June 12th, 2004

Putting the Lay in MLA

Here's one from the archive for you. Annalee was supposed to be presenting a paper called "Walk Like Your In Cyberspace" for the 1992 MLA in New York. The fall semester leading up to the convention, however, she and many other Graduate Student Instructors at UC Berkeley went on strike. While only a Reader at the time and therefore not technically part of the festivities, I easily won the wonderful Julian Boyd's approval for me and my fellow Reader Donna Kaiser to participate in the strike as if we were also supposed to be striking. From early November until the end of classes, I woke before dawn and braved absurdly bad rush hour traffic to make it onto the picket lines by 8am.

The experience was transformative for me, as it was for so many of my fellow strikers. Incidentally, that fall semester also saw the debut of Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life, which even put out a special "Why We Strike" supplement. Somehow, in all the turmoil, Annalee decided that she didn't want to travel to New York to give a paper that seemed irrelevant to the matters at hand. I offered to go in her stead, since I was already planning to be on the East Coast. Together, we wrote a paper for her MLA slot that reflected, not on the airy abstractions of postmodern lifestyles, but the concrete reality that we had just experienced as strikers.

I proudly wore my AGSE/UAW baseball hat throughout the MLA, indoors and out, telling anyone who asked why I was wearing it. I had it on when I approached Frederic Jameson and gave him copies of the first three issues of Bad Subjects -- he seemed decidedly underwhelmed -- and when I later attended the UC Berkeley English Department's annual gathering for faculty and graduate students, held in the wet bar-outfitted and mirror-ceilinged absurdity of Department Chair Fred Crews's suite. Even though I felt simultaneously stared-at and stared-through, I kept the hat on. Finally, James Turner, who was away that year, approached me in a friendly, if intense, manner and made a surprising reference to Bad Subjects -- someone must have told him about it -- in which he wondered whether Althusser wasn't a little too 70s for our generation. He also commented on the hat. No one else acknowledged it.

Later, I stood in the bedroom with Carlos Camargo, Fred Crews, and Stephen Greenblatt, while the four of us half-watched the San Francisco 49ers beat the crap out of a bad team -- I think it was the Detroit Lions -- while talking tensely about various matters. I was President of the English Graduate Association that year, a task Carlos had passed on to me, and had therefore been instrumental in coordinating various liaisons between the Department and the strikers. I never had the impression that Fred Crews wanted to talk to me, but he seemed to feel some sort of professional obligation to make conversation with me and Carlos.

Greenblatt, whom I had never really spoken to before, wondered aloud why we were bothering to watch the game, since it had no bearing on the playoffs and was already a rout. "Because Joe Montana might play," I replied. "But he won't play until the second half, " Greenblatt answered. "This is the first half. We don't need to watch Steve Young."

At one point in the conversation, Crews, who grew up in the Philadelphia area, talked about the importance of squash. Having grown up in a rural portion of northern Bucks County, beyond the range of "official" suburbs but still within the ambit of the Philadephia media, I responded that squash hadn't been a big deal where I lived. "It's a class thing," Crews replied, making the all-too-common mistake of imagining that I was some sort of proletarian rustic -- based on attire, field of interest etc. -- instead of opening his mind to the possibility that maybe, just maybe I knew what I was talking about. See, I knew some of the high-end families in our area. But they all played tennis at the club, not squash.

The trauma of that evening receding in the rearview mirror, I returned to the hotel room Carlos and I were sharing and prepped like mad for my presentation the next day. Of course, since my panel was at the end of the conference, it wasn't well attended. My moderator Ann Powers was a half hour late, caught in a subway delay -- she had already quit grad school and was writing for the New York Times by then -- so Carlos took her place. Because the panel was in a giant ballroom, with the audience spaced out over what seemed like ten acres, I felt very odd standing up at the elevated platform, delivering my first academic paper ever. The fact that the paper wasn't very academic only enhanced my sense of dislocation. Still, it came off pretty well.

Looking back on it now, I'm amazed at how strange the paper seems. I can't believe I was up there talking about sex. It seems so brave and foolhardy in retrospect.

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While there's something more than a little ridiculous in writing a paper with one's ex-girlfriend about the ideological closure of coupling, I can live with most of it, including the final paragraph's discussion of the "it". And I'm pretty happy with our conclusion that, "we must learn to separate our sexual desire from our desire for community." Word on that.

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