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Thomas Dutoit
Trevor Harris

Semiotic (Short) Circuits: Word Games, Ideology, and the Flight from Reality on American Campuses

Pierre Guerlain

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  • 1 Letter to Christian Garve, 7 Aug 1783 quoted in Arendt 1982, 39.

"... every philosophical work must be susceptible of popularity; if not, it probably conceals nonsense beneath a fog of seeming sophistication"

  • 2 1997, 201. The title of my own paper is an ironical echo of Ellis's point. Ellis writes from a very (...)

"The theory culture also has its own language, which all aspirants to membership must learn to speak and which functions to preserve an otherwise unstable situation in many ways.... It identifies those who speak it as insiders and those who do not as old-fashioned outsiders who lack the required level of sophistication. Those who have learned the language demonstrate their mastery of theoryese in titles of conference papers that are full of verbal tricks and gyrations."
John M. Ellis2

  • 3 "Pomolotov Cocktail", 10 June 1996
  • 4 The quotes are from Lingua Franca, May-June, 1996. More space would be needed to do justice to the (...)

1In the spring of 1996, Social Text, a Duke University cultural studies journal, one of the most quoted in the U.S, published a piece by Alan Sokal, an NYU physicist. This piece was utterly meaningless as Sokal himself revealed in Lingua Franca right after his hoax had been published. Any freshman in physics could have detected that the text was gibberish, yet the editors of Social Text did not and did not try to get expert advice. Sokal claimed, right at the end of the first paragraph, that belief in an "external world" is "the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook" that scientists cling to ("Transgressing"). Sokal had quoted the editors of Social Text at length and various philosophers and literary critics to shore up a nonsensical argument in the so-called "science wars". A major university publication not only could not tell pretentious drivel from top quality papers but its editors refused to acknowledge their mistake and tried to reframe it in a "culture wars context". According to Katha Pollit in The Nation, Sokal's pastiche combined "covert slavishness to authority with the most outlandish radical posturing".3 In Sokal's words it "flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions". He criticized the "academic subculture that typically ignores (or disdains) reasoned criticism from the outside". And asserted: "Politically, I'm angered because most (though not all) of this silliness is emanating from the self-proclaimed Left. We're witnessing here a profound historical volte-face". This paper is an attempt to present, map out and critique this historical volte-face which can be analyzed as the triumph of the market and of socalled virtual reality which in many cases is an updated translation of Debord's "société du spectacle".4

2"Always begin negatively," a former teacher once instructed me. "Tell your readers what you are not going to do; it will relieve their minds, and they will be more inclined to accept what seems a modest project." This is the advice that Michael Walzer (1997, 8) got from one of his teachers and I will follow it here.

3In order to understand the "virtual turn" on some campuses one has to understand the conditions producing some types of discourses. I intend to ask a series of puzzling questions about whither the humanities and social sciences are going and the constraints weighing upon "knowledge producers" working in these fields. Focusing on these two areas means that I will not devote much time to the major dangers weighing upon the university in the age of capitalistic globalization, nor on the intellectual, ethical and political problems that hard scientists and economists have to face in their own departments and research.

4Many of the phenomena I address are essentially political and have either roots or structural equivalents in France, so this paper should not be read as anti-American. Indeed, Baudrillard is a leading exponent of the verbal fireworks approach to knowledge which is typical of the flight from reality that I feel is gripping American academia. Foucault is another example of a French influence, though his work is more complex and many-layered than Baudrillard's. Derrida's work should also be mentioned in this connection and it probably falls into what Chomsky calls the category of "the latest lunacies of Paris culture" (1998) — though this paper should not be construed as a deconstruction of Derrida's work. Mentioning these authors is a way of pointing out that what I want to analyze is in no way a purely American phenomenon. This paper is an incitement to think that incorporates some elements of provocation in order to get beyond the reassuring cosiness of campus life. In spite of all the talk about "political correctness" and "culture wars", there are, I think, more debates and areas for debate in the United States than in European countries, notably France which has no First Amendment nor an ACLU tradition.

  • 5 Furet, 1978 argues: "Si la Révolution française vit ainsi dans sa pratique politique, les contradic (...)
  • 6 Richard Rorty (n.d., 14) speaks of the "spectatorial Left": "Leftists in the academy permitted cult (...)

5Symbolic politics, i.e. the use of symbols and hype instead of politics, what Furet calls "le circuit sémiotique" which is "maître absolu de la politique" does ideological work and though it sometimes seems to backfire, it actually reaches its goal pretty nicely.5 Virtuality has real consequences, notably on the way knowledge is produced and disseminated.6 There is a risk of overgeneralization here that I am aware of but cannot totally avoid if I want to make my case. Let me just state that I am referring to some trends and not to an inescapable characteristic of all humanities and social science departments. This is not a paper about decline and the good old times. It has to leave out many crucial and positive characteristics of American academe when dealing with the current fashion for virtuality. Focusing on the humanities and social sciences should not however obliterate the fact that other sectors of the university are quite conformist and politically correct in their conservative mode. I can only critique the world I know well.

I. Sociology of knowledge rather than a philosophical disquisition

  • 7 I am well aware of the philosophical old-fashionedness of this position in the words of Edgar Morin (...)

