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“The gossip asks another to imagine along, build a reality, make it true, if only for the duration of the communication,’’ the academic star Judith Butler asserts in a defense of the academic star José Esteban Muñoz’s famous love of gossip, quoted in an article by a third academic star, Lee Edelman, who in an endnote reminisces about reminiscing with Muñoz shortly before his death: “There was probably some gossip too.” Gossip, David Shumway argues in his 1997 PMLA article “The Star System in Literary Studies,” “has become as significant to academic stardom as it is to film stardom.” It’s in part our prurient interest in the private lives of academics that makes them, in a limited sense, public figures.
At the same time, gossip has been key to some stars’ meteoric falls: The whisper network, or what the feminist media scholar Ned Schantz has called “an old girls’ network,” potentially has the power to take the “old boys” out. Twitter has done little to build up new academic stars — “Academic Twitter celebrity is literally the saddest thing to behold,” declares a recent tweet by an academic — but it has done much to tarnish the shine of critics, theorists, and scholars who, until they made the ill-advised decision to tweet or were unlucky enough to be tweeted about, had been regarded as among the best and brightest.
On a Friday in early October, I tried to ignore a barrage of texts about the latest academic Twitter gossip illuminating my phone as I sat on the freeway south of Los Angeles. I was on my way to the University of California at Irvine for the annual meeting of the English Institute, a two-day event of plenary talks by some of the leading lights in the discipline. The institute had been described to me by past speakers, attendees, and skeptical observers as the last redoubt of the star system in literary studies: the last dance for the “academostars” that felt for many like a relic of a bygone golden age. I was running late because I’d tried to squeeze in a class at my favorite LA boutique exercise studio where I’d recently seen, on two separate occasions, two actresses from popular TV shows; I was hoping to glimpse another star. I didn’t. Now I’d hit traffic, meaning I’d miss not only the red-carpet arrival of the vestigial academostardom but also most of the first talk.
It was an inauspicious start for my investigation into the state of academic literary study. Or was it all too apt? Like an underemployed literature Ph.D. graduate in a contemporary novel, I couldn’t help but reach for resonances and make metaphors. Would I arrive at the meeting of America’s top scholars in English and related disciplines only to find that there, too, the stars were absent? Stalled on the 5, surrounded by billboards advertising legal help for motorcycle accidents and other personal injuries, was I inhabiting the position of the humanities, going nowhere while also going south?
Unlike the annual meetings of the MLA, which have drawn thousands of attendees and have, until recently, been the sites of most interviews for tenure-track jobs, the English Institute was conceived as a rarefied affair: “a less harried, more exclusive alternative to the Modern Language Association conference,” as the “brief history” on the institute’s website puts it. Rather than offering a dizzying array of concurrent panels, the conference has always been made up entirely of plenary sessions, in recent years marketed by the slogan “seven talks, one conversation.” And the speakers have been stars: giants of literary criticism like Northrop Frye, Harold Bloom, Paul de Man, and Stephen Greenblatt, who all tested out the ideas that would appear in field-changing books — Anatomy of Criticism, The Anxiety of Influence, Blindness and Insight, Renaissance Self-Fashioning — in their talks.
Though founded at Columbia University, the EI was hosted for decades by Harvard University and in 2015 shifted to a rotating schedule between Yale University, the University of Chicago, and UC Irvine, each in its own way a metonym for elitism, prestige, and “high theory.” This year, the names lighting up the marquee were Fleissner, a scholar of 19th- and 20th-century literature at Indiana University at Bloomington; Suzanne Conklin Akbari, a medievalist at the Institute for Advanced Study; Jonathan Kramnick, a scholar of 18th-century literature and philosophy at Yale; Shonni Enelow, a scholar of drama, film, and performance across media at Fordham University; David Marriott, a poet and philosopher of psychoanalysis and race at Emory University whose talk was canceled at the last minute due to illness; Yoon Sun Lee, a scholar of the British novel and Asian American literature at Wellesley College; and, as a replacement for the late Berlant, Sianne Ngai, a critical theorist of capitalist aesthetics at the University of Chicago who, as her colleague Deborah Nelson noted in her introduction, has received not only a bevy of academic accolades but also laudatory citations in such venues as The New Yorker and — here Nelson’s voice cracked in mock disbelief — the Financial Times.
