Sunday, January 01, 2006
A Few More Disjointed Thoughts on the MLA
I, too, have a few thoughts on the MLA convention. First, this year the convention seemed curiously shrunken and lethargic to me. I would be interested in knowing whether any other MLA veterans shared this impression. I may have gotten this impression simply because I am less youthful and can no longer produce enough of the hormones one needs if one is to remain paranoid and hysterically envious for four days straight.
Second, the profession’s center of gravity finally seems to have shifted away from print and toward online publications of various species.
In perhaps the most official indication of this shift, an MLA committee suggested that tenure committees should stop thinking of print publications as more meaningful and important than electronic ones. And one participant in this discussion pointed out that most scholars now read even print publications in electronic form, using databases like JSTOR, Project Muse, Academic Search Premier, Ingenta, and Blackwell Synergy. I got this information about the MLA committee from an article at http://www.insidehighered.com, whose reporters and editors seemed to be everywhere. I also met Scott Eric Kaufman, a Valve contributor and solo blogger whose work I admire, in the Inside Higher Ed booth. I later noticed that Inside Higher Ed has prominently posted a link to Scott’s personal blog, thus thriftily supplementing its own excellent coverage of the convention. Lately Scott has been more prominent in Inside Higher Ed than John Hennessy, Ruth Simmons, or Larry Summers (don’t worry if you don’t know who those people are; they are important only in a pre-blogging, twentieth century kind of way).
I also attended a board meeting of Literature Compass, a Blackwell online publication (I am one of three editors of the Shakespeare section). I have attended a fair number of academic meetings of various kinds, and I don’t think I have ever seen new ideas getting proposed, refined, agreed on, and implemented at such a rapid pace. It may have been because web publication is such a powerful and flexible thing, or because our first international essay prize for graduate students got so many excellent submissions, or because Blackwell bought us lunch at a very good French restaurant. Even a virtual entity can benefit from a little material nutrition. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, a work made famous by Philip Pullman, the archangel Raphael enunciates this principle when he explains to Adam why angels eat corporeal fruits and vegetables:
So from the root
Springs lighter the green stalk, from thence the leaves
More airy, last the bright consummate flower
Spirits odorous breathes: flowers and their fruit
Man’s nourishment, by gradual scale sublimed,
To vital spirits aspire, to animal,
To intellectual, give both life and sense,
Fancy and understanding, whence the soul
Reason receives, and reason is her being,
Discursive, or intuitive; discourse
Is oftest yours, the latter most is ours,
Differing but in degree, of kind the same.
Wonder not then, what God for you saw good
If I refuse not, but convert, as you,
To proper substance; time may come when men
With angels may participate, and find
No inconvenient diet, nor too light fare:
And from these corporal nutriments perhaps
Your bodies may at last turn all to spirit,
Improved by tract of time, and winged ascend
This year, maybe I really should stop drinking coffee and eating red meat. I am a great eater of beef (or at least an occasional one), and I believe that does harm to my wit. I have very poor and unhappy brains for drinking.
In addition to the shift in policy, there has been a marked uptick in the past couple of years of panels on digital themes.
This year, the Association for Computing in the Humanities (ACH) counted 36 panels on digital topics. Pretty impressive, though I think there’s still room for even more discussion on these topics.
That’s about 5% of the total, isn’t it? And the web is pretty central for all of us now, isn’t it?
I myself spoke on a Renaissance Division panel where the web never came up explicitly (although I did receive a lot of questions about the Valve and Literature Compass before the panel officially started). And I think people who are genuinely interested in literature should write about it. But many people who present at the MLA convention are much more interested in making grand statements about the direction of the profession. And if one wants to go meta, then it is hard to ignore computers and the web. A multi-panel elegy for Derrida is fine, but Derrida is the penguin standing next to us and not the ice floe we are all drifting on.
It is surprising that there wasn’t more discussion of Google’s digitization initiative. As someone who writes about the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I desperately want Google to break Proquest’s monopoly on digital images of the complete body of books printed before 1700. And I would be very interested in learning more about the status of that project.
A multi-panel elegy for Derrida is fine, but Derrida is the penguin standing next to us and not the ice floe we are all drifting on.
It sounds like you’d be ambivalent about a growing emphasis on the digital aspects of literary studies, even if it were to be a more visible presence. Is that because of the culture of MLA?
It is surprising that there wasn’t more discussion of Google’s digitization initiative.
This would be a great idea; we should talk about whether this might even be a feasible project for some Valve members for next year.
Instead of a conventional special session, it might be more interesting to do a roundtable where someone from Google itself came in, along with perhaps a librarian from one of the universities involved in the project. It also might also be interesting to invite a digital literature veteran—someone like Jack Lynch, for instance.
I think the quiet around Google Print at this MLA is partly due to the huge lag time between when proposals go into MLA in the spring and the actual conference. (Google Print emerged with a bang this past summer and fall.) A roundtable structure—without paper titles submitted in advance—gives panelists the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances.
Amardeep, I like all of your ideas for a round table on Google Print. It might even be useful for Google to get a little feedback (although I guess they prefer hard-core quantitative feedback). It could also be a chance for them to get a bit of positive PR for this very controversial project.
I admire Jack Lynch tremendously for his service to the profession. Within my field, Richard Bear, who runs the Spenser page, and my former student Andrew Zurcher, who runs much of Cambridge’s CERES project, are other possibilities. And Alan Liu is another possibility--he is always stimulating.
