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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Bruce Robbins on Michael Bérubé - Liberalism as Dirty Word

Posted by Bruce Robbins, Guest Author, on 11/19/06 at 07:53 PM

Bruce Robbins is a professor in the department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He’s also sort of pals with Bérubé, so you can factor that in. For that matter, ‘the management’ once sat next to him on a bus and talked to him at some length. Clearly it’s a rich tapestry of factors. - the management

Could I try out one view of Michael Berubé’s book I haven’t heard mentioned? Sure, he’s speaking for academics in the humanities and social sciences whom non-liberals would properly see as liberal. And sure, these people (myself included) are a majority in our departments. But do they see themselves as liberal? Maybe on the phone at home, when reluctantly answering some pollster’s questions in a tongue they know to be alien. But at work, I don’t think so. In literature departments (I teach in one) “liberal” is more often than not a dirty word.

For example, Berubé’s liberalism means secularism. But secularism is by no means English department dogma. On the contrary, the big fashion these days is to declare oneself post-secular; it’s everywhere. This unbending to religion should not be a surprise. After all, the critique of Enlightenment rationality is what English departments were founded on. You can still get more or less automatic assent, if not necessarily wild cheering or a reputation for originality, by rising to denounce any of that rationality’s assumptions or moving parts. Remember, Nietzsche is still the biggest philosopher in this neighborhood. Not a democrat, and not a liberal.

No, I’m not crazy about this. But there are sides of the deep anti-liberal bias in English departments that I have more time for. The active discussion about Burkean conservatism where I live–and you should know that there is one– centers on whether Burke wasn’t after all the true leftist, given that the people to his left never had the qualms he had about British imperialism and that his version of agricultural organicism, though it didn’t stop him from welcoming enclosures, certainly offered a better defense of India than anything else in the British public sphere. I personally have my reservations about Uday Mehta’s argument for Burke as anti-imperialist hero, but it’s certainly a strong one. Adam Smith is also having a resurgence these days, in part because it has become clear that he was not a Smithian, in part because he didn’t approve of colonialism, and in part because of his Theory of Moral Sentiments, which has been taken to underlie today’s humanitarian compassion. The fact that we’re thinking in this way about Burke and Smith is not a “victory for the right"– it’s just doing what we do, thinking through the heritage of thought and feeling as vigorously as possible and looking for what will serve us.

I’ve had the word ‘liberal’ used in my vicinity with unmistakable venom merely because I wanted my fellow lefties to consider making common cause with liberals over this or that issue, if only as a way of getting something done. Therefore I could only be a closet member of the fraternity… (Which I suppose I must be on some level since I did like almost everything about Berubé’s book.) It will perhaps amuse readers of The Valve to consider that this insinuation hurt, since like those around me I too took an instinctive distance from various liberal premises (possessive individualism, contracts, consent, indulgence for market capitalism, and so on). But there we are, not liberals at all, at least to ourselves.

The point of all this is to suggest the following: to the extent that he is addressing those who are disciplinarily closest to him, Berubé may not be defending the liberalism of his colleagues so much as trying to get them to think of themselves as liberals.

Something which I continue to think of as both good and bad. Good: this means trying to get them to think of themselves less exclusively as academics and more as citizens. And trying to get them to give us a break on all very tiring critiques of Enlightenment rationality. Bad: this means, for Berubé as for his teacher Richard Rorty, getting them to feel prouder of their country. Compare, say, Walter Michaels on inequality in America’s system of higher education with Berubé’s qualified but much more patriotic account: “The United States is the only country in which half the population enters college (though only half of that half manages to graduate, and we’re gradually scaling back on our fitful efforts to expand the franchise to the poor)...”

I’m not sure what difference if any the thought of Berubé’s local choir as not converted at all will make to the readers of this blog. But I suppose this is the way to find out.


I think that it is generally understood that “liberal” is a dirty word to a large minority of academics in the humanities.  (Or perhaps “neoliberal”, but to this type, all liberals are essentially neoliberals.) And yes, this generally involves the full set of rationality-is-bad, religion-is-the-hot-new-thing ideological concomitants.

But if you’re a liberal, you’re not supposed to mention the amusing fact that what hacks like Horowitz take to be a Unified Left (for boogeyman purposes) is actually quite divided along various ideological lines.  That’s some kind of Clintonian triangulation apparently, leading to far more sincerely phrased vituperation than I’ve ever seen this type direct at conservatives—bits about how “cowardly and morally disgusting” liberal rhetoric is, imagined beat-downs, and a sort of risible wannabe thugliness.

