In early January, I attended the Modern Language Association annual conference, MLA 2020, at the Washington State Convention Center in downtown Seattle. Unless I have the misfortune of ending up in the Corona Dome, Keyrona Arena, Expedia Hospital, or some other improvised containment zone, that was probably my last big gathering of the year.
The typical 75-minute MLA session consists of three or four presentations on a related theme. These are solo recitals rather than ensemble pieces. It’s professional show-and-tell.
I felt like an imposter. I’m one of the few people there without an institutional affiliation (I put “Seattle Review of Books” on my badge). I have a scant publication history. I’m a dedicated generalist in a sea of specialists. I knew no one there, except David Shields, who is everywhere.
Near the registration desk was a pile of ribbons. I wore the “ASK ME ABOUT MY BOOK” ribbon. Nobody asked me about my book.
The organizers provided colored cards that you could place behind your name badge. Green meant “Please talk to me.” Yellow: “I don’t want to talk to strangers, but I’ll talk to you if we know each other.” Red: “Stay away.” I was too proud to wear a green card and too shy to chat random people up. These situations are difficult for me. I’m much more comfortable at home writing longform essays for anonymous strangers like you, who would never dream of sending an encouraging email or tweet.
Not wanting to stay silent for the entire conference, I came up with a go-to move: When the presenters finished, there would be often be a lull before audience members formulated insightful questions that would appropriately demonstrate their credentialed expertise. To fill that awkward space, I would raise my hand and offer a long, rambling question. Actually more of a comment than a question. Don’t hate me, someone has to break the ice.
There were 780 sessions on the four-day schedule. I attended six, and I’ll share with you my response to just one: The Function of American Literary Criticism at the Present Time.
The presenters, responding to Matthew Arnold’s 1865 essay, concluded that Arnold’s conception of disinterested and aloof criticism was entirely unsuited for coping with planetary environmental crisis and climate change; oppression from capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy; and the neoliberal age of forced migration and asylum.
On reading the Arnold essay in preparation for writing this one, it struck me that Arnold’s conception of criticism reflects the manufacturing model of the late Industrial Revolution. What he describes is a straightforward supply chain: Philosophers discover new ideas; Critics judge and translate the best new ideas for domestic consumption; and Poets exercise their literary genius through synthesis and exposition of those raw materials. By this reckoning, the Critic serves as intermediary, importing raw Philosophies to be turned into machine parts for Poets.
And that’s not even the most important job of the Critic: for Arnold, the ideal use of criticism is “to keep man from a self-satisfaction which is retarding and vulgarizing, to lead him towards perfection, by making his mind dwell upon what is excellent in itself, and the absolute beauty and fitness of things.” In other words, literary criticism should aim to influence the wealthy, powerful, and self-satisfied, whether it’s a white-supremacist politician who’s overly proud of his breeding or a political reformer who judges happiness entirely by the extent to which property rights are secured. The Critic gently nudges them to become slightly better versions of themselves.
But whatever you do, counsels Arnold, don’t attack these self-satisfied men directly with polemics, or ever question any their political policies or practices, because that’ll just force them to cling more closely to their core identities while shouting: “Such a race of people as we stand, so superior to all the world!”
Instead, the critic is supposed to subtly undercut these core beliefs of racial and national superiority, these so-called “songs of triumph,” by artfully introducing evidence of imperfection in the national character. As an example, he cites one Miss Wragg from the workhouse, arrested for the murder of her young illegitimate child. Her name alone sends Arnold into a tizzy; “such hideous names” offend his “more delicate spiritual perceptions.” By slowly and patiently offering such counterexamples, he believes the self-satisfied will be enticed to make subtler distinctions in their prejudices.
That explains CSI and Law & Order.
Now is obviously not the moment for Arnoldian soft-shoe criticism. Arnold himself might even agree; he describes criticism and creativity as the product of an “epoch of expansion,” as was the case in England at the cusp of the Second Industrial Revolution. Today, we are at the polar opposite of the epochal wheel, an “epoch of contraction,” with self-satisfied men stirring up popular hostility and fear toward foreign ideas, foreign people, and the intellectual life. Under such conditions, we should hardly expect such delicate criticism to flourish.
I’d go further: Considering the extent of corruption, profiteering, and abuse of power under which we’ve fallen, such delicate forms of criticism should never be cultivated again. It hasn’t worked, it doesn’t work, and it won’t work.
At this point, we need to pull a Khaleesi and break the wheel. (I know, I know, bad role model.)
Instead of continuing to cycle between contraction and expansion, we should aim to repurpose our highly networked infrastructure to drive hyper-expansion of creativity and intellectual life beyond anything achieved in the past.
A good starting point would be next January’s MLA annual conference, which will explore the prescient theme of “Persistence”:
As civil rights are suspended for individuals blocked at borders and climate change threatens the earth, what part should literature and language scholars play in uncovering and creating practices of persistence that can lead to new conditions of life in and outside the academy?”
MLA 2021 is to be held in Toronto, which is to say online. It’ll be a long time before there’s a vaccine, the borders reopen, all students return to campus, and schools recover their budgets — all of which are preconditions for sending faculty members on professional development junkets.
An online event would work well for the content. The presentations could be pre-recorded, and why not? It’s just someone reading through a prepared text while flipping through slides. By next January, anybody in the teaching profession should be rather skilled with their home broadcasting studios. All the project would need is scaled hosting and a custom front-end.
MLA could make available a full library of completed presentations in advance of the conference, allowing participants to skip directly to the ones you wanted to hear and curate custom playlists. You could read along with the source text, take notes, formulate questions, follow the footnotes, and leave comments. You could even write your own response papers or submit questions.
The live event, MLA 2021 Online, could then serve as a global festival, fostering true dialogues between people who have actually read the paper. The presider could facilitate dialogue and read the best questions. Afterwards, you’d easily find your people: like-minded researchers, your next professor or mentor, and perhaps some students of your own.
Of course, this would need to be disruptively inexpensive. MLA 2020 charged $330 for on-site, non-member registration and $190 for early registration for regular members. From now on, academic conferences should be pay-what-you-can, with open access for interested community members, gated only to keep the trolls away.
And if MLA doesn’t do something like this, you can be sure that “Big Ed” will. Silicon Valley! Disruption! Monetization! We know how that ends for the people who do the actual labor.
The humanities have powerful enemies. Today’s self-satisfied supremacists would like nothing better than to displace the humanities with job training and unquestioning ethno-religious state propaganda, and they’re not about to waste an opportunity.
But nor will we waste the springtime. With teachers and students taking shelter around the globe, literature and language can take deep roots. Keep it simple: Read, write, share, discuss, repeat.
There’s no need to recreate the classroom experience minute-by-minute, pixel-by-pixel. Wearing a virtual reality visor won’t help you conjugate a verb any faster. Save video chatrooms for special occasions.
Even in the midst of crisis, we have the chance for people to develop real connections across virtual borders by sharing stories about our collective struggles and helping one another to explore our own humanities.