Lindsay Waters strikes again, four years ago (there's also a nice article on Perec). I say, if you cannot beat 'em, join 'em. The shame-faced and guilty decades-long Theory-pusher makes amends at last. And why not?
(Update: It's been brought to my attention that these two posts may be riding a little hard on Lindsay Waters, so for something a bit less snarky-popular and more philosophical perhaps, why not read this review by Steven Shaviro, from May of 2004.)
Why not begin by admitting everything up front? It seems rather
obvious they will be satisfied with nothing less. At least maybe move
the discussion along, for the love of God! But wait, clever reader,
surely he is not, this Waters fellow, a real
anti-Theory-ite! Surely we will not fall for that Eagletonian polemic
bait once again. This having one's cake and eating it will not
stand! (Instead, we shall take this pop article very seriously and
debate it on our blogs.) This pseudo-anti-Theory, veiled
anti-Theory-ite ribbing will not stand! It is too easy by half
(though apparently effective enough). Moreover, it is a bad model for
public intellectuals. It concedes too much in the interest of a
compromise already lost.
Let us debate:
After setting the hook, Waters proceeds to say some--indeed--rather interesting things:
There is deep uncertainty now inside universities about goals for the university as pertains to the humanities. Whatever goals we might have as humanists need to be articulated as clearly and as forcefully as we can make them now. We can stop crowing about the supposed virtue of ambivalence as a style of radical will. We need to reach a public and help constitute that public that stands apart from the state yet is profoundly interested in its every move. We have been too decadent as all the changes that have transpired over the last twenty-five years have taken place. Maybe we didn't want to get our hands burned. Maybe we didn't want to get our hands dirty. But getting caught up in the blame game now would be just another way of continuing with our bad old ways. A vast army of right-wing thinkers is eager to encourage those who are not conservatives to engage in bloodletting. They'll enjoy our making fools and worse of ourselves. "See, just what we predicted." Avoid that like the plague.
However, we do need to reexamine some of the ideas we have been developing over the last several decades. I will give several examples:
1. The death of the subject. This has been a key idea of the postmodernists who pick it up from Michel Foucault. Some leftwing postmodernists do not seem to realize that Foucault renounced this idea long before he died. He did an about-face and began to develop a whole set of ideas that go under the name of the "care of the self." Anyone who still promotes the death of the subject now is allying him or herself with the conservative ideology of Reaganism and Thatcherism. Thomas Hobbes laid out the philosophy of Reaganism centuries ago, and it boils down to this: You do not need to have an ego as long as the sovereign ruler convinces you he does and will let you share in his in a spell-binding spectacle of power. Reaganism is the postmodernism of the Right, celebrating the death of the subject and entertaining the citizenry with a series of small-scale wars that you can sleep out because they are all under control. All you need to worry about is finding the remote.
2. The incommensurability of peoples. This, too, has been one of the key ideas of some postmodernists, who have argued that only those inside a community can dare say a word of criticism about the practices within another community. The Ilingot of the Philippines are headhunters, and that is OK because if you could get inside their culture you would be able to see how killing others and making trophies of their skulls allowed them to let off steam in ways that are productive inside their culture. We should be similarly sympathetic when we hear about the tribal code of honor that calls for Pashtun men to kill any relative who sullies the family name. Cultures are incommensurable absolutely.8
3. The society of the spectacle. Following up on the work of Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem, many postmodernists have sought to understand how symbols work to enforce unity within a population, but cultural studies is an incomplete project and the most the general run of cultural studies analysis has done is to provide further tools to enable practices the professors of cultural studies pretend to subvert. The businessmen are usually way ahead of the profs, as Thomas Frank argues in The Conquest of Cool and Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello lay out in detail in their Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme (Gallimard, 1999).
Some of us have thought we were tearing down the Bastille; maybe we have been helping forge manacles.
I suggest one general principle for future work: Each and every field is too important to be left as the exclusive preserve of the people in it. Gain your professional skills the hard way, but seek ways to fly your teachers never taught you. Find your place of maturity and, if I can coin a word, amateurity. Against the triumph of professionalism that now terrifies young job seekers in literature to go to interviews dressed as if for a position at a Wall Street firm, we need now a rampant amateurism. We have all had the experience of seeing the word "interdisciplinary" bandied about in college catalogs and university statements of purpose: I ask you wherever you see that word to push and see if you are not touching the mush of soft rot. Of course, the best researchers are flagrant scofflaws about disciplinary boundaries, but most of the rest of us scoff them at our peril.
