In which she finds fault and expects dinner
By Paula Marantz Cohen
Having been engaged in literary studies for more than 30 years, I have often felt myself behind the curve. I finished graduate school just as French literary theory was coming into vogue. As soon as I got a handle on Foucault, he was eclipsed by Derrida. Once I grasped Derrida, Deleuze was in the ascendancy.
I recently decided to address my problem by launching my own literary methodology. What I propose is an entirely new approach to literary praxis: Mother-in-Law Studies. As yet I am the sole practitioner, but I see no reason why the method won’t catch on—and not just in my own area of expertise. Any field of study characterized by affected posturing and lumpy, esoteric prose can profit by it.
Mother-in-Law Studies involves the insertion of the mother-in-law into some aspect of the academic process. No need to be doctrinaire here: one can bring the mother-in-law’s inimitable perspective to bear by having her read a text, but it works just as well (and possibly better) to involve her in the discourse that surrounds it. For example, one can bring the mother-in-law, as I did, to an academic conference and clock her tolerance for the proceedings (three papers—the last one, as she put it, “gibberish”). You can also sound her out for her response to your own paper (as in: “you were the best, which isn’t saying much”).
The mother-in-law’s presence can be valuable by virtue of its arbitrariness—the introduction of noise into an otherwise steady-state system. It can also be a useful mediator between patriarchal oppression and female self-assertion, given that the mother-in-law is likely to have one foot in an earlier era and another in the present—a position supported by her irrational championship of Hillary Clinton for president long after she’d lost the primary campaign to Obama.
Perhaps you have hit on an objection: not everyone has a mother-in-law. But this is part of the appeal of the methodology. It is selective without incurring a bias against any individual group. It’s true, you may not have a mother-in-law now, but nothing prevents you from getting one if you are sufficiently motivated.
The mother-in-law’s dogged failure to comprehend what it is you do acts as a helpful frame by which to gain a new understanding of your field. Moreover, the mother-in-law is likely to have a healthy skepticism not only about your line of work but also about why it is that her son (or daughter) married you. This resistance allows her to speak truth to power in a way that blood relations, familiar with your tendency to throw tantrums, may be less inclined to do.
Here are a few samples of the sort of cogent critique a mother-in-law is likely to offer at an academic conference:
“Who is this Agamben and why are they always talking about him?”
“Why doesn’t she just spit it out, instead of hemming and hawing?”
“Can’t they deliver the papers with more eye contact?”
“Why doesn’t that one on the end comb his hair?”
“Is this really what you do?”
Note that the mother-in-law’s favored mode of locution is interrogatory, though this does not mean that she wants an answer. The mother-in-law is the master of the rhetorical question.
The best way to deal with the plummeting self-esteem that can follow a mother-in-law’s caustic appraisal is to chalk it up to social service. One of the prerequisites of a literary methodology nowadays is that it be (or appear to be) virtuous. Yet the weakness of existing methodologies, which point out the generalized evils of racism, sexism, and other sorts of ideological oppression, is that they tend to exist purely in the realm of the abstract. Sure, you’re a good, right-thinking person and have analyzed the slave trade in the margins of Mansfield Park, but what exactly does that mean in concrete, altruistic terms? With Mother-in-Law Studies, not only must you subject yourself to the critique of her gimlet-eyed appraisal of your work, but you must also take her to dinner at a nice restaurant after the conference and listen to her recount all the adorable things your spouse did as a child. That’s good works with a vengeance.
Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and the recent What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper.
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