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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Network news

Warning: this is a long post, and most of it deals with literary criticism and theory and other academic matters.  No, I am not kidding.  You have been warned.

First of all, I want once again to thank Discover the Networks for giving me my very own page in their database.  Apparently, P.Z. Myers thinks that now I’m going to be “insufferable”, but folks, that train left the station many years ago.  And there’s no reason for any of you to think that my expression of gratitude is facetious: on the contrary, I am impressed that David Horowitz has changed the singular “Network” to the plural “Networks,” implicitly acknowledging that there are many varieties of anti-American intellectuals, political figures, and entertainers in the world, and that subversives like me have relatively little contact with subversives like Katie Couric and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.  Moreover, I am extremely impressed that within a day or so after I put up this post on my page, Discover the Networks revised their page . . . and I have reason to suspect that the revisions were overseen by You-Know-Who himself.

Do I flatter myself?  You be the judge. Version number one of my page claimed that I taught “graduate courses in such fashionably multicultural programs as ‘cultural studies.’” Version 2.0 says that I teach “graduate courses in such fashionably marxist-cum-post-modernist programs as ‘cultural studies.’” That’s much smarter than the original, and more accurate, too!  Likewise, the old version read as follows:

Arguing that the purpose of “cultural critics,” among whose number he plainly counted himself, was to advance economic change, he wrote: “The important question for cultural critics, then, is also an old question—how to correlate developments in culture and the arts with large-scale economic transformations.”

And this became the basis for the charge that I “[believe] in teaching literature so as to bring about ‘economic transformations.’” (Though, you know, I’ve tried twice now to bring down capitalism in the American Literature Since 1865 class with my deft reading of The Rise of Silas Lapham, and I’ve come up empty.  Maybe the third time’s the charm?) Clearly, the author of the first draft imagined that “correlate” means something like “bring about.” But look at the new version—and tell me whose blue pencil was at work here:

According to Professor Berube, “The important question for cultural critics, is also an old question—how to correlate developments in culture and the arts with large-scale economic transformations.” It is indeed an old question. In fact, in the old Marxist days for which Berube is obviously nostalgic, this used to be called the “base-superstructure” question.

Now, I don’t mean to slight the doughty crew of the U.S.S. Discover the Networks, but how many of them, do you think, know that the “old question” I invoked in my Chronicle of Higher Education essay on postmodernism and American literature is indeed the base-superstructure question?

Which brings me to something like a serious point about those old Marxist days.  Is DTN suggesting that after the fall of Communism, cultural critics should give up on trying to understand the historicity of works of art, and that people who persist in asking such questions are secretly longing for the gulag?  What a strange suggestion that would be.  And you know, I’ve always been puzzled about why there is so little “conservative” historicism in the humanities.  Why, exactly, should the division of intellectual labor have fallen out this way, in which the intellectual left says, “let’s try to understand how feudalism, mercantile capitalism, industrial capitalism, post-industrial capitalism, etc. inflected the production and reception of works of art,” and the intellectual right says, “no! works of art are timeless, timeless, timeless”?  And then the intellectual left says, “but aren’t you curious as to why some works of art survive and remain powerful for centuries, whereas others gradually drop out of sight, and still others are acknowledged only long after their creators are dead?” And the right replies, “there’s nothing to be curious about!  Some authors are great and some aren’t, that’s all.” In this as in other schools of cultural criticism, the intellectual right hasn’t brought anything to the table in decades.  Instead, they’ve met each new school of criticism and theory since the advent of structuralism by singing that immortal Groucho Marx tune from Horse Feathers, “I’m Against It.” Why they think this suffices as a mode of intellectual exchange, I’ll never know.  But as far as I’m concerned, if we’re going to use terms like “modernism” and “postmodernism”—or, indeed, if we’re going to talk about historical periods at all—it only makes sense to try to determine what makes one period distinct from another, and how art responds (and contributes) to historical change. 

I’m not going to say very much about DTN’s synopsis of this essay, since that poor little piece has been through the wingnut wringer so many times before.  But I do want to point out that the DTN reading of the essay is significantly milder than the famous claim that I equate conservatism with cognitive disability—and that because I have a child with a disability, I must therefore intend a profound insult to conservatives (Erin O’Connor), or the claim that I have advised my colleagues to treat conservative students as if they were disabled (KC Johnson), or the claim that I have been secretly controlling conservative students by means of the Imperius Curse for many years (Adam Kotsko).  I’ll just mention two small points.  First point:

In the same article, Professor Berube inadvertently revealed that, while he prides himself on the open-minded manner in which he conducts his classes, he does not appreciate being challenged by students whose political views differ from his own. When one of Professor Berube’s conservative students, inspired by a book Berube had assigned for his undergraduate honors seminar, made a comment critical of black separatism, particularly its insistence on formulations like “African-American,” Professor Berube proved decidedly unsympathetic: “I wondered just how many of my conservative white students, if given the chance, would prefer to be black at Penn State, black in the United States.”