So, yes, Berube’s local choir not converted—his local choir, in fact, is addicted to fantasies of faux radicalism.  Mostly, I think that academic opinions on politics are irrelevent, at least in the humanities.  It’s worth defending them against Horowitz, because academic freedom is worth defending.  That doesn’t mean that the left is going to get anything useful out of them.

By on 11/19/06 at 10:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bruce, this was a very helpful thought; thank you. I’ve been considering my response to Berube over this past week, and one thing that has been curious to me is his, in my view, very scattershot and disconnected (and sometimes inconsistent) advocacy of liberal theory; how is that supposed to tie into liberal arts teaching? Your suggestion that he’s not developing an overall theory of the politically and procedurally “liberal” requirements and/or consequences of the liberal arts, but rather basically just cheerleading for liberalism as a set of rhetorical and policy positions, makes sense to me. I don’t know if it affects my overall take on the book, but it does help me see aspects of it in a different light.

By Russell Arben Fox on 11/20/06 at 09:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m mulling a post in the vicinity of all this, so let me try to get the basic outline out.

What Bruce says about academic humanists being substantially to the left of liberalism - let alone neoliberalism - is substantially true. The dirty word point has merit. (Of course you’ve got to start with a definition of ‘liberal’, but let’s skip the necessaries.)

It would be worse than counter-productive for, say, David Horowitz to allow himself to notice this, since it would only suggest that Ward Churchill has really very little in common with Nancy Pelosi (and where’s the fun in that, if you want to use Churchill as a club against people with some actual influence?)

But, to be fair, there’s a kind of weird blindness to this in academia as well. Not blindness. Lack of explicitness, since everyone sees it well enough. How not? When I rode with Bruce on that bus we talked a bit about a PMLA piece he wrote, so let me focus on PMLA, which I have actually read a lot of. I’ve made a point of reading most of every issue for several years, so I have a pretty good sense of the content.

PMLA bills itself as being open to all sorts of contributions that have to do with modern languages, from all perspectives and theoretical angles, etc. As the flagship journal of a massive population of academics, it’s officially a very big tent. Fine, fine. Now (I should probably get scientific about this, but what the hell): most PMLA articles have some political content, usually of an incidental - added for zest and flavor - variety. And a substantial number of pieces are substantially political in content. If memory serves, and if judgment is sound, the right-most political expression that has made it into the journal in the last three years ago was a kind of ‘in defense of liberalism’ piece by Berube (this was in 2003 - later I’ll footnote all this, but I find making links in comments to be boring.) It was ‘in defense’ against the left, not the right, mostly. So in a preliminary way let’s plant Berube as the frozen limit on the right, PMLA-wise. From there PMLA veers leftward as far as a sort of would-that-it-were-possible marxishness. The leftier it gets, the vaguer it tends to get. (No actual revolutions, please. We’re academics.)

Anyway, there’s nothing wrong with a journal having this political compass. There’s plenty of elbow-room between Michael Berube and would-that-Marxishness-were-right. But it’s rather noteworthy that the journal doesn’t explicitly self-acknowledge that it’s political content has almost no overlap with the mainstream of American politics. A journal that publishes substantial political content, that is really out of the mainstream (this - I re-emphasize - is nothing to be ashamed of in itself) owes itself explicit self-acknowlegement of that fact. On pain of tending to be not very sharp or interesting to read, when politics comes up.

That’s what my post will be about, if I get around to it. Why PMLA’s schizophrenic political posture makes it either harmless, or mostly harmless, depending how you prefer to look at it.

By John Holbo on 11/20/06 at 09:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, I’ll wait to hear more about my latest inconsistencies, but in the meantime, I would like to clear up an old inconsistency:  I no longer think that liberal “patriotism” serves any pragmatic purpose.  I used to vacillate between (a) arguing that the nation-state should remain an object of left analysis insofar as its administrative agencies either do or don’t advance progressive policies and (b) arguing in a more Rortyan vein that left intellectuals in the U.S. would do well to recognize and deal with Americans’ possessive investment in Americannness.  I no longer think (b) is a political concession worth making.