But it would be difficult to describe the atmosphere at the 2022 English Institute as glamorous or intimidating. Was it just the location, the sun beating down on the concourse of freeways connecting Irvine to Disneyland, the gated communities of Orange County, the broader SoCal cultural wasteland? Was it the fact that of the impressive roster of speakers, only Ngai, in my estimation and that of the friends and colleagues I relentlessly polled on this question, really counts as a “star,” someone whose influence extends far beyond narrow subfields, and even beyond academia, into popular media? (Even Ngai, by some accounts, doesn’t quite fit the bill; her unapologetically scholarly prose sets her apart from some of today’s most sought-after stars who are known for their writerly self-constructions, concurrent careers as poets, experiments in genre, and undeniable sense of style. “I think of myself as the writer who uses ‘thus,’” Ngai has said.) Did the ongoing pandemic (participants were asked to wear masks indoors, except while speaking) have a distracting, disorienting, or dampening effect? Or was it the fact that in the current climate, with tenure-track jobs dwindling to zero in many fields and state defunding threatening some of those who seemed comfortably tenured, even the brightest academic “stars” look awfully dim?
“Is EI invested in the star system?” I asked everyone I met, or, when I was feeling sassier, “Does EI’s attachment to academic celebrity further entrench a two-tiered system where a handful of elite professors rise to the top while countless contingent academic laborers toil in the shadows?” One EI board member bristled and changed the subject (and this was at the milder form of the question); another looked around for someone else to talk to. I had to admit that this line of inquiry, which I’d been sure would be my angle for this piece, felt somewhat forced. The Q&A sessions were some of the most inclusive I’ve ever seen. While at first I was surprised that questioners were asked to state their affiliation along with their name, thinking I’d quickly tire of hearing Ivy League pedigrees rattled off, the participants turned out to hail from a range of institutions: Yale, yes, but also UCs, regional public universities, schools I’d never heard of, “no institution,” “between institutions.” Many were graduate students. Speakers took questions seriously, and relatively few questions were “actually more of a comment.”
The graduate students and early-career faculty members I talked to all appreciated how down-to-earth the conference felt. If they were star-struck, it was by the stellar ideas they’d encountered. Ryan Tardiff, who was only six weeks into a program at Pacific Northwest College of Art, asked a question at almost every talk and called the whole experience “brain-expanding” and “a gauntlet, but not in a bad way.” Yonina Hoffman, who had just begun a tenure-track position at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, told me she was “an EI true believer” and a “walking archive” of the institute. (She was kind enough to send me the programs and summarize her notes from the recent meetings whose schedules are not available online.)
Hoffman has been attending EI since 2012, when she was pursuing a master’s degree at Ohio State University. “It didn’t matter,” she said, “that I was a 24-year-old rando from Ohio” — she was among “kindred spirits of the mind.” For her, the conference is an “extended shared argument,” the talks “completely cutting edge,” the participants “like a family.” On a more practical level, “things I learned at EI went directly into me landing a job.” As she continued to describe how much she’d learned from the EI community, Thomas Manganaro, an assistant professor at the University of Richmond, murmured, “at MLA, I didn’t learn anything but how to be scared.”
“Scared and alone!” Hoffman laughed.
“It was when it was Marge’s show,” Seth Lerer, a literature professor and former dean of arts and humanities at the University of California at San Diego, chimed in, referring to Marjorie Garber’s long tenure running the institute out of Harvard, before what Lerer called the “palace coup” of 2015 and the shift to the rotation between the three other campuses. (The official history puts it a bit differently, quoting Garber’s measured comments on the transition: “The decision to make it a conference that moves from place to place was one that the board considered very carefully.”) For Macpherson, EI is many things — “a grad seminar on steroids”; a “refresher course” that reminds her why she cares; a “precarious animal” that operates on “a shoestring budget” — but not elitist or exclusive.
