In many ways, "In the Penthouse of the Ivory Tower," Gideon Lewis-Kraus's essay in the July issue of The Believer, is just the latest rehearsal of what is by now a very tired journalistic routine: Go to the MLA convention and report on how absurd and silly most English professors are. (I've been reading versions of this exercise since at least 1985.) In this case, the author is able to cover the convention at somewhat greater length than usual, and he seems somewhat more interested and informed than most garden-variety journalists who have performed the routine in the past. He even tries to dredge up a little sympathy for the out-of-touch professors, although by the end of the piece this effort has mostly come to naught. However, the final verdict is expected enough: "So as much as I want to grab the panelists by their modish lapels and shake them and demand to know exactly what the hell they're talking about, it is not my right to do so, for I am not there by invitation, I am not a member of their community, and I have no right to expect that their words should mean anything to me. I still think their tortured, overwrought sentences are for the most part patently absurd. . . ."
It's not that I don't think that most sentences read aloud at MLA conventions--I've attended many--are "for the most part patently absurd." They are indeed. It's just that, like most of his predecessors in the laugh-at-the-professors genre, Lewis-Kraus doesn't really seem to comprehend just why they're so absurd, so overinflated, so utterly irrelevant. He thinks it's just a failure to speak in fathomable language, an unthinking capitulation to the professionalization of academic discourse. He thinks English professors are finally too insular. But that is not the problem, that is not it at all. English professors no longer have a subject. They are literally speaking and writing about nothing.
Almost immediately upon listening to the first group of speakers at the 2003 convention, Lewis-Kraus is struck by the degree to which these people are asking, implicitly and explicitly, what it is that an English professor is supposed to be doing: "what is an English professor for?" It wasn't that long ago that such a question had a relatively straighforward answer. English professors taught literature, helped to keep the tradition of serious literary writing alive, introduced students and others to this tradition through the classroom and what was called "scholarship" about literature. In the very broadest sense, English professors were the caretakers in charge of maintaining some historical perspective on the language itself, studying literature as the greatest expression of the possibilities of this language. No professor of English today could claim these endeavors as the justification for English as an academic discipline. English professors have now dedicated themselves to the task of "interrogating" the literary tradition, as if it were an intellectual infection whose toxic elements have to be identified. And the only interest in the language most of them show is in injecting it as often as possible with rhetorical formaldehyde.
Lewis-Kraus writes of the papers he hears delivered at one session that they "are so bizarre and freakish and sodden with jargon as to make them utterly incomprehensible." I don't doubt that this was the case, but unfortunately he is unable to give us much in the way of quoted illustration of this kind of discourse. However, in looking at the most recent issue of Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction (a publication to which I still subscribe and have myself contributed), one quickly comes upon a passage like this, from an essay on Richard Powers's The Gold Bug Variations: "Across the various epistemic systems of encyclopedic information, diachronic narrative processes self-organize reactions and catalyze reciprocal, feedback relations across the textual network. The structure of the system evolves as the product of co-evolution between system and environment, involving a multidirectional collection of linear and nonlinear processes." This is incomprensible enough, even, as far as I can tell, meaningless, but it's not really the jargon that makes it so. For comparison, here is the beginning of the second paragraph of Eric Auerbach's Mimesis, one of the greatest works of literary criticism ever written. He is describing a scene in the Odyssey:
All this is scrupulously externalized and narrated in leisurely fashion. The two women express their feelings in copious direct discourse. Feelings though they are, with only a slight admixture of the most general considerations upon human destiny, the syntactical connection between part and part is perfectly clear, no contour is blurred.
Later in the same paragraph:
The separate elements of a phenomenon are most clearly placed in relation to one another; a large number of conjunctions, adverbs, particles, and other syntactical tools, all clearly circumscribed and delicately differentiated in meaning, delimit persons, things, and portions of incidents in respect to one another, and at the same time bring them together in a continuous and ever flexible connection; like the separate phenomena themselves, their relationships--their temporal, local, causal, final, consecutive, comparative, concessive, antithetical, and conditional limitations--are brought to light in perfect fullness; so that a continuous rhythmic procession of phenomena passes by, and never is there a form left fragmentary or half-illuminated, never a lacuna, never a gap, never a glimpse of unplumbed depths.
I'm pretty certain that most students, as well as most other readers unpracticed in literary criticism, would find the Mimesis passages almost as incomprehensible as the previously quoted passage about "epistemic systems" or as the scholarly papers Lewis-Kraus sat through. The difference is not that one uses jargon and the other doesn't. (Keeping in mind that Mimesis is a translation.) Both use jargon of one kind or another. Any kind of considered literary criticism is almost by necessity going to be caught using language that offends general-interest sensibilities. The real difference is that Auerbach is attempting to explicate the text in front of him, to help the reader "see" more fully what is really going on in the scene from the Odyssey. He has to use terms ("direct discourse") one wouldn' think of while reading the scene for the first time. The discussion of The Gold Bug Variations, on the other hand, has itself translated the novel into something else, an excuse to use abstraction and scientific-sounding argot and to discuss a subject the critic has invented. It has nothing to do with the novel it otherwise pretends to analyze.
Which is why Lewis-Kraus is on firmer ground when he comments that the kind of "scholarship" to which he is being exposed exhibits "a truly virtuosic incomprehensibility that makes sense only as a kind of poetic performance." It's not even that these scholars are communicating only with one another. They're not trying to communicate. It's all self-display and an allegiance to external agendas of the scholar's own choosing, agendas themselves important only to the extent that the professor in question can give it his/her own scholarly spin. (For a more extensive discussion of this, go here.)
In a response to Lewis-Kraus's essay, Sharleen Mondal makes a valiant effort to defend the contemporary literary scholar: "Literary scholars already hold themselves to a very strict standard when it comes to the validity of arguments--we are supposed to contextualize everything to the nth degree, historicize our analyses, enter the academic conversation, offer 'evidence' through the use of quotations and page references, are supposed to be clear about what we are contributing to existing work on the topic, show which theorists we are using to construct the basis for our argument, etc. If a reader is willing to do what it takes to become acquainted with all these processes, then I am perfectly happy to consider criticism. But my sense is that the reason why our work is often inaccessible to people outside our field is that most people. . .simply aren't interested--the immediate and personal experience of reading is enough."
Mondal is living in another academic age. None of the things she describes are any longer important, except when a "senior scholar" wants to have an excuse for denying a junior colleague tenure. (Even in using the word "colleague," I can hardly manage to suppress a sneer at the idea that English departments are any longer involved in any kind of collective enterprise.) All of them presuppose an existing interest in literature and in advocating on behalf of literature, but the literary academy as a whole can no longer summon up such interest. Lewis-Kraus's essay makes this patently obvious. There's scarcely a mention of literature in it except as "what you teach to your students" for the professors on hand at the convention. The fact of the matter is that not even most English professors care much about the "work" being done by those who have inherited the space inside the ivy-covered halls. Charles Bertsch, a professor who accompanies Lewis-Kraus to the convention, practically admits he has more interest in PAC-10 basektball. Literature is passe, and it's hard to muster up much enthusiasm for a fragmented curriculum that mostly rewards self-obsession.
In my opinion, it's this self-obsession that Lewis-Kraus mistakes "for a faint tremor of heroism in the air" as he sums up his experience of the MLA convention.