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Monday, October 08, 2007

New York Times Snark about MLA

Posted by Bill Benzon on 10/08/07 at 01:13 AM

Do any of the histories of literary studies mention exactly when The New York Times (among others) began writing snarky articles about papers presented at the MLA. I have vague recollections about reading such articles when I was on the job market some years ago, though I don’t recall whether it was the late 70s or the mid 80s (I was on the market at those times). What I’m after is whether or not such snarkiness is a response to deconstruction, postmodernism, feminism, and so forth, or whether it’s somewhat older and, as such, is more or less how the press covers the academy.


Comments

Bill,

I imagine it’s much older than the late ‘80’s culture wars… haven’t academics been the scorn of everything vital for, oh, ever?

I was just looking up Greenberg’s 1939 essay and came across this little tidbit:

“Self-evidently, all kitsch is academic; and conversely, all that’s academic is kitsch. For what is called the academic as such no longer has an independent existence, but has become the stuffed-shirt “front” for kitsch.”

He is, of course, talking of “schools” rather than academia… but if you traded out the bow-tie and the tweed for heavy black boots, aggressively faded jeans, the denim work-shirt, close-cropped hair and woolen watch cap of the Cultural Studies professor… the relation to culture pretty much remains: Norman Rockwell or Maxfield Parrish kitsch replaced by Foucault and Stonewall kitsch…

Of course, this is a nasty caricature which is only partly true: the academe has loosened up considerably in the past few decades, no?

Meantime, a quick search of NYT archives shows that they’ve been making fun of MLA at least as long as their online archives go back, which is to say: 1981.

By joel turnipseed on 10/08/07 at 03:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Joel - You’re certainly right about academica being something of a semi-univesal butt of all jokes. The antagonism is old. The absent-minded professor is a well-established trope. For example, Disney released The Absent-Minded Professor in 1961 and Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor came out in 1962; both played off that trope.

Still, the NYTimes articles are semi-institutionalized & I’m curious about whether that institution is a new variation on an old theme or somewhat older. Thanks for searching their archives. That 1981 date, alas, is curious—though obviously the snark could have been there earlier, but is not easily searchable. The structuralism volume with Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play” essay came out in 71, and Hillis Miller fronted the MLA lamenting the death of deconstruction in 86. I simply don’t recall how public “Theory” was in 81. I wonder whether or not it had made the jump to New Yorker cartoons by that time.

By Bill Benzon on 10/08/07 at 08:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Try Aristophanes, The Clouds, 423 BC.

By on 10/08/07 at 10:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Making fun of academics is an ancient practice, but it reached something of a peak with the Humanist’s sustained attack on the Scholastics during the Renaissance. Letters from Obscure Men came before the Pooh Perplex and the Sokal Hoax. Or check out the seventh chapter of Rabelais’ Gargantua with its list of the books in the Library of Saint Victor, including that memorable piece of ancient Theory Quaestio subtilissima, utrum Chimera in vacuo bombinans possit comedere secundus intentiones, et fuit debutata per decem hebdomadas in concilio Constantiensi (On Whether the Chimera, bombinasting in the void, can be nourished on second intentions, as debated for ten weeks by the Council of Constance).

By Jim Harrison on 10/08/07 at 04:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

i’m with jim harrison. there was also the quarrel of the ancients and moderns (17th century france), which sounded a lot like the so-called culture wars of the 1990s. if you want something more 20th century, edmund wilson was writing about the mla in the new york review of books in 1968, and published his book “the fruits of the mla” in the same year. if i remember correctly, he was pretty snarky. the mla was founded in 1883, and william james published “the phd octopus” in 1903, but he doesn’t mention the mla explicitly.

By on 10/08/07 at 06:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Take a look at the annual report on the MLA by Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball, which they started doing in the 1980s (and quit a few years ago). At first, their columns were barely noticed outside disaffected academic conservatives and classic liberals, but they wrote so skillfully and the portrayals were so funny that the mainstream press picked them up for several years.

By on 10/08/07 at 08:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s a 30 December 1922 Philadelphia Inquirer article about the MLA convention headlined “Should Professors Spell Correctly?” It’s a brief piece about a talk complaining about academic prose.  The more things change . . .

By on 10/09/07 at 02:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Along with Wilson’s “Fruits of the MLA” in the New York Review of Books, already mentioned above, Lewis Mumford had a pretty harsh review in the same magazine of an MLA approved edition of some of Emerson’s writings. I think it was called something like “Emerson Behind Barbed Wire” and it came out in 1966 or 1967 (or thenabouts).

By eb on 10/10/07 at 01:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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