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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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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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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Nick Gillespie Goes to MLA

Posted by Jonathan Goodwin on 12/28/05 at 06:50 PM

I’ve always enjoyed the increasingly addled articles about the MLA guaranteed to appear around this time every year. And here’s a piece by Nick Gillespie at Tech Central Station, which has the trustworthy imprimatur of James Glassman, author of Dow 10,000!, so you know to expect good things. Not “bitch-slaps,” or, if so, charming ones.

So, here we go: “endless job interviews in which those nervous grad students throw off more flop sweat than Thomas Jefferson contemplating a just god.” Flop sweat. Thomas Jefferson contemplating a just god. Gimlet-eyed. Damn.

We have some of the usual attribution of agency to the MLA, a professional organization some thirty thousand strong. But Gillespie does recognize how rote his chosen genre’s become. He criticizes the Times for not reading any of the essays it had mocked, implying, perhaps, that readers can expect better here. Political correctness is taking Marx seriously, like they only do now in Pyongyang and Havana. Race, gender, and class are the Holy Trinity of MLA pc. Did you ever think of it that way before? Even the most skeptical theorist will have to admit that’s a damning comparison. It’s like those three categories are articles of faith! Not something that you analyze via Reason. Get it?

(Imagine explaining TCS to the author of The Eighteenth Brumaire.)

Gillespie promises to do better than the usual. Here’s hoping that he stretches out a bit.


Before heading up Reason he was an academic himself. He holds an English Literature Ph.D. from Suny Buffalo so he won’t be as merciless as some journalists. I’ve always enjoyed his writing and I thought Gillespie’s article was even handed in this case.  His second article was even more encouraging.


By Christopher Hellstrom on 12/29/05 at 12:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You see, one problem here is that statements like this: “That’s certainly good news for kids stuck in freshman composition classes, those dreary required classes which are often little more than clumsy attempts at political indoctrination.“ are just complete and utter bullshit.

By Jonathan on 12/29/05 at 12:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This was the topic of McLemee/Williams/Shumway panel today.  Interestin’ stuff, which I’ll post about a little later.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 12/29/05 at 12:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tech Central Station is fine, but where is the Washington Post? Isn’t there some new angle they could try? Some dubious trend they could spot? 

Incidentally, MLA is referenced in The Scotsman. Not for anything interesting, mind you.

By Amardeep on 12/29/05 at 01:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Amardeep, I expect that you’re going to get a lot of hate mail from the Scottish studies folks over the next few weeks. Take it easy, is my advice. Their threats are almost certainly exaggerated.

By Jonathan on 12/29/05 at 01:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Christopher, I only got part way into Gillespie’s second article (the one which you link to and recommend) before running into such gems as the professor “who identified himself openly as a ‘progressive,’” (as if it’s like admitting to being a habitual criminal) and Gillespie’s deceptive assertion that students are becoming more conservative—the latter “justified” through the same kind of link that proponents of pyramid schemes use when they link to the U.S. code that says that pyramid schemes are illegal, knowing that most people won’t really read it.  Gillespie’s similar use of a Census data product is disgraceful; he assumes that people will only look at the 1970 column and the latest one, not at those in between.  You should remember that anything published at Tech Central Station is, merely by the fact of it being published there, presumptively discredited, because of its use for various kinds of corporate paid propaganda and articles covering for same.  This particular article only confirms that judgement.

By on 12/29/05 at 10:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Incidentally, MLA is referenced in The Scotsman.”

I suppose that you could put together a pretty good socialist SF course around Alasdair Gray, Iain Banks, and Ken MacLeod.

By on 12/29/05 at 10:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich and Jonathan,
Thank you for your reply. I disagree with the assertion that if a site has corporate sponsors automatically it negates the content of the article. Gillespie, though he did make some sweeping generalizations, had a great deal of nice things to say about the MLA. He mentions that fact that Lazere is “openly progressive because the audience of TCS daily for the most part is of the opposite persuasion. Gillespie points out that Lazere points out that many students are simply “lacking the basic Hirschian cultural literacy” to signal to the TCS reader that the MLA, though perhaps progressive politically, is not completely contrary to their beliefs. They can feel a little better writing the check to pay their kid’s tuition. 

I agree with you that his blanket assertion that most comp classes are used to promote a progressive agenda was a bit of a stretch.  However I do not think this was your typical conservative culture war rant. I said that it was “encouraging” because I think that Gillespie took on both left (NY times who just read the titles of lectures) and right (knuckle dragging conservatives) for dismissing the good work the MLA does do.

By Christopher Hellstrom on 12/29/05 at 11:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d have to disagree with two things in your comment, Christopher. The first is that the TCS reader knows or cares anything about “Hirschian cultural literacy.” (You want a blank stare? Mention the wind blowing where it lists to a technolibertarian.) Second is that there’s some meaningful sense of “left” which describes a foolish NYT article.

