There’s been a mildly interesting thread on the Australian philosopher’s email list (aphil-l) lately. Apparently some fellow paid his own way to the annual conference being held in a small, remote town in NSW all prepared to give his ground-breaking talk on some obscure topic in aesthetics. On the day, nobody showed up to listen – not even a chairperson for the session. The fellow left town immediately, and sometime later complained loudly to the list. There’s been about twenty posts since, most revolving around the difficulty of scheduling minnows against “heavyweights”.
Nobody’s commented on the real source of the difficulty – which is that the conference is a kind of “special olympics” for philosophers, in which everyone who shows up gets a medal (i.e., is able to present). Partly this is a misguided attempt at “inclusiveness”. Partly it is due to the reality that Australian academics are so dismally funded that they can only get meagre contributions to their costs if they are presenting. Hence it is tacitly understood that everyone who registers must be able to present; no work is too ordinary to be included on the program. The result is six or eight parallel sessions for five days in a row, in a conference whose total attendence is only a few hundred people.
Another interesting ommission in the discussion is the larger picture. Just as nobody showed up to this poor fellow’s talk, so nobody *outside* this inbred band showed up at the conference as a whole. (I wasn’t there, so I might be a little bit wrong about this. But I have been in the past, and going by that experience…). In other words, perhaps the discussants on the list would be better focusing their attention not on why philosophical minnows get so little audience at the conference, but on why philosophy itself attracts so little attention even from the rest of the academic world, let alone the larger cultural environment.
I’m reminded of a cartoon from Leunig’s early days, when he still did interesting and original work. A lonely fellow was looking up a drainpipe, which did a dogleg over his head, down behind and up to his rear. All he could see at the end of his telescope was his own…