Nutty Professors

Hal Foster

  • Quick Studies: The Best of ‘Lingua Franca’ edited by Alexander Star
    Farrar, Straus, 514 pp, US $18.00, September 2002, ISBN 0 374 52863 2

The cultural strategy of the Reaganite Right was prepared as early as 1976 by Daniel Bell in Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Blame the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s – rebellious students, civil rights agitators, wild-eyed feminists – for the grievous decline in public morality, cultural literacy, educational standards and everything else that has gone to hell: blame them and not, say, the cultural contradictions of capitalism. The Culture Wars proper – the assault on multicultural education and identity politics, on feminist gains and gay rights – followed in the 1980s; and as they raged on into the 1990s, it made tactical sense for the Right to train some guns on liberal campuses, for where else (besides Hollywood) were those damn subversives so concentrated now?

It was then that the Culture Wars narrowed to the Political Correctness Battles, with attacks launched on campus codes regarding affirmative action, sexual harassment and hate speech, as well as on curricular challenges to the Western Canon (this is how ‘theory’ was first typed as a diabolical agent). Clearly many radicals had hung around the universities, infiltrated the ranks of the professoriat and proceeded to poison the minds of the young. The academy was overrun by these ‘tenured radicals’ (as Roger Kimball put it in his 1990 book), engaged in the promulgation of an ‘illiberal education’ (Dinesh D’Souza in 1991), dedicated to ‘the closing of the American mind’ (Allan Bloom in 1987). The sense of embattlement is palpable in a recent anthology of articles from the New Criterion, whose editor, Hilton Kramer, gazes back on the founding of the magazine in 1982:

The ‘long march through the institutions’ that had been promised by the radicals of the 1960s was nearing its completion. In the universities, in our leading arts institutions, in the media, in federal and state agencies concerned with funding the arts and humanities, and in most private foundations, the legacy of 1960s radicalism – now wearing the mask of a benevolent bureaucratic liberalism – was everywhere apparent. Dissent from this left-liberal orthodoxy was virtually nonexistent.

Though almost funny in its near paranoia (the 1950s were back, with academics and administrators in the role of the Communists), this vision was dead serious, and many progressives were foolish in taking it lightly at the time, or looking to common sense to dispel it – in part because common sense itself was also at stake. These crusaders had more than alarmist titles to brandish: they had the political firepower – not only old warhorses like Jesse Helms and Pat Buchanan, but new stalwarts such as William Bennett, head of the National Endowment for the Humanities and then Secretary of Education under Reagan, who worked to abolish both agencies, and Lynne Cheney, wife of Dick and head of the NEH under George I, who wanted to absolve American history from any critique whatsoever. (When I’ve seen these two on TV again lately, I’ve wanted to cry out, like the kids in the horror film Poltergeist, ‘They’re back!’ Can Newt Gingrich, another failed professor ripe with academic ressentiment, be far behind?)

The intimidation factor was enormous, as was the media saturation, and soon enough it seemed to be open season – not only on the floor of Congress but in newspapers across the country – on ‘revisionist historians’ and ‘nihilistic deconstructionists’, post-colonial critics and queer theorists. Very different schools of thinkers were lumped together and attacked – as subversive, obscurantist and, weirdly enough, lazy to boot. The new resentments against intellectuals drew on an old suspicion that runs deep in American culture – that intellectual work is not work at all. The Clinton Administration provided little cover here – its cultural politics were populist – and even institutions once considered friendly to intellectuals, such as the New York Times, mocked the humanities, as with its annual listings of far-fetched titles from Modern Language Association meetings. (It rarely focused on the infinitely more dangerous obfuscations of language perpetrated by the State and Defense departments.) One common take on the American academic came to be that while some scientists might have beautiful minds, most humanists are nutty professors, and some (to borrow a phrase from the character assassination of Anita Hill) are a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.

Two decades ago Edward Said argued that the function of the humanist was ‘to assure a harmless place for “the humanities” or culture or literature in society’. And a decade ago, when controversy over the curriculum was at a peak, John Guillory added that debates about literary and artistic canons merely disguised the simple fact that they weren’t very important to anyone’s self-fashioning. By the late 1990s the humanities appeared marginal even to the universities, driven as they were by Federal grants and corporate connections to the sciences. Moreover, in the wake of the ‘new economy’, pundits began to wonder what the humanities had to offer at all (unless they retooled and became ‘digitally literate’): lesser than marginal, they might, it seemed, be declared obsolete. After Bennington, a flagship liberal arts college, moved to abolish tenure in 1994, many academics looked nervously to the business success of the online version of the University of Phoenix as a sign of things to come.

