big thoughts, big feelings

I just returned from the annual SPEP conference. This year it was held in Montreal, Canada.

I decided months ago that I was going to attend even though it’s late in the year and stress levels are building as the semester edges toward the end. It was my third time going now, and I was honestly quite nervous about making the trip. Not just because it involved driving in the car for 10 hours there and back, and not just because there are lots of philosophers around (and often it is encouraged that you meet them, seem impressive, and get on their good side). I think I was nervous because every year so far the SPEP trip has involved some very big feelings: for the first two SPEPs I was in the midst of two long, difficult breakups. And last year, loneliness, sadness, and pain were coupled with some of the most excited, giddy feelings that I’ve ever felt (to the point of acting stupid and silly). Feeling all of this while also being displaced in new cities and trying to find good food is quite the mix. Oh, and then there is the philosophy part of it all.

I explain to people that my favorite part of SPEP is going to sessions to hear about the sort of work that I find most interesting and to see philosophy be done in the way that I think it should be–in collaboration with others who share and discuss their ideas in productive, supportive, and rigorous ways. To that end, I am selective about my session choices. I’ve come to learn that the kind of people involved in these sorts of things are often more important than the ideas. Similar to how a class description can sound awesome, but the overall experience completely hinges on the person teaching it, SPEP features a decent amount of talks on feminism, sexuality, gender, race, etc., but that doesn’t mean it’s all good. All of these philosophers, who for such a long time were just names to me, are really just people. Some names I have looked up to as a student in philosophy. Some names were those that inspired me and made me want to do philosophy. But out of these philosopher-people, some are nice, some are awkward, and some are not worth making a trip to Canada to be around. Fortunately, I know some really nice people, and I was able to spend some time with them.

I had dinner with Ladelle McWhorter on my first night there. We spoke for nearly two hours about everything and nothing that I had really anticipated. Philosophy, projects, life, ideas, how things were going. We were supposed to talk about my reading lists for my comp exams and my idea for a dissertation project, but we only managed to sneak that in before I had to run off and make sure that I didn’t have a parking ticket in my windshield.

I told her about my youtube channel and her place in the first video on role models. She didn’t think it was creepy. Instead, she thought it was a cool project. I’m glad she approves.

We talked about affect, and the transmission of affect, and the sort of people who transmit a lot of affect. She said I am an affective person, and I told her that I now know that means I can affect people positively and negatively. Then we talked about the size of people’s bubbles, the size of towns, and the ontological experience of affecting and being affected by others.(She also assured me that graduate school and small towns make people crazy, so I should expect to be kind of crazy for the next few years.)

The panel on Del’s book, “Racism and Sexual Oppression”

We also managed to talk quite a bit about ways to deal with feelings, especially negative feelings that people don’t want to have (like homophobia or racism) and what sort of practices people can undertake in order to be and feel differently than they do. With reference to her most recent genealogy, she mentioned that it wasn’t just the research and the writing that changed her, but that there seemed to be new opportunities opening up to her. She recognized them as opportunities, perhaps because she was more attuned to them now, and then she got to know new people. There is a very important hermeneutic connection between how we prime ourselves to see and think and be and feel new things. It’s not a metaphysical secret or special power or anything, just something very simple about how we orient ourselves in the world and to what we remain open. It was lovely to talk with her. And it was definitely a highlight of the trip.

I went to a paper by my advisor, Shannon Sullivan. I wanted to see how she handled the responses to her work since I expected it to be rowdy. Just as I hoped, she responded with clarity, coolness, and with a very obviously genuine air of wanting to learn and hear from the audience members’ comments, despite the fact that some people in the audience responded with overt sarcasm, an inability to listen, and immature hyperbole.  I have good role models.

And I had a meeting with another new mentor, Sharon Meagher, about Public Philosophy. I am currently working with her to set up the Public Philosophy Network. She’s committed, dedicated, passionate, and competent. I appreciate seeing her influence and witnessing the involvement from other philosophers who are interested in transforming the discipline of philosophy.

Another highlight of the trip was seeing my friend, Ami. She is one of the loveliest individuals I have ever met. I only wish that we could see each other for more than one dinner, one night, once a year.

Look at us two years ago with Del; PIKSI 2009

But I ended up with some very weird anxieties, too. The philosophy world is so small! The same people go to these conferences year after year, and they are the ones who write the books, edit the journals, teach the classes…so if you are great, everyone knows you. If you do something stupid, everyone can know what you did. And if people love you or hate you, they often have the capacity to devolve to high school mentalities. I hope this is only my perception as a grad student who has only been three times now, but I am fearful that there are the popular kids, the weird kids, the loner kids who circle the perimeter of the receptions, and the bullies. I am worried that this is going to be my (very small) world and I will be a part of it. Given my talk with Del and our discussion on being crazy, bubbles are bumping up against bubbles here in a serious way.

And another thing: SPEP is one of the only things that I have really experienced that I can safely bet will be a part of my life for the rest of my time in philosophy. Every year I will go and I will see the same people; slowly I will become one of the old philosophers and new graduate students will be attending. They, like me now, will be poor, sleeping on the hallway floor in someone’s apartment in town after driving across the border because they can’t afford plane tickets or rooms in the conference hotel. Even though I love philosophy and there are good people, the thought of growing old at SPEP year after year weirded me out. I can’t imagine having  kids or even having a house with as much surety about how its going to be since I haven’t yet had a kid or owned a house. But now I have been to three SPEP conferences. And it will probably be much like that, year after year. Until I quit or I die. And that is strange.


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