Technology, TV and titles with colons

December 17, 1999

Rubbing shoulders this year with sessions on Chaucer and Balzac are papers on men and lesbianism, designing websites and genetics. reports Tim Cornwell

Harry Potter makes his debut at the MLA this year, an honour already overdue to a character who has apparently persuaded droves of children to set down their Nintendo machines and pick up one of the three books about him so far published. "Oh! They're fantastic," says Yale University's Elizabeth Baker Teare, finishing her dissertation on Thackeray's historical novels but delivering a paper in Chicago on J. K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Technology of Magic". She will explore not just the meaning of the massively successful children's novels, but their marketing and what she calls the relentless retelling of the "solitary genius theory", of the single mum who penned her books in cafes.

The books themselves, Teare observes, show a close familiarity with questions of 20th-century technology and commerce. As children's fantasies they are compared most often to Roald Dahl, but they make J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis look "positively Luddite". "In general, the fantasy world, say Narnia, is resolutely not technologised, but in Harry Potter part of the magic is in purchasing power. When Harry finds out that he is a wizard, the first thing that happens is that he gets taken shopping. It's very important to have the right model broomstick."

TV or not TV

MLA members fall into two camps, according to Sharon Willis: those who find television tedious and baffling, and "those of us who adore it. Having lived without a television for 15 years, I fall into the latter category." Which may be why Willis, who teaches French and film studies at the University of Rochester, New York, is running a three-part MLA programme on "TV 2000".

"Our division is called Literature and the Other Arts," she said. "For quite some time we have been trying to stretch the definition of what the other arts are: we've done digital culture, sound and image, and this year we're looking at the transnational effects of television." That, at least, is the theory.

Submissions have flooded in - on Xena, the buxom TV fantasy heroine who is undoubtedly a transnational phenomenon, the cartoon series King of the Hill, Princess Diana and Bill Clinton and the spectacularly televisual presence of his private life.

Meanwhile, in a separate session on "Narratives of the University", The X-Files' David Duchovny crops up as "America's favourite cryptoacademic".

"It's not trendy and conventional," Willis says. "We just want to keep pace with the evolving definition of 'other arts'." Television, she says, is "the primary source of something like visual literacy for a lot of people".

Diana, the visual construction

Misha Kavka, at the University of Zurich, has elected to take on Diana in an MLA paper, "Funny, How We Cared So Much: TV Mourns Diana". Kavka emails:

"I argue that the massive empathetic response to the death of Diana says less about the emotional awakening of Britons, as it has been read, than about the paradoxical construction of Diana through the media as a 'real' person. She is the first example of truly 'mediated' personhood in an age when the relationship between media (ie, representation, fabrication, falseness) and reality (ie, the world of lived experience) is changing. Because the (visual) media can give us access to heightened feeling, it seems to be more real than what happens in our lives."

People wailed at Diana's death to the same news cameras that had made them feel they knew Diana better than real people in their everyday lives, Kavka notes, though "it is astounding how much of a visual construction Diana was - we hardly ever heard her voice I the grief for Diana was 'real' not because there was something behind the media mourning, but because mourning through the media made it real."

It would be unfair to characterise this year's MLA as heavily televisual. Opening a programme page at random, for example, turns up sessions on 19th-century Spain, Chaucer, novelist Edith Wharton, 16th-century French literature, "Postcolonialism and Sexualities" and "Conspiracy Theory". It is well-nigh impossible to put any single slant on this cacophony of topics.

Sessions are often loosely structured and allow speakers to plug their speciality. It is virtually impossible to find a title that does not include a colon. "What the King Saw in the Belly of the Beast: or, How the Lion Got in the Queen: Royal Procreation and Civic Incorporation in the Royal 1622 Entry into Lyon" is a typical title.

E-teaching

Several scholars tackle the issue of reviving literary studies through the worldwide web. Lois Leveen, of the University of California at Los Angeles, addresses her experience of electronic pedagogy in a session on "Black American Literature and Culture at the Millennium". In an interdisciplinary course on African-American and Asian-American studies, Leveen asked students to design websites rather than writing papers or taking exams. "When you assign a research paper to undergraduates, it's not like they are going to go out and do some research that changes the world," she says. "Having my students do work with electronic technology is training them to use research resources on the internet."

Hypertext, the underlined words in one site that allow the user to link to another, encourages students "to think about a lot of different connections", rather than linearly, she says. The web may be turning into "one big commercial", but "putting papers on websites is a way of encouraging them to show them to fellow students and parents, it makes them excited about their work".

Gene and meme

The prospect that scientists will decode the human genome soon after the turn of the century, mapping the blueprint of human life, has brought DNA to the MLA. A session on "The Book of Life: DNA as Master Trope in Late 20th-Century Literature and Culture" explores "the common metaphoric habit of conceiving our genes as coded texts composing the instruction manual for our humanity," says Mark Jeffreys of the University of Alabama. As well as looking at genetics from the perspective of disability studies, which classes disability as a "cultural category", the session considers the "meme", a cultural equivalent of the gene coined by British evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins.

The Wilde West

Oscar Wilde meets Buffalo Bill Cody in a session on "Gender and the Popular American West". Corey Creekmur, an assistant professor of English who teaches media and cultural studies at the University of Iowa, is finishing a book that questions the assumption that "the Western's appeal was always straight and masculine". In his MLA paper, he starts from the fact that Buffalo Bill and Wilde - inhabiting "the same social space, the same period" - both featured prominently in the portraiture of the New York theatrical photographer Napoleon Sarony.

When Wilde was in America, he was the subject of an enormous media response, but there was no open discussion of his sexuality; at the same time, Buffalo Bill had not strictly defined the cowboy as a "macho figure". In Sarony's photographs, the men are "dressed and posed in very similar ways", Creekmur says. "Both are rather flamboyant, wear furs and gaudy outfits. What seems curious is that they look so much alike in this period, but in the 20th century we've isolated them completely: one is gay and the other is the paradigm of the straight male cowboy." There is no suggestion, he says, that Buffalo Bill was gay. But he "loved being on display. This is not generally the notion of the cowboy. He clearly enjoyed dressing up, being looked at - all the things we connect with Oscar Wilde."

Lesbianism for men

Elisabeth Akhimoff Ladenson, of the University of Virginia, proposed a panel on "Men and Lesbianism" because "there's a huge category about male interest in lesbianism, or male relations to lesbianism, that doesn't get talked about". "Gay studies looks at books written by men about male homosexualities," she said. "There's a sort of truism that straight men are completely fascinated by lesbianism and everyone thinks that is self-evident."

Ladenson, an associate professor of French whose interest evolved from writing a book about Proust and lesbianism, ranges in her own paper, "Lovely Lesbians; or, Pussy Galore", from Charles Baudelaire to Goldfinger, the Ian Fleming book and movie. Pussy Galore is the aviatrix played by Honor Blackman, "who turns on Goldfinger and ends up saving James Bond and the world". Pussy Galore is "voluptuous and sexy and also kind of butch", says Ladenson. "She resists Bond, but he proves irresistible."

In the book, it is explained that she became a lesbian when she was raped by her uncle as a child. Pussy Galore stands in sharp contrast to the other stereotype of lesbianism on display in the earlier Bond film From Russia with Love, Rosa Klebb, memorably armed with a deadly spiked shoe. The character portrays "ugly, disgusting, predatory lesbianism," says Ladenson, "always shown caressing the shoulder of some lovely young Soviet."

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