Hudson’s law of nugatory plenaries

Plenary, n. meeting or session attended by all participants at a conference or assembly. (“working parties would report back to the plenary with recommendations”)

Nugatory adj. of no value or importance.

Let’s say, for the sake of a making a seemingly robust argument (i.e. one with numbers and percentages) that the likelihood of you getting anything meaningful out of a plenary session at a conference (activist, academic, whatever) is initially 10 out of 10.

In a perfect world. But, then, here comes maths.

Take the number of sponsoring organisations of the conference (where a sponsoring organisation is one whose logo appears on the front page of the programme/website whatever) and let that number equal “x.”

Now run a difficult equation (you’ll want your calculators for this one) 10 – x = y, where y is the likelihood of you getting anything worth staying awake for from the plenary.

Now divide y by 10, and you get the percentage.

So, a worked example say you went to an event that had NINE sponsoring orgs.

So, x = 9


10 – 9 = y

y therefore = 1

1/10 = 10%.

The odds would not be in your favour.

Why is it so?

Plenaries, where the threads of all the various discussions held since the beginning of The Event are supposed to be brought together. Smart people who have been actively involved in various discussions/roundtables deploy their formidable intellects to compare and contrast, to propose way forwards. Plenaries always a high wire act, and more often than not there are splattered bodies on the ground, rather than a successful crossing to the other end. (see Addendum below).

Drawing threads together, articulating what has been said, sorting the wheat from the chaff, suggesting new perspectives, is REALLY DIFFICULT, with the best will in the world. Even with the right people (smart, committed, battle-hardened) bringing their A-game, more often than not the plenary ends up with either a recycling of “motherhood and apple pie” statements (“build a diverse radical movement”, “create an innovative impactful research agenda,” whatever). At its worst it can be a car-crash of a faceplanting dying-on-stage debacle which is swiftly sent down the memory hole.

So, a normal plenary is bad enough, but surely with more voices (and everyone likes polyvocality, amirite?) there is more rather than less chance of a pearl of wisdom, no? You might think, it’s all “counter-intuitive”, because there are perverse incentives at play.

No. Sadly, just no. A plenary where there is a plethora of sponsoring organisations is not merely additively, or cumulatively worse, but there is a cosmic resonance, a multiplicative mucking up.

None of the individual sponsoring organisations with representatives on the plenary panel is going to feel any compulsion to deliver a good performance in the plenary. They’re not going to treat it as if “gosh, we really need to send our A-team, because if we screw this up, it’s egg all over our own faces.” Nope, this is a classic diffusion of responsibility thing (looking at ya Garrett Hardin, you actual fascist), where if it goes “wrong” nobody is going to be held to account, there always be others to share the blame. Therefore, in that situation, it’s a bit like a “dead rubber” in a sporting contest, where there is nothing actually at stake, and so you may as well give the newbies a chance to practice their spiels, get over their stage fright. And chances are, they won’t actually address the topic of the plenary, what it is said in the programme. They will instead just trot out the latest iteration of their research, which may be not-even-tangentially-related to what they are supposed to talk about.

And it won’t matter. The massed ranks of the ego-fodder (the audience) will not slow handclap. The final plenary is the last thing before the conference lunch/dinner/getting on the train/plane/automobile home. And it would not be polite to tell what is kinda obviously a junior performer that they, um, did not actually add value. They will not fill out feedback forms with anything approaching the unvarnished truth. Who knows if the forms are actually anonymous, and who wants to piss on some poor noob’s chips?

The organisers – if they even understand that they and the punters have been short-changed (which they may not)- are not going to kick off, because they need the good graces of the sponsoring organisations for when future conferences are being planned. “Least said, soonest mended” and all that.

The under-performers themselves never get any negative feedback, so even if there has been a nagging voice of conscience saying “hmm, I was winging that, not really bringing anything new to the table” will shrug their shoulders at that voice and say “nope, it was defo good enough, cos nobody said otherwise.”

Nobody ever learns anything, and the the organisational drivers remain unchanged, and so the performance (bad) basically stays the same. And it is Groundhog Day again in Punxatawney.

So, that “polyvocality” leads, more often than not, to polyvacuity.

What to do.

a) If you are a punter, halve your expectations.
Halve them again.


Now, with your hopeful eighth, you might find a match between what you expect and what you get, which is the (or at least one) literal definition of happiness…


See also

On terrible plenaries, see within this blog post (Change Howitzer) and “de-fragging the movement”

Addendum (written the following day, still several days before the post was published).

It’s worth thinking about what a Plenary means, what needs it fulfills. On a basic cynical level, it’s another chance for the organisers to supply ego-fodder to meet the narcissistic supply demands of the organisations which are sponsoring the event. Meet those narcissistic needs and you will be regarded as a safe pair of hands, and given more resources to stage (in every sense) future events. Fail to cater to those needs, and watch your star wane, watch your emails go unanswered etc.

But more ‘deeply’ (I hesitate to use the adjective, since what seemed to be a real insight even a few minutes ago now looks hackneyed and banal), think about what the final session ‘means’ for everyone who has attended. The event has opened up problems in the world. The discussions around the “solutions” to those problems have probably raised more doubts and fears. People are probably realising that the proposed solutions – even if they were to work perfectly, first time – are not going to be enough. There is, if not blind terror, then an uncomfortable apprehension. But don’t worry, during the plenary, the far-sighted and responsible adults will soothe and calm everyone. The abyss will be papered over for another day, with ritual incantations (whether about technology, or the superior innovative force that is capitalism, or social movement uprisings or whatever). People can go home from the event happy that they have been a responsible and recognised activist/academic whatever, and without the gnawing reality of imminent doom, because the plenary – even if it was actually objectively laughable – had happened. It can be devoid of content, but the mere fact that it happened at all helps blot out the knowledge of the void. The mouths that flap for thirty minutes or an hour mean that the hellmouth that was open can be ignored…. That’s the deeper (that word again!) psycho-analytic meaning. The organiser needs to arrange that or else a higher-than-otherwise proportion of the punters won’t come back for more…. And it is all about – for everyone – keeping the show on the road, even if (especially if?) we are running out of road…

One thought on “Hudson’s law of nugatory plenaries

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  1. excerpt: (looking at ya Garrett Hardin, you actual fascist),

    As to why this made me laugh out loud, have to admit, I lack the political/psychological insight and understanding of political philosophies, and of sufficient insight into my own psyche and political perspective to objectively evaluate the implications of my un-examined eco-ethos, but it did make me snort-laugh with a justified scorn at Hardin.

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