[MS at the Florida Renaissance Festival, photo by Patrick Farrell of the Miami Herald]
Okay, perhaps you wonder whether the fellow in the photo above is ever outside of his comfort zone. You'd be surprised – this was taken at the Renaissance Festival, where it's perfectly acceptable, even encouraged, to put on a top hat, a figured waistcoat, and a set of home made goggles and to get one's steampunk on. When it comes to intellectual pursuits, however, I'm acutely aware when I've ventured beyond my areas of "expertise," or at least the places where I'm comfortable.
Two short narratives about what I'm getting at: 1) Last year I went to the Blackfriars Conference, which mainly centers around Shakespeare and performance. I'd submitted a paper on The Tempest as adapted by Peter Greenaway (Prospero's Books) and Michael Nyman (Noises, Sounds & Sweet Airs). My basic thesis was that as much as I enjoyed Greenaway's film & Nyman's composition (opera? oratorio?), they were both in one sense failures in that their effect was to empty Shax's play of agency, of character, & recast a polyvocal original into a particular sort of British postmodern monologue. In the commenting process of the conference, I got my butt kicked in a particularly stinging manner, mostly over my general ineptitude when talking about music. I'd overlooked a number of details about Nyman's soundtrack for the Prospero's Books, and I was deploying a lamentably impoverished vocabulary for musical commentary. When I wrote the paper, I felt I was venturing outside of my comfort zone, & I ended up regretting it.
2) Last month at the Louisville conference on 20th- & 21st-c. culture, I attended a two-person panel in which the clear star attraction was Full Professor X, an old chum of mine delivering another delightful installment of his ongoing commentary on Obscure Avant-Gardist Y. A splendid talk, veering between close reading, textual history, and sociological locating. The other guy Professor X's was Professor Z, whose only bespoke audience (alas) was his partner; everyone else was there to hear X. Z talked about his subject – let's call it "an American poetic genre" – in terms that showed he was entirely ignorant of what the modernists had done with that genre, and what the Language Poets had done, and what any number of interesting contemporaries had done. I'm happy to say that no-one handed him his teeth in the q&a session, but there were any number of cutting comments passed back & forth in the hall afterward. Me, I sat squirming with discomfort for the poor gent.
All of this is by way of saying that I'm off in two weeks time for ICFA – that's the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts – in Orlando, to deliver my very first paper on a science fiction/fantasy subject. This is a BIG conference – hundreds and hundreds of papers; very big names in the field, both in terms of writers and of scholars; people in from all corners of the globe. And I'm scared stiff.
Sure, I've been reading fantasy and SF as long as I've been reading, and I think I've been reading it fairly critically & carefully over the last few years. But this is my first venture into talking about it in an academic context, & I'm acutely aware of how little I really know about this field and its critical discourse. No way I can pull this off by putting on a steampunk hat and showing what an enthusiastic fanboy I can be.
It's probably a good thing to begin making steps outside of one's comfort zone, early or late. I'll let you know when I'm on the verge of attempting my first Victorianist conference.