On Saturday, I flew back from Bloomington, Indiana, where I had presented a paper at the ASLE convention – the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment. On the plane beside me sat a Bosnian guy who looked exactly like Morrissey circa 1987; he talked to me about living in the U.S., about his brother who’s still in Bosnia and likes to hunt. He’d never heard of Morrissey.
He didn't look like this version of Morrissey, but I freaking love this photo.
But I digress…
ASLE: the focus this year was “Species, Space, and the Imagination of the Global.”
I presented a paper called “The Politics of Eating Postcolonial Animals: Contextual Moral Vegetarianism and Life of Pi,” which is an excerpt from a chapter titled “Safari, Zoo, and Dog Pound: The Place of Animals in the Postcolonial Environment” in my book.
Yes, I know. Shameless. But, hey, buy my book.
OK, so before I go into further details about that presentation, there are things about the conference in general and about my inability to successfully or appropriately participate in an academic conference that need explication. And, perhaps, I can come to terms with certain aspects of my personality that make me a bad academic, at least in this aspect of my professional life. First, a bit about ASLE. This organization has been in existence since the mid-1990s, and is the preeminent scholarly organization for folks who explore environmental issues in literature and, more often than not, in life. The conference strives to make as small a footprint as possible, implementing such measures as “creating a vegetarian banquet with several interesting menu choices featuring local and/or organic foods as much as possible, including local beers and wines,” and “minimizing décor for the banquet and using artificial, reusable planters, linens, and other reusable décor items.” (This info courtesy of the conference website)
This year’s conference actually featured two panels about veganism, called “The Vegan Challenge to Posthumanism” (parts 1 and 2), and animal studies in general was a primary focus of much of the work that was presented. However, despite the seemingly obvious fact that the conference theme indicated a more global focus – and, indeed, there were panels, like mine, that examined the environment from a postcolonial perspective – the “global” was not really a major part of the agenda. The overarching and traditional discourse of ecocriticism as a theoretical perspective – and ASLE is the entity that codified that discourse into scholarly legitimacy – has been and remains entrenched in American literature written by white (often male) authors, and such was certainly the case this year in Bloomington.
The big names in the field were all there, and, by and large, the big names focus on Western writing. American literary scholar and godfather of ecocriticism Lawrence Buell was honored for his foundational work (and my friends and co-presenters Colin Christopher and Ali Brox got to eat lunch with him -- and he is, by all accounts, a seriously nice dude), but South African author Zakes Mda was a plenary speaker, as was Helen Tiffin, a prominent postcolonial scholar whose most recent work is Postcolonial Ecocriticism: Literature, Animals, Environment. And Cheryll Glotfelty, who co-edited the foundational Ecocriticism Reader with Harold Fromm (remember him from an earlier entry? He’s the guy who, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, trashed vegans) shook my hand: her book was sitting right beside mine on the University of Georgia Press table. So the paradigm is shifting, albeit slowly. At the author’s reception, I was situated in a corner near the back of the room (Colin said, “nobody puts Baby in a corner…”), and there was much joking about my marginalization. But it’s all ok. It’s fine.
And good things happened for me, so I’ll toot my own horn for a bit: Byron Caminero-Santangelo, who moderated my panel, introduced me as “the preeminent Coetzee scholar working in the U.S.,” which made me feel really good – even if I’m not sure his assessment is 100% accurate. Still, it made my day. People bought my book and asked me to sign it; the University of Georgia Press representative told me that she sold out of it, which may or may not be impressive, as I think she only brought about five copies with her. But, hey, selling any academic books counts as a success. And I met people like Dan Wylie and the aforementioned Cheryll Glotfelty as well as a bunch of really cool folks from the University of Kansas and elsewhere. And a woman approached me after my presentation to tell me that Carol J. Adams had included my video in her famous Sexual Politics of Meat slideshow.
I really liked Bloomington; it’s such a real college town, with all kinds of neat little shops and an overwhelming number of places where a vegan can eat. I ate at Roots on the Square twice and at a Vietnamese fusion place called Basil Leaf Bistro. After my presentation, a group of us went to a place called Scotty’s Brewhouse, a sports bar with a menu the size of a short novel, in which there appeared such items as burgers with peanut butter, deep fried pickle chips, and lots and lots of items buried beneath cheese and bacon. But, of course, there was a veggie burger, so that’s what I had, as did the one other vegan in the bunch. He and I had been betting on what our options would be, noting that in the case of such places, it’s either a veggie burger or some sort of Portobello concoction. And with the check at the end of the meal, we got little boxes of Red Hots, which, sadly, aren't vegan. They contain beeswax. Who knew?
But I am bad at conferences. And all the good things that happened at this one don't really counter that fact.
I get nervous and weird, afraid to mix and mingle, intimidated by all sorts of things. And I’ve presented, at this point in my career, at zillions of the damn things. More often than not, my strategy is to attend my panel and maybe one other and then to hide out in my hotel room the rest of the time. ASLE was particularly tough on me: this is a conference that started off small but has exploded over the past several years, so in terms of sheer numbers, it’s scary for someone like me who much prefers smaller venues – like the postcolonial studies conference that I attend nearly every year in Savannah, Georgia.
Despite the fact that I don’t really feel overly intimidated by the academic rock stars that attend and present at these venues, the sheer number of those foundational figures present at this conference gave me pause. Oh, and the fact that Greg Garrard has groupies – and that I think I might be one – is also problematic.
Greg Garrard. I know, right?
The concept of “academic rock star” has always seemed both impossible and hilarious to me – we are all English professors or graduate students – but in my limited world, the way that certain of us achieve the role of public intellectual feels very powerful, and it’s both a heady and intimidating experience to encounter such beings. And we all aspire to be like them.
But perhaps what was more difficult was – and always is for me – the tension that I feel between a lived ethic or a lived activism and a theoretical presentation about how environmental or vegetarian or vegan issues are presented in works of fiction. And that tension seems to be even more pronounced at a conference like ASLE, which is, at least in theory, all about the environment but which, in reality, is all about talking about fictional representations of the environment. And, more often than not, such talk is of a very specific environment at that, one that is accessible to those of us able to participate in the fiction that what is meant by “environment” is a pristine and untouched wilderness available to us as an object for privileged consumption.
OK, perhaps I’m not being entirely fair. I’ll say more in part two, about my paper, about contextual moral vegetarianism/veganism, and about Lauren Spierer, a young Indiana University student who has been missing for over three weeks and whose image, on posters, billboards, and fliers was absolutely everywhere in Bloomington. And I’ll say more about this bumper sticker, seen in a movie theater parking lot:
Yeah, after presenting my paper, I went to see Bad Teacher. Like I said, I'm bad at conferences.