[M]ost of what is written in [today’s] journals is either hopelessly ignorant, deliberately obscurantist, commercially compromised, or politically motivated….As a result, the very notion of an independent high culture and the distinctions that separate it from popular culture and commercial entertainment have been radically eroded…This fateful collapse in critical standards... and in the very idea of critical disinterestedness . . . has changed, and changed very much for the worse, the way the arts and humanities are now studied in our universities....We are still living in the aftermath of the insidious assault on the mind that was one of the most repulsive features of the radical movement of the Sixties... An everything from the writing of textbooks to the reviewing of trade books, from the introduction of kitsch into the museums to the decline of literacy in the schools to the corruption of scholarly research, the effect on the life of culture has been ongoing and catastrophic.
—”A Note on The New Criterion” September 1982.
Chicago’s sobriquet, “the Windy City,” seemed doubly appropriate at the end of December. In addition to the frigid winter blasts, the snow, the icy rain, and the other seasonal vagaries that contribute to the city’s festive spirit, the Modern Language Association convoked its 106th annual convention, filling (or shall we say “colonizing”?) the halls and meeting rooms of the Hyatt Regency and other downtown hotels with gusts as chilling and impenetrable in their own way as any north wind barrelling in off Lake Michigan. From December 27 through 30, more than ten thousand members of the largest and most influential academic organization in the United States congregated in ritual displays of professional activity. Fledgling members came seeking jobs or contacts; the tenured elite interviewed and passed judgment on suppliants; young and old alike browsed among the publishers’ exhibitions, delivered papers, and sampled the nearly seven hundred panels and social events that were crowded into the four-day meeting.
For several years now, the annual meeting of the MLA has provided observers of the academic scene with a spectacle as appalling as it is rich in unintended comedy. The full range of barbarous jargon, intellectual posturing, and aggressive politicization that has infected the academic study of the humanities in this country is in full, florid bloom at the MLA. To be sure, not all who flock to these meetings are happy about the recent assaults on the humanities. Because the annual meeting of the MLA also functions as the major clearing house for jobs in the modern languages and literatures, many academics come simply because they are looking for employment, or for employees, and have themselves little or no sympathy with the radical agenda that governs the activities and policies of the MLA. Nor are all the sessions devoted to esoteric trivia or politicized prosyletizing. Among the thousands of papers delivered at the convention this year, some dealt straightforwardly with technical matters—using new research tools, for example, or “Teaching and Learning German,”—and some were traditional exercises in scholarship or literary criticism. Thus two of the three papers in the General Session on John Milton that I attended were clearly written, incisive efforts to come to terms with legitimate issues in Milton interpretation or scholarship, while the third—a vaguely de-constructivist performance entitled “Writing the Inside Out: Shakespeare, Milton, and the Supplement of Publication”—was merely tedious.
Nevertheless, the tenor of the convention —as, indeed, the tenor of the profession as a whole—is established not by the politically disengaged rank and file but by tenured or soon-to-be-tenured radicals who view the teaching of literature primarily as a species of ideological activism. It is true that the precise components of that activism will vary depending on the nature of the politics involved. Radical feminists have their issues and controversies, which tend to differ from issues and controversies that preoccupy the deconstructionists; champions of ethnic studies generally pursue an agenda quite distinct from that pursued by their feminist or deconstructionist colleagues; and proponents of homosexual studies busy themselves with yet other figures, commitments, and problems.
Despite the various issues that distinguish these and other groups, however, they are in many ways united. All reject the ideal of scholarly disinterestedness; all exhibit a pervasive animus against the achievements and values of Western culture; all systematically subjugate the teaching and study of literature to political imperatives; and all are extraordinarily intolerant of dissent. As I have noted previously in these pages, the rise of multiculturalism as an omnibus term for the new academic orthodoxy has provided common cause and something of a common vocabulary for a profession otherwise riven by an allegiance to competing radicalisms. At the center of the multiculturalist ethos is the contention that all cultures are equally valuable and, therefore, that preferring one culture, intellectual heritage, or moral and social order to another is to be guilty of ethnocentricism and racism. Preferring Western culture and its heritage to others is held to be especially ethnocentric and racist. The thoughtless egalitarianism behind these ideas helps to explain the current academic obsession with the notion of “difference” and the widespread insistence that our differences—of race, class, sexuality, and ethnic heritage—must be given priority over our common humanity.
