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Conference Report: A Whitehead Laboratory

The following article also appears in issue 39.1 of Process Perspectives.

2016 WRP Conference: A Whiteheadian Laboratory

by Joseph Petek

As the lead organizer of the last couple of WRP’s conferences, my most vivid impressions of our most recent event have to do with the way it confounded my planning and expectations.

Normally we invite about a dozen Whitehead scholars to write papers about a given topic. They then present their papers in pairs and we discuss what’s been said. Separation between the presenters and other participants has normally been sharp, with our invited speakers sitting up front with table tents in front of them proclaiming their name and institution, and our other participants sitting in chairs facing them, looking on.

Well, this time we again invited about a dozen scholars, but did not ask them to write long formal papers, but rather a knot (a paradox or temporary impasse in their work), a juncture (a known conjunction reopened for further exploration through new techniques), or a vector (a move out from known junctures into a wander-line that is oriented by a proposition) for discussion. We also had the addition of about twenty members of the SenseLab, which is a Montreal-based international network of philosophers, artists, and activists (to give a very broad description). The group lived up to the “international” part; although the largest segment of people was from Montreal, others were from the U.S., Australia, and Europe. In planning the event, we didn’t know quite what to expect of these SenseLab folks. My guess was that they would act as a particularly engaged audience, adding to the discussion more often than most of the registrants for our other conferences had.

And then the opening night arrived, and the first thing that the SenseLab did was re-arrange all the chairs. We had placed them all in a theater-seating style, facing the dual podiums that we had prepared for the opening presentation by Erin Manning and Brian Massumi. The chairs were quickly scattered throughout Haddon Conference Center in no particular order. The center aisle disappeared, chairs faced in different directions, and some were even flipped upside down, perhaps to protest imperialist seating conventions (indeed, throughout the conference not everyone always used chairs; people could be seen standing, sitting on the ground, or reclining on the floor as they listened to the discussion). Erin and Brian, meanwhile, ignored the podiums altogether, instead sitting in the middle of the confluence of seats as they gave their talk.

This re-arranging of the chairs set the tone for the whole conference. There would be no great separation between presenters and non-presenters. I had created table-tents for our sixteen speakers that would remain in a box in the back of the room, unused. Meanwhile, we had in mind that moderators would read short biographies of each speaker in order to introduce them; instead, we quickly decided to drop this rather formal convention and introduce speakers only by name. We also encouraged speakers to keep their presentations as short as they could; this conference was more about the group, and less about the individual.

Speaking of setting a tone, another unexpected thing happened on the opening night of the conference: one of our banners fell down. We had made three large canvas banners—two with the WRP logo on them, and one conference banner. It was the conference banner itself that fell off the wall right in the middle of Erin and Brian’s talk. We all, of course, laughed over it. One could easily have taken this as a bad omen, but in the context of what was happening, I took it as an indication that it was not the conference itself that was falling, but rather the formal conventions with which we had been executing it.

This first night led into the following morning’s exercise of “conceptual speed dating.” We had been given some pages from Nietzsche’s late notebooks to look over, and we were then asked to talk to a new person every five minutes or so about the reading, and see what ideas shook loose. This was, of course, a perfect way to get everyone to participate, to loosen up, and get to know one another a little better.

And then came the invited speakers, and in this case, too, not everything was as expected. Many sat behind a table or stood behind a podium and gave a fairly traditional presentation (myself included). But Susanne Valerie Granzer instead had us close our eyes and read us a story, and then had an exercise that involved us writing our impressions of it on slips of paper, then rolling giant plush dice to determine how many minutes we would talk about what was written on one of the papers that we had pulled randomly out of a bowl. Roland Faber introduced his own creative exercise, which involved greeting people with handshakes, and not being allowed to greet another person with a handshake unless you kept a grip on a second person with your other hand… leading, of course, to the whole room connected to one another, laughing and smiling as they tried not to trip over or clothesline each other. Topics of talks, meanwhile, ranged from actors and performative art, to speculative design, to beauty and aestehtics, to video games, to ecological ethics.

A final surprise was in store for me on Friday night when our evening group exercise ended early. We had been gathering in large groups to discuss the various knots, junctures, and vectors of the conference before heading down to Claremont Village for dinner, and I had lined up about a dozen drivers to transport everyone down there. But perhaps because it had been a long day, or because people wanted to be outside, most of the SenseLab left the room about half an hour early, and set out to walk to the restaurant, despite the December evening cold. Once again, the SenseLab had defied all my planning. Dinner itself was a lively affair; we had all been seated at a single row of tables, with two dozen on each end, and several times we all did a Wave from one end of the table to the other. At one point people even tied all the napkins together in a giant chain and held it over their heads.

You may have noticed that I’ve written very little about the topics that were actually discussed in the course of the conference. I did of course find many of the talks and discussions very stimulating, and yet as a total experience, this conference is more difficult to neatly capture (and not just to write about; the less formal modes of presentation meant that producing recordings of the proceedings was often difficult and sometimes impossible). The take-away for me is more of a new way of doing things, a new approach to conference gatherings, than any specific intellectual content. The SenseLab proved that such gatherings can be more relaxed, creative, spontaneous, and participatory than we had been doing previously, while still maintaining an intellectual rigor. We at the Whitehead Research Project are now left with a lot to think about as we contemplate not just the topics of our next possible conference, but the many creative forms that it might take.

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