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Friday, July 11, 2008

Best Fiction for Conferences

Greetings from a plane somewhere over Europe. I am on my way back to Tel-Aviv after a week in Barcelona and Paris. In Barcelona, I attended a conference different from the ones I usually go to. It was the XIII International Conference on the Foundations and Applications of Utility, Risk and Decision Theory (FUR), which took place at the IESE Business School, University of Navarra. Most of the conference attendees were either economists or b-school types. It was a great way to get the direct scoop on developments in behavioral economics and decision making research unmediated or filtered through by law. The talks were also full of useful insights for life in general, such as a panel on emotions, in which one speaker described his forthcoming book called “The Mathematics of Happiness.” He suggested a mathematical model for not adapting to high consumption reference levels, so that you still enjoy them, arguing that one needs to alternate between times of consumption for optimal pleasure utility. Because the conference had a relatively high percentage of Europeans, it was also interesting to observe cultural differences in “the art of conferencing”. Incidentally, the book I am reading is exactly about that. I am sure many of you are well familiar with the books of David Lodge and have read this classic one as well a while back. But I have only recently gotten hooked on Lodge’s keen eye for academic follies and have recently finished reading the first of his “Morris Zapp series” – Changing Places (1975). For those unfamiliar with the books, Morris Zap is an American English professor at the University of the state of Euphoria (“a state between northern and southern California”, i.e. Berkeley). Lodge has admitted, and Fish takes pride in this fact, that Zapp’s character is inspired by Stanley Fish (who I am happy to report will be once again teaching a course at USD Law this year). The book is about the contrasts between British and American Academics in the 70s. Now, reading the Small World (1984) it occurs to me that it is the perfect fiction to bring along to a conference. Lodge captures the search for trendy talks, the unmet expectations, the snobberies, and the absurdities that are often encountered in such settings. The book, which begins in April, the beginning of conference season, and moves throughout the globe, from the provincial to luxury settings of academic conference. The book begins at as characters convene at a disappointing conference in a run down British University. Morris Zapp is the keynote speaker and he has just begun the second stage of his career, moving from conventional literary critique to post-structuralism. After the jump is a taste of his talk, which is not very well received by the participants. Warning, the talk contains sexually explicit language unsuitable for children or those with post-1990s sensibilities (indeed, as the cover of Small World states, Lodge was writing his satires when “the sun has not quite set on the sexual revolution, while political correctness has not yet reared its humorless head.”

Morris Zapp’s keynote:

“…[the activity of reading is] an endless, tantalising leading on, a flirtation without consummation, or if there is consummation, it is solitary, masturbatory. [Here the audience grew restive.] The reader plays with himself as the text plays upon him, plays upon his curiosity, desire, as a striptease dancer plays upon her audience’s curiosity and desire. Now, as some of you know, I come from a city notorious for its bars and nightclubs featuring topless and bottomless dancers. I am told – I have not personally patronized these places, but I am told on authority of no less a person as your host at this conference, my old friend Philip Swallow, who has patronized them, [here several members of the audience turned in their seats to stare and grin at Philip Swallow, who blushed to the roots of his silver-grey hair] that the girls take off all their clothes before they commence dancing in front of the customers. This is not striptease, it is all strip and no tease, it is the terpsichorean equivalent of the hermeneutic fallacy of recuperable meaning, which claims that if we remove the clothing of its rhetoric from a literary text we discover the bare facts it is trying to communicate. The classical tradition of striptease, however, which goes back to Salome’s dance of the seven veils and beyond, and which survives in a debased form in the dives of your Soho, offers a valid metaphor for the activity of reading. The dancer teases the audience, as the text teases its readers, with the promise of an ultimate revelation that is infinitely postponed. Veil after veil, garment after garment, is removed but it is the delay in the stripping that makes it exciting, not the stripping itself; because no sooner has one secret been revealed than we lose interest in it and crave another. When we have seen the girl’s underwear we want to see her body, when we have seen her breasts we want to see her buttocks, and when we have seen her buttocks we want to see her pubis, and when we see her pubis, the dance ends – but is out curiosity and desire satisfied? Of course not. The vagina remains hidden within the girl’s body, shaded by her pubic hair, and even if she were to spread her legs before us [at this point several ladies in the audience noisily departed] it would still not satisfy the curiosity and desire set in motion by stripping.”

and Zapp continues on to develop his thesis. The conference attendees debate structuralism, continental theorizing and merit hiring…in short, excellent conference reading!

Posted by Orly Lobel on July 11, 2008 at 09:35 AM | Permalink


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Did you succeed?

Posted by: Rob Howse | Jul 21, 2008 10:35:59 PM

thanks, I will definitely try and find a copy of Professional Foul - i love Stoppard and BBC productions are usually pretty good.

Posted by: Orly Lobel | Jul 14, 2008 9:58:06 AM

I like Small World a great deal but my favorite conference fiction is Tom Stoppard's Professional Foul, a made for TV play which centers around a conference of professional philosophers in Prague at the time of Charter 77; there is a football match happening simultaneously. This piece is funny and enormously insightful about academia, the Communist world, and life generally...I think you can buy it from the BBC website and probably the script has been published too. Stoppard at his best, which is saying a lot.


Posted by: Rob Howse | Jul 12, 2008 9:06:25 PM

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