Friday, June 15, 2018

Your Human Worth Is Greater Than That: MLA 2018, part seven

This is the seventh part of a series wherein I share my notes on the panels I attended at January's convention of the Modern Language Association. Here are part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, and part six.

411: 1968 – 2018: The Movement, the MLA, and the Current Moment

There were about twenty people in the audience, most of them well over sixty.

Paul Lauter spoke of how, when the MLA convened at these very hotels in 1968 (the Hilton and the Sheraton, now the Americana)—the year of the Tet Offensive, Chicago, Johnson’s abdication, RFK’s assassination, etc.—he had organized a thing, a disruption of professional norms . . . there were many threads of activism going on: the No Chicago campaign made its presence felt, Chomsky got to speak against the war in a large auditorium, and Louis Kampf was arrested for hanging radical posters on the hotel walls. The MLA Radical Caucus was established, and many unexpected events enused: there was a motion for a Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession, there was fundraising for the arrested poster-tackers . . . although their resolutions against the war somehow did not bring the war to a halt, they succeeded at democratizing education and diversifying the canon and the faculty, and presaged the MLA’s fights against the crapification of academic labor. 1968 produced changes that affected all our lives.

Ellen Schrecker tried to place the events of ’68 and the context of that era’s radicalism. In 1965, a group organized an annual socialist scholars’ conference; in ’68, a group of young scholars organized the New University Conference. Most of the action took place within the disciplines and within old or new professional societies. For example the Sociology Liberation Movement published Insurgent Sociologist magazine. The Review of Radical Political Economics and Radical History Review are still around . . . there was Anthropologists for Radical Political Action, various groups in psychology, Science for the People, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Committee of Concerned Asia Scholars (mainly radical grad students demanding that faculty take a stand on the war). Radical students and faculty proposed resolutions within their fields and at their home institutions, while the Establishment in each field strongly opposed “politicizing” their disciplines. Many of these radical groups were interested in interdisciplinarity, in Marxism . . . were skeptical of “objective scholarship” . . . emphasized moral and ethical issues in their fields . . . opposed the post-WWII wave of quantification. In some fields, scholars struggled to figure out how to combine their scholarship and activism. Some compartmentalized, some gave up academic life . . . and less radical individuals entered the fields when those fields became successful, so the disciplines’ radicalism faded.

Frances Smith Foster could not attend: after having waited eight hours at the San Diego airport, she and her fellow passengers were told that nobody was getting into JFK so the flight was cancelled. In her paper, read by Joan Hartman, she said that Sankofa is a belief that one must retrieve from the past what’s useful for surviving the present and founding the future. That Faulkner line was right about the past. And re-memory is different from, and more important than, memory. Nell Painter Irvin says that what we can see depends heavily on what our culture has told us to look for. The MLA admitted its first African American member in 1884. The two first African American members, however, stopped attending in 1897.

In 1968, Houston Baker, unaware of the Alternative Convention that was going on, saw only one other person of color at the official MLA. He came to understand the racism at that convention thanks not to internal critique of the organization but to his students. Foster felt similarly objectified by white male scholars ten years later. “Naming the Problem that Led to the Question”—Nellie McKay understood the problem well: opportunistic white scholars, white students being steered away from African American studies, a shortage of black scholars being produced. Consider Maynard Mack’s conclusion that the 1968 MLA Disruption revealed “the profound mistrust that was there to divide us” and his call for unity and communication, versus Lauter, Kampf, and Ohmann’s accounts of their failures and successes. Foster’s paper ended with some moving final lines on what remains to be done, which I was unable to take down.

Sarah Chinn then spoke on the theme of “Moving without The Movement.” Let’s take a detour out of the MLA and on to the college campus. How well did the political experiences of ‘68—and did the political experiences of ‘68—inform future students?

The ‘80s are now regarded as a vapid ideological wasteland marked by a dearth of progressive engagement. Sarah remembers them as a maelstrom of political organizing, but also the lack of a “Movement.” Indeed, ‘80s activists wondered how all of the disparate programs of the ‘60s could have constituted a single Movement. Much of that Movement was male-dominated, insensitive to nuance on racial issues, ambivalent about gay liberation . . . but they did see all the oppressions as connected. Talk of “The Movement” seemed wholly foreign in the ‘80s, and its clear sense of purpose seemed weird, as did its veterans nostalgic generalizations. And what had The Movement achieved long-term? Believing in The Revolution just broke people’s hearts: it seemed better to focus on specific goals and issues.

The divestment movement defined Sarah’s first two years in college: endless meetings, the campus shanty, the arrests . . . it became the seedbed for her later activism, with CISPES, or against ongoing segregation in the U.S.; it taught her to back up arguments with research. But! She had no longterm interaction with older activists, except for veterans of lesbian feminism, from whom she learned about the thriving feminist scene: “These women wanted to teach us, and we wanted to learn.” This was very different from the presentism she saw in anti-apartheid activism, where little connection was made to past anticolonial struggles. How, as activists, do we succeed and fail at conveying lessons to people who come after us? 

