MLA and the Single Girl

Yesterday, on Invisible Adjunct, a post referencing an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required, alas), entitled “Signifyin’ at the MLA,” which documents the many hi-larious paper and session titles contained in this year’s program via the device of a new prize competition: The Chronicle‘s “First Annual Awards for Self-Consciously Provocative MLA Paper Titles (also known as the Provokies).”

IA’s post about this article has resulted in a welter of comments about the ridiculousness of the conference and its many attendees — the pretension, the painful enforcement of theoretical hipness, the self-consciously crafted pose of transgressiveness coupled with the absolute absence of any actual, um, sex.

Alright. Yes, perhaps I’m just oversensitive about this issue. I’m a regular MLA-goer — though not often a presenter — and am simply tired of celebrating “let’s make fun of dorky literature professors” season. I’ll acknowledge finding much of what takes place at the conference every year to be personally and professionally repugnant — yes, the horrible clothes! yes, the ridiculous papers! yes (and it seems to me revealing that no one really mentioned this, given the usual focus of IA’s forum), the miasma of angst and self-satisfaction created by throwing together desperate grad-students and job-seekers with the creme-de-la-creme of rock-star professordom — but despite my own feelings about the annual trek to the Slough of Despond (TM), well, nobody can talk bad about my mama except me.

Each year, we all anxiously await the conference city’s local newspaper’s “Gee, Look at How Silly These Academics Are!” article, and each year, we are not disappointed. Each year’s version recounts the same old nonsense busily being recapitulated at IA — ridiculous paper/session titles, bad sartorial choices, no sex. Each year’s article could be cribbed from the last, and no one would ever really be the wiser.

The point, as far as I’m concerned, is that these articles are nothing more than a recycled, sneering, hipster version of the same old intellectual-bashing exercises that mainstream US culture is perennially embarked upon. Is it too much to ask that the freaking Chronicle — our own paper-of-record, one would have thought — resist getting in on the action?

Yes, ridiculous, yes, sexless, yes, dorky. But who isn’t?

(And on that note: I’ll be at the MLA from the 26th through the 30th, though I’ll be spending the greater part of the 27th, 28th, and 29th trapped in various hotel rooms conducting interviews. If you’ll be there as well, drop me a comment. I won’t have much panel-going time, but would love to hit a few, so let me know if you’re presenting. And I’ll definitely be in need of an end-of-the-day martini, which perhaps we can arrange…?)

[UPDATE, 12.19.03, 12.27 am PST: The article that began all the hoo-ha (and it’s really turned into hoo-ha over at IA) is now available without subscription.]

16 responses to “MLA and the Single Girl”

  1. Editor’s note: If there were a reasonable claim to be made about the sexlessness of the MLA — and I’m not saying there is — its precipitating cause might be found in my last paragraph: hotel rooms were not invented for interview purposes, and their misuse in this regard is bound to have a de-libidinizing effect.

  2. Uhm, if you actually read the Chronicle thing, it’s kind of obvious that it is making fun of the annual newspaper article about the dorky professors, suggesting that the dorky profs are sort of playing to it.

  3. Uhm, I did read the Chronicle thing, and I don’t find that obvious at all. The Chron mentions the annual newspaper article, yes, but is hardly making fun of it; by suggesting that the “dorky profs” are playing to the newspaper reporters, aren’t they just validating the annual article’s critique?

  4. Maybe you are right. But maybe they are right, too. That seems possible.

  5. I’m putting together a session on Electronic Theory and Criticism. More details at

  6. I warned you all back in August about that Menstruation and Children’s Literature panel. Don’t say I didn’t.

    This year’s Chron piece was indeed more self-aware and entertaining than some I’ve seen. My gripe is that none of these kind of articles help anybody–inside the discipline or out.

    Academics know that these articles don’t help audiences outside the field understand how work being done in the field might be relevant and useful. (We don’t ask physicists to defend their specialized language, as someone mentioned in the IA thread, but then, people seem to trust in physics’s usefulness. Not so, the humanities.) The problem is that neither the Chronicle nor any mainstream paper is enough of an insider to make the worst perpetrators of impenetrable jargon and bad puns take note of the ways they are hurting the discipline and alienating it from the world.

