POST #20 :: Briefing for a Descent into MLA

About midway through the most recent Modern Language Association conference, which brings together scholars from literatures and languages each winter, I found myself meandering down a darkening Seattle street, not sure of my destination. I had finally found myself capable of being more than a block away from the goings-on. This in itself usually constitutes some kind of small triumph. Inevitably this meant I would find myself in the largest and most reliable tourist-traps in the area. In this case, it was Pike Place Market, where, as a short-term hotel guest, I could behold a vast array of gorgeously arranged fresh food for which I’d have absolutely no use, lacking a kitchen or the will to prepare any kind of solitary meal so far from home. Like DeLillo’s barn, the famous fish-tossers were encircled by a jubilant crowd, excited to be there in person to document for themselves the famous fish-tossing, and saving digital proof of the tossing to send along to the folks back home. While they used their iPhones to take pictures or shoot a few seconds of wobbly video, I opted instead to tweet. “Watching the men throw fish back and forth to cheering crowds,” I typed, “an idea struck: we should throw Stanley Fish back and forth. #MLA12.” I was fortunate enough to garner several interviews at this most recent MLA, and have the good fortune to be gainfully employed in a wonderful position at the moment. But there was a separate joy in this mundane act of academic tweeting, something that only the enduring fact of MLA in its present form could have brought into being, and for that reason I return each season, drawn implacably to submit myself to its horrors and its charms. If it is a crime to take any sort of pride in something as banal as a tweet, then I am guilty, dear reader, of at least one intellectual crime.

The first thing to say is that there can be no guide through the MLA. Its scale and complexity, along with the myriad of psychic pressures it places on its inhabitants, makes it a whirlwind that one must negotiate on one’s own terms, through the hell-scapes of job searches, economic hardship, and anomie; the purgatory of precarious intellectual life; and, for some, upward toward the heavenly palaces of tenure, publication, or accolades. Each person has to find her own trajectory. For my part, I attended my first MLA while still a wide-eyed undergrad, book-smart but professionally and institutionally naïve. Of the teeming hordes of scholars gathered at MLA, I was personally acquainted with exactly one faculty member who was not from my home institution. But I was also there to meet in person a distinguished faculty member from Berkeley with whom I’d been corresponding. I’d been lucky enough to win a pre-doctoral fellowship to help defray the exorbitant and prohibitive costs of GREs and applications to grad schools, and on top of that the fellowship terms included a summer research internship program that provided an additional stipend for guided research with a faculty member from among the UC campuses. We were going to meet briefly to hammer out some of the details about the planned summer session. Though much of his work had been on modernism and poetry, he proposed, out of the blue, a unit on David Foster Wallace, with whom I was rather infatuated at the time. I probably assumed all MLAs would be like this: spaces for intellectual stimulation and conviviality, and not much else. I turned out to be only half-right.

That was my introduction to MLA: thousands of sophisticated, dapper scholars in greys and blacks scurrying here and there, wrapped up in the important business of academic life; and me, a rube who could barely find his way around the hotel lobbies. Two meetings with two people I could barely believe would deign to speak with me, and a vast gulf of freedom and loneliness between. Nowadays my MLAs are drastically different. It’s virtually impossible to walk ten yards without bumping into a friend, current or former colleague, peer, rival, acquaintance, or minor academic celebrity. Whether you’re there trying to land a job, read a paper, serve on a hiring committee, people-watch,  carouse, or load up on books, the MLA encircles you in a way that few other academic enterprises can. For a period, it consumes you, and then it spits you out, returning you to the academic void. Through all the changes, what has remained constant has been the nakedly social element that makes the physical and psychic realities of MLA so exhausting and exhilarating all at once. Given that it occurs in the dead of winter, and is usually located in the colder regions of the country, people complain mildly about the dreary weather, but in their dark hearts I suspect they need it after all. It makes for a more reliable insularity. The same goes for the drab professional wardrobes that are nearly universal. We mock them but hold fast to them whenever possible. As with the central meeting-houses, this provides us with another kind of connective tissue. Disciplines, subfields, fads, topics, questions, debates ebb and flow, appear and evaporate; but MLA’s chief talent, which is its ability to gather like minds and bodies, persists. Whose bodies are these, gathered here? It changes, year after year, as individual lives change, economies tank, professions and institutions spin and unravel and recombine. And yet there are certain reliable participants, regardless of the year or historical circumstances.

