Metaphors find us.
I was walking in 9-degree weather to the official MLA conference venue from my hotel. The weather was not a metaphor, or not the most interesting one. On the way, I passed by a church with two signs:
Jesus didn’t turn away anyone
Weight Watchers meets here
I was nurtured on the Kenneth Copeland gospel: “I used to be fat and then I became a Christian and became thin and rich.” Jesus was going to save us from fatness and poverty. From fat poverty. Indeed, all those pictures of skinny Jesus were nothing more than ads for the promised thinness: you, too, can look like you fasted in the desert for forty days! Not only is Jesus not going to turn away anyone, once he’s through with you, there’ll be less of you to turn!
I must confess, this thinning Jesus appeals to my ascetic sense. With the exception of books and pens, I collect nothing. My furniture consists of three or four pieces—and the sofa exists only because my living room looked silly—books and a router. Thinning Jesus might help me pare down, get to basics, shed all those “burdens.”
The Modern Language Association conference is a very thinning place: our palette is dark, with lots of black and gray (though I noticed neon hair this year); we are a motley assembly of (barely) grown-up nerds and geeks still desperately seeking approval, or attention; one of the major facets of the conference is interviewing candidates, sometimes in the very unfortunately nicknamed “bullpen,” where culling proceeds; words fly through the air to slice, to lacerate, to trim, to shave, to shape—we proliferate through subtraction; and we guard our gates jealously.
Fat Jesus would not be welcome at the MLA, not without a conference badge.
Over the years, many people have written many angsty things about our inability to engage broader publics outside of language and literature. We have blamed the difficulty of our prose; the abstruseness of our topics; the stupidity of the masses; our bumbling incoherencies.
At MLA, I encountered the banal fact of our gatekeeping: bouncers constantly checked badges to make sure we were “in the club.” They were only the most visible manifestation of how our practices restrict public access: from the journal articles we keep locked away from public access (though this is changing), to presentations rendered in the most appallingly boring prose (as though style does not matter), to the obnoxiousness of badge-checking as a way to judge each other, to the self-segregation I saw throughout the conference where senior scholars parked themselves at expensive bars and refused to engage with junior scholars (unless you’re being ushered into the club).
Some part of me does have a High School Musical “We’re All in This Together” thing that wants that “all” to be open and expansive and diverse and multiple in ways beyond how we talk about such elements of our profession. I think we are enriched when those “not in the club,” from a range of publics, engage with us in a range of ways in a variety of venues. I think we are enriched and revitalized when we speak beyond the academy, beyond interdisciplinarity, into what, following Jack Halberstam’s presentation on Fred Moten’s forthcoming work, might be called the “wild” zone.
This is the zone of Fat Jesus: the wild zone.
It’s the zone where I’d love the MLA to be: the wild zone of unexpected encounters, where contact matters as much as networking, where we are radically open to being unlike ourselves.