What’s Going On at MLA

Ted Underwood has a very smart response to Stanley Fish’s recent article in the New York Times, in which the latter characterizes digital humanities as an “insurgent” successfully overturning postmodern theory.  Underwood takes Fish’s characterization to be flattering for digital humanists (although off base, for persuasive reasons); Rosemary Feal, however, astutely points to the article’s crankiness in her twitter summary: “I see you on my lawn, kids.”

Having read all the comments to Fish’s article so far, I think we could summarize them as follows: “why are these people talking about things we don’t understand and why aren’t they talking about literature, language, and learning like they are supposed to be doing?”

Oddly, however, the Presidential Forum, with 70 linked sessions, is on “Language, Literature, Learning.”  These sessions overlap with many other interests, including digital humanities, but nevertheless they all explore the very topic that commentators seem to find so lacking at MLA.  This central theme does not make its way at all into Fish’s trend round-up.  Perhaps it would make a very dull column to report that thousands of scholars will converge to renew their fascination with language, literature, and learning, sharing their research, insights, and commitment to higher education.

How do we more accurately communicate what is really going on and liberate ourselves from these (dated?) Oedipal narratives?


9 responses to “What’s Going On at MLA

  1. Thanks, Laura. I think it’s ironic that we, of all professionals, are so often presented as not serving our constituents and even, sometimes, as parasitical. (Hello? Congress? Banking Industry?) We need more voices, of decidedly not-Fish varieties, representing our work in the public sphere. Would we get published in the NYT? That’s one problem Another may be that most of us are too busy actually working to take up the challenge.

    Having said that, I return to grading and MLA-paper writing.

  2. Thanks, Laura, for alerting us to Ted’s post. To answer your question, Ted has taken a good first step in communicating “what is happening,” by detaching DH from Fish’s narrative. The remaining task is to work through the embedded assumptions that end up producing such impoverished views of our work. But as the OWS movement has shown, I wouldn’t count on the NYT or similar venues to carry this kind of message; we need to develop alternative (and more enduring) networks, just as the blog-and-Twitter chatter around MLA helped give Ted’s response additional resonance.

  3. “Once again, as in the early theory days, a new language is confidently and prophetically spoken by those in the know, while those who are not are made to feel ignorant, passed by, left behind, old.” This seems to say so much more about Stanley Fish than it does about “The Profession.” I agree with Toni that it seems like much of the metanarrative about what literary and cultural studies is doing gets generated by people who are busier metanarrating than doing literary and cultural studies.

    I have to sit out both MLA and ASECS this season — looking forward to following the action online, especially around here.

  4. There is a generational/status divide going on here, with Fish playing the would-be Olympian generalizer and Underwood patiently explaining what he’s been doing for the past 10 years. But I think Underwood’s post is useful precisely to the extent that he’s forcing Fish, or at least Fish’s many readers, to question some of the assumptions and metanarratives driving this problematic account of DH.

    For Fish’s generation of critics-as-theorists, innovative “readings” were produced idiosyncrattically, and individually, by critics discovering philosophical and “theoretical” texts and working through them in tandem within their literary sub-specialties. What gave Fish the authority to talk about Derrida and Rorty was his well-known position within Milton studies, for example.

    Now, I think, we’ve reached a moment where the “theory” seems much more evenly distributed throughout the process of interpretation, and we seem far more conscious of how these theories affect the collective and material dimensions of knowledge-production. This could be DH’s debt to the past 20 years of cultural studies.

    The Profession segment on DH that we’ve been reading on EMOB has loads of useful insights about this, precisely because the evaluation of DH raises all sorts of questions about individual vs. collaborative work, the primacy of interpretation vs. dissemination, product vs. process, and so on. I don’t think DH can “save” anything, but I do believe that thinking through these kinds of questions can only improve literary studies, by forcing it to reflect upon its own conditions of production and dissemination.

  5. Laura Rosenthal

    Those are good points, especially those three sets of tensions you mention at the end. Although in some ways they have always been there. Big editorial projects, for example, have long been on the collaboration/dissemination side (but maybe not so much process). Also, other projects besides scholarly editions, such as editing a journal, organizing a conference, editing a series for a press, fall on the collaboration/dissemination side; they have also tended to earn less reward than individual, interpretive work. Then there is the whole layer of evaluation work that tends to be highly intellectual but rarely “counts”: tenure/promotion letters, manuscript and article refereeing, reading for prizes, book reviews.

    I think you’re basically right about those tensions, but I also like to think of interpretation as, at least potentially, a collaborative enterprise as well in its own way. I think the model of overturning some earlier, implicitly less sophisticated, reading is not the only way of doing it. You are always building on a history of thinking about a text. I think this aspect was made clear to many of us working on women writers about whom there hadn’t been much written before. There was something liberating about this sometimes, but also sometimes harder.

  6. Absolutely agree that the tensions have long been there in relation to printed editorial and bibliographic work, which struggled for recognition after the onset of the New Criticism. And there are lots of aspects of our scholarly process that are invisible from the perspective of merit review or P&T. But I think that one of the things that Underwood’s piece makes very clear is that whereas a print-based scholarly universe has its infrastructures “outside” departments in university presses, granting agencies, etc., the digital scholarly universe has scholars creating some of their own scholarly infrastructures, tools, resources, etc. The outsourcing of most evaluation issues to university presses, which direct rewards and recognition chiefly to individual monographs and their authors, helped conceal the collaborative nature of knowledge production for a long time. The feminist critical project of re-editing and re-publishing female authors was the first step in making this kind of infrastructural work visible.

  7. Laura Rosenthal

    Yes, I think it’s important that alternatives have been created. Although to some extent those have long been there too in certain areas, such as small journals on really specific topics and–perhaps a better example–lots of shoestring outlets for creative writers. But you’re right that this is different in its magnitude and what it makes possible. Thus the issue of evaluation, as so many I think have noticed, will be key. Something needs to replace, or supplement, the outsourcing of evaluation that you describe, but I don’t think it has yet emerged. From the MLA program, though, I see there are people working on this, so I look forward to hearing about some new ideas.

  8. Anna Battigelli

    It’s interesting that Fish points to the DH as the great new thing and then cautiously inserts that something interesting is also going on with religion and literature. He’s comfortable with the easily modern; less so, with the clearly old.

    The “new” is important: we don’t want to rehash what has already been said. But eighteenth-century scholars teach the literatures and cultures of the past. One interesting question is determining how well DH projects help us see the complexity of older forms of literature and the cultures that produced them.

  9. Dave Mazella

    Thanks, Anna. I agree that Fish seems to have a surprisingly unreflective view of innovation, of “the new.”

    I think you describe very well some of the potential for DH when you say that it could “help us see the complexity of older forms of literature and the cultures that produced them.” Keyword-searching doesn’t give definitive answers about the past, but it can certainly give us a more detailed view of the social uses of language from which literature emerges. The analogy would be the moment when historians discovered statistics and social-science methodologies in the 60s.

    Though the positivist ambition to remake history as an entirely “scientific” enterprise never happened, we have seen in the last few decades an integration of statistical with other forms of analysis in historical studies. These turned out to be invaluable, for example, in the studies of subjects like demography, migration or, more specifically for our period, the Atlantic slave trade. But studies of this sort have not eliminated the need for narrative history.