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The Gropes of Academe:
Scenes of the Modern Academy
Shadow-Boxing with Itself with One Hand

Nigel Cornelius Blumscote-Haverford
Associate Professor, Dept. of Linguistics,
Bowbells University of the Humanities, Bowbells ND

Researchers1 in sexology and general psychology2 have long evinced an unhealthy curiosity about what some call “kink” and more normal people call “filthflarnfilth.” In particular, there has been far too much attention paid to games of dominance and submission outside their proper sphere of foreign relations. One of the well-established but far too publicized results is that quite often those who partake in such matters choose a role not only opposite to that that they fill in the public sphere, but indeed one they would be ashamed (as well they should be!) to perform in public. Thus, there are countless examples of powerful business and political leaders who like to be tied up and abused by, yes, girly types. Similarly, there are such things as cosplay, race-play, and other ickiness we need not consider furtherit’s canned asparagus,3 we say, and to hell with it.

Sad to say, it has become ever clearer over time that this disorder has spread and become generalized like a pleonastic snowclone or a cancerous tumescence tumor, and not only among the brilliant and talented. Thus, much like a brilliant businessman paying a dominatrix to act like an unfriendly executrix planning to push him out of the family corporation entirely however much he might beg and plead...unless he thoroughly and satisfyingly debases himself,4 so one brilliant conductor, Gabriel Pilsner Pumice, has admitted (on TV to you-know-whoyeah, her): “So yeah, I like to sneak into elementary schools that have finished last in local music competitions and...well, this is hard to admit, but I put on a disguise and sneak into the band room and...pay the teacher lots of money to, you know, let me fill in. Of course, I don’t actually correct their playing. That would defeat the purpose. I just stand there uselessly beating the air with my baton, since it doesn’t do any good. Precisely because it doesn’t. Do. Any. Damn. Good. It’s like I need the humiliation of not being able to make beautiful music, of having unison playing become an atonal fugue that violates the form every which way to hell within four bars. It’s the only way I can add zest to my life anymore.”

On the other hand, another conductor on the far end of the scale, Danny Barelyaboy, has written, “I have fantasies that for once I am able to lead my orchestra in large-scale form. That we get those long lines going and they actually make sense. That I can conduct something longer than a Strauss waltz and lay bare the beauty of its architectonic structure. That I can make Brahms sound like Brahms, not a muzak performance of his greatest melodies as performed by Dick Mudderman on a Hammond B3. Then when we reach the end, and as I prepare to take my bow, I find that Gabriel Pilsner Pumice has been conducting behind me the whole time, and he pushes me out of his way with this look of utter contempt. It’s humiliating. I can’t get enough of it.”

It has recently come to our attention, however, that something similar seems to be true even of such harmless asexual drudges as linguists. We discovered this when, in an effort to keep close tabs on the chances of tenure of certain colleagues, we put them at their ease and plied them with alcohol, sodium thiopental, and questions. After a detailed interrogation conversation about her research that segued into the existence of any possible confidential legally actionable events or potentially embarrassing run-ins with various authorities, one young sociolinguist spoke thus:

Oh, only self-appointed language authorities. But hey, whatever floats your boat. [1 min 41 sec of giggling and blushing followed.] What? Well, you know, I do like to let my freak flag fly on occasion. Once a month or so I get my latest snuggle bunny to dress up in, you know, a red power cravat and blue serge suit with a belt in the back and spank me with the most prescriptivist dictionary he or she can find. Then I have to talk dirty. You know, I have to split infinitives, dangle modifiers, and I get me whacked real good with a caneand mmm, just think of the punishment I’d get for saying that...all working up and me worked up to where I get my mouth washed out with soap for saying “Just between you and I.” Oh god... [There then followed 27 seconds of sightless staring and what can best be described as happy gurgling.] What? Ugh. No. What kind of a freak are you? No, just no, no way would someone dressing up like David Foster Wallace make me hot. Hell, I’d get more turned on by William Safire; at least he knew how to get a decent haircut. Jeez, what do you take me for, some sort of pretentious pseudo-intellectual?

There then followed 3 min 54 sec of fluent abuse that started with fairly mainstream sexual acts but quickly escalated to a nonrepeating sequence of utterances presenting such a tableau of outré athletic endeavors as to bespeak a deeply corrupted soul, after which we were beaten rigorously and vigorously about the head and shoulders with a thoroughly descriptivist reference grammar in the accepted and appropriate academic style.

