September 2003 through June 2004 was the weirdest period of my life. That is not the period I spent living on a remote Japanese squid-fishing island. Or the period I lived in the 18th Century. No, it’s the period most people would call “grad school,” but the rare few, my fellow initiates, call Maph.
Technically, that word should be capitalized and even period-riddled. M.A.P.H. But so singular was the experience that I have recently decided it deserves nothing less than to be a British-style acronym. Lower case. Really, it deserves to be its own word, not just the first letters of other words.
It has derivatives, after all. There’s the way we say, “oh, I’m in Maph,” or “back when I was in Maph,” the way most people refer to their school or prison. There’s the laughably obvious, but still terrible, use of the term “afterMAPH” to describe the post-diploma trajectory of Maphers. And then there’s that word. Mapher. I’m guessing there aren’t many programs, let alone 1-year postgrad programs, whose students and alumni so readily adopt a group name like that for themselves: “Oh, him. Yeah, he’s a Mapher, too.”
Let me clarify: Maph is the Master of Arts Program in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. It’s where I did grad school. It’s a 10-month program that involves vast amounts of reading and writing, and greatly encourages even greater quantities of drinking and deeply pretentious conversation about geist, being-in-the-world, ideology, the alienation of labor, the Lacanian Real, and the problematic reification of Fanonian critical tropes in postcolonial African literature. Or something.
It was sometimes hellish. It was usually grueling. It was often dispiriting. It was, in other words, exactly what grad school is supposed to be. And I loved it.
I learned a lot. About English lit. About critical theory. About semantics, and rhetoric, and kitsch, about Gothic fiction, Virginia Woolf, object theory, and academia itself. I learned how to write a damn good paper.
I also made great friends. Look to the right, at the Blogroll, and you’ll find links to the blogs of three of them. And it lead me directly to Japan, which lead me to my current life.
Despite all that, Maph isn’t a big part of my life. Hyde Park, where Maph dwells in its gothic fortress, is far away (well, it’s actually in Chicago, but it feels like it’s far away). I’m not in academia. The theories and thinkers I encountered as a Mapher don’t really come up a lot. Even when I hang out with my friends from that era, the conversation rarely alights on those bygone days, except to mention The Eyebrows. Maph, like herpes, lies dormant most of the time… until flares up in spectacular, and painful, fashion.
As my friend and fellow former Mapher Lara has documented on her blog, recently the Maph alumni listserv (ironically named Irony) has been overwhelmed by a back and forth war-of-words. Now, normally the Irony listserv is there to inform former Maphers of sublets, stray cats, and unpaid adjunct teaching positions at halfway houses operated by the South Dakota penal system.
But yesterday, it became a battleground for a war-of-words on the merits and demerits of Louis Althusser. Althusser was a French Marxist and Structuralist theorist who was highly influential and also went crazy and killed his wife.
The Great Althusser War of 2010 got ugly quick. Philosophers were demeaned. Pretentiousness came fast and furious. The word “lumpenbourgeois” was used as an insult. Indie rock was maligned. Even tapas restaurants were smeared in the unholy debacle.
And, in the end, absolutely nobody said anything of substance. No points were made, no minds changed, not a single paradigm subverted. In other words, for a debate about a French philosopher between a bunch of people with master’s degrees, it was all pretty dumb.
But it did take me back to those cold nights in the gargoyled depths of Hyde Park, pretentiously and portentiously discussing Hegel and Heideggar. It made me feel like I was back there, as if somewhere in my brain a lead-pained window had blown open and in drifted a bit of snow and ivy.
It made me feel like a Mapher again.
God help me.