It’s mid-September, and your room is set up at last. Your chair is here, your toes are toasty in the A.M. thanks to a whimsically shagged carpet you bought at Wal-Mart, your creamy walls glow with the efflorescence of a thousand late nineteenth-century French advertisements purchased from the student poster agency. So what if the storage guys stole your extra futon? Your fridge was delivered two weeks ago, and you’re big pimping ice cold Keystone Light as you like it. Who needs futons, anyway: just one less thing to deal with once the year gets going.
But you’re still not finished unpacking. In fact, so long as you’re at Princeton, you never really will be, even if the futon arrives and Keystone Light rains from the sky (rather than coming packaged in utilitarian cardboard). For unpacking is the big trend in academia these days. In a society where the physical always possesses its meta-double, where metaphor is to English as a difference that makes a difference is to anthropology, we have a lot of unpacking to do.
Lest I merge too soon onto the highway to the academic danger zone, let’s unpack these cryptic first few paragraphs. I came to Princeton three years ago, a wee lass of eighteen, well schooled in the arts of rhetoric and Euclidean geometry. How little I knew. I could argue a triangle out of its snug arc, for sure. But I knew nothing of the world of diachrony and liminality, thematizing and hosts of other words I have come across at Princeton that Microsoft Word auto-highlights in squiggly red underlining. It is language like this that begs to be unpacked.
Professors at Princeton unpack their own abstractions as laypeople might unpack the groceries they brought home from the store. I like el salsa mild, but some like it hot: I’ve seen Shakespearean metaphor and I’ve seen historiographic quandaries. Once I saw a professor tease Roe v. Wade out of his monogrammed L.L. Bean messenger bag of tricks. One thing’s for sure: professors, no matter what their discipline packages, love to unpack it in front of us. “Let’s unpack this argument,” they say to us, when they really mean, Let’s be dazzled by my ability to stump you with rhetorical problems and then solve them right in front of your eyes, with flourish. It’s a teasing exhibitionism of the most skillful kind.
Where did the trend start, and when? The OED defines the verb “to unpack” in strictly literal terms, as far as I can tell:
1. trans. To undo or open up (a pack, bale, etc.) and remove or release the contents.
2. a. To take (something) out of a pack or packing.
b. transf. To take (a person) out of a conveyance, dress, etc.
c. refl. or pass. To get one’s furniture, luggage, etc., unpacked.
3. To remove a pack or load from (a horse, carriage, etc.).
4. absol. To perform the work of unpacking.
5. Computers. To convert (an item of stored data) into two or more separate items; to retrieve data from (a record).
Unless you accept #4’s tautology as a metaphorically premised one, we can safely surmise that, since it has not yet been canonized by the OED, our usage is a relatively recent phenomenon. As for where the trend originated, pinning down a definite answer may prove more elusive. I think, however, we can make an educated guess: at a comp lit soirée where the well-stocked wine and opiate bar provided much fodder for all manner of (un)packing. Professors from FRE and SLA, SWA and ITA, charming non-native speakers all and all dangerously prone to academic trend setting, began sprinkling it liberally into their conversations with students. Eventually, the English department caught wind of it, and with its superior manpower and the asymmetric “lecture-precept” format of its course offerings, English domesticated unpacking from an edgy, quasi-leftist outsider into as hot and necessary a Princeton accessory as the ubiquitous grosgrain ribbon belt. So it has come to pass that the very same grammarians who beseech us to keep good writing habits have been selling us on a proto-word this whole time, and making good money at it, too.
I smell a scam. When I was little I wanted, when I grew up, to be a grocery-bagger at the local supermarket. Bagging the items that rolled off the conveyor belt one by one was like solving some kind of three-dimensional tangram puzzle. It provided me with endless spatial stimulation and amusement: stoned wheat thins here, Sunny D there, cans on the bottom, lighter and/or “easy access” items on top (i.e., the cookies I wanted close on hand during the 5 minute car ride home). Sometimes I think that’s just what these professors are doing to us: sating us with sweeties that have been sitting on top of the bag all along, all while they hoard the good stuff inside for themselves. Unpacking is all about the cult of personality, baby. Whereas the real packing goes on behind the scenes – inaccessible to all but those clued-in hustlers we call professors and their graduate lackeys.
But we’ll see if we can unpack this mystery yet: take two Keystones and call OED in the morning.