If the title rings no bells, that is hardly surprising. Like Freaks and Geeks, the previous show by Undeclared's creators, it was the victim of remarkably clueless network executives who never quite knew what to do with it. Neither program seemed to air more than two consecutive weeks in a row. And when a loyal following emerged anyway (with television critics lauding the shows' humor and intelligence) it didn't make much difference. The ratings were too low.
Freaks and Geeks lasted from 1999 to 2000 -- just as the major networks were discovering that the audience really wanted to watch people eat bugs and marry strangers. The first episode of Undeclared aired on Fox two weeks after 9/11. Its picture of dorm life at the imaginary University of North Eastern California was neither cathartic nor particularly escapist. And the realities it portrayed (for example, "free money" being handed out to students, i.e., credit card companies signing them up) were probably too campus-specific.
The revival of Undeclared on DVD is in part a matter of its cult status. As with Freaks and Geeks, it seems to have developed a solid core of fans on college campuses, with videotapes circulating long after cancellation. (Last year, F&G was issued on DVD to generally rapturous acclaim.)
Adolescence is usually portrayed by pop culture in terms that are themselves pretty adolescent. Which is to say, either cloying in its sentimentality or histrionic in its cynicism -- arguably, two sides of the same coin. Teenage life is presented as a time of profound life lessons ("And that was when I understood that things would never be the same again..."). Either that, or as a spell of wrenching agony (same voiceover, but with a bitter snarl).
In either case, growing up is portrayed as the loss of innocence, or some moment of hideous realization that innocence was always a sham, rather than a process of gaining new powers and responsibilities. So adolescence becomes a privileged phase in life -- a period when you haven't yet succumbed to all of the compromises and disappointment that must follow. Whole sectors of the economy are devoted to reinforcing this belief, in however bizarrely distorted a form. The desirability of being able to recapture part of adolescence must be the subtext of half the SUV advertisements. And the themes and attitudes associated with that part of life (alienation, vulnerability, irony) are pretty much identical with the dominant tone of mass media now, as as Andrew Calcutt shows in Arrested Development: Pop Culture and the Erosion of Adulthood (Cassell, 1998).
What made both Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared stand out is that each broke out of this pattern. They depicted adolescence in a recognizable way, but the sensibility was more adult than anything the characters themselves could have manifested.
That was especially true of Freaks and Geeks, set in a suburban high school in Michigan in 1980-1. The central character, Lindsay, was an academically talented middle-class kid who, in the wake of her grandmother's death, begins to idealize the underachieving stoner kids. She turns her back on the Mathletes and starts hanging out with the school's clique of rebels-without-a-cause. The pop-culture norm would be to celebrate Lindsay's metamorphosis from brainy "geek" to disengaged and sardonic "freak" (a bit of period slang that didn't last much longer than the subculture itself).
But the program was a lot more astute than that. It tracked her disillusionment with disillusionment. Gradually, Lindsay saw that the romantic vision of her friends as outsiders is totally inadequate. They were as prone to self-deception, inauthenticity, and inner numbness as anyone. The result was a story of real maturation, rather than of easy epiphanies.
As Judd Apatow, the producer for both programs, writes in the booklet accompanying Undeclared, he started the second series while mourning for the first. He hoped to gather some of the earlier cast together and recreate its chemistry.
While Undeclared certainly has its moments, I don't think that quite happened. For one thing, Paul Feig, who created F&G, didn't write any of the scripts for Undeclared, though he did direct a couple of episodes. His book Kick Me: Episodes in Adolescence (2002) is the quintessential account of nerd life -- a memoir that is excruciatingly funny, when not simply excruciating. Feig has described its recently published sequel, Superstud, or How I Became a 24-Year-Old Virgin, as the second part of his "trilogy of shame." (Both books are from Three Rivers Press.)
Minus Feig's scriptwriting, Undeclared doesn't have much of an introspective edge. But its picture of life in a coed dormitory (at a not-very-impressive university) is funny often, often enough, to be memorable. In particular, it renders an utterly believable (and slightly quease-making) account of a high-school romance that goes rancid when one person heads off to college. The line between affectionate cuteness and emotional breakdown can get pretty thin. Only small nuances of tone make it comic, rather than horrifying.
Watching the program again after three years, I'm also struck by how often it shows presumably full-grown adults regressing to an adolescent state, thereby making themselves ridiculous. The singer-songwriters Loudon Wainwright plays a father who starts hanging out at the dorm during his divorce, happy to be treated as a cool guy by his son's friends. A history professor (Fred Willard) is challenged by a student to liven up his lectures. So he reenacts the Kennedy administration using costumes and props -- his idea of what the kids want. Edutainment has seldom been so awkward.
And Will Farrell makes an appearance as a familiar type: the guy living just off campus who will, for a fee, write term papers. (He's even equipped to take credit cards.) Clearly a brilliant student in his prime, he now sits around the house in a robe playing video games. For a student who needs a paper on Jackson Pollock or The Brothers Karamazov, he's ready to churn one out in a few hours.
How does he do it? "I read eight or nine books a week," he tells a customer. "I also take a lot of speed.
Apart from the usual (and wildly uneven) selection of deleted scenes and commentary tracks, the DVD set offers an episode called "God Visits" that never aired during the original run of the series.
It shows one dorm resident embracing pure nihilism (well, as pure as the sitcom format will allow) and another becoming a Bible-totting religious zealot. Naturally, each student returns, in due course, to a state of nonphilosophical normality. That is to be expected. But what's remarkable for a network television show of any kind, let alone a comedy, is that both worldviews get a bit of airtime -- and neither is held up for ridicule, as such.
In fact, Undeclared may be one of the first times that TV has shown the proselytizing of incoming students by evangelical Christians. The phenomenon (a fact of life on any reasonably large campus) was portrayed on at least a couple of episodes.
Evidently it made the in-house watchdogs at Fox nervous. Perhaps it wasn't in keeping with the official line that universities are reeducation camps for left-wing indoctrination?
Then again, it's possible that something else bothered the executives. Television networks are, after all, easily frightened. Anything involving brain activity would tend to do it. Watching Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared when they first appeared, you knew they were too smart to survive. But it's good to have both in durable form. That way, they'll last longer than the courage of any given broadcast executive.
Submitted by J.P. Leary on August 12, 2005 - 4:00am
The 19th-century Welsh novelist Henry Clairidge (1832-74) stood firmly in the British eccentric tradition, publishing only two novels during his lifetime, __________ and [ ], each consisting of 200 blank pages. A posthumously published volume was put out by his sister, Ethel, in 1876: “******,” a heavily annotated work of 200 pages, also blank.
These three books constitute the Clairidge oeuvre and his claim to literary posterity. Apart from a few contemporary reviews in The Gleaners’ Gazette, Clairidge remains mostly a tabula rasa. No critic has adequately addressed this master of Victorian minimalism, who so clearly anticipated the work of the Parisian livre vide movement in the 1890s and the pared-down appearance of late Beckett some decades later.
Occasionally, commentators have projected their own preconceptions on Clairidge’s admittedly scanty plots. New Critics had a field day filling in the gaps and differentiating between hiatuses and lacunae.
Barthes proposed 53 distinct readings of page 100 in [ ], whereas Derrida declared, “There is nothing inside the text.” Greenblatt links the genesis of Clairidge’s corpus to a blank diary found among the effects of a drowned sailor from Bristol in 1835. Several attempts by white studies scholars to claim Clairidge’s pages as an oppressed majoritarian cri de coeur have been largely ignored by multiculturalists.
These previous approaches miss the mark. Clairidge’s grand emptiness, prefiguring the existential void of the 1950s, mirrors life itself -- or at least the life of Clairidge, who spent his last 20 years at the ancestral estate in Ffwokenffodde, staring gormlessly at the hay ricks. His sister, Ethel, who doubled as his amanuensis and nurse, would occasionally turn him toward a prospect of furze, but the shift seems not to have affected his subject or style.
