Growing Up MLA
Issue #42, March 1999
The annual professional meeting of the Modern Language Association (MLA) was held in San Francisco this past December, and its return to the city where I first discovered it reminded me of everything I had hoped to forget about academia.
I attended my first MLA in 1992. I can remember my hopes for the future of intellectual endeavor reaching an hysterical pitch when I learned this huge scholarly meeting for professors and graduate students of literature and literary culture would be located on my San Francisco home turf. Held in several large hotels atop Nob Hill, the 1992 MLA was rainy outside and hot inside. I recall standing in the back of crowded, stuffy hotel conference rooms listening to papers on the current situation of cultural studies, sweating under my raincoat, yearning for a glass of ice water.
But water was only available to the people presenting papers. At the front of our meeting rooms, the academically anointed gazed at us from behind microphones and tipped chilled carafes of water into tall glasses. All I could think about, as I looked around with my newly-minted Marxist graduate student sensibilities, was how these watery details constituted a form of cultural class warfare.
Days later, I wrote an angry article called "MLA and the Market," about how the MLA was just like every other professional association--it was devoted to the free market rather than the free exchange of ideas. Houston Baker, then president of the MLA, wrote an elusive response to my complaint in the MLA's Graduate Student Caucus Newsletter. When he first joined the MLA, he explained, there had been "no water at all." To him, this was just a metaphor about how there had been no place for women or people of color in what is now arguably a well-integrated organization. There is no class divide here, he seemed to say. We are all multicultural and multi-gendered.
Yet I was quite literally thirsty. And as a graduate student, I got no water. My situation was not metaphorical. This kind of problem--the collision between other people's metaphors and my reality--set the tone for later, more ominous MLA experiences.
It also gave me a chance to put some of the Ph.D.-level theory I'd been learning into practice.
One of my first lessons in graduate school involved puzzling out a short essay called "The Mirror Stage," by the psychoanalytic philosopher Jacques Lacan. I'll admit I missed many of Lacan's finer points, but by the time my first MLA rolled around, I had finally come to understand that the mirror stage refers to a point in every infant child's life when she sees herself in the mirror and thinks, "Hey, that's me." It's the moment when visual input and bodily awareness combine to create a new sense of self. But here's the catch: our wide-eyed infant doesn't just see herself in the mirror, but also her mother holding her in a sitting position (she's still too young to sit up by herself). So, according to Lacan, we first "see" ourselves not merely through our own eyes, but through the eyes of an absolute authority who holds us up and looks down on us.
I did not return to the MLA until the meeting landed in Chicago in 1995. It was my first year out on the market looking for a professorship, and I was also presenting a paper. My topic was media stereotypes of the lower classes as "white trash." Nobody requested an interview with me. I wandered around downtown Chicago like a robot, chatting with friends who had scored fantastic interviews and trying to avoid professors' eyes.
After I presented my paper to a packed room of mostly congenial academics, I gazed out over the top of a glass filled with water and watched one of my close friends huddled at the back of the room, looking for a non-existent seat. I spent the next two days sleeping in my hotel room, reading an autobiographical novel about a woman's experiences with fatal bowel disease, and getting stuffed pizzas with sausage delivered to me at all hours.
One night I fell asleep after watching The X-Files and eating yet another stuffed pizza. I dreamed that I was wandering barefoot through an indoor shopping mall, carrying a knife. A little old woman appeared floating over my head outside a Brentano's Bookstore. She grinned enigmatically and said, "Here's another ambiguity for you." Thinking that she must be terribly wise, I asked, "But don't you agree that not all situations are ambiguous?" She nodded yes and began to disappear. At that moment, a glowing red tear appeared in the fabric of my dream--it looked like a special effect from the movie Poltergeist. Lost in my unconscious logic, I knew the tear was sucking me in, pulling me toward a horrifying alternate dimension. I woke up in the midst of a full-scale anxiety attack.
