Grandeur of Reason: Conference Report

So I’m aware I am writing this post-conference report a full week after returning, but as any who was there can testify, this much time was needed to fully recover from the stress that was placed on our minds, stomachs, and most importantly, our livers, during this 4 day tour-de-force conference.

Much has been said already about this conference (here, and here), so I will try not to repeat what has already been said.

To quickly summarize my thoughts, it was a pretty good conference. There were some really good keynotes, lots of interesting student papers, and a generally fun atmosphere. I met more impressive students that I’d expected (including ‘legendary student of the conference’ Leif Weatherby from UPenn), and was encouraged by a similar sensibility that seems to be emerging amongst younger students of theology and philosophy.

The opening plenary of the conference featured James Williams, Cyril O’Regan, and Graham Ward. It was a big much for an opening plenary, with 3 hours worth of papers. Being that I’m not really a ‘Hegel’ person, I found Williams paper by far the most interesting. His paper, ‘Reason, Thought and Universal’ dealt with issues of life and thought in the works of Henry and Deleuze, and was presented in a ridiculously clear and well argued manner. One can only hope he continues to make appearances at these conferences.

The session of the conference was without a doubt the O’Donovan-Hauerwas-Milbank panel. Although O’Donovan’s paper started off a bit slow, it really started to come together during the questions afterwards. Hauerwas then gave what was one of the best, if not the best, papers of the conference. Two of my favorite moments of this conference occured during this paper, first of all, when Hauerwas got to a point about non-violence in his paper he casually looked up and said “Screw you John”, to Milbank who was on his left. This led to laughter and applause from the audience, and Hauerwas followed up by explaining, “John doesn’t want Christians to kill other Christians…but thinks its fine for them to kill everyone else”. Later, during the question time, someone asked Hauerwas a question that more or less suggested that his paper didn’t provide a proper ‘platonic’ account, to which Hauerwas quickly replied, “I don’t need more Plato, maybe you need more Jesus”. Brilliant. I for one am constantly frustrated by how little the radically orthodoxy theologians avoid topics like “jesus” and “the church”, so it was good to see Hauerwas handling the issue so bluntly. The next paper in this session was Milbank’s which in some senses was his response to much of the work being done in recent continental philosophy (figures mentioned in the open 5 minutes alone: Brassier, Toscano, Meillassoux, Laruelle, Mullarkey) and ended up with a discussion of habit (drawing on Ravaisson) which alluded to Hegel to an extent. The most interesting thing about his paper from the perspective of one of his students is that his paper basically reflected our reading list for a course we had with him this spring. We read Brassier’s Nihil Unbound, Toscano’s Theatre of Production, and Desmonds God and the Between, and in this paper Milbank used and responded to all of them. One of the shortcomings of the paper was in trying to cover so much, some of his readings, particularly of Brassier, seemed a bit shallow and unaware of the whole of his published work. He also pulled a typical Milbank move at the end and alluded to his forthcoming ‘Trinitarian Metaphysics’ which will give sense to much of his recent work; I for one would like to see Milbank START with Theology in his work, rather than presenting a 40 minute paper on contemporary metaphyics and ending with a brief allusion to theology. If he wants to be considered a theologian and not a ‘philosopher of religion’, this move is necessary.

A personal highlight of the conference was the session in which I gave my paper, which was also the only session consisting of all Nottingham students. Our chair was Stanley Hauerwas, which for some of us was quite an honor, and it turned out to be a really ‘fun’ session. All of the papers (Tommy Lynch, Anthony Paul Smith, Ben Kautzer) were creative and well argued, and most of the questions were constructive and not the least bit masturbatory. At the end of the session Hauerwas announced that as the chair, he was adding ten minutes to our time to ask us all some questions. At first I figured we were all about to get grilled by the worlds greatest theologian, but it turned out he was just interested in the diversity of our work considering we all came from the same department. I think much of it has to do with the fact that people ‘expect’ a certain style of work from Nottingham students, and to their surprise, almost none of the students live up to that expectation. Hauerwas asked us about the motivation behind our work, who we were writing for, and how we situate our work in the contemporary climate. There was a bit of squirming from us all, but eventually it turned into a great discussion and (I think) helped all of us to better understand our own work. After the panel a couple of Hauerwas’ more notable students (Dan Bell and Steve Long) told a couple of us how honored we should be that Hauerwas took the time to engage us in that way, and said that Hauerwas refered to our group as the ‘new school’ of young theological thinkers. Quite the honor indeed.

