The Underconference

The flyer for the International Studies Association 2021 annual meeting features a crag of red stone set against a clear blue sky. It is a vision of expansive wilderness, and it stands in cruel contrast to the beige function rooms and windowless halls in which most conference activities take place. ISA 2021 was slated to take place in Las Vegas, so at least that red stone landscape might have been accessible to anyone willing to risk their good conference shoes on a side trip. The desert wilds of the flyer contrast even more starkly with the small home office space from which most of us will patch into the ISA virtual conference this week.

A pandemic pulled conferences out of cavernous hotel function rooms, and thrust them into virtual space. At least in theory, virtual conferences let more people from more places participate. They cut down on the direct and indirect expenses of travel. They reduce barriers to access for scholars with care responsibilities or limited mobility. The change away from the old way of doing conferences was long overdue, but I’m not sure we’ve yet figured out what the new way should be.

Virtual conferences promise an update on the stuffy old conference format, but all they give us is Zoom. Or in the case of ISA, some other conferencing platform that is even more limiting than Zoom. Technology that makes the conference more accessible to fee-paying members and less accessible to anyone else. At the stuffy old conferences, no one policed name tags to make sure that you had really paid your registration fees. Virtual conferences make this kind of policing possible. The name tags, reductive symbols of status, disappear from the virtual conference. But only because they were an inefficient means of policing fee payment.

In any case, markers of privilege are hardly banished just because the name tags on lanyards are gone. Conference formalities are there to remind us over and again of the rank and institution of participants. And then there’s the not-so-subtle signaling of a Zoom background, a home office setup.

In a virtual format, the entire conference becomes the program. The scheduled events, the panels and the presentations – there is no conference outside of these. Virtual spaces open up at the allotted time for the authorized people. When the scheduled event is over, the meeting ends, and we’re sitting alone at our screens. There is no dragging out of a post-panel conversation, no lingering in the doorway of the function room as the next panel of presenters shoulder their way in. The virtual event ends when admin or algorithm ends it.

The best thing about in-person conferences was hating on them. Catching the cheeky eyeroll of a colleague on the other side of the room when the first question turns out to be more of a CV recitation. Consoling a friend when their nemesis announces that actually this paper has just been accepted for publication. Learning which rockstar professors cannot be trusted to share data or drinks. Navigating with a complete stranger the endless corridors of beige rooms named after dead presidents.

These moments of companionship appear in the gaps of the official program. To borrow from Harney & Moten, this is the undercommons of the conference – the underconference. Those tightly scheduled panels leave brief opportunities to snatch back spontaneity and play hooky. Those cavernous hotels create spaces where no one can hear you bitch. Those throngs of handshakes and business cards around big name scholars leave quiet corners where no one is trying to network, but networks of like-minded scholars form anyway.

The quiet corners and whispered exchanges of the underconference were never exactly free space – not when conference participation costs so much – but they were shared space. And you knew exactly who you were and were not sharing with. In a virtual format, you can’t even be sure of that. Every aside, every interaction on the conference platform exists somewhere else as a transcript.

The stuffy old conference format has to end, although I doubt we’ve seen the last of all those identical conference hotels. The American Political Science Association is still touting a primarily in-person September conference. While policing members and membership might be easier in the Zoom grid (whatever platform we start off on, we always seem to end up back on Zoom), conference attendees do a good enough job of policing ourselves and abiding by disciplinary conventions. We dutifully pay our fees and wear our name tags. We dutifully tease the noob who is still wearing a name tag at the bar at the end of the day. We even list association memberships on CVs, as if these are accomplishments and not invoices.

The ISA underconference will take place in Whatsapp messages and Twitter DMs, and probably in not-quite-private asides in the chat function of the virtual conference platform. We will find ways to bond over hating on the conference. There will, however, be fewer of these wild, unrecorded spaces, where the official program does not reach and where real sharing and connecting can happen.