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The MLA and the Market

It became clear to me that the MLA conference is not organized to serve those who attend sessions.

Annalee Newitz, September 1992

Each year, professional academics and those who study in the fields of English and other Western languages gather together at the Modern Language Association conference to discuss their work. I decided to attend the 1991 MLA conference last December purely as a spectator, and had been under the impression that doing so was very much the routine rather than the exceptional choice. It became clear to me almost as soon as I arrived at my first session, however, that the MLA conference is not one organized to serve those who attend sessions. In fact, the atmosphere at this particular session Friday evening was literally hostile to those attempting to listen to the seven speakers on the panel. It was held in a tiny room with little ventilation; listeners crowded, standing and sweating, in the aisles and around the doors. Those of us who complained that the "free water" tables were rather on the cheap side (no free coffee and tea?) soon came to be grateful for this one luxury granted us. After, and during, conference sessions, cold water was especially necessary.

The questions I asked myself as I wandered the duplicate hallways of the Hilton and the Marriott searching for "ballrooms," "parlors" and "suites" were ones I had not anticipated needing to answer: Why do people attend? Who is this conference designed for? What is happening here? Perhaps, as Ann Powers suggested to me at one point, I was attending the wrong conference. Music industry conferences, she assured me, had free buffets and intimate concerts with famous bands. At the MLA conference, we had to pay $2.50 for a small soft drink at the "Cash Bar for Literary Marxists," and seeing Janice Radway meant enduring extreme discomfort and even potential danger in the event of a fire or other emergency.

Predictably, the answers to my questions came to me not within but outside the official boundaries of the conference itself. It was during my stay at the Fairmont Hotel (one of the hotels at which MLA members were given a group discount) that I discovered the mostly invisible audience for and producers of the conference: job candidates and their interviewers. In the morning, the lobby at the Fairmont was filled with nervous men and women wearing the ubiquitous purple and aqua name tags from the MLA conference. I could hear them as they walked across Mason Street discussing how many interviews they had that day, and what their prospects were. None of them mentioned going to conference sessions unless they were presenting papers. My hotel room was next door to a "suite" which appeared to function as a kind of receiving room for some unknown university conducting a series of interviews. At one point, I ran into Richard Hutson coming out of Jane Gallop's popular session. "What sessions are you attending this weekend?" I asked. "I'm just doing interviews," he replied.

The over-abundance of stimuli and dysfunctional crowd behavior in the Hilton and the Marriott can thus be read in much the same way we are used to reading spectacular events in a society constructed by a capitalist economic system. Especially in these economically depressed times, a profession needs to disavow its own random and occasionally unfair hiring practices with sensational star-studded "gatherings" and discounted "vacations" at famous luxury hotels. We may be anxious and unsure about our own professional futures; it may be unclear why one person gets twelve interviews and another only two; but we can all agree that rubbing shoulders with Gerald Graff and Constance Penley in the Hilton's Imperial Ballroom at least allows for the simulation of the kind of community we all dreamed the profession would be for us when we were applying to graduate school.

Another symptom of the particular displacement mechanism that the MLA conference represents is the noted "publisher's exhibition" at which scholarly publishers make their upcoming catalogues and books available to MLA members at a 20% discount. Interestingly, the doors to the "exhibition" were the only ones at the MLA convention that were constantly monitored by security guards who checked everyone's badges before allowing them to enter. Clearly, organizers felt it important to contain and regulate this aspect of the convention; badges were not checked at any other event I attended, including sessions and the cash bars. One might argue that the heightened security was needed to discourage "just anyone passing by" from stealing books, but why would impoverished graduate students or assistant professors with MLA membership be the least likely to steal $35.00 paperbacks from the Routledge booth? It is almost a cliche to point out that while the comfort and safety of people at events like these are flagrantly ignored, the objects they have gathered together to study, make or sell are guaranteed a well-lit room of their own complete with surveillance.

The appearance and structure of the publishers' booths themselves sent out another alarming message to those attending them. Each booth had posters, fliers, catalogues, and displays designed to call attention to the books and promote their consumption. Yet almost no books were for sale. Certainly, books might be ordered, but very few could be bought on the spot. To anyone involved in a profession based almost solely upon the production, circulation, consumption and appreciation of books, this was certainly a frustrating way to shop. Thus it was that when we did locate books we could buy, we were as grateful for them as we were for the "free water." Lining up to buy the few copies of the long-awaited Cultural Studies anthology from Routledge was just a little too allegorical for comfort. Aware as we are of the increasingly lengthy lines at unemployment offices around the country, and at markets dispensing food around the world, the policing and deferral of our own desire to consume what our profession tells us we must have begins to provide us with another answer to the questions posed by the MLA conference.

At a session entitled "What gets published and why?" a marketing expert from a scholarly press told those assembled that they are both the audience for and producers of books published by a press such as his own. Moreover, as a result of budget cutbacks across the country, libraries (according to this speaker, the major source of profit for scholarly publishers) have little money to spend on new books. Academics are, then, the only target market left for any business specializing in the publication of scholarly works. The "exhibition" can therefore be understood as the moment at which historical and socio-political realities intrude into the mostly fictional narrative the MLA recites about itself. This is a narrative in which the MLA (or Mario J. Valdes, its president, writing in the Winter '91 MLA Newsletter) describes itself as "a highly diversified association of teacher-scholars who believe in open debate...the driving force behind the association [is] the interest and the need for free discussion of the intellectual, cultural, and pedagogical issues intrinsic to the study and teaching of languages and literatures." And yet the major "discussion" one might encounter at the MLA convention would take its vocabulary not from "languages and literatures" but from the new Job Information List or the lists provided by publishers to indicate what sort of manuscripts they are interested in soliciting. At the "exhibition" we are forcefully reminded that membership in the MLA provides not "free discussion" but "the free market"; for if we do not buy or sell books and each other we will in all likelihood be unable to get or maintain the kind of job which will pay for plane tickets to future conventions. At the "exhibition" we act out what the "free discussion" and "free water" in the sessions ask us to repress: the present conditions of economic crisis under which we are granted only limited access to resources and employment.


The 1992 MLA convention will be held this December in New York. Those graduate students at UC Berkeley who study English or other languages and are seeking interviews and employment will have to pay to get there. As I understand it, graduate students are eligible for one grant in the course of their graduate studies in order to cover just such an expense. However, I only know this because Lisa Darien, a fellow graduate student, told me; it is not a fact made public, nor have I ever heard or seen it referred to in any of the official graduate student handbooks or notices. As a graduate student who will seek employment in about two years, I too must consider my career and act to ameliorate my chances of getting a job. As it is no secret that the best jobs go to candidates who demonstrate experience in publishing and public talks, I am therefore scheduled to give a talk on a panel (sponsored by Ann Powers) of graduate students addressing the issue of gender and graduate studies. In order to make my appearance possible, I will be taking out loans to pay for my plane fare, accommodations and other sundry expenses. Of course, as a future professional, I can borrow this money to make my chances at getting relatively good employment even better. To get the middle-class job I want, I must pay for it in advance with a middle-class level Stafford loan.

Copyright © Annalee Newitz. All rights reserved.