Yet the situation had its ironies. The political attacks on the progressive wing of the humanities and the financial troubles of liberal arts colleges gave each a public profile they had not enjoyed for a long time; contemporary art experienced a similar boost with controversies over NEA funding of edgy artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. Might the arts and the humanities be more efficacious than we thought, if not as dangerous as they thought? The increased attention also prompted several shootings-in-the-foot, as some young academics flaunted the new provocateur image of the humanities professor and some over-eager artists fell into a clumsy pas de deux with Helms and friends (You want obscenity? We’ll give you obscenity!). And for the most part this new prominence brought with it dismissive stereotypes: too often contemporary art came to be associated with scandal, hype and the waste of taxpayers’ money, and the new humanities with a toeing of the PC line (when teaching was done at all).

Lingua Franca (1990-2001) was an American magazine of academic life during this stretch of time when professors in the humanities got some attention but no respect. According to its final editor, Alexander Star, who assembled this anthology of articles, its audience was comprised of academics, ‘quasi-academics’ who worked in university presses, libraries and think-tanks, and ‘non-academics’ interested in the ‘unseemly things’ of these other two groups. You have to wonder about this last party – the dirty laundry of eggheads, editors and librarians is some kind of acquired taste – and maybe that was part of the problem: despite the large professoriat in the States, circulation never topped 15,000. Though high by the standards of academic journals, this number could not match that achieved by magazines like Harper’s or the New Republic, and LF fell through the cracks in the ‘reactionary Fall’ of 2001.

‘Whatever one makes of the term “public intellectuals”, LF was a journal for and about the species,’ Star declares here, and his collection offers helpful accounts of influential thinkers such as Richard Rorty, Benedict Anderson and the radical-turned-Neo-Conservative historian Eugene Genovese, as well as thoughtful reviews of significant debates, such as the contested legacy of Darwin (Stephen Jay Gould v. sociobiology), the stake of revisionist histories of the 1960s and the role of race in the formulation of law. But at times one feels that LF cut a deal with its readers: if you listen to our stories about their work, we won’t disturb your image of academics and intellectuals too much; and often the profiles fit the stereotypes already in circulation – the trendy star and the innocuous pedant, the narcissistic provocateur and the political naif, the pop-obsessed (the example here is Slavoj Žižek) and the pop-challenged (Roger Scruton). Such indeed is the ‘lingua franca’ of egghead representation today, and this contract with readers is reaffirmed on the cover: ‘Dedicated to the proposition that academia can compete for interest with Hollywood and Washington, Lingua Franca explained the most significant ideas of the last decade – and told some of its least likely stories.’ You can’t begrudge the pitch; the problem is that the explaining of the significant ideas is not only enlivened but also compromised by the telling of the unlikely stories, the ‘unseemly things’. Too often the sub rosa message is that the academy is a hoot, at times interesting, even instructive, but mostly in its risible errors.

The action of the book is concentrated near the beginning. The first section is entitled ‘The Reaction to Theory’, and ‘reaction’ is right, for most of the articles here concern the backlash against theory, which they reinforce more than question. There is a 1996 critique of Jean Baudrillard’s The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1991), an egregious instance of his claim that simulated images have overtaken real events. Lately, Baudrillard has made his own bashing relatively easy; nevertheless, this dismissal not only ignores his best work but also makes him the worst representative of Postmodernism tout court – which this collection is too ready to render synonymous with epistemological nihilism, moral relativism and extreme subjectivism. The image of a wanton Postmodernism appears again in a critique of the historian of science Donna Haraway, who is also judged by one essay alone, her ‘Teddy Bear Patriarchy’ (1984), an analysis of the imperialist ideology inscribed in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Here cultural studies stands condemned as too quick to reduce social practices to an ‘ensemble of texts’. Judith Butler is addressed not through her work at all but via a student fanzine that fantasises racily about queer theorists. As Butler protested in a letter, ‘Lingua Franca re-engages that anti-intellectual aggression whereby scholars are reduced to occasions for salacious conjecture.’ Žižek is profiled sympathetically, but he, too, is exposed as one more Postmodernist oblivious to reality: ‘For me life exists only insofar as I can theorise it.’ It’s a joke, of course, but many readers will nod as they smile. Moreover, the description of his ‘non-stop pastiche of Hegelian philosophy, Marxist dialectics and Lacanian jargon’ folds his work into another stereotype of theory – that it is so much cut-and-paste soup. In the final article in this section the political scientist James Miller asks ‘Is Bad Writing Necessary?’ This is essentially a comparison of Orwell and Adorno as models of criticism, and you can guess who wins. But in fact no one does: the opposition serves neither, since the intellectual difficulty of Adorno is associated with linguistic obfuscation, which Orwell is wheeled in to associate with totalitarian deception – an obfuscation that Orwell himself might well have denounced.