This celebration of “difference” may sound like a prescription for tolerance and genuine pluralism. But in fact it has fostered a positively Orwellian situation where “diversity” really means strict intellectual conformity, and “tolerance” is reserved exclusively for those who subscribe to one’s own perspective. As has been widely reported in the press recently, attempts to enforce the ethic of “difference” have led to egregious violations of academic freedom and have poisoned the atmosphere for honest intellectual exchange at campuses across the country. Deviation from the multiculturalist orthodoxy on any number of issues is punished by social ostracism, mandatory “consciousness-raising” classes, or even suspension or expulsion.
It is precisely this cluster of phenomena that is summed up in the phrase “political correctness.” Whatever demurrals some individual members may voice, it has been obvious for some time that the MLA represents the epicenter of academic political correctness in the humanities. Because the rise of political correctness signals both intellectual intolerance and a politically motivated betrayal of literature, it is worth taking a critical look at the controversies and proceedings of the 106th convention of the Modern Language Association.
How, specifically, do the multiculturalist imperatives of political correctness manifest themselves in the subjects addressed at a major academic convention on literature? For one thing, literature itself takes a distant back seat to a wide variety of currently fashionable ideological concerns. While there were still some panels that devoted themselves to dealing with literary subjects as, well, as literature, this was in fact quite rare. In most of the popular and high-powered panels, both the traditional idea of literature and the concept of literary quality, insofar as they came up at all, were dismissed as “naïve,” “elitist,” “hegemonic,” etc., etc. The chief substitutes for literature on display at this year’s MLA were Marxism, feminism, what we might call homosexualism, “cultural studies,” ethnic studies, and any of a number of indeterminate mixtures of the above leavened with dollops of deconstructivist or poststructuralist theory—in other words, multiculturalism de luxe.
There was, for example session number 40, “Revolting Acts: Gay Performance in the Sixties,” in which one could hear Michael Moon from Duke University, that veritable Hippocrene of political correctness, wax rhapsodic over Andy Warhol’s “truly dangerously experimental” relationship with Valerie Solanas, the woman who shot Warhol in 1968. The same session—which like many of the panels devoted to homosexual themes was wildly overcrowded—offered us Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Professor Moon’s colleague at Duke, on the subject of “Gay Vanguardism.” Professor Sedgwick spoke in glowing terms about the liberation movements of Sixties—she mentioned in particular movements on behalf of peace, mental patients, prisoners, and children—and expressed an interest in exploring “the pedagogical pederastic model” and in “denaturalizing or destabilizing gender assignment.”
Then there was session 692, arranged by the Marxist Literary Group, devoted to “Gender, Race, and ‘Othering’ in the Narrative Arts.” This panel was not, however, to be confused with number 26 “The Poetics of 'Othering': Gender, Class, and Cultural Identity in the Literature of Africa and its Diaspora,” or with number 588, “Reinventing Gender.” Other attractive sessions included number 62, “The Other Captives: American Indian Oral Captivity Narratives,” and number 590, “The Ties that Bound: Homophobia and Relations among Males in Early America,” in which one could hear papers on “Sodomy in the New World,” “The Prurient Origins of the American Self,” “New English Sodom,” and “The Sodomitical Tourist.” As far as I know, none of the sessions was X-rated.
