You see, I'm a coward. And like most cowards, I know what real courage is. It's not a good feeling -- in fact it's the most wretched feeling this side of sexual jealousy: jellied knees, spasming bowels and rapid heartbeat; the certainty that you're making an idiot of yourself; the misery of hearing all your friends tell you you're stupid; and above all it means you'll never, never get that tenured job.
To be a brave academic is impossible. They just won't let you in. They're slow in some ways -- intellectually, of course -- but they have the fine-tuned instinct for conformity seen in many herd animals. A zebra with Parkinson's Disease is a dead zebra. Not because the disease is necessarily fatal, but because its herd-mates will kick it to death for its wrong twitches. Academics are kinder, in a way; they just won't let you in the herd at all if you twitch wrong -- even once.
That's why it was so unbearable to check my email every day and find another "Call for Papers: Transgression, Tango, and Tampering in Tanzania." They could not write a title without sullying one of the sacred words, like "transgression" or "breaking" -- the words I learned to worship listening to my father and uncles sing the sacred Irish songs of doomed rebellion. About people who meant it. Who weren't looking for tenure. Who DIED for it.
And along with their pantomimed courage, there was the bad poetry -- those damned alliterations! They could not write a conference title without resorting to three alliterated nouns! Sometime around 1980, somebody told American grad students that academic essays were literature -- and they believed it. And unfortunately, when provincials think literature, they think alliterated Latinate abstractions. It's true of bad social-protest lyrics, always whining about this "pop-yoolayshun an' po-llushun and poli-tishins" -- and it went double for the academics. "Trauma, Territoriality and Transgression"; "Bodies, Bilateralism and Bunions" -- no, I made that last one up. No true buzzard-professor would use an interesting word like "bunions." It's not easy to be that dull unless you're born to it. "Many eat carrion, but few are true vultures," as the scriptures say.
All of it started to get to me. I started writing back to the earnest little careerists sponsoring these conferences.
Mistake, of course. But those alliterations -- I couldn't take it!
I wrote to one guy who was offering a conference on "Capitalism, Conjugation and Copulating Texts": "You know, the three alliterated nouns don't make you a poet."
He didn't reply.
That unanswered impertinence made me a little too cocky, like a nerd talking back to the mirror. I started answering back to bigger conferences. It was, as they say, a target-rich environment. Like the guy calling for papers on Don DeLillo. Here's the full "Call for Papers" for that one:
CFP: "Raids on Human Consciousness: Don DeLillo and the Narratives of Terror In Mao II (1991) Don DeLillo's novelist character Bill Gray declares that terrorists have appropriated cultural authority from novelists. Terrorists make "raids on human consciousness" (41) so forceful that now "the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative" (157). In the wake of September 11, Gray's words seem frighteningly prescient. Indeed, throughout his career *from Players and The Names through Mao II, and extending to his recent essay in Harper's -- DeLillo has reflected on the nature and power of terrorist authority. What do his works reveal about the role of narrative art in the post-September 11 world? Has authorship yielded its cultural significance to spectacles of mass disaster? What are the relationships between terrorism and mediation? Send 250-word abstracts to Mark Osteen, email@example.com. Panelists must be members of SAMLA.
Ugh. Now, before you judge me, remember I was getting 20 or 30 of these things EVERY DAY on this CFP list. Just to delete them I had to highlight each of them, and that half-second was enough for the titles to register, setting off the fatal gag, that unbuzzardly reflex which was finally to land me in trouble.