6A philosophical discussion about the existence of the real as opposed to representations of the real has been going on since at least Plato, Berkeley and Hume, and has reached a new intensity with the postmoderns. This issue is not tackled as such here. Which means that I start from a foundational argument about the reality of reality. Reality for me is not only a social construct, a web of representations referring back only to other representations, "un jeu de signifiants qui renvoie à d'autres signifiants". In the words of Alan Sokal, reality exists independently of me. This is a philosophical position which shows what my "God terms" are.7 This piece is a sociology of knowledge exercise. The reality of poverty, of social classes, of downsizing both outside and within the academy, of competition for jobs cannot be challenged, even if a multiplicity of representations refer to these realities. Reality thus may be seen through various prisms yet however imperfect our lenses and narrative techniques the big white whale of reality, when one is not dealing with a literary text, is not a pure figment of our imagination.

7A French colleague, Brigitte Félix, says (1997) in a brilliant literary criticism piece:

Gaddis nous conduit à l'essentiel. Il n'écrit pas une thèse habillée de fiction sur la gangrène de l'obsession procédurière. Comme toujours, il réussit à dire simultanément "what America is all about" et "what writing is all about", à faire œuvre littéraire en s'assurant que ce soit bien le monde qui se plie au mouvement de l'écriture et non l'inverse.

  • 8 Here I wish to stress that there is no criticism of this colleague and that absolutely nothing is s (...)

8This critical stance is fine within the context of a novel, it is a carryover of the "suspension of disbelief" (Coleridge) and the privilege of the novelist. Transporting the desire to impose upon the world into the field of social commentary — something which Félix does not do8 — would become ludicrous and a throwback to all the religious or ideological doctrines which decreed how the world should be seen. The world is not a novel and agents in it are different from readers of a work of fiction. Conflating the two, as so many current critics such as Gerald Graff do, confusing the real and the imaginary, is bad literature and also bad sociology or politics.

  • 9 John Ellis, a literature professor, writes along similar lines: "This practice has become pronounce (...)

9In a section of his book La métaphore vive (1975), entitled Plaidoyer contre la référence (279-288), Paul Ricœur discusses Roman Jakobson's "poetic function" of language, Northrop Frye's contrasting of "inward" and "outward" movement and of literary vs. informative texts and Todorov's "discours opaque". All these authors distinguish between the literary and the non-literary, thus defending the specificity of literature and its non-absorption/confusion with politics or sociology. Language is used in a very different, often non-referential way, in literature and the importation of the referential categories of political science or sociology impoverishes both lender and borrower. In a book written by a French historian to analyze the current crisis in his field, Gérard Noiriel writes: "L'effacement des frontières entre science, philosophie et littérature aboutit à multiplier les usages'sauvages'des concepts, sans respect pour leur origine, le contexte dans lequel ils ont été élaborés et le but poursuivi par ceux qui les ont initialement produits" (1996, 99).9 The writer remains in favor of "interdisciplinarity although this can be read as an indictment of "cultural studies" as practised on many US campuses.

  • 10 For a critique of identity politics from the left see Gitlin (1997) and Hollinger (1995).

10What requires analysis is the strategy used by some academics to deal with the gap or split between their socio-economic position and the nature of their intellectual work. "Transgressing disciplinary boundaries" may be a valuable intellectual project or a subtle ideological mask. Quite a few academics in the humanities speak about the world, in an idiom that makes knowledge of the world suspect, uncertain, flimsy although they are anchored in the real, paid by the state or huge students' fees and the beneficiaries of a fine working environment. They are part of the class system of domination but positioned in a subordinate position among the so-called elites (Bourdieu). Often they seem to wish to erase the public perception of their socio-economic position and hide behind a militant rhetoric whose purpose is precisely to obscure where "they are coming from". This is rather surprising since it is fashionable, both on and off campus, to restrict intellectual positions to precisely the identity of the speaker (African-American, Woman, Latino) as if groups had restricted intellectual possibilities.10

11Some historians and social scientists have experienced what is called "the linguistic turn" in their disciplines, that is a new focus on language rather than on the traditional subject matter of their field. This is not limited to the humanities and social sciences but, of course much rarer in physics than in history. In so-called "elite universities" in some departments and among some individuals, this "linguistic turn" has apparently been far more pronounced than among the faculties of community or even 4-year colleges who often have had to deal with bread and butter issues that have kept them from tackling so-called cutting edge research. This focus on language should not be confused with the triumph of linguistics or even psychoanalysis over other fields. Rather it often corresponds to a hollowing out of the field under the guise of a change of vocabulary.

  • 11 Their discussion of the incomes of Japanese Americans and Jewish Americans as compared to the incom (...)
  • 12 Newsweek, "How to get into college", 1998 edition.

