4th Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group
~ Off the Books: Making, Breaking, Binding, Burning, Leaving, Gathering ~
9-11 October 2015
University of Toronto, Canada
Call for Sessions*
Send session proposals of approx. 350-500 words (which can be completely open to potential participants and/or already include some or all committed participants), to include full contact information for organizer(s) and any committed participants, NO LATER THAN February 15, 2015, to: firstname.lastname@example.org
*all images from Sean Kernan, Secret Books
I submit to ink. I go into the elsewhere of chiaroscuro. The lack of transparency, the elaboration of shadow as a medium, makes the codex a soft bomb of potential. The sociality of reading does not always or only pertain to the present; it implicates the multi-temporal generosity of politics. Within this folded time, the person and an impersonal speech test and inflect and mix into one another. The book’s darkly confected scene is a speculative, temporally striated polis.
~Lisa Robertson, “Time in the Codex”
The BABEL Working Group is a global alliance of scholars, researchers, public practitioners (of various stripes), artists, and others situated in institutional and para-academic spaces who are interested in creative risk-taking, unconventional co-disciplinary collaboration, and the cultivation of productively dissensual conversations about Big Questions relative to the future of the university, the social-cultural role of the humanities, the open commons and the creation of new publics, the forms and precariousness of life, the relations between the arts and sciences, deep-time planetary thinking, etc., and with a special interest in holding the past and present in continual productive tension, provocation, and critical relation. Through its biennial meeting (among other ventures), BABEL works to develop new co-disciplinary, nomadic, and convivial confraternities between the humanities, sciences, social sciences, and the fine arts (both within and beyond the academy) in order to formulate and practice new critical humanisms as well as build shelters for humanist and post/humanist vagabonds.
For its 4th Biennial Meeting, to be held at the University of Toronto from October 9-11, 2015, BABEL proposes to take flight both along and off the fractal edges of the book. As an institutional and intellectual locus, the book has long occupied a privileged place as an ultimate substrate and platform for the inscription and dissemination of sustained thought and argument, of the images and ideas signified in language, and of the cultural-historical “goods” of various groups, societies and polities over time. Moreover, both the printed book and manuscript hold a prominent place in the foundation of humanistic study (think of how Homer’s corpus survives in the present thanks to its translation from papyrus to medieval manuscript “edition,” or of the British Museum Library, founded in 1753, whose three founding collections—donated by “mad hoarder” library- and cabinet-builders Robert Cotton, Hans Sloane, and Robert Harley—have been instrumental in the establishment of the study of English literature in the UK and North America, and beyond). The book is not only an object, form, and genre, but also a demand, a requirement, and a form of labor. It is the supposed monument to tenure-worthy academic production (the monograph), as well as the chief marker of communal academic and para-academic labors (edited collections, art books, climate change manga), and also a space of outright resistance to the status quo in academic publishing and beyond. The book is also a symbol and reification of authority, canonicity, and official terms, accounts, ledgers, and judgments. It is a location of nostalgia, an affective touchstone for a past that maybe never was, that also always remains entangled with the present of each book’s production. The book is also the chief exemplum of the print epoch in the long history of media forms: the blank white page that waits passively to be imprinted—impressed with/by—the works of human subjectivity and intellectual-cultural production (but is this also a mirage?). The book, further, signifies a certain slow process of cultural production, one that is often valued so highly precisely because it is perceived as difficult, painstaking, voluminous, weighty, and “serious”—the worthy achievement of a certain Olympiad-style intellectual athleticism.
