Au Bon Pain
There are two Au Bon Pains near the Hynes Convention Center in downtown Boston, site of this year’s Modern Language Association conference. MLA is the main professional organization for scholars of language and literature in America; ABP is a French-style chain that sells made-to-order sandwiches and delicious, chocolate-filled pastries.
Having one Au Bon Pain in your life is lucky; having two is a curse. On the first day of the convention my friend tells me to meet him at Au Bon Pain. He shows up at the one; I show up at the other. Cell phones are no help. “I am here, where are you?” I say into my iPhone. “By the sandwich counter,” my friend replies. “That’s funny,” I say. “I’m standing by the sandwich counter too.”
This is my first MLA convention. Becoming a member of the MLA costs $21 for graduate students. Attending the annual conference costs more. I pay $60 for the conference because I register late. It’s normally $40. For professors it’s worse, something unconscionable, like $250.
A week after I register I receive a letter from the MLA in the mail. It is my badge, a card of sturdy stock, with my name and university affiliation printed on it in black capital letters, legible from far distances to those with sharp eyes. At the conference there are kiosks where badge lanyards are being disseminated in large quantities. I pick up my badge lanyard, made of woven royal blue nylon, at one of the kiosks. Attached to the bottom of the nylon is a metallic clip, and attached to the clip is a plastic encasement. I slip my name card into the encasement and I lower the lanyard around my neck.
After a while the nylon string starts chafing my skin. When I don’t need the badge anymore—when I am safe within the recesses of the convention—I lift the lanyard back over my head and stick the badge in my pocket. It feels wrong somehow, not wearing the badge, like I’m ashamed or embarrassed to be seen with all of these people, to be identified with them, but really it’s just that my neck itches.
Avenues of Access
The presidential theme for this year’s MLA convention is Avenues of Access. In 2008 the theme was The Way We Teach Now. In 2009 it was The Tasks of Translation in the Global Age. Last year the presidential theme was Narrating Lives.
The word “access” in Avenues of Access is purposefully multivalent, according to Michael Bérubé, the MLA president responsible for this year’s theme. It refers to American “access” to higher education; graduate student “access” to tenure track jobs; disability studies’ “access” to humanities departments; and scholarly “access” to digital technologies.
It’s unclear to what degree the presidential theme dictates the panel talks. At any given time throughout the day around thirty panels are being held, and only a fraction of the panels listed in the convention program seem to correspond to Professor Bérubé’s presidential theme. On Thursday at 3:30 there is a panel called “The Art of Ending(s),” for instance. On Saturday morning there is a panel on Eugene O’Neill and postcolonialism. Now wait a second. “Eugene O’Neill is an American author,” I think, skeptically, before another skeptical voice in my head tells me, “ . . . but America is a postcolonial nation.” Literary criticism has answers for everything. In fact, the only thing it lacks are questions.
I leaf through the convention program, searching for a panel to attend. Though there are thirty panels, so many panels that you will trip over one if you’re not careful, for the first session I manage somehow not to go into any.
The Hotel Bar is called Connexions with an x. It is dimly lit and the drinks are expensive. The seats have leather upholstery and are squishy and make farting noises when I sink down into them. I cross my left ankle over my right knee and stare off pensively. I make a steeple with my fingers. My fingers are interlocked.
I am hoping to make a connexion.
Lauren Berlant, the George M. Pullman Professor of English at the University of Chicago, is presenting a paper at a panel on risk. Her paper is titled “Risking the Common, Risking Relation: From Emerson to Spahr.” Lauren Berlant has a distinct way of speaking. At the end of each sentence her voice accelerates, spiraling downwards; the words come faster and faster and are increasingly inaudible. Audience members lean forward in their seats to hear her, elbows on thighs. I like the way she speaks.
Lauren Berlant gives her paper standing behind a podium. Every so often during the talk she raises her left foot and rests it against the inside of her right knee, the stationary knee, forming a “p” with her legs, a pose that seems yoga-inspired. Tree-pose (tadasana), I believe it’s called. The paper she gives is great but as far as I can tell it has nothing to do with risk. Instead it’s about community, belonging, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the contemporary poet Juliana Spahr. What Emerson and Spahr have in common, is not entirely clear. Lauren Berlant is not very forthcoming—I think that’s what makes her paper so good. I find, paper after paper, that the good ones, the ones I perceive to be good, are in fact incredibly difficult to follow. I tell people afterwards, “Good paper,” but I hope to God we don’t talk any more about it. I don’t want to reveal that I didn’t know what it was about.
Then I think that we might all just come out, just come clean, and say, “We didn’t understand.” We might get somewhere.
The MLA convention isn’t just for panels. It’s also for interviews.
