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.
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.