MLA 2016: Dazed, Confused, Casualized
Everybody knows that Richard Linklater's from Austin and despite myself I'm excited to be going back to his hometown for MLA 2016. MLA can be a drag, especially in the insane end-times austerity that we now inhabit. For the generation of academics before us, MLA was as close as our business could get to the sales convention in Tampa: parties, dinners, coffees, and drinks with pals and professional contacts all in a whirl. But what was once a backslapping, meet-old-friends kind of hangout is now a theater of professional worry. There's no need to go into this, since the toxic atmosphere of austerity-years MLA has been exhaustively documented and everybody who's ever been already knows about it.
But the connection to Austin put me in mind of Linklater, and got me remembering Dazed and Confused, which I've long considered a monument of modern culture (!). Like the weird and amazing Slacker (1991), Dazed was filmed on location in Austin, and after some gentle prodding, the internet has yielded a site-by-site comparison of the locations in the film with actual addresses in the city. (Check it here.) Many of the places are still there, though sadly it seems the Moontower has been replaced with some other kind of park, for families. As the author of this fansite asks: "Isn't anything sacred anymore?" (From the look of it, the "spiritual sequel" to D&C, Everybody Wants Some, which comes out in the spring, is also filmed in Austin.)
Anyway I got thinking about the movie both because Linklater's an Austinite (is that the word?) and because in this neverending crisis of academic downsizing we could all probably use a dose of Matthew McConaughey's baked-out long view:
Wooderson: Say, man, you got a joint?
Mitch: No, not on me, man.
Wooderson: It'd be a lot cooler if you did.
As everybody remembers, Linklater's 1993 high school flick revolves around cartoon-sized worries about rules and professional expectations and advocates a kind of fuck-it-all-and-have fun approach, a dropout hedonism --here's the full script-- that appears to be prodding us to tell our parents to go to hell and to do what we want instead. This tension between the looming rules of adult life and the rebellious insistence on breaking them (coded as "childish") is a feature of the genre: we could think of Ferris Bueller but also Charles Dickens' school-story, Hard Times, which is built on a melodramatic contest between Gradgrindian "fact" and the "fancy" Dickens chooses to epitomize in the circus. But in Linklater's hands this standard teen-movie antagonism gets a twist because the rules are enforced by violence; and its vision turns out, I think, to be not totally unrelated to Hegel's idea in the master-slave dialectic, which implies that if you can figure out a way not to fear death, you get to experience actual freedom. The movie's at pains to show us that if Randall "Pink" Floyd can learn how to disregard his coach's scorn, he can actually be happy, but as long as he worries what the coaches think, he's trapped.
For Hegel anyway, it's in the nature of a slave to remain unable to achieve the indifference to his own death that characterizes the master. But such an attitude, if you could get it, would be very powerful, potentially even revolutionary, because it would have the capacity to cancel the ability of the lords to be lords in the first place, since their rule comes primarily from being recognized in that capacity. The coach is only the coach because Pink recognizes him as such. "In all this," Hegel writes in the translation available at Marxists.org, "the unessential consciousness [of the bondsman] is, for the master, the object which embodies the truth of his certainty of himself." The slave's consciousness is "unessential" to the master because the master's self-consciousness would apparently live on without its being there. There will always be more students, as Wooderson pervertedly observes. ("That's what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.") But it's not so simple as that, because the master's seeming autonomy (he's "for himself") actually depends on the regard directed at him by those beneath him: the master's self-consciousness is "mediated with itself through an other consciousness, i.e. through an other whose very nature implies that it is bound up with an independent being or with thinghood in general."
No masters without slaves, and no slaves without the fear of death. It's hard, though, because everyone does fear death. In the movie, the characters need to grow up, move on, have lives. The good ones do not drop out entirely. In the metaphor of academic labor conditions I'm groping at here, we want jobs, we want to be in the profession, we want the positions and opportunities (read: tenure track jobs) that we have been trained by a narrowly-focused PhD system to want. We are cultivated, in other words, in the desire for these attainments and this cultivation has worked. It has worked especially well from the point of view of the masters. Fear, writes Hegel, has "melted [the bondsman] to its inmost soul, has trembled throughout its every fibre, and all that was fixed and steadfast has quaked within it." If this doesn't describe the atmosphere of an MLA convention I don't know what does. The film weirdly tries this idea out, using Adam Goldberg's brainily depressive character, Mike, to voice it:
Mike's weirdo idea is that freedom comes "if you can get to that point where you are not only not afraid of death but perhaps even embracing it." But just after introducing this idea, so crucial to its own structure, the movie discards it. Mike's new quasi-Sartrean philosophy --don't fear death, throw yourself at the world-- does pay dividends a bit later in the scene, when a random party girl makes out with him. ("You're cute, what's your name...") But the bill gets paid when Mike is beaten up by a jock asshole after hyping himself into a frenzy on his own pop-nihilism. Mike finds Clint at the keg, and mutters to himself that "[t]he dominant male monkey will get his comeuppance." And then:
Physical violence restores the order of the dialectic, and the slave -- Miike -- can't become the master after all. The scene cuts after this, and in that finality the movie tells us (and Mike) that, in Hegel's terms, death is real, and something actually to be feared. The imperative to preserve one's own life that Hegel says leads to the "complete perturbation of [the bondsman's] entire substance" is justified: and very hard, in the end, to shake off. We can't simply pretend power structures don't exist, because they do.
There is no easy solution here, I mean, because death is real, and the jocks actually can kick your ass. Mike can no more ignore the structures of enforceable social power at the Moontower than we can imagine away the material facts of scarcity, adjunctification, and systematic disinvestment that constitute the conditions of our profession now. But -- and here's the but -- could we act as though we didn't care? What would happen, I mean, if we temporarily or strategically divested ourselves of professional fear and lived as though death were not? As though we didn't worry about --had no fear of-- failing out, losing, or not making it? (Easy to say, I realize, from my own relatively secure position, but I've wondered this for a long time.) Like the baked dipshits in Dazed and Confused, we're living in bleak times: a now-permanently retrenched academic labor sector, defunded humanities units, and a "job market" that is a market only by euphemism, because nobody is buying. As McConaughey might say: it'd be a lot cooler if they were. But on the other hand, fuck it. And them.
Wooderson (to Pink): Man, it's the same bullshit they tried to pull in my day. If it ain't that piece of paper, there's some other choice they're gonna try and make for you. [...] Let me tell you this, the older you do get the more rules they're gonna try to get you to follow. You just gotta keep livin' man, L-I-V-I-N.
I don't arrive at MLA until Friday afternoon, so I'm missing some amazing things -- the V21 happy hour, the first of the two Victorians and Theory panels. (I'm presenting on Sunday, in Session 759, "Fiction and the Media Ecology, 1900-2015.") But if anybody wants to talk Linklater or check out the Emporium --now apparently the "Violet Crowne Shopping Center"-- hit me at nathan.hensley[at]georgetown.edu or @nathankhensley.
Nathan K. Hensley
Here's where I'll paste fragments of readings, ideas, and questions.