Our eyes opened,5 we were struck6 by the scandalous secret life of such a mousy little thing, for you’d think that with such an impressive CV with no questionable publications,7 she wouldn’t have an inner life. This pointed to the urgent necessity to study this affliction further as a matter of public mental healtha bit of service that really should count towards tenure, like serving on parking committees.

The next week we shanghaied accosted approached another colleague and by similar methods elicited the following:

Well, yes, once I was reading one of those old quaint analyses of some Amerindian languageit didn’t matter which since they’re all underlyingly identical anywayfrom the Victorian era, might have been by Voegelin or Haas, and the whole insistence that alternations could not be used to analyze phonological structure just seemed so perverse...so straitlaced, like a corset, actually. That there was a strict ordering of layers, and what was on top could not be placed underneath other elements...Top and bottom. No mixing of layers. And yet, it was such a seductive view! By confining you, binding you to a rigid methodology, it would free you to reach the peak of discovery. Soon in the privacy of my study I was rewriting all my papers to rigorously separate the layers, and then...I overcame my inhibitions and started practicing biuniqueness. Oh god, please don’t tell anyone!

Ahem, yeah, right. Similarly, our third interlocutor is a computational linguist who confessed that in his spare time he likes to program massive corpus analysis in 320-dimensional semantic space...in COBOL. On a TRS-80. Using a 300-baud modem to communicate with his work computer: “Because my position of intellectual dominance during the day leaves me needing the sweet release of being tied up so tight I can’t, figuratively speaking, move a finger.” Modesty forbids sharing the rest of his confession, even translated into Latin.

However, this suffering soul did in the course of inhuman events provide an invaluable piece of information allowing us to penetrate virtually into the shadow realm of academic kink by yielding the Internet address of a vast meet and chat and more more MORE! website devoted to just that clientele. Note that while the basic name of the website is www.twistn­shoutn­shoutn­shout.com, the actual address can only be obtained from the domain name by a shift rotation of a confidential number of characters, followed by transliteration into an alphabet that for public decency will not be specified here, then encoded again into Latin script using a key cipher that public morality forbids specifying more closely than to say that it is based on a sentence somewhere in one of the many volumes of either John Norman’s Gor series or Piers Anthony’s Xanth series, so good luck finding it, and may the Lord have much-needed mercy on your soul if you try.

Once you enter the site, you will find a virtual university of departments specializing in academic kink of every sort. Thus, the physics board, charmingly named “dN/ds = ‒κT + τB,” has a wide range of subgroups for every variety of kink,8 though we did note that the string theory board seems to be devoted to the solitary activities of preparing papers for publication. Similarly, the comparative literature board was devoted for the most part to people writing about how they actually enjoyed certain works of literature they had analyzed in public as being beyond the pale of anything but abuse, next door to the board for English literature chock-full of Marlow/Kurtz slash fiction for, one assumes, the (if one may use such a term) gents and multi-volume bedroom epics with Jane Austen meeting all of the Brontës in succession and simultaneously for, one perhaps should not assume, the (if one may use such a term) ladies. These efforts were at least better written than the fare offered on the cartography board, in which the mapped area is projected onto what might as well be a cylinder of pulp in such a way as to distort the rounded parts north and south of the center line so as to be grotesquely swollen. Most important for our purposes, however, each board contains a sub-board devoted to real-life confessions for the nods and plaudits of one’s fellowsand just as pro is the opposite of con, what these confessionals are is nothing if not the opposite of professional.

We traipsed over to the linguistics area, “Your Mother Tongue is Angry with You...Very Very Angry!,” and (purely for research purposes, we hasten to stress) spent several months reading all the archived postings. The academic content on the sub-boards varied dramatically, so that in the Optimality Theory group, “Linguistic Taut-ologiesEver so Taut!,” one mostly finds the rough drafts of papers later published in such venues as Linguistic Inquiry, while in contrast the historical linguistics section closely resembled an old soc.culture newsgroup, or rather several dozen mixed together into an unholy, geographically-implausible creole. Presenting a similar contrast, the articulatory phonetics section, “Time for a Thorough Tongue-Lashing!,” was a depraved verbal group grope resembling nothing so much as a conference of librarians once the booze has started to flowone can never unread the changes rung on manner, place, and voicing by that sick lotwhile the section for instrumental phoneticians was sparse and sickly in comparison and seemed mostly concerned with the effects of lip rounding on well-rounded formants, reminding the gentler reader of the Hebrew view of vowels as matres lectionis. And let’s not even start on the frolics inspired by Ray Jackendoff discussing clitics.

