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Thursday, January 06, 2005

Nothing about the MLA today

Just an apology to everyone for the horrible loading times that have been plaguing this humble blog lately.  Apparently it’s taking about 15 minutes for people to view this page, and that’s if they’re working with a high-speed connection; folks with dialup have had to wait an average of three days, which is almost as long as some people waited in line to vote in Ohio.

It’s a hosting problem, folks, and we’re going to fix it one way or another, we promise.  It has nothing to do with powerful government forces trying to shut down my revolutionary discussion of the Modern Language Association!  It is simply a technical matter, and we have our wrenches at the ready.

In the meantime, then, if you haven’t seen them already, two incandescent paragraphs from the Poor Man:

The way that normal, non-hallucinating people of any political persuasion can help the soldiers in the field, the people of Iraq, and, not least of all, themselves, is to appreciate the true situation as best they can, and to demand accountability from our political leaders when the situation is not handled effectively. The true situation is that there is a large and popular insurgency in Iraq, made up of disparate interests, but all drawing their strength from the long-standing popular discontent with the American and coalition occupation, a discontent based on a very understandable dislike of foreign armies, and fueled by the thousands of Iraqis we have killed, intentionally or not, to say nothing of Abu Ghraib - here, 6 months later, almost completely forgotten. This is the reality that was apparent to journalists well outside the “Sunni triangle” last March, as well as to the Marines who first “liberated” Baghdad. True, many soldiers in Iraq have been in places where people were nice and glad to have them, which is great, but misses the main point. Kennedy was shot on a sunny day, but most newspapers didn’t lead with the nice weather.

Appreciate this. Understand that the people killing us in Iraq aren’t motivated by Gore Vidal or inspired by Susan Sontag or organized by Michael Moore or in cahoots in any way with any of the right’s celebrity piñatas - not literally, not metaphorically, not if you look at it in a certain way, not to any infinitesimal degree, not in any sense, not in any way at all. They do not lead a clandestine international conspiracy of Evil which has corrupted everything in every foreign country plus everything in America not owned by loyal Bush Republican apparatchiks; nor are they members of such a conspiracy; nor does a conspiracy remotely matching that description exist. To think otherwise is, literally and to a very great degree, insanity. It is insane.

I wish I had written something even remotely like this.  In fact, unless I miss my guess, the Iraqi insurgency has not issued so much as one statement of sorrow at Ms. Sontag’s recent death, and Muqtada al-Sadr has so far failed completely to thank her for her distinctive and pathbreaking work as an American public intellectual. 

Thank you, Mr. Poor Man, sir, for this post and for all you do.

And oops, I almost forgot.  Although its prose is nothing like the Poor Man’s, my latest Nation essay is out today.

Posted by Michael on 01/06 at 08:47 AM
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Tuesday, January 04, 2005

What I did on my winter vacation

Like other lit-crit bloggers, I find that the Modern Language Association convention is too vast to sum up in a single post.  Too vast, too vast, I say!  It is humongous, it contains multitudes!  But I am not interested in commenting on these multitudes.  For me the conference was almost all business:  one afternoon devoted to about five hours of meetings concerning the MLA Delegate Assembly, the next afternoon devoted to the three-and-a-half-hour meeting of the Assembly itself.  Much of that business cannot, in our known physical universe, be narrated, because it is so dull that any attempt to put it into words will create a rift in the spacetime continuum and transport us all to the planet Xanax 4.  And then there are the inevitable newspaper stories about the convention, one of which, this year, was (mirabile dictu) written by a person who attended the convention!  No, not John Strausbaugh’s remarkably weak, self-consciously derivative effort, which managed to be so piss-poor (even by the admittedly loose standards of the form) as to have compromised the entire genre.  Fatally, I hope:  for after Strausbaugh’s embarrassing little display, only the C-listers are going to want to try their hands at this kind of thing.  (I really have only one substantive comment: does it ever occur to people who mock the idea of “queering” the Renaissance or the Victorian novel that a good deal of literature has in fact been written on the subject of sexuality, some of it by writers of various sexualities?  When Strausbaugh sneers at “the race/sexuality/avant-gardist trifecta of ‘Feeling Around in the Dark: Black Queer Experimental Poetry,’” is he really sneering at the MLA– or at the fact that there is such a thing as black queer experimental poetry, and such a thing as critics who attend to it?  And more important, should the New York Times really be encouraging this sort of thing in the first place?  I mean, if you were at a dinner party where someone mentioned the work of, say, Audre Lorde or Essex Hemphill, and someone else rolled his eyes and said, ‘oh, right, the race/sexuality/avant-gardist trifecta again,’ would you consider Mr. Else to be a serious person worth a serious response?  Or would you turn and say, “I beg your pardon, John, but why don’t you just take your sophomoric little remarks to the New Criterion, where they still go in for that kind of thing?”)

