Friday, January 2, 2009

MLA 2008

I haven't had much of a chance to write about MLA. I didn't go to very many panels this year; being local meant so much of my own life was right here, reminding me of its existence, whereas when you're alone in town with only the MLA to claim your attention, going to many panels seems logical and right.

One panel that I attended was titled "Why Teach Literature Anyway?" The panelists were John Guillory, Walter Benn Michaels, and Marjorie Perloff. Of the three talks, I found Guillory's the most convincing, which isn't surprising, since I also generally find his writing very convincing. Both Guillory and Perloff began their talks by close-reading the title of the panel, turning the tools of the trade on the language by which its validity is questioned. It struck me as a rather defensive move, though of course they did it well.

Guillory brought up the notion of the "lay reader," the hidden antagonist in our discipline, the figure against which the professional reader is counterposed, but also a kind of ideal reader, as in Samuel Johnson's "common reader." Guillory pointed out that "reading" as a practice is too often conflated with the reading of literature, which is the result of an insufficient attention to theories of media, and to the pleasures specific to writing as a medium. I think this is quite right.

Walter Benn Michaels said some things with which I very violently disagreed.

Marjorie Perloff gave a charming and funny talk that oscillated between theorizing the place of reading in contemporary life and offering close readings of Barack Obama's memoir Dreams from my Father. I didn't expect her to talk about Barack Obama, but in general it was the kind of response to the question of the title, Why teach literature anyway?, that her criticism led me to expect. I disagreed with her on several points but share her sense that the teaching of literature is fundamentally the teaching of reading, a complex and time-consuming practice. Teaching reading practices is central to the way I teach literature.

Perhaps I'll have time to write more about MLA later. Anyway, it's time for the annual link to Margery Kempe at the Feest of MLA.

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