This is an ingenious cut-and-paste (just wait!  there’s a much better one at the conclusion of this post).  But here’s what I actually wrote:

After class that day, I talked to John at some length as we wandered through the noontime campus swarms. He was insistent that membership in the American community requires one to subordinate his or her ethnic-national origin, and that he himself wanted to be understood not as an American of Russian or Polish or German “extraction,” but simply as an American among other Americans. And he was just sick and tired of African-Americans refusing to do the same.

I replied by telling John something like this: “Your position has a long and distinguished history in debates over immigration and national identity. It’s part of the current critique of multiculturalism, of course, and to a point I have some sympathy with it, because I don’t think that social contracts should be based on cultural homogeneity.” Deep breath. “That said,” I went on, “I have to point out that the terms under which people of African descent might be accepted as Americans, in 1820 or 1920 or whenever, have been radically different from the terms under which your ancestors, whoever they were, could be accepted as Americans. You’re right to insist that you shouldn’t be defined by one’s ancestry, but, unfortunately, most African-Americans—who, by the way, fought and died for integration for many generations—didn’t have that option. And it shouldn’t be all that surprising that, when African-Americans finally did have the option of integrating into the larger national community, some of them were profoundly ambivalent about the prospect.”

I didn’t press the point that Reed’s novel is itself profoundly ambivalent about that profound ambivalence; I thought that we were now on terrain that had little to do with the textual details of Mumbo Jumbo, and I was simply trying to come to an understanding with a student who clearly felt very strongly about one of the social issues raised in class. We parted amicably, and I thought that though he wasn’t about to agree with me on this one, we had, at least, made our arguments intelligible to each other.

While I may be insufferable, I’m not so insufferable as to give students a hard time for criticizing the term “African-American.” For the record, John did not object to that term.  He actually objected to the Republic of New Africa’s demand that they be given five Southern states as partial reparations for slavery.  I have no problem with that objection, and said so at the time—but I added that you need to understand 1960s black nationalism if you’re going to understand the function of anachronism in Ishmael Reed’s novel.

And there’s that nasty historicism!  Oops, I did it again.  But thanks to deconstruction, we’ve learned that every repetition carries with it a little bit of “difference,” so it’s not exactly the same thing this time.  Thanks, deconstruction!

Second point:

Later in the semester, the same student took issue with Professor Berube’s certitude that the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II was an unmitigated evil. Assuring the student that he was “quite mistaken,” Professor Berube informed him that the U.S. internment camps were “outrageous and indefensible.” Having assigned Richard Powers’ 1988 novel, Prisoner’s Dilemma, which is highly critical of the U.S. internment during World War II, Professor Berube was evidently unprepared to entertain alternative viewpoints. The appropriate question raised by Powers’ novel, in Professor Berube’s judgment, was “whether it is right to fight a totalitarian enemy by employing totalitarian tactics.”

Um, no.  Here’s the question I posed to the class:

I mentioned that Powers has been criticized for apparently establishing a kind of moral equivalence between Nazi concentration camps and U.S. internment camps—since the latter, however outrageous and indefensible they were in a putatively democratic nation, were not part of a program of genocide. I asked the class what they thought of that critique.

I know, I know, this question is so pre-Malkin (I taught the class in fall 2001), but doesn’t it anticipate the Dick Durbin Show Trial quite nicely, in retrospect?  And the bit about whether it’s right to fight a totalitarian enemy by employing totalitarian tactics comes straight from the novel, folks.  I didn’t make it up.  Though I imagine that David Horowitz and I would have rather different answers to that question.  That’s OK, though—my class is all about alternative viewpoints!  Feel free to defend the Japanese-American internment camps anytime you want, my conservative friends. 

Oh, and don’t forget to check out how I punished this student for his remarks in class.

OK, next item.

