The 126th MLA Convention: Invite Us All In!

The eggheads do complain about their annual conference of eggheads put on by the Modern Language Association. So boring, one has been told, so exhausting. It’s crass and awful! The annual dread among those who have ascended to the glories of tenure is flavored strongly with guilt, too, because the MLA is also famously thronged with newly-minted Ph.D.s vying for the fewer and fewer tenure-track jobs on offer. Guilt, nerves, pressure, careerism and the sad foundering of humanities scholarship in our times!

This year the conference was held in Los Angeles, so I popped over there in order to see for myself how terrible this powwow really is, and found it to be so not even terrible. I loved every moment.

The 134-page MLA conference program gives the details of 821 separate events, each one featuring several speakers. The depth and richness, the awareness and sensitivity that goes into this work is evident just from the program. Here is a tiny sampling of the avalanche on offer:

• “Before the Pilgrims Landed, We Were Here: Puritanism and the Early Black Press”
• “Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth: Father as Fallen Superhero”
• “Global Sex Tourism and Abject Masculinity in William T. Vollman and Michel Houellebecq”
• “What’s Eating Slavoj Zizek?”
• Memory Writing from the Perspective of Neuroscience
• “Raperos, Boleros and Salseros: Reconsidering the Authentic in Cuban Popular Music since the Revolution”
• What the Digital Does to Reading
• “’What You See Is What You Get’?: Richard Pryor, Wattstax, and the Secret History of the Black Aesthetic”
• “’What Monster am I this Time?’ Laird Cregar, Oscar Wilde, and the Genres of Queer Horror”

(Really, what is eating Slavoj Zizek? I didn’t make it over there to hear the paper, but I still want to know.)

All these people dedicated to knowing the truth about such a variety of subjects; it made me weirdly happy to consider all the positive and fascinating things our culture somehow manages to achieve — despite all the well-warranted kvetching.

There was a wonderful sizzle of electricity in the air that I could feel the whole time, from the moment I arrived in the massive, kooky hotel atrium with its “arty” giant hanging light fixtures. These eggheads are agreeably chic; not art- or fashion-victim chic, but just grownup chic. They dress up for this thing, apparently. There’s a particular aesthetic, specific, sober, polyglot, involving muted colors, Italian leather, God in the details, etc. Haircuts that are flattering without being “interesting.” The jacket maybe a tiny bit on the shrunken side; the suit with trousers cut a little narrower than what a banker would wear, with Beatle boots. (And glasses, obviously.) Once in a while, a really appalling op-art tie. I understand that the sleeping around, once rampant, has fallen off in recent years. Maybe it’s too risky because nobody can afford to get into much job-related trouble these days.

The escalators were all a babel of Portuguese, English, French, Chinese, languages I didn’t recognize, spoken by chattering colleagues who hadn’t seen one another in ages, all excitedly catching up. It’s really loud, and there were interesting snatches of conversation to be caught on your way up or down. ‘La Clemenza di Tito’… “oh no, the Dragonspeak software is terrible, a catastrophe”; the word “shit” comes up far more often than I ever say it… “the Mignon wine bar, it’s very good, but overpriced … often and often, the phrase “close reading,” and the phrase “digital humanities.”

I had breakfast with a friend, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Professor of Media Studies at Pomona College. She’s happy and exhilarated too, but then she generally is; an elegant, funny, animated woman, slender and beautifully dressed, with luminous pale skin and dark hair in a pixie cut. Her schedule is brutal; whoever thinks these guys have it soft must not know any of them, I’ve often thought. To judge from her Twitter feed, KF is like Tom Hanks in that movie where he has to live in the airport for years on end. She’s wangled her way out of the airport for the moment, but for this conference she has got four or five sixteen-hour days in a row, several sessions and a meeting or two each day, then drinks and/or dinner with colleagues to talk more business. She’s on planning committees, in “informal working groups” for administrative projects such as deciding how the dissertation process might be altered to suit the demands of a changing profession. That alone is a decades-old struggle, stubbornly thorny and intractable. Today she will also preside over a discussion on the aforementioned Digital Humanities, her own field which is hot as a pistol.

We talked mostly about the role of public intellectuals: does it weaken or strengthen an academic to seek a broader audience? KF said it’s important to her to bring her own work to the public, but adds that there is a danger in that effort professionally; you may be perceived as less serious, as having diluted your message, if you are talking to “everybody.” But obviously there are people like Noam Chomsky and Jurgen Habermas who have completely transcended this problem.

Academic critics are not generally thought of as being in the same boat with journalists, or with popular critics of film or fiction, and yet both groups are charged with bringing the public… what? Let’s take it as read that both are working in the service of a free, humanistic spirit, and that the Chinese wall that has grown up between public and academic criticism could be made more porous to the advantage of all.