I contend that Clairidge’s hard-won nullity is temperamentally different from nihilism, which is to say that believing nothing is not the same as Belief in Nothing. Moreover, if Clairidge’s art takes the blankness of life as its premise, its slow-building conclusions represent a sort of après vie. Though reconstructing a writer’s faith from his art is a dicey business (and Ethel burned her brother’s blank notebooks after his death), one of the few remaining social effects sold at a charity auction in 1876 is a hay-strewn, slightly warped Ouija board. In short, this project involves the unacknowledged fourth estate of the race, gender, and class trinity: creed. Any committee members in sympathy with the current political administration, please take note.
Nothing is familiar to me. As a blocked but tenured faculty member for the past 14 years, I can attest to the power of the blank page. The study I propose would be as infinitely suggestive as Clairidge’s own work. Having already compiled over 150 blank pages of my own, I estimate that I am about halfway through a first draft.
My spurious timeline, suggested by my university’s internal grant board to indicate progress, is as follows: chapter one by March, chapter two by April, chapter three by May, and so on. More specifically, I hope to have the large autobiographical or “life” section done by May, so I can go on vacation with my family, and the “after-life” section should be done before my department chair calls me in to discuss that tiresome annual faculty activity report.
I already have papers and books strewn impressively around my office, as well as a graduate assistant to help me sort through them. An NEH grant at this stage would not only help to renovate our breakfast room, but also answer the querulous looks that the dean of liberal arts has been giving me at public gatherings. Considering the projects you people have been funding lately, I -- but as with Henry Clairidge, words fail me. As Wittgenstein concluded in his Tractatus, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
Clairidge, Ethel. The Selected Letters of Ethel Clairidge to Her Brother, The Corresponding Grunts of Henry Clairidge to His Sister. Eds. Renée Clairidge and Friend. Metuchen, N.J.: Methuen, 1965.
In the hallowed halls of academia, Sexism no longer swaggers about in a wife beater with a Camel no-filter hanging from its defiant lip. Indeed, overt displays of machismo are rare, and all of the carefully crafted institutional rhetoric reflects and promotes principles of equality and tolerance. Our private liberal arts centered university, smack in the middle of a down-home red state, even has a women's caucus. In a stunning display of sheer determination and astounding courage, two of my colleagues (one untenured) swept away the decades-old dust left from the dirty dealings of the old boys' club and created the caucus. Today I am the head of this caucus, which boasts about 80 members of the faculty and staff.
Our most challenging work is finding the language to articulate the workings of an insidious sexism that results in what I like to call the quotidian miasma of discrimination, or the QMD (not to be confused with the chimerical WMD). The QMD is insidious because it is the byproduct of a constellation of factors that, when looked at individually, seem not to target women, but which converge on spaces where we are most likely to find women. This more nuanced version of sexism leaves us without a clear enemy, without the swaggering patriarch to flesh out the sinister intentionality behind the discrimination.
I remember as a grad student trying to understand the Matrix-like quality of the "patriarchal order." I always envisioned a bunch of old white men, semi-reclined in overstuffed chairs, hands clasped behind heads, cigars in mouths, gathered around a heavy wooden table in a locked room marked "Patriarchs." In the upper echelons of my university administration, there are plenty of Patriarchs who meet behind closed doors around heavy wooden tables, but the room lacks a clear label, although in the hallowed hall outside the university’s presidential suite, photographic portraits of trustees fill a wall with mostly male images. At my university, we have a male president and five male vice presidents.
Probably they don't overtly plan the continued subjugation of the second sex in their meetings, but regardless of their intentions, the dearth of women in the upper administration and in positions of power is a major contributing factor in the QMD. Because it is undetectable by the clumsy, outdated sexism radar we are still lugging around from the 70s, the QMD works stealthily and subtly.
So, if it's not wearing its hatred and fear of woman on its sleeve, what is Sexism wearing these days? On my campus, it sometimes saunters around in Birkenstocks, long hair, and maybe glasses. You know these guys. These are the men we went to grad school with, shared apartments with, read Judith Butler and bell hooks with. They eschewed virile formulas of manliness, embraced gender theory and were OK crossing their legs at the knees if it was crowded in the conference room. Now they have grown up and inherited the power positions at universities around the country, and, lacking real world experience as the discriminated, many of them have lost the sense of urgency they once felt about the rights of women and the distrust they once had for the administration.
Now they are the administration, if in a minor key. My friends and I have dubbed the administration "The Men's Caucus." Upon arrival, junior men are immediately and seamlessly made members of the Men's Caucus, invited to the all-male circles of power that spin the narratives of our professional lives in the lunch club, the wine club, the tennis group, Friday night basketball, Monday night poker.
To tell the truth, as I struggle through my Survivor-like work environment, male colleagues often have been my biggest supporters, and at times it was a senior woman colleague who made life miserable for the junior women in our department. She had internalized the patriarchal reward system and aligned herself with a senior male colleague, whose behavior and demeanor sent women around him back to the kitchen to make his coffee and fetch his metaphorical pipe. This aging Lothario was often seen bopping around in biker shorts, no shirt, and a cap worn backwards, or swaggering into meetings 10 minutes late wearing a huge, black cowboy hat. His persona stood in contrast to the values he seemed to espouse in his postmodern, liberal scholarship.
His self-styling, bespeaking a hyper-masculine posture and a desire for stark gender distinctions, emulated three of our most extreme forms of embodied virility: the jock, the cowboy, and the hip-hop gangster musician. My negotiations with the Lothario were always easier and more successful when I honored his role as mentor, protector, patron, father, leader, and Don Juan. He liked to make comments about our secretary's weight, and once he referred to our retired women colleagues as "dingbats." When one of the junior women got pregnant, he claimed in her written department review that her pregnancy had affected her job performance. At one of my first faculty dinners, he tipped back several glasses of wine and asked if I would be dancing on the table.
Unfortunately, our soft-spoken, measured, diplomatic dean did not take seriously the women who came forward with complaints about life in the kingdom of Lothario. Instead, the dean read women as damsels in distress to be rescued and then sent on their way with promises of inheritance, departmental ownership and pats on the head for good measure. But alas, in the end he returned the women colleagues to the oppressor's fiefdom, unwilling to betray the code of male privilege and loyalty that works to keep women distressed and in constant competition with each other for validation from the male power structure.
One wonders what would motivate him in this case. Maybe his loyalty to Lothario is rooted in some repressed nostalgia for the patriarch, or maybe he is overcompensating for his own imagined inadequacies when measured against the absent, yet longed-for virile authoritarian. Maybe sometimes the Birkenstock liberal yearns for a pair of cowboy boots and a Camel no-filter.
I managed to live through years of torment by self-centered, self-important, yet mediocre senior colleagues who eventually did grant me tenure, on the strength of my credentials, but to this day, old men roaming the halls tell tales of how the dean "saved" my job, or of how some other man was instrumental in my rescue. I might as well have been wearing a pointed pink hat and waving a hankie out the window of a medieval stone tower. In the patriarchal grand narrative, I was the damsel in distress. I began to wonder if I could ever emerge from this male tale.
The damsel in distress is a motif in the 17th century plays we read in my Golden Age literature class this semester. In these comedies, the women characters must negotiate their positions in an oppressive patriarchy that defines them as objects to be adored, possessed, protected, and rescued by the men, whose honor, virility, and social status derive form the women-objects they control.