There are two pieces in ‘The Reaction to Theory’ that will make some readers think: ‘With friends like these who needs Neo-Conservatives?’ One is a 1996 mea culpa by Frank Lentricchia, ‘the Dirty Harry of literary theory’ (the cover again), who here castigates the kind of ideology critique that he once championed. The piece fits the genre of the academic confessional (a subgenre of the memoir once cornered by his English Department at Duke University), and has all the counter-investment of a conversion story as well (in this regard it recalls the obsessional renunciation of psychoanalysis by Frederick Crews). But the real killer is the first article, which is by Alan Sokal, the physicist who wrote a parody of ‘Postmodern science studies’ entitled ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’, which the unsuspecting editors of the cultural studies journal Social Text published as the real thing in 1996; Sokal then went public with the hoax in LF. No doubt his chastening of extreme forms of ‘epistemic relativism’ is warranted, but Sokal couldn’t let his own joke alone, and here his equation of Postmodernism with nihilism and subjectivism is not only smug but presumptive – the very charges he levels against it. Sokal is also less than reflective about his own criteria: if an argument doesn’t fit his positivist version of ‘evidence and logic’, he deems it crap, which is to suggest that he treats Postmodern science studies no better, and not much differently, than it is said to treat science.

The next section, ‘The Tribulations of the Academic Life’, is made up mostly of cautionary tales about intellectuals who step beyond their academic discipline or conventional propriety, or both, and get busted for it. There is an account of the pedagogical provocations of feminist theorist Jane Gallop, which led to sexual harassment charges from two female graduate students in 1992 (they were not upheld), and a 1998 post-mortem of a case involving a young sociologist named Adam Weisberger, who asked his students to analyse their families, only to be accused of invasion of privacy (he was run out of his college, and went straight to law school). Another telling story concerns the after-trial tribulations of Martha Nussbaum, who, as an expert witness in the 1993 Colorado Amendment 2 Case involving gay rights, appeared to fudge the meaning of a Greek word for anal intercourse as well as the attitude of Plato and other ancients to it. Sympathetic to Nussbaum, the article stresses the discrepancies between legal discourse and humanistic inquiry, but also asks edgily whether scholars should ‘sacrifice their intellectual standards when they enter the public arena’. Such is the tacit moral of this section: trouble awaits the academic who crosses the lines between personal and professional or professional and public, and interdisciplinary work is fraught with dangers. But the book produces a double-bind: on the one hand, it implicitly calls for public intellectuals who can cross over in these ways; on the other hand, it mostly chastises those who do so for practising without a licence in other fields.

Another double-bind concerning the great gap between the public and the intellectual hits closer to home. ‘Refusing the terms of this stand-off,’ Star writes, ‘LF sought to occupy the no man’s land between the tabloid and the treatise.’ Yet its main way of doing this was to mix tabloid and treatise, to highlight academics caught with their pants down. This does not offer a real alternative to the often prurient treatment of intellectuals in the Arts and Ideas sections of major newspapers (again I think especially of the New York Times). Some journalist critics further bias the public against the intellectual in order to consolidate their own space as cultural arbiters, usually through a dissing of the academic as personally outrageous or professionally jargonistic or both (there is little or no allowance for the periodic necessity of technical language, let alone of difficult thought).

Taken as a status report on the academic intellectual in American culture today, Quick Studies suggests that public faith in the university as a place of meritocratic advancement has been damaged, and that the PC Battles have been lost by the Left. (Someday the story will have to be told of how the Right seized this term of Left self-critique as a club to beat the Left up with.) Postmodernism emerges as an idea taken over by its own caricature – an equation with nihilism and subjectivism that allows journalists such as Edward Rothstein of the New York Times to lambast Pomo as somehow preparing the ground for terrorism. The old New Yorker cartoon – ‘Oh, you’re a terrorist! Thank God, I thought you said you were a theorist!’ – needs to be revised, but only slightly.

Alternative evidence suggests different conclusions. The isolation of the intellectual might be due less to the solipsism of the scholar than the distraction of the public and the diminishment of the public sphere. On this score the academy might serve, in some small measure, as a public sphere in exile, and from this perspective the public intellectual might seem less moribund than reborn, especially in the case of scholars from racial minorities (black intellectuals such as Henry Louis Gates and Cornel West are not considered in Quick Studies, and post-colonial theorists such as Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak are mostly dismissed). Finally, the PC Battles were indeed lost by the Left, but some of the Culture Wars were won, or at least fought to a stalemate. Despite current backlashes there is more tolerance – social and cultural, even legal and institutional – of multicultural identities and sexual differences. On the academic front, however, ‘theory’ remains a bugbear. In my experience the people who use this reified term for ritual abuse rarely know what they mean by it (it conjures up some nasty mix of bizarre method, extreme politics and cult practice); the Neo-Con dismissal of critical studies has become a reflex, so much ‘common sense’ where many people might well think otherwise.

There is an old saying, sometimes credited to a California politician under Governor Reagan, that ‘the reason academic politics are so vicious is that the stakes are so small.’ Read in part against the grain, Quick Studies suggests that the politics might often be nasty, but the stakes are not always trivial.