Cafeteria Style

February 3, 2005

"You're too young to know about the cafeterias," said Julius Jacobson.

"The cafeterias were wonderful," said Phyllis Jacobson. "There's nothing like them today."

"The cafeterias and the automats were the center of New York intellectual life back then," they continued. Each one finishing the other's thought, as old couples often will. "You'd buy a sandwich or a piece of pie, both if you could afford it, but what you really went there to do was talk."

They talked. And I listened, hoping, as ever, to be transported into their past, at least for a while.

Phyllis and Julius had met as teenagers in the Young People's Socialist League during the late 1930s. They married after the war. Starting in the late 1940s onward, they worked on one small Marxist theoretical publication or another. They were public intellectuals long before anyone thought to coin that phrase, embodying a tradition of working-class self-education that was both non-academic and passionate about high culture. (Their devotion to the New York Review of Books bordered on the idolatrous, despite that publication's constant failure to adopt a suitably Jacobsonite political line.)

An old comrade of theirs once told me that, as a merchant seaman during World War II, he had been attracted to the Jacobson's group -- a small organization known as the Workers Party -- because its members read better novels than the Communists did. Being a revolutionary didn't mean you should wallow in mass culture. About 10 years ago, when I published some articles about recent television programs, Phyllis gave me a stern talking-to by telephone.

"Don't waste your time on popular culture," she said. "You need to write about serious things, philosophy and literature, not this trash." (Memory may be playing tricks, but I'd swear I could hear a Benny Goodman album playing in the background, on her end of the telephone line. Evidently not all pop culture was junk.)

The second anniversary of Julie's death is coming soon, and almost five years have passed since Phyllis had a stroke that left her unable to speak. New Politics, the journal they edited in the 1960s and ’70s, then revived in 1986 -- still struggles along, even without the two of them at the helm. It is probably a matter of time before some academic publisher takes over its production. That outcome is preferable to oblivion, of course, but it does seem at odds with the ethos of its founders.

We met in 1990. By coincidence, that was just about the time I started attending scholarly conferences. The contrast in demeanor and sensibility between the conversations in their living room and what I saw at those other gatherings was remarkable.

P&J (as one came to think of them) were argumentative, plain-spoken, and averse to the gestures meant to announce that one is (ahem!) a qualified expert. That hardly meant condoning intellectual sloppiness. They loved expertise, but not rigamarole. A manuscript by an academic on an interesting topic was always a source of pleasure to them. Above all else, P&J believed in the educated general public. That notion was essential to their version of left-wing politics. The thought that  you could be both “subversive” and incomprehensible to 90 percent of the audience made them laugh, not quite with joy.

It was P&J who explained an odd Yiddish idiom that I had come across: “to chop a tea kettle.” The image was puzzling. Why would anyone take an axe to a tea kettle? It seemed like a pointless thing to do. Which was exactly the point. “It means,” they said, “that a person makes a lot of noise without accomplishing anything.” (Perhaps it would be discreet not to mention just what examples we then discussed.)

How often that expression came to mind, in later years, as I sat in the audience for panels on “Postmodern This,” “Decentering That,” and “The Transgressive Potential of the Other Thing.” So many edgy theoretical axes! So many kettles, dented beyond all use.

At conferences, scholars would stand up and read their papers, one by one. Then the audience would “ask questions,” as the exercise is formally called. What that often meant, in practice, was people standing up to deliver short lectures on the papers they would have liked to have heard, instead -- and presumably would have delivered, had they been invited.

Hypothetically, if everyone on a panel read one another’s papers beforehand, they might be able to get some lively cross-talk going. This does happen in some of the social sciences, but it seems never to occur among humanities scholars. The whole process seems curiously formal, and utterly divorced from any intent to communicate. A routine exercise, or rather perhaps an exercise in routinism. A process streamlined into grim efficiency, yielding one more line on the scholar’s vita.

Is this unfair? No doubt it is. Over the years, I have heard some excellent and exciting papers at conferences. There have been whole sessions when everyone in the room was awake, and not just in the technical sense. But such occasions are the happy exceptions to the norm.

