January 12, 2004

Well, Whaddya Know? The MLA is a Catalyst!

But probably not the kind of catalyst they would want to be, alas.

It seems the MLA-bashing of '03 just won't die down, but that's fine by me, because it looks like we're actually getting some interesting discussion going. And for once it appears that analyzing the "root causes" of something might be more than just intellectual onanism or column filler.

I think Roger Simon is right when he says:

The Boomers who have inherited the universities, and are cocooned in a sinecure not dissimilar to civil service, have hardly any outside pressure to reconsider or even question their values (except for today's students, many of whom, apparently, are getting sick of them).

And I agree with the commenter on the thread who adds:

We definitely shouldn't leave it to students, columnists and bloggers, because all of these groups are too easy to discount (as intellectually immature or reactionary cranks) or ignore (not like any of my grad school professors are reading National Review or Roger Simon).

Just check the comments on the previously linked Invisible Adjunct post to see that mentality wide awake and hard at work. Yep, when all else fails, be a snob! It works so well, and besides, it's patently obvious that ANYONE who chooses to leave academia does so because they can't hack it, or because they aren't worthy of a PhD...
A smaller example of the same is in the response Erin O'Connor is getting for posting what I believe to be a cutting but kinda fun take on the MLA (authored by an anonymous contributor), which I'd describe as sorta Trollopian, but with more pr0n. It's a nice illustration of the guiding principal of academia as seen by outsiders - the battles are so fierce because the stakes are so low.

Which leads me to this post over at Wormtalk and Slugspeak, (pardon the appearance of blogcest here) because I think that Michael nails the problem with:

So what is the problem? I think, as much as anything, it is a matter of style, and that humanities professors are, on the whole, in the wrong. You only have to read the comments on Invisible Adjunct, where the academics rather pathetically try to defend the MLA, to realize that way too many humanities academics don't know how to debate. They only know how to sneer. ...

If academics would recognize that there are a lot of very, very smart people out there who put their considerable brainpower into trying to understand things like packet-switched networks or football formations or concert hall sound dynamics, and if they would force themselves to recognize that such things are just as important as understanding literature (though they're not quite as important as knowing the date of the composition of Beowulf. Nothing is that important), they'd be able to carry on conversations with other folks in which they didn't come off as pompous, sneering jerks.

But jerks they do appear to be. Which is sad, because I know a lot of humanities academics and as individuals they are generally not jerks. But there is a deep, deep insecurity in humanities academics that makes them over-reach with their theories and their literary analyses. Tom Wolfe (I think) makes the point that, think what you want about Jackson Pollock and other abstract expressionist artists, they never doubted for an instant that what they were doing was important and justified in and of itself. But the newer generation of 'political' artists give away, by the very lack of subtlety in their work, that they have no confidence that doing art is really justified. They have to make their art accomplish some other work such as solving the homeless problem or fighting racism.

When the art -- or the humanities scholarship -- fails to solves those problems, the artist is forced to deal with the cognitive dissonance of the claim of importance and the actual results. This kind of dissonance leads, I think, to the attitude the everyone who disagrees must be stupid. Thus, the sneer elevated to the most commonly used tool of rhetoric.

So, 'why do they hate us?' Because we tend to act superior, and people loathe people who act superior.

To paraphrase Instapundit, "Indeed." I remember well the days of yore and grad school, when we up-and-coming TA's sat around the grad students' lounge, smoking affectedly and mocking the "unenlightened;" i.e., anyone who had the misfortune not to be conversant in Derrida. Makes me cringe a little to remember, but I at least have the luxury of chalking it up to the arrogance of youth. I doubt that a majority of PhDs have the same excuse, or that they would even feel ashamed enough to desire one.

Leave it to a medievalist to get to the heart of things. Not that I'm biased.

Posted by Big Arm Woman at January 12, 2004 10:49 AM

I wonder how old Wm. Kerrigan is getting along. He was debunking this stuff from within the English department at Amhurst in 91, wondering in that oppressive climate how Camille Paglia ever got published by Yale.

``As I write I am steeling myself for the beginning of an academic
year. The state of the university community, as I view it from my
home in the English Department, depresses me no end. I share
Harold Bloom's diagnosis of a ``culture of resentment,'' his feeling of
being surrounded by a ``pride of displaced social workers.'' Alcohol
has been banished from the campus. We are forbidden tobacco,
even in our offices. Strictures on ``sexual harrassment'' have become
so ferocious that they treaten to outlaw age-old forms of human
warmth. Twenty years of theory have managed to make political
name-calling into the cutting edge of criticism. During the
forthcoming year lecturers will scoot around the country to define in
trite phrases the sins of race, class, and gender in famous works of
art. Literature is thought of as political apologetics. The role
of criticism is to expose its ideological treachery.

There is a high degree of sanctity in the air. Professors are quick
to take offense. Indeed, the taking of offense has become so inflated
as to make an art of its defensive opposite: the not giving of offense.
There can be few more pitiful sights than an academic male trying to
say something to an audience that includes feminists, fumbling to
cram his fretful sentences with ``he or she,'' scheming to head
off feared assaults by bathing their anticipation in his unremitting

``Perverse Kulturgeschichte'' _Raritan_ X:3 (Winter 1991) p.134

Some ice jam clearing accounted for Paglia, he imagined.

Paglia seemed unable to figure out Derrida, though, except to dismiss him; a flaw of hers, in my judgment. How to read Derrida: copy him out word for word into a notebook, as a speed control. It actually takes real thought and time. I don't know that anybody does that at the MLA either.

Posted by: Ron Hardin at January 12, 2004 06:09 PM

My favourite peice by Camille Paglia is her:

Madonna I: Animality and Artiface. (New York Times, December 14, 1990)

Posted by: Dawson at February 17, 2004 05:58 PM