“Oh, happy day” I

It is sometimes claimed by liberals and leftists in the academy that recent attacks upon the way the teaching of the humanities has been politically corrupted in our universities either are much exaggerated—meaning: there is no cause for alarm, everything is pretty much the same as it was—or are written from what are called “political motives.” Thus, Louis Menand, who teaches English at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, complains in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books about “indiscriminate attack[s] on academic thought from political motives,” quite as if his own blistering attack on David Lehman’s Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man—the book ostensibly under review in his very long piece—had nothing whatever to do with “political motives.” It is also Professor Menand’s view that “many assaults on the university by people who are outside it [do not] distinguish among different tendencies in contemporary academic thought; [do not] understand the purpose of theoretical inquiry; and [lack] historical perspective.”

Yet something very odd occurs in the course of Professor Menand’s attempted demolition of Signs of the Times.

Yet something very odd occurs in the course of Professor Menand’s attempted demolition of Signs of the Times. When, after fifteen columns of type and thirty-one footnotes, this academic in good standing comes to his final sentence, he writes: “Although I think his complaint is ineptly made, I believe that Lehman is right in feeling that academic literary study has lost its way.” So there is something rotten going on, and while those outside the universities cannot be trusted to tell us what it is, those inside the universities will keep their mouths shut until the alarms and attacks can no longer be safely ignored. We wonder if this is what Professor Menand means when he writes that people outside the universities do not “understand the purpose of theoretical inquiry”?

“Oh, happy day” II

Or does Professor Menand have something like the following in mind when he reserves for those within the academy the gift for understanding theoretical inquiry? We quote in their entirety the last two paragraphs from Beyond Accommodation: Ethical Feminism, Deconstruction, and the Law (Routledge, 1991) by Drucilla Cornell, professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and visiting scholar at the Institute of Advanced Study:

The affirmation of the feminine may be impossible as other than the reversion to the old stereotypes. Undecidability cannot be wiped out in an appeal to knowledge if there is no ontological given to the feminine we can appeal to as our truth. We cannot know for sure, “Yes this is definitely different. Now we are affirming Woman as other than the signifier of their desire.” But the possibility that we might be approaching a new choreography of sexual difference with every new step we take can also not be wiped out. The unexpected pleasure of the Other who remains with us, who keeps up the pace, is always a possibility. Affirmed as the feminine, the threshold might be the opening to a new alliance. This is what [Luce] Irigaray seeks to protect: the possibility that feminine difference performs against phallogocentrism in the name of the Other. As we have seen, this performance is affirmed as performance, not as a mere description of what woman is. But as performance, its evocation is explicitly utopian. The utopia is precisely one in which the Other is other not just as male/female, but as singular, particular. The dream of a new choreography of sexual difference is not mere repetition of heterosexuality; it is instead the sexuality lived as love that must be premised on the truly “hetero,” the Other, the beyond to our current system of gender identity in which difference is always reduced to the same gender divide with conventional “heterosexuality.” Such a new choreography may be asking for the moon, but through asking for the moon, we speak and write.

Ontology of gender identity, then, has been deconstructed not just to expose the normative injunction that lies at its base, but to protect the possibility of a different destiny. Oh, happy day.

Professor Cornell’s book carries the following endorsement from Professor Stanley Fish of Duke University, another academic who firmly believes that it is only academics like himself who are qualified to pass judgment on writing of this kind:

Drucilla Cornell is the most intellectually sophisticated legal academic writing on these issues today. The philosophical rigor she brings to any question along with the strong imagining of human needs and aspirations makes her contribution to current debates unique and valuable.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 10 Number 4, on page 1
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