Sunday, December 31, 2006
After the MLA
OK, I suppose I have time for one more gasp before 2006 breathes its last. Last year and the year before, I wrote some of the most tedious post-MLA essays ever composed, like this two-part, 3000-word recap of one of my sessions along with a discussion of whether the MLA can call for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, and then this two-part, 9000-word extravaganza on the MLA and the NYU strike resolution. So I imagine that at least some of you are bracing yourselves for a 27,000-word minimonograph on the procedures by which the MLA elects its Executive Officer for the Week, and how the MLA Constitution can be amended, by a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs, but by a two-thirds majority in the case of more major. . . .
The great thing about this year’s MLA was that I no longer serve on the Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee, and thus did not have to attend the four-hour DA meeting or the 90-minute Open Hearing on Resolutions or the 90-minute Open Hearing on Motions or the 90-minute Closed Meeting of the DAOC to Discuss the Open Hearings. (Yes, these are all real events.) So: I got in a couple of relaxing and very badly needed hour-long workouts at the Loews fitness center, and (with one caveat that I’ll get to in a moment) I’ve gotta say that the Loews Philly is my favorite MLA hotel ever. It’s a converted office building—in fact, it’s this converted office building, and the appointments are très modern, très cool, very well done. (Janet and I had a great room two years ago when we arrived with kids in tow; this year, for the first time since my interview year in 1988, I was traveling solo while Janet, Nick and Jamie hung out and had fun in Connecticut.) And I actually went to some sessions and talked to some people, almost like a real human. And I had one dinner with some old friends and another dinner with a whole passel of fellow bloggers (though I believe the proper term is “an enlightenment of bloggers”). All of these human interactions turned out to be quite pleasant—and for an extra special added treat, I also got to meet the dynamic physics-and-blogging duo of Sean Carroll and Jennifer Ouellette, the former of whom I’ve corresponded with since ‘way back in ‘04 when blogs were still cool, and the latter of whom turns out to be a French-Canadian expat whose folks moved down to Lewiston, Maine (my father’s hometown) and who lived for a number of years in New York, so as you can imagine, we had almost nothing to talk about. Except books, of course. We suggested some titles for Jennifer’s new book, and then Sean and Jennifer asked me to sign copies of What’s Liberal? and Rhet Ox, and then Sean said he forgave me for not having a copy of Spacetime and Geometry: An Introduction to General Relativity for him to sign, because he knew “it’s too bulky” for me to carry around for a week or so. Which sounds gracious at first, but is actually one of those nasty relativistic-kinda taunts about how light bends around his book but not around my book. Still, now that I’m home I’ve ordered it to be delivered through the appropriate Internets tubes to the appropriate spacetime coordinates, because its Amazon reviews are way, way better than mine.
About my hotel room. On Wednesday, the first day of the conference, I went to hear Robert Boynton, Carlo Rotella, and Laura Kipnis, on a panel moderated by Jeff Williams. It was a great session, and since there were about a half-dozen of my friends in the room, we all invited ourselves out for a post-session drink. But since I hadn’t had anything to eat since 9 that morning, and I do try to remain vertical at MLA conferences for as long as I can, I excused myself, saying I’d be back in a half hour or so, and I grabbed a sandwich and took it back to my hotel room, where I planned to dine modestly, divest myself of the briefcase, etc. Well, when I entered my room the television was on, the lights were low, there was a bathrobe laid out on the near bed, and there were two wine glasses and an ice bucket on the bedside table. For a full ten seconds (count ‘em off, it’s longer than you think) I was convinced I was in someone else’s room. For one thing, I almost never watch TV in hotels, so I knew I hadn’t left mine on. And the bathrobe, the ice bucket . . . I was quite sure I had stumbled somehow into this guy’s room. Anyway, I usually like the personal turn-down service and all, but I have to say this was a little too personal.