Did my penguins analogy sound negative? I like penguins. And although they may look silly, they swim surprisingly fast and can actually jump out of the water like dolphins, as I have discovered at the Central Park Zoo. I think there is a lot of grand posturing at the MLA convention, but there is also a fair amount of substantive discussion between unpretentious people committed to intellectual activity.
I like penguins and Penguins. (And puffins and Puffins.)
Anything under about 1000 words is better online. Books are better as physical objects. Journal articles and other things of 2500-5000 word length, too many variables to say. But things are clearly moving toward online-ness.
“A work made famous by Philip Pullman”: nice.
But with longer pieces, one can always print them out. It’s not likelyl to be as pretty as a well-set book, but it’s hardcopy. You can mark it up, leaf through it quickly, and so forth.
Scribbling ink all over your own copy rather than the library’s is a much undermentioned benefit of online-only publication.
Perusing some of the panel topics, it appears the organizers of this year’s MLA soiree neglected, again, to address the more economic aspects of the lit. biz, whether academic hiring decisions (from K-12 to community college and university), or bias and nepotism in general. Adjunct faculty concerns, for instance, are not a hot topic; though the faux-marxists may go on for hours about imperialism or marginalization in regards to their currently hot texts, rarely is the marxist or ethical analysis addressed to the lit. biz itself. Most community college openings in California--where both MA’s and overqualified or desperate PhDs vie for a few tenure-track jobs a year--receive over 100 applications for 1 full-time position; gaining admission into the adjunct pools at CC’s or CSUs has also become incredibly politicized, but this is rarely noticed by the careerists or English and lit. grad students in UC or Ivy League schools. And the English hiring committees at the CCs and CSUs are in many instances controlled by multiculturalists and gay people who have no problem eliminating anyone suspected of, say, an affinity for Melville or Steven Toulmin from the first round of “assessment.” Yet those sort of quotidian issues rarely manifest themselves at the MLA symposiums.
I think you are right, J., that the status of adjuncts is the most important moral and political issue on our own doorstep. The MLA addresses the status of adjuncts in its resolutions, but the actual shape of our institutions is fairly invisible in the panels themselves. I plan to address this issue in my next post.
J., As for whether the hiring committees are controlled by “multiculturalists and gay people,” I think you’re being a little paranoid. Or at least, you’re making a vast generalization with rather unbecoming, marginally chauvinist overtones.
On economics in academe, it’s unquestionably an issue that needs to be addressed. But I do see a couple of panels here and there. For instance:
34A. Academic Labor: Keywords for Current Conditions
Presiding: Paul Lauter, Trinity Coll., CT
1. “Market,” P. Marc Bousquet, Santa Clara Univ.
2. “Prestige,” Francis J. Donoghue, Ohio State Univ., Columbus
3. “Institution,” Elizabeth M. Renker, Ohio State Univ., Columbus
And there are panels with titles like “Graduate Student Teaching and the Culture Wars” as well as “Career Opportunities in Two-Year Colleges.” Of those two, the first panel doesn’t really address the issue of economics.
And other than those three, I don’t see much.
A multicultural, nominally marxist, and pro-queer “Counterforce” has sort of gradually assumed control of literature and language arts departments in most of the California CC districts, the CSUs, and the UCs, certainly in the Bay Area and SoCal--and they are a large contingent of the MLA. The literary Counterforce has adapted its own canon, and, in terms of fiction, writers such as Richard Wright and Angelou now are to be taught alongside Shakespeare and Faulkner and Woolfe. The dogma of postmodernism and a sort of gangster Maoism replaces the forgotten dogma of New Criticism; and, at least at the community college and CSU levels, the Counterforce writing faculty types, having realized that skill in the Queens’ English is itself a type of hegemony, man, now assess writing nearly wholly on content.
If the content (or style, really) does not match the Counterforce programme, the student (yes, usually the proverbial naive White Boy) not only suffers in terms of his grade but from ostracization from other students (the young, swinging Counterforce members-to-be), and possible denial of perqs such as letters of recommendation, teaching-tutoring positions, invitations to Dept. par-tays, etc.
To question the assumptions of this Counterforce one risks being branded as a neo-liberal, or worse. One hesitates to call it “radical chic” as Tom Wolfe did in the 60s but that doesn’t seem entirely mistaken. And lurking behind the Counterforce there is the writing of the french left and continentalists, and that also provides exotic appeal, for the Counterforce elite knows that the undergraduate hipster and hipsterette will quickly tire of old rhetorical phonies like Emerson or CP Snow or Mencken when there are laughing medusas and phallogocentrism and exciting debates on Praxis between swingin’ Frankfurt or slavic or Nairobi radicals to attend to.
J., Are you familiar with the American comic book series “G.I Joe”? You make left-leaning academics sound like “Cobra,” which, I can assure you, would be much more exciting than the reality.
But other people have talked about ressentiment too. Here, for instance is a beautiful passage, written in a fine specimen of the ‘Queen’s English’, which sounds a little like your comment:
“And, curiously, he felt that he was something, somebody, precisely and simply because of that cold threat of death. The terror of the white world had left no doubt in him about his worth; in fact, that white world had guaranteed his worth in the most brutal and dramatic manner. Most surely he was was something, in the eyes of the white world, or it would not have threatened him as it had. That white world, then, threatened as much as it beckoned. Though he did not know it, he was fatally in love with that white world, in love in a way that could never be cured. That white world’s attempt to curb him dangerously and irresponsibly claimed him for its own.”
The author is Richard Wright.
"Old rhetorical phonies like Emerson”
I resent that.
In case anyone missed this: