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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
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Miriam Burstein
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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Monday, December 22, 2008

A Pre-MLA Preview of the Annual Post-MLA Article

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 12/22/08 at 10:34 PM

Every year more than 10,000 literature scholars gather at the end of December for the convention of the Modern Language Association, the 124th of which begins next week in San Fransisco.

Past conventions have yielded papers with titles that were rife with bad puns, cute pop-culture references and an adolescent preoccupation with sex, from “Neo-Victorian Buggery” to “Bambi as a Bottom” and the tragically hip “I Never Got Tenure (but I Owe My Job to Jay-Z): Capital-T Theory, Hip-Hop Culture, and Some Thoughts About the Role of Literature in Contemporary Literary Studies.”

Founded in 1883, the Modern Language Association barely registered on the public consciousness for its first century. Professors attended to doze through papers about Chaucer and Emerson, schmooze one another and lobby for posts at more prestigious campuses. But in the 1980’s the conference became the site of annual skirmishes between old-school traditionalists and the increasing powerful new breed of postmodernists, multiculturalists, feminists and queer-theory advocates.

Basking in this unaccustomed level of public notice, Modern Language Association scholars brought increasingly attention-grabbing papers to the convention through the 1990’s, “queering” the “canon,” some said, and championing the “postcolonial,” proposing wild theories about everything from comic books to hip-hop to television and movies. Last year, perhaps hoping to put a stop to the trend, the Chronicle of Higher Education announced its first Annual Awards for Self-Consciously Provocative M.L.A. Paper Titles (a k a the Provokies) but in 2004 the Chronicle decided to drop the awards. Scott McLemee, a senior writer at Inside Higher Ed, explained that “crafting titles to get them written about and attacked in the press used to be exciting.

“Now it’s become a reflex, and their hearts aren’t really in it anymore.”

Not only are titles no longer intended to amuse, from the looks of this year’s several thousand entries, absolutely nothing of any importance is studied by scholars who present at the MLA.  From “‘Nabakov’s Self-Translations” to an entire panel devoted to African literature, these scholars embrace topics no right-thinking person cares about.  Would Joe the Plumber attend a talk on “William Faulkner’s Rural Modernism”?  Would Tito the Builder enjoy a twenty-minute talk on “History and Memory in [James Joyce’s] ‘The Dead’”?  Does Joe Sixpack even know what PMLA is, much less want to be published in it?  Why then would he attend the roundtable discussion “How to Get Published in PMLA“?  While most Americans never bothered to acquaint themselves with old readings of Renaissance texts, the eggheads at the MLA insist on producing “New Readings of Renaissance Texts.”

And there’s much, much more.  But all of it is about unimportant nonsense.


The PMLA-title epater la bourgeoisie thing is a relic of a happier, more confident time.  With the loss of tenured positions in the field, and the generally horrible job situation, perhaps it’s time for literary scholars to adopt my suggestion of working for spite.  As Michael Berube has demonstrated, you get far more respect if you are Dangerous than if you are merely decadeent.

Give it a try.  Here, this should get you into the proper mood.  You are the flowers in the dustbin, Scott.  You are the poison in the human machine.  No tenure, no tenure, no tenure for you....

By on 12/23/08 at 12:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I “left” the academy three years ago.  I’m attending MLA this year, though, in part because my high school views it fulfilling “in service” hours, in part because all of my diasporized academic friends will be there, and in part because I often sort of enjoy hearing smart people talk about books.  I’m looking forward to my first MLA at which I have no pressure to act professional.  I even plan on wearing my pajamas to some sessions.  (Teaching 130 high school girls can make one see the deep pleasure that is “wearing one’s PJs during business hours.")

If you’ll be there, Valvesters, let me know at .

By on 12/23/08 at 04:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Pajamas!  Great idea.  Just yesterday morning, in a coffee crisis, I went out and bought half-and-half at the Minit Mart wearing pajamas.  It was oddly . . . liberating.  If I wear them at my MLA session, can I be dangerous and decadent at the same time?

By Michael Bérubé on 12/23/08 at 08:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Don’t know about decadent and dangerous.  But you will be ready for a dance party, which could spontaneously erupt at any MLA hotel room at any moment.

By on 12/23/08 at 01:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Pajamas are so 2005.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 12/23/08 at 05:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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