Until the beginning of this year I knew of the MLA principally through David Lodge's novel Small World (1984), in which Philip Swallow of Brummidge University (recognizable as the University of Birmingham), Morris Zapp of Euphoric State University (recognizable as Berkeley), and others, attend an MLA meeting.
MLA is an acronym for the Modern Language Association of America. But, as with the United Kingdom which is neither united nor a kingdom, the words don't mean what they say. As David Lodge points out in his novel, when the words say "Modern Language," the Association is not really concerned with language but with literature, mostly literature in English. As well as that, although "Modern" could refer to something written recently, it could equally refer to Beowulf, written a thousand years ago. Also, MLA doesn't usually mean the Association, but the Association's annual meeting, which is held in a big city and attended by several thousand people at the beginning of each year. It runs over four days, with more than 30 sessions in parallel on a bewildering array of topics. It's where young people who have just received their PhDs in literature interview for jobs, where assistant professors look for jobs as associate professors at better universities than the ones that they are currently at, and where scholars who are established can be lauded.
I was very pleased to be invited to the 2013 MLA by Patrick Hogan, to present some the work we do on the psychology of fiction. There at the conference, too, were some people whom I am very glad to know, who run the MLA Division on Cognitive Approaches to Literature. Since these approaches have begun, I have been hoping that they would become rather prominent. This hope has been encouraged by David Lodge himself having written both a novel, Thinks (2001), and a theoretical piece (2002), about cognitive approaches to literature. But this movement has, I am sad to say, not yet completely filled the vacuum left by the demise of post-modernism.
The MLA meeting that is depicted in Small World is held in New York, and its big event is a session on "The Function of Criticism." In it Philip Swallow says that this function is to assist in the function of literature itself, which is to enable us to live more fully, more finely. Michel Tardieu says that the function of criticism is not to offer interpretations, but to understand the structural laws that allow literature to be produced at all. Siegfried von Turpitz says that Tardieu's project is doomed to failure because works of literature come into existence only in the mind of the reader. Fulvia Morgana says that the function of criticism is to wage war against the very concept of literature, because it's an instrument of bourgeois hegemony. And Morris Zapp says that this function is to reach no conclusion whatever because to read literature is to subject oneself to displacements of curiosity and desire endlessly from one sentence to another.
In the 30 years since Small World was written, structuralism has become post-structuralism, but some streams of criticism depicted in the novel are still recognizable. Noticeable additions have been made, especially of minority and post-colonial literatures. The main big event that I could find in the 2013 MLA meeting, held in Boston, was of a panel in which three distinguished literary scholars spoke on "Why teach literature?"
The first of these scholars was Patricia Yaeger whose title was "The embodied classroom." I was interested that, apart from Mark Doty, a poet, the people whose work she drew on were psychologists and philosophers. One was Christopher Bollas (see e.g. Bollas, 2011) a Winnicottian psychoanalyst who has proposed that literature can be "a holding environment," and a "transformational object." Yaeger went on discuss the work of the cognitive theoreticians Andy Clark and David Chalmers, who have developed the idea of the extended mind. Teaching literature, she said, offers conditions for extending the mind, and for distributing cognition.
The second scholar was Jean-Michel Rabaté who called his talk "Why teach what you already know?" He concentrated on a 1955 dispute between F.R. Leavis and Clement Greenberg. He disagreed with Leavis's proposal that literature can enable us to become better people, and agreed with Greenberg that it only explains what we already know. I wanted to ask why achieving such explanations did not, in itself, enable us to become better people, but I didn't get the chance.
The third scholar was Helen Vendler who entitled her talk "Why teach? Why literature?" She was the person I really wanted to hear, because I am an ardent admirer of her 1997 book on Shakespeare's Sonnets. She said that literature is often taught in courses on the great books, and that these courses are about the history of ideas. But really, she said, the generative force of literature is not ideas but emotions. So, once again, here seemed to be a plea for a rapprochement of psychology and literature.
I live in hope.
Bollas, C. (2011). The Christopher Bollas reader. New York: Routledge.
Clark, A., & Chalmers, D. (1998). The extended mind. Analysis, 58, 7-19.
Leavis, F. R., & Greenberg, C. (1955). A critical exchange. Commentary (August). http://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/a-critical-exchange/
Lodge, D. (1984). Small world. London: Secker & Warburg.
Lodge, D. (2001). Thinks. London: Secker & Warburg.
Lodge, D. (2002). Consciousness and the novel. In D. Lodge (Ed.), Consciousness and the novel (pp. 1-91). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Vendler, H. (1997). The art of Shakespeare's sonnets. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.