They think that things are all right/For the deer and the dachshund are one.
— Wallace Stevens
I just came back from two days of snubbery at a conference in Budapest, and I’m here to tell you that even in middle age, getting snubbed is mighty uncomfortable.
You think it’s the kind of thing that only hurts in high school, but nope; all the old pain receptors are in place and ready to start throbbing. Of course, I was out of pain-shape and that made it worse. The past few years, people have been so nice to me I forgot what a primate quorum can do to the odd ape out, how easily they can make him feel like the unworthiest chimp in the jungle.
It was my own fault. It’s always my own fault. I’m getting tired of that. Never mind the old whinge, “Where is the justice?” My question: where the Hell is the injustice? A little injustice would warm me up no end. Instead I just go around getting what I deserve.
The conference was called “the Culture of Periodicals,” organized by a Budapest University. They wanted the eXile to take part, us being such a cutting-edge e-zine and all. To be honest, they wanted Brecher, but he doesn’t go outdoors when he can avoid it, let alone make road trips to Europe. So I offered myself to the conference organizers as substitute. I figured it’d be a free trip to Budapest and — may as well admit it — a chance to stand at a lectern again, doing a few of the old moves for a new audience.
If it had only been Hungarians, there wouldn’t have been a problem. The Hungarians were great. But the organizers had invited about ten English-speaking academics — and boy did they snub the Hell out of me! Lordy, they snubbed me stupid!
What happened was, I overreacted to the opening speech. The speaker irked me from the start. He was all too familiar in look and sound. One Geoffrey Nunberg, from Stanford. Geoffrey (the spelling should’ve tipped me off) was a small white man, any age between 45 and 60 (they take good care of themselves, successful academics), with a fussy beard and a surprising collection of gold adornments: gold watch, cufflinks, big gold ring. His talk was called “Publics after Print? The Communities of Electronic Discourse.”
The speech was hard to bear, because I was catching the nuances. He spoke American-pedant dialect, my own patois — and the nuances were appalling. See, the great thing about being an expat, always struggling with somebody else’s dialect, is that you miss the nuances. And since the nuances are always revelations of cruelty, hypocrisy, groveling and shame, missing them is a godsend. I’ve been away from California for 11 happy years, wandering in places where the nuances pass harmlessly through me like neutrinos. Then, listening to this Stanford professor, I was hearing them clearly, like the bad old days were come again.
Even his jokes were familiar, little markers of upper-middle-class solidarity: how big and heavy the Sunday NY Times is, how an English friend of Geoffrey’s, seeing that big ol’ Sunday edition, was astonished and thought Geoffrey had brought back several newspapers.
And that was what worried Geoffrey: that the comforting heft of America’s paper-of-record might be lost in a swarm of insolent, non-peer-reviewed blogs. He tried to reassure us, and himself, that blogs would never “displace” academic journals; that the rise of invented identities online was typical of new media, and would subside; and that the experimenters are mostly adolescents who “won’t pursue the genre.”
It seems we’re in danger of losing the “balance” provided by mainstream media — the “balance” which Geoffrey illustrated by the way the NY Times puts Maureen Dowd on one page and William Safire on the other.The new media, he felt, could not be trusted to maintain this “balance”; they had no sense of responsibility to the Public. In fact, Geoffrey asked, “Can we talk about a public in the case of blogs?”
At this point in his speech, I was gripping my pen like an ice pick, trying to think up the most annihilating question I could ask. An academic talking about a “public”? The average academic article has exactly three readers: the author, the editor who accepted it, and the copy editor who checked it. No one else will ever glance at it; it will pad the author’s CV, cement a bond of mutual obligation between author and editor, and fill a millimeter of space on university-library shelves — and that’s all. Yet this professor, his resume swollen with dozens of unread and unreadable articles like this, dares to ask whether blogs actually have a public!
I could feel the old rage lurching up out of my gut like a surge of vomit. Part of being a coward (and I’m the biggest coward alive, with the possible exception of the entire leadership of the Democratic Party) is the way postponed anger comes out all at once, in a disastrous way, at the wrong target. And here it was, getting ready to barf out of me at Geoffrey up there at the podium.
At fatal moments like this, you know exactly what you’re doing. You know it’s a bad idea to alienate the whole conference at the very start. And time slows so radically that you have forever to reconsider. But you know that even if you had a Groundhog-Day series of chances to do the smart thing, you’d still stand up, trembling, frightened and furious, and ask the one question certain to convince everyone else at the conference you’re a raving lunatic.