As Professor Berube himself acknowledges, his literature classes often have little to do with literature. For instance, a class that Professor Berube has taught for years, “Postmodernism and American Fiction,” is merely a forum for the professor to dilate on the “antifoundationalist philosophy” of radical philosopher Richard Rorty. “In the class,” Professor Berube wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education in May 2000, “we talk about what it means to be an ‘antifoundationalist’—that is, one of those sane, secular people who believe that it’s best to operate as if our moral and epistemological principles derive not from divine will or uniform moral law, but from ordinary social practices.”

Leaving aside the question of whether it would be a good idea to teach a course on postmodernism without dilating on the antifoundationalism of “radical” (ho! ho! that’s a good one) philosopher Richard Rorty, I have to say that this is a really mean thing to say about a course in which, as I note in the third sentence of the essay, “I usually assign a range of contemporary novelists, from well-known figures like Thomas Pynchon, Kathy Acker, and Toni Morrison to relatively unsung writers like Richard Grossman (author of The Alphabet Man and The Book of Lazarus) and Randall Kenan (A Visitation of Spirits).”

And what about the part of the course that doesn’t deal with literature?  Uh, well, that would be the “postmodernism and” part, and it looks like this:

In the class, we talk about what it means to be an “antifoundationalist”—that is, one of those sane, secular people who believe that it’s best to operate as if our moral and epistemological principles derive not from divine will or uniform moral law, but from ordinary social practices. My students and I look at Richard Rorty’s antifoundationalist philosophy, a pleasant kind of enterprise in which people converse about the good and the true without thinking about whether their claims can be grounded in something that is not merely another claim. We argue about whether antifoundationalism is any different from shallow moral relativism. We linger over postmodernism’s critiques of Jurgen Habermas’s theory of communicative reason, debating whether any critique of reason can be cogent or persuasive unless it, too, implicitly relies on some norms for communication. Then we debate what counts as legitimate debate, and what happens when debaters disagree so fundamentally and violently that they can’t even find the words in which to disagree.

On this count, then, guilty as charged.

Next, DTN turns to an essay I wrote in 2002 in response to various jeremiads about the decline and fall of literary study:

Conceding that English departments had been steadily losing students over the years, Professor Berube was impatient with the notion that the blame for this measurable paucity of interest rested with the leftwing character of the departments themselves, and their jettisoning of the traditional literary canon in favor of modish political subspecialties going under the guise of “theory” of one kind or another.

While I’m glad that DTN changed the spelling of “loosing” to “losing,” I have to insist that they’re still missing the point.  As the essay argues in some detail, there has been no enrollment decline in English over the past 25 years. Incredible . . . but true!  From the December 2004 Digest of Education Statistics, published by the National Center for Education Statistics, which appears to be some kind of national center for education statistics:

English B.A.s in relation to all degrees awarded

1980:  3.50 percent, 32,541 degrees
1993:  4.82 percent, 56,133 degrees
2002:  4.115 percent, 53,162 degrees

Wow!  A 63.4 percent increase in English degrees between 1980 and 2002.  Who knew?  And here’s what I say about this in the essay: while I’m not “trying to mask the disciplinary crises of English by claiming that everything must be all right if we still have paying customers,” I am pointing out that “if you start either from 1950 or 1980 rather than the mid-1960s, there has been no significant enrollment decline in English at all.  Quite the contrary.  It follows, of course, that post-1980 phenomena such as theory, feminism, queer folk, politicization, jargon, solipsism, and postmodernism cannot plausibly be blamed for a decline that did not happen on their watch—though they cannot reliably be credited for the increase in enrollment numbers, either.”

And now, finally, my favorite paragraph in my DTN page—the last one.  Although most of the closing paragraphs of the original entry have been deleted, this gem remains:

In a 1998 essay called “The Abuses of the University,” Professor Berube described the university as “the final resting place of the New Left,” and the “progressives’ only bulwark against the New Right.” Critics of this definition—in particular those who failed to regard “feminist or queer theory as a legitimate area of scholarship”—were only perpetuating “ignorance and injustice,” he wrote.

I had no problem identifying the phrases in the first sentence; they’re from the opening paragraph of my essay, and they represent my synopses of other people’s characterizations of the university.  For as it happens, “The Abuses of the University” is a review essay, and it starts like so:

Four new books on the state of the academy, and not one of them elaborates a line of argument that bisects any of the others.  One gets the eerie feeling that this kind of intellectual noncoincidence is no coincidence, that one could review 20 new books on the state of the academy (if one could take the necessary time away from one’s “normal” academic work) and discover the same result:  the contemporary university is so amorphous that it can be described as the research wing of the corporate economy, the final resting place of the New Left, the last best hope for critical thinking, the engine room of global technological advance, the agent of secularization and the advance of reason, the training ground for the labor force, the conservatives’ strongest bastion of antifeminist education, the progressives’ only bulwark against the New Right, the natural home of intellectual isolates, the natural home of goosestepping groupthinkers, and the locus of postmodern skepticism and fragmentation.  Perhaps Clark Kerr, whose influence on David Damrosch and Bill Readings seems to me one of the few common threads in the books under review, put it best when he remarked, in a phrase as felicitous as it is cynical:  “I have sometimes thought of [the university] as a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking” (qtd. in Damrosch 56).