Gary is a seventh year graduate student in my program. He wears a crisp blue suit and a purple tie. He is brimming with confidence. He’s had two interviews already at the convention and this afternoon he has a third. We are standing in the department suite, on the thirty-fifth floor of the Marriott, and Gary has just called down to room service to order a lobster roll and a beer for lunch. The bill is at least thirty dollars and Gary has charged it to the room, which our department is paying for. Gary is shorter than I remember him being and broader in the shoulders. “How have the interviews been going?” I ask. Gary scoffs. “What do you think?” he says. He’s been crushing them. Gary’s second interview was only supposed to last half an hour but they kept him there for much longer, like almost a full hour. He straightens his tie and sneers at me.
Gary spends the next forty-five minutes waiting for room service to show up. Every so often he makes a call on his cell phone. “This is Gary,” he says. No one is picking up on the other line. His calls are going straight to voicemail. Gary sounds like he’s reading from a script. “Are you in town?” he says. “Would you like to have a drink with me?”
I see Jonathan Kramnick speak on a panel about the 2001 novel Remainder. Jonathan Kramnick is famous for his work on cognitive science and the novel. He argues that Remainder is more psychologically real than critics understand, than the author Tom McCarthy himself understands. Jonathan Kramnick knows what is real, because he knows about brains.
Every professor will tell you that Jonathan Kramnick is one of those people you must see. But none of those professors are at Jonathan Kramnick’s panel. In fact the room is nearly empty. And yet the professors turn out to be right: Jonathan Kramnick gives a good paper.
However: his paper is startlingly intelligible. It seems plausible. And for that reason, not very good.
As much as I find it hard to believe that Jonathan Kramnick surprised himself writing that paper, he knows about brains, and he therefore already knows that modernism is just an enhanced form of psychologized realism.
MLA is full of people who already know. Socially, it’s a bit cramped.
MLA is where one sees the famous “job market” in action. Of the thousand or so people who pass through the job market this year, only a handful of them will get interviews, and only a handful of those will get jobs. Perhaps three or four.
Some Professors at MLA, like Russell Berman, the outgoing president, want to shorten the time to degree. They want to push people into PhDs faster. Before, only long, endlessly unfurling dissertations would get you your degree. Not anymore. Databases will count as PhDs. Blogs will count as PhDs.
This is a promising development. It runs headlong, however, into something Russell Berman hasn’t considered: Where will all these speedy PhDs go? Slowly into oblivion? There are not enough adjunct jobs for them to fill.
At MLA people speak of non-academic jobs. The PhDs will get them. But I see that many of the people who speak of non-academic jobs have academic jobs.
MLA has no center. It has booths below, conference panels above, and nerve-wracking interviews in secret rooms everywhere. But the center is nowhere. There is nowhere you must go, nothing you must see. There is no key to MLA. MLA publishes a volume every year called “Profession,” but the conference teaches you nothing about the profession, except that the profession involves, occasionally, going to conferences, including MLA.
Because it has no center, MLA is like “structure” in Derrida’s famous paper on structuralism (which he delivered at a conference in Baltimore that was not the MLA). Better: MLA is like the Bonaventure Hotel in Jameson’s Postmodernism: you cannot cognitively map it. I’ve been to the Bonaventure Hotel. The Bonaventure Hotel is no great shakes. Though it is, in fact, difficult to map. Cognitively speaking. One suspects the only reason Jameson went to the Bonaventure Hotel was because MLA was there. In which case MLA may have given us our definition of postmodernism. That particular MLA might be, for obvious reasons, the most significant MLA in recent history, even though all MLAs are, by Jameson’s definition, “postmodern.”
Incidentally, there is a bar in the Bonaventure Hotel, and perhaps it too is called Connexions, though Jameson doesn’t say.
MLA is a learning experience. It is said you should go there once, before you “have” to go. So I went. What did I learn? I learned to shake hands and smile. I learned to tie a full Windsor knot. I learned that . . . .
The Market, Again
One hears, in the news, that one new fad after another is sweeping the academy. World literature, digital humanities, book history, cognitive science. Perhaps everyone will just watch TV (there are twenty-seven panels on The Wire, and at least a paper, I recall, on Rizzoli and Isles, a TNT show). But MLA proves that nothing is sweeping the academy. The academy is already swept clean. Everyone continues to do little things, in their own prayer niches, and except for grand exceptions, only a few people care—but they care, sometimes, intensely.
The elephant in the room, or the one that has left the room a while ago (but whose stinking presence everyone still inhales deeply or holds their nose after), is Theory. That really did sweep the academy, or trundle through it, and the academy is in mourning for it.
Foucault writes somewhere that at some point he had reached an age when he ceased to make “intellectual ‘discoveries.’” The sentence is terrifying. I believe I still make intellectual discoveries, from time to time—every now and then, I get excited—but at some point, like Foucault, I may stop. The profession obligates you to stop. Because if you continue to make discoveries, you may have to rethink what you’re doing. You may have to ask questions. And then what? Only a few people are free to stop. They have tenure. Their job is to make everyone else keep going.
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