John Milton, as I mentioned, got off rather lightly in the session devoted to his work that I attended. Not so poor Shakespeare. Session number 356, “Tactical Shakespeare: Resistance and the Economy of the Early Modern Subject,” included a paper on “Early Modern Characters and Postmodern Subjects: Counterhegemonic Discourse in the Comedy of Errors and The Winter’s Tale”—not exactly the kind of thing to increase the Bard’s readership, one would have thought. And then there was session number 158, which was devoted to “Women’s Responses to Shakespeare Today: Gender, Race, and Colonialism”: precisely the subjects, of course, that leap to mind when one thinks of Shakespeare. In fact, Shakespeare’s work was not really the issue here at all. “Miranda’s Canadian Metamorphoses: A Study in Post-colonial Resistance” and “The Racial Politics of Intertextuality: Gloria Naylor’s Deconstruction of Shakespeare” dealt with some contemporary fiction based loosely on Shakespearean themes, while “Contemporary Indian Uses of Shakespeare: Issues of Gender and Race” dealt with the mesmerizing influence Hamlet has had on a certain Indian village. True, we heard about the “patriarchal bias of Shakespeare’s tragedy,” Miranda’s “white liberal guilt,” and Caliban’s status as an oppressed Third World victim of white, patriarchal, imperialism; but none of that was particularly new.
In “Canon Revision and the Question of Shakespeare’s Status,” another contribution to “Women’s Responses to Shakespeare Today,” Peter B. Erikson from the Clark Art Institute provided the audience with a passionate brief for multiculturalism. While he wound up recommending that Shakespeare’s status be downgraded (a process he referred to as the “unfetishizing of Shakespeare”), his main text was not Shakespeare but “The Storm Over the University,” a recent essay by the Berkeley philosopher John Searle that appeared in The New York Review of Books last November. Since my book Tenured Radicals was the subject of a good part of Professor Searle’s essay, I feel confident disputing Professor Erikson’s claim that “[Searle’s] treatment of Roger Kimball’s articulation of The New Criterion’s vision is accommodating if not cozy.”
In fact, Professor Searle was sharply critical of Tenured Radicals on several counts. But he also dared both to criticize some of the academy’s reigning idols and—what was perhaps even more unforgivable—to refuse to declare himself a wholehearted champion of multiculturalism. Instead, he articulated what Professor Erikson accurately called a “sophisticated” version of the “traditionalist position.” That is, while he gladly acknowledged that the canon could and should change over time, he continued to endorse the idea that the work of some writers— Shakespeare, for example—is “of very high intellectual and artistic quality, to the point of being of universal human interest.”
The thought that anything could be of “universal human interest” is one thing a card-carrying multiculturalist like Professor Erikson simply cannot abide. And indeed his often confused arguments about the “intellectual deficiencies” in what he took to be Professor Searle’s “traditionalist model” turned mostly on Professor Erikson’s commitment to “identity politics” and the idea of “cultural difference” as opposed to “universalism.” When he reads a work by a black woman author, he explained, “I do not enter into a transcendent human interaction but instead become more aware of my whiteness and maleness, social categories that shape my being.” In other words, he repudiates precisely that quality which makes literature so valuable: its ability to speak to us across the barriers of time, geography, social system, religious belief, to say nothing of the currently favored barriers of sex, class, race, and ethnic origin. “Transcendent,” like “universalist,” is a naughty word for the politically correct multiculturalist largely because, if taken seriously, it suggests that the qualities that unite us as human beings are more important than the contingencies that separate us as social and political agents.
Citing ridiculous, or repellent titles from academic conferences is a journalistic occupation that irritates politically correct academics almost as much as calling them politically correct. Several speakers took time out to sneer at “the media’s” reporting on the phenomenon of political correctness: after all, who are these journalists if not middle-class hegemonists still beholden to the accommodationist politics of a universalist model of pluralism that is insufficiently blah, blah, blah. In only one of the more than a dozen sessions that I visited was there no mention of the subject. I believe that the MLA may have to be credited with spawning a new sub-variety of political correctness that consists in subscribing to all the politically correct pieties while loudly denying that such a thing exists. On the subject of titles, the issue is simply this: either they mean something or they don't. If they're meaningless, they're superfluous, an insult to one’s audience, and oughtn't to have been used in the first place; if they do mean something, then they are naturally to be taken as a clue to the subject of the paper or the session they announce and are legitimately open to comment and criticism. After all, if a title is deliberately provocative, its author can hardly blame people for being provoked.