Speakers’ travel and housing are paid for, but they receive no honorarium (though this is under discussion — not compensating speakers keeps costs down and doesn’t contribute to economic inequality between professors at different tiers of institution, but does it amount to the insidious practice of “paying in prestige”?); a donation-based fund covers the expenses of graduate students who wish to travel to the conference; the cost of attendance ranges from $10 to $20 and is free for those affiliated with a long list of sponsoring institutions, in stark contrast to the steep registration and membership fees required to attend MLA, ACLA, or almost any large conference in literary studies. And by going out of its way to stress that audience members are full participants in the conference, EI helps to establish a horizontal relationship between invited speakers and everyone else and to ease reimbursement for those whose institutions only allow the use of research funds for conferences where one is presenting.
But was something missing? A certain, I don’t know, star quality? “The creator of The Chair retweeted me,” Macpherson told me excitedly at one point, referring to Annie Julia Wyman, an English Ph.D. graduate of Harvard who co-created the Netflix show about a fictional English department. Macpherson runs the EI Twitter account, and Wyman had quote-tweeted a tweet advertising the conference, asking if she should come. “I told her yes! We could have our own, what, HBO show? The Institute?” Wyman hadn’t come. But Macpherson and Lerer, clearly Chair fans, had a spirited debate about whether Lerer resembled the actor Bob Balaban, who plays an older, stubbornly out-of-touch faculty member on the show. I ran into Lerer again during the afternoon break on Day 2, at the refreshment table. “Is the coffee still warm?” someone asked, breezing by us. “Yes,” Lerer called over his shoulder, “but it’s unspeakably bad!” He told me animated stories about the ethical compromises he felt forced to make during his time as dean. “I’m the oldest person here,” he said, his thoughts threatening to bend Balaban-ward again. Throughout the two-day affair, the out-of-context Hamid line from Fleissner’s slide kept popping into my head. For one moment we are pottering about an academic conference as usual and the next we are dying.
Others pointed to the toll enacted on the star system by the disgrace of luminaries like Avital Ronell and John Comaroff, whose defense by fellow stars, circulated in public and private letters of support, exacerbated the sense of betrayal felt by many. Ronell’s allies, many of them queer, had formed powerful communal bonds earlier in their careers that helped them thrive within, and in some cases transform, hostile institutions. When those same bonds are turned against a graduate student with less institutional power, “minoritarian belonging” becomes less about “confabulating” a “counterreality” — as Butler (a Ronell-letter signatory) paraphrased Muñoz on gossip’s worldmaking — than another form of exclusion.
One scholar says the conference is many things —“a grad seminar on steroids,” a “refresher course” that reminds her why she cares — but not elitist or exclusive.
Where does that leave EI? Is the institute, as a kind of synecdoche for what’s left of the discipline, a dead planet bathed in the light of stars that are still shining despite having burned out thousands of years ago? Was the star system ever real? As Lee Konstantinou argued in The Chronicle in 2018, following l’affaire Ronell, the academic-star system, and in particular the idea that stratospheric scholars could make the careers of their students, has always been a wishful projection, an exaggerated and inverted image of their very real ability to break careers. “The fantasy that anyone has such superpower,” he remarks, was “almost poignant.” By the time Ronell’s case became public, 10 years after the 2008 financial crash from which academic hiring has never recovered, the notion appeared patently absurd — and yet both Ronell and her accuser seemed to believe it, clinging to the fiction that a literary scholar could write a narrative, or at least a letter of recommendation, that would conjure up a dream job. For Konstantinou, this could be considered an occupational hazard of humanists: a misguided belief that the talismanic power of language — “finding the right method,” “the right combination of words,” “the right plea” — will put legislatures, journalists, students, and administrators under our spell.