The inner dynamic of these gatherings is peculiar, but not especially difficult to understand. They are extremely well-regulated versions of what Erving Goffman called “face work” -- an “interaction ritual” through which people lay claim to a given social identity. Thanks to the steady and perhaps irreversible drive to “professionalization,” the obligation to perform that ritual now comes very early in a scholar’s career.

And so the implicit content of many a conference paper is not, as one might think, “Here is my research.” Rather, it is: “Here am I, qualified and capable, performing this role, which all of us here share, and none of us want to question too closely. So let’s get it over with, then go out for a drink afterwards.”

With Phyllis and Julius, as with others of their generation and cohort, the ebb and flow of discourse was very different. It is not that they had no Goffmanian interaction rituals, but the rituals were different. The cafeteria had imposed its own style. The frantic pace of defining one’s area of specialization, acquiring the proper credentials, and passing through an obligatory series of disciplinary enactments of competence (aka “conferences”) -- and doing all this, preferably, in one’s 20s -- would have been utterly out of place, over pie.

Instead, the cafeteria fostered a style in which the tone of authority had to be assumed with some care. There was always someone nearby, waiting to ambush you with an unfamiliar fact, a sarcastic characterization of your argument, a book he had just carried over from the library with purpose of shutting you up for good, or at least for the rest of the afternoon. (“Now where is it you say Lenin wrote that? It sure isn’t here!”) You had to think on your feet, to see around the corner of your own argument. And if you were smart, you knew to make a point quickly, cleanly, punching it home. The Jacobsons introduced me to a valuable expression, one that neatly characterizes the opening moves of many an academic text: “throat-clearing noises.”

Now, it’s best not to sentimentalize the cafeteria and its circumstances, at least not too much. In the 1930s and ’40s, smart people didn’t loiter with intent to argue just because they enjoyed the prospect of constituting a “free floating intelligentsia.” They were there for economic reasons. The food was cheap, the jobs were scarce. Academe was nothing like the factor in the nation’s economic life that it is today, and few saw a career there as an option. The hiring of Lionel Trilling in the English department at Columbia in 1932 had provoked concern among the faculty; he was, after all, as someone put it, “a Marxist, a Freudian, and a Jew.” If you had a name like Jacobson, you knew the cards were stacked against you.

Nor was the discursive style of the cafeteria intelligentsia all brilliant rhetorical fireworks and dialectical knife-juggling. I suspect that, after a while, the arguments and positions began to congeal and harden, becoming all too familiar. And the familiar gambit of “you lack the theoretical sophistication to follow my argument” seems to have had its place in cafeteria combat.

One faction in the Jacobsons’ circle insisted that you had to study German philosophy to understand anything at all about Marx’s economics. Fifty years later, P&J still sounded exasperated at the memory. “These kids could barely read,” Phyllis said, “and they’d be lugging Hegel around.”

So maybe a paradise of the unfettered mind it wasn’t. Still, in reading academic blogs over the past couple of years, I’ve often wondered if something like the old style might not be rousing itself from the dustbin of history.

For one thing, important preconditions have reemerged -- namely, the oversupply of intellectual labor relative to adequate employment opportunities. The number of people possessing extremely sophisticated tools in the creation, analysis, and use of knowledge far exceeds the academic channels able to absorb them.

Furthermore, the self-sustaining (indeed, self-reinforcing) regime of scholarly professionalization may be just a little too successful to survive. Any highly developed bureaucracy imposes its own rules and outlook on those who operate within it. But people long subjected to that system are bound to crave release from its strictures.

For every scholar wondering how to make blogging an institutionally accredited form of professional activity, there must be several entertaining the vague hopes that it never will.

The deeper problem, perhaps, is the one summed up very precisely in a note from a friend that arrived just as I finished writing this: “Do you think there’s any way that intellectual life in America could become less lonely?”

I jot these thoughts down, wondering what Phyllis and Julius would make of them -- a question that darkens many an otherwise happy moment, nowadays. One thing seems certain: P&J would want to argue.

“Blogs are nothing like the cafeteria,” they might say. “Well, maybe a little, but not that much. Go ahead though, Scott. Go ahead and chop that kettle.”

Bio

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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