Whereas this week I’m busy with preparations for two conference presentations at guest universities, at the end of March I was a passive observer at two separate sets of conferences, both at my very own Cardiff University. My department hosted the ‘Roland Barthes at 100’ conference, the School of Planning and Geography across the way held a ‘Spaces of Attunement’ symposium, and both ran over the same two days at the very end of March.
I was originally only registered for ‘Spaces of Attunement’, but because Neil Badmington, the organisor of ‘Roland Barthes at 100’, is my secondary thesis supervisor, I ended up spending some time there helping out. I even chaired my first panel, on Barthes and visual culture, where I got to hear two very different papers. Stella Baraklianou (from the University of Huddersfield) gave a presentation on the punctum in digital art and photography, citing work by Idris Khan and Eva Stenram. Freelance scholar Jayne Sheridan talked about the border between commercialism and art, using the Chanel N°5 commercial directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, ‘Train de Nuit’:
Though I heard many fine presentations during the two-day conference, the one that stuck out for me the most was Michael Wood’s opening keynote ‘French Lessons’, which I mentioned in last week’s post. Wood talked about many things, but primarily he was concerned with how even when we read Barthes well, when we read him outside of the French we misread him. Our reading may not be wrong, but we are missing something. For Wood one of the intervening factors in this misreading is the fact that in French, beauty is often more important than exactitude. Practically, this often means that French philosophers have a weakness for aphorism – they cannot resist the witty maxim. As I summarised last week, maxims are caricatures of language, and can’t be academically defended. The truth in a maxim is either too trivial to be ‘really’ true, or is not wholly true.
Wood used an example from Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1980), summarised in this old post by Michael Sacasas:
Barthes was taken by the way that a photograph suggests both the “that-has-been” and the “this-will-die” aspects of a photographic subject. His most famous discussion of this dual gesture involved a photograph of his mother, which does not appear in the book. But a shot of [failed assassin Lewis] Powell is used to illustrate a very similar point. It is captioned, ‘He is dead, and he is going to die …’ The photograph simultaneously witnesses to three related realities. Powell was; he is no more; and, in the moment captured by this photograph, he is on his way to death.
The idea that an object in a photograph is either dead or is going to die may be true, though exceptions could no doubt be found. If it is true, how much inherent meaning does it have? All living things die – this is not something that needs explanation. Rather than genuinely attempting revolution, the maxim is merely the platform upon which we can build the arguments and ideas we want to.
For Wood, though, this is the entire point of the maxim: it can be used for anything. Citing Adorno’s Minima Moralia (1951), in which he posits that the problem with philosophers is that they want to be right, Wood suggested that being right (or exact) is not so important in literature – at least not in the sense that many people try to impose upon it. Instead, literature expresses a love of arguments without wanting to win.
With that in mind, I trekked across campus to the lovely and imposing Glamorgan building for a fabulous lunch and a change of topic. The order of the day was a posthuman exploration of ‘attunement to the world in all its particularity, strangeness, enchantment and horror’. Suitably prepared for this experience by Wood’s defense of arguments without victories and questions without answers, I sat in on an animal studies panel that included Joanna Latimer on the idea of ‘being/living alongside’ as opposed to ‘being/living with’ nonhumans, Lesley Green on environmental humanities, apartheid, and the baboon problem at Table Mountain National Park, and Karolina Rucinska on transgenic animals and Enviropig. This was followed by a fascinating keynote by Mara Miele, cataloguing the EmoFarm project, an experiment on emotional response in sheep.
Before we closed off the day with a reception, we split into small groups for some discussion, which started off awkwardly but ultimately yielded some interesting ideas and connections. If I can find the time to post about any of these things at greater length, I will definitely do so. Each presentation gave me a lot to think about. For the moment, though, I should probably get back to my other deadlines. Until next week!