Re-entry is hard. As frequent readers will know, I have an ambivalent relationship to Cold City, and coming back to my relatively isolated life here is always a shock, but one I know will resolve itself one way or another in a week or so, because ready or not here comes the spring semester, knocking on one’s door next Monday. Now we’re working towards summer, just around the corner (or two, but still). I was away for twenty days, not more than six spent in one place consecutively. I feel like a need a break from the break! From Mr. Gordo’s Easy Bake to Chez Babycito to The Beautiful Lisa’s back to the Easy Bake, onto an unexpected and very brief two hour visit to the Casting Couch and then, finally, blissfully, to the madness and tranquility of Montréal, with La Donna boy crazy per usual and The Voice comfortably ensconced in romance and not getting out of her coital bed, except for take-out and the odd New Year’s party downstairs.
The relative quiet of my life here, the same old garret dusty and happy at my return, the meetings already, the weary cheer of colleagues along the hallway, no one quite rested from our mini-break between terms, sets the stage for melancholia. At my favourite local burger place my first night back, fresh from a visit to the office and feeling morbid, surrounded by happy Cold Place Moms and Dads and their gaggles of honking blond children, consuming ice cream and fried fish sandwiches, I rang up Mr. Gordo, away in Caracas for the New Year. The usual lament, to which Mr. Gordo responded that he thought that Cold City was better for me than I thought it was, which perhaps is true. Such a sentiment echoes Prancilla’s observations on the milieu of exile that Cold City seems to be for me now, in chilled anticipation of summer green, like a good bottle of Pouilly-Fuisée. Forster once wrote a short story called “The Life to Come,” the narrative of which escapes me but the title seems apropos, and has been ringing through my mind lately, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is staring out the windows of my garret to see the odd remnants of the last snow storm and decidedly unfashionable tones of brown and ash everywhere, under a gun metal grey sky.
For us literary types, of course, the interregnum between Christmas and New Year’s is the occasion of our professional blood/lust fest, the ModernLanguageAssociation’s annual binge and purge. I wrote a bit about this before the break, but my thoughts have returned to the broad dimensions of the conference and the polite vetting going on behind hotel doors all over Philadelphia. Of course, I have had occasion to be at our professional feast of the solstice, where we feed on the bodies of our young and attempt to gnaw at the petrified wood more than once, and in Philadelphia of all places, and shudder at the memory of the throngs of brilliant young things, moving from hotel to conference centre to bar to fast food joint, in ill-fitting new clothes and looking uncomfortable and stressed, the lobbies filled with would-be egghead Lotharios shaking in their Cole Haans, everyone with a post-traumatic stress disorder stare, the elevator lobbies on the floors of the hotels crowded with the waiting and anxious, as laughter and muffled conversation emanates from behind various doors. A last minute check in the mirror, a breath mint, a mini-lint brush, then, Showtime!
Conference interviews are so opaque that in many ways they are as inscrutable as the Riddle of the Sphinx, with a seemingly matched fate for botching the answer. Part of the problem, of course, is that you are performing in a play without a script, improvisation in the most immediate and challenging way. Oh, sure, there are right and wrong answers, but how does one measure a strong or weak performance? Conference interviews are meant to evaluate candidates in anticipation of campus visits. They usually have standard questions meant to level the playing field between candidates. Prepping for interviews typically involves knowing a) your own shit, and b) their shit. In the eight or so MLA conference interviews I have had over the last few years, I have been able to tell for sure when an interview goes awry. The energy leaves the room faster than Elizabeth Berkley can take off her clothes in Showgirls. For instance, one of my MLA performances a few seasons ago for a split position in my field and English at a large, undistinguished branch of the University of Texas, the young hip English professor loved me, with her smiles and nods and enthusiasm. The Grey Beard from the department in my field hated me, and persisted in asking me a series of illegal questions about my politics that I refused, tactfully, to answer. He called the second week of January to ask if I would be an alternate if their short list failed to produce a candidate, which I thought reflected his true antipathy. Well, fuck you too.
Rather, it is the interviews that on the surface go well that are more frustrating. In some cases, these good interviews resulted in campus visits. In others, nothing but a single-page rejection letter several months later. What is the algebra of the successful interview, then? Is it “looking good, feeling gorgeous,” as RuPaul would say? Is it being well prepped? Sometimes I think it is just making it through the whole, damned loathsome thing, from the stress of actually schlepping to wherever the MLA is, prematurely cutting short visits with loved ones, to getting your fash'on, managing last-minute breakouts ("The night of a Corny Collins Record Hop, and I have craters!"), finding the hotel, bringing additional material and smiling and remembering to breathe and continuing to talk as you have a hot flash caused by a mini panic attack, then wobbling out of the room with (ideally) your self-esteem intact, and not fainting in the process. For someone like me, with a kooky training, just proving you’re worthy of a disciplinary position in Literature or English has been a big part of it, even with any and all reassurances of interests in interdisciplines and new approaches. If, as well, you’re someone like me, who works in a small but tendentious sub-field, with its own complicated internal debates, communicating those debates (i.e. translation) can be a challenge. I’m not perfect, but as one does this thing more and more, as one invariably does, one does get better, stronger, faster, like the Bionic Man.
