Post #535 • May 10, 2005, 8:10 AM • 21 Comments
Writing for the April 29 Chronicle of Higher Education, the pseudonymous Thomas H. Benton (!) documents another instance of The Stare. (Article available online only to subscribers; not even Bug Me Not worked on this one. I have a printed copy.)
Theory became a kind of confidence trick, a means of reducing the impossible workload to a few catchphrases: "Puleese, the author's intentions are irrelevant here." "Everything is political." "There is nothing but the text." They were like the applause lines used by politicians. And they always seemed to work in seminars.
All that was required, ultimately, was conformity with a set of political beliefs. No one would ask why the author's intentions were irrelevant. ...
Besides, perfectly reasonable questions were often met with the "poor dear, you need mental help" stare from people who had no explanations other than dogma. I learned to just bob my head sagely and hum in affirmation to things I only half understood. For all its avaowed radicalism, Theory seemed to stifle the possibility of dialogue at the time in my life when I most needed it.
I have encountered The Stare once before in literature describing the Theory environment. Julia of Winston's Diary, quoting a friend:
And I know now for a fact what I suspected before: Critical inquiry is dead in the English department, and the enforcement of ideology is total. In the one short week since I made my decision, I've been bold enough to ask questions in my seminars that mildly challenge anti-western articles of faith. I've been rewarded with gravely concerned looks from the faculty and insults from adult students, complete with rolling eyeballs and a neener-neener tone of voice.
Here's a story from just three days ago: One of the characters in a book by a Vietnamese-American author was indicted by the class for her phallocentric American "desire to know" (I guess vaginocentric non-Americans just want to loll around in loose shoes and ignorance--exactly how is this bullshit supposed to promote tolerance and human happiness?). The character discovers that her mother's life in Vietnam had been brutal rather than idyllic, and that the Vietcong were as lousy as the feudal overlords, if not worse. I pointed out that it wasn't the character's "American need to know" that uncovered the truth, but her mother's unprompted confessional letter. Was that evidence, then, of a "Vietnamese need to tell"? One woman sitting next to me nodded enthusiastically (she hasn't been fully indoctrinated yet) and said, "That's great" but everyone else glared at her until she looked at her shoes, suddenly knowing she'd made a gaffe. The woman across from me said (rolling her eyes, neener-neener voice), "Yeah, well, I'm really uncomfortable with her mother's 'story' [makes scare quote hands] about the Vietcong. Doesn't that just reproduce American ideology about the supposedly savage, evil North Vietnamese?" The professor nodded and agreed it was "uncomfortable," and several other heads nodded, but I wouldn't give up (fuck it; I'm out of here anyway). I said I didn't understand why it was good for Americans to de-mythologize their golden past, but bad for Vietnamese to do it. Isn't it the same thing? Isn't it better to know the truth than to gild the turd? And if the "need to know" is American, then what explains all that American mythologizing about the Frontier? Isn't that the same kind of turd-gilding?
The professor looked extremely concerned--it was one of those furrowed-brow looks that says, "Do you need your medication?" She made a few remarks about how those were, um, interesting points, but that maybe we should move on to the issue of the author's portrayal of Vietnam as a raped female body (for which, of course, there was only the flimsiest textual "evidence"). That led to more pointed questions from me, but I'll stop the story here.
I found this via Timothy Comeau's PhD slapdown, at a time when I was considering entering a PhD program in Art History. I read the conclusion to the above quote, and thought, there but for the grace of God go I:
I just can't do this for seven more years. I'll start yelling. I'll start insulting people. I'll get kicked out, so I'm leaving before they bounce me.
Coming back to Mr. Benton:
Professors, in general, have the luxury of appearing moderate and open to competing ideas, but insecure students often research the opinions of faculty members to ensure that they will be on the correct side of any apparently open dialogue. The powerless seize on small expressions of political opinion from the powerful and embrace these views even more radically in order to prive their loyalty and worthiness.
Of course, most of us probably didn't recognize that we were latecomers to the grad-school pyramid scheme. Theory with a capital T grew up with the expansion of graduate programs and the adjunctification of higer education during the last 30 years. It was a ticket to success for a charmed circle of insiders: a few people at elite institutions with the connections and advance knowledge to get in and out of the game before the general rush. The language of theory - carefully deployed in the world of academic hiring and publication - still functions in ways that suggest the sub rosa communications of Ivy League clubmen in the world of investment banking.
And now it seems like everyone is rushing to get out with what's left of their devalued stock. Famous scholars such as Henry Louis Gates, Homi Bhabha, and Terry Eagleton have announced that "theory is dead." Of course, at this late date, it's as if our leaders have emerged from months of concentrated thought to announce that Jefferson Starship is no longer on the cutting edge of popular music.
I've said before that no idea has so much merit that no one can apply it badly, and for the sake of sportsmanship I'll assert the converse, up to a point. But I think the time has come to admit that whatever value Theory has brought to art, the culture of Theory, epitomized by The Stare and the chorus of bobbing heads, has outweighed it. It's purveyors seem not to realize that its very existence and perpetration depend on the same mechanisms of elitism, coercion, greed, and fear that they claim to oppose. Since they favor interpretation over appreciation, they create a barrier against feeling that not only prevents a mature love of art, it renders them unable to play nicely with others. It opposes what Jews call menschlekeit and could hardly do otherwise, given that it reduces the tradition of artistic goodness to an artificial construct. This attitude does little for the art of creating a decent person.