    You need the editorial board of Signs or maybe someone like Zizek to say, “You’re not funny, and by the time your lame paper title referencing ‘All Your Base Are Belong to Us’ hits a conference program, you’re about as cutting- edge as your mom was when she bought you that Juice Newton album in 1990. So knock it off. Or at least make better jokes. You’re making us all look useless, trivial, and transient.”

    I don’t mind when specialists talk to each other about (de)homo(gen)izing the trans/pan/global gaze, but they should be reminded frequently that there are many audiences they have written off when they do so.

    Unfortunately, the annual make-fun articles don’t seem to me to be useful ways of challenging academics to address and win over different audiences–audiences many academics don’t like: e.g., Nascar-shirt-wearing Wal-Mart shoppers, Rush Limbaugh listeners, insider traders. What that Chron article should be saying is that academics should try harder to listen to and talk with audiences they now disdain and alienate. We’d all be better off. Hey, you might even get some of them not to vote for Bush next time around.

  7. KF, I’ll be at MLA, being interviewed in one of those hotel rooms. George is also planning to be there. I’d definitely welcome a martini or two…

  8. P.S. Sorry for the rant, KF, and sorry to say I won’t be in San Diego this year. But A. will, and I think the Drs. Presto, so each of you should have a martini for me.

  9. I’ll be there, but under a different name. In the meanwhile, I’d encourage all of you to tell this Scott McLemmee what you really think of his article and remind him that things will be most unpleasant for him after the revolution.

  10. Vika: Shockingly, I think your panel falls during the one break I get all day Saturday. I’m definitely going to try to make it. The info, for those not possessed of a program at the moment:

    Saturday, 27 December

    8. Electronic Theory and Criticism

    3:30-4:45 p.m., Cunningham A, Manchester Grand Hyatt

    Program arranged by the Association for Computers and the Humanities. Presiding: Vika Zafrin, Brown Univ.

    1. “Show, Not Tell: The Value of New Media Scholarship,” Cheryl E. Ball, Michigan Technological Univ.

    2. “The Simultaneous South: An Electronic, Multilinear Approach to Borges’s ‘The South,’” Marjorie Luesebrink, Irvine Valley Coll., CA

    Respondent: Thomas Swiss, Univ. of Iowa.

    Chuck: You, George, and I must compare schedules and make arrangements. I’m booked up Saturday night, but should be fairly flexible thereafter.

    Mariah: This makes two years in a row, no? I’ll be happy to see the Drs. Presto, don’t get me wrong, but they’re no replacement for your smiling self. Particularly since I think at least one of the good Drs. will be unable to fulfill your vicarious martini-consuming request. Bottom line: you’ll be sorely missed.

    Chun: Like a poem, will we recognize you when we see you?

  11. Hooray!! I mean, potentially. But still!

    If you’re unable to make it but want to meet up for a drink afterwards, do give me a call at 818.915.vika (why yes, I *am* a dork. what?! they asked me what I wanted the last four digits to be.)

  12. I’d invite anyone here to come say hello during the Chronicle’s reception, held on Monday in the Grand Hyatt starting at 5:15. My guess is that most people attending MLA are neither paranoid nor afflicted with exceptionally thin skins, like tender little babies.

    The experience of the past day or so has been interesting. I have been repeatedly called insulting by people who sometimes begin to froth a bit while calling me an idiot, a homophobe, a failed academic, etc. The latter in particular is amusing. It tends to confirm one’s darkest suspicions about the insular narcissism of people whose chief virtue is not intellectual seriousness but a certain docility (as Bourdieu puts it) in their relationship with institutions.

    Now, that’s not meant as a blanket denunciation of academics. (Some of my best friends, etc.) In fact, I spend about 99 percent of my time reading scholarly work, and writing about it such a fashion as to make it better understood — not simply beyond the academy, but within it. To be candid, I do wonder sometimes whether it is worth the trouble. The lack of curiosity, let alone intellectual vitality, among academics is often really astonishing. Maybe it’s just exhaustion? Or rather, the ennui of life as alienated cogs in bureaucratic engines?

    Anyway, once in a while, I will write with tongue in cheek. The effect, it seems,is to bring out paranoia, in full blaze. An item of perhaps 400 words is part of the “anti-intellectual” jihad of “hate” against longsuffering professors? For what it is worth, the whole point of my little article was to suggest that some MLA participants themselves appear to have entered a kind of symbiotic relationship with the media, giving papers those titles precisely in an effort to win that little moment in the spotlight. Hence the idea of giving them the red carpet treatment through an awards ceremony, a la the Oscars.