Behold the Long Talker, the bane of the panels that occupy the majority of MLA’s attention. He is a deal-breaker and therefore a scoundrel. He has broken the primary covenant all of us have entered into, and soldiers on into his twenty-first minute of talking, his twenty-fifth, his thirtieth. He is identified chiefly by his implacability. No matter how much we adored him half an hour ago, no matter how furiously we scribbled notes or live-tweeted condensed nuggets of his ideas to the masses, we loathe him now. He is a horrible, unredeemable Skimpole, droning on inexorably in unrepentant monotone. He is Legion. He has not provided the necessary act of generosity that a worthwhile speaker must provide: to stop speaking. For under the multiple stresses exerted by MLA, what we desire most of all in a speaker, no matter his subject, is that he stop speaking.

Emerging from the prison of the session we find ourselves in the slightly larger prison of the hotel antechambers, where sits The Man Who Has Found His Chair. You will see him there, steadfast, as you shuttle between panels on digital humanities and labor crises. Clearly he persists here for some larger purpose, else why attend? And yet you will always find him nestled in his same cozy chair, admirable in his commitment to rootedness. The world parades in front of this man, and, when he glances up from his Duke UP paperback, he takes in the vast parade of human folly and perhaps grows wise. Just down from him sits Pagliacci. Maybe he feels that he botched his interview, maybe he could not generate sufficient interest from publishers for his manuscript idea, maybe he has simply seen the folly beneath the entire enterprise. In any case he is publicly unhappy, and makes no real effort to hide it. MLA has a tendency to push certain people to extremes of character and temperament. His shoes are showing signs of wear. Let us leave him to his turbulent thoughts. He is the horrible truth of the conditions of contemporary labor (and not just academic labor).

We soldier on, and everywhere, in droves, brilliant and diligent, we encounter The Dispossessed. As with Star Trek‘s Red-Shirts, so it is in the academic profession. The great mass of scholars and thinkers assembled here will not find any kind of enduring employment, or livable wage, but will instead continue on through diligence, shrewdness, guile, luck, talent, grit, belt-tightening, sacrifice, and processes of self-medication. The grim conditions the Red Shirts of academe are up against right now can easily render things like diligence, talent &c. pretty much irrelevant. As Marc Bousquet, Christopher Newfield, Wendy Brown and scores of others have noted, and as so many thousands of us know from having lived it firsthand, it not only shouldn’t be like this, but doesn’t even have to be like this, practically speaking. There is indeed a place for the great swathes of brilliant minds, and some of us are fighting mightily to do something about it, but for the time being the conditions are the conditions, and the dispossessed are left to find a way to survive in and out of a higher education system that has fallen prey to the worst excesses of neoliberal managerialism. The Red Shirts know damn well that there’s simply no way the ship even runs with just a charismatic captain and a skeleton crew, but they must be forcibly kept in the background, performing the labor that makes production possible. In the eternal precariousness of adjunct labor, some workers discover that they can only indulge in the kabuki theater of MLA for so long. As present and as vocal and as vital as they are here, at some point the person refused a longer-term contract, or employment, or any relation to shared governance, or any opportunities to conduct research or share her work, begins to recognize that her labor, while absolutely critical to the survival and growth and success of the institution, is seen as easily exchangeable and expendable. For these reasons there is always a low-level hum of quiet panic that runs beneath the joyful cacophonies of MLA, as many of its most intelligent and worthy contributors are forced to devote greater and greater energies to the simple struggle for survival, as all are in the new global order. As to thinking through the broader cultural and social implications of an entire class and generation of highly educated and experienced people being forced to direct so much of their energy to the problem of individual employment, this is something that will have to be taken up and considered on its own.

Until then, behold The Proofreader, just to our left. A disguised Platonist, he worries his presentation manuscript to pieces, coffee in hand. With verve and diligence he line-edits his talk until the last possible minute, convinced that the comma splice he’s discovered or the caesura he’s cultivated will cement his place in the collective conversations taking place with such gusto over the four days of the conference. Dapper Dan rushes past! You want to know him better. You wonder if his superior wardrobe is evidence of a correspondingly superior intellect or if the obverse obtains. You never consider that what one wears may not have any kind of correlative relationship whatsoever. Nevertheless, you admire his admittedly mild moxie and his orange shoes. In a bright flash, he is gone. Don’t confuse him with the Bon Vivant, who is generally dressed in a drab, devil-may-care fashion, but has the word on all the hip parties.