Which brings us to “Lesbianism, Heterosexuality, and Feminist Theory,” an extremely popular session presided over by Biddy Martin from Cornell University. The papers presented in this session, especially the second—“The Lesbian Phallus: Or, Does Heterosexuality Exist?”—were criticized and ridiculed as soon as the program for the MLA convention was published. Was this fair? Given the topic and the paper titles—the other two were “Mapping the Frontier of the Black Hole: Toward a Black Feminist Theory” and “Perverse Desire, the Lure of the Mannish Lesbian”—I think we can be sure that the assembled scholars were not there to discuss Little Women.
The “black hole” contributor was Sue E. Hutchins from Scripps College, where she teaches English and Black Studies and Women’s Studies and Religion. She used the metaphor of the black hole to describe “black lesbians' profound exclusion from dominant discourse.” If, she explained, white heterosexual women can be said to occupy the “center” of “cultural space” and black heterosexual women the margins, then black lesbians belong to the margin of the margins: hence, you see, the black hole. But all this, together with such ritual assertions as “black women loving black women is a revolutionary act,” was merely a kind of throat-clearing for Professor Hutchins’s real subject: the quest for a black lesbian in Africa. “Is there,” she asked, “an individual who is both indigenous to the continent and who is a lesbian?”—that is, in case we didn't get it, “a lesbian in the conservative and severely literal Catharine Stimpson sense of the word: a woman who finds other women erotically attractive and gratifying.”
Professor Hutchins’s problem, of course, is that lesbianism is deeply frowned upon and exceedingly rare in black Africa. She tries to help herself out of this difficulty by announcing that she’s willing to make do with a black African lesbian “in representation”—i.e., in fiction or myth—as well as “corporeally.” And apparently she did finally dig up some anthropological evidence of African lesbian sexuality “in the Stimpson sense.” Even so, it seems that the pickings were disappointingly slim. Professor Hutchins’s response to her findings was revealing. It tells us, among much else, a good deal about our multiculturalists’s habits of interpretation and how we should judge their use of evidence. Professor Hutchins solemnly informs us that her effort “is an attempt to show sensitivity to the text and the culture that produces it”—“I am suing for permission to read,” she adds in a gratuitous gesture toward victimhood. But what does Professor Hutchins do when faced with a dearth of black African lesbians? As she explained in one dramatic moment: “I either ‘out’ an author or I ‘out’ a character (it takes one to know one, you know), or ... I ‘out’ language.” In other words, she shows “sensitivity to the text and the culture that produces it” by inventing lesbian characters where there are none.
That brings us to Judith Butler’s paper on the “lesbian phallus” and the question of the existence of heterosexuality. I regret to say that Professor Butler, who teaches in the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins University, was a bit of a let-down on both subjects. Her main point, at which she arrived after a tortuous Lacanian reading of Freud’s 1914 essay on narcissism, was that “erotogenicity” was not the privileged property of the genitals—and most especially not the male genitals—but was essentially “plastic” and “transferable.” Voicing her “wariness with respect to the phallic ideal,” she explained that her “task is not merely to disjoin the phallus [i.e., an idealized source of erotic gratification] from the penis but to underscore the phallus as transferable property.” “The phallus,” she concluded, is “always already plastic.” About the question of the existence of heterosexuality, she merely professed to having “lost interest along the way.”
What was most interesting about Professor Butler’s paper was not her conclusions —these were an expected smorgasbord of politically correct attitudes current in radical lesbian feminism—but the sophistication of her arguments. It was clear that Professor Butler is gifted with a keen and methodical philosophical mind. While her presentation was needlessly prolix and her conclusions debatable, to say the least, hers was the most rigorously argued paper I heard at the MLA. One could not help but lament the fact that these gifts are wasted pondering such subjects as “the lesbian phallus.”