In fact, I’m a little surprised to see Bruce claim that my project involves getting Americans “to feel prouder of their country.” That doesn’t seem quite fair, especially these days, when it’s become clear that opposing unilateralism and torture and unlimited presidential powers involves (among other things) getting Americans to feel more ashamed of their country.  And the reason I’m surprised is that Bruce himself has done more than anyone to convince me, over the past fifteen years, that I was wrong to give liberal patriotism the time of day.  That’s why, if I were asked to pull a passage from What’s Liberal on the subject, I would direct you instead to the Robbins-inflected line, “the true purpose of education is to try to foster in students a kind of critical cosmopolitanism, such that they learn, among other things, to question any notion that one’s nation or tribe is favored by God or destiny.” (And yes, I’m quite aware that Jodi Dean didn’t care for the passage in which this sentence appears.  I’ll get around to replying to her this week.)

Last but not least, it doesn’t seem to me that the sentence Bruce cites here—about the percentage of the U.S. population that enters college—is terribly patriotic.  It sounds to me like a simple statement of fact, like “the United States contains roughly 300 million people.” While it’s true that Walter Benn Michaels’s account of the university is more caustic than mine, that account also includes the odd (but usefully and deliberately provocative) claim that we are actively contributing to inequality by teaching and writing about culture (and thus obscuring and mystifying class).  I’d suggest instead that U.S. universities will continue to exacerbate inequalities for as long as they exist as part of a system in which everyone without a college degree is subject to the various policies of wage depression this country has pursued since 1973.  Whether humanities professors teach about race and gender and sexuality and disability has—as Bruce has argued many times before, with regard to John Guillory’s work—very little to do with it.

Anyway, I do want to thank Bruce for reading my book, for arguing me out of the Rortyan position he attributes to me here, and—most of all—for doing so much over the past two decades to persuade our fellow lefties (though some have not yet been persuaded) that “cosmopolitanism” is not a dirty word.

By Michael Bérubé on 11/20/06 at 10:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, your comment almost exactly duplicates the content of mine, except that you’ve actually read the PMLA.  The place where it is different is, of course, the place where I think it goes slightly wrong; the introduction of a concept of “mainstream”.  Radicalism is a strategy more than a content.  You can be a sort of radical moderate, strange as the concept may sound; that’s what people complain about when they complain about “those horrible Kos people who are always cursing” and so on.  The reason that academic radicalism is faux is because academics generally don’t actually do anything, not because the content of their politics is outside “the mainstream”. 

The content of their politics is a lot more Marxist than typical for the left wing of the Democratic party, sure, but there are a lot of other “leftisms” in that same space that humanities academics are often clueless about—the whole environmental constellation, for one—and it’s not really that hard to fit them in.

By on 11/20/06 at 10:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The reason that academic radicalism is faux is because academics generally don’t actually do anything, not because the content of their politics is outside “the mainstream”.

Can I just say the obvious here? I’m dubious about the ready distinction between action and nonaction, between authentic and inauthentic deeds. Academics do something, which is scholarship, and teaching, and the fostering of a space where ideas can be flung back and forth with vim and vigor and violence without murder, and that’s to be praised (following S. Fish’s ‘Always Academize’). In fact, that kind of space is necessary to a liberal polis, don’t you think? And I wonder, likewise, if radicalism--which requires that every thought or deed be recognized as mattering materially--is fundamentally inimicable to scholarship.

By on 11/20/06 at 12:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The reason that academic radicalism is faux is because academics generally don’t actually do anything, not because the content of their politics is outside “the mainstream”.

But it seems to me that not doing anything comes first. Given that as the unstated foundation, it follows that one can be as radical as one pleases, because the ideas have no consequences beyond the rhetorical. Withdraw from the world, then talk incessantly about radically transforming it.

By Bill Benzon on 11/20/06 at 01:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

KarL: “I’m dubious about the ready distinction between action and nonaction, between authentic and inauthentic deeds. Academics do something, which is scholarship, and teaching [...]”

I think that you’re basically agreeing with me, Karl.  Certainly I agree that what academics do is worth doing.  But it’s not radical politics.  The “don’t do anything” in my sentence meant “don’t do political activity” not don’t do any work.

And that’s what really wrong with so much academic writing about literature being political.  Academics strive to get into a world in which politics is voluntary.  (Making politics voluntary is, in my opinon, one of the core goals of the left.) So they end up having little familiarity with it, in general, and you can see that in their professional work that attempts to be political.

By on 11/20/06 at 02:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Certainly I agree that what academics do is worth doing.  But it’s not radical politics.

