OccupyMLA’s Hidden Archive

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

Part protest novel, part guerilla theater, @OccupyMLA played out on the crowded virtual street corners of Twitter hashtags #mla and #omla for fifteen months before being revealed a as "fiction" at the 2013 MLA e-literature reading. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century protest fiction changed attitudes about slavery and industrial excess; @OccupyMLA charged #MLA members (and hashtag lurkers) to feel angry about dehumanizing adjunct working conditions built upon the "innocent dream" that Ph.D.s in literature could get paid to teach literature.

In a climate of "DH niceness," to dwell on adjuncting as a broken promise was agit-prop. Real life participants added their own anecdotes and Tweeted sympathy to Hazel, comingling "fiction" and "nonfiction" in an eerie, Barthesian "Reality Effect." The Netprov's melodrama and anger were deliberately out of sync with the positivistic #MLA discourse community. "Here's where #omla is correct," opined George Williams in a retweeted pair of Tweets, "conditions for contingent labor in higher ed are abomidable. But making the MLA the target of your ire and your movement is not going to get you very far. + #omla #imho."

Twitter as medial setting (of speed, mobility, partial attention) created a fragmentary reading experience that was in practice unique to each reader. Rita Raley observes in her 2013 essay "TXTual Practice" that an SMS text as literary utterance rarely merits close reading; but that same text projected on a building and read in tandem with its medial and embodied environments becomes a complex signifying system because of each moment's unrepeatability. A similar claim could be made of @OccupyMLA. The MLA physical convention space was overlaid as a LARP game space augmented by #omla posts. Some feared #omla people would interrupt their panels; some scanned the crowds for badges bearing a penny, the sign for allegiance to #omla. Henry Jenkins reminds us that even lurkers are an important audience in the circulation and meaning of media objects.

"Didn't we always expect @occupymla was performance art [because the] narratives read like fiction about very real problems?" asked M.M. Gonzalez. Ironically, MLA Executive Director Rosemary Feal derided @OccupyMLA because its fictional characters were too fictional, calling it a "cruel hoax [because] the characters are so unlike 99% of real adjuncts."

The very notion of a "hoax" implies that the confusion caused by a work's truth destabilization is temporary. "It's not like performance art is the only way to raise concern about contingent fac," Roopka Risam objected. Instead it pierced the romantic fictions we tell ourselves about adjuncting and suggested that decorous means of "raising concern" will fail to interrupt the neoliberal university's expansion of the adjuncting class.

(Source: author's abstract)

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Alvaro Seica