Research, teaching and hospitality: Mosaic conference draws attendees from around the globe
U of M distinguished professor Dawne McCance was touched by the number of people who told her that the recent Mosaic conference, “A matter of lifedeath,” was the “best conference” they have ever attended. “Part of it,” she says, “was the hospitality. They felt welcome and there was good conversation — building that into a conference, I’ve come to understand, is important.”
With renowned international scholars and over 100 presenters from 15 countries, “A matter of lifedeath” took place at the University of Manitoba from October 1 to 4. It was the fourth conference hosted by Mosaic, the U of M’s interdisciplinary journal of literature, the arts and theory; previous conferences were “Freud After Derrida” (2010), “Following Derrida” (2006) and “The Photograph” (2004).
Founded in 1967, Mosaic is a quarterly journal dedicated to publishing the best critical work in literature and theory. Supported by Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), it publishes contributions from scholars around the world and distributes to 34 countries; it can be found in over 300 of the world’s major university and college libraries.
McCance, who teaches in the department of religion in the Faculty of Arts, is also the journal’s editor. Not only is Mosaic internationally recognized as a leading humanities journal, it also serves as an ambassador of the university, she says.
“It’s a scholarly enterprise, a teaching unit — we have a very active intern program, which trains [students] in all aspect of academic journal publishing — and it is, thirdly, a business. That’s what differentiates us from most other university units: what we produce,” she notes.
“We try to represent the University of Manitoba in all three aspects.”
Selected conference proceedings will be published in at least two forthcoming issues, she says. “There’s such a variation across the papers [that were presented], so it would be well worth it to publish them all.”
McCance’s own research background includes work on genetics, ethics, critical theory, philosophy, and religion and culture, and “lifedeath” is a current research interest for her. It was was chosen as this year’s conference theme partly for its topicality.
“The conference topic is being researched in philosophy and the critical tradition … [but] these questions of when is life no longer life and when is a body dead, these have many applications in other fields [in addition to philosophy]. I’m currently translating a seminar of Derrida’s, La vie la mort [life/death], from 1974-5, and in it, he says he’s going to think about life in relation to the history of biology, but according to a non-oppositional logic,” she explains.
“So of course I had this in mind, but I became increasingly aware of the pervasiveness of this problem, of trying to escape this oppositional thinking. For example … the difference between human and animal, and this whole Cartesian heritage of “mind-body” — or pinpointing a moment of death. I mean, what did they used to do — they’d hold up a feather [in front of the person’s mouth or nose] to see if the person’s dead? And now that’s become much more complicated, with the technologies we have, to sustain breath, respirators, and to harvest organs — so there are all these other dimensions.”
McCance: “Pinpointing a moment of death … has become much more complicated, with the technologies we have, to sustain breath, respirators, and to harvest organs. There are all these other dimensions.”
Another topic that emerged for the conference, says McCance, “was the relation between life and machine, and the whole concept of ‘machine.’ [Conference presenter and scholar] David Wills has a book coming out from Minnesota Press, called Inanimation, and he’s trying to argue that there’s an originary or primordial mechanicity to life. He’s trying to counter this idea of the ‘breath’ or ‘spirit’ of life, which is why people have so much trouble thinking about technology in non-oppositional ways.”
McCance suggests that bypassing the logic of either/or approaches is important “in biology, in philosophy, in medicine, in the whole health care field, in questions of dementia … [and] questions of assisted suicide and suicide.”
But the conference wasn’t focused strictly on medical or political issues, she notes. “Some fairly complex philosophical approaches came up also. And some of the best work being done, is being done by graduate students. And that’s good to see. And I see it as editor of Mosaic; students are doing great work. There’s a lot of hope in that.”
One highlight was a multimedia presentation by H. Peter Steeves, professor and director of the DePaul Humanities Center at DePaul University in Chicago. McCance calls him “one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. He works for NASA and he’s a cosmologist and an astrophysicist; he works in all these fields — he’s a philosopher.”
Steeves’ unusual presentation on the question of the animal, says McCance, involved stage lights, a simultaneous visual presentation, Steeves on acoustic guitar, and dance accompaniment by his wife and collaborator, trained in multiple traditions of dance.
Cosmologist, astrophysicist and philosopher H. Peter Steeves’ multimedia performance included dance interludes and a presentation that spanned from the origins to the projected end of the universe.
“[The presentation] took us from the origins of the universe to the very end of the universe, the projected end of the universe. He showed us a graph early on in his presentation, of the rate of extinction, going back to the dinosaurs and through the ages, up to the present. And its the current century — the last 150 years or so — that we’re right up to 99.9 percent extinction of all species that ever inhabited this planet. So it was a powerful presentation,” she says.
“Very intellectually challenging, but at the same time, because he breaks out of the confines of the conventional academic paper being delivered stiffly … I think it was energizing and affirmative for students, to see this possibility. To see, in his own work, this range across disciplines.”
Another conference highlight for McCance was keynote speaker Elizabeth Weber’s paper, “Living Deaths” — a term used by one detainee in Guantánamo Bay Prison Camp and in a human rights report, co-authored by law clinics at Stanford Law School and New York University School of Law, to describe the conditions of Pakistani citizens living under U.S. drone practices.
Explains McCance, “[Weber] spoke about the responsibility of the humanities in a time of terror. She was working primarily with [French philosopher Jacques] Derrida and also with psychoanalysis and many different authors in the psychoanalytic and philosophical traditions…. [She addressed in particular] America’s responsibility, and the way in which after 9/11, [America] tried to close down the borders and isolate from the foreigner, the enemy — this kind of autoimmune reaction — and the couching [of the rhetoric] of ‘the powers of Satan vs. the powers of good’…. That’s one form of oppositional thinking that hasn’t been very helpful politically. It was an absolutely well-received talk.”
Providing a forum for interdisciplinary work is one of the primary aims of the conference.
Providing a forum for such interdisciplinary work is one of the primary aims of the conference, adds McCance. “I’m trying to find a problem — a series of problems, in theoretical and practical terms, that can be couched under a theme and then approached from multiple different perspectives and different disciplines. And that’s what interdisciplinary work should be.”
At this conference, that intermingling went beyond just interdisciplinary nature of the actual presentations.
“I think sometimes you attend a conference, you present a paper and you listen to some other papers, but you don’t have ample opportunity to engage with people who are at the conference. This is important. This is the fourth conference — and I tried to build in receptions and lunches, opportunities for people to [congregate]. We had a conference centre room, where everyone could meet — this seems to work and it makes a big difference,” says McCance. “And of course, there are graduate students giving papers, as well as very well-known academics and scholars. I think it’s important for these lines to cross. And I have found, over the course of these four conferences, that students not only learn from the scholars giving papers, but they’ve been approached by them and have been assisted by them in their own studies. This is a very good thing.
“What I see at the conference — it’s research, teaching and hospitality.”