Wait a minute, I kept thinking.... I've heard this story before.... Woman plays to the men in power by assuming roles that highlight and affirm male strength, and by disavowing the facets of her identity that are deemed threatening, irritating, or downright hysterical by the reigning paradigm. We shape each other's behavior by rewarding and withholding, by subtly voting for the parts of each other we like best. With many male colleagues, my damsel in distress routine is their favorite performance -- some wouldn't even call to talk unless there was a crisis on the table.
There is a multifarious and indefatigable pressure to be read as a damsel in distress, and, let's be fair, if women don't recognize our own participation in this system, then we preclude the possibility of creating new roles for ourselves, ones that do not require pointy hats or being tied to railroad tracks. How many of us let our need for substantiation from the powerful (all male, at least in my corner of academia) push us to create problems for our knights to solve? What will my professional future look like if I refuse to play the damsel in distress? I don’t want to play the women's roles we see in the formulaic Hollywood films like Pretty Woman, Maid in Manhattan, or Father of the Bride, but I don't want to end up playing roles like Monster or Thelma and Louise, either. I'm not ready for homicide or jumping off a cliff.
Women's Caucuses around the country must work to articulate the complex machinations of the QMD and to increase awareness about the ways many of us, including liberal men and feminists, are perpetuating it. Let us build alliances with our women cohorts and reject the paradigm that would have us compete against each other for male approval. We must be strategic and deliberate if we are to resist the immense pressure to accept prescribed roles that promise us "success" even as we are systematically excluded from the power structure that defines success and failure.
Phyllis Barone is the pseudonym of an ex-damsel and associate professor at a Midwestern, private university.
I'm a bitch. I realized this about six months after I started on the tenure-track at my small Midwestern liberal arts college. It took me a bit longer to figure out what the others in my cohort were. But gradually we all took our turns under the sorting hat. By the time I earned tenure last year, I had figured it out. There are three ranks of junior faculty: bitches, good soldiers and golden boys.
Despite our sexually progressive campus, bitches must be women, and golden boys will be boys. Good soldiers alone promise equal access to all.
Bitches and golden boys needn't work very hard to earn their titles. Often, the die is cast before heels or oxfords touch down on sod. A woman, rumor has it, might have asked for too much start-up money upon receiving her offer. Golden boy status is often earned far, far earlier -- frequently, birth, does the trick. While many bitches belie the canine etymology of their label -- many of our local brood are quite stunning -- for men, being golden often means, well, being golden. And tall.
After a few faculty and departmental meetings and the scuttlebutt from students circles up to faculty, cementing your title in the gendered categories requires only a few token gestures. A suspected bitch might express strong opinions about curriculum, hold only four office hours a week or grade tough. You can practically hear the sizzle upon flesh.
Golden boys will shine bright if they have some innovative ideas about revising the curricula, travel to conferences frequently and ask for lots of start-up money upon receiving an offer.
There's nothing much surprising about the above -- these are just gender stereotypes, after all. What's surprising is that they're really true. This, despite the fact that we're not stuck in the past here: scholarship by women is assigned in class without having to make a point of it, many departmental chairs, administrators -- well-nigh the highest administrators -- are women. We hire as many women as we do men and, overall, do well at helping with the work/family balance. On paper we've left those stereotypes behind.
But this is a place where buying a house before tenure can still raise eyebrows and where most junior faculty are to be seen but not heard. When it comes to that all important tenure criterion -- being a good colleague -- gender still gets in the way.
You might think, resentfully or aspriationally, that the best thing to be is a golden boy. Not so. Sure, when they're assistants, golden boys are the top of the class. But remember, we're a liberal arts college in the Midwest, so golden boys are both flattering and threatening. They smell too Research I. It's like when someone more good-looking than you asks you out -- you can't shake the suspicion that you're being played. And while golden boys make the senior faculty look good (we hire the most promising graduate students) and never have any problem getting tenure, once they become senior, the gilt falls off quick. Suddenly they become washed-up middle-aged guys who never fulfilled their promise.
If you're in this for the long haul, then, it's a good soldier you really want to be, and what I now advise recruits become. Good soldiers are the meat on our bones, the soul of our institution, our bread and butter, what makes the place tick. They're married to the institution; they're, well, they're us.
Unfortunately, unlike becoming a bitch or a golden boy, becoming a good soldier requires work. Grunt work. Serving on committees. Going to student plays. Taking on new course preparations. Asking good questions at departmental meetings. It means raising your hand when the question is "who can help?" not "what should we do?" Good soldiers are in town when you are hosting a dinner for a speaker, and they keep their office doors open, should anyone want to chat.
When the tenure enclave commences, golden boys, of course, sail through. No rules are broken, but mediocre teaching and a few less articles than promised are overlooked. It's the period after tenure golden boys need to worry about. Rumor has it, the therapists in town see them a lot. Good soldiers, though, are rarely done deals come tenure review time. Service is no problem, of course; they've already entered the ranks, have perhaps already served a tour of duty as temporary chair or on a major committee. Superior teaching evaluations are required. Research is usually fine but not great (guess why?). However, having earned the love of students and lessened the senior faculty's workload for seven years, good soldiers will, usually, sweatily, receive their medals.
Bitches? We're tricky. We tend not to even make it to tenure. Some of us get better jobs -- we may not smell Research 1 on this campus, but we do on those. A surprising number leave academia altogether. A good number read the writing on the wall early -- unlike golden boys, bitches can't sail through, and the senior faculty let us know that in yearly reviews. So those who aren't producing quite enough, or never could find a comfortable seat in departmental meetings, make lateral moves before tenure. You might say that bitches are smart.
As for me, I spent a few years holding my tongue, raising my students' self-esteem and volunteering for thankless tasks. I was being good, if not exactly a soldier. Some of this, I freely admit, was salutary: I stopped fighting losing battles, learned the value of the phrase "buy in," and relaxed during debate-filled faculty meetings. knowing I wouldn't be contributing.
I made it through, and to those who sorted me upon arrival, earning tenure meant that I had, at long last, arrived. In the photocopying room one summer afternoon shortly after the results had been posted, a career soldier congratulated me, shook my hand and welcomed me aboard. "It's nice to have you with us," he said, seven long years after my arrival on campus.
Still, it's lonely. I miss my bitches. However, I'm also, suddenly, thrilled. I'm not washed-up, I'm not stuck in the mire of the foxhole, and I can finally say, without impunity, what I think this institution should do to improve, hold my students to high standards and pursue an independent research agenda. And isn't that, after all, what being a professor at a liberal arts institution is all about? Maybe being a bitch isn't all that bad after all.
Ruth Haberle is the pseudonym of an associate professor of English at a liberal arts college in the Midwest.
Submitted by Robert Weir on September 21, 2005 - 4:00am
Every semester I hear the same shopworn appeals for special dispensation for missed deadlines, even though my syllabi specify that only written requests from a dean or a doctor will be considered. Referring students to the syllabus usually evokes astonished assertions that surely it was an oversight to exclude their particular circumstances, which, in the sweep of Western civilization, are unique.
It’s been at least 10 years since I’ve heard an original excuse, and I was beginning to suspect that the hip-hop generation was imagination-challenged. My mistake! New students simply don’t have the semiotics background to understand the difference between the sign (message sent) and the signified (message heard) of academic discourse. It’s not until the sophomore year that students begin to grasp this, thus I offer this humble Semiotics 101 lesson for first-year students, lest they inadvertently offend their professors.
"I was so busy with classes in my major that I simply didn’t have time for your assignment."
"Your subject is so irrelevant I’m surprised it’s even offered at reputable schools. Did you lack the requisite skills to become a garbage collector?"
"I work full-time, care for small children, and am involved in community charity groups. It’s hard to find time to juggle all of this."
"Unlike slothful bums like you who just show up to class, put in an occasional office hour, and then bugger off to drink coffee, and nap in the faculty lounge."