12A recent book by Charles Lawrence III and Mari Matsuda (1997) exemplifies this tendency.11 The writers teach law in one of the most exclusive places, Georgetown, where students have to pay fees that are higher than the average salary in the U.S (Tuition: $21,405, Room and board: $7,765).12 They live in a privileged environment yet claim that almost everyone can benefit from affirmative action. The authors often use the word "lie" or "Big lie" while resorting to a few "lies" of their own. They write the history of Affirmative Action without mentioning Nixon and his Philadelphia Plan. They quote Johnson approvingly but fail to note that most of his famous Howard University speech in 1965 had been written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whom they despise for his 1965 Report on the Negro Family — but they fail to mention he was among the few who denounced Clinton's bashing of the poor in his 1996 Welfare Bill. Clinton, a Reaganite in socio-economic matters, is mentioned favorably, which is rather surprising in a book claiming to fight privilege. They point to demonstrations by students from privileged universities agitating against privilege, as if privilege were not the reason why Lawrence and Matsuda had chosen their place of work and the students at Stanford and Berkeley their place of study. The well-off and affluent develop discourses that are supposedly against privilege but make sure to live in the world they claim to want to abolish.

  • 13 Stanley Fish, after promoting the shift from "lit crit" to cultural studies may realized the damage (...)

13Matsuda and Lawrence also enlist Edgar Allen Poe in their story of American racism. One of their chapters is entitled "The Telltale Heart"; in it they write: "Edgar Allen Poe, an American who lived in the time of slavery, understood the dark side": and then, "Like the telltale heart beating beneath the floorboards in Poe's story, the weeping at the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre and the moans of the Middle Passage make a persistent pounding when we speak of liberty and equality and the greatness of our America" (237). The authors are not professional literary critics but this move clearly illustrates the disingenuous way in which literature or literary criticism can be used.13 Poe's story as a narrative of anti-racism? Clearly literature has become a subdivision of morals and interpretations of this type are indeed a form of rigid imposition of one's political and moral prejudices onto literary texts. It would be easy to show that as history, or even as ideological study, this presentation is too presentist and anachronistic to be of any value.

II. From symbolic politics to an inadvertent grand narrative

14In the 1930s socialist realism in the arts and literature was an attempt on the part of party functionaries to dictate to writers what their topics had to be and their narrative techniques too. This politicization of literature collapsed even before the totalitarian regime that advocated and implemented it. Yet a new form of politicization has appeared within the field of literary criticism itself. Some of its practitioners are not literary persons themselves. The new tools of literary criticism are political science and sociology imports that have been used in a specific way in literary studies and re-exported to other fields and offered as a model in public discourse. Maybe only the vocabulary of lit crit has been transformed into a kind of hyperdiscipline. Cultural studies may represent a betrayal of literary criticism as such but is often treated as the equivalent or a form of literary criticism by its practitioners. This collapse into a new discipline is probably not in the interest of literature nor of literary criticism but it is a social and academic fact.

  • 14 There is quite a debate to know if Derrida himself is responsible for this trend or his translators (...)

15The conflation of politics with culture seems to be a kind of revenge on the part of literary critics, sometimes claiming to be or being accused of being neo-Marxists, who defended against the hegemonic tendencies of sociologists and political activists: now the shoe is on the other foot, literature or cultural studies professors have shaped the vocabulary for public discourse in the University. The world is treated as a text, a rhetoric of activism is used to deal with literature. The displacement onto a different area with parameters that are different but not acknowledged as such has had a tremendous impact not only in literary studies but outside them. The world as text is something quite different from the text analyzed without reference to what is outside it (“Il n'y a pas de hors texte” becomes “il n'y a que du texte, pas de réel”14).

16The passage from literary criticism to what claims to be social analysis is as reductive as the vulgar Marxist interpretation of literature as a mirror of society. History was redefined as scientific theory with the power to foresee or predict the future. Now literary criticism, in its cultural studies guise outside its academic domain has become “theory” with no modifiers attached and claims to replace or subvert political science, sociology and economics.

  • 15 Thus dancing is construed as resistance in "Women Dancing Back: Disruption and the Politics of Plea (...)

17George Steiner, Harold Bloom or André Bleikasten, within the field of literary analysis, have strong doubts about this approach which they reject for literary reasons. Nevertheless, while it may be legitimate to focus one's analysis of a text on this very text, it is reductive to tackle the complexity of social phenomena armed with the tools of one methodology adapted to the written word. Thus analyzing resistance to mass culture messages is of a different order from fighting in a resistance movement in a real war but it is presented as if they were structural equivalents.15 Resisting the power of MTV clips thus becomes a heroic act. Baudrillard's theory of Simulacra applied to the Gulf War leaves out a lot of blood, suffering and dollar transactions, thus obliterating key aspects of the truth as we may know it. The war may have happened on TV but it also took place in the sands. There is more than one way of interpreting Baudrillard but his choice of words foregrounds flippancy.

  • 16 On the new discipline of cultural studies see Gitlin, 1997 and the debate around Sokal's hoax in So (...)

