Academic Obsolescence, Indeed

Mail is taking a while to catch up with me these days, given that it’s got to go through the postal service, campus mail, my department, campus mail, and the postal service again before it gets to me. So needless to say, I’m a little behind on some things. But I last week received this letter [Edited to remove link, as target is now long gone. Suffice it to say that this was a link to the Greenblatt letter. –KF], which was apparently sent to all members of the MLA.

Having just completed (yay!) a first full-length scholarly manuscript (known in various stages of its composition as My Stupid Book, and at others demarked by other adjectives), I’m uncertain whether to be relieved by the import of this letter — whew! perhaps this manuscript getting accepted or not won’t be the turn of fate that drives my tenure decision — or deeply chilled. Have I spent the last six years on a project that will never see print?

When I’m able to escape my own self-involvement, however, I can see that there are some deeper issues to be pondered here. Is academic publishing obsolete? Aside from those of us still trying to get tenure, will anyone miss it if it is? And if it’s not, how can it escape the fiscal crisis in which it’s mired? Certain refereed journals on the web have begun to make inroads into that avenue of academic publishing, such that having an article in Postmodern Culture, say, has the something of the same clout as having an article in Representations would. Can the same be done for the monograph? Will anyone stand — er, sit — for reading a monograph on the web? Or is the scholarly monograph all but dead?

Not Bloody Likely

Um, hi. I’m trying to get an estimate on a small move.

Where from?

— New Orleans.

And to?

— Southern California.

How small a move?

— I’m in a small one-bedroom, but it’s really sparsely furnished. So not much stuff at all. Like I’m not even taking my bed, right.

So…

— I’ve used some online inventories and they estimate that my stuff would come in at around 1500 pounds.

Let’s say 1700, to be safe.

— Okay…

So, if that’s 1700 pounds… and roughly 1800 miles… let’s say 1850 to be safe… and if we add the origin… [inaudible mumbling, backed up by the sound of an adding machine]… and destination… and [inaudible, followed by much production from the adding machine]… it comes to right about $1700.

— Okay, 1700. That’s based on the weight, right? So what if my stuff actually weighs more, or less?

Oh. No. This is a binding estimate.

— Based on…? I mean, you haven’t seen my stuff.

Yeah, but I’m giving you the TPG rate. I could give you the 400N, sure, and then we could deal with the actual weight, but then I wouldn’t really be free to discount the price.

— Mm-hm. And in terms of insurance…?

The price includes a valuation of 70 cents per pound per article. You can buy more if you want more, up to $2.50 per pound per article. Or you can get replacement coverage, up to $10,000, for $264 for no deductible, or $60 for a $500 deductible.

— And what are your windows like for pickup and dropoff?

We’ve got a three-day pickup spread. And then there’s a five-day transit time. So counting the actual day of pickup as day 1, the dropoff window begins on day 6 and extends to day 18.

— Uh-huh. Great. That’s what I needed to know.

Call us back when you’re ready to get this started.

Hmmm…

I spent a chunk of this past weekend hanging out in my apartment, not wanting to think about either the quantity of work I have to do in the next two weeks or the fact that somehow all of my belongings in this apartment need to transport themselves back to California at the end of that same two week period. When I don’t want to think about the things directly in front of me, where else should I turn but the magic of digital cable.

I finally managed to catch Sofia Coppola’s rendition of The Virgin Suicides, based on the Jeffrey Eugenides novel, which I haven’t read. (Eugenides, incidentally, is numbered among the “New White Guys,” a putative “group” of writers that includes David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, Donald Antrim, and Jonathan Franzen. I’m suspicious of this groupness, however; DFW was quoted in a Time article [which I can’t link for you as our good friends at AOL-Time Warner charge for access to their archives] as dismissing the idea by saying “Well, we’re all white males between 30 and 40, at least as far as I know.” None of this is particularly to the point of this entry; I’ve been looking into it for the famous conclusion and I just found it interesting.) The film is odd: oddly paced, oddly structured, eerie in its prettiness.

But the main events of the weekend were the pay-per-viewings of The Others and Vanilla Sky. And, for benefit of those who haven’t seen them, I’m just going to say Hmmm… on the correspondences. Very intriguing. Very revealing. If you’ve seen them both, follow me into the comments — I’m dying to talk about them. If not, well, hurry up and watch them so we can chat.

Silence

Well, I managed to conclude the conclusion in a temporarily satisfactory way, despite the deafening roar of absolute silence on your end. Okay, point taken. I’ll do my own work. Sigh.

Having done so, and not being quite ready to begin the introduction last night, I instead took some time to poke around this web thing a bit, and stumbled upon a reader review of David Foster Wallace’s Up, Simba! that just tickled me to no end. Go read it. It’s the first review.

Oh, heck, I’ll even give you the part that tickled me:

He teaches at Disneyland, is what I last heard, which may be why I likened his genius to the size of one of those parks.

I’ve decided that it is in the vital interest of the academy’s future to take over the spaces of defunct amusement parks. Classes could be tailored to their environs: poststructuralist theory to be taught on the rollercoaster; the first half of the American lit survey on the log ride; senior seminars in the spinning teacups. And, of course, all creative writing classes will be held in the funhouse.

Here’s a Question

So, I’m nearing the conclusion of the conclusion of the book I’ve been working on for the last umpteen years. Which of course doesn’t mean I’m done — there’s still the introduction to be written, and the first chapter to be polished up a bit.

But it does mean that this is the moment at which I’m supposed to be thinking the really Big Thoughts, the what-does-it-all-mean thoughts, the concluding-type thoughts. And I’m totally mired in the shallows, unable to come up with an adequate reason why the argument I’ve spent the last 260 pages making is so bloody important that the future of civilization depends on it.

