Take it away, Moose. MLA11 is, like, so last week, and this dead dog is dead tired. Knock yourself out.
I should state up front that I am not a Twitter-hater. I am on Twitter -- or, you know, this blog is on Twitter (as roxieblog, natch -- Why aren't you following us?). I don't love it in the way that I love Facebook, but I use it for blog-whoring and buzz-tracking in a variety of professional and political networks. Further, I've got no cause to complain about the lively Twitter action going on at MLA11, seeing as how the session I organized and on which I participated was, according to something called Twapper Keeper, the most heavily tweeted session at the conference. (Scroll down to the "Top 10 tweeted hashtags." Our session hashtag, "newtools," is second only to the generic "mla11" hashtag that was used for the convention as a whole.) (But, srsly, people: Twapper Keeper? Who comes up with this stuff?)
The buzz about our session, "New Tools, Hard Times: Social Networking and the Academic Crisis," was mostly positive and, for me personally, kinda ego-boosting. (Thanks, Tweeps! Love you, too.)
There was a bit of contention, too, which might have fueled some of the interest in "New Tools," as MLA exec direc Rosemary Feal, who presented on the session about her use of Twitter on behalf of the organization, posted tweets during the session taking issue with how co-panelist Marc Bousquet characterized the MLA's long, complex history on labor and economic issues. (Curious? Why, honey, it even made the Chronicle. Read the comments thread on Frank Donoghue's [wildly off-base] blog post about the convention. Check out the #newtools Twitterstream here [H/T Sample Reality].)
That is all to say that I have no axes to grind with Twitter and, indeed, that I have a healthy appreciation for the role it played at this year's convention, particularly in allowing those who weren't able to attend to follow the action and even, in a few cases, to participate by posting comments and questions as sessions were going on. In returning to the question that opened these ruminations, however, I would like to focus on three related points that have been niggling at me ever since I left LA: 1. what did not make it into the Twitterstream; 2. how that absence shaped public perceptions of the convention; and 3. how I experienced sessions with lots of Twitter action going on around me versus those in which there was little to no such action taking place.
If Twitter is as transformative in creating transparency and collaboration as I like to think it is, then I can’t be anything but disappointed that only a few of us used Twitter. And I can’t help but wonder if the conference experience of those people who did not use Twitter was substantively different from mine. Perhaps it was, but I’ll never know. The silent majority remains inscrutable. The hegemony of Twitter will speak in their place, but it does not speak for them. We must remember that.Well put. Unfortunately, however, some of the coverage of the convention seems lacking in Williams' and Sample's complex awareness of Twitter Hegemony, their recognition that the bits and pieces marked with the "mla11" hashtag are a far cry from, say, the court reporter's comprehensive record of a legal proceeding. I am reluctant to name names and call people out on their efforts to cover an event as large and multifaceted as an MLA convention, but we have a commitment here in Roxie's World to calling a spade a spade, and so I am compelled to say that The Chronicle of Higher Education fell down in this regard. Jennifer Howard's main story on the convention started off with a focus on the theme of "the Academy in Hard Times," but it quickly shifted to what she described as the "high times" going on in digital humanities, as evidenced by packed sessions, lively debates, and, yes, "dominance of the conference talk on Twitter." Howard included an observation from my friend and colleague Neil Fraistat about "how much more energy one could feel in the digital-humanities sessions than in many of those devoted to traditional subject areas, like his field, Romanticism." A few paragraphs later, Howard acknowledges hearing "a spirited debate" at a session called "The English Bible," but that session gets a scant two sentences before the story makes its way back to Twitter by talking about the free Wi-Fi the MLA arranged in meeting rooms for the first time this year.
I am supremely uninterested in determining whether I am or am not a "digital humanist." (I thought I was for awhile, but I think Steve Ramsay might have revoked my credentials with his declaration that "Digital Humanities is about building things" other than blogs.) I've been around long enough to see a number of emerging fields go through similar growth spurts and their attendant internecine squabbles over boundaries, methods, and definitions. You know what I mean: Sure, she's good, but I don't think she's a feminist. Or: Well, that's not really Theory, you know. And: You can't say "LGBT" anymore -- We're all queer now!
Call me what you will, I have a strong investment in digital humanities and new media studies and believe the field deserves the attention it is getting. It isn't just cool. It still holds, as Cathy Davidson passionately argues in her brilliant post-MLA post, the promise of transforming all the fields and professions not just in the modern languages but in the humanities generally. Nonetheless, I am troubled by the way the Twitter Hegemony operated in this instance because I know how much of my own experience of the MLA didn't make it into the stream and, coincidentally or consequently (who knows?), didn't make it into the stories of the convention that I have seen in The Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed, or on blogs, including my own, until now.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and one of the sessions in memory of Barbara Johnson. (Both Sedgwick and Johnson died in 2009. Johnson's work in deconstruction influenced many queer theorists, including Sedgwick and Judith Butler.) In every case, the meeting rooms -- often big ballrooms -- were packed, the papers were stunning, and the audiences were spellbound. I won't even try to summarize the papers, because I'm not very good at that sort of thing and because I assume they will eventually be published.
What matters more for my purposes here is to say that the atmosphere in these sessions was electrifying, and the ethos was kind. There were no cat (or dog) fights, no preening divas, no hostile or self-promoting speechifying masquerading as a question, all of which I have seen at queer (and un-queer!) sessions in years past. I realize that the mode of these particular sessions -- which combined intellectual work with deeply felt tributes to departed friends who happened to be towering figures in their fields -- perhaps helped to keep people on their best behavior, but I was still struck by how warm and generous the vibe was, even as scholars reflected in profound ways on the past and future of a field that has had its own transformative effects on the humanities.
And did I mention that (almost) no one was tweeting in these sessions? The spellbound audiences were for the most part in an analog mode, taking notes on paper or just quietly taking in the eloquence of some of the field's heaviest hitters. (When was the last time Judith Butler gave not one but two papers at an MLA?) As an attendee, I have to say it was a relief not to be surrounded by people clattering away on their laptops, which was often the case in the DH sessions. I find that distracting, because I am not especially good at taking information in through my ears and need to be able to concentrate. The result of all that low-tech listening, however, is that these substantive, well-attended sessions caused barely a ripple in the Twitterstream and -- again, coincidentally or consequently? you decide -- received no coverage in the educational press. It's as if they never happened, as if the trees fell without a sound because no digital device was used to record it.
I exaggerate but only slightly. In the long run, these talks likely will be published and will no doubt have a significant impact on shaping post-Sedgwick, post-Johnson queer studies. Their short-term oblivion still makes them a powerful example of the dangers of using tools like Twitter to try to get a handle on large, complex events. The MLA Twitter archive is a fascinating but woefully incomplete record of one such event. It tells us something but not nearly enough about what went on over the course of four splendid days in Los Angeles.
Willa Cather wrote beautifully of "the inexplicable presence of the thing not named" and of how such unnamed yet felt presences imbue art with its power to haunt and compel. My experience of MLA11 reminds me to consider as well the significance of -- forgive me, Willa -- the thing not tweeted, of all the experience that isn't captured in the vast but always incomplete data stream in which we now swim. To see and hear such things and take their measure -- That, too, is the work of the humanities, in the analog or the digital mode. As always, friends, we've got our work cut out for us. Peace out.