I have found, at the end of the successful interview, that the ability to judge one's performance is often lacking. Perhaps this is an ironic revenge on Kant? Chance reintroduces itself as a tangible concept, because meritocracy only plays a small role in the current drama on stage. You cannot know, unless you have a very good contact (and even then...), exactly what the sentiment of the committee is, inevitably deeply subjective, personal, and secret, often times even to themselves. Who, for instance, is your competition? What other skills is the committee perhaps looking for? Do they want someone fresh out of the gate, malleable and open, or someone more seasoned? Do they want someone with a particular look or of a particular race (yes, Virginie, it happens that way sometimes)? Is there an inside candidate? All these questions don’t resolve the nagging feeling that one can always do better, somehow. One can become obsessed with answers that could have been stronger, revisiting the details concerned with the work to make the mimesis of perfection perfect, erase all the flaws, become everything to everyone.
On some level, one just has to become a little Zen about this shit. Then again, chance is a sword that cuts both ways: after my Sadistic College fly-back, I was sure I had bombed out. My trip back to California was mournful and depressed, but I ended up getting the job anyhow (for better or for worse). Similarly, my initial phone interview with Cold City U was disappointing, and I remember hanging up and saying aloud to myself, as I lit a cigarette in my empty dining room, “Oh well…” But here I am. Is it just my experience, or are the strongest possibilities those that are located at the crossroads of disaster? The last true cycle of the market I was on, I had a beautiful conference interview with an English department at a prestigious art school on the East Coast, followed by an equally beautiful campus visit where everything, from the teaching demonstration to the job talk, went swimmingly. How do I know? I had an inside institutional contact who told me so. However, they ended up hiring someone not only demonstrably less qualified than I was but who is also now absolutely miserable there, and planning his escape. What went wrong? Sometimes a girl can be too brilliant, that is for sure.
Some of this post-interview anxiety is reinforced by something completely out of the candidates’ hands, aside from the intangible of the subjective analyses of the committee, and that is the increasing problem of institutional body dysmorphia. Body dysmorphia is a concept related to eating disorders, where people do not see themselves as they really are. Women and gay men are particularly prone to this type of critical self-evaluation, where we look in the mirror and see, by way of example, a fat person, even if our actual material bodies may be “normal” or thin. This is often explained sociologically by the fact that women (and to a lesser extent gay men) are trained to think of themselves as objects not subjects, as being constantly under surveillance and being evaluated for beauty, poise, presentation. The allegorical connection to academic job candidates at large, impersonal conferences filled with neurotics is fairly self-evident, but academic institutions often face the same issues, of seeing themselves in one way that is wholly unrelated to objective evaluatory criteria. For instance, little Sadistic College, with no endowment, one donor's death away from financial crisis, and a dodgy reputation along the eastern seaboard, thinks it’s the shit. In a brief visit over the break with my girlfriend Ms. Leisure, enrolled now in a professional MA program in New York and late of the faculty of Sadistic College, we spoke not only of the dysmorphia of Sadistic College but of institutions in general, and how such misapprehensions can warp and twist life on the ground in those places, for both faculty and students, into stress contests and confusion about training, reputation, and preparation.
Dysmorphia of this sort is just the latest twist on “fit,” that slippery and often times ugly evaluatory measurement of candidates and junior professors. “Are they one of us?” with the “us” here being the true yet murky measurement of institutional self-conception, and the "them" being, typically, someone different. Fit is real, but often it can blind institutions to changes and transformations that could prove healthy. Then again, who wants to be that kind of trailblazer? Trail blazing in academia is usually rewarded with a kick in the pants, that’s for sure. And while institutions and their dysmorphias tend towards self-aggrandisement, candidates and junior professors also have dysmorphia, which tend towards self-denigration. In the end, we live in a curious funhouse of mirrors, where what we think we look like is refracted and shifted between and from a myriad of surfaces, each with a different value and meaning. How can we know what we really look like, our real performance? Hard to say, although it might behoove us to rely more on our other senses and rise above the literal and metaphoric scopophilia which drives us mildly nuts trying to get all the angles. This may or may not improve our chances in the overheated hotel room interview, but it could help us relax a little more when the committee decides not to call back. After all, and in the end, there might be very good reasons as to why they didn’t, which you can only be thankful for in an anticipatory, theoretical sense. Is a bad placement a good thing? It depends on how much you value the loss of any number of years off your life as you gain that vaunted "experience."