Me: So then, is the value of having public intellectuals coming out of the academy more to the advantage of the academy, or to the public?

KF: I think it works both ways. There is an interested and engaged public that wants to talk about whatever issues it is that we are interested in, I mean particularly in literary studies, right? There are so many people who are out there who are really passionately invested in books, and in talking about those books, and in really thinking about what’s going on in them, that we can contribute something to. It’s important for us to make that contribution because if we’re sort of closing ourselves off in the ivory tower mode of discussion amongst ourselves, well… it’s extraordinarily selfish.

It’s important for us to make this contribution, but it’s equally important for us to hear what’s coming back to us. In no small part higher education is in the straits that it is because a swath of the educated public, and of our elected government, has decided that education isn’t important; that we’re all doing this foolish research that doesn’t amount to anything. Until we’re able to get out there and demonstrate why the stuff we’re doing is important, and what it has to contribute to the public discussion of major issues, we’re not going to be able to change that in a way that’s going to save our institutions.

We moved on to a discussion of the kids who are here to interview, and how fierce the competition is. There are a lot of disciplines with little to no room at the top — pro and Olympic sports, classical music and so on. The highest reaches of the academy have always resembled these. It’s a question of love, I think; each of these very gifted humanities grad students loves his field so much that he’s willing to throw caution to the winds in hopes of making it to the top, and damn the torpedoes.

KF says that they’re thinking about doing away with the practice of conducting the first-round interviews in hotel rooms, and doing them on Skype instead. It’s very expensive and very stressful for young Ph.D.s, who are commonly poor as churchmice, to go along to these things. In the days when KF herself was interviewing, she says, apparently you would go at the appointed hour to the hotel room where your future might well begin, and then you might knock and one of your competitors would be in there being grilled, and there you’d be, staring at each other through the open door.

“Elevator eye!” I gasped.

“Totally,” she said.

So off we go, for I am tagging along, to a session:

282. Paper as Platform or Interface, 12:00 noon-1:15 p.m., Olympic III, J.W. Marriott Program arranged by the Discussion Group on Media and Literature. Presiding: Lisa Gitelman, New York Univ.

1. “Word Made Flax: Cheap Bibles, Textual Corruption, and the Poetics of Paper,” Joshua Calhoun, Univ. of Delaware, Newark
2. “Theory of Paper: Hume, Beattie, Derrida,” Christina Lupton, Univ. of Michigan, Ann Arbor
3. “Wordsworths’ Daffodils: On the Page, upon the Inward Eye,” Richard Menke, Univ. of

I adore Lisa Gitelman on contact; she’s got an ineffably gentle, sardonic air, kind of like Fran Lebowitz, very brilliant-seeming, only much kinder. Almost everything she says has a joke in it, and it takes me a second to catch on. There are thirty or so attendees, several of whom are working on open laptops. This, I learn, is a bone of contention. Since nobody can attend all the sessions in which he’s interested, a habit of Twittering-as-you-go has taken hold. The Twitter feeds have the hashtag #mla11. It’s a clever way of making more of the conference available to everyone, but traditionalists dislike the practice and there are passionate arguments about it that are still raging on the blogs over a week later.

This is a traditional session, meaning that each speaker will have fifteen or twenty minutes to read his or her work, followed by a Q&A; with the authors.

The first speaker, Joshua Calhoun, indulges himself in the word “palimpsested” which would drive me crazy if it weren’t so appropriate to what he’s saying, about how paper in the seventeenth century bore a well-understood relation to fiber, to worn-out clothing. It’s a really good paper about literature and mutability, about “the supreme idea vs. the dusty matter of human existence.”

The next paper is better still, even though early on Christina Lupton is describing in her grave, velvety English voice how “Derrida’s beguiling writing displaces and exceeds thought” and I am certain she’s going to lose me. But then she moves into David Hume and Enlightenment skepticism, into the slippery nature of “the material world’s empirical availability” and I’m all over it. She contrasts Hume’s elegant and adamantine doubts with the “certainty” of the poet James Beattie, whom I have never heard of, and who comes in for a pretty sound drubbing.

It’s not just the speaker’s voice that is velvety, it’s the whole experience. There is something so comforting and great about caring this much about the exact deficiencies in Hume’s thinking, and also about listening to someone whose worst and most violent insult I think might well be “unfortunate.” Plus Prof. Lupton is a terrific writer as well as a subtle and seductive thinker. “Common sense and skepticism bleed into each other”; “A catastrophic mutation into print.” It is comforting, too, that for all Hume’s skeptical insistence that no assumptions whatsoever be made regarding “this paper,” he was very fussy with his printers, and sweated blood over every error that found its way into his own books.

