Professional Convention

I have some more comments I want to make and others I want to quote. Comment boards on blogs are not always the best place to do research on attitudes, naturally, because the people commenting can be anybody and everybody – people who’ve misplaced their meds, people who haven’t been prescribed any meds yet, people who are just that little bit too interested in aluminum foil. So keep that in mind. But the comments at Invisible Adjunct do seem to represent some real attitudes in that sector of the academy that’s under discussion. So let’s dissect one or two of them on that assumption – the attitudes are worth a look even if these particular exponents of them are bogus.

For instance this from comment 25:

I repeat: the MLA is a professional convention. Its audience is _not_ the general public. We don’t ask particle physicists to defend big words and opaque paper titles. Why literary and language scholars? Because while we recognize the expertise inherent in a field like particle physics we _all_ feel we have some intuitive claim on language and literature? Because language and literature are about our opinions and emotions? Not. Get thee to Literary Research Methods 101.

Particle physicists – there it is. I love it when literary theorists compare themselves to physicists, particle or otherwise. It’s so funny, for one thing, and such a giveaway, for another. One feels an overwhelming urge to start exclaiming like a Valley girl, ‘You wish! In your dreams; as if; yeah, right; etc.’ Apparently the assumption is that if a discipline is to be found at universities, it therefore follows that they are all of exactly comparable difficulty and rigor. But it doesn’t follow, does it. No.

And then – and here we move from funny and pathetic to rather disgusting – there is the business about ‘professional’ and the repudiation of the general public, and then the brisk removal of literature from the public domain. And yet literary theory on the whole considers itself a left-wing, liberatory, progressive enterprise – doesn’t it? Am I wrong about that? I don’t think so. But one of the first defensive moves in the face of criticism is to proclaim how professional and expert the whole subject is, and none of the public’s damn business. But that’s nonsense. Certainly there is much to learn about theory and criticism, but that does not alter the fact that literature in fact is a public subject in a way that physics (obviously) is not. People don’t generally do amateur physics for fun and pleasure, but people do read novels and poetry and essays and plays for those reasons. All the time! This is a common practice! Why, non-experts are even permitted to read Shakespeare and Wordsworth if they feel like it – and they get a lot out of it, too, without ever asking permission of literary theorists. That’s simply a fact. So, yes, that is one reason the MLA gets more attention than other conventions do – and a good thing too. Universities aren’t some sort of sacred mystery, after all. Academics are not medieval priests, their subject matter is not the Ark of the Covenant. So this indignant relish for the professionalization of the academic study of literature is deeply repellent.

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