18Cultural studies is a discipline which is made up of various loans from other disciplines and though it is usually defined as a single field, hence the frequent use of the singular, it often resembles a mosaic of contiguous or contradictory methodologies and subject areas. Indeed it has borrowed mostly the vocabulary of other disciplines or th e lingo of the Zeitgeist without always analyzing the nesting process in a new field. Lit crit and cultural studies, women's studies and ethnic studies often share a vocabulary and an incantatory style which are based on few concepts.16 The denunciation of racism, sexism, homophobia and classism is fine as far as it goes, indeed very few would, within the academy, actually advocate such passé, immoral or evil positions. Yet if it is an incantation, a "feel good" ideology or a mantra, then no intellectual work is done. Intellection and moral outrage are two quite different positions. Indeed when the cosy academic classes start denouncing the classism that, in part, undergirds their social position something is definitely strange. What is suggested here is not that no interesting research is carried out in those fields, rather that a minimum or bare bones ideology purportedly based on this research is often served up in public academic discourse. As John Ellis writes: "Genuine thought requires more than the rote learning and ingenious manipulation of a special vocabulary" (1997, 202).

19The university is supposed to be the home of critical inquiry but some positions are off-limits, some subjects taboo and a correct line has to be toed. Affirmative action, a complex and often contradictory issue, is not debated but always presented as a moral issue with the good people supporting its various embodiments and only racist reactionaries opposing it. The major affirmative action program is hardly ever discussed: AA for the rich of all colors (see the work of Lind and Jacoby). Often it is referred to as AA for whites which is intellectually mendacious but provides a good basis for "feel good" pronouncements. In elite, expensive and highly exclusive institutions AA is a higher form of tokenism; blacks may be admitted but there is a big disproportion between the graduation rates of blacks and whites (Thernstrom and Thernstrom, 1997). "AA babies" (S. Carter) are let in and forgotten, a new form of benign neglect maybe? Some academics often refuse intellectual debate and resort to the techniques of religious leaders ensuring that believers do not slacken in their faith. To refer to Peter Ackroyd s recent novel, Milton in America, one can say that many modern Miltons make sure academia remains ideologically pure. How neo-Marxists can forget about class is mind-boggling. Race or rape talk on campuses is often divorced from reality but in synch with rhetoric whose objective is to fire up a crowd rather than make individuals think.

20Shakespeare may be analyzed from many different viewpoints, such as feminist or postcolonial ones, but a routinized analysis of his plays from one such angle only does not do justice to the layers of complexity of his work. I do not object to the work done by Edward Said, for instance, which is often challenging and produces new ideas but can, of course be critiqued for its too heavy political slant too; rather I object to what purports to be analysis when it is only recitation. Simulation of a commentary rather than a real one. Issues of race, class and gender are constantly recycled in every field. It may be legitimate at one level of research but repetitive incantations may also be used as masks. Radical language is resorted to in order to "out radicalize" others while benefiting from the status quo. Invoking injustice and affirmative action may serve the same purpose: obscuring the very privileged position of the discursive deconstructionists of privilege.

  • 17 I once walked through Harlem to get to Columbia. The racism that was denounced on the campus was di (...)
  • 18 If one adopts political categories to refer to literary criticism, then Bleikasten's critique of Am (...)

21The stilted wooden language of communist bureaucrats served a similar function: obfuscation. The people were not to know about the discursive discrepancy between ideals and seedy reality. In the humanities, a flamboyant anti-racist, anti-imperialist stance is a requirement to get ahead, network and land jobs or better jobs.17 In elite universities, elite professors are paid elite salaries, live in elite environments and enjoy the fruits of economic inequality. One can wonder about the virulence of their rhetoric. Old style literature professors, or literature professors in deprived institutions, did not, or do not, mix their professional activities with their intellectual ones to the same degree (see Ellis). Literature reduced to political statements suffers (see Bleikasten, 199518), the new mixture of genres is also bad politics and bad activism, yet "metaphor mongering" (see Gross and Levitt, 1994) is not without its public benefits. Admissions of paralysis or political impotence are dressed up as intense participation in civic culture. Virtual, verbal heroes from the universities are not on a par with entertainment stars but they live in the same world.

  • 19 Referring to Joan Scott's work, Noiriel (1994) notes: "Ce qui frappe dans ces affirmations, c'est q (...)

22Although there seems to be a near universal rejection of universalism in Humanities departments in the US and a Foucaldian distrust of master narratives as well as a preference for local knowledges, the systematic use of the race, class and gender approach amounts to a new grand narrative. This narrative has had positive aspects in that it has made all of us aware of the links between formerly disconnected categories, yet it has now outlived its heuristic validity. The concepts are used at the outset of any kind of research or analysis and come out intact in similar pronouncements in the conclusion of so many studies. We are dealing with true faith and reaffirmations of the creed.19

23Whenever I talk to American academics I am struck by the huge gap between their public, official pronouncements and their private discourses. In private, many will readily acknowledge that a large part of what they say and write is determined by the institutional pressures bearing upon them, in public they agree with the local pieties. In each specific field they know the line they have to toe to remain persona grata in the field or to get a job in it. Graduate students going the rounds of conferences and joining the so-called "meat market" know about the pitfalls they have to avoid and the discursive strategies they have to deploy. There is no national politically correct line, rather in each discipline and in various departments there is a dominant discourse which it would be folly to challenge. With a downsized academic market, the rise of contract employment and the rising use of TAs and adjuncts it takes a lot of institutional security to be an intellectual rebel. The pressures to conform are enormous. Free inquiry is the job of the university but if your job and your reputation within the university are not secure. Freedom is a dangerous proposition.