For closer study, we first lurked in the classical generativist syntax group, “You’re Voted Out of the Island...Without a Trace!” Besides a largish selection of slash fiction in which John Locke and David Hume acquire certain types of knowledge through the evidence of their senses, one section, “Government and Binding with a Twist!,” consisted as expected largely of anonymous frank confessions displaying an intriguing variety of afflictions. Some, like the following, merely spoke of civilization and its discontents:

When I was a younger sprat in the pond, I followed all the usual orthographic standards of the field like the submissive grad student that I was. However, it rankled, really it did. That wasn’t who I was. Well, okay, in public life it was. I mean, there’s a detailed hierarchy you have to work your way up until you reach the pinnacle of actually getting cited by Chomskymany have given freely of themselves to his greater glory, where he has seen their work and lo! it was good, and it has been subsumed anonymously in the scriptures, but few are those who are called to public recognition for their contributions to the Great Enterprise. Still, there are lesser marks of his favor, such as unnecessary capitalizations, and frankly, I don’t do that anymore. One night I was polishing the nub of my latest paper, and my fingers simply refused to type “the Split CP Hypothesis.” I sat there on the edge, quivering in frustration, when with a massive release and sense of relief I wrote “the split CP hypothesis.” I realized that syntactic discourse is not my master, I am its master, and I now only publish in journals that eschew unnecessary capitalization. All the tension and stress have flowed out of my body and I haven’t felt this free and right with the world for ages.

Others expressed a deep-seated and deeply troubling failure to accept simple scientific truths, like the followingunfortunately, there was no internal evidence suggesting that this author is seeking tenure at our institution:

I am deeply torn between my social and political ideals and my linguistic training. Strict binarity goes against everything we as progressives and GLBT activists have fought for, and the insistence on a rigidly hierarchical arrangement of the language faculty violates every tenet of a humane and democratic society. I constantly remind myself that these principles are as well-supported empirically as anything else and, in my darker hours, that as the mind is modular there’s no need to draw any wider implications from well-established scientific fact. However, a couple of years ago I had my girlfriend dress up as a gnome and apply increasingly rigid constraints on, oh, let’s say my binary branching as she intoned, “You bad, bad girl, the innateness of these binary distinctions is essential to undergird the task of learning and achieving true intellectual freedom,” until I proved the truth of the statement by attaining the freedom of sweet release. The next night I had her dress up as Phyllis Schafly and spank me as she intoned, “You bad, bad girl, the innateness of these binary distinctions is the cornerstone of society and recognizing them forthrightly is essential to our task of achieving true freedom. Least is least and best is best and only the twain should meet!” Of course, she then broke up with me the next day, but I had a custom mask of Anita Bryant made up and my latest girlfriend is a bit kinky herself, so she wears the mask with a gnome hat while spanking me and applying Chomskyan theory promiscuously outside the boundaries of the discipline...I needn’t tell you what I have to do to her in exchange. She’s in cultural studies so you can imagine.

Of course, you can’t keep these important sections of your life in airtight, hermetically sealed containers, so about a year ago, after the insistence on hierarchical structure and binary branching had kept rubbing me the wrong way, and I do mean the wrong way, I went to a disastrous dissertation defense in which this poor chap tried to palm off stratificationalist bafflegab as actual linguisticshow he got it approved in the first place was a riddle until I learned he had transferred in a year before somehowand I was repulsed at first but then, well, I have to admit I got a little intrigued. Those curved and twisty lines of any needed number branching out from nexions in polymorphous freedom, curving around to wherever they can connect, with the nexions arranged in layers only to the extent necessary to clarify the organization of the analysis and usually slanted from upper left to lower rightthis was the crappiest linguistics I had ever seen any loser try to palm off with a straight face, or even a smile for that matter, as serious linguistics, but as a model for socio-sexual and political freedom? It was not bad at all. In the privacy of my study carrel I now sometimes doodle stratificational analyses of the syntactic phenomena I’m analyzing, and it gets me so hot and bothered I have to rush home and make my girlfriend put on the gnome cap! Then later I have to put on...oh, but never mind that. And sometimes I don’t even bother to go home, if you know what I mean.

