The (Capitalist) Devil is in the Details: Academic Conferences

An analysis by the MLA Subconference collective (of which I’m a member) of the recent Cultural Studies Association conference—on the theme of “Another University is Possible”—and of academic conferences in general, including the MLA Subconference. To read the full post and see the budget of our convening this past January, click here.

The (Capitalist) Devil is in the Details, or, the theory and praxis of academic conferences

The academic conference is a microcosm of academia as a whole and contains all of the latter’s contradictions. Primary among these is the contradiction between theory and praxis. Theoretically, the academic conference is committed to the free pursuit of knowledge; practically, knowledge itself is traversed by the power relations of our capitalist, settler-colonialist, hetero-patriarchal society. Theoretically, the impulse behind the academic conference is egalitarian; practically, it conceals myriad classed, raced, gendered and other hierarchies. Theoretically, the academic conference is open and accessible; practically, it poses significant barriers to access (financial and otherwise) which disproportionately affect graduate students, contingent faculty, and other members of what we hesitate to call the academic precariat. These barriers have by now been amply demonstrated.

As organizers of the MLA Subconference, our engagement with these contradictions has primarily played out in relation to the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, as well as in our attempts to construct an autonomous shadow conference oriented towards transformative praxis. More recently, we have experienced similar contradictions in relation to the Cultural Studies Association (CSA). With the theme of “Another University is Possible,” the latter’s 2015 convention aimed to foster “an insurgent intellectual space for imagining, enacting, and mapping new forms of knowledge production and scholarly communication and community.” At the same time, barriers to access have increased: last year, for instance, the CSA provided travel grants to all graduate students who requested them, but this year they provided grants to less than half of applicants. (Email with CSA president, Dec. 15, 2014, and chair of the travel-grant committee, May 18, 2015, respectively.)

In noting this disparity, our intention is not to “call out” the CSA. It is rather to call on all of us—graduate students, contingent and tenured faculty, conference organizers and attendees—to consider how we can more profoundly join our intellectual commitments to our political practices, even or especially where these may not appear political at first sight. We have no doubt that the CSA genuinely seeks “new forms” of scholarly community, yet decisions about allocation of resources can inadvertently reproduce the same old, hierarchical forms we are all theoretically committed to overcoming. Academic organizations frequently lament the ongoing corporatization of higher education while positing these processes as outside of their control. But it is precisely our collective and individual decisions about matters such as budgeting that either challenge or reproduce such processes. We thus insist that the practical politics of conference organizing do not emerge in the choice of annual themes, plenary sessions or keynote speakers, but rather in more seemingly mundane choices as to venue, structure, cost, and financing. It is the relation—or rather, diremption—between these two which needs to be demystified.

One way to do this is for academic organizations to begin publicizing and rendering transparent their conference budgets. Accordingly, we here offer our budget for the 2015 MLA Subconference, “Non-Negotiable Sites of Struggle.”

To continue reading, click here.

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