Over the years, as literary studies veered into a dozen political and identitarian versions of theory, traditionalists complained accordingly, but nothing they said altered the trend. Conservatives, libertarians, and, in some cases, liberals produced government reports (William Bennett’s National Endowment for the Humanities study "To Reclaim a Legacy"), wrote best-selling books (Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind), and spoke at legislative hearings (David Horowitz and the Academic Bill of Rights campaign), but the momentum toward political and identity themes proceeded without pause. Sexuality studies are stronger today than they were 20 years ago.
One reason, I think, is that defenders of the new managed to characterize objectors in just the right way to discredit them. Voices opposing deconstruction, postcolonialism, and the rest were cast as ignorant, retrograde, threatened, resentful, out of touch, and hidebound, traits nicely keyed to decertify them for academic recognition.
Paul Jay’s essay here is a fair example. It chides the speakers at a St. John’s College gathering for “recycl[ing] an old and faulty argument that should have been set aside years ago.” Indeed, Jay says, the whole spectacle was unworthy of academic discussion: “it’s depressing to see such a thoroughly discredited argument being made in late 2014.”
The argument he deplores is that the rise of theory has brought about the downfall of English and the humanities. Race-class-gender studies, political criticism, feminism, deconstruction, and other schools of theory have turned students away, it claims, the professors abandoning the experience of beauty and greatness, and thereby killing their own field.
Jay counters with statistics showing that English enrollments have held steady for decades after a precipitous fall in the 70s. The “plight” of the humanities is real, he acknowledges, but it stems from broader shifts on campus, particularly the adoption of corporate and vocational values. Traditionalists misconstrue the evidence because they want to “eschew critique” and “return to ‘tradition’” (note the sneerquotes).
Once again, traditionalists are backward and uninformed. We have the same set-up, one that denies them any affirming values and frames the position in terms of intellectual deficiency. It’s unfair, but it has worked.
Rather than protest this bilious characterization, then, let’s go with it and flesh it out, and emphasize a different attribute in the profile. It isn’t wrong to highlight personal factors in the traditionalist response, and in this case they certainly fueled the outcry and enmity against theory and politicization. But if we’re going to do so, let’s include a fuller range of them, not just insularity and defensiveness.
I have in mind another condition. It applies to critics of the theory/politics/identity turn who were, in fact, quite knowledgeable of the intricacies of theory, its philosophical and historical backgrounds. Their response even derived, at times, from admiration of Discipline and Punish, A Map of Misreading, “Turning the Screw of Interpretation,” and other canonical 70s and 80s texts.
I mean the feeling of embarrassment. Not embarrassment for themselves, but for their discipline. It sounds ego-based and irrelevant, but it derived from a scholarly posture, not a personal state, and it happened again and again. As they went about their professional work, teaching and speaking, reviewing manuscripts and candidates, reading new books and essays, they witnessed persistent lapses in learning, research, and evaluation, a series of poor performances that nonetheless passed muster. Enough of them piled up for traditionalists to count it a generalized condition — and they mourned. Decades of immersion in the field presented one breakdown after another, and they cared so much for the integrity of the discipline that it affected them as a humiliation.
We were embarrassed ...
When we attended lectures by professors who cited Jacques Derrida but in the follow-up Q&A couldn’t handle basic questions about Derrida’s sources.
By the cliques that formed around Derrida, Paul de Man, Foucault, and other masters, complete with sibling rivalries, fawning acknowledgements, and sectarian hostilities.
By graduate students skipping seminars in order to deliver theory-saturated conference papers, even though they needed three years of silent reading in a library carrel before stepping forward.
When departments dropped bibliography, foreign language, and philology requirements, but added a theory survey.
When Jesse Jackson & Co. pulled the “Western civ has got to go!” stunt at Stanford and English colleagues reacted with a pathetic “O.K.”
When Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball penned their annual report on the Modern Language Association in The New Criterion, and the world guffawed.
By the Sokal Hoax, which made us a laughingstock among our science colleagues.
By the Bad Writing Award and cutesy titles stocked with parentheses, scare quotes, and diacritical marks.
When we came across reader’s reports and found them nothing more than puff pieces by cronies.
By Academically Adrift, which demonstrated how little reading and writing undergraduates do.
Yes, we stumbled from one chagrin to another. When Jay effuses about “the innovative role that theory has had in deepening, enriching, and challenging our understanding of the human,” we can only reply, “That’s not what we saw and heard with our own eyes and ears.” Jay treats it as transformative progress, but it impressed us as hack philosophizing, amateur social science, superficial learning, or just plain gamesmanship. Our first response wasn’t hostility or insecurity. It was dismay.
This is why we blamed theory, and still do. We didn’t deny the genius of eminent theorists, but we found the practices they inspired dispiriting. Not Derrida’s “Differance,” a serious ontological statement, Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, an eccentric but hefty study, and other achievements, but their thousands of phony imitations and platitudinous implementations, and theory had to accept responsibility for those results.
First of all, theory called into question epistemological standards. “Objectivity,” “method,” the distinction of “primary” and “secondary” texts, and other disciplinary concepts fell prey to its critique.
Second, theory was unfamiliar, and so you could get by with half-baked expressions of it. If you referred in a gathering to a passage in Jacques Lacan’s “Rome Discourse,” chances are that few others in the room had the knowledge to assess your usage.
Third, theory (starting in the '80s) was aligned with political trends bearing a moral authority, encouraging people to think more about “doing good” than “doing well.” We didn’t criticize that young professor for his disorganized teaching, because he enacted a social good: introducing undergraduates to marginalized authors of color and outlining theories of their marginalization.
Finally, theory had a smaller corpus and broader application than existing historical fields. It saved younger people months and years of reading time.
It didn’t have to happen that way (who loved the archive more than Foucault?), but it did. Every profession has greater and lesser talents, of course, but it seemed to us that inferior knowledge, skills, and standards had become routine practice, and theory stood as an alibi for them.
So, when traditionalists speak up and the Establishment knocks them down, keep in mind the other attribute, not the stupidity that marks their failure to meet scholarly ideals. Consider, instead, their embarrassment over the decades, which originates precisely in their enduring devotion to those ideals.
Mark Bauerlein is professor of English at Emory University.