The following year in Washington DC I had several interviews at the MLA and forgot my dream about terror, shopping malls, and ambiguity. For some reason I still haven't been able to discern, I developed an excruciating pain in my left ankle walking to the Dupont Circle metro station. It got so bad that I couldn't walk anymore. I had to take a taxi to the hotel where I attended the first interview of my career.
I wore a Dana Scully-style business suit, all soft curves and tastefully muted tones. Having consulted a friend who used to work in women's retail at Nordstrom's, I accessorized with a casual-but-serious leather backpack full of curriculum vitae (resumes of the academic world) and writing samples. I was working on a thesis project about monsters, psychopaths and the economy in American pop culture, and had spent days rehearsing what I'd say about it when asked. "I study representations of the horror of capitalism in literature and film," I repeated to myself, palms sweaty, as I approached the hotel suite where I would be interviewed by a large, prestigious public university.
The people interviewing me were in tweeds, cords, and straight skirts. They asked me polite questions about what I studied, and seemed to grow more and more perplexed. Finally one of them asked gravely, "Have you seen the film Lifeforce?" I answered without thinking, "Oh, you mean the naked space alien vampire movie?" My interviewer was not amused, and continued, "I wonder if you could talk about representations of aging in that film." My ankle and foot began to throb; I felt like all the nerves in my leg were on fire. How could I be serious about an early-80s Tobe Hooper film about space succubae? I reached for the glass of water my interviewers had provided for me and sucked it down.
Later that day, in another irony-challenged interview environment, a department chair looked over my application materials, noticed the titles of some of my articles, and asked, "Are you white trash?" I wondered what thoughts had run through this individual's mind as he formulated his question. After a few moments of silence, I answered, "No."
My mysterious leg pain vanished as soon as I hopped in my rental car and drove to the airport where I caught a plane back to San Francisco.
In 1997 I went to Toronto for the MLA with several friends who happened to be visiting the area. By that time, I had developed friendships with several professors--some were my former classmates--and had worked up the nerve to court a major university press that had expressed interest in publishing my now-completed thesis project. When I attended one of the many "cash bar" schmooze-fests that occur towards the end of the MLA, I realized to my surprise that I didn't have to stand in a corner and watch the hobnobbing. I knew a few of the players; I had "connections."
As I stood uncomfortably in my blocky heels and a fitted Star Trek-looking bullet gray suit, trying to engage in witty banter with one of my mentors, I noticed clots of bystanders at the perimeters of the room. Some eyed me balefully, some smirked out of their obviously young graduate student faces, and others were too busy with their children and piles of ungraded student papers to pay any attention at all. A friend with a post-doctoral fellowship at a private East Coast university slipped me a ticket for two free drinks at the cash bar. I had no idea where he'd gotten it, but it was mine now.
As I waited in line for two watered-down screwdrivers, I eavesdropped on the bystanders. A child was begging her mother for apple juice. Two men in front of me were deep in discussion about "FTE" this and "FTE" that (FTE is every department's magic word--it's the chunk of money administrators will promise so that one lucky person can receive Full Time Employment). A prominent professor to my left announced in a loud, drunken voice, "I hate the MLA. The panels are stupid and boring and everyone here is psychotic."
I began to see mirrors everywhere--metaphorical ones. In the faces of the bystanders, I saw myself a few years earlier, a nomad in the professional hierarchy, someone invisible, without authority. And through the eyes of the prominent professor, I could gaze out over the whole body of the MLA and grant it an identity: stupid, boring, psychotic. Finally I could make sense of what I'd been feeling and half-feeling for the past several years as I attempted to assemble my adult self out of academic papers, fruitless job interviews, and vast quantities of beautifully-written, brilliant, and totally unmarketable books.
What does an academic baby learn when she sees herself through the eyes of an authority? At the MLA, I learned self-loathing.
Annalee Newitz is a freelance writer and university lecturer. Her most recent book, Monsters, Psychopaths and the Economy, is forthcoming from Duke University Press.