"I was completely done with my paper, tried to print it, and found out that my processing system is incompatible with that of the college." (Variants: "My ink cartridge ran out," and, "The computer erased everything on my diskette.")
"I haven’t started this paper and I’m hoping you’re a big enough sap to fall for such a lame excuse."
"This assignment was unfair and your instructions were unclear."
"I have never misunderstood anything in my life. The problem is that you’re a sadist. How did you escape the Nuremberg trials?"
"I had a 24-hour stomach virus and was so sick that my roommate got scared and took me to the infirmary. Doctors said it was probably just food poisoning."
"My roomie and I went out drinking at a local bar. The local fauna was looking fine, the music was loud, and I got plastered. But I wasn’t going to work on your silly assignment anyhow."
"A close relative died last night."
"It was actually the aunt of my fourth cousin thrice removed and last night was the 14th anniversary of her death."
"You’re too demanding. I’m spending all my time on your course and neglecting all my other classes."
"That’s because yours is the only one I have a prayer of passing."
"I’ve been under a lot of pressure and am seeing a therapist who suggested that extra time to do my work would be helpful."
"OK, it’s not a real therapist, but my friend did get a B in Psych 101 so I’m sure she knows what she’s talking about."
"I have a learning disability."
"Others seem to get things right away, but I have to study so I must have an LD. If you don’t pass me I’ll get someone to certify I do and sue your butt under the ADA."
"I’m sorry I missed the deadline, but I couldn’t get back from break because of the snowstorm."
"The parties on Aruba were so good that I stayed an extra three days. Did you know that ‘snow’ is a synonym for several classifications of powdered controlled substances?"
"If you give me a break this time, I promise I’ll never miss another deadline and that I’ll put extra effort into all other assignments."
"Yeah, and Bambi’s mother will come back to life, dodos will roam the wild Australian plain, and cold fusion will power every American home."
I could go on, but these humble examples should suffice to make first-year students realize that all utterances are texts and that they cannot privilege their interpretations over those of their professors. Armed with that knowledge there is but one failsafe response: Meet the deadlines!
Robert Weir teaches humanities and American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and at Smith College. He is the author of four books, numerous articles, and has been teaching for 26 years. He has fielded approximately 47,311 excuses.
When I was just a few years out of graduate school I wrote a “treatment” for a television series to be called “The Young Professors.” The show tracked the adventures of three new assistant professors as they negotiated the ins and outs of life at Soybean State College, a medium-sized, teaching-intensive public institution somewhere in the Midwest.
This was in the mid-1970s, when series about young doctors and lawyers were big. So, knowing that nothing succeeds in commercial TV like a knock-off, and hoping for a source of income other than teaching summer school, I took a crack at putting college on the small screen. While I billed the show as “The Halls of Ivy” meets “The Mod Squad,” my project had no legs. My plots were not exactly ripped from the headlines, and although any resemblance between the characters that I depicted and actual persons living or dead was purely coincidental, or so I claimed, those characters weren’t going to keep viewers from changing the channel. A small flurry of interest from a local public broadcaster led nowhere, and now the yellowing, typed pages of “The Young Professors” sit in a folder with the rest of my juvenilia.
My efforts to “write what you know” notwithstanding, the classroom remains an occasional backdrop for television, and while the successful shows from the medium’s golden age, like “Our Miss Brooks,” “Mr. Peepers,” and “Room 222,” portray a strikingly unrealistic version of the high school experience, occasionally we’re treated to a media distortion of college life as well.
To be fair, we may pretend that the media tells it like it is, but we know very well that even reality television is far from real. Cop shows are notorious for misrepresenting life on the streets, and lawyer series fail to capture the highly-nuanced world of torts and contracts. Life in the E.R. is not all high concept relieved by short commercial breaks. And Ralph Kramden was no ordinary bus driver. But college professors don't even get the kind of attention we lavish on Cosmo Kramer or Archie Bunker. TV hasn't brought us the Dead Deconstructionists' Society, or anything that looks at college from a faculty perspective. Woody Allen occasionally reduces Brandeis to a cultural stereotype in his movies, and there was a popular TV series about life of a pre-med at the fictional University of New York, but don’t hold your breath for a dramatization of Harvard MBA’s-in-training, not to mention the Sarah Lawrence experience.
When it does notice higher education, television can treat it as comic. For example, there’s Ross, the museum paleontologist who once taught an evening class on “Friends,” and who does wind up on the NYU faculty . But more often than not, TV prefers a lurid look at campus life. Hudson University, a recurring venue on “Law and Order” and its spin-offs, is more a source of L&O’s killers and corpses than it is a provider of expert witnesses to testify in court.
The hijinks at Hudson are a far cry from swallowing goldfish or stuffing frat boys into a Volkswagen. At Hudson’s labs, researchers are killed by animal rights activists when they’re not too busy subjecting students to trials of dangerous experimental drugs without informed consent. Hudson undergrads regularly lose roommates to murder, and grad students occasionally kill their advisors, or are killed by them, often after having sex without informed consent.
In fact, many of L&O’s higher ed plots revolve around “Sex and the City University.” In one episode a grisly murder leads the police to a Hudson anthropologist who’s desperately trying to hide from his wife his unhealthy appetite for young boys. In another, the president of Hudson is bludgeoned to death by a serial murderer from Australia masquerading as an English don. Instead of acknowledging her misdeeds and copping to “man 2,” the fake Englit specialist must face nonrenewal of her contract and the disappointment of her lesbian lover, who also happens to be her dean.
In contrast to the gritty reality of the L&O classroom cum crime scene, the 1950s half-hour sitcom, “The Halls of Ivy,” presents a bucolic Ivy College that is nothing like Hudson University. “The Halls of Ivy” starred Ronald Coleman and his wife Benita Hume as William Todhunter Hall, the genial, urbane president of Ivy College, in the town of Ivy, somewhere in the Midwest, and his wife Victoria Cromwell Hall, the college president’s equally genial and urbane wife. After a successful radio run from 1949-1952, “The Halls of Ivy,” following the earlier lead of “Our Miss Brooks,” migrated to television in 1954.
“The Halls of Ivy” had great promise and strong backing (it was one of the most expensive TV series of its day). But while Eve Arden’s portrayal of Constance Brooks, everyone’s favorite high school English teacher, captivated viewers for four years, America wasn’t ready for a show about college foibles, and “The Halls of Ivy” lasted only one season. Although created by one of the lead writers for the populist radio series “Fibber McGee and Molly,” the plots on ”The Halls of Ivy” were too high-brow for the television audience. Indeed, many of the 38 episodes that CBS aired (seasons were longer then) could have been ripped from the headlines, provided they were the headlines of Inside Higher Ed. One TV history says the show flopped because it was too literate and lacked action.
On the other hand, the fact that "The Halls of Ivy" drew a national audience at all was itself a cultural phenom. America was undergoing one of its most intellectually deadly moments at the time, with universities the target of rabid red baiters. On top of that, “The Halls of Ivy” dealt with issues that were surely sensitive in 1954 and are still pressing and controversial in the academy today: racism (in one episode, a Chinese student is ostracized by classmates and runs away); athletics vs. education (in another, the cross-country star quits the team because track is taking too much time away from his studies; in a third, a top pre-med student wants to give up dreams of the O.R. up to become a professional boxer). The show even dealt indirectly with gender stereotyping: while Vicky often plays the role of ditzy sidekick to her husband’s competent-administrator pose, a minute later she’ll put on her "Murphy Brown" persona and trade literate barbs with Toddy like any self-assured and hip chronicler of human foibles.