    Not one person seems to have detected that implicit element of criticism within the piece. (It seems a lot more damning than pointing out that professors are sometimes would-be hipsters etc.) Calling it “anti-intellectual” reveals a really impoverished conception of the life of the mind.

    Now, I’m sure a lot of people really do grasp that point clearly enough. If you do — or even if you don’t — then by all means say hello at MLA.

    Just do me a favor. If I ask you what papers you have heard that are interesting, please don’t translate my question. What happens every year is that people respond by saying: “Hmmm, what’s ‘hot’ this year?” And then they proceed to tell me what is “hot and trendy.”

    I do not care at all what is hot and trendy, and would never use such terms in my writing without displaying conspicious levels of sarcasm. Talk about what you found interesting, important, an addition to the conversation. I’m as concerned with the actually developing substance of scholarship as any of you are. After all, I spend at least as much time as you do reading it.

    If you insist on talking about what’s hip, hot, and happening, I will regard you as part of the nominating committee for next year’s Provokies.

  13. i guess i’m on the other side of the fence kathleen. i think the article is fun and funny. i mean, here we are, in the most tumultuous of times and many of us are still doing our thing — and so proud of it — to a hotel audience of … 8? 11? 15? 30?

    academics can be relevant to our times. and a lot of the cats i know are very relevant, especially in the classroom. but when it comes to research that matters, they sure are doing a poor job these days. that’s what i think at least. in this light, i found scott’s article very generous, giving us a soft pinch instead of a harder slap, you know? i’ve got no beef with academics but isn’t it time we begin taking part in larger discussions, actions, and movements? and if so, doesn’t that participation begin with language?

  14. Okay, okay. I’m willing to relent this far: I found the article pretty funny, too. As I often have the conference-city articles. Yes, one must maintain a sense of humor. And yes, “Dude, Where’s My Reliable Symbolic Order?” was totally begging for such a response.

    On the other hand: as Mariah suggests, there might be more effective ways of prodding academics into considering their engagements with the non-academic universe. Trust me, it’s a battle that I fight repeatedly in my own work; attempt to write for an audience broader than one’s own specialty, and (maybe this is rationalization, but I cannot help but sense a connection) find yourself in this position. So you see the quandary, for those of us who attempt to combine participation in the MLA with extra-academic engagement: I’m determined to stay theoretically sophisticated and yet generally accessible in my work — and this is the thanks I get? There’s a directly proportionate relationship between the markers of success that our field grants and one’s remove from a broad participation in the culture, I fear — and for that reason, articles like McLemee’s, however well-intended, however humorous, and however softly pinching are destined to provoke such defensive responses.

    On top of which, being pinched on the same spot year after year after year is just plain tiresome.

    At the moment (ask me again on Dec. 30 how I feel), the bottom line seems to me that many serious scholars of literature and culture, who would very much like to engage in a serious, generous, forthright way with the world-at-large, often find themselves prevented from doing so by both the internal demands of the scholarly universe (publishing in the “right places” demanding certain kinds of technical language and attention to trends) and by the jeers of that world-at-large (the technical language and trendiness taken as evidence of our irrelevance).

    There are no carrots anywhere, only sticks, every way you turn. And to complain about the sticks is to be taken for a “tender little baby.” Is it any wonder many retreat into defensiveness and alienation?

    So how to find a way out of this morass?

  15. > So how to find a way out of this morass?

    i believe the way is to teach and research about stuff that matters to both academics and non-academics. the times of speaking amongst ourselves are, i believe, over. those kinds of conversations are not only tedious, they are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the larger scheme of things. that’s my take.

  16. David, I agree that we should speak to non-academics. But I also believe there are still occassions when we should speak professionally to one another, and a convention such as MLA is the appropriate place to do that. (FWIW, every year MLA offers at least a dozen or so panels that are specifically geared towards the general public [and open to those who haven’t registered]. It would be interesting to know how well these are attended.)

    Perhaps most important of all, though, is that we learn to speak to other _academic disciplines_. Not just our colleagues next door in the history or communications or English department, but in places like cs, math, engineering. Kari (“accidentals and substantives”) is especially eloquent on this point. As she points out, it would be nice to see some “humanities envy” every now and then among the scientists.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.