I'll Show You the Life of the Mind
At first glance, these thousands of people gathered at the Washington State Convention Center could be there for pretty much any kind of convention—for life insurance, say, or for manufacturers and sellers of flat-screen TVs. They are all dressed in business casual, wandering from room to room while staring intently into their phones, making awkward, flirtatious jokes amongst themselves about how rainy it is here in Seattle. It's only when you sit down in one of the rooms and hear a man who curates the self-proclaimed "largest collection of prison writing in the country" praise the convention for welcoming "marginals like me" that you begin to get a sense that this isn't a place for people who want to sell mass quantities of wrenches in bulk or sketchy swatches of real estate in Florida. Instead, it is the largest collection of language-minded brainiacs you've ever seen in a single location.
This is the first-ever Seattle edition of the Modern Language Association Convention, put on last weekend by the scholarly organization devoted to the teaching and exploration of language. The above professor is taking part in a session called "Radical Print Culture," and in the course of the talk, audience members learn who the great prison novelists of the 20th century are (start with Malcolm Braly), who one of the great African American socialist magazine editors was (A. Philip Randolph, publisher of The Messenger, "The Only Magazine of Scientific Radicalism Published by Negroes"), and what one of the best gay satirical publications from the AIDS crisis of the late '80s called itself (the New York Crimes, a cleverly disguised broadsheet that commanded, "Wake up queers or we're all through").
The meat of the MLA Convention is these hour-and-15-minute sessions, which are generally made up of three speakers—often the leading experts in a very nichey field—and an interlocutor who leads a brief audience question-and-answer session at the end. The sessions I attend over the course of the weekend include "Dickensian Things," about objects in the novels of Charles Dickens, including legal documents in Bleak House, which are "hounds released" by wealthy people to retrieve or consume the poor, and "Regional Rhetorics," which makes a persuasive case that Kansas writers struggled to reject Truman Capote's In Cold Blood the way a human body battles a flu. I learn that Vladimir Nabokov and Ayn Rand set important scenes of Lolita and Atlas Shrugged, respectively, on the same plot of Colorado land, and that one could read the entirety of local cartoonist Charles Burns's work as a secret history of the ostracization of comic books from the world of literature.
If all this sounds boring to you, that's probably because you'd find it boring. But speaking as someone who came to the MLA Convention directly from the cable-news- fueled idiocy of the Iowa caucuses, the weekend feels invigorating, like dipping my brain into a warm, cleansing bath. As dumb pundits proclaim the death of America's intellectualism, the MLA Convention is proof that the systems still exist here to support experts in topics too esoteric for even Google to reach. This continual, omnivorous curiosity about the roots of the language serves to refresh the far-out branches where modern readers live, in a kind of intellectual rototilling that introduces new generations of readers (the students in American universities) to forgotten generations of writers, which is to say that as long as these nerds are battling behind the scenes about transnationalism and transgression in the 18th-century novel, the language remains alive for us to mangle on the internet for generations to come.