That fantasy haunted my experience at EI: not a belief in academic star power exactly, but in the power of words to make a meaningful impact on the world, or — perhaps conversely — to constitute entire worlds in themselves. What kind of power do we in literary fields ascribe to our own words, and how far can or should its force extend? I got the assignment for this piece because an editor saw a cheeky tweet I sent out into the void, a half-serious speech act in the genre of “haha just kidding! Unless…?” Some friends counseled me not to go through with it, for fear I’d offend someone on a search committee and dash my thin remaining hopes of securing a tenure-track job. For the most part, the talks and conversation at EI made up a shared world that put everything else in temporary suspension, even when those talks addressed such topics as “structural violence” and what Berlant called the “slow death” of populations deemed disposable. We were all in a room together, having literally intramural debates about “action” in the abstract. The real world and its problems were bracketed.
But Jonathan Kramnick, at the end of his engaging talk on Alexander Pope’s use of deixis, decided to jolt us out of our self-licking circuits. Citing the phenomenon of “shifting baseline syndrome” in the context of climate change, whereby we simply get used to the fact that species are dying out and weather patterns are getting more irregular, Kramnick suggested that a similar problem was plaguing literature professors, who were seamlessly adjusting to the fact that prospects for their graduate students, and thus opportunities for the reproduction of the skills of literary analysis, were steadily dwindling. Preserving those skills requires action, Kramnick insisted — the theme of this very conference. “So the action I would implore on us,” he said in closing, “is to go home and demand jobs for the young. It’s as simple as that and is the least we can do.”
It might be the least we can do, but is it as simple as that? Is the “we” who can make such demands of university administrations organized into collective action? Or is it the royal “we” of the Ivy League English professor whose word, as he sees it, is law? Some graduate students I spoke to were appreciative of Kramnick’s gesture. They at least found it more pertinent than the bubble-puncturing move made by Suzanne Conklin Akbari, who encouraged everyone to put their current research on hold and learn Indigenous languages but was forced to admit, when asked a question about how graduate students could follow her advice, that she was really only addressing tenured scholars. Tess Given, a Ph.D. student at Indiana University at Bloomington, said it felt good that a tenured scholar acknowledged the problem of the collapsing job market, though Alison Ameter, at OSU, pointed out that this awareness “doesn’t lead anywhere yet.”
When I asked Kramnick what he meant by concluding his paper on Pope’s rhetoric with what struck me as a very different kind of rhetorical move, he seemed to think the connection between applying for tenure-track lines and analyzing lines of poetry couldn’t be clearer. “But don’t you think people know there’s a problem?” I pressed. Hasn’t it become mechanical to acknowledge the jobs crisis, in a way that, counterintuitively, naturalizes it or makes it meaningless? Kramnick disagreed. “I think it hasn’t been said enough,” he said, simply. It struck me that Kramnick had taken a page out of the Stanley Fish book of academic stardom, as summarized by Shumway: Use the first-person pronoun to cultivate a persona that is not “private but, rather, professional,” then exercise authority from that position. Nice work, if you can persuade people you can get it.
I logged back on. I tweeted about how much I liked seeing the filmmaker Paul Schrader’s Facebook updates posted on Twitter. I tweeted about how Twitter was like Milton’s Hell. I tweeted about how my Ph.D. adviser, who doesn’t have a Twitter account, looks up my tweets and emails me about them. There was an election. I applied to tenure-track academic jobs. I reread Andrew Kay’s 2019 gonzo-journalistic Chronicle article, where he recounts drinking whiskey and lamenting the loss of his tenure-track future at the MLA. He compares the conference to a game of golf immortalized in a viral photo where a wildfire rages in the background as the players leisurely finish their round. It’s a fire take, as they say on Twitter: These oblivious idiots are engaging in a leisure activity while the world burns. What could justify indulging in the most definitionally leisure activity there is — skole, the life of the mind — while the profession of the academic humanities was dying, as imperiled by budget cuts as, in a neat analogy or perhaps pathetic fallacy, the natural world was imperiled by climate change?
But what should the golfers be doing? Donning firefighting equipment and jumping on a passing truck? If the emergency we’re facing is the imminent breakdown of our ability to reproduce the profession, shouldn’t we also be producing something to reproduce in the first place? What will we do when and if we can put out the fire? For one moment we are puttering along on the golf course as usual and the next we are dying. As of this writing, Twitter is still up and running. The English Institute will next meet in October 2023, at Yale. The theme will be “Catastrophe.”