A Modest Proposal for All Future Keynotes

For about ten years now, I’ve been arguing about the benefits of improvisational performance in academia, not simply as an experience for the audience but more importantly as a way of getting ‘experts’ and ‘luminaries’ to speak unguardedly on what they think about a topic on which they have established a reputation. Indeed, this is how I believe that academics might earn some entitlement to being called ‘intellectuals’. But increasingly I also think that this skill might be vital to the future of the university as a clearly branded institution in a world where just about anything is a ‘knowledge producer’ by default.

More specifically, public academic speaking might serve as a living moment of intellectual experimentation, not simply a reproduction of past thoughts. This means that improvisation should be taught to aspiring academics – and if you think that ‘teaching improvisation’ is an oxymoron, then you know nothing about performance, regardless of all the Judith Butler you’ve been force-fed. (Maybe I’m wrong but invocations of ‘performativity’ in an academic talk’s title is usually a dead zone for intellectual engagement – unless you like to hear about non-humans ‘performing’!)

(The great mystery to future historians of our times will be why the people who play up ‘performativity’ tend to be such lousy performers! Have these people never heard of acting – and the distinctive skills associated with it? Maybe this is how the curse of Plato – who demonized acting as a way of being-in-the-world in his dialogue, Ion – continues to play itself out among ‘postmodernists’ who unwittingly feel they have already released themselves from Plato’s spell!)

Anything interesting said publicly has training at its source, but the ‘creativity’ and ‘novelty’ comes from the room to manoeuvre (Spielraum), which is to do with what your training has not already pre-disposed you to do, in combination with your ability to gauge your audience’s expectations – and then defy them in some important way. (For social theorists who still take ‘structure-agency’ seriously, you should hear echoes.) In classical Athens, this complex capacity was called ‘rhetoric’, and I could spend the rest of this blog bemoaning the disrepute that rhetoric has fallen into over the last 2000 years – but I won’t.

However, what I will bemoan is the tendency for conference organizers to invite keynoters who fail to meet the above standards, perhaps as a desperate attempt to stress the importance of the gathering. In other words, if you’re willing to spend such significant resources on inviting someone who will appear more relevant to how people outside than inside your field think about your field, then you should demand something of them that makes the connection between outside and inside your field explicit. It is not sufficient to invite a speaker who performs an oratorio version of an already published text, which only the more cosmopolitan members of the audience will have read. (And frankly, that’s the best that often happens…)

Keynote speeches should be about challenging the taken-for-granted assumptions of the field, but in a way that enable the audience to go forward. In other words, however critical one is of the field, there must be a sense that field contains the resources to move forward. If someone cannot fulfil that basic requirement, then they should not be invited.

But from a strictly economic standpoint, no one should be invited to give a keynote speech to a specific academic field who is simply going to repeat a message they would have said to anyone – and most likely have already said in publications. Whenever I hear someone read passages of their own books in keynote conferences, I think that some publisher or bookshop should be sponsoring the event. Self-publicity is fine, but if it is so closely tied to what is already available in the public domain – indeed, the marketplace – it is not clear what other than transient publicity is gained by having that person present, unless (oratorio-style) one likes the sound of the speaker’s voice. Maybe there is an economic model where this works. But it needs to be presented to me.

In the end, what I am calling for is that conference organizers liaise in a bit more detail about what is expected of keynote speakers. As someone who has keynoted a lot of conferences, I am always flattered by invitations, but I take this as incurring responsibilities that go beyond self-publicity. However, I feel that I’m in a minority…

Categories: Committing Sociology, Higher Education, Rethinking The World, Sociological Craft


3 replies »

  1. Tomorrow in Academia? (In Haiku)

    Plumply posthuman

    Battery-farmed Butlerites

    Drone in unison

  2. Dear Steve Fuller,

    I really enjoyed your piece and I think you hit the nail on the head. Once I was chairing a final plenary discussion with the keynote speakers at a conference at Goldsmiths. The speakers had all pronounced and voiced their keynotes. In the middle of the discussion one of the keynote speakers – a ‘world-class urbanist’ – turned to me and asked “what is theme of this conference again”. They obviously didn’t think they needed even to know, let alone address, the issues that people had gathered around for the occasion.

    I wondered if your emphasis on improvisation connects in any way to an interest in music? Personally, I think we can learn a lot about improving sociological communication from music and musicians. It’s always struck me that the idea of a ‘keynote’ should be a kind of intellectual sounding, which seeks to establish the key of the event. I also think you are quite right to say that the legacy of thinking rhetoric only as something pejorative is really damaging, the ancient meaning going back to the art of persuasive talk is so important to remember. I’ve got to do a keynote in June – I’ll have your blog in mind.


    Les Back

  3. Yes, music is always in the back of my mind. In particular, unlike musicians, I don’t think academics have a very joined-up sense of the relationship between reading, writing and speaking, which may help to explain why research and teaching tend to move farther apart. I talk more about this here: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2014/05/16/five-minutes-with-steve-fuller/

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