The following are a few comments on the 2015 IACR conference at the University of Notre Dame and the “New Conversations in Science and Religion” one-day conference that followed. I am by no means attempting to provide a full survey or review, but some of my interactions and responses to the conference raised thoughts about the state of critical realism generally; and as the point of this blog is to work out my thoughts, there is a necessary personal element here. I’ve broken up my discussion into three parts: the main conference, the “Science and Religion” postconference, and issues raised for CR as a project by the rise of the “philosophy of metaReality.”
I turn first, then, to the main conference. The majority of IACR members are in the social sciences, with a smattering of philosophers, whereas scholars of culture and the arts like me are few and far between (although I’ll somewhat modify that statement later). This is a continuing problem in CR: even after 18 years of conferences, their attendees are still in a narrow range of scholarly fields, encouraged by themes usually tailored mainly if not strictly for social scientists. (This is on top of the sharp demographic disparities in gender and race: it’s still mainly a meeting of middle-aged white guys.) Particularly astonishing is the paucity of historians. Historiography is the humanities field with the most kinship to the social sciences, so one would expect historians to be at least as populous as the philosophers. That said, the “Science and Religion” postconference can be seen as an effort to open up to other fields (in this case, religious studies) – a problematic effort, but an effort nonetheless.
One thing conferences are good for is running ideas past colleagues, and discovering what concepts one’s readers might have difficulty with (perhaps more urgent but also more difficult for a disciplinary interloper like me). For these reasons I wanted to talk with Margaret Archer about my paper-in-progress on embodied collective reflexivity, which naturally draws upon her work. In considering the possibility of an embodied form, I am thinking of communication – and thus the possibility of reflexivity – that is not simply about the body, but through it. Unfortunately I was thoroughly inarticulate when I talked with Maggie, so it was difficult to tell whether her response reflected my lack of clarity or her unfamiliarity with the concept of embodiment I work with. Thus when I was in a more lucid state (i.e., I’d had a beer) I approached her to see if she could catch on to it by quoting a line that I felt captured the idea: “Sex is a promise you make with your body.” (This was a slight misquotation of from the movie Vanilla Sky, which I haven’t seen so I’m not sure where I heard it.) Her look betrayed utter bafflement, and after I returned to my chair, she repeated the sentence to Alan Norrie (seated next to her) with an expression that said “WTF?!” Her reaction was perhaps surprising, given some of her arguments in Being Human; but perhaps not, as her discussions of embodiment are somehow disembodied, and there is a distinct rationalist streak in her work. For me, the sentence is completely comprehensible – whether one agrees or disagrees is beside the point. The gestures and interactions and intertwinings of our bodies are intrinsically meaningful. (It seems my unconscious was working overtime, as I kept trying to remember the English for Brecht’s plumpes Denken, “coarse thinking,” which is gritty with the material world.) I ran the phrase by a few other people; some shared Maggie’s reaction, some got it right away. I suspect that most people in theater studies would have understood it immediately. So it’s clear that I’ll have to pay a little more attention to explaining the concept in my forthcoming article.
I tend to think that the most important aspects of a conference aren’t the plenaries and panels. That said, for my money the best plenary was easily Ruth Groff’s, which is now available on her blog. The panels were the usual mix of good and not so much, but it was striking how many of the speakers were relatively new to CR.
It was also striking how many speakers appeared more than once. I raised this matter at the Annual General Meeting because I think it’s bad practice, and I proposed a policy that conference presenters should only appear once. Christian Smith (the conference organizer) informed me that few papers were submitted, so no one was excluded as a result of the multiple presentations. I was startled that the submission numbers were so low, but there you have it. That surely won’t be the case next year in Cardiff, however. The organizer for that conference (Ismael Al-Emodi?), while sympathetic, wants to keep the option of multiple presentations open, which I think is unwise. As far as I’m concerned, between allowing someone to present two papers at the cost of someone’s ability to attend, and enabling one more person to attend at the cost of forcing someone to make a choice, it’s not even a question. (Besides, one more attendee is one more registration being paid.)
Attendees of the Annual General Meeting also witnessed Maggie threatening to quit the organization over some language in the proposed amendment regarding diversity in IACR. It’s true that the language was problematic, but frankly Maggie’s vehemence was over the top. And the implied assumption that we would all leap to make sure she stayed appeared rather presumptuous.
Organization members really should attend Annual General Meetings. I know they sound boring, but I’ve been involved in several organizations and seen them do (or attempt to do) some incredibly stupid things, plus the meetings provide an opportunity to discuss problems and propose improvements. The quality of the conferences does have an influence on critical realism’s intellectual development.
[Next: The Postconference]