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Writing at TCSDaily, Nick Gillespie interrogates the hegemonic discourse of the Modern Language Association in the first of a series of dispatches from the literary academy's much-maligned annual conference.

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  1. The only beef I have with the MLA is their convoluted footnote and citation rules.
    The flights into whackaloonery aren’t really surprising to anyone who has been around a university English department in the past several decades. Bashing the MLA for reflecting the silliness of some of its members is fun, but ultimately kind of a waste.

  2. Note- before someone tells me to RTFA, I did, and I realize that Gillespie was not MLA bashing.

  3. The only premise more hack than MLA-bashing is pseudo-evenhanded, ass-kissy, in-with-the-blue-kids MLA-bashing-bashing.

    A bafflingly stupid non-article from the Great Gillespie (who didn’t read “Kissing Jessica Stein and the Postethnic Jewish Lesbian” either).

  4. I’ve heard some silly things about the MLA’s weird seminar topics, but I think a lot of the critics just don’t understand one of the most basic facts about academia. Shakespeare has been done. Scholarly studies don’t look at introductory material.

    Undergraduate physics starts with Newtonian principles, but that’s not what physics conferences are going to be about. Of course, pundits from the Times don’t know enough to tell if “In-situ XANES Study of Carbon Supported Pt-Ru Anode Electro Catalyst for Reformate-Air Polymer Electrolyte Fuel Cell” is a silly topic for a physics presentation, and (like me) they’re too lazy to find out.

  5. In-situ XANES Study of Carbon Supported Pt-Ru Anode Electro Catalyst for Reformate-Air Polymer Electrolyte Fuel Cell

    Ha ha! What a silly topic!

  6. The difference, Windypundit, of course is that physics is an actual subject, worthy of academic study. Not mindless masturbation…

  7. How come literary types like the ‘post’ prefix so much? Is it some kind of postmodern postadolescent postrelevant code? Am I just not hip enough to ‘get’ it? What’s the deal?
    I will not rest until I find out!

  8. but that’s not what physics conferences are going to be about. Of course, pundits from the Times don’t know enough to tell if “In-situ XANES Study of Carbon Supported Pt-Ru Anode Electro Catalyst for Reformate-Air Polymer Electrolyte Fuel Cell” is a silly topic for a physics presentation, and (like me) they’re too lazy to find out.

    I think the differance is that at a physics conferance the art is actually advanced but with the the MLA, if it dissappeared tommorow, liturature would not lose a step.

  9. [i]The flights into whackaloonery aren’t really surprising to anyone who has been around a university English department in the past several decades.[/i]

    Was there anytime when Englsih majors were not weird?
    For the topic on English dept not having enough material, I mean, when was Shakespeare “not done,” the man’s been dead for several hundred years and seemingly the material on old Bill ran out only this century, color me doubtful…I mean Jesus, Finnegan’s Wake still needs to be translated, people!

  10. Jeez, I wish I could get paid to go hang out with these dorks. But I would probably try to instigate trouble like, say, setting up a booth to sell those cool Ronald Reagan commermative stamps for a profit or National Review subscriptions.

  11. Not mindless masturbation…

    Perhaps a comparitive treatise of the differences between mindless and mental masturbation in relation to whackaloonery is in order.

  12. The only beef I have with the MLA is their convoluted footnote and citation rules.

    Citations are the thank-you notes of academia. Don’t knock them.

    And while I’m sure that some lecture topics might be off-kilter, I can bet that unlike your average corporate conference, there will be no team-building exercises in which coworkers are asked to build a tower out of office supplies.

    But… Nick Gillespie gets stuck writing for TechCentralShills? That’s a tragedy. Poor guy.

  13. ass-kissy, in-with-the-blue-kids MLA-bashing-bashing.

    Now come on… seriously– is there anything more “elitist” than a bunch of white guys with professional degrees talking about how flakey the English professors are? Nick isn’t sucking up to them, he’s making fun of you.

  14. I even managed to organize special sessions on such market-friendly, libertarian topics as “The Economics of Culture: Non-Marxist Materialist Approaches to Literary and Cultural Studies” and “The Anti-Capitalist Mentality in Literary and Cultural Studies”…

    Huge Kudos to Nick! He’s a scholar-activist.

