[OPE-L] Academic Conferences, 'Un-Conferences' & Encuentros

From: Jerry Levy (Gerald_A_Levy@MSN.COM)
Date: Sun Jan 21 2007 - 12:54:00 EST

> Here and there some interesting new lines of thought appear, or
> interesting old forgotten trains of thought are dug up, but a lot of it
> seems masticating over old chestnuts anyway. Maybe that's not quite
> fair, and as I said I didn't go to the conference, but that's my
> impression and if I did go, it would be more likely I would do it more
> for the informal conversation outside of the formal presentations, to get
> the benefit from dialoguing - as and where possible - with people with
> a lot of experience in their area of  expertise that I have a lot of
> respect  for, and who can put you on the correct track.

Hi Jurriaan,

I think that's generally the case with any traditional academic-style
conference.   I find most such conferences -- whether organized along
radical or mainstream themes -- tend to be boring to the point of inducing
slumber.  It's actually worse than that since if  the presentations and
formal discussions are organized along the lines of formal papers then
whatever a speaker presents is both necessarily incomplete and a poor
imitation of the actual paper.  And nowadays, more often than not,  if you
want to read the paper you  don't have to go to the conference
itself -- you can read it online.  Whatever time there is for formal
discussion  is very brief and allows little time to formulate the best of
questions or have the best responses and generally has no time for further
back-and-forth discussion with follow-up questions and replies.

Most people who attend these academic-style  conferences probably share
your perspective that they gain more from "the informal conversation
outside of the formal presentations".   It's the people you meet and
-- because of a shared interest or concern -- interact with that offers
the greatest long-term benefit for all parties and it is what you will most
likely remember most and treasure from a conference.  Many of the
more memorable such interactions will occur over lunch or dinner
(not infrequently with a glass of beer or wine in hand) rather than in
the sessions themselves.

It might be asked:  if that's the way most people feel about these
traditional-style academic conferences, then why are they reproduced
'as is'?   The answer to this is to be found in the imperative of these
conferences and how that imperative is shaped by academic *employers*.
To receive travel and hotel and food, etc. allowance (i.e. to have the
expenses paid by one's employer) one must often agree to present a paper.
Take away these  allowances then the amount of participants will drop.
In this sense, the  structure of academic conferences -- radical or
otherwise --  is shaped by capital and the state and the imperative of
societies governed by the law of value.

What alternatives exist?  Well, of course, there are online alternatives but
I won't discuss the benefits of them now over a traditional conference
format because I have discussed that here on previous occasions.
If people really want to meet and have an 'un-conference' then this could
be done.  Instead of having major speakers  who are 'authorities' on a given
topic,  you could meet in smaller groups in a sort of roundtable format
in which everyone would have the opportunity to speak.  There are simple
rules that could be employed that could maximize participation and
prevent the discussion from being dominated by an individual or clique.
Something along the lines of a Zapatista-style  "encounter" (an encuentro)
on political economy could be organized.   If a group of comrades were
committed to organizing such an encounter (organized, perhaps, on themes
that all would agree have practical importance) then I think it could be
a potentially important way for radical economists, activists and others to
meet each other, dialogue, really *listen* to each other, and become
*organized* (i.e. have some agreements about *actions* and future events
at the close of the encounter).

[Even an encuentro, though, would of necessity be shaped by the ability
of participants to pay their way and have the time off from work to
attend an encounter.  The value-form and capitalist control over the labor
process re-asserts its importance even in alternative organizing, alas.]

Note that I'm not making a proposal above or getting into a lot of
specifics.  I am _only_ saying that it _could_ be done and  a _group_ of
people _could_   collectively work out the specifics _if_ people wanted
to do this.

If one wanted to organize a smaller meeting of  people, then a smaller
'retreat' is an alternative.  This can also work well for a discussion of
*theory*, as the ISMT group has demonstrated over the years.   The point
is that regardless of the topic to be discussed, there are alternative and
innovative  ways of organizing discussion.

> When I think of the experience of the classical bolsheviks, what strikes
> me is how good they were at dialoguing with people at all levels, often
> under extremely difficult circumstances, and how hard they worked at
> perfecting
> their communication so that the message was transmitted, understood and
> accepted by all kinds of people.

I don't think they were a great example of "dialoguing with people at all
levels", especially political  "opponents" on the Left such as anarchists
and SRs.  The dissolution of the Constituent Assembly and  tactics in local
Soviets (not to mention their dialogue with the sailors at the Kronstadt
Naval Station!) represented something less than the best of examples of
progressive dialogue, imo. Like many Marxist organizations, the Bolsheviks
struggled with the contradictory theory and praxis of  libratory
theory/policy  and authoritarianism.

In solidarity, Jerry

PS: who on the list attended  the 12/30 -- 1/2 encuentro in Oventik,
Chiapas between the Zapatistas and the peoples of the world?

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