- Lassoing the Unicorn
When I decided to go back to graduate school, my family thought I was insane. Leave my publishing career in New York? Amass tens of thousands of dollars in student debt? End up living God knows where? They tried, rather desperately, to talk me out of it. Alas, the proverbial bug had already bitten me. I was working as a publicist at Routledge when I started taking home academic monographs for “pleasure reading.” My next job, at Grove Press, provided fewer opportunities for working on serious nonfiction. So I started freelancing for academic publishers. I would read the books I had been assigned and could not help but think, “I want to do this.”
In many ways, I have always wanted to do “this”—to think about, write on, and teach classes related to media culture. Admittedly, there are parts of academic life that I wish were different. For instance, I know way too many smart, capable people looking for stable, full-time academic employment. I am also writing this in a new apartment (my fourth in four years), which is about ten hours by car from my family, whom I miss terribly. But despite these things, I feel most deeply alive when plowing through a dense book or leading a class discussion on “the tough stuff”—how film, television, and the Internet relate to cultural politics and questions of identity, my central areas of interest as a teacher and scholar. If getting to do this for a living means an uncertain future and some distance from loved ones, then that is a bargain I am willing to make.
I have had my doubts, though. Friends and colleagues had long promised me that the academic job market could try the mettle of even the most dedicated scholar. They were right. I was offered a tenure-track job in my third year on the market. I tell people that it felt like lassoing a unicorn. I regret that this has become the metaphor I resort to in describing the experience of getting (potentially) permanent employment, but it speaks to the metrics of the current academic job market. Demand outweighs supply to such a large extent that opportunities for stable, full-time positions seem as rare as mythical beasts. Putting together dossier materials, mailing them off, and waiting with bated breath for replies from search committees were such wildly fretful experiences that I have come to realize that one never conquers job market angst. At best, I think people just try not to think about it. I use the metaphor of lassoing because the anxiety is something I have been attempting to tame, rope in, and seal off. I [End Page 141] think about it only when I absolutely must. In moments of duress, I try to focus on what made me go back to school in the first place. This often involves flipping through my favorite books so that I can remember what, exactly, inspires me.
Lauren Berlant’s The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship is at the very top of this particular list.1 In its methodological reliance on close reading and deep commitment to mining the fraught connections among sexuality, media culture, and politics, I see it as a good model for my own work. Her unpacking of the relationship between minority status and the public sphere, as well as her relation of media practices to questions of national belonging, are central to the things I am interested in as a scholar. When I teach it—and I try to wedge it into as many classes as I can—I point students to one sentence in particular. It is so sharp and invigorating that it reminds me just how necessary media criticism is. At the start of chapter 2, Berlant writes: “[I] foreground here the centrality, to any public-sphere politics of sexuality, of coming to terms with the conjunction of making love and making law, of fucking and talking, of acts and identities, of cameras and police, and of pleasure in the text and patriarchal privilege, insofar as in these couplings can be found fantasies...