, which now has some post-game commentary. I was alerted to a Facebook page for Romantics scholars, where some delegates have shared remarks and reviews. There may well have been more digital mediating of a conference whose theme so clearly invited it, and maybe I just wasn’t picking up the right channels.
And I could have been doing more, for my own part: I could have posted my suggested hash-tag on the listserv; I could have made time for more than tweeting, which admittedly has its limits for encapsulating conceptual complexity. (After all, it’s only now that I’ve found the time to share my own reflections on the event in detail.) I suppose I was just expecting more of the “remediating,” real-time back channel with which Twitter has become so good at supplying (supplementing?) other conferences like the MLA convention.
I’m not advocating more digital dialogue and mediation because it’s increasingly ubiquitous elsewhere, or just to appear tuned in and wired up (although there is a case to be made that publicly remediating debates over literary history and politics can help to change public perceptions about the stakes–or perceived lack thereof–in such fields). As shown by so many of the talks I attended in Vancouver; as shown by NASSR’s attention to media (from prior conference themes like techne and newness to systems like the listserv itself); and as shown by the wider field’s deep and diverse investments in new media (the Blake Archive, Romantic Circles, RaVoN): the discourse networks and media ecologies around 1800 have continued to shape and resonate with our experiences of discourse networks and media ecologies around 2000. So playing more extensively with the interface of hyper-mediated and immediate modes of communication and representation–playing, that is, with remediation in the performance scene of the conference–can shed new light on the ideologies and implications of media (both new and dead), and can transform the shape and tone of the conference as such, which is by no means a new medium, but one that can be not only compromised, but also (and at the same time) enriched and extended by the myriad forms and deployments of remediation.