  15. Chuckle. I have to laugh because my first association with “MLA” is the 68k Macintosh Liberation Army, an organization dedicated to dumpster diving old pre-PPC Macs. Only slightly less whackaloon than a bunch of Lit profs. Here’s a question to ponder: what’s more useful to the world, a translation of Finnegan’s Wake or being able to stream mp3s from an SE/30 with NetBSD? On the other hand, mindless masturbation beats both…

  16. Yeah! Those sessions sound really refreshing; almost makes me want to go to the conference. (Last year that is.)

  17. The difference, Windypundit, of course is that physics is an actual subject, worthy of academic study. Not mindless masturbation…

    If you’re actually serious here, you’re crazy. Literary criticism is an actual subject, worthy of academic study. The only problem is that most literature professors don’t study it. 🙂

    As a view of what literary criticism could be, had it not been taken over by postmodernism in the 60s, read Anatomy of Criticism by Northrop Frye. It’s a good start at building a structure of literary criticism, but was abandoned when it was decided that actual criticism would be abandoned in favor of using literature to criticize Western civilization. Or something like that.

  18. What is the function of literary criticism?

    Please don’t take the question as snarky – I’m asking honestly. I will confess that I have very real trouble understanding the relevance of literary criticism compared to its prominence on campus. Granted, I went to a liberal arts school, but still.

    Philosophers, mathematicians, and theoretical physicists can all be accused of engaging in the impractical. I can see, however, that the function of these studies is to try to answer Big Questions. They are ways of engaging the universe. History, anthropology, sociology, and economics are ways of engaging the human component of the universe. It always seemed to me that literature, art, and their respective critical schools were kind of odd birds in that they don’t seem applicable to any sort of general knowledge. Maybe it is just my empiricism talking, but I don’t really understand how one could argue that the study of literature is advancing.

  19. It always seemed to me that literature, art, and their respective critical schools were kind of odd birds in that they don’t seem applicable to any sort of general knowledge. Maybe it is just my empiricism talking, but I don’t really understand how one could argue that the study of literature is advancing.

    It sounds to me like you value areas of knowledge that have a direct, easily discernible connection to some kind of measurable utilitarian gain (eg, food, shelter, toys, healthcare). That may be way to cabined. Right now I work with many people from India, Pakistan and China. They are smart people, but you can sure tell that they didn’t read Lord of the Flies or 1984 or The Adventures Of Huck Finn or the rest of them as wetcement teens. Less creative, relatively unconcerned with personal autonomy, can’t / won’t hold up their end in any conversation not about money, work or the logistics of travel.

    CAVEATS:

    Maybe I have just encountered an unusual batch of Chinamen in my career, but I don’t think so.

    Maybe it is better not to have overly-creative employees in favor of pliant ones. I do think there is a trade-off between these qualities, although I wouldn’t presume to tell any employer which type to favor.

    MY POINT:

    My point is that creativity and deep thought abilities (for lack of a better term) we get from an aggressive arts education can be perceived, even upon a casual comparison of populations that received same and thems that didn’t.

  20. One more caveat (should go without saying):

    never judge a person based on their race; people are individuals; talking about trends here, some Chinese are highly creative I am sure; creative or not, every person should be judged on merits not race; etc., etc.

  21. How come literary types like the ‘post’ prefix so much? Is it some kind of postmodern postadolescent postrelevant code?

    Well, as someone who is considered to be part of the Humanities studies, and has spent an inordinate amount of time listening to seminars at the Humanities Center where I worked, I’ll say this:

    The “modern” (which was actually called “New Criticism” when it started) era for criticism is supposedly dead. (Well, it is dead in modern academia but it’s usually still taught to undergrads).
    So we must now be “post-modern”. In fact, we’re “post”-everything. You see, that’s why we all wear black and sigh a lot. Everything’s been done. Now all we can do is criticise cultural artifacts such as literature through various cultural lenses (feminism, marxism, etc.). Can’t you feel our burgeoning ennui???