One of the biggest disappointments of the conference was the total collapse of the Speculative Realism panel I had worked to set up. Iain Grant dropped out about a month before because he was ‘moving’, and sadly, Meillassoux had a family tragedy a few days before that prevented him from coming. The remains of that panel ended up manifesting as a session consisting of Laurelle, Dustin McWherter, and Michele Lenoci, who is an italain philosophy professor. Now, as a whole, it was a good panel. The main problem was that two of the papers were presented in languages other than english, so everyone had to wear headphones and try to follow along with a live translation. This was fairly easy for Laurelle, as we had a print out of the paper in english, and I think most people have a decent grasp of french. Lenoci’s paper on the other hand, was almost impossible to follow, with most people seeming to give up half way through. After two hours of translated papers, we finally got to hear Dustin McWherter present (in english!). His paper dealt with the topic of indifference and irreligion, drawing mostly on Schelling, and to be blunt, was really good. Milbank moderated the session and had some decent questions at certain points. James Williams (Dundee) also ‘saved the day’ by doing on the spot french translations after Laruelle’s paper. Guy is a legend.

The other plenary session that I found notable was Fergus Kerr’s paper, “…From Hume to Wittgenstein and Back?” in which he showed the latent Marxist leanings in the work of Wittgenstein. It was a good enough paper to keep the interest of many who have barley read Wittgenstein. The only disappointing part was the fact that Kerr had to sit up front by himself for over ten minutes while we all had to wait for the chair to show up and start the session. It was quite embarassing, as Kerr is a king among men and should get more respect than than.

Many of the disappointing parts of the conference come down to the fact that certain people (that have names which rhyme with Bohn Tilbank) have a tendency to talk way too much. This lead to sessions going over and cutting into other peoples time, certain students not having an adequate time for questions after their paper, and most embarrassingly, having to end an already too-short session with Agamben after he had said he was willing to stay and answer questions for at least fifteen more minutes! Hopefully at the next conference they can get over their fetish with this ‘person’ having to chair every other panel, and just let him give a paper at the end of the day as to not cut into others time.

As with most conferences of this size, the best part ended up being the time spent on the patio having drinks and talking to friends both old and new. It was great to have the whole ‘nottingham crew’ (including those of us moving on, as well as that one guy from norway…) together in the same place, and it definitely made me a bit sad to see that the band is breaking up this fall. Along with the old crew, it was great to meet such legendary figures as Nate Kerr, Dave Belcher, Chris Simpson, Jeff Hanson, Craig Keen, Steve Long, John Mullarkey, and the countless others I’m sure I’m forgetting.

On the closing night they announced the next conference, entitled ‘What is Life?’ will be taking place in Poland in the summer of 2010. From the topic alone I have high expectations for this conference, so everyone should start joting down paper topics so we can up the ante a bit, as there were a lot of ‘well argued’ papers full of ‘good scholarship’ at this conference, but a noticeable lack of real creative and exciting work being done.

Okay. That’s all.


11 thoughts on “Grandeur of Reason: Conference Report

  1. Eric Lee says:

    Great report! If only we had recorded the student sessions as well, that would have been awesome. And–best of luck in Dundee!

  2. […] Mike Burns’ conference report addthis_url = ‘’; addthis_title = ‘Grandeur+of+Reason+round-up’; addthis_pub = ”; […]

  3. John says:

    Thanks very much for that Michael.

    Makes me wish that I went.

  4. Dave Belcher says:

    Mike, I would be worse a man — and am already far too depraved — were it not for meeting and hanging out with you…you, my friend, are the legend. By the way, you need to send me your paper…I keep forgetting to ask — the part I heard was really good. Great recap…looking forward to the next one.