To be fair, whole episodes of “The Halls of Ivy” were devoted to issues over which the American public both then and now might be expected to yawn: the eroding faculty/student ratio; professors who aren’t publishing; a candidate for a named chair who might be a fraud; a department in danger of being closed because of low enrollments. There was even a half hour devoted not to drug trafficking, a problem that’s endemic at L&O’s Hudson University, but to traffic congestion on Ivy’s no-longer-sleepy campus, and Dr. Hall’s attempts to dodge a ticket he got from the college police. I doubt if even the readers of Inside Higher Ed would have patience to sit through those segments today, compelling as they seemed to the show’s producers at the time.
But “The Halls of Ivy” did deal unashamedly with the facts of college life. While Ivy’s president is in no danger of being bludgeoned to death, in the pilot episode of “The Halls of Ivy,” President Hall nervously waits while the board of Ivy College votes on renewing his contract. Hall does get the nod, but a short three episodes later we see that the president is still insecure: Toddy and Vicky hurriedly throw together a meal without letting on that their guest -- the fussbudget chairman of the governing board -- has come to dinner one night too early. In other episodes, Hall sweet-talks an eccentric donor who demands that the college display one of her sculptures in exchange for a new gymnasium, and he must find a way to avert a mandatory faculty retirement that will be disastrous for the college. In two episodes Hall deals with the problems of what we now call returning or nontraditional students, but in the blunt language of the 50s were simply old folks going back to school. Later in the season he intervenes to quell rumors that the new Latin professor is a sexual predator. And in another segment, Hall deftly confronts the problem of an honor student who is about to be expelled because she never finished high school. Toward the end of the show’s run, Hall puts on kid gloves to handle a gangster come to campus to find out why his nephew was kicked off the football team.
It wasn’t the limited-interest plots or the controversial issues that kept “The Halls of Ivy” audience coming back week after week. It was the finely-tuned scripts and the ensemble acting, and the show’s theme song, a Whiffenpoof-style chorale that managed to enjoy some commercial success independent of the series. But while Dr. Hall had no trouble convincing the board to renew his contract, it soon became clear that Ronald Coleman had done far, far better things than portray a college president, and the audience eventually dwindled to a point where it was too small to warrant CBS picking up the show’s option for a second season. As the redeemed Latin prof might have put it, “De gustibus non disputandum est.”
I was 10 when “The Halls of Ivy” aired, and though I knew nothing of academia I looked forward to the show each week. It still seems to me that academic life should generate at least as much public interest as infomercials for food processors or exercise equipment, but perhaps it was best that “The Halls of Ivy” bowed out gracefully. And while it was nice for me to dream that the “The Young Professors” would one day generate as many spin-offs as “Law and Order,” which seems to be on one cable channel or another every hour of the day, I know that it’s best that my show never got off the ground. Even public-access cable channels aren’t ready for a series focusing on tenure, struggles over who gets the nice office, or endless committee meetings. “The Young Professors” would have been, in effect, a show about nothing, and as such it was no doubt far ahead of its time.
While I don’t expect television to portray college faculty with docudrama accuracy, I still believe there’s a role for higher education on TV beyond “Law and Order,” “The College Bowl”-style quiz, the “Book World” interview, or the CNN talking head. For some reason, the movies are more likely to get it right, with films that show professors as just like everybody else, only more so, like "The Blue Angel," "Good Will Hunting" and "A Beautiful Mind." Most academics are not pretentious boors or stuffed shirts like the one in “Annie Hall” who expounds vacuously on Marshall McLuhan’s theories while standing in a movie line, prompting an exasperated Woody Allen to bring out the real Marshall McLuhan to chide him. McLuhan was also an academic, by the way, though clearly not much of an actor. And few of my colleagues have the get up and go of Indiana Jones, a movie professor who can turn into a villain-bashing superhero just by taking off his glasses and putting on a pith helmet.
Instead of reducing us all to cultural stereotypes, it would be nice to see shows in which professors contribute to the solution rather than the cause of crimes, have sex lives which are dramatically compelling without being criminally dysfunctional, or participate in witty sitcoms like “The Halls of Ivy,” or what I hoped that the “The Young Professors” might become. While there’s no “Law and Order” network, at least not yet, there are entire networks devoted to animal antics, do-it-yourself projects, and city council meetings. Surely a show about professors could find a niche on one of the 500-cable channels while being both too literate and lacking action.
Dennis Baron is a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"We only wake you up for the important meetings." --N.Y. Yankee co-workers to George, on an episode of "Seinfeld"
In a recent New Yorker cartoon, a group of people is seated together at one end of a table with upraised hands. The caption reads: "It's unanimous: effective immediately, we spread out around the table."
One of the things that has always most fascinated me about meetings is the agreement that must be already in place before the meeting takes place. Surely not, whatever else, including the arrangement of seating itself! And yet another of the things that has always fascinated me about meetings is that absolutely nothing can be taken for granted about them. Not even seating, as confirmed by meetings that begin -- much like classes -- with everyone present bid to either spread out or form themselves in a circle.
Who does the bidding? Not only the chair. Indeed, one could make a case that academic meetings are distinctive either because authority is regularly delegated (in departments, to the heads of other committees) or else always open to decentralized procedures of various kinds (often the establishment of sub-meetings). To whom is the bidding to be seated made? Not only to departments -- just to continue with this organizational "unit." Or rather not only to departments whose membership is fixed; for many years I was part of a department that fudged the question of whether the secretary could attend meetings and fumbled the question of whether adjuncts were part of the department by requiring them to leave before voting on anything began.
What about the meeting's agenda? Surely at least these are agreed upon? In theory, agreement is secured by publishing or circulating an agenda beforehand. In practice, though, consideration of anything during a particular meeting is often not limited to the agenda. Just as often, the meeting really heats up when something additional is either added or something unforeseen erupts.
I still recall my very first department meeting. I don't remember whether it had an agenda. I do remember the moment when a senior member jumped up from his seat and began cursing the chair. The subject wasn't some new disciplinary perspective. (I had assumed this was what departmental meetings were about.) It was about a private quarrel between the two men, involving the fact that a student had fired a gun into the living room window of one of them.
Later I found out that the senior man was a retired CIA agent. The person who told me this was himself a former CIA agent. What? How could I find myself in a department, two of whose members were CIA? I thought this was the sort of circumstance that happened in academic novels! These were the same novels, of course, in which meetings were mentioned, but not described.
If a department is not reducible to its meetings, are its meetings reducible to the department -- or is the department, in turn, reducible to its members? For many years in my own former department, I used to feel that we would have better meetings if we had a better department, and we would not have a different department until we had different members. In time, we did. But the members were arguably worse. However, the department meetings were occasionally better.
Now I'm not sure what to think about such meetings, except that when all is said and done, on the part of just about any group, meetings are inherently boring, forever driven by a few people who like to hold forth about curriculum planning or the latest Vision Statement from the administration. Everyone else -- especially the untenured -- feigns polite interest, unless something of personal consequence appears. If it doesn't appear, well, there is always the next meeting.
Once I knew a woman new to American academic life who professed herself stunned at the sheer tedium of so many meetings during which so little was accomplished. One day she was near tears. "Most of what's discussed is completely superfluous!" I blurted out in response: "Don't forget: the purpose of the meeting is to have another meeting." It was suddenly as if somebody else had uttered these words. Maybe somebody else once did to me -- after a meeting.
After a meeting: ah, this is a golden time, when frank talk can ensue with intimates about what really happened, how predictable it was that so-and-so said such-and-such, and whether -- given the administration, the chair, the union, the alignment of the planets -- the final vote would ultimately mean anything. Meanwhile, too bad there had to be a meeting at all, that exquisitely formal affair in which much was considered and little decided.
I once had a colleague who told of a friend who had counseled him thus: the best way to endure meetings was to smoke a pipe. People saw the pipe, not you. For better or worse, these days are now gone. We who must continue to meet today have fewer weapons at our disposal to do battle against the inevitable fatigue. Idle scribbling on a print-out of the agenda or the last minutes: Is this the promised end?
