June 10th, 2010
Sometimes sleep trumps commitment. I tried to get to the blog last week, I really did. I was in Montreal for almost eight days at the annual learneds Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, and, well, the days were full and I was usually too far from my computer to write anything extensive. I’ll make up for that now. My head is still happily full of the experience of so many rich conversations, lectures, and questions. There is a lot to talk about.
Almost 9,000 scholars, teachers, researchers and book sellers convened on the gloriously sunny streets of Montreal to do what we do when we are at our best: dream big and aim to change the world. Sure, some of us also gossiped with old friends and pipped off for a session or two to sip wine on a sunny terrasse, but for the most part we all went about our business. Besides, wine soothes the soul, and, as Plato said, admittedly in other words, gossip is the beginning of philosophy.
There were many highlights, and not a day passed without some meaningful encounter, aperçus, or brain-challenging insight, which is way more than you can say when you are going about the work-a-day grind of writing, teaching, and gulping stale coffee. My top 10 list captures the essence of the congress experience.
1. The host site: Concordia University. Concordia is a downtown campus on prime Montreal real estate, and it has blossomed into a magnificent collection of new human-centred buildings. If you want to know how to design a 15-story building for higher learning, check out their new glass and wood architectural palaces. They would make you green with environmentally-correct envy.
2. Robert Darnton. He is Harvard University Librarian, a consummate east-coast Ivy-League educated, silver-tongued proponent of Open Access. Question: is the printed book on the verge of being a quaint relic? Darnton asks all the right ones about where the book is going in the age of the Kindle™, iPad™, and so on, but, more importantly, he is a keen advocate for universal access to knowledge. The whole publishing world is, as he says, in the balance right now and we better keep a good eye on Google™ while we’re at it. A packed auditorium gave him extended applause.
3. Celine Galipeau. She is well known to Canadians as a CBC broadcast journalist and news anchor. Galipeau has spent a lot of time in the fields of war and spoke in French of her own often harrowing experience as a foreign correspondence, with emphasis on women and children as particular victims of human rights abuses. What does it take to leave your family and friends to spend countless months near a battlefield, covering tragedy and encountering horror? For one thing you can’t worry about whether or not you are having a bad hair day, that’s for sure. It was clear from the sizable crowd–and on a languorously warm Friday evening, too—that Galipeau has a lot of admirers.
4. Nancy Huston. She is a force of nature, and a huge vedette in Quebec. But Huston’s novels sell everywhere people read, and she really is an international phenomenon. Born in Calgary, educated in the US, married to a Franco-Bulgarian philosopher, Huston is truly a woman of the world who well understands the challenge of speaking in someone else’s tongue. Her talk was a galvanizing, spell-binding performance of cultural difference, a plea for multicultural complexity and tolerance. You could feel the starch in her backbone as she articulated the challenges of living as an ‘other.’ Beautiful, smart, tough, demanding, inspiring, Huston openly stole the spotlight.
5.Reza. You might not know his name but you surely know the work of this acclaimed photojournalist whose images have pretty well given us the most enduring windows onto worlds we scarcely know. Reza packed the auditorium. He worked elegantly through a slide show in French and English of some of his most poignant and memorable photographs, many of which have appeared on the covers of National Geographic. The man knows the far reaches of world well and, yet, still manages to have faith in the future. Photographing children in war-torn regions has inspired him to see the potential in everything. Moving. Affirming. Humbling.
6. Mark Kingwell. UToronto Philosophy Professor, contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, Kingwell spoke about the delicate future of democracy, a theme that informed almost every formal conversation at congress last week. With typical lucid pop-culture inflected eloquence, Kingwell spoke of the growing gap between the people—for whom democracy ostensibly exists—and the centres of political power, but his message was optimistic in a postmodern embracing kind of way. What other choice do we have anyway? Perhaps most intriguing is his view that we often end up voting against our own interests in the false hope that we will one day be rich and successful. A glance around the world easily confirms this observation.
7. Donna Brazile. She was Al ‘I am not a robot’ Gore’s campaign manager and is contributing pundit on CNN. A pistol, Brazile rocked the full house. This woman makes Oprah seem like a slow talker. She’s a formidable creature, all guts and fire and Louisiana spice. Brazile clearly connects. With humour and passion she extolled ‘the age of Obama,’ cataloguing the often unspoken achievements of the 44th President who has done more for gender equity than all the Democrats in Massachusetts. Hear her roar! We stood up and clapped our hands off for her. It was a privilege meeting her. Guess which one is Donna?
8. Lawrence Hill. Award-winning Canadian journalist and novelist, author of acclaimed and best-selling The Book of Negroes, Hill also filled every seat in the house. What a guy! His readings from his novel were elegantly interspersed with context and commentary, delivered in a carefully measured, understated tone. We were breathless. The Q&A was even more engaging, as line-ups formed at every microphone. People just wanted to connect with this man, who embodies a quiet but determined forcefulness. How fortunate to be in his company for a few hours.
9. Kathleen Mahoney. Renowned lawyer, human rights activist and Trudeau (Foundation) Fellow, Mahoney dared to raise the question, what is justice. Her riveting lecture cited an inventory of human rights losses, a harrowing list of what government has been quietly, persistently doing to undermine the autonomy of NGOs, women and aboriginal rights in our very own country. Unabashedly partisan, Mahoney challenged her audience to wake up and smell the legislation. She gave it and we bought it, a kick-ass way to conclude a series of powerful lunchtime speakers at congress.
10. All the people—and Miles Davis. I can’t really say enough about the superb staff at both Concordia and the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences who organized the whole event. Imagine thousands of smart chatty people looking for good food, social exchange, and a few good reasons to live. I bet the G-8 leaders aren’t going to have nearly as much fun behind their security fences.
You can find out more about congress and its highlights by visiting both the Concordia and the Fedcan web sites. There are dozens of podcasts and YouTubes of congress speakers and participants all over the web, to which a little trolling will lead you. Indulge.
And speaking of indulgence, then there was Miles. The Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal had just opened their innovative “We Want Miles” exhibition, just a short hop from Concordia. If you like jazz you love Miles. Let’s just say it was a pleasure losing myself in that show for a few happy hours, amid all the brain work.
May you be so lucky to have even a sliver of what the last week offered up for so many of us.