Stuck here, you are almost compelled to eavesdrop at every opportunity. When smart, professionally-branded brains are at work, it’s hard to avoid listening whenever you can, whether at MLA or adjacent to the Amway salesman making his pitch to a tired diner at Chili’s. In contrast to the various conjugations taking place between people at the conference, eavesdropping is one of the great solitary sports to be had here. Seldom will one find oneself in the company of so many loquacious individuals, and the tribe mentality that obtains allows for ideal conditions at minimal risk. For in fact the person being listened to here wants to be listened to, not just to the person to whom they’re ostensibly speaking, but also to whomever is in the vicinity. Believing our thoughts and opinions to be important (a liberty I freely take with you now, dear reader), we MLAers offer them freely, and welcome their wide circulation. Many of us talk ourselves hoarse at the conference; we willingly drown ourselves in great rolling seas of verbiage. Wandering among the aisles of publishers in the great hall one MLA, I happened to overhear a young scholar describing his research project to a prospective publisher thus: “Well, it’s kind of a Badiouian-Agambenian-Zizekian stew.” He said this in earnest, as the editor fell backward, trying to keep to her feet.

There are others to see, like The Vanguard. Her field is ipso facto a nascent, emergent one. It is, as they say, ‘hot’ right now. With a straight face some academics even describe it as ‘sexy.’ Her special knowledge reveals to you, for the hundredth time in your life, just how unsmart and regressive and backwater you really are. All that reading, all that deep thinking, and for what? She has shown you in one quick slide, one putatively offhand remark, just how much remains, and how short life is, and how futile the drive for any kind of intellectual mastery. She thinks circles around you and you swoon. You wish to recover and regroup, to rethink your life decisions? Return to your rumpled, beloved room, making sure to leave the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the hallway side of the door so that you feel less guilty about not giving a more generous tip to the maid. But before you can even get there, you encounter the Huddled Mass, his form collapsing in on itself in the corner of the world’s slowest elevator. “I don’t hate the MLA,” you hear him muttering, and you know he is making an effort to make eye contact with you. “I don’t hate it. I don’t hate it!” You stare upward, seeking some kind of salvation, and finally, after an interminable period, you move on: to your floor or any other, just up, down, away from the stench of truth that issues from him, threatening to carry you down.

You are recharged. For all its familiar traditions and comforts, the allure of the new here is as fierce as at any Apple product release; it is only the tweed that separates us. We critique the evils of neoliberalism and coo at the latest pedagogical gadgetry. You know in your heart that this new field or trend or discovery shall pass, as every other one has. Soon enough the backlash will begin, the holes in the field will begin to reveal themselves, and a new angle on things will be needed. But in the meantime you want to keep abreast of the current trends in the field. This is part of what you’re told is your professional duty, and there are many of them. For a certain segment of the profession, ponying up for expensive conferences like MLA is just one of these unwritten duties. If we aren’t yet ready to call MLA an indulgence (it does have concrete value and meaning in all kinds of ways), we must certainly describe it as a luxury, and one that the vast majority of our fellow educators and scholars cannot afford. For this reason alone, it would be a mistake to draw any kind of clear line between what we witness or participate in at a given MLA and the profession of teaching languages and literatures at large. MLA is great at providing a window into the field imaginary of the profession: which forms of scholarly inquiry, which methodologies, and which subjects capture our collective attention. The question of why they capture our attention at these particular moments, and who that “our” even includes or excludes, usually proves to be even more interesting.

What MLA is less equipped to do, although it has made some real efforts to try, is to demonstrate just how much unglamorous labor goes into being an educator, and not just a researcher or a scholar, and perhaps to even try to find ways to do something about it. And on some level, that is what the majority of MLA’s members are, above all else: teachers. The conference format, like the profession itself, is, for all of its professed interest in the conditions of teaching, still committed to a valorization of scholarly research, and the presentation of it in a variety of forms. Those who are looking to capitalize on their knowledge and experience would do well to remember that if academia instrumentalizes everything, MLA makes the profound instrumentalization of intellect more pronounced than it is in most other professional settings. No matter how many panels on teaching it includes, everybody knows that publication in the small handful of prestigious journals remains the primary mechanism by which so many decisions about hiring, promotion, and tenure are made, even as the venues for publication narrow and become ever more competitive, and even as more than a few of the people sustaining this method of vetting academic talent readily acknowledge that hardly anyone actually reads any of this stuff anyway, either because they don’t have access to the obscure firewalled material, or because they can’t make sense of it, or because they don’t have the time or the will to care about any of it whatsoever.