In 1968, Dick Ohmann was mad as hell. About the war, racial oppression, the stodginess of the MLA . . . he hardly had a systemic critique or strategy, but he and his cohort achieved many successes without a plan, as well as two . . . nonsuccesses. The “job crash” of 1969 led to a job-seekers’ caucus . . . but fifty years is a long time for a crisis to persist. Remember that we’re one industry that has not bounced back from the ’07 recession: the number of tenure track jobs is down by 60% from just before that crash. In 1971, MLA membership exceeded 31,000; in 2016, just over 24,000, while undergraduate enrollment has grown by 150%.

The context of college education has dramatically changed, and not in ways that portend well for arts & sciences. We’ve seen the degradation of university labor’s process and product. In today’s terms, the humanities and social sciences are hard-pressed to compete in vocational education. Once-robust fields like law and medicine are becoming similarly etiolated—see Radical Teacher 99. This degradation of labor and worker-control that has happened since WWII, led by the Coorses and Waltons and Kochs, has established the neoliberal social order that has little room for such 1968 ideals as inclusivity, the common good, or social planning. The successes of 1968 led to the Culture Wars of the ‘80s, and the free marketers and culture warriors and evangelicals triumphed.  We need to look squarely at how we lost while winning since 1968.

An audience member asked, What are the lessons going forward about what we can do today. Ohmann replied that capitalism has a great capability to swallow everything up. Chinn said, We learned there were thins we can win. Someone (Ohmann?) added that liberal embrace of multiculturalism was a terrible mistake and we thought the Culture Wars would pass . . . we could not believe that this issue was important to people . . . in the ‘60s we had the sense that we could just keep going and be confident the revolution would come: we haven’t grappled with heartbreak and we haven’t transmitted techniques of resistance.

Schrecker observed that The Movement came out of the civil rights movement; Chinn said the only equivalent movement today is Black Lives Matter, which reaches into people’s lives. An octogenarian woman behind me, about whom more anon, congratulated Paul Lauter on his award and said, there’s a genuine disagreement about what constitutes the curriculum: the Culture Warriors are not being disingenuous. The Culture Wars concerned the nature of the education of the elite. Allan Bloom was serious. And she added that the transgender movement is another important “bridging” movement that also reaches into people’s lives.

Ohmann said, yes, but now the Culture Wars are focused on PC. And he fears that movements are going down the road of identity politics (Audience member: “Dick, I never thought I’d hear you agree with Mark Lilla”). Another audience member thinks we should have made composition a central part of our mission rather than foisting it on adjuncts. David Laurence spoke of the untrustworthiness of projections about higher education. Twenty (?) years ago, enrollment decline was supposed to be the great threat to higher ed, but it turned out to be inflation.

Louis Kampf, in the audience, said we need to be less ambitious and to question whether literature, composition, and the humanities have this great transformative power. In 2016, many of Kampf’s dear friends and colleagues and family in the radical community declined to support the nomination of a candidate who, despite some very disturbing shortcomings, was the only chance progressive had and instead gambled on the dream of a revolution and voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary, thus contributing to Trump’s victory. So Louis hesitates to answer, “What should we do.”

Chinn sought to rebut Kampf by making a claim for the transformative power of the humanities, especially in public institutions. We see over and over that as soon as POC gain access to a social good, it is either taken away, costs more, or is devalued. Look what happened after CUNY instituted Open Admissions: within six years, free tuition disappeared. Ditto the humanities: as soon as marginalized people claim the humanities as a transformative site, it’s devalued, as if only when it belonged to the elites was it worth something and when it belongs to nonelites, it’s no good. Look at how Wall Street has soared this week, and yet, when NYC is broke, there’s austerity; and when NYC is flush, there’s austerity. The fact that right-wing legislators are saying don’t sit with Shakespeare (Du Bois reference intentional), just become good little worker bees, is the very thing to which the humanities say no, your human worth is greater.

Lauter said that was the theory behind what we were doing with the Heath Anthology, and we were more successful with diversity than with addressing the culture of a working class world. When Lauter directed the Servicement’s Fund, reaching the GI’s was the most important part of opposing the war within the U.S. Can we do that work within the framework of institutions of higher ed?

Octogenarian woman behind me asked, why did state legislatures start to disinvest from higher ed in the ‘70s? And what is happening in the community colleges? Joan H said, all the technical fields now have so many requirements that the amount of required humanities keeps shrinking. Ironically, the Culture Warriors thought that students could be corrupted by three hours a week in one semester. Speaking of community colleges, an audience member said that the state limits literature courses and faculty are discouraged from teaching literature. CC students may bring very limited energy to the humanities.

Vince Leitch spoke out against the adjunctification of the disciplines and said it’s a mixed blessing that the university is so flexible. The country’s sought since the 1880’s to exterminate the Left. Faculty predominantly identify with management, not labor. And remember, The Movement was spontaneous, not organized—like Occupy, not Black Lives Matter. And what became of Occupy?

I had wanted, at some point in the Q&A, to connect some of the comments to the old trope of “Politics are intruding upon our pastoral, hitherto conflict-free university” that was raised in opposition to war protestors in the ‘60s and ‘70s, in opposition to queer and anti-apartheid and anti-weapons research protestors in the ‘80s, in opposition to grad student unionization in (and since) the ‘90s, and in opposition to student calls for sensitivity in the present. I am glad I didn’t, because I would have decried Catharine Stimpson as the major proponent of the view that grad student unionization was destroying the delicate horticultural relationship between students and the faculty; and Stimpson, it turned out, was that octogenarian woman behind me.

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