Monday, November 28, 2022


Academic Conferences

Camille Paglia, "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf," a review of David M. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love, and John J. Winkler, The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece, in Arion, 3rd ser., 1.2 (Spring, 1991) 139-212 (at 186-188):
The self-made Inferno of the academic junk-bond era is the conferences, where the din of ambition is as deafening as on the floor of the stock exchange. The huge post-Sixties proliferation of conferences, used as an administrative marketing tool by colleges and universities, produced a diversion of professional energy away from study and toward performance, networking, advertisement, cruising, hustling, glad-handing, back scratching, chitchat, groupthink. Interdisciplinary innovation? Hardly. Real interdisciplinary work is done reading and writing at home and in the library. The conferences teach corporate raiding: academics become lone wolves without loyalty to their own disciplines or institutions; they're always on the trail and on the lookout, ears up for the better job and bigger salary, the next golden fleece or golden parachute. The conferences are all about insider trading and racketeering, jockeying for power by fast-track traveling salesmen pushing their shrink-wrapped product and tooting fancy new commercial slogans. The conferences induce a delusional removal from reality. They mislead fad-followers like Halperin and Winkler into beginning ridiculous statements with "We"—we think, we say, we do this or that. No, we don't; that's you, the teeming conference-hoppers, the plague of locusts and froglets croaking in their tiny pond. In the conferences, a host of Bartleby the Scriveners tippy-toe through showy verbal pirouettes and imagine they're running with the bulls at Pamplona. But the menu, as the chorus chants in Monty Python, is nothing but "Spam, Spam, Spam!" The conferences are lightweight shuttlecock scholarship, where the divorced can trawl for new spouses and where people meet in an airless bubble to confirm each other's false assumptions and certitudes. A new Dunciad is needed to chart the reefs and shoals of this polluted boat-choked race course, where no one ever gets anywhere.

Whole careers have gone down the tubes at the conferences. Dozens of prominent academics are approaching the moment of reckoning, when they and everyone else will realize they have wasted the best years of their professional lives on cutesy mini-papers and globe-trotting. By their books ye shall know them. A scholar's real audience is not yet born. A scholar must build for the future, not the present. The profession is addicted to the present, to contemporary figures, contemporary terminology, contemporary concerns. Authentic theory would mean mastery of the complete history of philosophy and aesthetics. What is absurdly called theory today is just a mask for fashion and greed. The conferences are the Alphabet City of addiction to junk, the self-numbing anodyne of rootless, soulless people who have lost contact with their own ethnic traditions. Their work will die with them, for it is based on neither learning nor inspired interpretation. The conferences are oppressive bourgeois forms that enforce a style of affected patter and smarmy whimsy in the speaker and polite chuckles and iron-butt torpor in the audience. Success at the conferences requires a certain kind of physically inert personality, superficially cordial but emotionally dissociated. It's the genteel high Protestant style of the country clubs and corporate board rooms, with their financial reports and marketing presentations. The transient intimacies of the conferences are themselves junk bonds. Dante would classify the conference-hoppers as perverters of intellect, bad guides, sowers of schism.

The conferences have left a paper trail of folly and trivial pursuit. True scholars are time-travelers, not space-travelers.
Id. (at 201):
Attendance at conferences must cease to be defined as professional activity. It should be seen for what it is: prestige-hunting and long-range job-seeking junkets, meat-rack mini-vacations. The phrase "He or she is just a conference-hopper" (cf. "just a gigolo") must enter the academic vocabulary. I look for the day when conference-hopping leads to denial of employment or promotion on the grounds that it is a neglect of professional duties to scholarship and one's institution. Energies have to be reinvested at home. The reform of education will be achieved when we all stay put and cultivate our own garden, instead of gallivanting around the globe like migrating grackles. Furthermore, excessive contact with other academics is toxic to scholarship. Reading and writing academic books and seeing academics every day at work are more than enough exposure to academe. The best thing for scholars is contact with nonacademics, with other ways of thinking and seeing the world.

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