For these reasons, the MLA attendee who does not have the luxury of job security cannot merely attend the conference, as one might waltz through a great museum of fascinating exhibits. She is subjected in one fashion or another to the pressures of being on all the time, of being required at reliable intervals to provide her backstory, describe her institution and her research, talk about common acquaintances, chit-chat about professional banalities, share horror stories, commiserate, gripe, grouse, pander, critique, evaluate, assess, measure, rank, judge, and comprehend. The conference offers great heaps of social and intellectual enjoyment, but these and other professionalizing pressures remain pervasive and enormous, especially for those in the most precarious positions–which is to say, for most of the folks gathered there. And so much of this is in service of the desire to do something more than just share your knowledge or your enthusiasm for your intellectual interests. It is rooted in the desire to secure a satisfactory condition of individual employment. There is nothing wrong with being employed, especially given that it makes the minor task of survival a good deal easier. But what might this incessant instrumentalization of one’s intellectual life actually be doing to the lives of the minds gathered here? But to fret about this kind of thing is to put a damper on what seems like such a convivial atmosphere of camaraderie and free inquiry, so let us return briefly to our crude anthropologies.

On one occasion some of us witnessed a packed room lapping up the inane observations of a reportedly esteemed scholar of some note. Let us call him Piltdown Man. I am sure that you, fellow traveler, have had this same experience. There was one person in the front row whose head kept nodding vigorously every time the reportedly esteemed scholar concluded a sentence. For a moment I thought I was merely an uncomprehending fool. Was I not cut out for this? I wondered. Was this evidence that I didn’t comprehend the full impact of Piltdown Man’s utterances? But no: I realized that the Nodder in the front row was nodding before the idea had been fully stated. He was nodding, dear reader, in mid-sentence. In other words, his assent and approval was being registered before the actual idea had even been expressed, in the way that a garbageman, seeing you scurry down your driveway with sackfuls of trash, might hoist your empty trash can’s contents into the truck’s dumpster and then place them back on the ground just as you arrived with your week’s worth of rubbish. We had to learn the hard way that one was allowed to acknowledge that a certain percentage of academic discourse is absolute puffery and bullshit, shoveled like dog chow down the gullets of a hungry pack of louts. But we refused to let this turn us into cynics, because we still knew that it is the case that occasionally some other speaker’s thoughts and words will strike you in a profound and direct way. For my part the best speakers aren’t necessarily determined by who does or doesn’t use PowerPoint slides, or who does or doesn’t read from typescript in front of them; and it definitely isn’t at all subject-specific. One can even botch Kafka, and another can speak with clarity and brilliance about the technological idiosyncrasies of data-mining. For me, what distinguishes the good from the bad, or even the excellent from the merely good, has something to do with encountering someone who has cultivated a clear angle on the whole enterprise, who has seen it slant. These encounters, and the simple pleasure of seeing distant friends, are often the highlights of MLA, especially when the prospects of a job for each of them seem relatively scarce.

But let us move on. Evening approaches; the wine tables have begun to materialize. It is that early evening hour that finds The Cash Bar Condor taking his slow and methodical flight. He can be found circling the wine tables that materialize in the evenings, setting them up as his base, from which he launches furtively and in slow circles toward or away from cash bar carrion. He is looking for someone to impose his flatteries upon, or someone to listen to his theory on surplus value (it all comes to the same thing, in the end). He glances at the identifying lanyards hanging down from our chests (name, institution) as a cad ogles cleavage. Someone needs to be the first to implement the sandwich board or the forehead QR code: name, institution/employer, department/program, where they are in their career, their major research areas, publications, favorite bands, and then an elaborate scannable interface that immediately identifies Mutual Friends, etc. Once we do this we can quit wasting our time in many of the routine habits and instead get to the two larger questions that linger over MLA: Did you get any interviews? And where, other than here, should we drink?