III. Structural fit with the rest of American society: the culture of simulation

24The world of advertising is based on hype and this is something that everyone is aware of, even if they are also taken in when watching commercials. No one, intellectually at least, takes advertising at face value. The same disjunction exists in the reception of academic discourse: students feel that whatever professors say is valuable to pass tests, other professors recognize the pressures rhetorics are under and take them with a pinch of salt. They know their quasi-political literary and social commentaries will not dent mainstream society and many are fully conscious of their "spectatorial leftism" engaged in for reasons of university politics rather than of social activism. Indeed, the pose of the outsider opposing mainstream values has not lost any of its lure even when the so-called outsiders are campus insiders ensconced in the uppermiddle-class. Here there is no break with American society: academics, like anyone else, do whatever it takes to get ahead, they live in a culture of simulation where spin matters more than fact, perception more than the real. Once again let me repeat that this pressure to conform, while it may be stronger in the U.S as Tocqueville already noted long ago, is certainly not a purely American characteristic any longer.

  • 20 Baudrillard himself would probably not disagree for he states, "La politique qui entre à l'universi (...)
  • 21 Talking about Prance, Regis Debray wrote in the 70s: "La communauté de ceux qui n'ont en commun que (...)

25In the emerging reorganization of the university along utilitarian lines, humanities and social science professors are caught between a rock and a hard place: in a market driven university they are the losers and yet a skillful use of PR techniques may offset some of their losses. As Russell Jacoby says: "Too often leftist and feminist language rectification partakes willingly of public relations and linguistic bureaucratization. Language reformers dream they protest society as they speak its word" (1994, 72).20 There is also a market place of ideas with its special niches for different discourses and rhetorics. Hard scientists, economists and technology experts speak the dominant utilitarian lingo. Their colleagues in the humanities have to sound a different, discordant, dissident note to be heard and to attract the rebels who oppose society. Baudelaire said that "l'homme de lettres est l'ennemi de la société", so this division between manufacturers and bohemians is not new. What is new is the fact that the discursive dissidents are within the mainstream institutions. They are masters at controlling the "semiotic circuit" and their highly publicized opposition to mainstream values ensures mainstream fame or notoriety.21

26American academics, like other employed people the world over, cannot behave as if rules, institutions and socio-economic constraints did not exist. They are therefore anchored in the real even when they reduce its analysis to a series of "truth claims" and a general relativism. Universities are involved in a fierce competition for funds and students (the providers of many such funds) and departments within universities also compete for resources. Academia is a market in its own right with many institutions thinking in terms of fees and resources during the admission process. Clearly economics or business majors are not attracted to the same facets of universities as, say, Italian language, women's studies or sociology majors. A whiff of rebellion, a pose of utter opposition can be assets in the PR battles between departments. Nihilist chic, what Tom Wolf called "radical chic" will not sway MBAs, just as the charms of the Laffer curve will be lost on most literature devotees. Radical thinkers, who like Andrew Ross, prefer to teach the kids of the rich to have an influence over them (and not, I presume, to get away from the problems, material and intellectual, of deprived colleges) are tolerated in elite institutions maybe as court jesters or clowns were in the old aristocratic courts in Europe. While professors march on the English department and fight over who will control it and its canon, really powerful people focus on the White House and the world of business and politics (see Gitlin, 1995). A little marginal opposition or eccentricity actually reinforces the current powers that be. "Let them have their fun and mock us if they like, in any case they cannot touch us". Who pays the piper calls the tune and the business world controls the piper, not the literature prof or the spin doctor.

  • 22 Judith Shulevitz argued as much in a New York Times Book Review (29 October 1995) piece about which (...)

27Professors in the US are subjected to intense pressures not only before they land a job, especially with declining job prospects in fields like the humanities, but also when they are due for tenure. The official categorical imperative of researchers and academics, critical inquiry, comes into conflict with the conformity required of job applicants and tenure hopefuls. As one PhD candidate explained, whom I met at Dartmouth in the summer of 1997 and who disapproved of a lot that was said in the field of American Studies but felt he could not publicly criticize people in his field: "beggars cannot be choosers".22 The gap between public rhetorics and private feelings, analyzed by Timur Kuran (1995), exists in any society or institution, yet it seems wider in US higher education.

  • 23 For a blunt view of the MLA see Fromm, 1993. In another piece (1997) in the same review, entitled " (...)
  • 24 Yet even work funded by the foundation may be excellent and not "reactionary". Furet is said to hav (...)

28Institutional positions and pressures are key elements in the shaping of public views. Tenure is quasi-automatic in a university system like the French one and though there are penalties for those who step out of line, they are less severe than in the US where associate professors may find themselves without a job after six or seven years teaching in an institution that then does not grant them tenure. You must learn to be a pleaser. In the context of some departments, this means adopting the stance of the rebel, the dissident, the mainstream abominator. This means conforming to the dictates of a local crowd opposed to the wider crowd and pleasing the fairly small number of people on whom your career depends. In private, individuals may criticize the vacuousness of many MLA panels, the ideological nepotism and the cruelty of the "meat market" aka "job searches", yet it would be folly to go public on this. On the contrary, when a journalist, that is the uneducated devil incarnate, criticizes the MLA it is good form to become an intellectual counterattack dog.23 Academics who criticize are often older well-established profs who do not fear institutional retaliation or people whose ideology pits them against their colleagues in the social sciences. Professors financed by the Olin foundation can safely exercice their form of conservative political correctness against, leftists or liberals.24 D'Souza does not risk being laid off, fired, not granted tenure. The sniping therefore occurs mostly between enclaves or fiefdoms within the academy.