My argument, in case you’re interested: despite the perpetual hue and cry to the contrary (in which an article every six months or so proclaims the novel a dead form, and the novel itself repeatedly contemplates that death between its own covers), the novel is in fact not obsolete, but rather uses the notion of its obsolescence as a means of creating a kind of cultural wildlife preserve, a protected space within which it can continue to flourish. But the question, to be wrestled with here in the last pages, is the relationship of these claims of the novel’s obsolescence to more general cultural cycles of the birth and death of genres, of styles, and of media.

So let me ask what you think: why would it matter if the novel were obsolete? Personally, I’d be crushed if no more of them were made, don’t get me wrong. But is there some particular reason that the novel’s potential obsolescence should trouble us more than, say, the death of the vinyl LP? Or the death of radio drama? Or the death of epic poetry? Is there something special about the novel — not necessarily something that makes it more valuable, but something that makes its (supposed) passing different from that of other cultural forms of expression?

(Any helpful thoughts would be much appreciated, and duly acknowledged.)

July 9, 1982

Tomorrow is the twentieth anniversary of the crash of Pan Am 759, which fell victim to a wind shear during takeoff from New Orleans International, plowing into a nearby Kenner neighborhood, killing eight people on the ground and all 146 aboard.

I know this now because the top story in the Sunday Times-Picayune was a remembrance of the crash, with a focus on the changes that it effected both in the aviation industry and in the town. The aviation industry learned from this tragedy, investing heavily in research toward the development of advanced technologies for the detection of wind-shears and microbursts. Kenner has had a more difficult, more emotional recovery; many people who live there still can’t talk about that day.

I was in high school in 1982, only 70 miles up the road in Baton Rouge, but the distance — both that between the crash and my perceptions of it, and between 1982 and now — is more significant than it is substantive. Just a few days ago, driving past the airport, I remembered the crash, but in a hazy enough way that I wondered for a moment if I had it confused with some other crash in some other city, or even if I’d dreamed some part of the memory.

Sunday’s paper explains to me, though, the chill I get every time I drive past what is now Louis Armstrong International Airport. One of the runways is visible from the interstate, and when planes land on that strip they pass over the cars below by a bare couple of hundred feet. Chilling enough, particularly in these post-9/11 days. But that bit of nervousness has always seemed to have some non-present origin, one that I could never, before yesterday, fully locate.

Sounds Familiar

Continuing the Richard Powers binge, I just yesterday finished reading Gain, which traces the corporate history of Clare International, a giant conglomerate much akin to the ill-fated Beatrice Foods. Remember Beatrice? If not, you’re not alone. The corporation only advertised its existence briefly, during the 1984 Summer Olympics, the resonances of which were particularly alarming considering it turned out that Beatrice was the parent company of everything. Then there was that pesky little series of lawsuits, and the conglomerate is no more. (Or at least no more in that form, under that name.)

What struck me last night as I was wrapping up the book, however, was less the Beatrice connection than Powers’ depiction of the Clare response to the onset of the Great Depression:

By Independence Day, four fifths of the wealth traded on the New York Stock Exchange had vanished into the thinnest of atmospheres. The Jazz Age took a quick refresher course in the imaginary value of equities. Clare’s stock tracked this average drop downward with all the tenacity of a bloodhound puppy. By summer’s end, the worth of the entire, far-flung manufacturing empire was less than the book value of the Illinois factories four years before.

Alone among the corporate brass, William Clare had seen the shape of things to come. The careful financier knew all about bookkeeping by mass hypnotism. Throughout the twenties, he sold off his shares in steady, disciplined lots. By the peak, he’d gotten far more than fair market value for his portion. When all hell broke loose, he dumped the rest of his worthless paper, enjoyed a year of ship-spotting off Nantucket, and returned to business to serve briefly on the board of Gillette just before his happy death as a traitor to his family in 1931.

Douglas [Clare] II was less hurt by the plunge in his net worth than by the reception of his monograph, The Dream of the Romanesque. Scholars laughed at the work because it was written by a businessman. And businessmen by and large failed to read it because it appeared to be about old stones. Douglas retired from the firm to the Greek island of Soundetos. There, in comfortable if reduced circumstances, he took to financing his own amateur forays into classical archaeology.

Everyone else whom the company bound together went to the cleaners. And the folks in the khaki shirts got cleaned longest and hardest of all. All the sorters and sifters and gauge-tenders and packers and haulers who had been forced into buying company shares at a discount now watched helplessly as their precious nest eggs cracked into the national omelet. Workers who had built their retirements for forty years came up empty-handed, the victims of the distributed pyramiding swindle of capital. (307-308)

Bookkeeping by mass hypnotism, well-timed sell-offs, the pyramiding swindle of capital. But hey, that was then, this is now, right?

Happy Independence Day, all.

Them Singin’, Dancin’ Demons Do It Every Time

Inspired in part by the wonderful pulchritude, and in part by my own overindulgences, I’ve undertaken a plan of (somewhat) radical detoxing. The most significant aspect of my pretty much semi-annual attempt to achieve a less chemical existence is giving up caffeine, which has the immediate effect of making me feel as though someone is driving a railroad spike through my temporal lobe. Not good when one is frantically trying to finish up work on a manuscript about which one is decidedly ambivalent anyway.

The good news is that, as of last night, about 7:00 pm CDT, after two days of head-splitting and general depression, the pall lifted. Headache gone. Not thinking entirely clearly yet, but no longer feeling quite the same urge to dash in front of a streetcar, either.

What made the difference? Either the simple passage of time, or last night’s replay of the Buffy musical. You decide.