Yesterday I participated in a conference held at the Woodward's campus of Simon Fraser University's School for the Contemporary Arts. The conference, entitled The Conference On the Conference, is the grad project of one of the School's MFA candidates, Dylan Cree.
Below is my abstract:
A conference is a temporal regime comprised of activities where actors with common interests perform one or more roles within a predetermined time allotment. Overseeing these activities is a moderator entrusted with the maintenance of these allotments. Greater than the potential for professional disagreement is the potential for conflict between the moderator and the time-indifferent presenter, a conflict that often goes unnoticed. This presentation will use single case analysis and conjecture towards a theory of temporal indifference in relation to conference participation.
And here is my paper:
The conference was held in the mountains, at an arts centre. In the months preceding, the centre had undergone an architectural transformation. Where once there stood a circle of buildings, in the middle of which was a large open space, one the original architect might have imagined as a site for impromptu lectures or debates, in the Classical sense, or pedestrian flow, where people could see each other coming and prepare their greetings in advance, now this space, this site, was occupied by an almost-as-large new building, the effect of which created a series of passageways that might be called streets had their steps not said otherwise.
For many, this was their first visit to the centre, so none questioned the new building (or the loss of the open space), focused as they were on the signs that guided them through these (new) passageways, from building to building, from meals to work to rest over the three days we were there.
In advance of arriving, one of the attendees, a friend, had just read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and over lunch I listened as she spoke of the novel in the way those who have read it often do: enthusiastically, their life changed. I myself had never read the book from start to finish, but have probably read it at least once from various points.
I have reason to believe that The Magic Mountain has something to say about Time and that is why I have continued to poke at it these past thirty years, curious about its lopsided structure, how the first five chapters cover in exuberant detail the protagonist’s first seven years at the sanatorium, while the last two chapters, filled as they are with the more mundane aspects of sanatorium life, account for his last six. Much has been made of this acceleration, particularly in relation to the transformative nature of illness, but also with respect to the inseparability of Time and Space, something the author was no doubt aware of, writing at the time of Einstein and Heidegger.
As mentioned in my abstract, the conference is a temporal regime, a series of timed keynotes and panel talks, and within them further subdivisions, one of which I was asked to manage, as moderator. Because mine was the last panel, and because the previous panels had, much to the chagrin of the other attendees, run late (one by as much as forty minutes), I resolved to address the problem by asking “my” panelists the length of their presentations, reminding them of the twenty minute time allotment, and that in fairness to those worn down by the previous panels, I would be strict, if not cruel, in my enforcement. Of the three presenters on my panel, all but one had prepared a text; and of those texts, none were over twenty minutes. The one who did not prepare a text was the one who had just read The Magic Mountain.
As a moderator, there is a difference between listening to a presentation towards summarizing its propositional content and listening with the hope that the presentation finishes on time. All sorts of feelings overtook me while listening for the latter; the first of which was a resentment at having taken such a position, the second, a face-changing anger that had me staring balefully at the presenters as if their sole purpose was punctuality, especially when it came to the presenter who had just read The Magic Mountain, who told me, almost apologetically, that she only had fifteen minutes of material, and was that okay? But in listening like this, to this particular panelist, I was also reminded of the structure of Mann’s novel, and whether her presentation might have been conceived in relation to its conceit: an exuberant opening, which hers had been, followed by a much shorter, somewhat sudden ending.
At the fifteenth minute it became apparent that the panelist who had just read The Magic Mountain was nowhere close to finishing, the effect of which had me recalling her opening comments for evidence of an outline. Upon realization that there was no outline, it occurred to me that what we were being presented with was a middle, not unlike the middle the protagonist of Mann’s novel found himself in when he went to the sanatorium to visit his sick cousin -- only to find that he was sick as well. Faced with this unavailable outline, not to mention this ever-expanding middle, I found myself growing nauseous. I looked at the clock and saw that it was approaching 3PM. (For readers of Sartre, 3PM is an auspicious time – too late to start something, too early to finish.) Now five minutes later than the last time I looked, I tore a page from the conference booklet and wrote 0 MINUTES, then passed the page her way, a gesture greeted with an absent nod, then, twenty minutes later, her sudden ending.
A couple weeks after the conference I met the panelist (no longer “the panelist” but my friend again) for lunch. Knowing her as I do I could tell she was waiting for me to explain why I was mad at her, because I could tell she knew I was. But in my rage, and now my cruelty (sadistic and masochistic), I held out, denying her, when all I really wanted to know was whether her extended presentation was related to her reading of The Magic Mountain or a more common strain of time-indifference, like those presenters in the panels that preceded ours. Perhaps by not asking her I did not want to know, fearful that she might surprise me with the wrong answer and thus justify my anger. While part of me would have liked the answer to be yes, it was The Magic Mountain, duh, another part would be disappointed to hear that it was time-indifference, and where do we go when we lose track of time, if indeed we go anywhere other than where we are, at the centre, holding the floor, never letting go? That is the hardest thing to hear, I think. But the answer I most understand.