Menand’s Meandering PhDs; UFOs; and Joyce’s Jejune Jesuits

“There are no aliens,” Susan reminded me of Kit’s happy thought number one from Bowfinger (1999), but sensing my disappointment asked to see them – the unidentified flying objects (UFOs) I had just captured on camera. I had snapped them hovering over SE Stark from Flying Pie Pizzeria, where we were celebrating Emily’s birthday. “Maybe they’re coming in for some pizza,” Susan said.

Having recently read Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, I began to think that chasing flying saucers was indeed an appropriate metaphor for pursuit of the PhD in today’s market. Joyce’s Buck Mulligan agreed, calling Stephen the “jejune jesuit,” for, as Anthony T. Grafton says in his New Republic response to Menand:  “The last hour has come, the times are very bad…Our space is shrinking: only one-third of American undergraduates still major in the arts and sciences, and less than a third of them in the humanities. We get no respect: the media stick to covering our dysfunctions, from the Paul de Man affair to the butchering of Robert Frost’s notebooks…But our worst enemies are ourselves: from William Chace, who argues that we helped to drive away our own students by dismembering the curriculum and substituting ‘for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture),’ to Mark Taylor, who declares that disciplines are obsolete and that ‘there is no longer a market for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text,’ to William Deresiewicz, who complains that we cannot talk to plumbers.”

Plumbers, incidentally, fall under Menand’s definition of a professional: “A professional is a person who is licensed – by earning a degree, taking an examination, or passing some other qualifying test – to practice in a specialized field” (p. 101). Or you can just call a plumber and ask his hourly rate. One wonders if Deresiewicz ever tried to talk to one. In any case, Grafton’s solution sounds like a call to those who would join Joyce’s jejune Jesuits: “…it means finding creative ways to make life instructively hard, for a few years…,” where “a few years,” according to Menand, is a decade of one’s life. For Joyce, who chose to avoid both the Jesuits and the academy, it nevertheless lasted his entire life (Joyce was almost never financially solvent on his own; he lived off private grants – and in that sense he was like a lifelong PhD candidate).

Juliet Flower MacCannell, writing on Lacan’s Joyce, says that “For Lacan, university discourse is the dominant discourse of our post-Hegelian era. In the introductory section of ‘Joyce the Symptom I’ entitled ‘University and Analysis,’ Lacan writes that Joyce may mean the closing or turning away from this dominant discourse: ‘In accordance with what Joyce himself knew would happen to him posthumously, the university in charge. It’s almost exclusively academics who busy themselves with Joyce. [. . .]. And he hoped for nothing less than to keep them busy until the extinction of the university. We’re headed in that direction’ (JSI, 3).” Frustrated they are too with Joyce’s grandson, Stephen, who, as D. T. Max discussed in “The Injustice Collector: Is James Joyce’s grandson suppressing scholarship?” (New Yorker, June 19, 2006), refuses scholars access to Joyce’s correspondence, and the problem with that is they’ve already picked his books to the bare bone, and, one wonders, to what end, if they’ve not found new readers for them. Perhaps the aliens will find some interest in them.

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