Before we can start crafting sophisticated answers, out of the corner of your eye, through the doorway into a nearby room, you spot her: The Panelist on the Edge of Forever. Someone has to be the last panelist of the conference, or of the evening, and you just pray to the conference gods it isn’t you. Papers and panels are the skeleton upon which the musculature of sociality is built, and the late presenter is treated like an appendix, atavistic and bothersome. The devastating truth at MLA is, not surprisingly, the enduring employment crises and all their attendant economic and psychic stresses. But strictly speaking, the most heartwrenching spectacle at MLA is the poorly attended panel, where every party suffers equally. The underattended panel is so heartbreaking to behold because the abiding belief in an audience is so important to the ongoing academic enterprise. Even as the most professionally valued venues often treat audience as an afterthought (find one person on the street who has any idea what was published in Critical Inquiry this year, or even one out of five in your own hallways), the physical structure of a conference means you desperately work to secure the biggest possible audience you can. Being able to describe the attendance at your talk in positive terms, never mind the talk’s subject, is taken as one important sign of value.

From the adjacent chamber you hear the sound of mild applause. Some might say that the great virtue of the MLA, and perhaps its great crime, is its hospitality and civility. It is a civility borne of mutual admiration, respect (at least to some degree) for difference, mutual affinities, collegiality, and class identity. Many who have entered academic life have found it much more congenial to difference and alterity than anything they’ve experiences outside of it; for others, those outside dangers have not vanished at all, but are simply transformed or modified. And anyone who has endured other elements of academic life (committee work, staff meetings, job talks, etc.) can attest to how welcome such civility is, when it persists. And yet: everyone’s project, we are told, is somehow equally “interesting.” People are generally happy to make your acquaintance, to hear about your work. But surely this cannot be possible. We are a curious and capacious lot, but surely you cannot tell me that this is a truth universally acknowledged; I refuse to believe it! But never mind about that, for the moment. It is best not too dwell for too long on what it might mean when everyone finds almost everyone else interesting, or at least appears to do so. What will happen when we start saying to each other, “That doesn’t sound interesting”? Will we have been revealed for the more narrow-minded humans we are, or will this effect a radical transformation of all existing relations? We shall see. Until then, it’s important to recognize that this isn’t phoniness and pretense, but rather a kind of gilded subjectivity, born of a congregation of people who are able to recognize or invent their distinctive difference from those outside, but are also just as attuned to the complex and shifting power relations within their large coterie. A class, to survive and evolve, always seems to define itself against some large other but must also generate its own internal notions of difference, and MLA can become one staging ground for the elaborate dance that this kind of difference produces in its subjects. Some find this wearying, while for others it presents an exhilarating challenge.

I see you also grow weary. But talk of MLA, like MLA itself, can never quite end; it seeps into everything. Over your shoulder you can see that industrious grad student already angling for a panel for next year’s conference. Panel-cramp can strike even the hardiest of souls. It is important not to forget the body, although some try. You may find yourself afflicted with some or all of the following: conference-foot, despondent arches, dead-eye, Pad-claw with enduring flatfinger, intermittent laryngitis, ass-flat, curvature of the neck, Michaels’ Slouch, esophago-gastrointestinal inversion, and more. You haven’t taken a break for even the lousiest meal. Eat something! You look exhausted.

While you eat something and gather new strength, consider what you agree with or disagree with about the following continuum, in decreasing order of sympathetic identification: the MLA-goer who has tried but failed to secure stable or worthwhile employment; the person who has secured employment but of a particularly precarious type; the person who has secured employment but who finds one or another elements of their situation odious; the person who has secured employment and finds it generally agreeable, perhaps even enjoyable, but is struggling in teaching and/or research-related issues; the person who has secured employment, likes his colleagues, gets the support he needs, has great students, and is actively researching, but has not yet placed a particular piece exactly where he would like to; the person whose very aura shimmers with heaven-dust and the light of stars. Allowing for differences of personality, of course, this last person commands respect and scorn in relatively equal measure.