The books in question, by the way, were The University in Ruins, by Bill Readings (Harvard UP, 1996); The Academic Postmodern and the Rule of Literature:  A Report on Half-Knowledge, by David Simpson (U Chicago P, 1995); We Scholars: Changing the Culture of the University, by David Damrosch (Harvard UP, 1995); and Antifeminism in the Academy, edited by Vèvè Clark, Shirley Nelson Garner, Margaret Higgonet, and Ketu H. Katrak (Routledge, 1996). 

Now, what about that “ignorance and injustice” being perpetuated by people who don’t agree with me that the university should be a bastion of leftism?  Here, I have to admit that initially I drew a blank; I couldn’t find those words anywhere.  But then I discovered them in the final pages of the essay, where I argue that although I’m sympathetic to critiques of antifeminism in the academy, still, the notion of

“antifeminist intellectual harassment” is simply unenforceable. [Annette] Kolodny quotes, for instance, the late Peter Shaw, one of the founders of the National Association of Scholars and a once fertile source for good troglodyte sound bites (or “troglobites"):  “what I truly believe,” Shaw said in 1994, “is that second-rate traditionalist scholarship is ultimately more valuable to the country than first-rate feminist works” (5).  Now, does this qualify as behavior that creates an environment in which feminist work is devalued?  Absolutely.  Is there anything we can do about it except to protest its ignorance and injustice?  In a free society, absolutely not.

The picture is complicated still further by Greta Gaard’s account of antilesbian intellectual harassment, Mary Wilson Carpenter’s essay on ageism and antifeminism, and Elaine Ginsberg and Sara Lennox’s analysis of antifeminism in scholarship and publishing.  For one thing, the perpetrators of antifeminist intellectual harassment in each of these contexts can be women:  whether it’s a senior female administrator who refuses to regard feminist or queer theory as a legitimate area of scholarship, or the Sommers-Paglia-Roiphe crew dismissing nearly every kind of feminism since 1848, “intellectual harassment” here can present so many different symptoms that mere “sexual” harassment looks, by contrast, as easy to diagnose as chicken pox.  When Ginsberg and Lennox introduce the concept of the ”pars pro toto variant of antifeminism, in which attacks appear to be directed only at particular feminist approaches or topics,” we’re in quite dangerous territory, since, as Ginsberg and Lennox admit, “those approaches or topics may likewise be subjects of intense debate within feminism” (174).  How then to discern—let alone enforce—the difference between a legitimate “intense debate” and a ”pars pro toto antifeminist assault”?

I’ve bolded the phrases that DTN cut-and-pasted, not because I think they’re so clever but because they’re so damn hard to find, in context.  But once again (with a difference), let’s not quibble about things like context—that’s so old-Marxist.  In fact, forget my dang essay.  Forget the random-access citation style of DTN.  Let’s cut to the important part of the chase. Are feminist and queer theory legitimate areas of scholarship? Remember, people, this is not a question about whether you like Jane Gallop or Judith Butler or Martin Duberman.  It is a question about whether feminist and queer scholarship should be done at all.

If you answer “no,” so be it: you can call yourself the kind of humanist who believes that nothing human should be alien to you—except for that feminist and queer stuff, which has no place in a university.  That’s a perfectly plausible answer, of course, though it puts you in something like . . . hmmm . . . something like . . . ah, I know!  It puts you in something like a “network” with people like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the Ayatollah Khomeini!  And you know, those folks are big fans of internment camps, too.

Still, I don’t want to sound ungracious about all this.  Discover the Networks went to great trouble to read all these essays, and I do appreciate the time and effort.  I am surprised, however, that they missed the passage in which I wrote that “the time has come for the wretched of the earth to rise up against Amerikkka’s global reign of terror” and form “revolutionary worker’s councils” that will “return the fruits of labor to the people from whom they have been stolen.” There’s only one catch—I’m not going to say which essay contains this passage.  They’re just gonna have to read them all.

Posted by Michael on 06/28 at 09:49 AM
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