Thursday, March 13, 2008

University of Dream


“I just had the most terrible nightmare,” my friend (white male full professor at another institution) rang up to tell me.
“What’s that?”
“I dreamed I was a female graduate student!” The female graduate students were kept in a sort of razor-wired pen, from which they were drawn periodically to be raped by faculty. Sometimes they walked through a place from which they could see where the tenured faculty lived. There they were drinking and laughing.

Inspired by this, I embarked on some variations on the theme. I dreamed that a white male graduate applicant from anthropology was a black African woman. She and I walked on a beach and I was very sorry that we didn’t have more funding to offer. I dreamed (on another night) that it was July 1, and so hot that our senior French theorist walked by wearing a dress. To be specific, a sleeveless black top with a rounded neck, and a brown tube skirt. (Eyal: “What kind of shoes?” “Flat, black leather slip-ons, gender-noncommital.”) It was understood that this was purely pragmatic, just because it was so hot.

Last night I was going to give a talk to an audience of historians. One of them, a middle-aged woman with glasses, was looking over a copy of the paper in a café beforehand. There were a few references to Aristotle in the opening pages. “Are you an Aristotelian?” she said.
“No!” (Did I have to be?) She continued through the paper and asked another question, something about factual evidence. I realized with despair that she was going to demand empirical historical work to footnote each noncontroversial historical claim, and flung my cup of lukewarm tea at her. She wasn’t nearly as upset as you might expect. She was upset, but I was a lot more upset. It wasn’t clear that I was disinvited from the engagement, although it wasn’t going to go off quite normally either. About 40 minutes after the talk was to begin I saw people still waiting in the library-like room where it was to take place. I told them I’d make some phone calls and find out what was going on (they didn’t realize I was the speaker). I could maybe still give this talk although it would be late at night. In the meantime people were reminiscing about a lavish banquet that the former chair there had staged for an emeritus colleague too ill to appreciate it; there were huge plates of cold poached salmon, berries and fruits of the season, and probably twenty other dishes laid out on a white tablecloth. “That’s the worst thing that Phyllis ever did,” one of them said. Then I was in an apartment in the Midwest with a colleague with whom I did once share an apartment building, though not the unit, in Ann Arbor. I saw various little tchotchkes that belonged to me in the apartment and, feeling an urge to get completely out of there, started putting them in my bag. She said it was convenient to keep an apartment in the Midwest. “Who is on the lease of this apartment?” I asked. “That’s not clear,” she said quickly, as to say, “Good point.” Then my phone rang and I saw on the screen an alarm notice to let me know that it was 9:00 and I had missed my flight. It was news to me that there was a service that notified you if you missed your flight. I’d have to try to make the redeye, but I had a feeling I was going to miss that too.

The great academic dreamwork, though—apart from Adorno’s Dream Notes, which includes many university nightmares—is Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Window (1944), in which Edward G. Robinson plays a New York City professor who falls in with a femme fatale and commits crimes for her. At the end of the film, Robinson wakes up in the faculty club. Throughout the film, the clues that Robinson is dreaming all pertain to his profession. When his car is stopped by the police—a corpse in the trunk, of course—and he hands his i.d. through the window, the cop responds: “Professor, huh?” (It’s printed on his i.d.!) “Assistant!” Robinson squeaks, as though that were ameliorating. Which it is. (Edward G. Robinson is in his 50’s at the time of the film: is he lying to the cop?) At another point, his being named chair of his department—an occurrence in contradiction with the other scene referencing his status--is printed on page two of the New York paper. I’m not sure whose joke this all is: did Lang, or the writers (Nunnally Johnson, based on a novel by J.H. Wallis) know enough about the university system to know that these moments puncture the realism of the film? If so, then these are the moments in which Robinson almost awakes, when the anxiety provoking the dream pushes itself almost to the point of unbearability: the moments connected to his profession. On the other hand, the wake-up scene is itself compromised by the fact that it comes at the moment when the whole game that is the film is up, when there would be the most motive—as in Gilliam’s Brazil--for Robinson to go psychotic and dream of an alternative space, in a falling asleep of reason. To be able to recognize the more plausible of these interpretations, it helps to be one of him; you have to remember that an academic’s profession isn’t printed on his driver’s license; it just feels like it is.

Support Tenure for Andrea Smith

NOTE: Thank you very much to Jed Rasula, who pointed out that I had conflated The Woman in the Window with Scarlet Street (which shares its director and cast) in the earlier version of this post. I'll let the still from Scarlet Street stand as a memento to the paraprax!

Image: Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett in Scarlet Street

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