process, lovable in its nervy imperfection. If online events become the norm, how much would you miss companionship in velocity; complicity in falling from attention into distraction?
As with classroom teaching, so with conferences: the in-between matters. Knowledge is produced, and becomes memorable, when we mill about together. People need and deserve to chat informally about what they hear officially. When we interact freely and responsively, as mostly unlisted others, the analyses and information offered by presenters take on new, sometimes rebellious meanings. BACLS was the best of all possible Zooms, but Zoom lacks happenstance, even with an open chat room, an active lunch break, and the comradely interweaving of strands across panels. Like other online platforms, it feels high-exposure and up for ‘capture’.
A move to e-participation need not strictly oppose knowledge to information. More radically, it will alter our ‘normality’, as regards the respective roles of authority and community in producing knowledge. It will affect how we actualise, and value, our potential for spontaneity. Time out to play/fight can be a phase of concentration. Any ‘new normal’ that sets efficiency above embodiment has a faulty metric for efficiency. Yet the ‘old normal’ of jetting around, often to picturesque, disabled-inaccessible places, was no good. What then? A blend of the hyperlocal and the long-distance?
Let us return to our known day of crisis… A welcome effect of the opening roundtable was a feeling of time restored, the adjustability of self, and the lengthening of time. Novelist Sheena Kalayil relaxed our grasping after the immediate, calling the contemporary ‘just a fleeting moment, a blink in the eye of the longer moment which is life’. The necessity of looking death in the face echoed through Dr Caroline Edwards’s words. Dr Zayneb Allak, speaking on Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, showed our interiority and exteriority sprouting into each other. Her reader is a Hieronymus Bosch-like creature, consumed by a proliferating novel. Ben Doyle, publisher for Literary Studies at Bloomsbury Academic Publishing, struck me the most, with his evidence base and his empathetic insight into the behaviour, prospects, and interconnexions of authors, academics, editors, and booksellers in Tempo Coronavirus.
Panel 1, ‘Contamination, Contagion, and Crisis’ was extraordinary. Checking my memory for continuing echoes, I find Liam Harrison on the ‘untellability’ of an ill person within an ill system resonating with Joseph Anderton, who was brilliant on the opportunity to use the crisis of the pandemic to re-evaluate other crises, but especially on the pathologisation of homelessness, and how the homeless long have been deprived of human warmth, as others avoid touching or looking at them. Mark Bresnan on the ‘current infodemic’, and whether losing oneself in conspiracy theories is a way of avoiding dealing with our all-too-obvious social affliction, violent masculinity, chimed with Sarah Collier’s close reading of the ‘trauma hero myth’.
Still in Panel 1, ‘Plague Logics and Covid-19’s Worst Hot Takes’, Jennifer Cooke’s presentation, gave me a paradigm for thinking through the coronavirus pandemic. Cooke observed that while community afflictions are not the same as individual diseases, and have unequal effects, the ‘way the disease is perceived’ is a risk to everyone. She explored how we understand the body and illnesses through metaphoric constructions.
Cooke rightly questioned the popular reactions that ‘Nature is healing’ and ‘we brought this upon ourselves’. Some aspect of this may be factually true in terms of our poor stewardship of the planet. However, such attitudes unhelpfully belong with the same active and sturdy structure of revenge that has persisted since ancient times: God is wrathful; healers may be poisoners and make good scapegoats. Cooke critiqued the metaphorisation of language, a feature of ‘plague logic’. ‘Plague logic’, as a style of thinking, seems orderly but in effect and in fact is unhelpful, even injurious. In tracing the barbed drift of terms that have gained currency – ‘immunity’ developed as a legal concept: exceptions that prove the universal applicability of law – Cooke gestures to the danger of casting everything as war.
Cooke’s ‘plague logic’ echoed for me with Siân Adiseshiah’s talk on ‘Ageing as Crisis in Contemporary British Theatre’, in Panel 3. Adiseshiah’s incisive, poetic work remixed itself in my memory and haunts me in a series of tolling phrases, something like this. Crisis: instant. Crisis: impending event. Old age as risk, not opportunity. Crisis: moment. Disease. Recovery or death. Crisis: turning point. Better. Worse. Crisis: event. Large detrimental change. Crisis: lack of proportionality between cause and consequence. A small thing happens, in a short period of time. A structural breach. Radical transformative possibilities of rupture.
From memory’s ongoing sampling of her conference paper, I select and highlight Adiseshiah’s phrase ‘crisis ordinariness’. She pointed out that ‘crisis’ has begun to shift to a narrative of ‘what is’. This meaning of ‘crisis’ unfolds in stories of how to navigate the overwhelming. Here time lengthens non-restoratively, into a seemingly endless day of precarious existence, as with Benjamin’s catastrophic perpetuation of the status quo. Crisis no longer names a rupture or turning point. In considering the revision of routines of what ‘livability’ might be, Adiseshiah looked at the co-production of old age and climate crisis. Older people are required to sacrifice themselves, to little effect. For crisis management (more of the same) is not crisis response (followed by transformation).
I hope this taster summary is enough to encourage you to follow up on the BACLS conference, which extended to four other sessions and lunchtime ‘lightning talks’, before the Live Writers Q&A in which I had been invited to take part. It was hard for me to speak. Zooming in from Trinidad to the UK gathering of intelligent, generous and kind thinkers, I felt weary beyond all reckoning; an affiliative weariness with those whose ‘tongueless whispering’ (in Martin Carter’s phrase) animates these smaller islands. This was less to do with what was not there, than with the desire for my fellows to orientate themselves towards awareness of that absence, till it became more voiced, more collective.
Let’s return to that phrase, the ‘pandemic uncanny’. This was the subject of Helen E. Mundler’s lunchtime ‘lightning talk’ on Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy. Throughout the insightful discussion of whether or
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