Rocking MLA Like It's 2004
The MLA conference starts today in Seattle, and I’ll be there all weekend manning the booth that Open Letter is sharing with Archipelago and Counterpath. If you happen to be attending, stop on by. I’ll have copies of a bunch of our books AND the brand-new uber-cool Spring/Summer 2012 catalog, which you have to see to believe. All that could fall under the “2012 IS FOR SUPERLATIVES” header, but seriously, Nate outdid himself with this catalog cover . . .
(Sidebar: I’ll be at the booth most all of the time, except when I’m attending The Material History of Spider-Man, which could well be the coolest MLA panel ever. And one that I might “dress up” for.)
Anyway, as I’ve done every year since Three Percent started, it’s time for our annual reposting of Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s 2004 article about attending the MLA. I know this is Gideon’s juvenilia (his first book, A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful, comes out from Riverhead next May), but it’s just too damn choice to pass up. (And still remarkably on point.)
It makes sense, then, that the last really big event of the conference—#585, “Is Now the Time for Paul de Man?”—feels like a resounding celebration of that communal autonomy and collective idiosyncrasy. Paul de Man was a Yale professor from Belgium whose writings in the seventies and early eighties catapulted deconstruction to the top of the theoretical heap, and launched his reputation as a sort of Gene Simmons of the academy—a little controversial, a little over-the-top, definitely cheesy and overblown in a seventies-ish sort of way, but a quintessential rock star nonetheless. He died in 1983; a few years later, someone dug up some Nazi collaborationist writing he’d done for a Belgian newspaper during the war, and it became a big conflagration. The scandal was used as a way for critics of the academy to dishonor the professoriate. “See?” they sneered. “Being a deconstructionist is one tiny step removed from being a Nazi.” It was the perfect link between professor-as-political-menace and professor-as-hopeless-obfuscator. So it’s not surprising that even now, twenty years after his death and fifteen after the scandal, the MLA is still trying to come to grips with de Man.
The subdivided ballroom is as packed as, well, a rock concert. There are upwards of five hundred people here—easily the most at any single event—all dressed up in their ecru scarves and horn-rims, lined up three-deep along the walls, necks craned and heads nodding furiously; it occurs to me, to take this rock analogy one step further, that the constant nodding (“Oh, but of course, I am understanding you perfectly”) is like a restrained form of headbanging. Everyone looks healthier and more stylish than anyone I’ve seen all weekend. Even the panelists are sartorially impressive: Ian Grant Balfour of York University in Toronto looks as distinguished as his name sounds, with thick black rectangular auteur glasses and a charcoal blazer over a tight black turtleneck. Mark Hansen of Princeton is the tallest man I’ve seen at the whole conference, at least eight or eleven feet tall, and is wearing a neon yellow shirt. Gayatri Spivak is cloaked in a radiant red sari. Lindsay Waters, an executive editor at Harvard University Press, is sort of short and has neither cool glasses nor a red sari, but he’s a publisher, not an academic.
The actual papers delivered are so bizarre and freakish and sodden with jargon as to make them utterly incomprehensible. But it is a truly virtuosic incomprehensibility that makes sense only as a kind of poetic performance. It is an incomprehensibility that defies all notions of accessibility to outsiders, a gala event high up in the penthouse of the ivory tower. It’s an incomprehensibility that affirms the professors’ power to decide for themselves what counts and what is meaningful in their world, an incomprehensibility that reclaims de Man as someone important to them for their own private reasons. The de Man they remember was de Man the scholar, not de Man the Nazi, and they thus reinscribe in thick confident lines the boundaries of who they are. Those boundaries declare that de Man the scholar was not and will never be accountable as a scholar for what he said and did in the political sphere, just as de Man the citizen was not and will never be held accountable in politics for what he wrote in the scholarly sphere. To the general public, the panelists assert: you may hold us accountable when we write op-ed pieces, and you may obviously hold us accountable as teachers, but when we write for other scholars we answer only to other scholars. To the right-wing critics: you may hold us accountable for our political views as citizens and as educators, but our political views and our scholarly arts may not for your purposes be wedded.
The night before, I had spoken with one grad student who studies Hawthorne. When he tells people that, they say, “Oh, sure, I read The Scarlet Letter in tenth grade.” “It’s no wonder,” he said, “that deconstruction and other fashionable theories have caught on so hard in nineteenth-century American lit. It takes a subject that everyone thinks they know everything about and makes it sexier, gives a new and exciting way to read it.” In other words, it makes it their own again. It’s not as though they have some exclusive ecclesial privilege over the material, it’s just that they’ve spent years and years reading everything that’s ever been written about Hawthorne, so, yes, in some unmagical and undivine way, it is very much theirs. The fact that we all speak English doesn’t mean that they’re doing something any of us could pick up casually in our spare time.
So as much as I want to grab the panelists by their modish lapels and shake them and demand to know exactly what the hell they’re talking about, it is not my right to do so, for I am not there by invitation, I am not a member of their community, and I have no right to expect that their words should mean anything to me. I still think their tortured, overwrought sentences are for the most part patently absurd, and when Mark Hansen refers to the film Memento as an example of “retentional finitude in a particularly acute form”—which is immediately before he talks about “the breakdown of cinema as a temporal object”—I recoil. But I don’t recoil because I think they are maiming the English language or making a big deal out of stupid things. I recoil because their absurdities no longer seem sublime: I no longer think their argot is cool, their community Olympian, their idiosyncrasies magisterial. Their language isn’t jargon, it’s slang. Their pursuits are neither irrelevant nor transcendent, they’re peculiar—and fantastic, in the true sense of the word. The mood around me is triumphant.