Sunday, June 06, 2010

montreal - part two: conferring and not conferring

Our main reason for going to Montreal was the conference of the Society for Existential and Phenomenological Theory and Culture, a group that does so-called continental philosophy.

Conferences are funny things. Now that I'm firmly in the fringe of academic philosophy, and have almost nothing to gain or lose by going to these things, I'm pretty impatient with them. If I don't see a session on the schedule that is absolutely interesting to me, I don't go to any session. I wander around.

We spent almost all of one day walking around Montreal, from our hotel to Concordia University where the conference was being held, then back over to McGill (which was having spring convocation), then up into Parc Mont Royal a bit, just wandering, getting the feel of that part of the city on an ordinary day. Montreal is lovely - at least, those bits (like any city, it has its share of disused industrial tracts and post-industrial overlays, inconveniently located housing projects, and so forth). All the houses around there looked about 200 years old, including those that clearly weren't. It's the same kind of houses you'd see in old parts of DC (Georgetown, mainly), but with something about them that seemed a little, ya know, French.

I could never figure out where I was, the whole time we were there. This is very unusual. I have an excellent sense of direction, and have a strong proclivity for mentally mapping a place. But Montreal through me off somehow. I think it had to do with the density and busy-ness of the streets in the central city, and the fact that every block seemed to have two or three high-end restaurants, boutiques, a bar, a hotel, a bank, and a place festooned in neon inviting you to come in for "danse contact" (often also indicated by a silhouette on a sign). That made it hard to read the streets, and so I kept thinking I was going the wrong way, or indeed kept going the wrong way.

My Duquesne pal Dave "Dave" Koukal organizes a mini-conference within the conference (with Astrida Niemanis, a Canadian philosophy person) called "Back to the Things Themselves." The purpose of the conference is to engage in phenomenological description as a basic part of phenomenological philosophy - something not often done in most continental philosophy conferences.

I went to the first Back to the Things Themselves conference, ages ago, in New Hampshire, organized by three people. I came back from it really jazzed by the experience and told all sorts of people that this was the way phenomenology should be discussed by academic philosophers. There was one more conference organized by the initial group, but then it faded away. Over the years, Dave and I talked about starting our own conference along the same lines. One thing and another happened, and we never did that. So Dave and Astrida started putting this together as part of EPTC about 4 years ago.

All in all, it was a strong conference, and a strong conference within the conference. We went to a bunch of papers, almost all very good, and only saw one discussion break down into total chaos (following the presentation by a Cow State Santa Claus alum who went on to earn his PhD this year; the chaos was not his fault, and in fact had basically nothing to do with his paper). My paper went well, and the commentary was good and the discussion was interesting. I was surprised by the feedback I got. The paper has some very provocative bits about pain, strong smells, and sex (not as part of one single experience), but what people kept remarking on was my comment in the Q&A about not wanting to get involved in Merleau-Ponty's last, unfinished book, called The Visible and the Invisible. Maybe they were being tactful.

Luckily, I don't have that problem. But what I do have is more to say about academic philosophy, which will be the subject of my next, and final installment.

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