We are calling upon individuals and groups interested in proposing sessions for our 2015 biennial meeting that would explore various histories of the book and bookmaking, as well as consider what it means to go “off the books”: how ideas and various cultural and historical forms leap off from and out of books; how we ourselves are “off of” books and “over” books; what it means to go “off the books” or “off the record”: to go astray, between and off the lines, underground, and illegal, and to be unaccounted for. Going off the books means examining books themselves—their place in our culture, social imaginary, sense of history, and expectations of academic labor and value—while simultaneously examining their edges, aporias, margins, lacunae, and Others. What might be potentialized, opened up, and made when we break books, or break with books? Can we ever really leave books, or are we always somehow interleaved—both in our solitary studies but also within our University-at-large—with the books that have formed our education(s)? Are there ways in which books themselves have provided spaces of subterfuge, for going “outward bound” and “off the record,” for resisting the business-as-usual of the Academy and other institutions? Does going off the books, refusing to keep records, and shredding the evidence-as-usual, while disseminating our ideas in other (more supposedly radically “off-book” forms), allow us to escape surveillance, or does it simply bind us to a surfeit of labors that can never be properly compensated? Will we ever be able to pay the price of our departure(s) from the forms of cultural capital that have ensured so many programs of study, so many positions, so many jobs? And why would we desire this path? We propose the sub-title “making, breaking, binding, burning, leaving, gathering” as a set of keywords (that are, importantly, also verbings and actions) with which we challenge everyone to propose sessions that would investigate the multiple trajectories and valences and entanglements of the past and present of being both bound to and off the books.
Pre- and post-print media are “off the books” on either side. The manuscript books that existed before and for a long time after the invention of the printed “book” can be considered pre- or peri- or proto-books, not-books, un-books, books that shouldn’t be or that never were; they are the messy material instantiations of the collected labor, texts, thoughts, economies, ecologies and authorities of literary, philosophical, and devotional production; they have been made, re-made, bound, unbound, stolen, modified, collected, decorated, cut up, passed around, re-used, thrown away, burned, eaten by mold, worms and critters, scraped, swaddled, broken and bequeathed. Scrolls, rolls, booklets, tablets, quartos, charters, interlinear and marginal commentaries, and various other “documents” are the (un/non)-books that never were. So too digital media of various sorts are (un/non)-books that never were—instead of a unified, finite, and monolithic/monographic material presence, their existence is diffused throughout the infrastructure of electronic media and articulated for more or less fleeting periods on multi-purpose surfaces; digital inscriptions and forms of dissemination show us the limits of the book (material or not) even as they re-write and re-invent it (and digital forms of inscription themselves have limits that we wish to explore vis-a-vis the longer histories of “the book”).
Our current moment inspires and calls forth a whole set of questions relative to the past, present, and future of the book: Is the digital age offing the book? Is the book merely dying on its own? Or being killed? Is it changing? Is it now? Is it then? Is it alive? Is it zombified? Consider, for example, that among so many “hard” media forms that have been introduced since the invention of the printed book, only the book remains as a sort of durable information/entertainment platform—as opposed to celluloid film, the phonograph record, the reel-to-reel tape, the 8-track tape, the VHS tape, the cassette tape, the floppy disk, the hard- and zip- and flash-drive, the CD, the DVD, and so on. If, while everything else (all information, all “knowledge”) migrates to the “cloud,” the book persists, is this persistence perversely anomalous, or somehow the natural result of a brilliantly built-in anti-obsolescence/anti-cloud? What does it mean that the liveliness of books—if such can be argued for—is predicated upon the use and objectification and even death of other beings: animals, cotton plants, oak galls, geese, trees, etc.? Or upon the nearly off-the-books subsistence wages of outsourced proofreaders and warehouse workers (Amazon’s “pickers,” for example)? And what about the (often) unpaid labors of writers, editors, booksellers, and publishers who continue to make and purvey books even as they are declared “over” and “dead, whether for a certain fatalistic love of something “old,” a wild ambition to reboot a supposedly anachronistic form, the desire for a materially tactile instantiation of the imagination’s felicitous and promiscuous errancies, or for the hope of a more robust public commons in which not just all ideas, but all forms of the dissemination of those ideas, has equal purchase upon our collective attention? And speaking of the public commons, we might also consider the long histories of and current debates (and legal wranglings) over intellectual property, copyright, and piracies of various sorts.
Is the book more than an object-form? Is it also an ideal that governs certain measures of scholarly production, now and in the past? Is it magical, talismanic, more-than-human? Is it a thing to be read, or a thing reading? Is it an inscription, or an instantiation, or an incarnation? Is it even legible? What do we do with unreadable, invisible, or impossible books? Is “the book” singular or multiple? Is it disseminated, iterated, copied, composed, collected, gathered, bound, and in what ways? Is it a figure, a ground, a horizon? Is it a little world, made cunningly, or is it utterly false: a cracked mirror, a bad representation of everything it purports to “body forth”? Indeed, what sort of a body is a book? What bodies does the book gather around itself, and in which times and places? What sort of “gathering” (which is also a “thing”) is this?
