Who's Afraid of the MLA?


No academic conference draws more smirks and bitch-slaps than the annual Modern Language Association convention. Held every December 27-30, the MLA convention pulls together upwards of 10,000 literary scholars ranging in status from rock-star professors feeling the love of their intellectual acolytes to starving, hysterical grad students desperate for any position in a perennially tight job market.

This year's meeting, which is taking place in Washington, D.C., features almost 800 panels and presentations, ranging from Tuesday's "Women and Devotional Writing in Early Middle English" (the first literature panel listed in a program as thick as a phone book) to Friday's finale, "Gypsies in European Literature, Culture, and the Arts."

In between are meetings of groups devoted to Andre Gide, Margaret Fuller, William Carlos Williams, and seemingly every other author with more than a haiku to his name; endless job interviews in which those nervous grad students throw off more flop sweat than Thomas Jefferson contemplating a just god; and, not uncoincidentally, more cash bars than there are in heaven (or at least Brooklyn).

Despite its preeminence within academic literary and cultural studies, the MLA convention is the Rodney Dangerfield of such confabs, getting little or no respect not just from right-wingers who reliably scoff at the unmistakable left-wing bent to the proceedings but from liberal mainstream media who eye the jargon-choked pronouncements of the professoriate with equal helpings of disdain, derision, and dismissiveness.

Indeed, the MLA has been a running joke since 1989, when The New York Times ran a story mocking the titles of some of the conference's papers, most memorably one called "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl" (which on the face of it sounds far more interesting than the latest remake of Pride and Prejudice). Since then, the MLA's public image, to the extent that it has one, has been as a sort of a cruise ship of fools, where loony tenured radicals prattle on about defining "the Lacanian gaze," undermining the persistence of "late capitalism," and resisting commodity fetishism (while ostensibly embracing every other sort of fetishism), and more. Such postmodern antics caused the conservative journal The New Criterion to say "Farewell to the MLA" in a 1995 article. But the MLA's politically correct and arguably even more annoying obscurantist tendencies have also provided fertile ground for an annually repeated story in the Times and elsewhere, one every bit as worn out and tedious as an Art Buchwald holiday column.

Last year, for instance, the Times pooh-poohed what it dubbed "Eggheads' Naughty Word Games" and ran through a quick litany of silly-sounding titles (somehow, the paper of record never seems to stop chuckling long enough to get around to actually reading the essays in question), including "She's Just Like Alvy Singer! Kissing Jessica Stein and the Postethnic Jewish Lesbian"; "A Place for Giggling Field Hands: Queer Power and Social Equality in the Mid-20th-Century Plantation Myth"; "'Dude! Your Dress Is So Cute!' Patterns of Semantic Widening in 'Dude'"; and "A Pynch in Time: The Postmodernity of Prenational Philadelphia in Thomas Pynchon's Mason and Dixon and Mark Knopfler's 'Sailing to Philadelphia.'" Concluded the Times:

"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….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."

This is, to say the least, a peculiar way to frame coverage of a major academic conference in which leading scholars get together to discuss new research. As I've noted else where, beneath the mechanical reproduction of basically the same story every year is the buried presumption that literary scholarship properly should be about "teaching literature to America's college students." Does the Times worry about this same question when the annual chemistry conference comes to town?

As important, such a take misrepresents that vast bulk of MLA papers and panels which not only don't have laughable titles but are devoted to recognizable subject areas, historical periods, influential authors, and serious examination of new and old texts important to specialists. But panels called "American Neoclassicism," "John Donne and the Crises of His Times: Intellectual, Political, Religious," and "Troilus and Criseyde" (to name three from this year's offerings) just don't get the belly laughs. It's also worth pointing out that the assembled scholars do indeed spend time thinking about connections between their research and the classroom. Hence, panels such as "Iconicity and

Literature: Teaching Strategies;" "Teaching Indigenous and Foreign Languages"; and "How to Teach Prerevolutionary French Literature to Undergraduates and Why We Still Should."

None of this is to suggest that the MLA doesn't in many—perhaps most—ways live up to its reputation as one of the very most reliable bastions of political correctness. In 1999, for instance, the group passed a resolution opposing the "use of sweatshop, prison, and nonunion labor throughout the academic world," as if there are no meaningful distinctions to be drawn between, say, a convict working in a Chinese textile mill and a Fedex driver delivering packages at Harvard. At an annual convention in the recent past, French social critic Pierre Bourdieu, beamed in via satellite from Paris, exhorted the tweed-cloaked masses to join unions en masse. This year's conference features sessions on "Marxism and Globalization," "Marxist Theory: Between Aesthetics and Politics," and "Academic Work and the New McCarthyism," suggesting that Karl Marx remains more warmly remembered in U.S. literature departments than anywhere else in the world outside of Havana and Pyongyang. Similarly, this year's program leaves little doubt that the p.c. Holy Trinity of race, class, and gender will not go begging for attention.

But still, if you care about literature or culture, pat dismissals of the MLA are a shame. Despite its excesses, the annual convention comprises a State of the Union address when it comes to lit-crit studies. If it's true that we're in the midst of a culture boom—a massive and ongoing expansion in art, music, print, video, and other forms of creative expression—we'd be wise to keep up with analytical tools being created and perfected in the nation's universities. And, truth be told, the MLA is far less ideologically homogenous than one might think. Over the past several years, 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"; both sessions were well-attended and received. Hell, this year even boasts a luncheon arranged by the "Conference on Christianity and Literature." As with most things, there's surely more here than what you read about in The New York Times.

To that end, I'll be covering this year's MLA convention for TCS, filing dispatches on a daily basis through the week. I won't stint on reporting on ridiculous political excesses, but I'll also be on the lookout for new and interesting developments in lit-crit that might just all help us understand our text-soaked world a little better. And I'll be checking out those cash bars, too. Really, who could walk by something called "Romantics Cash Bar and Dinner," arranged by the Keats-Shelley Association of America, without stopping for a drink or two?

Nick Gillespie ( is the editor-in-chief of reason. This story originally appeared in TCS Daily and can be viewed in that format here.