We are more vulnerable than we think. Humanities is the most vulnerable discipline during economic downturns, meaning scholars in the field must prove themselves worthy to their peers and wider public
When I touched down in Chicago one day after the polar vortex hit the city in January, I was already somewhat under the weather, having survived an epic journey from Istanbul via NYC for the annual Modern Language Association Conference. Huddled into our parkas at the luggage conveyor belt, I could easily identify passengers who were there for the conference. Each breath made veritable sizes of clouds as we waited for taxis, with notes of country music trickling out from the warmth of the arrivals hall.
We were in the Midwest and we were at the mercy of the elements. For the next few days we would be at the mercy of our colleagues from (except for a few European and Middle Eastern adventurers) all corners of the United States, from townships one can only hope to have heard of if one reads the likes of William Faulkner. We were the very image of vulnerable.
The Modern Languages Association held a monster of a conference, with a program that weighs at least two kilograms (you take note of these things when you're packing for a transatlantic journey) and with a participant list that runs for 20 pages. This year, the conference was being held at 12 different hotels on both sides of the Chicago River, not too far away from the lake. From the central hotel where the keynote speeches were delivered and the book exhibition was set up, one could see huge chunks of ice (icebergs manqués, let's be honest) on the river floating towards the lake, the sizes of which fluctuated according to the time of day. The foreboding weather outside made sure the participants stayed inside, attended sessions or lie in wait for their prey. I had been warned that the conference was a "meat market," with employers and employees always on the lookout for their next target. It sounded like an annual ball where destined and/or doomed matches were to be made between professors and institutions, authors and publishers. As I did not have a single interview to my name, I missed half the anxiety and fun. The prospect of presenting a paper with a dozen parallel sessions running, praying for a turnout more than the fingers on one hand was enough of a worry for me.
When I looked at the program I saw with dismay that some academics were presenting two papers, poor souls having their nerves shattered twice. Thus is the precarious life of the errant scholar.
The theme of the keynotes this year was "vulnerability," a term that cropped up in paper titles in the 810 (yes, you read that right) panels that were held in the space of four days. There were several sessions under the larger heading of "Vulnerable Times."
Academics like to rethink meanings of words and to subvert them whenever they can. "Vulnerable," the way the MLA posits it, is about resistance, resilience and defiance along with the interdependence these qualities open up, as much as it is about injury. Weak and vulnerable seems to be the new popular paradigm through which we are invited to see injustices in the world and make sense of apocalyptic signs. It is not only bodies that are vulnerable now, but also the world, the very times that we live in. Speaking of times, an old friend that I ran into, as I had been warned I would, was Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, in a brand new translation (with Maureen Freely's excellent Turkish prose) of "Time Regulation Institute," describing a Turkey that was and is very vulnerable to suggestions that promised shortcut westernization.
There were also several sessions that were not directly connected to vulnerability. There were two sessions with Ford Madox Ford as the central figure (Ford is the author of "Parade's End," and a recent adaptation stars Benedict Cumberbatch, and thus the session must have provided a good enough platform to wax lyrical about his many talents. I was, sadly, otherwise occupied), and at least one on the TV drama "Girls." These sessions were some of the conference's many nods toward popular culture, or humanities' resilience in remaining relevant. Humanities, and among them languages, are the most vulnerable of all fields in a period of economic downturn, and they have to prove themselves publishable and readable for a bigger public.
Vulnerability is a term that seems to have been lifted largely from the discipline of law.
Quite tellingly, my second destination on this U.S. trip was a university in the south, where a friend recently got a post-doc position in "Vulnerability and the Human Condition." This is how academia invites us to consider our relationship with the world these days, finding itself in a vulnerable position. The keynotes at the conference addressed vulnerable situations and bodies all over the world: the American south (through Kara Walker's haunting shadow play depictions of vulnerable black and white bodies), Istanbul, Venezuela, but one needed not to look that far away. Vulnerability was the very "buyer's market" we were in, at the conference hotels. The program reflected this theme to a considerable extent in paper titles concerning adjuncts, those vulnerable and resilient members of faculties all over the U.S., and indeed the world, who push on year after year without a contract and with no prospects of getting unionized. This meeting of academics, surely, would be the occasion to start the class war against the tenured, against the institutions, against citing indexes.
However, another opportunity to start a new world order was missed. However much they may deny it, academics like to spend time with academics with whom they can speak with in shorthand and too much (intellectual) fun was being had by all to think of starting a revolution.
Opinions on Twitter were much more polarized than on the ground, with several academics tweeting about how they were boycotting the MLA for not conducting a more transparent, elective and administrative process. Some criticism was so harsh that the MLA itself seemed to be quite vulnerable in more ways than one. A few days before the conference, one of the organizers tweeted that considering the polar vortex, it might be a good idea to "take this thing to Cancun."
As a personal testament to the vulnerability (read bad pay) of the university scholar, self-proclaimed failed intellectual Nein Quarterly who has -according to his copious tweets- been seeking tenure for quite a while, tweeted he was ready to live tweet the (MLA) conference for a reasonable fee. This, with or without actually coming to the conference, the idea being that a seasoned conference goer and academic can easily put forth opinions on symposia without having to leave the proverbial armchair.
Much as we may rue the state of academia in Turkey, it has not become quite the stock market it is in the U.S. With an inflation of underpaid adjuncts -who themselves are of the lucky few who do find jobs at institutionsand with the rising number of students who are prepared to pay good money for good papers, academia has become a paper mill. It has, in effect, as Rebecca Schuman suggested in the online publication Slate in February, an economy in which unemployed professors are writing student papers for employed professors. Out of this equation, humanities as a field comes out as the most vulnerable of all parties concerned.
As the post-doc position of my friend in the south suggests, vulnerability has always been a part of the human condition, and what humans have achieved, they have done so with full recognition of it. It was interesting to observe the machinations of the academic world in the U.S. in particular, with scholars trying to navigate the various pressures of looking presentable and in control while maintaining an air of astuteness in conversations between sessions that could (or not) be mock interviews or publishing opportunities. That certainly demands stamina and resilience. However, the prize of resilience goes to the people of Chicago, who seem to have created a city out of a bog, a bog to which it seemed to want to return to as rain and snow alternated to create marshes on the streets. These, the MLA academics negotiated with stoical determination, as they shuffled back and forth between hotels and sessions, having to come to terms not with only discursive but also physical aspects of vulnerability and realities of the world.
* Assistant Professor at the Alliance of Civilizations Institute in Istanbul