Professor Butler concluded her talk by making the politically correct gesture of announcing that she was not politically correct, criticizing what she described as the “current conservative media blitz,” and deploring “homophobic discourse on AIDS.” Now “homophobia”—that is, fear or dislike or intolerance of homosexuals—has recently joined the pantheon of things it is politically incorrect to seem to be. (Whether one actually is racist or sexist or homophobic is in some ways a secondary matter.) Because I have cited and skeptically described some of the panels at the MLA devoted to homosexual themes, I will doubtless be accused of being “homophobic.” But then it is precisely on the subjects that are most difficult to debate in public—like race or homosexuality—that the demand for political correctness exercises its greatest tyranny: there is one politically correct position and then there is everything else. In any event, it is important to stress that the issue raised by these panels has nothing to do with “homophobia.” It has to do first of all with the kinds of things that are appropriate subjects for a public scholarly discussion of literature. I submit that neither “The Sodomitical Tourist” nor “The Lesbian Phallus” is appropriate. This is not because I suffer from “homophobia” but because I believe that the chief attraction of such topics is prurient. Panels devoted to homosexual themes often have the air of rallies for the initiate; “sexual orientation”—like race, ethnic origin, and so on in other contexts—is deliberately politicized and hailed as another mark of cultural “difference” that renders “universality” or “transcendence” impossible.
The more general issue, however, concerns the glorified place that has been alotted to sexuality and questions of “sexual orientation” in the humanities. Why should the details of one’s sexual interests—hetero-, homo-, or otherwise—be featured in panels and classes supposedly devoted to the study of literature? And of course mention of “literature” reminds us how far academic panels devoted to homosexual themes tend to stray from any concern with literature. They are hardly alone in this. The whole tendency of the multiculturalist imperative that has invaded the study of literature is to politicize teaching and scholarship from the ground up. The effect is not to make one more politically “sensitive” but to transform a concern with literature into an obsession with one’s race, one’s sex, one’s sexual preferences, one’s ethnic origin. What one gains is a political cause; what one loses is the freedom of disinterested appreciation.
Indeed, the substitution of certain political causes for disinterested appreciation may be said to have become the raison d'être of the Modern Language Association. In the session on “Ideology and/in the Teaching of Literature,” for example, one could hear Ellen Rooney, who was recently granted tenure at Brown University, deliver a paper called “Assume the Position: Pluralist Ideology and Gynocriticism.” Professor Rooney argued strenuously against the traditional idea that literature was “an object that we recognize and respond to in some immediate way,” explaining that the attempt to separate ideology from literature was itself a misguided ideological effort. She also explained that pluralism—an ideal that, as she correctly noted, “imagines a universal community”— was a bad thing because it “excludes exclusion” and because it attempts to distinguish between “ideology and reading.”
Then there was the session on anthologies of American literature. Here one could listen to Paul Lauter, chief editor of the multiculturalist potpourri known as The Heath Anthology of American Literature, natter on about Reaganism, social inequality, and other “literary” topics. In case one hadn't already guessed, Professor Lauter explained how the impetus for the anthology was “directly linked” to the “movement for social change” of the Sixties. One might, he admits, wonder whether the editors of The Heath Anthology were “attempting to reconstitute the shape of our discipline—of higher education generally—on the basis of political as distinct from traditionally accepted aesthetic standards.” Answer: “Of course we are. For I know of no standard of judgment . . . which transcends the particularities of time and place .... of politics in short.” It was not so long ago that the inability to distinguish between aesthetic judgment and political propagandizing would have disqualified someone from teaching. Nowadays, the inability to make such distinctions is taken as a sign of superior insight.
Blatantly reductive as Professor Lauter was, the MLA’s annual award for political fantasy must go to the session entitled “After Glasnost: Whither Marxist Criticism?”, one of many panels devoted to Marxist or Marxist-inspired themes. It would be difficult to imagine a more graphic illustration of how politically correct thinking effectively inoculates its adherents against anything so inconvenient as historical reality. Sitting among the hundred or so auditors assembled to discover the fate of contemporary Marxist criticism, one might have been forgiven for believing that the year was 1969—if not, indeed, 1935. The session began with Neil Larsen from Northeastern University, who spoke about “Negation of the Abnegation: Dialectical Criticism in the 1990s.” Western Marxism, he told us, has recently become “noncommittal and perplexed” about the class struggle and has taken refuge in theoretical and cultural disputes instead of forging ahead with revolutionary fervor. Take the well-known British Marxist Terry Eagleton: according to Professor Larsen, the problem is that Professor Eagleton “draws back from the prospect of actively and consciously impelling these contradictions [of power in society] toward a revolutionary outcome.” Moreover, it was “blindness to socialist class struggle” that recently provided openings for “neo-capitalist interests”—that is, for what most us would call democracy—in Eastern Europe. This was very bad. The disintegration of Communism—what Professor Larsen called “socialist institutions”—in Eastern Europe has replicated “the worst mechanical and non-dialectical aspects of its socialist other.”