Of course I appear too cynical. Some issues of course demand meetings. Just don't ask me to give examples. Some meetings prove to be absolutely necessary. Blame me if it seems these particular ones are usually the most boring. Lastly, we must agree at least that a department simply cannot conduct itself without meetings. Yet is there no better, more efficient way for it to do its business?
I've heard of departments that try to do so exclusively through e-mail. This might work, especially in excessively factionalized departments. But then the department deprives itself of a chance to be visibly recreated as a collective whole. Such deprivation is not accomplished without peril. Another way to put the issue: the purpose of meetings is to have a department.
Members may teach alone. They usually research alone and they certainly write alone. But each belongs to a department (and through it, to an institution). Meetings are crucial in assuring members of their own common cause, ranging from curricular change to tenure votes.
We can bemoan meetings. We can't easily give them up. Consider the situation of adjuncts. Most departments are virtually forced to dream up occasions for adjuncts to meet, under the auspices of "professional development" or institution-specific "strategies."
Here the purpose of the adjunct-only meeting is not so much to have another meeting. (Many in attendance could be gone by next semester.) The purpose is to have the meeting (and therefore a "department" of sorts) in the first place! Are adjuncts thereby constituted as a group? Of course not. Not only do such matters of high moment as curricular change fail to concern them.
Adjuncts are excluded from even such lowly questions as the selection of new textbooks. Indeed, consolidating ideals of any sort -- apart from the scandal of there being adjuncts at all -- are not available to them; adjuncts are paid to teach, not to attend meetings about teaching -- or anything else. And yet, there must be meetings for them to be "encouraged" to attend, lest their professionalism itself be endangered. Of course, once they do, just once, another meeting is theoretically possible, and then all seems well.
No matter, somewhat paradoxically, that freedom from meetings, in fact, is the usual virtue of their lot regularly invoked by adjuncts themselves! Everyone is expected to smile knowingly. (Unless full-timers suspect sour grapes. ) Nobody, it seems, is expected actually to like meetings. Just so, though, all are expected to acknowledge their abiding necessity, therefore to attend the next meeting.
In sum, one cheer for meetings. Readers will recognize my allusion to E.M. Forster's famous essay, "What I Believe," wherein he gives democracy a grudging two cheers. One is because it admits variety. The other is because it permits criticism. The departments of my experience admit variety, but far more grudgingly than in Forster's democracy. Worse, they permit little real criticism. Nothing is harder at a meeting than to raise some fundamental objection to an item or an issue, and then expect to have it thoroughly treated.
Forster's democratic model is Parliament, whose deliberations, I suspect, would put most academic departments to shame. Not only because Parliament abides the individual "nuisance" intent on exposing some abuse. Not only because Parliament is virtually mandated to "chatter and talk." But also because Parliament's "chatter," claims Forster, is "widely reported." In comparison, a department's deliberations are of course impeccably -- not to say, preciously -- private.
One cheer for meetings seems to me quite enough. There had better be one because, academically, we're all in it together, and we somehow manage to remain so (unless we're adjuncts) even through our mostly dreary, ill-starred meetings. Also, one cheer gestures at the existence of more departments than an individual can easily imagine, where variety actually speaks on a regular basis (even without tenure!) o where criticism remains an animating voice. Meetings, finally, are just one of those fateful things about academic life that most of us have to tolerate, when all is said and done (though preferably not at another meeting), like non-committal deans, rude office staff, and students who won't turn off their cell phones. Meetings we will always have with us. But please God, not next week, and not too late in the afternoon.
Terry Caesar's last column was about college presidents.
It's only October, but already you can feel the nip of holiday commercialism in the air. That's especially true at the big chain stores for cultural goods, where the public-domain Dickens books and the discount CDs of Bing Crosby are now on display, priming the pump for seasonal cheer.
And making your way to the checkout counter, you might notice a new title positioned for maximum impulse-buying convenience: A small book called Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us, by Allen Salkin, published by Warner Books.
Late last year, Salkin wrote an article for The New York Times about how some people now celebrate the "Seinfeld"-spawned faux tradition. More precisely, they (or rather, we) invite friends over to Festivus gatherings in early December -- in lieu of the regular Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanza parties. In the course of his reporting, Salkin learned about the Festivus party my wife and I have held in early December for some years now. He gave me a ring to discuss it.
Evidently this interview took place not long after I had downed a large cup of strong coffee -- for I distinctly recall doing a prolonged riff on how Festivus was a postmodern variant of the British social historian Eric Hobsbawm's concept of "invented tradition." This is an exercise known as "bullshitting." You could read a book about it.
None of my improvisation, alas, ended up in Salkin's article. (Nor was there any reference to my effort to add to the Festivus traditions by making the song "Now I Wanna Be Your Dog" by Iggy and the Stooges into a carol.)
Anyway, a couple of months after the piece ran, Salkin was back in touch. He had just gotten a contract to do a book on Festivus, and wondered if I might write up certain aspects of my rant for inclusion as a short essay.
Well, the book is now out. And the essay is in there ... but now in a form much abbreviated. The reference to Eric Hobsbawm, for example, has been removed. (A grievous omission, though it's possible that the great man would prefer it that way.) Some degree of cutting is to be expected. But what did come as a surprise was, rather, the addendum: A sarcastic little item running alongside the piece, scoring easy points off its "overintellectualization" of the holiday. (As though that were not a tendency the essay itself is mocking.)
It seems, in short, like a very curious way to repay someone who contributed his work for free. Then again, free-floating rancor was always the dominant tone on "Seinfeld."
In any case, I've retained rights to the essay, and am running the full text of it here, in the hope that this version be considered definitive by scholars in the field of Festivus studies. If any...
Each year, my wife and I invite friends to gather around the aluminum pole -- or at least the place it would be, if we ever got around to buying one -- and discuss the True Meaning of Festivus. Of course it's gotten so commercialized now. But Festivus is here to stay. After long cogitation (too long, probably) I've concluded that there is more to it than an excuse for non-religious seasonal holiday. Festivus is the postmodern "invented tradition" par excellence.
Admittedly, the phrase "postmodern 'invented tradition' " is something of a mouthful, but there is a more or less serious historical argument behind it. Let's see if I can make it with a straight face.
Once upon a time -- let's call this "the premodern era" and not get too picky about dates -- people lived in what we now think of as "traditional societies." Imagine being in a village where few people are literate, everybody knows your name, and not many people leave. A place with tradition, and plenty of it, right?
Well, yes and no. There are holidays and rituals and whatnot. As spring draws near, everybody thinks, "Time for the big party where we all eat and drink a lot and pretend for a few days not to notice each other humping like bunnies." (That one was a big hit even before New Orleans was on the map.) And yet people don't say, "We do X because it is our tradition." You do X because everybody else around here does it -- and as far as you know, they always have. Not doing it would be weird, almost unimaginable.
But then, starting maybe 300 years ago, things got modern. We tend to imagine that profound cultural dislocations (from war, industrialization, the global marketplace, yadda yadda yadda) only kicked in within recent decades. That's just because our attention spans are so short. Well before Queen Victoria planted her starchy skirt upon the throne, people were nostalgic for the old days.
And so, according to the British historian Eric Hobsbawm, they started inventing traditions from bits and pieces of the past. In the 19th century, for example, folks started singing "traditional Christmas carols" -- even though, for a couple of hundred years, they had celebrated the holiday with pretty much the same hymns they sang in church the rest of the year.
In short, if you say, "We do X because it's traditional," that is actually a pretty good sign that you are modern. It means you have enjoyed (and/or endured) a certain amount of progress. What you are really saying, in effect, is, "We ought to do X, even though we sort of don't actually have to." There is a world you have lost. Tradition is a way of imagining what it must have been like.