  22. My point is that creativity and deep thought abilities (for lack of a better term) we get from an aggressive arts education can be perceived, even upon a casual comparison of populations that received same and thems that didn’t.

    WTF?

    My experience from hanging out for several years with grad and post-Grad English Lit types was that their capacity for “deep thought” was hardly self-evident – like most people, they exhibited a tendency to go in lock-step with the prevailing Accepted Memes in their little community. The whole cliched lefty post-modern thing – that’s what you got from every single one of them.

  23. RCD,
    True enuf about post-grad English lit types. Knowledge of literature is probably better broad and distributed widely thru a population, rather than super-deep and limited to an islated elite. Too much of a good thing, etc, etc. Anyway, RCD, the type of deep thinking I am talking about here is nothing that *you* would want. See, my 2d enumerated caveat, infra.

  24. Uhh, that “you would want” was intended as descriptive, not proscriptive. Otherwise, I would have violated the ref’d caveat with my snarky little aside there.

  25. What is the function of literary criticism?

    to encurage and train writers…copy writers, fiction writers, blog writers, columnists, stereo instruction writers, reporters, editors, etc.

    that would be my guess.

  26. joshua:

    That would be a goal that I understand. Problem is, my exposure to actual literary criticism leads me to believe it is notably different in practice from writing and journalism.

    Meh, it is the same problem I have when I try to think about aesthetics in general. There seems to be something odd about waxing philosophical about beauty, when I have this sneaking suspicion that we are looking at evolved preferences in discernable patterns as a good description of the whole enchilada.

  27. What is the function of literary criticism?

    It’s interesting to examine various social influences on literature, such as politics/government as well as voluntary societal dynamics and morals. It’s also interesting to examine the psychological influences on the author.

  28. It’s also interesting to examine the psychological influences on the author.

    I’d rather pick belly button lint.

    Scratch that, I’d rather diagram sentences. Hey, I remember now why left English lit for linguistics!

  29. linguist,

    Authors with bi-polar disease come to mind.

  30. to encurage and train writers…copy writers, fiction writers, blog writers, columnists, stereo instruction writers, reporters, editors, etc.

    My impression is that literary critics see themselves as interpreters of culture and examiners of human motivations and the human condition. Whether that’s actually true or not (or whether they’re actually good at it) is up for dispute, but I think they’d resent the accusation that they’re part of a trade-school system for writers.

  31. linguist sez: I’d rather diagram sentences

    I used to really love diagramming sentences.

  32. I don’t really understand how one could argue that the study of literature is advancing.

    Apparently it’s not.

    Literacy experts and educators say they are stunned by the results of a recent adult literacy assessment that shows a decline in the reading proficiency of college graduates over the past decade, with no obvious explanation.

    “It’s appalling; it’s really astounding,” said Michael Gorman, president of the American Library Association and a librarian at California State University at Fresno. “Only 31 percent of college graduates can read a complex book and extrapolate from it. That’s not saying much for the remainder.”

    Only 41 percent of graduate students tested in 2003 could be classified as “proficient” in prose… (from here.)

    (nb: Those are graduates from American universities.)

    What is the function of literary criticism?

    It always seemed to me that literature, art, and their respective critical schools were kind of odd birds in that they don’t seem applicable to any sort of general knowledge.

    Well, it seems to me that “the proper study of Mankind is Man”, and that literature and the other arts (but especially literature) are interesting human artifacts which shed (focus) light on all human activity, thought, aspiration.

    Reason is published in a country which prides itself on (however much it ignores) its written constitution. At this very moment there is huge interest in the selection of a new member to what is, in effect, the Supreme Literary Criticism body of the United States.

    When the Americans needed to explain to the world why it had become “necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another”, they used literature to do it. (It is a strange and disturbing development, though, that a majority of Americans have taken “unalienable” to mean “alienable”. As in the “unalienable Right to Life”. Perhaps that is the result of that alarming decline in reading proficiency?)

    History, anthropology, sociology, and economics are ways of engaging the human component of the universe.

    History _is_ literature.

    Gnothi seauton

  33. raymond:

    Good thoughts. Thanks!

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