On March 23-24, the English Department of SUNY-Buffalo hosted the Samuel R. Delany Critical Symposium, the first academic conference devoted entirely to the work of Samuel R. Delany. I will say frankly that when I was first invited to participate, I had no idea what to expect. When one sits down and thinks seriously about not just the size and quality but the sheer range of Delany's oeuvre (which is still under construction), it's impossible not to conclude that few fans or scholars could even begin to know and appreciate the Complete Delany. And so I could not help wondering beforehand which (partial) versions of Delany would be represented at the conference and whether they would make enough sense, taken together, for the conference to amount to more than just several distinct groups of scholars talking past one another.
I needn't have worried. The Americanist Graduate Group, who organized the conference, took as their organizing principle the intention to build a bridge bringing together Delany's assorted constituencies, and the three keynote addresses they commissioned reflected this thinking: Larry McCaffery, the avant-pop guru and editor of Black Ice Books, opened the first day of programming with "Worlds Apart: A Story about Bridge-Building in the Life and Work of Samuel R. Delany," a series of anecdotes beginning with his first, stunned encounter of Delany with The Einstein Intersection (the same work through which I first discovered science fiction); Jeff Tucker, author of A Sense of Wonder: Samuel R. Delany, Race, Identity, and Difference and Assistant Professor of English at the University of Rochester, opened the second day with a paper titled "Theorizing Comics through Delany's Prisms, Mirrors, and Lenses"; while Carl Freedman, author of Critical Theory and Science Fiction and Professor of English at Louisiana State University, concluded the programming with "About Delany Writing: An Anatomical Meditation," an astonishing summary of Delany's oeuvre from his earliest work of science fiction through his most recent book, About Writing. Thirteen other participants (all of them except me bona fide scholars) presented papers, and another presenter, Ron Drummond, offered a series of anecdotes about his long, intimate relationship with Delany's fiction. Late each afternoon there was a panel discussion, and each evening after dinner a reading. The first evening, Lance Olsen read from his new novel, Nietzsche's Kisses, in the chapel of Trinity Episcopal Church; and the second evening, in the church proper, Delany read from his new, nearly finished novel, Shoat Rumblin, which is to be published by Carroll & Graf (and which, judging by the portion he read, I anticipate will be an absolute delight).
I could list the titles of the papers — for example, "The Caustic Caress of Nausea or the Ethics of Excrement of Samuel R. Delany," or another: " Dhalgren and the Web of Belief" — but these can be found at the Symposium's website , and I don't think they would even begin to convey the atmosphere and high level of discourse characterizing the conference. Let me describe, instead, the setting, the players, and a few of the themes that emerged over the course of its two intense days.
First, imagine a rare book room in a library, with paintings on the walls, sculpture deployed throughout the space, and comfortable furniture arranged along three sides of a rectangle with a lectern on the fourth side, perfect for accommodating several dozen people in an atmosphere of warmth and intimacy. Imagine, in another part of the room, near a table loaded with coffee and micro-Danish in the mornings and cookies and bottles of water and fruit juice in the afternoon, a tantalizing selection of documents from the Delany Archive in Boston that had been put on display in glass-topped cases — handwritten pages of novel mss, typewritten letters to Joanna Russ, a fan letter from Bill Gibson offering a dazzlingly terse appreciation of Dhalgren.
Next, imagine the diversity of the conferees. Naturally one would expect racial diversity to characterize scholars of the work of an author of color and also an excellent representation of women to characterize those studying the work of an author who has been a long-time champion of feminism, and so one saw at this conference. But I was struck, also, by the diversity of nationalities: Australian, Dutch, Scottish, Russian, Canadian, as well as USian. This conference drew people literally from around the world.
Third, the majority of those in attendance and presenting papers were young — many of them graduate students, some of them junior faculty. Most of them displayed theoretical sophistication, calling on the work of a wide range of theorists, from Derrida, Foucault, LeFebvre, and Deleuze to Mulvey, Crimp, Rubin, and Warner. Surely the intense devotion and interest of the youngest generation of scholars augurs well for the staying power of Delany's work.