To the extent that Gillespie is demonstrating to a negatively predisposed audience that the MLA is a professional organization whose members demonstrate a wide spectrum of opinions on intellectual matters, I praise him. And there’s not much of that.

By Jonathan on 12/29/05 at 12:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You are right that my representative description of the “left” in a foolish NYT article was wrong headed and that was laziness on my part.  Gillepsie does of course have better examples of this.

I just wanted to point out that there were some attempts to portray the MLA in a positive fashion in Gillepsie’s article.  Perhaps you are right that there will be a blank stare with most readers of Gillepsie’s article. All the more reason that his attempt to make some concessions that the MLA, and by extension work in the humanities in general, is something important that even techno-libertarians should pay attention to.  I would hate to see the University curriculum purged of the humanities and articles like this give me some hope. I see this article as a small but much needed bridge between two worlds.

By Christopher Hellstrom on 12/29/05 at 12:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorta’ like those rickety rope bridges that appear in both jungle and mountain adventure movies?

By Bill Benzon on 12/29/05 at 01:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s a nice image, Bill, yeah.

As long as it’s sustaining the weight, it’s all good. What more could you ask for?

By Christopher Hellstrom on 12/29/05 at 01:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Gillespie’s articles are not out of hand.  His use of the word “progressive” was in the “even the liberal New Republic” sense of pointing out how the speaker wanted a greater emphasis on cultural literacy which is often critisized as a conservative impulse.

By on 12/29/05 at 02:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Liberal New Republic?

By Jonathan on 12/29/05 at 02:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

He lost me at “bitch-slaps.” For Godssake, do we really need this?

By Sour Duck on 12/29/05 at 11:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I disagree with the assertion that if a site has corporate sponsors automatically it negates the content of the article.”

It is not a matter of merely having corporate sponsors.  It is a matter of particular corporations paying the site to write articles supporting particular policies that they prefer, and supporting ther rest of the site as camouflage for this PR.  By writing for the site Gillespie willingly participates in this operation.  In a sense it doesn’t matter what the content of his article is; the placement of that article makes it a kind of protein sheath for the corporate PR virus.

But that content is itself nonsensical.  The “positive portrayals” of the MLA are in the context of partially excusing it from doing something that it never did.  Are people really so insensitive to propaganda that they consider this “look, he’s beating his wife a bit less now” ploy good?

By on 12/30/05 at 12:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I should probably add specifics to the above.  So, as Gillespie claims, do “increasingly conservative students” exist?  He hangs most of his second piece off of this factoid, which he justifies with a citation to a table mid-PDF in a Census data product.

If you look at that table, certainly the liberal to conservative balance changed drastically betweeen 1970 and 1980, which should not be surprising.  However, since 1980, the percentage of liberal students has gone up by 5.1% and the percentage of conservative students by 2.9%.  Since 1995, the percentage of liberal students has gone up by 3.2% and conservatives by 0.1%.  Someone could more reasonably have written an article about how professors should plan to deal with the increasingly liberal student body.

This kind of shoddy use of numbers is a hallmark of TCS.  In my work I encounter their poorly-written global climate change denialism regularly.  They also attack the use of generic medicines by developing countries, doing the bidding of their backer, the lobbying group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.  Their pieces are generally not worth reading, because every “fact” has to be checked; none are trustworthy.

Politics in the humanities are generally more or less unreal.  But this is an area where you are suddenly running into real politics.  Dismissing it with a casual mention of corporate sponsors not negating content of a work is being more naive than is reasonable.

By on 12/30/05 at 06:29 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I understand your well-articulated concerns and agree with you about the statistics in the article. I read Reason when I was younger and I was siding with Gillespie because I am somewhat partial to his magazine’s commitment to “free minds and free markets”. But not everyone is going to agree in life. Happy New Year.

By Christopher Hellstrom on 12/30/05 at 08:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Glassman’s book is actually titled Dow 36,000.  Talk about fun with numbers!

By Michael Bérubé on 12/30/05 at 10:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Don’t ruin it.

By Jonathan on 12/30/05 at 11:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

MLA tries but misunderstands, ah oooo
S/he’s often inclined to borrow somebody’s dreams til tomorrow
There is no other day
Let’s try it another way
You’ll lose your mind at play
Free games formé
See MLA’s plaie ...

By nnyhav on 12/31/05 at 03:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You can find Gillespie’s final dispatch here:


Here’s his penultimate paragraph:

What each of these presentations had in common was an understanding of what University of Tulsa communication professor Joli Jensen has talked about as an “expressive view” of culture. That is, culture broadly defined “is a way that all of us, even those of us who are not in a special guardian class, understand and symbolically engage the world.” This understanding puts art, music, literature, and other forms of creative expression, including political expression, at the very center of our individual and collective experience. Which means that lucid interpretation of the same is vital.

There’s a link from that paragraph to a PDF elaborating on this “expressive view” of culture. Here’s the link:

http://www.reason.com/hod/The Perpetual Meaning Machine.pdf

The paper’s worth looking at.

By Bill Benzon on 01/01/06 at 02:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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