On Thursday night I briefly attended the post-Presidential Address nightcaps party on the 33rd floor of the Loews—the top floor, from which the views of the city are really extraordinary. And as I made my way from cashew dish to onion dip, I remembered my very first experience of an MLA nightcaps party. It was 1990, in Chicago, and the reason I’d received an invitation was that I’d published an essay in PMLA that year. Jamie wasn’t born yet, and Nick was just four, and Janet and I didn’t have any babysitters in town, so even though the nightcaps parties run from 10 to 11:30, we actually took Nick with us. We were only going to stay a few minutes, anyway—we didn’t really know anyone there. We just wanted to see what the top of the Hyatt looked like, and gaze out over Chicago’s nighttime sky. Well, when then-Executive Director Phyllis Franklin saw that there was a small child at the party, she came over to greet Nick, smiled, and said, “You know, I think I might have something for you.” She led him over to what looked like an ordinary panel in the wall—but it was no ordinary panel! It was a secret door into her suite, where she showed him a basket of fine chocolates she’d received earlier in the day! “I can’t eat any of these myself,” she said, “but perhaps you might like a few.” What could be better than that? We remember Phyllis fondly in our house. “That was cool, huh?” Janet said to Nick on the way out, and between bites of fine chocolate Nick agreed. “And way better than the National Association of Scholars conference,” I added, “when we brought Nick to the nightcaps party and Gertrude Himmelfarb gave him a bag of broken glass.”
OK, that last bit isn’t exactly true.
I gave two talks this year. One on a panel with Rita Felski and Amardeep Singh, and one on a panel with Scott Eric Kaufman, John Holbo, and Tedra Osell. Both my talks were about bloggy matters, and on both panels I went last, immediately preceded by smart and provocative papers from Rita and Tedra. I began each talk with the (quite accurate) sense that I was delivering the weakest and thinnest paper in the session, but I didn’t obsess about this, because I was on good panels and there’s no I in team and I left it all out there on the field and now I just have to regroup and play my game. You know how it feels when you think you’re just repeating yourself over and over again? I tried to have some fun with this in my first paper, by opening like so:
I have the unpleasant feeling that a lot of the people in this room know pretty much what I’m going to say before I say it. Fourteen years ago, at one of these little gatherings, I gave a paper in which I argued that people should do more writing for nonrefereed journals and other public venues, and that paper wound up as the basis for a chapter in a book called Public Access, which argued the same thing. So you might expect that I’d say something similar about writing for online journals and blogs, since I have a blog of my own and all. But I thought I’d try something different this year, just to shake things up. I’m going to argue that scholars in English and the modern languages should write only for scholarly journals, and leave the magazines and newspapers to the publicity hounds and assorted used-car salespersons of our discipline. Furthermore, I’m going to argue that these “computers” are a passing fad, and that there is neither dignity nor virtue in scribbling for the easily entertained screen-readers of the so-called blogoglobe. Last but not least, and this is the cool part, I’m going to argue that my new position is not in fact a new position at all, but rather a simple extrapolation of everything I’ve said and written to this point in my career, and I invite you all to go back and check for yourselves.
But even that wasn’t very much fun, as fun goes.
Maybe it’s just me. December was so physically and emotionally draining, what with the papers and exams and recommendations and overdue dead-tree essays to write and then the trip to my mother’s. (And those Weblog Awards and Show Trials!) In fact, the whole semester was physically and emotionally draining. I come to the end of 2006 feeling flabby and weary and exhausted and also weary. And also feeling like I’ve been trying to write way too much for way too long, so that my prose has been getting flabby and weary too. You know how it feels when you think you’re just repeating yourself over and over again? Well, I made my mouth utter the words I’d written for my MLA talks, but I had no idea how to end either paper, and I think that was kinda obvious. There was even a rumor going around the MLA that this here blog is in its last throes, and since I started the rumor myself it may actually be true. Right now, though, I’m going to get off this here blog and spend some time with my family. Seriously! We’re having a ridiculously early New Year’s Eve dinner at one of State College’s two good restaurants, and then we’re going to welcome 2007 as best we can. And we wish all of you a happy and healthy and very heathen New Year!