  • 25 See Lehman, 1991, a book which is considered to be anti-intellectual by some intellectuals but also (...)

29The radical pose within the academy is often shown to be a sham: in many cases radical profs at Yale not only did not support the TAs grade strike but went out of their way to side with the administration (see Lafer, 1997). TAs are the underpaid servants of the academic behemoth, enabling full profs to concentrate on graduate teaching and depriving young students of the benefits of seasoned teachers and researchers. Full profs use the services of research assistants who make their books basically a collective effort and are also a form of underpaid labor. As Noam Chomsky says "There are ways in which intellectuals can separate themselves from actual, ongoing struggle and still appear to be lefter-than-thou. Nobody's radical enough for them" (1994, 164). Postmodern radicalism is a game, word games instead of war games, a play of differences, maybe, but of the kind described by Freud when he talks of the narcissism of small differences. Mark Crispin Miller, a left-wing media specialist, also feels that thinking in terms of "difference" has "helped to balkanize the population" and he adds: "Now, when one talks about'the Left'in the United States, one is now talking about people whose discourse revolves very tightly around race, gender, and rarely deals with class" (1997, 129). The Paul de Μan affair also showed deconstruction could be enlisted in the service of obfuscation.25 In a world taken over by the fashion or "adcult" (Twitchell, 1996) ideology, survival means affiliating with a guru or a school of thought, shooting at the others and playing up one's differences with the mainstream. The academic mainstream may view itself as marginal so the game becomes marginal one-upmanship.

  • 26 In the words of Jean-Claude Passeron: "De même qu'il ne peut y avoir pour bibliothécaire qu'un rayo (...)

30Frederic Jameson (1991) analyzes late capitalism in very Baudrillardian terms. Surface prevails over depth, play over seriousness and simulation over the real. Sherry Turkle believes we are moving from a modernist culture of calculation toward a postmodernist culture of simulation" (1995, 20). So, what (in very modernist terms) I called the "flight from reality" is a love of virtual reality and also of make-believe. As a social phenomenon it is quite different from a literary or artistic one: as a reader of novels I do not want to study reality; inhabiting the world offered by the writer is part of the pleasure, the same applies to appreciating paintings.26 This does not mean that literature is not a major mode of knowing, as Milan Kundera, often explains (in L'Art du roman, for instance): only that literature and literary criticism, especially in their "cultural studies" makeover cannot be transported wholesale into social observation; a sociological approach that many literary critics in Europe and some in the U.S actually resent. Thus I find myself close to social scientists critical of bogus imports into cultural studies and literary critics anxious to defend literature.

  • 27 Christopher Lasch (1997) comments on the ubiquitous use of "like" in sentences such as (like?): "I (...)
  • 28 George Steiner, in a review of a biography of Bernard Shaw (The Guardian Weekly, 17 Aug 1997) talks (...)

31If institutions and social discourse are organized in accordance with the postmodernist paradigm then we are dealing with the same issue as advertising hype and PR. Power relations are hidden below the surface, play obscures the real work that makes it possible, multimedia escapism becomes the dominant ideology. Already market-driven job candidates have to learn to sell themselves, then they try to sell their ideas, people who claim not to be naive say "I don't buy it", or "they are not sold on this". The vocabulary of the market has obtained near universal currency.27 America's love of advertising, has invaded its higher education institutions. The talk of diversity is often commercial hype hiding the "affluent homogeneity" (Jacoby, 1987) of most elite universities. Postmodernism has become an ideological friend of the very market forces it purports to deconstruct. There is a danger that the glorification of "surfaces" will lead to superficial thinking. Already in many cases superficial though obscure28 and convoluted writing has the upper hand. We need more light and clarity to get beyond the surface, see where the superficial is coming from. As you can see, I do not believe the Enlightenment is dead nor a Eurocentric conspiracy intended to universalize local European knowledge. Rather one could conclude that: "The central Enlightenment idea that all peoples share a common humanity, and that their allegiance to that commonality transcends any allegiance to their national or racial group, brings with it a set of related ideas. Words like racism, genocide, and imperialism belong in this new context but would be out of place in an environment not imbued with Enlightenment attitudes. In fact, all these words signal various ways the Enlightenment's philosophy of a common humanity is violated" (Ellis, 1997, 94). Chomsky who writes from a different political perspective also views the Enlightenment in such positive, non-presentist terms.


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1 Letter to Christian Garve, 7 Aug 1783 quoted in Arendt 1982, 39.

2 1997, 201. The title of my own paper is an ironical echo of Ellis's point. Ellis writes from a very different perspective from the one chosen here but makes some very good points about the mismatch of politics and literature.