Of course, at first I felt guilty as hell afterwards mixing these two sides of myself, but I suppose I’ve mostly gotten over that. It really doesn’t matter what I do behind closed doors so long as I continue to produce quality generativist analyses of...oh, but that would be telling, wouldn’t it now? Or at least that’s what I tell myself, but in the sleepless dark watches of the night, I wonder.

This is merely a small sample of the rot infesting the modern world, a rot that started in the brain of the fish politic and is spreading throughout its body, even to the spiny dorsal fin of linguistics. Clearly what is needed is the antiseptic of right reason. Unfortunately, the rot has completely corrupted the guardians of mental health, as we can see in the confessions of psychologists of every stripe in their own special circle of hell at twistn­shoutn­shoutn­shout.com, “Blooming, Buzzing, and Confused!” Quoth one Freudian, in a screed showing that even the carriers of the sickness are not immune to their own waresor, as their spiritual forebears of a few decades ago would have put it,9 they get high off their own supply:

So yeah, I have to admit that the folk psychology of primitives like Aristotle does have a sort of sick fascination for me. None of that expressing yourself and letting it all hang out. No, it’s all about practice, and self-control, and discipline and more discipline. Lots and lots of discipline and self-control. Temperance and all that. You know, maintaining control in all situations, however hard, tight, and sticky the circumstances things have gotten jammed up in, sort of like pleasure delaying. “Call no man happy until the end” and all that. The whole emphasis on delayed gratification is so kinky!

Unfortunately, their opponents and betters are no better.

Fortunately, I wasn’t trained in the Freudian veinfew people outside literary criticism have been since, oh, the 1960s, and that really tells you all you need to know about the value of the theory. I always agreed with Gellner about the silliness of the underlying hydraulic metaphors of the approach: You know, everything in the brain is like a steam engine that can’t take too much pressure and the pressure builds up unless you release it, all that jazz. But I have to say there is a certain fascination in hydraulic metaphors. All those throbbing pistons in sliding cylinders and constantly turning the valves and gauges to a fever pitch until the sudden wreckage of everything with fluid hammer. Mmm, fluid hammer! And those glands and other stuffing boxes. Got to seal those boreholes, man!

(Curiously, this confession is similar to that of a few mechanical engineers in one of the seedier back alleys of the post-apocalyptic urban wasteland that is twistn­shoutn­shoutn­shout.com.) This is lamentable, but it is only to be expected in an age where you cannot tell whether “Get thee behind me, Satan” is a reproach or a come-on any more, and shows the deeper, sadder truth that humans reify their abstractions, even the ones they consider wrong and bad for them, and then get hot and bothered by them. But then the fascination of all of humanity, or at least that segment in academia, with the intellectual equivalent of hair shirts simply bears out the fact that out of the kinky fabric of humanity, no properly fitting single-cuff eyelet-collar button-front shirt was ever made.

1 And other professional voyeurs.

2 Generalized psychopathy, really.

3 Not spinach. We like spinach, and even if we didn’t, we’d clean our plates anyway.

4 Or herself, and mutatis mutandis for the balance.

5 Figuratively speaking. Physically speaking, they were swollen shut for several days.

6 Figuratively speaking. Physically speaking, we have since successfully avoided her; she has rather greater upper body strength than we could ever have suspected.

7 You can believe we’d scoured the library to, alas, be assured of that.

8 Though it’s best not to linger in them too long. Thus, in sub-boards like “r = 1/θ,” it is possible in just four minutes to read far too much about what happens at the origin when you finally hit that essential singularitythough we should note that despite the title this singularity involves a completely different form of man-machine interface than usually goes under that term. Well, usually sometimes on occasion. Yes, completely different essentially different different in important respects somewhat different with important cosmetic differences. Okay, it’s exactly the same form, just less sublimated.

9 One is tempted to update the time-tested words of wisdom to read, “Don’t get perved out of your own reserve,” but it’s clear from the degraded state of the hysterical modern world that reserve is in precious short supply these days.

L.U.R.V.E. is a BattlefieldHow the Internet Ruins Everything AcronymsPat ben Ātar
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SpecGram Vol CLXXIX, No 4 Contents