No, the only actual daily-newspaper reporting by an actual reporter at the actual convention appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and for some reason the article begins by citing one of the two papers I gave this year.  I learned of this article’s existence in a somewhat strange way.  On the final day of the conference, as I was trying to round up my family, find our sixteen or seventeen bags, and get the car out of the hotel garage, I was stopped by someone in the lobby: “hey, did you see you’re quoted in this morning’s Inquirer?” This induced a full-scale panic on my part, since I thought I’d gone to bed the previous evening at a decent hour, reasonably sober, and did not want to believe that I had in fact stayed at a hotel bar until 3 AM sloshing down drinks with a bemused member of the Fourth Estate.  For that matter, I didn’t remember talking to any reporters at any point during the proceedings.  To my relief, when I got my hands on the article, it turned out that it was written by someone to whom I’d spoken briefly at the end of my session on the first day (all the way back on December 27), and who’d introduced herself as the mother of one of my graduate students, a young man who serves in the Navy and has read extensively in nineteenth- and twentieth-century philosophy.  Silly me, I had no idea I was speaking on the record!  I thought I was just saying hello to a student’s mother.  So, then, before I post anything else about what I actually did or said or saw at the conference, here’s my chance to issue my usual post-MLA clarifications, explanations, and apologies.

The full article requires (free and painless) registration; here are the relevant grafs (where, as is standard fare in academic conferences, “relevant” means “mentioning me"):

When a professor draws a parallel between Dumbo and Detective Monk, you just know you’re at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, where no topic is too weird or popular for academic inquiry.

About 9,000 language and literature scholars have been holding their end-of-the-year convention here since Monday, bunking and meeting at the Loews and the Marriott, schmoozing, interviewing for jobs, and picking from a smorgasbord of 750-plus sessions on such worthy subjects as “Avian Suffering: Cross-Species Empathy in Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale” and “The Uneatable in Pursuit of the Unspeakable: Psychopathy as Evolutionary Possibility in Naked Lunch.”

It was in a session on disability in fiction that Dumbo and Monk were linked by Michael Berube, professor of literature at Pennsylvania State University, who said that for both characters, a source of shame becomes a source of power.

Dumbo, Disney’s cartoon elephant, uses his oversize ears to fly; Monk, played by Tony Shaloub in the TV series, finds that having obsessive-compulsive disorder is handy for a sleuth.

Berube is also fascinated by science fiction, where the disabilities of mutants like the X-men “are forms of adaptation.”

. . .

Founded in 1883, the association was little noticed until the 1980s, when teachers of trendy new disciplines - African American studies, women’s studies, queer theory - challenged traditional scholarship and brought the “culture war” into the ivory tower.

Ever since, the group has been criticized for pushing the envelope too far, for being too leftist, too socialist, too orthodox, for generating reams of scholarly papers with little practical application.

There’s a reason it tilts progressive, Berube said. “Humanities professors tend to be liberal and to push at boundaries. Conservatives and libertarians are more likely to go into business administration, economics and the law.”

This is a pretty good paraphrase of my aside about Dumbo and Monk, for the most part.  (As for science fiction, I’m not all that fascinated by it– in fact, I don’t know nearly enough about it.  Truth be told, I concluded my paper, “Specials and Monsters,” with a one-page discussion of C. S. Friedman’s This Alien Shore only because an alert reader of mine tipped me off to the book about three months ago, and I read it in November.) More specifically, I wasn’t just linking Dumbo and Monk because their disabilities are transformed into strengths; I was arguing that their narratives work, in an odd way, to make their disabilities disappear, and that this phenomenon suggests that some (fictionalized) disabilities are therefore integral to the workings of certain kinds of narrative.  Noting that most people would not consider the X-Men disabled (with the obvious exception of Xavier, marked as he is by his wheelchair), I said:

