The Need for DFW20

Let's be honest: I didn't plan to run a conference this year.  Before coronavirus — before cities burned, before I was home watching my son while trying to convert my teaching to an online format — I was content to watch as others took up this torch.  Despite the reservations or disagreements I've had, there was a conference scheduled in Austin — there was a time and a place for people to gather and continue the conversations.

COVID-19 changed that.  And in addition to the pandemic, the news from the United States sharply reminds us of the key injustices of our domestic society.  At a time when many nations in the world are overcoming coronavirus, at a time when many other nations are facing an insurmountable wave of death and pain, the present American condition is a true commentary on the uncertain nature of the modern condition.  The wealth that brought us airlines and international supply chains has allowed coronavirus to infect an entire planet — the medical advances that should have slowed the pandemic at America's borders have instead allowed hubris and a death toll well past 100,000 in this country alone.

I raise this point about the United States because I want to point out an important aspect of the American experience as related to the varieties of responses seen around the world.  My cousin living in Italy posted to Facebook about living through the lockdown with her child, and I remember my personal thoughts of "thank god that's not here."  As an American — as someone who prides himself on having an "international" perspective — I fell into the trap of tribalism.  And as the protests have continued through our cities, I have been astounded by the number of people all around the world who have taken the death of George Floyd as a rallying cry to stand up to the legacies of racism everywhere.  Despite our separations across oceans and continents, we remain together as a human society.

Yet it seems irrational, perhaps, to run an academic conference at this time, to call for scholarly research and creative writing as coronavirus makes travel impossible, as the history of police brutality leaves too many streets fogged in a haze of tear gas, and as issues such as misogyny, anti-immigrant racism, economic disparities, and LGBTQ rights continue to be pushed still further down the page of "breaking news."

This demands an answer: why have an academic conference when there are so many issues facing so many people so painfully?  Why expend this effort to stare at each other through a hundred screens in a hundred homes?  Shall we simply don the polyurethane masks to present our best faces to the world?  What can we hope to accomplish?

Honestly, we can do a lot.  However pressing the pain and injustice of today, it will become only worse if we do not lay the groundwork for a better future.  A future where we honestly examine the society in which we live, the history of how it came to be, and the shape of literature that reveals it.  And this is where academic conferences are so important.  We don't simply "talk" about the world, we don't simply "think" about it — we shape the conversations.  We interpret the perspectives.  Ultimately, our work — as scholars, as writers, as artists — will influence the ways in which the greater public perceives notions of justice, equality, and truth.

Hence, the need to continue this work.  And the recognition that this year's conference will likely be harder than past ones.  Not just technologically, but emotionally.  I'll be adjusting the CFP to invite papers and writing and art that delve into these questions of what it means to be alive today.  Not simply because it's the right thing to do, but also because that is our role and our responsibility.  David Foster Wallace — for all his flaws as a person and as a writer — understood this.  When he spoke of the unseen water in which we all swim, when he contemplated the Entertainment that sucks in all human attention until we starve, when he considered the lobster in its pot, he demanded that we question our lives.  That we look beneath the surface.  That we continually evaluate what it means to live and what it means to meet our own expectations of what is "right" and "good."

In doing this, let me be direct: I will ask for the uncomfortable presentations.  I will be inviting people not only to interpret Wallace and to examine contemporary literature, but also to critique and criticize both.  For too long, there has been the perception that Wallace is simply a writer for his "fan boys."  I know that perception is mistaken — I know that there are so many of you who appreciate his writing without excusing his behavior, that so many of you are neither white nor male nor straight.  There is room to examine and debate and question what counts as "brilliance" in language as we consider how to be "good" people, as we deal with the fact that so much of our society clearly is not just, let alone good.

And so I call upon you to plan your proposals.  To invite your friends.  To wonder how, exactly, we will adapt the work of scholarship and collaboration  and creativity to bridge continents in this time of pandemic and unrest.  And not just because it's the "right" thing to do, but because it will be fun.  Engaging, enlightening — a chance to reconnect with those you've heard before and an opportunity to meet new faces you might not have otherwise known.

Let us go forth and pop the filter bubbles.  Let us face confirmation bias together and combat fake news in the way we do best: by talking, by writing, by sharing.  As we navigate these waters, let us have only one regret: that for the time being, we must share our tea and coffee in separate pockets of air.


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