Postmodernism is what happens after you've been modern so long that "being modern" doesn't seem all that special -- but at the same time, you don't feel like "being traditional" is all it's cracked up to be, either. And you start putting things in quotation marks all the time.
Does that sound familiar? I could cite a bunch of stuff here about "the decline of metanarratives" and "the simulacrum." But if you're a "Seinfeld" fan, you've had a pretty good taste of pomo without the theory.
What makes Festivus a postmodern invented tradition is that it comes straight out of the mass media, without any moorings in a vague sense of reviving something lost or forgotten. Nobody ever felt a yearning to celebrate it. Frank Costanza just makes the holiday up, and all the "traditions" that go with it. It's hyper-individualistic -- the perfect holiday for the culture of narcissism. The beauty of the Festivuscelebration is that it lays bare all the stuff that you have to squelch just to get through the holiday season.
We gather with family at Christmas or Hannakuh in order to recapture the toasty warmth of community and family. And because, well, we have to. So you'd best bite your tongue.
During Festivus, by contrast, all the vague hostility of enforced togetherness gets an outlet. You have a chance to air your grievances -- and to pin the head of the household to the floor, if you can. It's hard to get sentimental about an aluminum pole. But as long as there are midwinter holidays, the spirit of Festivus will fill the air.
Campus Sexpot is the title of a moderately sleazy potboiler from 1961 -- a tale of faculty-student relations at a small-town junior college where, it seems, the graduates of Peyton Place High School continued their educations. The author was one Dale Koby. A search of online bookdealers reveals that he went on to a fairly prolific career as pulp author, turning out such memorable titles as Sex by Appointment, Lust on Wheels and Perverted Wife. Koby also edited some not-quite-scholarly editions of classic (or at least old) erotica. But most of his ouevre is missing from the catalog of the Library of Congress. It lists him only as the author of A Teacher Confesses to Sex in the Classroom, a work of nonfiction from 1965 revisiting certain themes from his first novel.
Koby was a terrible writer. (Sample: "She thrust her breasts up at him with a pert sauciness.") But by 1962, he had an attentive readership in the California mountain town of Sonora, where he had worked, for about three semesters, as a high-school teacher. David Carkeet, who was for many years director of the MFA program at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, was a student at the school at the time. As he recalls in Campus Sexpot: A Memoir, published by the University of Georgia Press, it was not hard to figure out the real-life identities of Koby’s characters.
Chances are, Carkeet would have studied the novel closely in any case, even apart from the interesting questions it raised about the relationship between life and art. He was 15 when the book appeared, and glad for whatever information on sex he could find -- such as that information was, in a book that carefully avoiding descriptions of everything below the waist. "For all the genital detail we’re going to get," notes Carkeet about one of Koby’s characters, "Linda might as well be a mermaid."
Carkeet is the winner of the award for creative nonfiction from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. That information is announced on the cover, just above a high-school newspaper photo of the author standing on a chair, kissing a much taller girl under the mistletoe. Any writer looking back at adolescence must, of course, face the complications of embarrassment. (It is not just one part of the memories, but part of the writer’s present toolkit: There is a skill involved in handling embarrassment, in using it to carve a shape out of the past.) Inspired by the insight that the trash that once fascinated us gives the quickest access to the identities we've shed, Carkeet uses Campus Sexpot as a way to excavate memories otherwise too disobliging to recall.
"When I read the book now," he says, "its verbal avoidance of body parts with which I am actually familiar returns them to a thrilling condition of mystery. I don’t have to make an effort to enter this frame of mind. Instead, the words in Campus Sexpot that lead up to a saucy scene fire ancient neurons, and before I know it, I am transported into a state of salacious ignorance."
Any work of pulp-era smut consists of two sorts of writing. There are "the good parts," which the reader revisits until they become very familiar, and the rest, which is just barely tolerable the first time. "The chief device for advancing the story," writes Carkeet, "is not action but constant banal dialogue; the reader of a Koby novel longs to enter it not in order to have sex but in order to tell everyone to shut up."
Umberto Eco once made a similar distinction regarding the semiotics of pre-video porn films -- which were, as he put it, "full of people who climb into cars and drive for miles and miles, couples who waste incredible amounts of time signing in at hotel desks, gentlemen who spend many minutes in elevators before reaching their rooms.... To put it simply, crudely, in porn movies, before you can see a healthy screw, you have to put up with a documentary that could be sponsored by the Traffic Bureau."
Carkeet reproduces the "good bits" from the original Campus Sexpot in bold. This is not just a typographical device, or a convenience to the reader, but an index of how much they had burned themselves into his memory. One passage in particular seems like a key to understanding the effect of the novel on him. (It is also a good example of Koby’s prose at its most fine-honed.) In it, a professor named Paul Skell comments on a student, Linda Franklin, who is the titular campus sexpot:
"Hips made for the act of love," Paul muttered, "and ideally designed to accommodate a pair of hot pants. If she's a virgin, I'll donate half of my salary this year to a home for wayward girls. I've spent my life being interested in girls with hot pants. I've studied them from every angle. I believe I know all the symptoms, and Linda Franklin has them."
This came as a revelation. The original of "Paul Skell" -- easily recognizable from his description to those who attended his school -- was the dull and high-minded pedant who taught Carkeet’s freshman English class, and a leader in the local DeMolay assembly. For those not in the know, the DeMolay order is the male youth auxiliary of the Freemasons. It provides "a regimen of enforced dignity for boys at an undignified age," as Carkeet writes, "and the primary engine of uplift is a vast body of ornate ritual that reads like the Boy Scout oath as revised and expanded by Samuel Johnson." To imagine that a severe and proper adult might have "spent [his] long career" studying hot pants "from every angle" was a decisive moment in Carkeet’s sentimental education.
My hope, as a reader, was that Carkeet would track down the author of Campus Sexpot and find out what he was doing now. Koby wrote and edited for the pulp-porn industry up through the late 1960s, and Carkeet tracks down some of these subsequent efforts. (" Appointment by Sex treats a phenomenon I was unaware of when I was growing up -- supermarket cashiers doubling as lesbian prostitutes who meet the needs of shopping housewives neglected by their husbands.") But his creative output declined after 1968, for reasons that are anybody’s guess; and he died sometime in the 1980s.
Carkeet finds that, before arriving in Sonoroa, Koby had been a college instructor in San Jose, and also had affairs with two students at another high school. "There is no reason to doubt the report of A Teacher Confesses to Sex in the Classroom," writes Carkeet, "for it is hardly a self-aggrandizing story.... The author portrays himself as predatory and manipulative but shows no more contrition than one finds in the Roger Miller song of the period, 'Dang Me.' He plays mind games with his young charges, his favorite being exaggerated devotion even as the affair is ending, just to see what reaction he can get."
Insofar as the original Campus Sexpot may be said to have had a plot, its denouement occurs at the courthouse, where Koby has his characters gather for a final melodramatic reckoning. And in real life, too, Sonora had a courthouse, where Carkeet’s father served as the town’s judge. The final chapter of Campus Sexpot: A Memoir is a portrait of the author’s old man -- a recognition of his failings, but also a tribute to him as someone with the moral center that the pulp novelist lacked.
It's not for readers to determine the justice of that conclusion, of course: We know only as much as Carkeet tells us. But as an ending, it certainly follows from the book's effort to work out the parallels and the divergences between fact and fiction.
It also flows from the memoiristic logic of deriving insight from embarrassment. The 15 year-old reader of the novel grew up to be a novelist and a writing teacher himself. No doubt he had a somewhat romanticized version of Koby at the back of his mind -- remembering him as freewheeling beatnik living outside respectable society, and so on. How humiliating to discover that, all along, the more complex and interesting figure may have been your real father, not the surrogate.