And sure enough, when they called on me I blurted in an aged shriek, “I find it typical of the Beigeocracy — the rule of the Beige — [see, I was afraid Nunberg might not know he was being insulted, so I had to explain the word] that you imagine ‘balance’ as Dowd vs. Safire, that’s…that’s like, uh, a one-millimeter range! …Um, of opinion!! [I was now speaking in two exclamation marks per sentence]…”
You academics in the audience can probably guess how a successful American prof like Nunberg dealt with this belch from the cheap seats: he coopted it. He said, “I absolutely agree with you.” There was more after that, but I was too stunned to catch it. He couldn’t agree with me; that would ruin my suicidal outburst. So I went further, shrieking, “…So, speaking for ALL THE CRAZIES, I say, thank God for the Net!”
A vast silence settled on the hall. That was when they started snubbing me. They could hardly have done less.
And yet — another typical feature of berserker/coward psychology — I was truly, deeply hurt — shocked! — that the Americans and English at the conference were dodging me at the coffee break. Didn’t they see that I had meant “all the crazies” in the kindliest possible sense?
Saturday evening was particularly awkward, because the only other visitor who went on the free tour of Budapest with me was…Geoffrey Nunberg. We shook hands and formally introduced ourselves on the minibus. “Hello, I’m the aged loony who disrupted your talk!” It was a long tour. Lotsa big buildings in Budapest. Old. Lotta statues. I couldn’t tell you much more than that because I was cowering against the bus window, hoping he wouldn’t talk to me. We got out of the bus to see some victory monument on top of a hill, right in the middle of a lightning storm. I was hoping to get hit; it would’ve eased the awkwardness considerably. But happy endings like that don’t happen in real life.
The sessions flowed on and on. I blurted something stupid in every Q & A. You start watching yourself with morbid fascination: what screeching rant will I come up with this time? Some of them surprised even me, as when I ended up arguing animal behavior with an egomaniac from Montreal.
But some of the things the Americans said really deserved excoriation. I remember Nunberg saying in all seriousness, at another session, that new media might not let us “preserve the slowness” of academic discourse. God, they’re admitting it these days! I always knew slowness was their key trait, but now they ADMIT it!
Finally it was my turn at the lectern. Last session, last day. Before me came one Lisa Brawley, a professor at Vassar, already schmoozed up with Nunberg and the Montreal egomaniac. She delivered the very worst conference paper I have ever heard.
Brawley spoke in the hushed, pious tone of the secular priest — the true function of politicized academics like her. She was supposed to talk about something involving “communicative space,” and started out with a Mark Strand poem:
In a field
I am the absence of field.
It went on in that vein: coy boasting with linebreaks. She read it slowly; then, in a trancey, maundering voice began to pick at it, looking for auguries. They were slow coming. Each sentence came separately, with a Quaker silence before and after. Nothing became clear except Brawley’s deep, virtuous dislike and incomprehension of the world — the whole world and everything in it, starting with powerpoint and including all recent culture. I managed to write some phrases from her speech:
“What is called flow is actually a sequence of embodied images, 16 frames per second.”
She doesn’t like movies, it seemed: “…we sit there in the dark, taking it all in.” Apparently we should turn the lights on, get out in the fresh air more.
After piously deploring 110 years of films, Brawley already has to start regretting the Internet. She showed a diagram of connectedness: Africa was left out of the web. This was sinful, apparently. It spoke for itself, she said. Then she spoke for it. Slooowly.
Sentences dwindled. Heads nodded. She ended with another secular prayer, something about “a way to be in the world with political hope.”
Nunberg and the Montreal behaviorist applauded wildly, then left–for good.
Too bad, because I was ready to take them on. I put the War Nerd’s first column on the screen, thinking, that’ll shut’em up.
Then Brawley came back in. She looked at the screen slowly — so slowly! She was as slow as a Victorian sloth — and slowly frowned. After a minute or so of frowning and having a think about it, she turned around and departed. She wasn’t a fast thinker, but she knew one thing: any talk involving something called “the War Nerd” was not for her.
It kind of summed up my experience of academia: slow always wins. They must have something going for them, the Lisa Brawleys. It ain’t brains, that’s certain. It ain’t charm, because…well, just take my word for it: it ain’t charm. So what the hell is it?
After easily wiping out a British spy network, Michael Collins asked a very similar question: “How the hell did these people ever get an empire?”
I keep asking myself that question about the Brawleys and the Nunberg, and getting no bright ideas for an answer. How did the sloth evolve? It reminds me of a scrap of biology textbook I somehow remember: “This was adaptive once.”
This article was first published in The eXile on May 27, 2004.
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