Where to start in trying to sum up the #DFW19 (David Foster Wallace) Conference at Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois? Perhaps with the attendees at the conference? Perhaps the topics of conversation? Perhaps the countries from which people travelled?
The age range was fairly impressive, with presenters as young as 18 years of age, and attendees one might describe as senior, but those are merely numbers (or hinting at numbers), not conveying the breadth of knowledge possessed by the youngest, nor the enthusiasm shown by the eldest. The male/female split (if we must do such things, and I suppose we must given the ‘LitBro’ conversations around Wallace) was around 66.66%/33.33%, fluctuating on certain days due to late arrivals/departures. And a cursory read down the list of presenters speaks of visitors/presenters from Australia, Brazil, Italy, Spain, Canada, Switzerland, UK, Netherlands, along with Eastern/Western and Northern/Southern States in the US.
Another feature was the number of independent scholars in attendance – those who share a passion in discussing literature and culture, and who were willing to make the journey, and to mingle with academics. The overall effect was, in my mind, spectacular, and if this in any way speaks to the readers of this blog post, that, perhaps, you, or someone you know who has an interest in Wallace, or contemporaries of Wallace, or even in contemporary literature and culture as a whole, or creative writing, or indeed many other things, then there is a real need for you to act upon this and to look to attend and/or present at future conferences (at ISU or elsewhere – the main thing would be for you to make contact with the broader David Foster Wallace community, and to seek out such opportunities – my email is at the foot of the page if I can help facilitate this for you). And that doesn’t mean you must necessarily be on the ‘Saint Dave’ side of the fence – straddle the fence, or even kick that mother/father over (metaphorically, for I am not advocating violence).
But why? Well, the overriding sense of this conference is that we are now moving into more challenging conversations arising from a discussion of Wallace’s works – and that’s not before time. In recent years the inclusion of diversity panels have brought about a focus on issues of gender and race, respectively, with this year’s panel turning the attention on LGBTQ+ issues, and/or the lack thereof in Wallace’s works. Wallace, just one writer from a list of thousands, left a legacy in his writing that speaks of the beauty and poetics of carefully crafted prose, but also offers a specific cultural moment for us to reflect upon – and some of it is f***ed up and/or just erring on the side of cringe worthy (the HIV/AIDS essay, the use of vernacular particularly with respect to minority and/or disenfranchised communities, the prevalence of sexual violence, the essay on rap music, the exploration of infinity, and the list goes on…). Have you something to say on these (I’d imagine you would)?
Taking time to analyse our current cultural climate, wherever that may be, seems more pressing now than at anytime in recent memory. So, as a parting shot, let me reflect on the things I have experienced this year, not all of them academic in nature, but more personal, things that shape the way I think and feel…
Talking to very young people who make me feel inferior because they are so switched on (Andrew, Tyler, Matt, Reilly, Elena, Kristin, Ben, Ryan – if any of those are spelt incorrectly, sincere apologies), but who are in no way contributing to my inferiority complex (that’s all my own sh*t going on).
Generally being listened to and given time to speak and communicate my thoughts, and then receiving communication back, whether in the form of comments, suggestions, and/or questions.
Meeting people I genuinely felt a sense of affinity with (all of those listed above but also Ryan, Emilio, Denys, Kristie, Amy, Brian, Jane, Allard, Vern, Tennis Andrew, John, Gen, and Swiss Andrew).
Not plucking up the courage to ask questions because the right moment never came up/my own inhibitions got in the way (Grace, JoAnna).
But getting to talk to people and feeling a sense that they too see a need to change the ways in which we currently live, and the ways in which society has operated in without any real sense of critique, let alone the possibility of change.
I didn’t see any ‘LitBros’ at all. Just genuinely affectionate, and thoughtful, human beings. Some dressed formally, some dressed informally – doesn’t matter. All good.
And then it’s over and I get to fly home, stopping off at 206 S. Jefferson Street, Chicago, on the way, of course (see original The Road to Normal (in particular the road back from Normal) post. “Brothers, Sisters, one day we will be free, from fighting, violence, people crying in the streets…” (Joe Smooth).
*Classic mistake – forgot to put my email at the foot of the page first time round. Here it is: Matthew.Alexander@liverpool.ac.uk