It should be clear by now that everything I’m saying has absolutely no general applicability, it proposes no rules and makes no claims. You must make your own path through its darkness and light. Because what MLA really does is force back on you your own radical uniqueness, and the vast gulfs between your experience of it and everyone else’s. We find common ground and we commiserate, but the private hopes and fears, the individual jockeying or boredom or titillation: all of these are radically individualized, as happens when thousands of incredibly thoughtful but also incredibly anxious people gather in one space. What you ultimately find at the MLA is not a collective, for all our collective identity, but the radical fracturing within it. MLA is a house of mirrors. The ghostly face of a nervous presenter; the dry heaves of the interviewee; the thousand-yard stare of the beleaguered committee member. Perhaps I have been describing some part of you, reader; but most of all I have only described myself. MLA allows you to live in fullness and emptiness all at once. It can remind you of just how important you and your work are, and remind you just how meaningless they are, and it can do this over and over again in endless tides of sorrow and joy.

It is a mark of just how grueling all of this can be that so many MLA attendees openly acknowledge that the best parts, or sometimes the only good parts, are those outside of its primary venues. They adore the hotel lounge, the ramen house up the street, the array of planned or ad hoc encounters, the book party, the gathering of old friends, the making of new ones. These moments are in fact part and parcel of the entire MLA enterprise. The merciless postmortem on a talk by those who’ve gathered to pick over its ruins is, for example, just one of the great pleasures of conference life. For the bad presentation is in fact a constitutive part of the MLA experience, and performs a critical bonding function that may in fact supersede the benefits of the brilliant presentation, which is more rare but certainly in evidence. For this reason we should enjoy the brilliant ideas and gain some happiness from eviscerating the bad ones. Both exist in great quantities here, and both deserve their place. There is a separate scorn in this environment for unearned success, in the recognition that the academy, like every other human institution in history, is not at all a meritocracy. Given that a majority of academics style themselves liberal humanists of some kind, this can be an uncomfortable recognition, but there it is, as you listen to the endowed chair from Prestigious School X with three appointments and the stewardship of multiple cultural institutions and a fat paycheck offer great shovelfuls of dreck. Then you see the quiet brilliance radiating from an exhausted adjunct laborer, more value and insight packed into her talk than anything else you’ve encountered in years. And yet next year only one of them is likely to be able to return.

I had happened to be reading Robert Walser’s The Tanners on my way to this most recent MLA. In it Walser’s protagonist functions something like an eternal adjunct, floating from occupation to occupation, preemptively leaving just as he’s about to be fired for his indolence, insolence, or incompetence. Each time he preempts the firing by offering a long and impassioned disquisition on the horribly debilitating and soul-crushing effects of menial jobs on a person inclined to demand more of life and the universe than any mere paycheck could provide. He uses the fact of enslavement to a wage-system as an occasion to vent his spleen wherever he goes. I could see in Walser’s protagonist a kindred spirit, not just for me but for so many of the brilliant and hard-working red-shirts of academe: having employment but always being placed in a position where one must keep looking elsewhere at the same time for something more reliable or desirable; capable of labor and diligence and a meaningful contribution to academic life but resenting its corroded structure and its debilitating, alienating effects. Turning the fact of precarity back on itself, Walser’s protagonist makes sure to abandon the job just before the job abandons him. This makes him a fool of sorts, but also a kind of hero. Not with Bartleby’s epigrammatic refusal, but with an unceasing torrent of philosophical venom, he unfurls a howling screed against the tyranny of a life in work. In an age where so many of the best minds’ chief concern is for a job, any job that will keep them clothed and fed, this slim book seemed to catch and recast the vibrations emanating from MLA’s beating heart.

It had turned dark on the last full night of MLA, and it was the time of evening before people begin to make any definitive dinner plans, having only just eaten a late lunch an hour or two before. At the small sandwich shop we stepped into, my Bay Area friend and I inquired about the availability of several menu items and were rebuffed each time. Finally he settled on the soup. “How is it?” he asked the cashier. She lifted the ladle from the soup pot to reveal a dense, grey mass of what had once been semi-liquid in form, but now resembled a great ball of fresh cement dug from the very foundations of a newly paved hell. He ordered a bowl. As he chewed a spoonful of coagulated soup, and we talked about Occupy Oakland and the grim future of the job market, that grey, ossified spoonful seemed like a metaphor for something. Despite my best efforts to compartmentalize, MLA had made me see the profession and its echoes everywhere: it tainted my tweets; it haunted my humblest meals.

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