If I want to discuss Louis Vuitton–toting fashion terrorists who hijack planes with cosmetics kits and box-cutters, I talk to Mark McGurl. If I want to talk about Britney Spears, Sidekicks or the deconstructionist philosophy of Jacques Derrida, I talk to Mark McGurl. But it’s not easy: The American-lit professor’s reflections on high and low culture have achieved a sort of cult status among UCLA students, and you have to peer past the lineup outside his office to catch a glimpse of the man in flashy Nikes gesticulating wildly inside. Freshmen and returning grad students alike huddle around his open door, yet not one of them seems to mind the wait.
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McGurl’s fierce knowledgeability is the product of a Harvard and Johns Hopkins education, his sense of contemporary culture a mix of People magazine and Purple, his clothing a subcategory of professorial that isn’t Chaucer’s burial shroud. And yet McGurl himself claims that the enthusiasm students feel originates primarily in his lectures.
“For better or worse — and I really mean this — my approach is to compete with all of the distractions in the lives of students by sheer spectacle of volume. It’s too loud, it’s too fast, it’s too whatever. There’s just too much enthusiasm on my part for creating an illusion that this Hemingway story is so much more important than whatever you’re texting your friend about.”
In a world of hypermediation, ultraviolence and meta-distraction, McGurl is one of the last able to read contemporary tragedy and triumph alike as the hidden language of cultural hieroglyphics.
Photo by Kevin Scanlon