This Year's Model
Just before heading to San Francisco for the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, I had a brilliant idea, or so it seemed. Between scholarly panels and face-to-face meetings, I would blog here at Inside Higher Ed. Instead of scribbling notes on a pad and then synthesizing out some kind of continuous text after the fact, this would mean recording the MLA in all its paratactic glory -- perhaps including links to YouTube videos of people saying interesting things in casual discussion after the panels. Your roving reporter would pause every so often to type up something on the laptop, or shoot it with the digital camera, and fire the resulting document out into the world via the wireless ether.
This was indeed, in its conception, a beautiful plan. Except that my laptop (which by now probably counts as vintage) is heavy, and the hotel wireless proved another sort of pain. The rooms where the panels were held tended to be badly lit, so that the video clips were all of a murkiness. Besides which, there were never any fireworks. If the days of Theory are over, so are the days of post-Theory, and "the rediscovery of aesthetics." I have attended six of the past seven MLA conventions. This was the first time when it really felt like a trade show in Detroit -- and not back in the day when next year's auto designs were a big deal, either. More like one right about now. Non-deflation counts as progress.
Be that as it may, I filed occasional causeries along the way, available here. And the blog will continue in the months ahead as an annex or supplement to Intellectual Affairs. In the four years that IA has been running, any number of books, papers, debates, etc. have fallen through the cracks. For whatever reason, I found it impossible to develop a full-length column around them. Given how few nonspecialist journals devote space to university-press books (apart from a handful of crossover titles per season, usually from the same four or five publishers), it might be helpful to offer quick or timely references to work that might otherwise be missed.
One possibility is that the new venue might include the occasional striking passage from my reading, in the manner of a commonplace book.
As blogged early in MLA, the organization has given its most recent lifetime achievement for scholarship to René Girard. His newest book, Mimesis and Theory: Essays on Literature and Criticism, 1953-2005, is from Stanford University Press, which naturally had it prominently displayed at their booth. A couple of paragraphs in "Theory and Its Terrors" (first published in 1989) jumped out as worth quoting here.
"If you consider our numbers in the abstract, you might think we are about the right size for a harmonious and productive intellectual life. How many of us are there in the humanities? How many members does the Modern Language Association have? There must be at least twenty thousand active people. [Twenty years later, it is thirty thousand, according to the MLA website.-SM] We complain about the indifference of the outside world. The public pays no attention to us; it is not interested in criticism; yet our numbers correspond, more or less, to the actual audiences of Shakespeare or Racine at the time they were writing. Our sector of the academic world is as large as the entire cultivated public of Elizabethan England or the France of Louis XIV.
"And yet our cultural world is a far cry from Elizabethan England or la cour et la ville in seventeenth-century France. There is a reason for this, so simple and yet so obvious that no one ever mentions it. At the time of Elizabeth and Louis, one percent, perhaps, of the educated people were producers, and ninety-nine percent were consumers. With us, the proportion is curiously reversed. We are supposed to live in a world of consumerism, but in the university there are only producers. We are under a strict obligation to write, and therefore we hardly have the time to read one another's work. It is very nice, when you give a lecture, to encounter someone who is not publishing, because perhaps that person has not only enough curiosity but enough time to read your books."
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