  5. Dave Belcher says:

    looking forward to the next conference/meeting/hang-out/drinking session, that is.

  6. “I don’t need more Plato, maybe you need more Jesus”. Brilliant.

    Hauerwas made it pretty clear that this was only a joke. Which is good, because had he not, he’d have run a serious risk of disingenuity: had he not, after all, just given a paper on Aristotle? Because after a paper on Aristotle, a question about Plato seems fair enough game.

    And can you seriously claim that Milbank doesn’t talk enough about the church? It seems that that’s perhaps the largest similarity that he and Hauerwas have shared, historically at least.

    In any event – it’d be interesting to hear you say more about why you want Milbank to ‘start with theology’ – what that might look like and why it’d be attractive.

  7. michaeloneillburns says:

    Dearest Jeffrey,
    You are of course, right in regards to that paper. Although, I did speak to Hauerwas (and one of the other ‘duke school’ types) later that day and they both agreed they really do think the RO crowd talks too much about figures like plato, and not enough about Jesus and the Church. So I really do think there was something to the comment.

    I guess my problem with Milbank talking about the Church is it seems much less ‘grounded’ than Hauerwas talking about the church. I mean, Hauerwas often speaks at and writes for ‘the church’ in the states, speaking at congregations and practical theology events and theorizing the practical response of the church to things like war; I don’t really see that in John. Obviously he speaks at length about how his vision is to re-instate the parish system, etc; but I don’t know if Milbank has much to say to the average Christian, and this is where I find Hauerwas more useful.

    All that to say, I will always find Milbank to be the most impressive Philosophical Theologian/Philosopher of Religion working today, and likely for years to come. I guess in a way I’d like to see Milbank talk about more practical/concrete ecclessial issues (and now that I think about it, he did have a great piece in the journal of christian ethics recently on such issues) and write/present certain things in a more accessible way….but on the other hand, I’d like to hear Hauerwas stop being such a situationist and talk about metaphysics a bit.

    That said, I think the reason it’d be interesting for Milbank to ‘start with theology’ is because I think it’d be really good. One problem with a theologian giving a major paper that largely draws on the work of people like Brassier, Toscano, and Meillassoux is that 90% of other theologians have no idea who these people are or what their work consist of. I mean, I’m willing to bit O’Donovan and Hauerwas haven’t yet picked up their copy of ‘nihil unbound’. It seems like in this way Milbank always sets the debate on his terms, and I guess I’d rather see him write something that put him in more direct dialogue with the greater theological community…or maybe I’m just not reading Milbank right?

    Really, I just want Milbank to actually write on the ‘trinitarian metaphysics’ he’s mentioned so many times, because I think it’d be pretty fucking impressive/important.

  8. Matthew says:

    thanks for the report mike – sounds good… but I’m a bit confused: Being non-masturbatory is a good thing now???

  9. There is something really disingenuous about always claiming that theology is somehow better or completes philosophy and yet never to produce that better or complete theology. That and, and I saw this coming out of a philosophy department where no one cared what a theological critique of them was and having seen philosophers (like Mullarkey) react to Milbank’s critique of the, philosophers don’t really care. Who is the audience? If it is young Christians then this isn’t even philosophical theology, it is mere apologetics and when I hear the word apologetics I reach for my gun.

    Unapologetically masturbatory yours,

  10. augustinian says:

    Have to agree with Anthony to an extent. Milbank’s frenetic and contagious desire to stay up to date on new philosophers is mostly commendable, sometimes worrying. But it shouldn’t be necessary if Theology is sufficient.

    My approach is more often to flag problems that theologians have been talking about for ages (ecclesiology, vainglory, asceticism) and argue that they are problems for everyone rather than just the church. A kind of ressourcement for argument in general rather than simply the church and theology.

    If that’s going to be useful for philosophy or theology is no great issue for me. I have no intention in that discussion. But my sources are theological. And I have to admit that if it’s not useful for the church, then I will stop.

  11. […] has already been noted, the yearly Theology and Postmodernism reading group/class with Milbank took up Ray […]

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