Academic space-time

It was a little tough to trade my L.A. sunshine for a Swedish winter — I had to buy a coat. But the chance to go to Umeå for the Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production conference was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. And, indeed, I was overwhelmed by the generosity of my hosts, Patrik Svensson’s thoughtfulness in assembling and choreographing the event, and the kindness and intelligence of the other guests. The experience was one I’ll always remember.

St. Lucia’s Day singers

Distinctively, GOSKP speakers and performers spent a lot of time talking about the normally hidden infrastructure of scholarly business-as-usual: the ways academics interact with each other at conferences, the ways we present ideas, our unspoken assumptions about what constitutes authority and rigor. I think here of Patrik and Erika Robles-Anderson’s paper on PowerPoint, David Theo Goldberg’s discussion of the inherent instability of any “platform,” and Lauren Klein’s excavation of an alternative tradition of information visualization. I think, too, of the fearless and challenging performances we saw: Samantha Gorman’s “PRY,” Jeanne Jo’s “Modular Cinema Spatialized,” and Carolina Bäckman’s “My Body is Every Body.” These presenters and others urged us to expand our notion of the scholarly presentation.

Patrik used the term “intellectual middleware” to refer to things like WordPress or Drupal — publishing platforms that convey our work to far-flung audiences. But conferences are middleware, too, in the ways that they structure our interactions: the way we stand together, where and with whom we congregate, how we linger over food, hunch over an iPhone, or fidget in our seats. All these things have an effect on who works together and how, and on what, ultimately, gets said.

Julbord and conversation

As I listened to speakers at GOSKP, I thought about academic space-time: the peculiar characteristics of cognition at a typical big academic conference. Time is slow (when will this guy finish his question?) and yet unusually fraught (who am I not seeing? who am I failing to meet?). Space is bland — accordion-doored conference rooms and industrial-strength carpet — yet somehow oversaturated: too many faces, too much to take in. The stakes are both mind-numbingly low (where should we eat tonight?) and career-breakingly high (will my paper flop?).

Ann Balsamo speaks over a digital projection of the AIDS Quilt from the floor screen.

To use Margaret Price’s supremely useful term, conference space is kairotic:

Kairotic spaces are the less formal, often unnoticed, areas of academe where knowledge is produced and power is exchanged…

I define a kairotic space as one characterized by all or most of these criteria:

Real-time unfolding of events
Impromptu communication required or encouraged
Participants are tele/present
Strong social element
High stakes

As Price points out, to acknowledge the existence and effect of kairotic space is to acknowledge that academic knowledge is not produced by great ideas alone; it’s blood and guts, friendship and rivalry, jostling and elbowing for room to talk. We know that, really, when we think about it. Yet we haven’t moved much past the lecture-hall style of conference presentation; PowerPoint, for all that it promises visual relief, generally makes the whole thing somehow worse.

GOSKP, in its adventurous, unpretentious use of space and its attentiveness to the real effect of human interaction, spurred me to make a simple resolution: to think, the next time I organize an event, about every presentation space — and to be as deliberate in staging interstitial space as I would be about delivering a conference paper.



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Miriam Posner

Miriam Posner

Coordinate & teach in UCLA's Digital Humanities program. Interested in DH, film, Am studies, hist of medicine, etc. Will watch the hell out of a documentary.