The one novelty in Professor Larsen’s paper was his insinuation that contemporary Marxist theory was guilty of “vulgar Marxism.” Remember “vulgar Marxism”? That was the straw man that some Marxists invented when they wanted to castigate other Marxists for being insufficiently sophisticated. Vulgar Marxists believed that culture (the “superstructure”) was a direct reflection of economic relations (the “base”). Sophisticated Marxists were not so naïve. They had read the writings of the Frankfurt School. They knew that the relation between culture and the productive forces of a society was a complicated affair. They still believed—”finally,” “ultimately”—in economic determinism, but they were too cautious to say so outright. The determinism they believed in was “mediated.” It was “dialectical.” For the Sophisticated Marxist (a category that for our purposes may be said to consist largely of those who identify themselves as Marxists and who possess a Ph.D.) being “dialectical” is an idea like what the adolescent mind sums up in the adjective “cool.” It is good to be as dialectical as possible. Lenin was dialectical; Stalin (mostly) was not. Marx of course was highly dialectical. Being a member of the bourgeoisie is by definition undialectical —unless one happens to be a Sophisticated Marxist engaged in that paradigmatically bourgeois activity, teaching at a university, in which case one may be eligible for an exemption. How very dialectical, then, that Professor Larsen should suggest that the likes of Terry Eagleton and even that nonpareil of Sophisticated Marxists, the Duke professor Fredric Jameson, were in some deep dialectical sense insufficiently . . . dialectical and guilty, yes, of vulgar Marxism.
There was something almost quaint about Professor Larsen’s paper. He loved talking about things like the relation between “base” and “superstructure,” “Lenin’s key dialectical insight” and “the internal contradictions of capitalism.” He even appeared to believe that such exploded clichés meant something, much as scientists of an earlier era genuinely believed in such hypothetical entities as phlogiston or ether.
Less quaint, and considerably more fantastic, was the following presentation on the subject of the “construction of class in contemporary neo-Marxist theory” by Barbara Clare Foley from Rutgers University at Newark. It appears that Professor Foley is among those who admire Stalin and perhaps even consider him appropriately “dialectical.” As she promised at the beginning of her talk, Professor Foley did not say much that was relevant to anyone’s work as a literary scholar. Instead, she began by ridiculing the way Western “TV pundits” have presented the disintegration of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe.. These misguided commentators, she observed with biting sarcasm, believe that
socialism—sometimes called Communism— has failed. First, because it did not recognize that the free market accords with human nature much better than a planned economy [an observation that was met by laughter and applause from the audience]; and second, because political pluralism as embodied in Western-style electoral politics makes for far more genuine mass political participation than does a one-party state.
One marveled to hear this middle-class beneficiary of a free-market economy and Western political pluralism—and a graduate of Radcliffe and the University of Chicago to boot—go on to argue that the movement toward “repressive state socialism became irreversible only in the Khrushchev-era in the USSR and only after the defeat of the Cultural Revolution in China.” Perhaps neither Stalin nor Mao were sufficiently repressive for Professor Foley’s taste. In any event, in her view “Twentieth-century Communist-led movements” represent “the greatest advance in history toward human emancipation.” Whatever mistakes or excesses may have been committed along the way, the efforts to establish Communism in this century have been, she insisted, “mainly good” from the point of view of the working class and its “allies.” (Tell that to the Ukrainians and the Chinese peasants.)