“Off the Books,” as a conference-event, is also about more than physical (or post-physical) “books” (delineated, perhaps overly narrowly, as those objects we find on shelves in libraries that still have shelves). In thinking outside the authorized, official, documented, and on-the-record spaces of intellectual labor and production, we also invite session proposals that consider what it means—emotionally, ideologically, culturally, socially, institutionally, practically—to be “off the books” of the university’s usual protocols, and off the books of our disciplines’ usual methodologies, to be outside the parameters of what is defined, recognized and rewarded in the current iteration(s) of the Academy. We want to think carefully (and with a certain will to action) about the growing body of contingent labor, unpaid labor, unacknowledged labor, precarious labor. We want to think about the university’s “books”—its accounts, its records, its rules, its protocols of oversight, and its production(s) of its own (often oppressive and overly managerial-bureaucratic-technocratic) authority, both within particular institutions (whether Harvard or the City University of New York or wherever) and also within Western culture more broadly. We also want to think about the erasures (and the psycho-somatic violence) often involved in the production of the Academy’s “official” records: which bodies, agencies, agendas, accounts, motivations, ecologies, and economies do the official documents cover up, suppress, oppress, or exploit?
In thinking about being “off” the university’s books (its ledger-keeping, its endless demands for assessment, its austerity measures, its sorting mechanisms, its status-based hierarchies, etc.), we therefore also want to consider forms of resistance that go “off the [university’s regular] books,” about undisciplined and undisciplinary labor, about so-called “academic” work that takes up residence in all the outré, dimly lit, queer “dives” of the para- and non-Academy, all the “come what may” places that flicker and shimmer in the spaces of the in-between, the marginal, the gutter, the underground, the temporary autonomous zones. How can we leave the standard “playbook” behind? How can we produce subversive labors that allow us to gather together in gestures of misfit future-izing, even while we risk censure, and maybe even our “careers,” while also building new spaces for the University-to-come? How can we perpetuate and sustain the whisper networks that affirm the validity and worth of the personal “account” and also construct more durable architectures of heterotopic (dissensual) solidarity? How can we bring bodies that have been historically suppressed and erased into better focus and positions of self-empowerment and disturbing vocality (“disturbing” because these voices thankfully, if distressingly, don’t allow for self-assured complacency or banal forms of leftist liberal pieties)?
“Off the books” is thus also meant to signify a collective recognition of (and even an active, and not a passive, mourning for) what never survived to make the leap from book to book to book to book to book—papyrus, tablet, manuscript, print, digital—with a recognition of what is not yet in the book (recorded), but should or could be. To feel that something is, and has been, “off the books” is a condition of (a necessary) longing (or nervous angst) for the ways in which that lost (and covered-over) past retains a kernel of something that could still be realized (think: Walter Benjamin’s idea that those living in the past, who were the “losers” of history, are turning by the dint of a secret heliotropism toward the sun that is rising in the sky of history). Books contain, but they also include. The canon is a problem only because of what it occludes (it could contain, in Whitman’s parlance, multitudes); one response to judgmental and even accidental occlusions is a radically promiscuous practice of inclusion. We might think, then, of what has not yet been “on/in the books,” or what has only recently started to arrive in some sort of “book” form (if even as ancillary “data” or companion “environment”), or what kinds of heretofore unanticipated “books” might be brought about by new techniques, new translations, and new technologies. We might also think about which books we wish had never arrived—books that we desire to lose, unteach, forget, dismember, or relegate to the domain of bad dreams.