3 "Pomolotov Cocktail", 10 June 1996

4 The quotes are from Lingua Franca, May-June, 1996. More space would be needed to do justice to the case. I refer to specific instances of "virtual trickery" mostly in the notes. In no way should my epistemological and political approach be viewed as siding with hard sciences against social sciences or literature, fields in which I work. My proleptic approach is justified by the sensitiveness of the issues I deal with and the increased potential for misunderstanding.

5 Furet, 1978 argues: "Si la Révolution française vit ainsi dans sa pratique politique, les contradictions théoriques de la démocratie, c'est qu'elle inaugure un monde où les représentations du pouvoir sont le centre de l'action, et où le circuit sémiotique est maître absolu de la politique."(84). Then: "Ses leaders font un autre 'métier' que celui de l'action ils sont les interprètes de l'action." (85).

6 Richard Rorty (n.d., 14) speaks of the "spectatorial Left": "Leftists in the academy permitted cultural politics to supplant real politics, and have collaborated with the Right in making cultural issues central to public debate."

7 I am well aware of the philosophical old-fashionedness of this position in the words of Edgar Morin: "La philosophie contemporaine se voue désormais moins à la construction de systèmes sur des fondements assurés, qu'à la destruction généralisée et à la radicalité d'un questionnement relativisant toute connaissance" (1997, 247). Any ordered discussion however has to start from a basic position.

8 Here I wish to stress that there is no criticism of this colleague and that absolutely nothing is said about Gaddis as a writer of fiction. I chose a particularly articulate sentence in the field of literary criticism to illustrate the idea that it could not he transferred wholesale into another critical enterprise. Félix's legitimate literary enterprise could not be adopted in sociology. It is precisely this move, common in the field of cultural studies, that I want to challenge. Céline, Aragon, Pound or Euras were often disasters when they ventured out of the field of literature. Today critics more often than writers, seem to choose this road.

9 John Ellis, a literature professor, writes along similar lines: "This practice has become pronounced that a secondary set of scholarly fields has arisen: there is history as practised by historians and as practised by professors of English literature; theory of language as practised by philosophers and linguists and as practised by professors of English literature; and even philosophy of science according to professors of English. But as for literature simply as literature — even to speak of it that way sounds old-fashioned" (1997 206).

10 For a critique of identity politics from the left see Gitlin (1997) and Hollinger (1995).

11 Their discussion of the incomes of Japanese Americans and Jewish Americans as compared to the incomes of whites is disingenuous hut, of course, it ends up with the accusation that those who found these two groups earned more than whites in general can be suspected of "Asian-hashing" and "anti-Semitism" of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" type (194-195). For a better statistical presentation see the table on "Education and Family Incomes of Native-Born Members of Selected Ethnic Groups, 1990" published in Themstrom and Themstrom, 1997, 542. In a review of a book by two law professors in The New Republic (13 October 1997, p. 42) Richard Posner has this to say about Critical Race Theory, the field to which Lawrence and Matsuda belong: "critical race theorists teach by example that the role of a minority group is to be paid a comfortable profe ssional salary to write childish stories about how awful it is to be a member of such a group. I do not doubt the power of literature to awaken readers to injustice. But the stories told by critical race theorists do not rise to the level of literature." The reference to Poe here shows that bad literary criticism is also bad social or political analysis. Jacoby criticizes Graff for his ideological use of literature in his classes in a similar fashion. A Marxist (Jacoby) and a more conservative writer (Ellis) agree about the abysmal quality of this critic's work. Indeed if considerations of space did not apply, Graff could he used as another example of the unfortunate conflation between politics and ht crit.

12 Newsweek, "How to get into college", 1998 edition.

13 Stanley Fish, after promoting the shift from "lit crit" to cultural studies may realized the damage done to the literary field. That is why he recently (1995) advocated a return to "professional correctness" and a new separation with politics. Unfortunately his role in the Sokal affair showed he did not follow his own advice. His New York Times op-ed piece "Professor Sokal's Bad Joke" (21 May 1996) completely sidesteps the core issue of standards in publications.

14 There is quite a debate to know if Derrida himself is responsible for this trend or his translators into English or his disciples or professors who misunderstood him (misunderstood him in a sense which is different, I suppose, from "every reading is a misreading"). I am only interested in this discursive practice within the field of social analysis and politics and therefore I do not address the origin of this attitude nor criticize one individual thinker.

15 Thus dancing is construed as resistance in "Women Dancing Back: Disruption and the Politics of Pleasure" (Gotfrit in Giroux, 1991). With such teenage-like and commercially validated resistance the systems resisted can expect a long life.

16 On the new discipline of cultural studies see Gitlin, 1997 and the debate around Sokal's hoax in Social Text. Some feminist work is, of course, highly valuable, my target is only one campus variety of the kind denounced by Denfeld, Patai and Koertge or Sommers.

17 I once walked through Harlem to get to Columbia. The racism that was denounced on the campus was discursive while the very palpable racism and poverty that had shaped the neighborhoods next door was ignored. In Chicago, university students enjoy armed protection against attacks by the victims of poverty, racism and injustice.