Professor Foley was not without a long list of particulars. For example, we were told that in the United States the movements for racial justice and unionization were spearheaded “by reds in the 1930s.” President Roosevelt, you see, instituted his New Deal programs only because he feared a Communist revolution. Furthermore—still dilating on the glorious record of Communism in this century and correcting the history books along the way—Professor Foley informed us that the Nazis were defeated “primarily by the Soviets.” It’s not clear what she thought generals Eisenhower, Patton, and Bradley and Field Marshall Montgomery were doing in 1944 and 1945. Nor did she dwell on the warm alliance between Stalin and Hitler that persisted until the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Rather, she proceeded to remind us that the Soviets have also been in the vanguard of human emancipation by aiding and abetting “dozens of post-War national liberation movements”—you know, the movements that have led to all those beneficent regimes in Africa, Cuba, Central America, and the Middle East.
Professor Foley wasn’t done yet. Among the truly magnificent accomplishments of Communism in this century, she said, were the Soviet Five Year Plan, the Chinese Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. All were said to
attest to the uncoerced [!] enthusiasm with which masses of workers and peasants have thrown themselves into the process of materially constructing a new infrastructure that they thought they would control. . . [and] to the dramatic transformation in human relationships and values that were enabled by the movement toward egalitarianism.
As examples of this miraculous transformation, Professor Foley described scenes of peasant women “making bonfires of their veils” and “Moscow bus riders performing citizen’s arrests of fellow Russians who voiced racist insults to visiting black Americans.” Of course, a more thorough “transformation in human relationships and values” was achieved by the nine to twelve million victims of Stalin’s first Five Year Plan from 1928 to 1933, to say nothing of the three million or so who perished in his Great Purge of the preceding years, the millions who disappeared into the Gulag, or still other millions who died in his subsequent experiments with a “one-party state.” Mao’s efforts at totalitarian social engineering met with a similar success. But these were incidents that Professor Foley did not have occasion to mention. For her, the problem was that the noble movements toward human freedom and an “egalitarian society” represented by Communism had been “arrested and reversed” by the imperialistic forces of the West. It is consoling, is it not, to know that literature students at Rutgers University, Newark, are in such responsible hands?
After Barbara Foley’s performance, almost anything might have seemed tame. But in some respects, Catharine Stimpson’s Presidential Address epitomized to perfection the coy but thoroughly politicized spirit that now pervades the MLA and indeed the profession generally. In its breathtaking exhibition of politically correct attitudes, it managed to touch gently upon nearly every piety dear to the contemporary academic humanist while at the same time displaying appropriate contempt for a stunning array of “incorrect” opinions. Anyone who has seen Professor Stimpson in action knows that, while possessing a limited repertoire, she is an exceptionally able orator. Her most histrionically effective role is as defender of wounded virtue. She has also mastered the art of speaking almost entirely in cliches. This means that, unless one is paying close attention, she will often seem merely to be defending the status quo when in fact she is proposing radical change.
Professor Stimpson managed to add noticeably to the heady atmosphere of political rectitude wafting about the Hyatt Regency before even beginning her address by the simple device of dedicating it to colleagues “who have met AIDS with exemplary rage and gallantry and courage.” This gesture elicited somber, heartfelt applause. Everyone knows that AIDS is a horrible disease. But not all horrible diseases manage to transform themselves into signs of political election. AIDS has done so primarily because of the activism it has fostered among homosexuals. Many, many more people die each year from breast cancer, from heart attacks, and from other diseases than die from AIDS. But only AIDS enjoys the privileged status of being politically correct. Thus it is that AIDS is widely invoked as a token of political orthodoxy. For example, Martha Nussbaum, a professor of philosophy at Brown, noted not once but twice in her recent collection of essays that she was donating a portion of the royalties she received from the book to “The AIDS Action Committee of Boston.” Now what are the royalties on a book of academic philosophical essays likely to be? $37.50? $78.95? The ritual invocation of AIDS is a superb example of the politically correct gesture: it costs nothing yet nonetheless imparts a warm glow of superior virtue.