And finally: imagine Delany himself — embodying a sort of gravity-well in his very person, as Carl Freedman remarked to me — his face framed by a long, white beard, his large, imposing body dressed in black and moving majestically with the assistance of a cane, sitting now here, now there, listening silently and critically, his eyes bright and his gaze keen, always gracious (even when delivering a factual correction), his famously ubiquitous notebook discreetly in hand. For many of us the most startling and moving moment of the conference came during the panel discussion on the first day, when Delany said that although he was gratified by the evidence of so much careful, devoted attention to his work, he worried about the dangers posed by its being so motivated by love. Not only did he think such work might be too partial, but he also ruefully noted that intense love of an artist's work could without warning flip into its polar opposite, intense hatred. As an example of this he cited the case of Nietzsche flipping from love to hate of Wagner's work. (Later, during conversation in transit, some of us came up with our own experiences of flipping from one extreme attitude toward an author's work to its opposite.) Delany's warning surfaced repeatedly in the many conversations I had in the interstices of the remainder of the conference; it struck her, one person remarked to me, as quintessential Delany. And of course it was. For one thing, it is hard to imagine praise of his work going to Delany's head; for another, Delany has always straddled the line between embodying the outlaw transgressor and the authority who knows and respects literary and intellectual tradition. In any case, Delany's easy accessibility and warmth helped set the tone for the many interactions small and large of the conference, both during programming and outside it.
Most of the presenters showed a deep awareness of the writerliness of all of Delany's work and an appreciation of his aesthetic sense. I most enjoyed Mary Foltz's "The Caustic Caress of Nausea or the Ethics of Excrement in Samuel R. Delany," which was informed by a distinctly Delanyesque aesthetic, and Terry Rowden's "Working Stiff: Naturalism and the Perversion of Pornography in Samuel R. Delanys Hogg," which included a provocative discussion of the utility of using that text in Women's Studies classrooms. Although I won't try to describe any of the other papers, I will say that across the spectrum of approaches taken to Delany's books emerged the theme that Delany's work over the decades has consistently challenged what Katrien De Moor named "the ideological abuse of safety." De Moor used the phrase to talk about our need for narratives able to portray and present a queer sexual ethics, a need that Delany's work meets. It immediately struck me that any thinking person living in the US today cannot help but take the phrase as applying to many aspects of our culture, and when I mentioned this to her at dinner on Friday evening, she said that indeed, she had assumed the phrase would have resonance with all the forms of "safety" that have come to obsess us. And of course Delany's writing has from Day One called into question every dogmatic assumption about safety that USian common sense takes as a given.
If I have a complaint about the conference, it is that the organizers did not allow enough time to the Q&A that followed each set of talks. In one case, the brevity of the time allotted created a muddle about what one of the presenters was arguing, a muddle that I believe would not only have been cleared up if time had allowed but would also have led to a fascinating general discussion. But that's not much of a complaint, especially since I did find time to talk to the presenter later.
I was amused to find that as often happens after a science fiction convention, I had the pleasure of talking to a couple of participants (Josh Lukin and Steve Shaviro) while hanging around at the airport waiting for my flight. Good conferences never end definitively. They simply fade out, leaving behind real papers to be published, ideas to be pursued, new friendships, and a handful of rich and vivid memories.
Will I ever forget sitting in a pew in a church graced with a high, vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows, hymnals and prayer books lined up on the rack before me, listening to Delany, positioned only a few yards from the altar, reading from Shoat Rublin: His Sensations and Ideas? In short, the conference succeeded brilliantly.
—L. Timmel Duchamp
Seattle, April 1, 2006
L. Timmel Duchamp is a novelist, critic, publisher, and short-fiction writer. Renegade, the second novel of her Marq'ssan cycle of novels (after Alanya to Alanya) is due out in June, 2006. She has been a finalist for the Sturgeon, Homer, and Nebula awards and has been short-listed three times for the Tiptree Award.
Editor's note: The excellent Steven Shaviro also attended this conference, and writes about it in his blog, The Pinocchio Theory. He includes a charming photo of Chip Delany at the conference, which was held in the obviously chilly city of Buffalo, NY.
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