Last week I attended the national Colloquium on Violence and Religion (COV&R). This trip to St. Louis kicked off the research I am doing this summer with Rebecca and Dr. G. I think, first of all, it’s probably best to mention that I have never been to Missouri before – in fact, that’s the furthest west this East-Coast-er has ever driven. Seeing the Mississippi River was interesting – as was discovering that the correct way to pronounce “St. Louis” is, in fact, more like C. S. Lewis’ name than it is that of a french monarch. Alas. The part of me that identifies with Tom Sawyer was rather disappointed.
We arrived in the city in time to find our accommodations, pick up folders containing name badges and maps and a schedule of the weekend, search out dinner, and attend the opening lecture. I spent most of the six-hour car ride in rather anxious anticipation – I’ve never attended an entire academic conference before, and had very little idea what to expect.
I must admit that the first day had me reeling. I suddenly could empathize with Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz, of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in a way I never did before: “I want to go home – I’m out of my step here – It’s all over my depth – out of my head.” I felt entirely out of my element, and not just because the entire campus of the St. Louis University was air-conditioned to a temperature below that of the polar icecaps. The presence of so much knowledge, so much learning, so much academia in one place was overwhelming, especially as I am still relatively young in my study of Girard’s theories. It wasn’t until I attended a literature panel that I began to feel more at ease. I am, after all, a student of literature – the papers putting mimetic theory in dialogue with computer science, philosophy, ethics, theology I couldn’t follow, but I know and understand the language of books. This gave me a bit more hope–I needn’t know everything, after all.
The conference environment was and is strange to me. One spends so much time ensconced in the same quarters as everyone else, and is forced to forge alliances. One “gets to know” their fellow conference-goers, talks about the panels with them, or the air-conditioning, or how many classes they slept through in their undergraduate career. In such close quarters, one must talk to these people or be ostracized, because one has no one else to turn to. But I found no real, lasting connection. The relationships formed were odd and slight–something entirely transient but entirely necessary for the conference to work. I suppose that coming back year after year would help with this a little, though we’d still know nothing about one another that is not relevant to the context of the conference – that is, one’s area of study, what got one interested in Girard, where one is from, how many prestigious things one has done or not done. I am made uncomfortable by the fact that, after spending so much time in close quarters with such a relatively small group of people, I left without wanting to tell any one of them goodbye.
Yet I’m quite thankful for the chance to have gone to COV&R. It was good for me to see and experience – I’ve never been to an academic conference (aside from attending one day of the Medievalist Conference in Kalamazoo a couple years ago). It was quite nice to see how these things run – to learn the ropes of academic presentations before I actually have to give one myself. By the end of the weekend, everyone was looking a bit worn around the edges, and I know that I, for one, was glad to go. But coming away from the conference with copious notes, many new ideas for my research, and a greater appreciation and admiration for what my professors do is exciting and inspiring, and I enjoyed my time in St. Louis. Even despite the over-indugence in air conditioning.
I encourage you to check out Rebecca’s blog post about the conference as well – she shares some of her own well-thought-out opinions on Girard, and the nature of her research this summer.
(also, I touched the St. Louis arch. I find this incredibly fascinating and totally cool. Photo credit: Rebecca Fox.)