While in Big Eastern City, and in anticipation of the release of the film Dreamgirls, I re-read J. Randy Taraborrelli's delicious unauthorised biography of Diana Ross, Call Her Miss Ross. I was able to pick up a hardcover copy at one of Big Eastern City's famous book emporiums, and as I made my way to the cash registers, a middle-aged Black woman eyed my purchase and cooed, "Oooo, that's good!" Pure cotton candy for the mind, it is the kind of book you read with a lobster bib around your neck, it is so juicy. The vertiginous rise of Diana Ross as a superstar, managed by her semi-secret lover Berry Gordy, is heady stuff, especially as it ends with Ross alienated and divorced from reality in her stardom and delirium. Such star turns, of course, are what drives star culture, from the “It” Girl to Brittany Spears, the invention of the close up and the rise of tabloid culture, and forms the bedrock of our ambivalent relationship of envy, desire, and loathing to the star itself. As a young queen, I was enamoured of Ross, and spent countless hours listening to my mother’s vast Supremes collection on vinyl, closely examining the accompanying pictures on the record sleeves and photo inserts, of the three black girls from the Brewster projects of Detroit, MI, while simultaneously ingraining the lyrics into my mind like the Rosetta Stone. To this day I can effortless sing the lyrics to most any Supremes hit without even thinking about it, many of which are quite better than the standard of “Baby Love.” Ross’s star image, her star turn, captured my young faggy imagination, determined in some crucial ways my relationship to the Diva, femininity, race, and gayness, as well as propelled me into my own, private notion of fabulousness and presence within which I live today. Isn’t every queen of colour just a lil’ bit Diana, even while we may sympathise with the hapless (and more soulful and perhaps more talented) Flo? The rise of La Ross also has, as such stories always do, its winners and losers. Ross wins, although following Taraborelli the victory seems hollow (aren't they always?), and Flo, alas, loses, in the process dying early and tragically.
But apropos of the profession, what are the secrets of success, and the various prices we pay? Being an academic Dream Girl consists of what? Landing a (Dream) job? Is there in fact such a thing, really? Tenure? Happiness in one’s professional life? Personal life? Power? Security? Satisfaction? While most of us don’t have a Berry Gordy, we are managed productions. We perform on the stage with varying degrees of talent and gumption, but talent alone does not make the Dream Girl. To think of Diana or alternatively of Beyoncé, it seems to be wigs and eye glitter that drive the Dream Girl machine. Ross had a thin voice, not rich but technically proficient. And she had ambition, driving and relentless. Ross’s star image presented (white) American society with a number of attractive, if misguided, notions: of racial equality, black beauty under a white girl wig, the American Dream in black face, even if she, as Rosa Parks, lived within the shell of a story that sold well as a paradigm and is now a truism. Ross's "projects" were hardly the mean streets when she lived there, and she came from a working class family dedicated to education and achievement. Similarly, Parks didn't just sit down one day on the bus, she was an organiser for the NAACP and the whole moment was strategically planned specifically to cause a crisis in the white supremacist superstructure. All of which speaks more to the power of particular narratives on our collective imaginations than attempting to undercut the considerable achievement of either Parks or Ross, although of a very different quality.
Ross performed such narrative fantasies to acclaim and adulation, although in the end the funhouse of mirror images confused even the star herself and led her down the primrose path of self-immolation, which we love, even as we cluck our tongues and shake our heads. Ross was America’s Dream Girl, the American Black Idol of her time. Job candidates and junior faculty perform similar reflective roles, beaming back onto institutions their self-conceptions and self-understandings in a complicated and often hollow mimesis. Such a mimesis is, however, only an approximation: when we hit it we are lucky, when we miss we make the mistake of beating up on ourselves, even if we have relatively little idea of exactly what committees and institutions want and need in their various Dream Girls. In the final analysis, how we become the academic version of the Dream Girl remains a cautionary tale to those of us who perhaps are paying too much attention to the paradigmatic details, and not enough to the wigs and glitter. But what choice do we have, in the end? Like our relationship to the star, ambivalence rules the day, because we want it too, we want to live the dream, to be the Dream Girl. Who wouldn't?
Bring on the glamour: daub the brush in the lip gloss, the Kabuki in the powder, the careful application of the eyelashes, fixing the foundation invisibly along the neck line, placing the wig just so. Who do you have to sleep with to get out of this show? In the words of Mica Paris, we are all working towards "trying to be a little more perfect, trying hard to find where myself is." But then again, maybe I have the wrong sister in mind, an error in performative principle, the wrong mimetic possibility...