Finally it was my turn at the lectern. Last session, last day. Before me came one Lisa Brawley, a professor at Vassar, already schmoozed up with Nunberg and the Montreal egomaniac. She delivered the very worst conference paper I have ever heard.
Brawley spoke in the hushed, pious tone of the secular priest -- the true function of politicized academics like her. She was supposed to talk about something involving "communicative space," and started out with a Mark Strand poem:
In a field
I am the absence of field.
It went on in that vein: coy boasting with linebreaks. She read it slowly; then, in a trancey, maundering voice began to pick at it, looking for auguries. They were slow coming. Each sentence came separately, with a Quaker silence before and after. Nothing became clear except Brawley's deep, virtuous dislike and incomprehension of the world -- the whole world and everything in it, starting with powerpoint and including all recent culture. I managed to write some phrases from her speech:
"What is called flow is actually a sequence of embodied images, 16 frames per second."
She doesn't like movies, it seemed: "...we sit there in the dark, taking it all in." Apparently we should turn the lights on, get out in the fresh air more.
After piously deploring 110 years of films, Brawley already has to start regretting the Internet. She showed a diagram of connectedness: Africa was left out of the web. This was sinful, apparently. It spoke for itself, she said. Then she spoke for it. Slooowly.
Sentences dwindled. Heads nodded. She ended with another secular prayer, something about "a way to be in the world with political hope."
Nunberg and the Montreal behaviorist applauded wildly, then left--for good.
Too bad, because I was ready to take them on. I put the War Nerd's first column on the screen, thinking, that'll shut'em up.
Then Brawley came back in. She looked at the screen slowly -- so slowly! She was as slow as a Victorian sloth -- and slowly frowned. After a minute or so of frowning and having a think about it, she turned around and departed. She wasn't a fast thinker, but she knew one thing: any talk involving something called "the War Nerd" was not for her.
It kind of summed up my experience of academia: slow always wins. They must have something going for them, the Lisa Brawleys. It ain't brains, that's certain. It ain't charm, because...well, just take my word for it: it ain't charm. So what the hell is it?
After easily wiping out a British spy network, Michael Collins asked a very similar question: "How the hell did these people ever get an empire?"
I keep asking myself that question about the Brawleys and the Nunberg, and getting no bright ideas for an answer. How did the sloth evolve? It reminds me of a scrap of biology textbook I somehow remember: "This was adaptive once."