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January 6, 2004 [feather]
Shock and awe at the MLA

The annual meeting of the Modern Language Association is, as numerous Invisible Adjunct readers have pointed out recently, an eminently mockable academic festival. Ever since 1989, when Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick got mentioned in The New York Times for delivering a paper entitled "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl," the race has been on to shock and awe fellow conference-goers with the hipness of one's talk, the transgressive cleverness of one's talk title, and even the cut of one's clothing (feminist critic Jane Gallup once famously delivered her talk in a skirt made entirely of men's ties). Inspired by a tongue-in-cheek Chronicle of Higher Education piece mocking not only the hipper-than-thou-ness of MLA mavens but also the humorless finger-wagging of its critics, the thread on Invisible Adjunct morphed quickly into a highly symptomatic emotional trollfest in which academic literary types came into full, defensive contact with the deeply dismissive and generally contemptuous view of them held by a significant portion of the general public. The thread is worth a read, if you find academic humanists sociologically interesting.

The MLA takes place annually during the week between Christmas and New Years,' a scheduling tradition that signals simultaneously a deep disregard for family (if you want to go, you have to skip out on what may be your only chance during the year to spend time with farflung relatives) and a bold, creepy assertion that the profession of literature is one's life (your fellow literary critics are your family). For this reason and many more, I do not attend the MLA. But I do pay attention to the hype beforehand and the reports afterward.

One particularly interesting report appeared in Sunday's Boston Globe. Written by former Chronicle of Higher Education editor Scott Jaschik, the article notes that amid the usual mishmash of sessions on topics "ranging from Hawthorne, to Asian cinema to 'The Aesthetics of Trash,'" there was "a surprising number of sessions dealing with the war in Iraq, terrorism, patriotism, and American foreign policy:"

Not that there was much actual debate. In more than a dozen sessions on war-related topics, not a single speaker or audience member expressed support for the war in Iraq or in Afghanistan. The sneering air quotes were flying as speaker after speaker talked of "so-called terrorism," "the so-called homeland," "the so-called election of George Bush," and so forth.

The approach to the war was certainly wide-ranging -- from cultural studies to rhetoric to literature to pure political speechifying. In a session on "Shock and Awe," Graham Hammill of Notre Dame traced the ideas behind the initial bombing back to the Roman historian and orator Tacitus's idea of arcana imperii, which translates roughly as "mysteries of state." Like Roman emperors who used rhetoric to sway the populace, Hammill argued, the Shock and Awe campaign was a rhetorical gesture aimed at demonstrating US power as much as flattening Baghdad.

At a different panel, Cynthia Young of the University of Southern California spoke about how the White House uses Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell "to create a distorted multiracial mask on imperialism." "What does it mean," Young asked, "when imperialism comes wrapped in a black bow?"

Instead of Rice's August speech comparing the Iraqi "liberation" with the civil rights struggle, she recommended the writings of the African-American activist and writer Angela Davis, who once described her alienation from white Americans mourning the death of John F. Kennedy in 1963, but not the four young black girls who died in the Birmingham church bombing that same year.

Similar alienation is evident today, Young said, as the United States ignores the problems facing minority citizens while taking over countries where people do not look or worship like white Americans. "The new patriotism looks a lot like the old slash-and-burn imperialism," she declared.

Berkeley's Judith Butler, a superstar of gender and literary studies, drew a packed house with her analysis of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's bad grammar and slippery use of the term "sovereignty."

On a 2002 visit to Eritrea, in response to a question about the detention of dissidents there, Rumsfeld declared: "A country is a sovereign nation and they arrange themselves and deal with their problems in ways that they feel are appropriate to them." Beyond the noun-verb agreement problem with "country" and "they," Butler rapped Rummy's knuckles for redefining sovereignty -- in her analysis -- as "the suspension of legal rights."

When the United States is challenged over the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, American officials assert that US courts have no jurisdiction there because we are not sovereign there, Butler pointed out. "We are using sovereignty to declare war against the law," she said, to nods throughout her talk and loud applause after it.

The MLA's deliberative body, the Delegate Assembly, adopted by a landslide margin of 122-8 a resolution supporting "the right of its members to conduct critical analysis of war talk" despite government efforts to "shape language to legitimate aggression, misrepresent policies, conceal aims, stigmatize dissent, and block critical thought."

There's much more. The academic humanities has long conceived of itself as a political entity, and academic humanists have long imagined that the skills that allow them to unravel the language of poems and novels qualify them to make pronouncements on issues very far removed from their area of expertise. The plug-and-play arrogance of the professional close reader ("I can deconstruct anything, anytime, anywhere!") appears to have been on brilliant display at this year's MLA, where a number of critics seem to have decided that pontificating about foreign policy is not only a legitimate professional activity for English professors, but even that English professors, as self-proclaimed experts in rhetoric and textuality, are uniquely qualified to set up as experts in international relations.

Also on display was the repressive, even anti-intellectual effect of that collective decision:

The closest public challenge to the prevailing geopolitical views at the MLA came when one professor asked a panel that had derided American responses to 9/11 and Iraq what a good response would have looked like. She didn't get much of an answer, left the session, and declined to elaborate on her question.

But a young professor of English who followed her out the door to congratulate her did offer some thoughts on politics at the MLA. Aaron Santesso of the University of Nevada at Reno described himself as being "on the left" and sympathetic with much of the criticism of the war in Iraq. But he said that the tenor of the discussion "drives me nuts." "A lot of people here don't want the rhetoric to just be a shrill echo of the right," he said.

Just a few years ago, he noted, the Taliban was regularly attacked at MLA meetings for their treatment of women and likened to the American religious right. Now, there is only talk of how the United States has taken away the rights of the Afghan people.

Santesso said he gains a good perspective from his students, most of whom he characterized as "libertarian conservatives." Most of the debate at the MLA, he said, "would completely alienate my students."

Plenty of English professors share his views, Santesso said. And some of his colleagues are even conservative. They just avoid coming to the MLA.

The shock and awe talks at this year's MLA should be understood in the same context as Sedgwick's masturbating girl and Gallop's tied-up skirt: they are more fashion statement than legitimate political comment; they perform, in their combined, unchallenged stridency, the public self-congratulation of a professional association that deems itself to have special access to political truth; as such, they set a disciplinary standard, not of debate, or even of truly searching thought, but of ideological allegiance. No, that wasn't planned. But I would argue that it was predictable, and inevitable.

Thanks to Judith Weiss for the link.

UPDATE: Tightly Wound has more. She and I are in agreement about the slow-torture quality of academic conferences, particularly if you have a constitutional objection to schmoozing (ahem, I mean, networking).

posted on January 6, 2004 9:43 AM