People are going to panels. Stars draw, of course, but the panel i was at this morning at 8:30 had 15 -20 folks in the audience and our panel over the lunch hour had ten or so. Nothing new here: a panel is a panel some better some worse. The one difference might be the way special themes or calls appear. Their are two clear foci of panels at MLA one set on digital humanities and another set on academic labor especially alternative academic labor than the tenure track. The panels seem to take these themes seriously, they do not seem to be "hooks" for panels but real attempts to grasp the idea (though again, some better or worse); it might be me, but NCA often seems forced on the level of the themes chosen.
I sense that MLA does fewer panels than NCA. MLA schedules 37 for example at 1:30 on the third day of the conference. I need to grab my NCA book for comparison. I also need to spend less time at NCA leg assembly and business meetings and more at the panels i am not responding to or presenting at, to get a better feel for the new and old at NCA.
THere is a very public/communal sense that this is the HUMANITIES writ large. This is its place where humanities gathers. It occurs to me how much communication is social science and also, very much so, a professional degree. I think we just assume that their are alt ac jobs for people that get PHDs in comm (or that getting a PHD in comm is not really what communication profession is about, maybe?) This is also manufactured by the way the Chronicle covers the conference, searching the program for insights on the present future trends. Maybe they define what the news is about MLA.
At the level of ideas i am not sure I see any "theoretical moves" that seem radically new as i flip through the panels (though I am by my self here and here only for a day and a little bit, so I might just be missing the buzz that is happening because of lack of networks.) and those new things might be buried in the internal logics of papers I am not seeing presented. Vitanza did talk to us about insects after our panel. maybe insects and other non human forms of life will be a big thing (though, i sense it is already happening and not being "revealed" here).
I guess the perception one has of MLA (if you are one with an intellectual history that includes the "theory" debates as I am ) is that MLA is where the big ideas are made public, a sort of unconcealment of the new. Maybe the new is academic labor and the digital humanities. Maybe these are the two big ideas that are driving/occupying the mind of the humanities (critical or not), though as Hawk and Rice have been noting on facebook, lots of digital done before MLA discovered the digital humanities, so maybe MLA is late to the party, but I wonder if it takes MLA recognition to makes it so.
MLA does seem more worldly (all those languages all those different worlds) but also more historical, probably an advantage of having literature compartamentalized by place and time; so many expertises (probably part of the fear about the crisis in education funding that is goign on here is a recognition that these expertises are not going to get replaced when they retire, maybe?) though if I were to count up I think I am seeing more north euro-am than african, asian, arabic but the african, asian arabic exist as well as some eastern and southern europe ' a couple of Romanian panels) exist in the program. They also get Canonicity writ large, e you still get your Faulkner and Milton and Conrad panels, maybe the Rhetoric version is of your Lincoln panel but I am reminded that Leff said such deep research doesnt really exist in our discipline, still very few rhetorical works done on what you would think are our canonical figures.
The book culture though is really different. Full exhibit room with all the big university presses and key corporate pressses. Over 100 pages of advertisements from book publishers in the program. including a 9 page index of authors advertised. books are good here, they are to be marketed promoted etc. maybe this is just a consumer market for books, but I think it is more than that. The Spivak panel I was at was about the Cambridge Postcolonial Literary History volumes. it marked an moment in the history of postcolonial theory/history in its canonicity as a two volume cambridge collection. There is a recognition that books matter for the humanities, I see how it structures ideas about what counts as scholarship and why humanities people might expect books for promotion and tenure.
I am going to go look at the books, big sale today.