To which I also say: thank goodness. And I think that academics who (mis)apprehend what they’re doing as radical politics misapprehend radical politics (but I’m more than willing to be corrected on this point by the senior members of this conversation). I do think that the classroom, done right (pace Freire?), is a fundamentally liberal place, for the reasons I stated above. In other words, I think academic work is liberal/political in the sense that it at least models (and perhaps even enacts) the kind of inquiry and trying things out and commitment to evidence and to process (rather than ends) that I think would benefit our public sphere. But maybe I’m just saying nothing here.

Not sure I follow your last graph.

By on 11/20/06 at 05:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

An apology to Michael-- the need to find something in the book that I didn’t completely agree with may have pushed me to put a bit more emphasis on the patriotism business than it deserved.  Or maybe this was a reaction to the book’s heroizing of Rorty, whose “Unpatriotic Academy” op ed remains gallingly unforgettable after all these years.  In any case, you and I have no differences I can see about “critical cosmopolitanism.” And while we’re tossing flowers in public, I still owe you for that immigration conversation…

Come to think of it, this makes me want to say something in defense of far-left posturing.  On the one hand, less posturing and more recognition of liberal values they share with non-academic fellow citizens would pull academic work back in the direction of local social realities, and that would be good.  On the other hand, the hysteria that our fellow citizens submitted to after 9/11 is still fresh in my mind, as is the fact that universities were suddenly just about the only space where it was possible to put the attacks in any sort of larger, non-hysterical context. That’s not a negligible achievement, even from the point of view of citizenship. (Which comes in different scales.) I wouldn’t want us to get real if getting real meant not being able to take that kind of distance any more.

By on 11/20/06 at 06:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

While Rich’s hard-line stance against radicals and religion is always heartening in its undying commitment, I wonder if there isn’t something more interesting the folks at The Valve might want to consider.

The notion of the post-secular, to my knowledge, did not arise in English departments. It comes out of theology and religious studies departments, from both religious scholars attempting to write on the contemporary situation, theologians attempting to revive theology, and philosophers taking serious the phenomena of religion. It’s hardly an anti-Liberal thing, though you’ll find instances of that. It’s very “post” signifies that it is coming after liberalism! And only fools would believe that liberalism is evil or all bad or whatever.

I do think there is something to the idea that, if the radical enlightenment was meant to respond to the problem of religious violence by way of rationality then it has failed as a project because of its relationship to religion. There really are no neutral spaces (as Rich always shows us) and it can often be very insulting to be on the other side of a Liberal ‘tolerating’ you. In so far as theologians, religious scholars and philosophers (and sociologists, etc) are attempting to deal with this I find it promising.

Now, maybe there is something wrong with English departments. Maybe English departments take concepts like the post-secular and tear out all the life and rigour that other academics have put into it. I don’t know. I don’t hang around English departments. Still, it seems that the idea of post-secularity would have some kind of cultural expression if it were historically real. Actually, I remember now that we had a fellow down from Stirling’s religious studies department who does work on literature and religion. He had us read a few passages from new books that did express this, but overall his stance was a bit too uncritical for me. But it was just a lecture.

As to the radical politics of academia. Why is that if one wants to be taken seriously on this blog and others as a leftist they must be a Democrat? If you think the government is in the pocket of Big Business you’re a member of the Churchill gang? I don’t vote for Democrats anymore because they don’t represent me, because they still wage war irresponsibly, because they put business interests above human interests, because they are weak. But these things are all up for debate! I recognize that there is little political will for the things I hope for and as a citizen in a democracy I have to accept that and do what I can to influence popular consciousness. I hardly think that’s radical and though I don’t consider myself a liberal I’m sure it owes more than a debt of gratitude to what liberalism has given us.

Part of the debt is in part the modern university itself. Liberalism is a real mixed bag and I hardly find it interesting to defend or attack it without taking that seriously. Maybe there is a problem in academia with this, but I don’t think Rich’s blanket condemnation of academics not ‘doing anything’ politically is particularly helpful.

By on 11/20/06 at 07:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Let me register a certain kind of “getting real.” I’m old enough to have drawn a draft number during the Vietnam era. My number was 12, pretty sure to be called up. Well, by that time I’d been marching and protesting and was a member of SDS and knew all sorts of ways to deal with the draft, and was in a social circle that gave me access to various almost-sure “escapes.” The one I chose was to declare myself a conscientious objector.

