I want to write about a failure of form. Or perhaps the failure is in me, or in our times. I’ll let you decide.
** I went to a big academic event recently. I’m not going to name particulars because the particulars of this event do not matter as much as the way it replicated very general and familiar problems that I often have experienced with “academic discourse on very important matters.” (The event concerned topics of profound, I’d even say dire, importance.)
Here is the form: The event is divided into sequenced panels of five speakers. Each panel has a moderator. In order to honor the importance of the event’s topics, the organizers have creatively planned for audience participation and underscored the importance of audience collaboration.
To me, this form says (1) the questions being posed are critical, (2) they need to be approached from multiple perspectives and areas of scholarly and lived expertise, and (3) for the event to be successful, the audience needs to contribute to the thinking that will constitute the event. Excellent.
Why, then, does it fail? The five speakers, all of whom are gorgeous thinkers, do not really answer the pointed question the moderator asks them. They talk too long. The issues and problems and questions and conundrums multiply, aggregate, split apart, and fly around the room, pummeling all of us. No one can do anything in response because the words continue to come at us, fast and furious, filling up the spaces for thought and action. The many different levels and lenses and approaches used by the speakers start to feel weapon-like, some even akin to grinding axes. When one speaker happens to elicit applause, something shifts and all subsequent speakers angle toward that same buzz, seeking the same sweetness of adulation. Time is slipping away, and yet the moderator sticks to the script, amending protocol only slightly by asking each panelist to answer a final profound, complex, and compelling question in a miniscule amount of time. Because that’s impossible, the panelists do not keep to the sliver of time allotted them. In the end, the creative plan for audience participation is foreclosed temporally and structurally. The room is saturated with the heaviness of urgency and complexity. The excellent discourse of each panelist has boxed out the possibility of flow and seems to stand alone and unlinked, much less discussed and galvanized by the other panelists and by the audience.
This is what feels like failure to me.
Let me underscore that everyone involved in this event is smart and worth hearing. No one did anything wrong. And yet I experience this failure of form as a stoppage and frustration, and I experience it at almost every conference I attend. The failure feels akin to insisting on established models of expertise and delivery in an age that no longer expects or aligns itself with those models. To arrange an event such that a crowd sits in 90 minutes of silence before relentlessly articulated top-down expertise feels like imposing a traditional–white, male, mind-driven–Enlightenment model, even when the experts are not white or mind-driven and are actually using words to theorize against this model!
In our age of Twitter and YouTube, texting and Instagram, participants now come to events carrying a dizzying range of knowledges and experiences. They come not only with a daily, habituated practice of commenting constantly on the world around them but also with a new cognitive and bodily sense that it is through that discursively engaged practice that they come to learn about the world.
The moderated panel of experts that inevitably goes over time is an old form, built out of an old understanding of what the academy is and does, and out of a tattered grasp of what thinking is or what an argument might be. It materially blocks current affective, cognitive, and bodily expectations for thinking, for thought, for participation, for praxis.
What would it be, what would it take, to structure intellectual events for our times and our new practices of thinking, radically different from this old model?
**Image from: http://www.cbarlowmarrs.com/index.aspx?sectionid=1213465&productid=1878726. No copyright infringement intended.