[This past weekend was the 2018 Northeast MLA convention in Pittsburgh. It was a great time as usual, and this week I’ll highlight some standout moments and conversations. Leading up to a weekend post on how you can get involved in this great organization!]
On two rightfully depressing special events, and their complementary closing messages.
At lunchtime on Friday I left the conference hotel and walked a few blocks to the SPACE Art Gallery to hear Professor David Castillo’s talk on “Truth, Reality in the Age of Inflationary Media: Why the Humanities are More Important than Ever.” Castillo began with various Donald Trump quotes and Tweets, as part of a long first section (really the majority of the talk) on the ongoing and indeed constant devolution of language and assaults on truth, and things didn’t get much happier from there. There’s great value, and real necessity, in compiling together even some of the literally countless outrages and horrors that we’ve witnessed over the 15 months of the Trump presidency (and indeed the nearly three years since Trump launched his 2016 presidential campaign), and Castillo did so with precision and thoughtfulness, asking us to consider not only Trump’s own abuses but their many enablers and influences in our political, media, and social landscape more broadly. But that’s still never gonna be the most delightful lunchtime fare, y’know?
Later that evening I attended the second of our two annual opening events, the keynote address: Professor Rob Nixon on “Environmental Martyrdom and the Defenders of the Forest.” Nixon began his stunning and moving lecture by dedicating it to the memory of Berta Cáceres, the influential and award-winning Honduran indigenous and environmental rights activist murdered in March 2016, and went on to tell, contextualize, and theorize the late 20th and early 21st century stories of a number of such assassinated or executed figures around the world. Besides the unquestionable value of remembering and commemorating these individuals, there are of course any number of crucial contemporary and longstanding histories and issues to which such memories help us better connect, not only climate change and environmental destruction but indigenous rights, class and economic activism, gender and sexual assault, and the limits and dangers of globalization, among others. Nixon both focused closely on the specific stories and yet consistently highlighted those and other links with care and power. But that’s still never gonna be the most delightful reception fare, y’know?
Obviously delighted is not the only, nor often the most important, way that such talks and events should leave us feeling, and so I don’t intend those parallel closing sentences as a critique in any way. But as you all well know, I’m a critical optimist, a role that perhaps does not require delight but certainly needs some forms of hope. And I don’t believe it’s just my critical optimist goggles that allowed me to see moves toward such hope in the final sections of both Castillo and Nixon’s talks. The co-authored project from which Castillo’s talk was drawn is provisionally entitled Humanities to the Rescue, and he made the case explicitly not just for humanities in academia or education, but for what the humanities—their stories, their skills, their ways of thinking and being—can and must contribute to our society, now and moving forward. Nixon’s optimistic closing was more subtle, as befitting his even darker and more solemn subject; but to my mind his arguments for the connections between humanity and human bodies and the forests, the environment, our world—connections made tragically but also inspiringly clear but the lives and deaths and legacies of environmental martyrs—offer a hopeful vision of how we might move into a more sustainable and shared collective future. Both Castillo and Nixon’s optimistic visions are tentative and fragile and very much up in the air—but they’re there, and all the more crucial given the crises on which much of their powerful talks focused.
Next recap tomorrow,
PS. NeMLA responses or thoughts? Other organizations or conferences you’d highlight?
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