Working Conditions with Christopher Newfield & Anna Kornbluh (50th Episode #MLA2023 Special)

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The annual convention of the Modern Language Association (MLA), though much diminished from its early 21st-century peak, is still the largest gathering of literature and language scholars in the US. It takes place each year in early January, at or just before the start of the winter term.

Each year the MLA President chooses a theme for the annual convention. This year’s theme, “Working Conditions,” foregrounds the seemingly ever-present crisis, which “has molded literary studies for half a century,” as current MLA President, Christopher Newfield, argues in his recent column for the MLA Newsletter.

In this, a special 50th episode of The American Vandal Podcast, Matt Seybold is joined by Newfield & Anna Kornbluh to discuss those working conditions, including unionization efforts across public university systems, coordination with labor movements in the US and UK, the deskilling of scholarship, the limits of quantification, and more.

Christopher Newfield is Director of Research at the Independent Social Research Foundation in London, as well as the current President of the Modern Language Association. He was formerly Distinguished Professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His academic work has focused on Critical University Studies, American literature since 1990, California culture and society, quantification studies, and the status of literary knowledge. [Twitter: @cnewf]

His books include The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities, and How We Can Fix Them (Hopkins UP, 2016), Unmaking the Public University: The Forty Year Assault on the Middle Class, (Harvard UP, 2008), The Emerson Effect: Individualism and Submission in America (U Chicago, 1996), and, most recently, Limits of the Numerical: The Abuses and Uses of Quantification (U Chicago, 2022), co-edited with Anna Alexandrova and Stephen John.

Among his many roles at MLA 2023, Newfield will be hosting the Presidential Plenary on the question “What is Literary Knowledge?” It is a question he also asked in the lead chapter of a volume edited by Seybold and frequent Vandal guest Michelle Chihara in 2018.

Anna Kornbluh is Professor of English at University of Illinois, Chicago. Her research and teaching interests center on Victorian literature and Critical Theory, with a special emphasis in formalism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, and theory of the novel. [Twitter: @V21collective]

She is the author of The Order of Forms: Realism, Formalism, & Social Space (U. Chicago, 2019), Marxist Film Theory & Fight Club (Bloomsbury, 2019), and Realizing Capital: Financial & Psychic Economies in Victorian Form (Fordham UP, 2014). Her current book project, “Immediacy or, The Style of Too Late Capitalism,” forthcoming from Verso, concerns impersonality, objectivity, mediation, and abstraction as residual faculties of the literary in privatized urgent times. She is the founding facilitator of two scholarly cooperatives: V21 Collective and InterCcECT.

Kornbluh has made four previous appearance on The American Vandal, to discuss Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry For The Future, her work in progress on Autofiction and Autotheory, Showtime’s Billions, and the GameStop Bull Rally.

Additionally relevant to this episode is her membership on the bargaining team for the UIC United Faculty who are in active negotiations with their institution with a strike date set for later this month.

Kornbluh will be chairing a roundtable on “Literary Criticism: New Platforms” which includes Seybold and previous Vandal guests Merve Emre and Ashley Rattner.

Matt Seybold is Associate Professor of American Literature & Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College, as well as resident scholar at the Center For Mark Twain Studies, and Founding Director of EC’s Media Studies, Communications, & Design major. He has been primary host and executive producer of The American Vandal Podcast since its launch in October 2020. His research focuses on the political economy of mass media, the history of economic thought, and, of course, Mark Twain’s life, work, & legacy. [Twitter: @MEASeybold]

This episode’s special theme comes from Dana Leong, a multi-instrumentalist, producer, and Grammy-winning composer, who is a Bay Area native. It is a track from his 2014 album, Dream State, featuring John Shannon and DJ Icewater. Find it on Apple Music and Spotify. You can also explore some of his more recent projects through the YouTube channel of his collaborative multimedia initiative, TEKTONIK MUSIC.

Episode Bibliography

Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Dancing Men” (1903)

Merve Emre, “Post-Disciplinary Reading & Literary Sociology” (Modernism/modernity, 2.1.2019)

Merve Emre & Hayley G. Toth, “Post-Discipline: Literature, Professionalism, & The Crisis of the Humanities” (Oxford)

Merve Emre, Anna Kornbluh, & Matt Seybold, “Bootstrapping Across Dystopia: Autofiction, Autotheory, Autoeverything” (The American Vandal, 2.14.2022)

Sheri-Marie Harrison, Anna Kornbluh, Matt Seybold, & Min Hyoung Song, “Ministry For The Future” (The American Vandal, 3.30.2022)

Anna Kornbluh, “Academe’s Coronavirus Shock Doctrine” (Chronicle of Higher Education, 3.12.2020)

James Livingston, Corey McCall, & Matt Seybold, “Bullshit Jobs, Fuck Work, & The Legacy of David Graeber” (The American Vandal, 3.18.2022)

Philip Mirowski & Edward Nik-Khah, The Knowledge We Have Lost in Information: The History of Information in Modern Economics (Oxford UP, 2017)

Christopher Newfield, “The Role of The Numerical in The Decline of Expertise” from Limits of The Numerical (U Chicago, 2022)

Christopher Newfield, “What is Literary Knowledge of Economy?” from The Routledge Companion to Literature & Economics (2018)

Christopher Newfield, Anna Alexandrova, & Stephen John (Editors), Limits of The Numerical: The Abuses & Uses of Quantification (U. Chicago, 2022)

Edward Nik-Khah, “Neoliberal Pharmaceutical Science & The Chicago School of Economics” (Social Studies of Science, August 2014).

Edward Nik-Khah & Robert Van Horn, “Shattering Hope & Building Empire: Economics the Imperial Science at Chicago, George Stigler & Aaron Director” in George Stigler: Enigmatic Price Theorist of the Twentieth Century (Palgrave, 2020)

Edward Nik-Khah & Robert Van Horn, “Inland Empire: Economics Imperialism as an Imperative of Chicago Neoliberalism” (Journal of Economic Methodology, October 2012)