Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Deep Play: Notes on the Academic Cockfight

Just back from the National Communication Association convention. Terry Eagleton's observations seem somewhat apropos:

"There is nothing wrong with conferences, as long as one realizes that they are more anthropological rituals, at which the like-minded may gather for mutual recognition and consolation, than theaters for genuine learning. Conferences are liturgical celebrations, affirmations of solidarity, symbolic spaces for those who speak a language (whether of socialism or orthodontics) unintelligible to most of their fellow-humans, and who therefore need from time to time to relax with those of their kind, as a cross-dresser might feel the gathering urge to withdraw from the world of the bank or bakery and ease into a pair of corsets.


Those who speak regularly at conventions know just how unfathomable is the human capacity for misinterpretation. If your title is "Why We Must Smash Fascism," and your speech one luridly impassioned invective against it, there will always be somebody in the audience who will want to know why you are so soft on fascism. The person who came in half an hour late will imperiously demand to know why you failed to make a point which you made in your second sentence, while someone else will wonder aloud why, if you're so anti-bourgeois, you wear a suit and spectacles rather than dressing in cowhide and peering at the world through home-made lenses cut from discarded Guinness bottles on an antique lathe. If your subject is the poetry of Northern Ireland, some aggrieved audience member will inquire why you have been so churlishly silent about fin-de-siecle Bavarian orthopaedics. There is the chairperson who will introduce you by saying that you need no introduction, and who will bring the session to a close with some cack-handed joke based on a phrase plucked from your talk. Thus, if you have been speaking of the redistribution of income, he will suggest with heavy heartiness tha the audience now "redistributes" itself to the bar; if you mentioned exploitation, he will propose sardonically that we "exploit" our speaker no longer. These things are laws of nature, which no mere human agency can affect.


As conferences go, the Modern Language Association of America is in a class of its own, as twelve or fifteen thousand literary critics take over a whole complex of hotels. It is a unique sociological experience to be on an escalator with sixty other people all of whom know who Jane Eyre is. Security is tight, and I once found myself unable to get in to a paper I was giving. As Jacques Derrida speaks to the crowded ballroom of the New York Hilton about floating the signifier, gorilla-shaped guards frisk fresh-faced postgraduate students on the doors. The president of the association is allotted the Hilton penthouse, and has the privilege of occupying the bed in which, either consecutively or simultaneously, Madonna, Paul Newman, Mohammed Ali, Elizabeth Taylor and Brad Pitt have slept. It is an enviable reward for a lifetime of annotating Dante." (Terry Eagleton, The Gatekeeper: A Memoir, p.97-101).


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