Monday, August 11, 2008


The current issue of PMLA (Publications of the Modern Language Association) is just extraordinary. More often than not, when the journal comes in I might find an article or two of some interest, but this issue — most of it given to essays on academia's responsibility to men and women in prison — is simply powerful. The editor's introduction to the feature:

America's prisons and jails house more than two million inmates. At least half the prisoners released in 2008 are likely to be returned to "correctional" facilities by 2010.... What is the academy's responsibility to the men, women, and children who live behind bars? What is it's responsibility to those who are released?

A surprisingly large number of essays follow the editor's introduction addressing a wide range of prison-related issues: Jonathan Shailor's "When Muddy Flowers Bloom: The Shakespeare Project at Racine Correctional Institution", H. Bruce Franklin's "Can the Penitentiary Teach the Academy How to Read?", Avery F. Gordon's "Methodologies of Imprisonment", Tanya Erzen's "Religious Literacy in the Faith-Based Prison", Megan Sweeney's "Books as Bombs: Incendiary Reading Practices in Women's Prisons", Jean Trounstine's "Beyond Prison Education", Robert P. Waxler's "Changing Lives through Literature", Ruby C. Tapia's "Profane Illuminations: The Gendered Problematics of Critical Carceral Visualities", Jody Lewen's "Academics Belong in Prison: On Creating a University at San Quentin", Ronald B. Herzman's "Attica Educations: Dante in Exile", and Larry E. Sullivan's "'Prison Is Dull Today': Prison Libraries and the Irony of Pious Reading".

And those essays not immediately concerned with the relation of the academy to the prison industrial complex are just as electric, particularly Malcolm Read's introduction to Juan Carlos Rodriguez's Althusser: Blowup (Lineaments of a Different Thought):

Nothing is more remarkable in the tradition of Althusserian Marxism than the silence that has dogged the work of Juan Carlos Rodriguez. One thinks of the relative importance attached to the work of Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson. Some might believe the discrepancy is a matter of merit rather than willful or unconscious neglect.

Naturally Read argues the matter is one of neglect, but this neglect is not unconscious:

Given the militancy of the working class in Spain, his [Rodriguez's] presiding categories were those of exploitation and class conflict, which combine to form the basis of a revolutionary proletarian politics that is anything but acceptable to the North American academy.

Agree or disagree, this introduction to Althusser: Blowup brings to us a Spanish theorist most, like myself, were not previously familiar with. It's quite astonishing and certainly easy to forget how different contexts demand different strategies and insist on different theoretical models, allowing figures like Althusser — long abandon by American activists and academics — to be of use to someone like Rodriguez, a theorist situated in a markedly different social formation:

Rodriguez's ability to move toward and beyond positions occupied by Althusser has much to do with his exposure to Spain's "backwardness," not to mention to the realities of fascism. In such circumstances he was able to combine a knowledge of feudalism not commonly found in European scholars, whether bourgeois or Marxist, with a comparatively comprehensive knowledge of bourgeois culture.

While the work of Immanuel Wallerstein and other World Systems theorists (inasmuch as they speak globally to a global situation) is seductive it seems important to remember that such meta-theories also speak for the world. Read's take on Rodriguez here seems to suggest otherwise. Read seems to suggest that Rodriguez's approach — like that of Gramsci — is more tactical than theoretical, engineered to respond to a particular situation at a specific moment in time.

Essays closing the issue include "The Sound of Poetry / The Poetry of Sound: The 2006 MLA Presidential Forum" — a two part essay by Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin, a follow up to the workshops and talks given at the MLA's 2006 convention.

Unfortunately the journal is made available only to members of the MLA and those libraries (largely university) that subscribe to the journal. Anyone currently enrolled in a college or university should have access to it through their libraries. Anyone not enrolled can simply view a copy at the nearest college library — either way, your tax dollars pay.