18 If one adopts political categories to refer to literary criticism, then Bleikasten's critique of American deconstruction "qui est à peu près à Derrida ce que Disneyland est aux châteaux de la Loire" (408) is "rightist". Yet what Bleikasten objects to is the automatic, almost mindless use of theoretical concepts that are applied in a systematic way in literary criticism. In the same issue of Revue Française d'Etudes Américaines, Marie-Christine Lemardeley-Cunci writes from a Lacanian feminist perspective and yet deplores the shift in feminist criticism in the U.S. in these terms: "D'abord portée par l'élan où féminisme était synonyme de provocation et de libération, la gynocritique semble à présent vouée à l'ivresse de la tautologie et du flou théorique" (461-2). So with very different theoretical starting points Bleikasten and Lemardeley-Cunci focus on the same problem, the one tackled in this paper too: a conceptual shift which, in some cases does ideological work ("le retour des vieilles lunes idéologiques", according to Bleikasten).

19 Referring to Joan Scott's work, Noiriel (1994) notes: "Ce qui frappe dans ces affirmations, c'est qu'elles continuent d'obéir à une épistémologie qui cherche désespérément des fondements théoriques généraux ou de nouveaux 'points de vue de Dieu'". Grand narratives have a way of sticking around.

20 Baudrillard himself would probably not disagree for he states, "La politique qui entre à l'université est celle qui sort de l'histoire, c'est une politique rétro, vidée de sa substance et légalisée dans son exercice superficiel, aire de jeu et terrain d'aventure" (1981, 70) and also: "Ce que nous voyons c'est l'absorption de tous les modes d'expression virtuels dans celui de la publicité. Toutes les formes culturelles originales, tous les langages déterminés s'absorbent dans celui-ci, parce qu'il est sans profondeur, instantané et instantanément oublié" (133). Baudrillard, of course, considers this as inevitable, not something that can be fought or counteracted.

21 Talking about Prance, Regis Debray wrote in the 70s: "La communauté de ceux qui n'ont en commun que leurs différences se trouve quotidiennement confrontée à un problème sans solution stable: comment me faire homologuer par mes pairs comme un être hors pair? Comment m'imposer comme exceptionnel dans un monde où l'exception est la règle générale? Il n'est pas facile d'être collectivement unique" (cité par Noiriel, 123).

22 Judith Shulevitz argued as much in a New York Times Book Review (29 October 1995) piece about which books get published and the impact this has on tenure and promotion. "The people who determine what subjects up-and-coming academics get to write about — and who in effect award tenure and the right to shape the next generation of scholars — are Barnes & Noble customers. And what they want from university presses, as any editor will tell you, are women's studies, African-American studies, gay and lesbian studies, Asian-American studies, studies of popular culture and literary biographies, to say nothing of that inevitable publishing troika, Nazis, dogs and the Civil War." The market driven approach to scholarship is upon us. Later in the same article she writes: "Tenure evaluation is based on the quantity rather than the quality of the publication". Lisa Freeman says: 'We've got a system in which more is better.' David Bartlett believes tenure committees should he required to read candidates' writing themselves, rather than tally up the number of publications and rank the presses at which they were published. Otherwise universities will someday find themselves staffed by academic equivalents of John Grisham — by scholars who can sell."

23 For a blunt view of the MLA see Fromm, 1993. In another piece (1997) in the same review, entitled "My Science Wars", Fromm tackles some of the same issues dealt with here and notably an effort to silence a literary critic supposedly too close to the Enlightenment.

24 Yet even work funded by the foundation may be excellent and not "reactionary". Furet is said to have been financed by Olin and also the Thernstroms for their outstanding America in Black and White which is much better and honest than Lawrence and Matsuda's wishywashy work.

25 See Lehman, 1991, a book which is considered to be anti-intellectual by some intellectuals but also top-rate by other intellectuals. Once again this does not constitute a comment on Derrida's œuvre. Bleikasten (1995) calls de Man "le douteux Paul de Man". John Ellis (1997), an emeritus professor of literature, refers to Lehman's book as " an excellent account " of the conflict between Derrida and Thomas Sheehan of the New York Review of Books.

26 In the words of Jean-Claude Passeron: "De même qu'il ne peut y avoir pour bibliothécaire qu'un rayon des catalogues, il ne peut y avoir pour le lecteur qu'un seul monde réel. Dès qu'un système efficace d' 'effets de réel' le fait entrer dans un pacte de croyance, le lecteur doit, s'il veut continuer à lire, croire au monde entier où l'introduit le roman, car il ne peut y avoir pour le lecteur en train de lire qu'un seul monde réel auquel il puisse croire comme réel (1991, 217).

27 Christopher Lasch (1997) comments on the ubiquitous use of "like" in sentences such as (like?): "I was like screaming on the phone.... I was like, I don't care', you know". The use of "like" may be more prevalent among adolescents but it indicates that the culture of simulation has made deep linguistic and psychological inroads. The real is equated with a representation.

28 George Steiner, in a review of a biography of Bernard Shaw (The Guardian Weekly, 17 Aug 1997) talks about the "current critical-academic taste, with its investment in obscurity and convolution".


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