The Provokies

Well, this is a rich resource at Invisible Adjunct. Sort of a treasure-chest of lame alibis, bogus analogies, whining, flag-self-wrapping-in, efforts to seem important via association, verbiage, accusation, attempted guilt-mongering, accidental self-revelations, messenger-blaming, conceit, and much much more. It’s funny but it’s also rather depressing. However, it’s not exactly a news flash that people in the literary theory game have gone a little odd lately, is it.

The fuss is about a hilarious brief piece Scott McLemee wrote for the CHE about ‘The Chronicle’s First Annual Awards for Self-Consciously Provocative MLA Paper Titles (also known as the Provokies).’ There’s an Award for Transgressive Punctuation, the Andrew Ross Award for Dangerous Hipness (if you’ve read Strange Weather you know how funny that is), the Award for Best Slavoj Zizek Knockoff, and more.

Criteria for the Andrew Ross Award for Dangerous Hipness incited heated debate among the judges. Some held that the award should go to a title reflecting scholarship that keeps up with recent cable-television listings. They nominated the paper “Taking Away the Threat: Cribs and The Osbournes as Narratives of Domestication,” by David S. Escoffery and Michelle Sullivan, of Southwest Missouri State University and the University of Pittsburgh’s main campus, respectively. Others contended that the winner should be “très 1990s,” just like Mr. Ross’s own bad self. They argued strenuously for “Judith Butler Got Me Tenure (but I Owe My Job to k.d. lang): High Theory, Pop Culture, and Some Thoughts About the Role of Literature in Contemporary Queer Studies,” by Kim L. Emery of the University of Florida.

Don’t you just want to stampede off to the bookstore or library and snap those titles up so you can start not reading them? I know I do. But alas, some people were not amused. (Others decidedly were, which is a relief. I mean, if you’re going to be all playful and ironic and dangerously hip for the MLA but then go rigid and purple with deadly-earnest rage when other people are playful and ironic – why, people might start to think you’re not really all that playful and amusing after all, mightn’t they.) Comment 15, for example:

The point, as far as I’m concerned, is that these articles are nothing more than a recycled, sneering, hipster version of the same old intellectual-bashing exercises that mainstream US culture is perennially embarked upon. Is it too much to ask that the freaking Chronicle — our own paper-of-record, one would have thought — resist getting in on the action? Yes, ridiculous, yes, sexless, yes, dorky. But who isn’t?

Well, frankly, lots of people are not as ridiculous as the titles of those articles are. Let’s see – historians, sociologists, astronomers, mathematicians, biologists – I can think of lots and lots of disciplines that don’t attract the kind of derision the MLA does (remember the article last year? ‘Theorists make the snappiest dressers?’). So teasing the MLA is not equivalent to teasing (or bashing) all intellectuals. It’s just teasing the people at the MLA. Do they take themselves to coincide exactly with the set ‘intellectuals’? Do they think there are no intellectuals outside the MLA? Do they think literary theorists exhaust the definition of ‘intellectual’?

And then there’s an old acquaintance of ours, talking with his usual politeness and depth of learning to the author of the article:

The fact that these few paper titles out of hundreds offend your parochial sense of what literature professors should do is not particularly surprising; but the Chronicle hasn’t gone broke by perpetuating ignorant stereotypes…I guess they don’t give you the Microsoft-style brainteasers at the Chronicle job interview. But do you know what I bet is a de facto prereq? Unsuccessful attempt at being an academic. You see you’d be delivering papers at the MLA if it weren’t for all the “queer theorists” and “blaxploiticians,” right? It’d make me bitter too.

Amazing, isn’t it? He thinks delivering papers at the MLA is a desirable fate. He thinks people want to be like him! That may be the funniest thing on the whole page.

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