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Welcome to the Wonderful World of the MLA

This year’s MLA convention starts tomorrow, and for once, Open Letter will be exhibiting. (We’re sharing a booth with Counterpath. Number 237 in case you’re going to be there.)

MLA isn’t necessarily the most uplifting of conventions, although as with anything else that’s social, I love the opportunity to meet and talk with people, convince them to teach our books, etc. and etc. And if anything interesting happens, I’ll try and blog about it. (Unlike last year, this time our University of Rochester/Open Letter party won’t get busted by the hotel security. Yeah, we’re rock stars like that.)

Anyway, as I’ve done in the past, I feel compelled to post about this awesome piece by Gideon Lewis-Kraus that he wrote for The Believer back in the day. It’s still relevant, and still effing hilarious. And gives anyone who hasn’t been to MLA (which mostly consists of a herd of very nervous grad students interviewing for a scarcity of jobs), a sense of what it’s like.

Enjoy!

Mary Pratt, the current president of the MLA, introduces the panel: Masao Miyoshi of U.C. San Diego, Ferial Ghazoul of the American University of Cairo, and Gayatri Spivak of Columbia University; the latter, whom Pratt calls “our most conspicuous traveling theorist,” is a guru of what’s called “postcolonial theory” and current academic megastar and the only one I’ve heard of, although apparently—according to Charlie—all three panelists pack some serious scholarly credentials.

Miyoshi stands up to speak first, and from a distance it looks like he’s actually sporting elbow patches. He hadn’t been sure until that morning, he announces, where exactly he would be speaking, whom he would be addressing, or what he was supposed to be talking about, so please forgive him. He looks a little befuddled but also sure of himself, like a celebrity who has forgotten which clip he brought to show the audience on Letterman. With that caveat and apology, what follows is 95 percent unintelligible. What I get out of it is this: The university is veering toward a business style of management. Funds are being redirected away from the humanities and toward the applied sciences. There’s an increasingly corporate-tinged emphasis on the production of useful knowledge—physics, biochemistry—which leads us to ask this question: is humanistic study becoming “irrelevant, inconsequential, or just incomprehensible?” These pockets of sense-making sentences, however, are occluded deep within a whole lot of non-sense-making about the relation between the humanities and something called “environmental biojustice.”

I just can’t concentrate on the substance of his talk, however, because something about his delivery seems off-kilter; I decide it’s just me. After a few minutes, Charlie elbows me and whispers, “I think that his lips are out of sync with his words.” I laugh. Then I realize it’s true: his mouth is actually making the wrong shapes, as though he’s starring in a poorly dubbed kung fu movie. Charlie and I look at each other, struck dumb. Then, to add to the blazing surreality of the moment, Miyoshi refers to the twentieth century’s three world wars. “Did he just say three world wars?” Charlie asks. “Yes,” I say. Charlie is sweating. He really likes his job and his profession—in a heartrendingly noble and admirable way—and here, at event number one, is his profession at its most cartoonish. I really like Charlie and I have already noticed that most journalists are unnecessarily unkind to academics, so I start sweating, too.

Finally, Charlie’s face flushes and he turns to me. “_There’s a mike delay!_” he blurts out, maybe a little too loudly. It’s just a mike delay, and both of us are embarrassed that we thought it was something more uncanny or sinister. With that crisis of confidence safely behind us, we return to the largely fruitless attempt to parse Miyoshi’s sentences. Then, midthought, Miyoshi abandons a clause, thanks the audience, and takes his seat. Charlie apologizes for him. “I saw him speak on post-1945 Japanese art once, and he was brilliant. I think he was just a little flustered. He must have written that on the plane here this morning.”

“I’m pretty sure he teaches in San Diego,” I say, looking at the program. Charlie looks crestfallen, like he just watched his dad strike out at the family-reunion softball game. This opening experience has done nothing but confirm practically every negative stereotype about the MLA. I can see he’s trying to decide whether there’s a way to save face. He decides to admit that there isn’t. “Well, I guess you can safely ridicule _that._”

If Miyoshi nailed the English-prof-as-space-cadet caricature, the next speaker, Ferial Ghazoul, comes across as the stuffy, supercilious poseur. She speaks as though she has cultivated a robust head cold; exquisitely calibrated sinus pressure steamrolls her vowels, so she holds the middle syllable of “university” for a full two seconds. Her words sound extruded rather than spoken. She gives a fairly standard “tasks of the university” talk: to aid critical reflection, to add to global knowledge, to promote multicultural awareness and cross-pollination, and to be a “laboratory exploring the self and the Other in a humanist framework.” Humanities professors should help “oppose imperialist hegemony” with a “dynamic strategy of bringing subalterns into alliance.”

Then, after twenty minutes of talk about what a university is for, she comes to a melodramatic crescendo. There’s a very long pause. She looks out at the thinning crowd and says, “What we do not ask ourselves is: what for is a university?”

What for is a university? Aside from the fact that she has just asked that question literally two minutes before in the normal put-the-damn-preposition-at-the-end sort of way, what floors me is that this question and its chief syntactic variant—what is a university for?—are asked at the conference with astonishing frequency. If the MLA conference organizers made sloganed T-shirts, the front would read: “MLA Convention, San Diego: ‘What for are we in 2003?’” And the back: “What are we for in 2004?”

And this is the weird thing: they don’t even mean “what for is a university?”—they mean “what for are English professors?” There are tons of answers to the first question: to teach students, to examine political configurations and economic policies, to study earthquakes and tsunamis, and of course to help build fighter jets or antigravity rooms or more muscular bionic arms. But what are English professors for? They teach, of course, but they don’t help out with economic policy, they have little to say about natural disasters, and they can’t build futuristic prostheses. And the better the applied sciences get at answering these lurking purpose-questions—“Hey, check out this new laser-equipped invisibility frock we just made in the lab”—the more their colleagues over in the English building seem like starry-eyed, impractical romantics, or, less charitably, anachronistic buffoons. Despite her clotted jargon and fustian grammar, Ghazoul is making a serious point: more and more people are wondering what the hell English professors are doing and why they should be allowed to keep doing it, and they need to reformulate their answers.

Hells yeah.

Whole article available here. Thanks, Gideon. Thanks, Believer.



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