Phoning It In During the Holidays (Mainstream News Edition)


If it's not surprising to find The Nation filling this dead work week with worn-out laments about the massive suckage that is American culture, it's no less surprising to find The New York Times recycling a story it's run annually at this time for the past 15 years. This story is about the pointy-headed jackasses at the Modern Language Association's annual convention, held annually on December 27-31.

The convention has become a holiday ritual for journalists, as routine as articles on the banning of Christmas creches in public places, and every year a goodly number of those scholars tempt journalists to write articles, like this one, noting some of the wackier-sounding papers presented.

After that ironic gesture (one that really does render everything that comes after completely useless) comes the money quote, which is supported not by actual reporting from the event but by old quotes from critics of anything smacking of non-traditional approaches (read: boring old farts sermonizing to rapturous college students about just how fucking great the "classics" are):

What any of it has to do with teaching literature to America's college students remains as vexing a question to some today as it was a decade ago. There is, in fact, something achingly 90's about the whole affair. The association has come to resemble a hyperactive child who, having interrupted the grownups' conversation by dancing on the coffee table, can't be made to stop.

Whole thing here.

Now, I should come clean and acknowledge that I am in fact a member of the MLA and have, over the past decade or so, attended half a dozen conferences and delivered three (I think) papers there: one on "The Whorfian Hypothesis in Post-Structural Linguistics" (a critique of reigning assumptions in the work of Derrida, Barthes, and Foucault); one on "The Anti-Capitalist Mentality in Literary and Cultural Studies"; and one on "Non-Marxist Materialist Approaches to Literary and Cultural Studies." In fact, the latter two papers were part of panels I organized–and the fact they were accepted shows that the MLA is arguably more open to ideological variety than is commonly accepted.

None of this is to suggest that the MLA convention is a great thing (in fact, it's first and foremost a job fair for flop-sweat-covered grad students, not an academic conference). And there are few collective groups more insufferable than humanities professors. I went, what, one or two years ago–when it was last held in New York–and could only find one panel I wanted to attend (sadly, hilariously, a two-parter about how Lenin–as in Vlad–should guide cultural studies scholars in creating a political vanguard).

But the continuing, glib dismissal of the whole thing based on the names of papers–not even the papers themselves–is, well, glib at best. Of course at a conference with thousands of papers, you're going to give your talk a "clever" or sexy title, just like you do with books in a bookstore. It's a safe bet that if the MLA ran a 1,000 panels on "Shakespeare's Greatness: A close reading of King Lear," the Times would run an article about how boring and uninteresting those eggheads at MLA were.

But beyond the mechanical reproduction of the same goddamned story every year (those titles, har har har, what a bunch of lit fags!) is a weirder and more buried presumption: that scholarship properly should be about "teaching literature to America's college students." That that, somehow, is what "grownups" should be doing: talking about the kids and how to get them to, what, read "classics" the way we always (read: never) have? The plain fact is, most of the panels don't have bizarre titles and most of them are devoted to recognizable subject areas, historical periods, and serious examination of new and old texts that are important to people in their respective fields. They are also geared to experts in fields, not to the general educated lay person. Nor should they be, any more than academic journal articles should be geared to Times' readers.

More to the point: When the annual conference for, say, chemists comes to town, do people fret that the papers given aren't about teaching chemistry to college students? Scholarship can and does inform the classroom, but if the Times seriously believes that literary scholars should only talk about teaching undergraduates (and there are always panels on graduate and undergraduate education), they have an incredibly impoverished, reductive, and banal view of culture. One that is, ironically, very much of a piece with the excesses of p.c. they like to roll their eyes at.