goto Appendx main menu Spatial Rhetorics :
David Theo Goldberg
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The relations between space, knowledge, and power that serve at a macro level to structure our institutions of higher learning also order at a micro level the experience of conferences we academics tend to organize and attend. The rest of my remarks will be concerned with elaborating this rather simple point: The knowledge (or its lack) that is pursued (or avoided) through academic conferencing is often reflected in and ordered by the spatial determinations of the chosen meeting places. This observation, gnawing at my mind for a decade or more, became clearer to me over the past six months of mixed fortune in attending a variety of meetings: an annual national philosophy conference at the Copley Square Marriott Hotel in downtown Boston; a working group on black-Jewish relations at Harvard University; the annual (inter) national law and society conference at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix; and a legal studies workshop at the International Institute for the Sociology of Law in Onati, located in the northern Basque country of Spain, close to San Sebastien and the French border. 

In part, the different experiences obviously were affected by the relative sizes of the meetings: The two large national conferences at the Arizona Biltmore and the Boston Marriott each involved more than a thousand participants; the two workshops Appendx 3 page break 168 | 169each included perhaps thirty people. For these annual national meets, attendance was more or less open and thus somewhat unpredictable, whereas the workshop meetings involved attendance by invitation only. The large number of participants expected at the big meetings dictated spatial requirements; at the workshops spatial availability (among other things) influenced attendance size. In all four cases, however, it was not only spatial size, shape, relation, and design that defined (as they confined and refine)the experience; it was relatedly also the significance of where one confers, the symbolisms or sets of meanings that the place—and the spaces marked out by the place—assumes that ordered experience of the meeting. 

The Copley Square Marriott in Boston is a convention-oriented hotel linked to a large upscale shopping mall that one feels compelled in moments of Benjaminian flaneurie to wander—if only to escape the tedium of conferring and socializing twenty-four hours a day, for days on end. Actually the only way to leave the hotel on foot while avoiding car-exhaust inhalation is through the mall, quite literally then a tunnel to the city. The pursuit of knowledge, arguably part of the point of academic conventions, is mediated—indeed, displaced—by the consumptive spirit of mall capitalism: Weber meets Madonna (her voice wafts up the escalators) for a date in the mall. 

Within the hotel space, escalators deliver one to convention floors and meeting rooms in an endless parade of Cartesian subjects looking for a conversation or session to attend, a parade of bodies the hotel is concerned to recirculate so as to maximize sales. Just as conventions are for conducting the business of the association, they are also big business for local commerce. So cities today prefer promoting conventions over industry. Conventions are the mass production of the profession, and the logic of this massification leads directly to the business of tourism. Knowledge is reduced to one more consumption good, or at least to the means to promotion and reproduction of consumption. 

Casual conversations among conferees impatiently awaiting a restaurant table or elevator lasted longer than the exchanges over some obscure point within conference sessions. More people mill about the expansive if still somewhat suffocating spaces of the lobby and registration areas than commit themselves to the confinement of conference rooms, the mere names of which—Harvard and MIT, Boston and Regis, Wellesley and Smith—are deemed sufficient conditions of enlightenment. At this particular conference, Angela Davis spoke about race and crime in an L-shaped room overflowing with people, only half of whom she could see at any one time. Seen by all but not seeing all, she stood as inverted metaphor for the panopticon, her message Appendx 3 page break 169 | 170spatially dulled as it drifted off, to fall on unseen ears. Barely audible but not seeing, speaking to an audience (partly) unseen, the dialogical power of her address was diminished (in part) by the displacing power of "blind" space. 

In the evenings, conferees filled a cavernous hall called the Grand Ballroom, which was neither grand nor roomish. Thousands of eager or expectant, solemn or solomonic figures were drawn to this marketplace space, this Disneyworldish jamboree. Prospective job candidates, fresh and not-so-fresh faces parading about the market, were forced to "fraternize," especially if they were women in scarce "supply," sacrificed to the sublimated desiring machines of minds with bodies denied. This, it seemed to me, imputed ironic new meaning to the perennial philosophical concern over the mind-body problem. I lasted long enough to buy a brandy before fleeing with like-minded friends for the safety of the mall, a bar, and the promise paradoxically of more intimate exchange, vowing never to return to such "grand" gatherings. The spaces of consumption ironically enabled unreserved conversation that was disabled by the more conventional spaces supposedly reserved for conversational exchange. next page

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