This linkage of exceptionality with disability may sound strange, and perhaps to some of you might even sound offensive on the grounds that such an expansion of the dynamic of disability does some violence to the materiality of disability.  But what’s involved here is simply a reversal of the much more familiar narrative dynamic in which disability is rendered as exceptionality and thereby redeemed– as when Dumbo, who might as well have been delivered by the black stork as far as his mother’s sneering colleagues in the circus-elephant crew are concerned, finds that the source of his shame is actually the source of his power.  This is, however, a slightly different logic than the Rain Man logic by which it turns out to be a good idea to bring your autistic brother to Las Vegas to count cards: for when you leave Vegas your brother is still autistic, whereas in the rendering of disability as exceptionality the disability itself effectively disappears.  To take an example from contemporary television, Tony Shalhoub’s obsessive compulsive detective, Monk, shows us that OCD is a particularly good disability for a detective to have.  Even more curiously, a character like Monk raises the possibility that certain kinds of disability make one a more able participant in certain kinds of narrative– if we remember, as we should, that detective fiction is almost always recursive, rewarding those characters in the narrative who are the most capable readers of the tropes of detective fiction.

But this is nitpicking– Ms. Gillin got the main point, and the “source of shame/ source of power” quote is straight up.  One minor thing: the session wasn’t about disability in fiction.  It was called “New Perspectives on Literature, Illness, and Health,” chaired by David Caplan, and my paper was clearly the odd one out; the other three actually dealt with new perspectives on literature, illness, and health.  Strange but true!

Rather, the real problem here is that line about how liberal humanities professors tend to push at boundaries.  Quite apart from whether we do this or not, I just don’t remember saying it.  I remember Ms. Gillin asking me if there were any conservatives in literary study, and I remember replying that they’re few and far between, partly because most conservatives don’t seem to show much serious interest in doing graduate study in the arts and humanities these days.  But I don’t think I credited us with “pushing boundaries.” Particularly at the MLA, where most of the pushing has to do with struggling to get in and out of elevators rather than with extending the projects of the historical avant-garde.  I may have said

Humanities professors tend to be liberal and to stop at the top of escalators to check their MLA programs, oblivious to the fact that dozens of people are still ascending behind them

or

Humanities professors tend to be liberal and to push elderly widows into oncoming traffic

but honestly I just can’t recall my exact words.  Whatever they were, though, “boundaries” was not among them.  I’m sure of at least that much, because I have never used the phrase “push at boundaries” in my life.

Whew!  I hope that clears that up.

Next: the thrills and spills of the Delegate Assembly!  Does the MLA have the authority to call for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan?  Find out the shocking answer whenever I get around to writing it!

Posted by Michael on 01/04 at 02:40 AM
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Saturday, January 01, 2005

First things

Happy new year, everyone.  It was a quiet celebration around here, marked mainly by the fact that Jamie stayed up with us past midnight for the very first time, a few hours after he’d hurtled down the “ice slide” at State College’s “First Night” festival, tumbling face first into a soft pile of straw and mud and emerging looking like something out of a detergent commercial.  He loved it.  (A few minutes later he was weirdly embarrassed to run into Nick and his friends a few blocks away at the ice sculptures.  Go figure.) The whole First Night thing was quite charming-- and watching the parade of huge papier-maché dragons, clowns, parrots, and moon-faces, Janet and I had precisely the same thought, namely, “this is so cool, and so pagan.” “They’ll come after this next, you know,” Janet said.  “Yep,” I agreed, “they’ll try to turn it into the Feast of the Holy Circumcision or something.” So in 2005, everyone, we’ll have to be ready to stand up and fight back against the Attack on New Year’s Eve.  You have been warned.

But that’s not what I came to blog about today.  Nor did I show up to say a few words about the Modern Language Association convention, which turned out to be not so bad after all (and during which I met Mr. and Mrs. Atrios).  I think I might get around to that later this week.  Today I just want to note that the tsunami death toll is rapidly exceeding anyone’s ability to comprehend it, and millions of survivors remain in grave danger-- or, as this item in today’s New York Times puts it, “Relief Delivery Lags as Deaths Pass 140,000.” So give what you can, and then a little bit more than that.  Thanks.

Posted by Michael on 01/01 at 07:00 AM
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