These are all discussions, it seems to me, that people outside the academy might very much be interested in — what purpose does the wall of academia serve? A lot of contemporary academic criticism of popular culture is super fun, vital and interesting, and I suspect all kinds of people would like to learn more about it, if it weren’t all hidden away, only to be consumed with a JSTOR subscription.

The MLA convention is probably the safest place on earth in which to make a pedantic joke, and the participants do not stint themselves in this regard. The third speaker, Richard Menke, is going to be yabbering on about that Wordsworth poem that I can’t stand, the one about wandering lonely as a cloud. Again I’m thinking no way for about thirty seconds before he has me in the palm of his hand. It turns out that Wordsworth wasn’t as lonely as a cloud at all, his sister Dorothy was there! And it all really happened, with the daffodils! Who knew? (Maybe I am the only one who didn’t know? On the upside, the poem reminds me of that old Genesis song.) Dorothy’s much more entertaining account of the affair turns out to have included the ham and potatoes they had for lunch. Prof. Menke has got a terrific coinage for the writerly descriptive flourishes of the Romantic period: “mnemotechnics.”

But the “paper” part of his talk hinges on the typesetting of the various versions of Wordsworth’s poem. Prof. Menke is highly engaging on this stuff. He goes, “BING!” in a high falsetto to indicate a printed asterisk (shades of Victor Borge!), and makes reference to “Daffodils 2.0.”

It becomes clear why the topic of paper is interesting to scholars in digital humanities; they are grappling in advance with the limitations of new media. What can they learn from the historical limitations of paper — not only in matters of preservation, but in the matter of understanding the nature and purposes of writing itself, of recording, in order to ensure that we do the best possible job of preserving and transmitting our culture to new generations, using our new media?

And then the questions, and they are good and interesting. Some of them challenge the speakers, who think very carefully and take their time before responding. There are some bits that sail straight past me, particularly regarding the finer points of Derrida. I think a lot of people would really enjoy this sort of thing, if they could experience it.

A.O. Scott wrote recently about ‘cultural elites’ in response to the crazy idea proposed by Neil Gabler in the Boston Globe that because of the Internet, the public has now got hold of the critical reins and will henceforth be enjoying the lowbrow stuff they really wanted to see all along.

Except: the mass culture critique is looking positively old-timey now that papers like “The Romantic Roots of High Postmodernism: Blade Runner as Neo- Romanticism” are routinely delivered at academic conferences.

Scott makes the point that the real “elites” are the corporations, whose stock in trade is not criticism, where you are tacitly asked to compare your own opinion to the critic’s; it’s marketing, where you’re being told what to buy. There is a great distinction to be made here between leading the conversation, as good critics and academics do, asking all to participate and to judge and compare their own responses to the responses of those who are leading the discussion, and attempts to manipulate or control the conversation, as marketers do. One is free, the other is not.

Maybe more participation from the academy in public discourse can help forestall bad policy decisions, such as the recent Comcast merger, by stimulating participation the way good criticism does. And a broader public dissemination and discussion of academic works can create a new understanding among the public that can help serve, support and improve the academy, too.

Patton Oswalt’s curious epitaph to to Geek Culture a month ago in Wired

addressed these questions from the other side; he makes a kind of gatekeeper’s argument, that the widespread embrace of geek culture (owing, he thinks, to the explosion of once-arcane information on the web) somehow spoiled that culture, as if it were a band that was cooler before everyone else found out about it; he complains about “Boba Fett’s helmet emblazoned on sleeveless T-shirts worn by gym douches hefting dumbbells.” This is just like saying that academic criticism can’t be popular; that walls should be built up around privileged information. It’s an argument that falls to pieces under the slightest scrutiny. Cultural criticism of every kind can only be made deeper, better and richer by increasing the cross-pollination as much as we can. Curious, engaged, interested people of all kinds can join in shared interests, inside the academy and out.

Something KF said to me stuck: “In discussions like Oprah’s Book Club, there’s the ethics of our approach to public discussions of literary texts; we have an obligation to listen to what amateur readers are saying about these texts. But I think the obligation extends in the other direction, too, I think we have the obligation to speak, and to say, here is why I read this text the way I do, here’s what you can kind of get from it and understand about culture by looking at it from this perspective.”

It is worth remembering that the MLA was founded by a pack of academic renegades in 1883, in an attempt to break the stranglehold of Greek and Roman classics on language instruction in higher education. It was an effort, originally, to connect the academy more closely with the outside world that it was meant to serve. So how about it, MLA? After all, the MLA could be TED, just a century and a couple decades older.

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo: The Macho of the Dork and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.