We invite proposals for sessions that take us both “on” and “off” books in any of the ways we have outlined, or in ways we have not yet imagined. As with all BABEL endeavors, we invite and welcome provocations that address and confront and work through questions, issues, and subject areas we have not yet anticipated. Further, we invite creative proposals for sessions from all academic fields and sites of para-academic work. Most importantly, this year we launch a new conference (or un-conference) structure: instead of determining in advance that sessions will be 90 minutes each, or 60 minutes each (as we have done in the past), we want YOU to propose the session you want to imagine, at the speed you want to run it: for example, a “speed-dating” or “dork short” session, with 20+ people circulating and doing 1-minute introductions of their research to one another over the course of an hour or more; a seminar that meets for an hour a day each of the 3 days; a 90-minute panel with three traditional papers; an hour-long roundtable discussion with 5 or more persons presenting research/ideas/writing relative to a specific topic or question; a session that would take place over a brunch or lunch or during the cocktail hour; seminar-workshops of 10 or more persons who have circulated work and/or readings in advance; “flash-paper” sessions where presenters have been given prompts in advance that they then “respond” to in short (3-5-minute) performances; a session that extends over the entire 3 days with some sort of performance or exhibit; a “linked” session, spanning 2 hours with a break in-between, with presentations in first half and “breakout” group discussions in the second half; a “slow reading” session where 6+ people bring a passage, an image, a text, an object, etc. which is then “chewed over/ruminated” slowly with audience; a creatively designed “poster/object” session; an anti-plenary plenary session; a “maker/making/unmaking” workshop/lab; a session delivered entirely with emoticons; an intellectual “dim sum” sessions that takes place over real “dim sum”; a session where people give away work they will never be able to finish; etc., etc.
Think about sessions, too, in the form of: working group, demonstration, performance, collision course, dramatic reading, thought-experiment, dialogue, debate, seminar (with papers circulated in advance), drinking game, diatribe, testimony, flash mob (or other type of flash-event), roundtable discussion, complaint, drawing-room comedy, speculation, gymnasium, protest, clinical trial, séance, laboratory, masque, exhibition, recording session, screening, potlatch, cabinet, slam, etc. In addition to calling for sessions that address books and being “on” or “off” the books, we also invite sessions that are themselves “off the books”—that is, off the record, secretive, hidden, not conducted according to the usual protocols, or not institutional or official in any way imaginable. We have set aside the following spaces: 2 rooms that can hold 50 people each; 1 room that can hold about 80; 1 seminar room that can hold 6-10; a hallway that can hold an exhibit, or posters, or a small performance, or a very friendly flash mob; etc. If you propose a session, and a time (preferably in half-hour increments), we will work to make a schedule that will accommodate a lively, rowdy multiplicity of sessions.
Please send session proposals of approx. 350-500 words (which can be completely open to potential participants and/or already include some or all committed participants), to include full contact information for organizer(s) and any committed participants, NO LATER THAN February 15, 2015, to:
BABEL@UToronto 2015 Programming Committee: Suzanne Conklin Akbari (University of Toronto), Arthur Bahr (M.I.T.), Roland Betancourt (University of California, Irvine), Liza Blake (University of Toronto), Jen Boyle (Coastal Carolina University), Maura Coughlin (Bryant University), Lowell Duckert (West Virginia University), Irina Dumitrescu (Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn), Alexandra Gillespie (University of Toronto), Rick Godden (Tulane University), Andrew Griffin (University of California, Santa Barbara), David Hadbawnik (University at Buffalo, SUNY), Mary Kate Hurley (Ohio University), Eileen A. Joy (BABEL Working Group), Dorothy Kim (Vassar College), J. Allan Mitchell (University of Victoria), Susan Nakley (St. Joseph’s College, NY), Julie Orlemanski (University of Chicago), Michael O’Rourke (Independent Colleges, Dublin), Chris Piuma (University of Toronto), Daniel C. Remein (University of Massachusetts, Boston), Arthur J. Russell (Arizona State University), Myra Seaman (College of Charleston), Angela Bennett Segler (New York University), Sean Smith (Dept. of Biological Flow, Toronto), Karl Tobias Steel (Brooklyn College), Cord Whitaker (Wellesley College), Maggie M. Williams (William Paterson University), and Laura Yoder (New York University)
BABEL Future(s) Steering Committee: Suzanne Conklin Akbari (University of Toronto), Liza Blake (University of Toronto), Sakina Bryant (Sonoma State University), Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (George Washington University), Lara Farina (West Virginia University), Jonathan Hsy (George Washington University), Asa Simon Mittman (California State University, Chico), Julie Orlemanski (University of Chicago), Chris Piuma (University of Toronto), Angela Bennett Segler (New York University), Karl Steel (Brooklyn College, CUNY), and Maggie M. Williams (William Paterson University)