Where do the problems lie? I suggest they lie in us. The middle-aged profs are the Old Guard we heard about when we were young. What caught us off guard was that we thought the old, obstructive group would be aged from 55 to 65, but it turns out they are aged from 45 to 55. A hundred years ago the academy went through the same changes happening now in which a generation that thought of itself as revolutionary became upholders of the status quo. The Gilded Age had its Genteel academics, and so does our Gilded Age. Anthony Grafton gets the sad situation just right, alas, as he addresses you and me: "Well, my masters, we have now progressed so far in our enlightenment that we have gone back to the future. It's 1898 again. We--the proud public intellectuals, the brave subverters of ‘late capitalism'--maintain the genteel culture of our fin de siecle." But, warns Grafton, the kids of the 1890s did not buy the Genteel at their own self-estimate, and neither are the kids of the 1990s and the Zeroes. They don't "want to take part in our endless debates about who may say what about whom, our rehearsals of meta-theory."9
The idea of multiple publics blurs--or, worse, dodges--the issue of what we ought to be doing in the academy, the issue being to my mind how we ought to try to think about the public as a unifiable but not now unified field. Ambivalence and equivocation rule the clouded minds of the "transnational corporation" intellectuals of the present.10 But I have a preliminary problem. We have been talking in the academic world for the last fifteen years about "public intellectuals" and "intellectuals," but I frankly doubt whether there are very many public intellectuals. About ten years ago several mainstream journals were squawking out the news that they had just discovered that the U.S. now had some black public intellectuals. The truth of the matter is that they'd really have been something to write home about if they could prove the existence of some white public intellectuals. What it means to be a public intellectual was established in the U.S. in modern times by W. E. B. DuBois. There have been few white public intellectuals since his time and a goodly number of black ones, so the qualifier "black" is not necessary when you use the phrase "public intellectual."
Are you an intellectual? You may be an academic, but are you an intellectual? I think a lot of academics assume that being an academic and an egg-head automatically entitles one to the name intellectual. To try to think through this problem with you, I have devised a few simple questions for you to ask yourself in the privacy of your own study to help you think about whether you are an intellectual. I did not craft the list in any systematic way, as you will see, but I think these are worthy questions:
1. Have you ever been outside the U.S. to a non-European country to the extent of really getting your feet on the ground? The elite in the U.S., the academics and the rich, tend to spread their wings only in Europe, and the paths over there for the American elite are all pretty well marked.
2. Do you read outside the box? Do you read outside your field in some areas where you spend enough time to really understand how the natives think so that when you appropriate a cool quote you understand why the people in that field might understand that it signifies something very different to people outside the field? Another way of putting it, when you seek to add some local color from another field to your writing is your way of doing so smash and grab or do you develop a certain expertise in the other field?
3. Have you ever helped build an alternative form of communication by setting up a website, starting a journal?
4. Have you written essays or books that could lead you to be accused of being a dilettante? Unless you have taken the risk of saying things that might be perceived as impertinent you probably really are not an intellectual. (As I said, these questions were not devised in a systematic way; they contradict one another.)
5. Do you consider science and technology to be the opposite of whatever it is you pursue most fervently? Because, if you do, you might be an intellectual elsewhere, but you cannot be one in the United States. In the U.S. the pursuit of science and technology go hand in hand with all the arts and all intellectual pursuits.
6. Do you think you are, for better or for worse, implicated in the same set of structures of feeling that your fellow citizens--of whatever unity of governance you vote in--are caught up in? And do you wrestle with those structures like Jacob wrestling with his angel? If you do not, you are probably not a public intellectual.
Those who seek to be active intellectuals in the academic worlds have their work cut out for them now: We have to raise the stakes and "change the language," as Carrie Brownstein of the rock group Sleater-Kinney says. We must use our tools, the words and the media, and respect our machinery. When the members of the group Sleater-Kinney first saw some of the riot grrl bands play in Olympia, Washington, in 1991, they were immediately energized. Why? Because in the effort of the group Bikini Kill they saw for the first time "feminism translated into an emotional language." We have now over the last twenty-five years a vast body of professional feminist discourse, but very little of it--alas, like almost all professional literary theory--ever gets translated into emotional language. A humanism that is worth its salt would speak in a way that is persuasive to humankind.
I take it all back; perhaps this is a useful step. Only let's not forget the question of humanism in the process, eh? These claims are limited, tactical and vague. They neither pertain to, nor serve as adequate grounds on which to indict "Theory" very much. They do keep the anti-Theory-ites busy, however, and this may be useful in its own way. The trick, only and of course, is not to let on that when they latch on to this popular meta-debate as grounds on which to stage another battle, they aren't going to be taken very seriously by those who know enough to see through the maneuver. Or rather, no more seriously than philosophers take the above by Lindsay Waters. It's popular, not scholarly. It's Bernard Lewis, not Karen Armstrong. Eagleton, not Derrida. The distinction is after all still rather important, no?