The Hopped-Up Conference Hopper

Bleary from academic gabfests, drugged with prescription narcotics... Scott McLemee wonders how Hunter S. Thompson ever managed.

January 9, 2008

Ever since coming back from MLA in Chicago, I’ve been thinking about Arthur Rimbaud. This isn’t a matter of having attended any sessions on his poetry. Though, come to think of it, he was mentioned at one point in an interesting session on the Beat Generation. This was held at 8:30 on a Saturday morning. You have to wonder sometimes if the people who schedule these things are making a little joke. No beatniks would ever have attended a session of the MLA held at 8:30 on a Saturday morning. Apart from being square, it would have meant staying up past their bedtime.

Rather, I’ve been thinking of Rimbaud in consequence of a wracking cough picked up from some blast of cold in Chicago. As you may recall, he proclaimed that a writer should cultivate his visionary genius through “a systematic derangement of the senses,” through wild experiences and consciousness-altering substances. Alas, the codeine in my prescription cough syrup is not having the desired effect. I sit down to write this in a state of unsystematic derangement.

So instead of hallucinatory conceptual riffs performed in spontaneous bop prosody, I’m going to claim the old columnist’s privilege of “going casual.” Here follow a few quick recommendations of things you might find interesting.

Once upon a time, the question at MLA each year seemed to be, “Who are the exciting new critical theorists, now?”

Then for a while it became, “So why don’t there seem to be any exciting new theoretical approaches?”

After a while, this mutated: “How much longer are we supposed to wait? Hey, wasn’t this panel called ‘Can We Queer the Subaltern Cyborg?’ also in the program for 1995?”

And then it seemed like all anyone wanted to talk about was the job crisis. In 2003, I recall hearing numerous references to an essay in Social Text arguing that the Ph.D. in some fields – for example, English – was a waste product of the academic economy. Certain departments required a steady influx of cheap labor, i.e. graduate students, to teach lower-division classes. Their own coursework would supposedly prepare Ph.D. candidates to be admitted into a profession. But most of them would later, with degree in hand, never find regular employment to teach.

This was not a failure of the system that could be corrected by reducing the number of graduate students admitted, went the argument. Rather, the system was working just fine. Cheap labor was consumed, and the Ph.D.-holder was excreted, and the bottom line was met.

The shift from vague discussions of Bataille's "general economy" to hard-edged considerations of questions about academic labor was certainly very striking. A few years earlier, people had theorized about abjection. Now they seemed to be living it.

The author of “The Waste Product of Graduate Education” was Marc Bousquet, now an associate professor of English at Santa Clara University, who has expanded the argument into a new book called How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation, which does for academe what Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle did for breakfast sausage.

It should have traction outside the ranks of MLA. Some of the grumbling heard during the American Historical Association meeting in Washington, DC over the weekend suggests that people in other fields may read it with a shock of recognition. I had dinner recently with a historian who said, more or less, “People refer to the crisis as one of the ‘job market,’ but that’s misleading. Academic employment isn’t a market in the literal sense.” As it happens, that is one of Bousquet’s arguments -- although the historian saying it hadn’t heard of him or read his book.

How the University Works has spawned a blog of the same name that has very quickly emerged as a prime venue for muckraking, agitation, and YouTube interviews with known troublemakers. In other words, it’s really good to see, and I urge you to take a look.

Also recommended is Framing Theory’s Empire, edited by John Holbo and recently issued by Parlor Press. It assembles several phases of a symposium, held at The Valve in 2005, about the volume Theory’s Empire (Columbia University Press, 2005) – which was, in turn, a kind of rejoinder to The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (Norton, 2001).

In other words, it is an anthology of responses to an anthology intended to negate another anthology. Maybe it should have an ouroborus on the cover?

In any case, the book stands as a critique not so much of “Theory” (nor, for that matter, of belletristic or neo-traditionalist “anti-Theory”) as of the familiar routines by which certain arguments have unfolded over the years. Instead of the usual “complaint and rejoinder” mode, the exchange moves in an altogether more shambolic and crabwise manner. That quality reflects its origins in an online colloquy. The effort to transfer the discussion from the blogosphere to book format is not always successful. So much of the flow of online discourse runs through the channels of direct linkage, while a printed book involves very different sorts of connectivity. Then again, it may be that the difference between such modes of reading and writing will become ever more salient for literary discussions as old-fashioned debates over “Theory” fade into the background.

So I tried to hint in an essay written to introduce the collection. A copy of the book itself just arrived a few days ago. Some degree of prejudice against print-on-demand publishing is bound to continue for a while – but let me note for the record that the finished product seems altogether indistinguishable from any paperback from a traditional academic press.

It is, by the way, cheaper to purchase Framing Theory’s Empire directly from Parlor Press than via an online bookseller. And you can download the whole thing in PDF for free.

The single richest and most thought-provoking discussion of reading (the kind of thing you do with books, as opposed to other modes of “media consumption” now available) is an essay by Caleb Crain that ran last month in The New Yorker. Anyone can complain about shrinking attention spans -- or, conversely, pick tiny holes in recent statistical claims about the decline of literacy. Impressionistic muttering is easy. In "Twilight of the Books," Crain does something completely different. He synthesizes a wide range of material on the history, economics, and even the physiology of reading, and does so with an elegance of understated effort.

No surprise, that. I've envied his knack for doing so ever since we were both writing for Lingua Franca (way back when). An important difference now, however, is that -- whatever his misgivings about "new media" -- Crain is able to supplement the polished final product with a set of blog entries on the sources he consulted. Items such as "Is Literacy Declining?" and "Does Television Impair Intellect?" amount to valuable bibliographical essays in their own right.

As it happens, the latest Cliopatria Awards name Caleb Crain as "Best Writer" of 2007 for his blog Steamboats Are Ruining Everything. So I learned last Friday, during the Cliopatria banquet held amidst the American Historical Association, when presiding eminence Ralph Luker circulated the final list around the table.

Not entirely sure if this recollection was for real, or if the cough medicine were just acting up, I checked the formal announcement and see that it reads: "The judges' aim was to reward writing that is well tailored to the history blogosphere, accessible, memorable and consistently history-oriented. Caleb Crain is always readable and thought-provoking; an engaging writer who pays attention to the constraints of the blog format but breaks them with style on occasion." Quite right, and congratulations to the recipient for an honor that certainly deserved.

Finally: "The Vietnam War is now as far in the past as the Second World War was at the beginning of the Vietnam War," wrote Daniel Davies recently in a post at Crooked Timber. "There has, basically, been at least one complete political and cultural generation turned over since the 1960s. I therefore declare 2008 to be officially The Year That We No Longer Have The 1960s To Blame. Making a small exception for the purely demographic effects of the Baby Boomers on economic and political issues of relevance, any and all remaining social problems are our own fault."

So what do you say, everybody? Is it a deal? Can we move boldly into the future by finding some other decade to complain about? I've always tended to blame everything on the 1980s, myself, but the last seven years almost make that look like a golden age.


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