While she took time out to lambast the notion of political correctness and the way it had been used to criticize the MLA, Professor Stimpson devoted the body of her talk to the quintessential politically correct idea of 1991: “difference.” Along the way she managed to get in praise for Václav Havel and several other exquisitely PC figures and themes. At one point, for example, she paused solemnly to note that were limits to what even the most socially concerned literary criticism could do: “a hungry child cannot eat our words, and a battered woman cannot tape her broken ribs with our interpretations,” as if hungry children or battered women were the issue. Describing the study of modern literature as a “drama of difference,” an effort to teach us to live “openly with difference,” she devoted most of her address to contrasting the traditional view of the humanities unfavorably to multiculturalism, “cultural democracy,” and their supporting ideologies. The former is elitist, hierarchical, and insufficiently sensitive to differences like “age, class, ethnicity, institution, gender, nation, tribe, race, rank, religion, sexuality,” while the latter involve “treating society as the home of several equally valuable but distinct racial and ethnic groups,” as she put it in one anodyne phrase.
Professor Stimpson acknowledged that not everyone in her flock was so enthusiastic about the prospect of multiculturalism “invigorating” the study of literature. She therefore proclaimed herself “baffled, baffled as to why we cannot be students of Western culture and multiculturalism at the same time.” What she did not say, of course, was that multiculturalism implied a complete politicization of teaching and learning, that its radically egalitarian conception of culture ruled out not only the idea of literary quality but downgraded the very idea of literature as a distinct realm of endeavor and experience; she did not mention that multiculturalism, far from being a means of securing ethnic and racial equality, was an instrument for promoting ideological separatism based on all those differences she enjoyed enumerating: “age, class, ethnicity, institution, gender, nation, tribe, race, rank, religion, sexuality”; she did not dwell on the fact that the multiculturalist imperative explicitiy denies the intellectual and moral foundations of Western culture —preeminently its commitment to rationality and the ideal of objectivity—and that consequently the idea of being “students of Western culture and multiculturalism at the same time” is either an empty rhetorical gesture or a contradiction in terms.
As it happens, one prominent focus of Professor Stimpson’s attack was the passage from the inaugural issue of The New Criterion that serves as the epigraph for this essay. She read most of it aloud, suggesting that it represents a prime instance of the “booming rhetorical guns” under which the MLA has suffered so unfairly. Consider: “[M]ost of what is written... is either hopelessly ignorant, deliberately obscurantist, commercially compromised, or politically motivated.” Could it be that the academy, that the MLA, is guilty of such things as deliberate obscurantism or politicizing the study of literature? “[T]he very notion of an independent high culture and the distinctions that separate it from popular culture and commercial entertainment have been radically eroded.” Would anyone in the academy today really challenge the distinction between high culture and popular entertainment? “This fateful collapse in critical standards . . . and in the very idea of critical disinterestedness . . . has changed, and changed very much for the worse, the way the arts and humanities are now studied in our universities.” Surely there was nothing at the MLA to suggest that academic standards had suffered or that well-known scholars have jettisoned the ideal of critical disinterestedness? And as for “the radical movement of the Sixties,” well, Professor Stimpson called them her “salad days,” Professors Lauter, Foley, and Larsen seem still to be living them, but who would say that the academy was influenced for the worse by a Sixties radicalism—by drugs, promiscuity, a destruction of academic standards, an importation of politics into the classroom?
Professor Stimpson presents herself as the champion of the downtrodden and disempowered. Yet the multiculturalist conception of education she champions would bring not victory but profound defeat for genuine intellectual emancipation. In a recent essay entitled “Our Universal Civilization,” the novelist V. S. Naipaul described his vocation as a writer as a journey from the periphery to the center: from his native Trinidad—the periphery of universal civilization—to London, its center. All true education traces some such movement from the periphery to the center, from our isolated selves to something larger. The multiculturalist imperative holds that there is no center, only a series of equally valid peripheries. As the 106th annual meeting of the MLA showed in unsettling detail, this doctrine has established itself as the reigning orthodoxy in literature departments in colleges and universities across the country. It is an insidious doctrine, spelling new forms of intellectual and moral separatism, and it is a tragedy that it should have found so warm a reception in the American academy.
- “Tenured Radicals: A Postscript,” The New Criterion, January 1991, pages 4-13. Go back to the text.
- That is, Catharine R. Stimpson, the outgoing president of the MLA. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 6, on page 8
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