Cultural studies, postcolonialism, and postmodernity have so completely corrupted higher education that one wonders if their infiltration of English departments beginning some twenty years ago was a right-wing plot. The unreadable jargon, coupled with a seamless blend of utopianism and cynicism, and seasoned with a high-handed approach to political realities, has prevented the academic left from mobilizing any political forces beyond undergraduate English students who are so smitten by the revolutionary rhetoric that they want to¯that’s right¯go to graduate school. There they are taught a sheen of theories that, when scraped clean by a little logic, reveal the predictable litany of racial and gender complaint. English professors are now so poorly and narrowly trained that they might as well be social scientists for all they know about Western history, philosophy, and theology. Oh for the days of biographical criticism.
An English professor at my college noticed recently that I was planning to teach a course on John Updike, and she asked why. When I praised his writing, she admitted to not having read any of his work. "I don’t think he’s that important," she said. "We didn’t read him in graduate school."
The conservative backlash has been in full swing for years now, but it is still rare to find a card-carrying leftist admitting both cultural and political defeat. This is the gist of Timothy Brennan’s new book, Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right (Columbia University Press, 2006). English professors have rushed to praise it as a provocative and polemical exercise in rejuvenating critical theory. Brennan’s main point is simple. In the late seventies, the Left and the Right became indistinguishable in their common lament over the lameness of the federal government. The Left not only gave up on using the government to implement radical social change, it also became downright conservative!
How did this happen? First, Brennan laments the "deadening effects of middle-class immigration and entry into the university of intellectuals who were, or were related to, formerly colonized peoples, and who therefore automatically registered as the oppressed when this was often far from the case." I think this tortuous sentence means that there are a lot of professors who spend a lot of time posing as victims of menacing social forces that have pushed them into the safety of an academic career.
Second, with the popularization of right-wing philosophies from Europe, American leftists became confused about the difference between conservative and radical criticisms of modernity. I guess all those leftists didn’t know that Heidegger, Schmitt, and company weren’t good liberals.
Third, the humanities became hyper-professionalized, which put them "in competition with a post-literate media and entertainment sector in a climate of privatization, including the privatization of the university." That explains why so many humanities professors now offer courses in popular culture. If you can’t beat them with your ideas, you can beat your ideas into them by talking about bad seventies sitcoms.
Fourth, and most important, Brennan argues that leftist academics have chosen a politics of being rather than belief. This is a fancy way of saying that leftists think that politics is a matter of the color on your skin, rather than the ideas in your head.
Here is one of Brennan’s best observations: "Could it be that a certain kind of cultural leftism was an expression of a historical lineage of right nihilism and aristocratic ‘radicalism’ of the sort represented by the incroyables of the French Revolution¯a politics of style designed to save it, above all, from the vulgarity and passions of the populace? This culturalism may talk of popular movements, they imply, but it is basically a prop for the academy’s lumpen intelligentsia." In other words, academics really don’t like all those middle class people who try to save money by shopping at Wal-Mart. Thus, much of their intellectual effort is an attempt to demonstrate that they would never shop there. Is it any wonder, then, that criticisms of the way "other" people shop, eat, and drive are all that remains of an organized Left?
As that quotation shows, Brennan’s argument is couched in the very postmodern idiom that he blames for marginalizing the academic Left. He cannot pry himself loose from his peers without being pulled deeper into their rhetorical muck. In fact, his book proves the point that he is trying to analyze. Liberals can sound insightful and passionate these days only when they sound like conservatives.
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