A recent entry at his blog Unlocked Wordhord, Richard Scott Nokes, an assistant professor of English at Troy University, recalls how he and some friends let off steam in graduate school a few years ago by making up an imaginary theorist, Pierre Mourier, to discuss on a lit-student listserv. (My thanks to Ralph Luker for pointing this item out.) Nokes says that a few people on the list who weren’t in on the joke began to pontificate on Mourier’s work –- even correcting the title of a translation of one of his papers.
It’s a good story. An edifying one, even: a cautionary tale about the danger of craving the au courant, even at the cost of making yourself ridiculous. But if you go to the archives of the departmental listserv in question, a slightly different picture emerges. Searching "Mourier," you find no messages by unwary poseurs dropping Mourier’s name. One or two puzzled souls do confess that they’ve never heard of the author of Murmurs in the Cabaret: Finding Language through Noise (1951). Everybody else, however, is plainly goofing.
On a more sober note, we should perhaps consider the case of Henri Mensonge, that oft-neglected Franco-Bulgarian genius. He can most accurately (if also most confusingly) be labelled proto-post-structuralist. Mensonge is no mere online ghost. His work was the subject of a compact book by the late Malcolm Bradbury.
The Library of Congress has assigned a call number to My Strange Quest for Mensonge: Structuralism’s Hidden Hero (Penguin, 1987) that places it on the same shelf as Bradbury’s comic novels about British university life. But the Dewey system treats it as a work of philosophy. (I came across it in a public library, by chance, while looking for something about Jacques Maritain.) The confusion is exemplary. I suspect that Mensonge, and certainly Bradbury, would be pleased.
Bradbury notes that a translation of Mensonge’s treatise La Fornication comme acte culturel (which had originally appeared in either 1965 or '66) would be forthcoming "from the West Coast Marxist-Feminist Gay Collective Press, under the title Sex and Culture, with a lovely cover, in their ‘His and Her-Meneutics’ series."
Sadly, this edition never appeared. The Anglophone reader has no choice but to consult Bradbury’s volume. It comes with an afterward by Michel Tardieu, the professor of structural narratology at the Sorbonne best known for his work reducing the plots of both Pride and Prejudice and War and Peace to the same quadratic equation. A note indicates that Tardieu’s essay was translated by Bradbury’s close friend David Lodge. (Readers of Lodge's novel Small World may recall that Tardieu makes a brief cameo.)
Little is known about Mensonge himself. Early in his career, he served as a teaching assistant to Roland Barthes, but certain passages in Mensonge’s work suggest that it must have been a difficult relationship. In 1968, Barthes published his famous essay announcing, as its title had it, "The Death of the Author." But by that point, Mensonge had already anticipated Barthes’s argument and carried it one step further -- erasing nearly all traces of his own existence, to a degree that other reclusive writers might envy. We have, for example, a portrait of Thomas Pynchon from his high school yearbook, while the only surviving photograph of Henri Mensonge shows the back of his head. As he once put it: "I have sought a level of absence that is so complete it cannot be mistaken for anything other than it is."
He even sought to keep his name off the spines of books by or about him. In this age of the theorist as "academostar," such avoidance of celebrity is refreshing. And yet Mensonge is the man who, in Bradbury’s words "out-Barthesed Barthes, out-Foucaulted Foucault, out Derridaed Derrida, and out-Deleuzed-and-Guattaried Deleuze and Guattari." He opened (in Mensonge’s own words) "a new field of desacralizing inquiry." His influence (if that is the word for it) rests upon a single major work, though scholars writing in The Mensonge Newsletter have identified a number of anonymous texts that he may have published, including several unusually thoughtful restaurant reviews.
La Fornication comme acte culturel appeared in advance of Jacques Derrida’s first wave of publications (the three cornerstone works of 1967). But he had the misfortune to publish it in Luxembourg, rather than Paris -- and with an undistinguished publishing house that, as Bradbury mentions, "subsequently proved to be a very ineffective cover for the international drug trade." The book was printed on "porous paper of a kind conventionally used for purposes quite other than literary and philosophical dissemination." Copies of the first edition vary from 39 to 115 pages, reflecting a certain lack of attention on the part of the binder.
Nor was it well distributed. "Perhaps the title was misleading," suggests Bradbury. "Certainly it ended up in the kind of bookstore specializing in erotica and in genital technology of the more complicated kind." Even so, the book’s radical argument found a warm reception. Walking past any given café, one heard French intellectuals enraptured by "a constant intense discussion of La Fornication."
Bradbury writes about La Fornication in much the same way Francis Fukuyama might discuss the Home Shopping Network. Mensonge had written "the last book, the book that completes and concludes the shelf of modern thought."
He began, of course, with Saussure’s model of the sign. Then Mensonge pushed the arbitrary nature of the link between signifier and signified harder than the structuralists ever had. The absolute distance between them (between signifier and signified, that is, not between the structuralists; but them too, probably) made communication impossible.
This was not theoretical recklessness on Mensonge’s part, for the implications clearly troubled him. Either "we have everything to say, and nothing to say it with," as he wrote, "or alternatively the opposite. Most of my philosophical contemporaries choose the one or the other, but quite frankly this looks like trouble to me."
But he refused half measures. Mensonge went further -- challenging what he called "the coital cogito," that implicit structure underlying "the non-existent ego of the scholar him/her non-self." For is it not commonplace to refer to intellectual "excitement," to speak of the need to "lay bare the thing as it is" -- so that thought might "penetrate" reality? (As Mensonge sums it up with admirable lucidity: "Alas, the 'thing' as it is in actuality is not, for there is no thing, and actually no actuality for it actually not to be not in.") Nor is it sufficient to deconstruct what Mensonge called Lacan’s "great phallusy." One must also question "the metaphysical vagina."
All of this, mind you, in work published around the time Judith Butler was a kid watching "Batman."
As it happens, Mensonge’s book appeared just as Susan Sontag was publishing her famous essay "Against Interpretation," with its memorable closing line: "In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art." (I noticed this coincidence, not Bradbury. Please footnote accordingly.) And Sontag’s aphorism was itself a tribute to Mensonge’s former mentor, Roland Barthes, who would later go on to write S/Z and The Pleasure of the Text.
It is remarkable how effectively Mensonge distanced himself from B/S, even before they had articulated their own ideas. Clearly he had thought things through with a certain obsessional rigor. "Sex is difficult enough in bed," he wrote, "as my philosophic contemporaries should know. To try to perform it in the bookcase is hubristic beyond belief. In any case it is no use pretending we are at a whorehouse when we know we are at a funeral. Try the book any way you like. It will show no sign of enjoying it, and will certainly not give a squeak back."
The occasional reference to Henri Mensonge now appears, tucked away in the bibliographies of those literary scholars who practice annotation with tongue, as it were, in chic. And the index that Bradbury prepared for the book (embedding a few additional jokes in his cross-references) is cited in the library-science literature. But My Strange Quest remains the one study of Mensonge available – hence, as such, definitive. (If the author neglects to mention that the theorist’s last name means "lie" in French, that seems a trivial oversight.)
Bradbury notes that other scholars tried to dissuade him from writing about La Fornication -- "a work of such profound intellectual subtlety, linguistic density, and textual disorder that there is no way even of translating it, never mind understanding it, and that only a person of the most limited imagination, and probably the most unmitigated stupidity as well, would even dream of undertaking the task," he writes.
"Fortunately for the common reader," he adds, "there are just one or two of us who possess exactly those qualifications and are prepared to use them. Or maybe I am too modest. Just casting one quick eye around the worlds of journalism and scholarship, I realize there could be hundreds."