The marketplace of ideas, paradigms and parables

January 9, 1998

Michael Berube patrols the halls of Toronto's hotels boasting an electric-blue suit, a shock of black hair, and a high-voltage energy. Berube, of the University of Illinois, made his name with Life as We Know It, in part the story of his son, Jamie, now six, who was born with Down's syndrome. His new book is The Employment of English. By giving two papers and presiding at one session, he seems to have set a record of three entries by his name in the participants index.

"The title is bait," he announces at the start of his paper, "The Hidden Evil of Literature", for those who sought to ridicule the "paper tigers" of the Modern Language Association. The paper is a history of college professors as portrayed by Hollywood, and it is told with verve and vim. But, Berube says, it isn't worth a "pitcher of warm spit" without his VCR projector. Sure enough, the VCR keeps fading to black, and Berube is left to explain the film clips that we cannot see.

The papers and the speakers at the MLA are an extraordinary smorgasbord. Some professors wax eloquent and accessible; others munch microphones as they drone theory-speak. Almost no one keeps to time; but then there are surprisingly few questions.

A recent New York Times article on the "star system" in US academe, where major players are indulged like football heroes, has struck a sensitive nerve at the conference, yet the star system is still much in evidence. Regardless of subject, large crowds turn out for big names such as Duke University's Stanley Fish, who gives a discourse on the nature of belief in a programme titled mysteriously "Credo". "You can't choose a belief, you can't discard it, you can't resist it, and you can't examine it (within the circle of those who accept it)", he opines.

The MLA's 1997 president, Herbert Lindenberger, launches the gathering with a forum on Interdisciplinarity: Art, Literature, Music. Edward Said, author of Orientalism, continues his recent foray into opera, exploring Cosi fan tutte and Fidelio. Linda and Michael Hutcheon, professors at the University of Toronto and authors of a book on opera and medicine, show how the figure of Salome appeared in Wilde's writing, Moreau's paintings and Strauss's opera. The forum underlines interdisciplinary studies as the current buzzword. "What we are all doing is seeing how we can cut across the traditional disciplinary lines we once had," Lindenberger says. "We are really cutting across every possible art form."

Interdisciplinarity reflects another much-noted trend: the growing number of forays by 50-something academics away from literary criticism and into fiction and memoirs. This injection of the personal into scholarship has been led by a group at Duke University, notably Alice Kaplan, with French Lessons. Reflecting on "scholarship and the desire to write", Harvard University's Susan Suleiman, author of Hungarian Diary, says you have to let go in writing. "The memoir writing imposed itself. I did not choose it, as I did a scholarly research programme."

New subjects of literary history are also on the agenda. Mario Valdes, of the University of Toronto, heads a project that will lead to a three-volume Oxford University Press series on cultural formation in Latin America. There is a similar project on Eastern and Central Europe. The "new paradigm" rejects Eurocentrism, Valdes says, and brings indigenous voices into Latin American literature. It situates literature by looking at "who is doing the writing, where they are doing the writing and under which conditions they are writing."

Alongside the big theories are small gems. The MLA's list of subjects runs the gamut from hypertext and tributes to Nigeria's Ken Saro-wiwa to Old English, Middle English, francophone and Luso-Brazilian literatures. It is possible to segue from England's Marina Warner on the terrors and pleasures of lullabies into a discussion of the Victorian fascination with fossil skeletons of the giant ground sloth, or Megatheria. The sloth and its extinction were treated as a "paleontological parable" for the sins of slothfulness and wilful stupidity, observes Alan Rauch of Georgia Institute of Technology. This "ideologically charged image" entered the Victorian debate on national identity, which was to "be anything but slothful". The English, to this day, remain fascinated by the giant sloth and its diminutive surviving relatives, he says.

Queer theory, a genre that thrived on the shock of the new, has gone almost mainstream. A session on The "Lesbian" in the Colony promises a merger of sex, race and colonialism. In "The Fantasies of Lady Pioneers", Christopher Lane, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, examines Mary Kingsley's erotic fascination with women in West Africa as a study of "lesbianism's simultaneous affinity with - and partial rejection of - Europe's colonial aspirations".

Cathy Davidson, of Duke, describes the moment when the Kodak Brownie camera forced on us the responsibility of photographing everything. She argues that photograph archives must include family albums and Brownie snapshots.

For the first time this year, the MLA held a full forum on children's literature. Although some speakers strayed, predictably, into the symbolism of wolves, others brought papers on the state of literary criticism for the young and on Goosebumps, R. L. Stine's celebrated horror series for children.

In film representations of academic life, as analysed by Michael Berube, Hollywood obeys a time-worn principle: college professors are always interrupted mid-sentence by a bell after about 15 seconds of lecturing. Barbra Streisand broke the rule in The Mirror Has Two Faces with a lecture scene that runs for five full minutes; but her character worked the crowd like a talk-show host and students hung on her every word.

Berube compares the academic job market to Disney's Toy Story, the manipulation of faculty by university administrators to the pig directing sheep in Babe, departmental cut-throating to a game of bluff between Clint Eastwood and drug dealers from the film In the Line of Fire. "I want to insist that we must continue to interrogate the hidden evil of literature," he concludes. "And I want to insist especially that when we haven't got the foggiest notion of how to conclude a paper, we should devise rousing, imperative, vacuous final sentences that give the impression of concluding by invoking the paper's facetious, ill-considered title and then ending with the words 'thank you'. Thank you."

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