Queering the Conference Format?

By Rachel Signer

We all know what an academic conference looks like, what it is meant to do, and how we are supposed to experience it. Typically, panelists read original papers for a group of people, and then a moderator will facilitate discussion for a few minutes with questions from that audience. When I reflect back as both an observer of the Gender Studies Conference and the Politically Queer Conference, and as an organizer of the New School’s Department of Anthropology Graduate Student Conference, a few thoughts and questions arise about the forms in which ideas are presented during these events, and the norms which inform those forms.

The first morning of the Gender Studies Conference, the auditorium was filled with a sense of accomplishment before the event even began. The crowd was multi-generational and of diverse walks of life: students, faculty, public intellectuals. The day proceeded to unfold with an ambush of diverse papers and presentations, most of which were diligently researched, superbly written, and creatively performed. There was, however, a sense of cold, hard data being thrown at the audience, with little time for them to respond. The questions which were posed, both explicitly and implicitly, addressed the “return” of Gender Studies to the New School, how this return might build off the contested legacy of that program, and the various ways in which this return could be interpreted. Professor Ann Snitow also raised the important problem of institutionalization, as a means by which “marginal structures” are subsumed into the “center” which was the subject of critique in the first place.

An academic conference is, at its core, an institutional event, already marked by the structural norms which allow us to recognize official discourse. For example, the conference was presented as a unified, finished product; however, for me, it became clear in multiple instances that the process of planning the conference had been for various actors, itself educational, experimental, and even problematic. Yet, on the whole, the audience was hardly privy to these processes, which included extensive university-wide interviews, student research groups, and drawn out battles with the University Student Senate for the appropriate amount of funding. It seems to me that these sources of tension around planning the event, were more than supplemental; they were entirely central in making it an event in the first place. On a separate note, echoing many of the organizers’ own reflections, the Gender Studies Conference would have benefited from more engaged and informal dialogue. Perhaps the participants could have split up into working groups during lunch to formulate questions for discussion, or maybe a blog could have been prepared before the event where a debate could evolve without the restrictions of time that were felt during the conference days.

The Politically Queer Conference, in many ways, echoed the Gender Studies Conference, by posing questions about the Academy as an institution, and inviting panelists to present papers. There were a few interesting additions to this event which gave it a more playful character, including an impressive display of pro-masturbation artwork by Antonia Basler. The question of “what is queer,” or “what is queer-ing,” was raised and promptly shot down many times. As these repeated attempts at defining queer-ness were refuted, I had to wonder whether the impetus to categorize “queer-ness” was also a product of normative academic inquiry. How, I asked myself, does academic training promote the fast-held assumption that things must be categorized, hierarchicized, and measured against each other in order to merit status as epistemic objects? What are the ways in which our forms of presenting, creating, and challenging knowledge are already limited by these epistemic requirements?

The Politically Queer conference yet again raised a question of form, as the second panel started out with a promising use of new technology: Skype-ing in a student in India to read a paper. After his presentation, however, the panelist was generally ignored, and his technological presence hung awkwardly over the discussion between the other panelists. At this point, I began to formulate a novel idea: what might it look like to “queer” the conference format? What steps could be taken to, echoing panelist Álvaro Luís Lima’s words, “expand, nuance, and complicate” our methods of conveying, contesting, and even producing ideas at these events? If queerness is, for many, resistance to categorization itself, it seems that a “queer-ed” format would require a new imagination of “the event.” This imagination could destabilize the normative acts of presenting papers, facilitating dialogue, and even asking questions in such a way that the “event” itself is no longer recognizable as such.

Radical psychoanalyst Felix Guattari asked, “How can we make the classroom into a work of art?” Similarly, we are long due for a de-territorialization of “the event,” which has been held hostage in university conference halls and rigid expectations, and often holds its audiences hostage. Hopefully, the idea of “queering” the conference format can lead to renewed political possibilities by providing fresh spaces for dialogue, exploration, and sharing. I am confident that the students of the NSSR can dream up a queer-fully new form, in the same way that we are known for transgressing standard subjects of academic inquiry. As editor of Canon Magazine, I hope that the spring 2010 issue serves as both an archive and a forum for the recent Gender Studies and Politically Queer conferences, as well as for the future collaborations and ideas which are sure to follow from these (un)timely events.