In pursuing this I had the help of the Chaplain’s Office at Johns Hopkins (where I was a student) and a lawyer working for the American Friends Service Committee, which is backed by a religious organization (the Friends). Among those in my immediate circle were people who talked fondly of “Mother Russia” and the “Revolutionary Patience of the Vietnamese.” A complicated situation, and I liked all of these people.

As it turns out, my draft board didn’t hassle me about the CO, but did give me a hard time about just what I’d do for alternative service. So, the chaplain at JHU called in some chips with Parren Mitchell and Paul Sarbanes and got them to write letters on my behalf. It worked.

None of this would have been possible if, back in WWII, some very religious people hadn’t stood their ground and went to prison—Jevhovah’s witnesses and Mennonites and so forth. As a consequence of that regulations were put in place that made provisions for COs and for alternative service—mostly as a matter of avoiding the hassle of dealing with such zealots. That’s what made it possible for me to spend two years working for the Chaplain at JHU rather than serving in the military or going to prison.

That’s politics. It’s messy and full of compromises. It’s better than bombs and guns. But, alas, not always possible.

And, to some extent, the reason I don’t have an academic gig is the obverse of all that radical speechifying so popular in the academy. I didn’t and don’t buy into the the critical systems propelling those poses. Those ideas may be politically radical, but not intellectually and conceptually, especially not in the current climate. Intellectually and conceptually, they are comfortably grounded in the 19th century. Nothing radical about that.

I doubt that the posing is really necessary to the job of keeping an open mind in the classroom, laboratory, and library. To the extent that it is, I fear that it’s only a fragile openness. Why should distance entail self-absorbed blindness?

By Bill Benzon on 11/20/06 at 07:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wait, Bruce!  Let’s do one more flower toss.  First of all, you’re right that I didn’t make it clear—even in a footnote—that I take my distance from Rorty’s gallingly unforgettable “Unpatriotic Academy” op-ed and all the many forms of liberal mischief it has spawned in the past ten years.  (I’m saving that for the book-in-progress, but I certainly could have spared a word here.) And your suggestion that “to the extent that he is addressing those who are disciplinarily closest to him, Bérubé may not be defending the liberalism of his colleagues so much as trying to get them to think of themselves as liberals” is genuinely startling—in the sense that I may indeed have been doing that without being entirely aware of it.  (I also liked Jodi Dean’s remarks on the appearance of the word “love” in the book for the same reason.) It’s definitely the case that my recent experiences with the AAUP have led me to believe that a certain kind of civil-libertarian tradition (with its insistence on plural public spheres and the relative autonomy of civil society) is the political condition of possibility for many critiques of liberalism, including the indispensable kinds entailed in those larger, non-hysterical post-9/11 contextualizations of US foreign policy by the left.  9/11 also led me to think of the civil-libertarian tradition as one of the foundations on which any attempt to imagine a further-left-than-liberal left wing of the possible must be built, and to rid myself of any residual attachment to liberal patriotism.  Of course, my appeals (online and off) to liberal internationalism have often been met with a series of Bronx cheers and rotten fruit from the left, as Rich Puchalsky notes in his first comment.  But I think that’s because “liberal” is still such a dirty word that for the left, it even manages to ruin the word “internationalism.”

I talk about all this at greater length, if with no greater coherence, in an interview that will appear in the next minnesota review—in which I explain that I settled for the word “liberal” in the book’s title not only because of the civil-libertarian argument I sketch above because also “progressive,” the left tradition with which I usually associate myself, makes such a lousy noun.  And because What’s Progressive about the Progressive Arts? sounds like a cross between Madame Blavatsky and Montessori school.

By Michael Bérubé on 11/20/06 at 07:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bruce Robbins: “Come to think of it, this makes me want to say something in defense of far-left posturing.  [...] On the other hand, the hysteria that our fellow citizens submitted to after 9/11”

But the two have nothing to do with each other.  There seems to be an implication that only far-left posturing is sufficiently seperated from local social realities to avoid being caught up in hysterias like the one after 9/11.  But there were plenty of plain liberals who didn’t get hysterical after 9/11.  People didn’t hear about them because the media had no interest in presenting their viewpoint.  And, in general, posturing gives no guarantee of distance—what it mostly guarantees is knee-jerk contrarianism, the kind that says that we are all Hezbollah now.

Karl: “Not sure I follow your last graph.”

People should write about what they know.  Academics, in general, don’t know politics.  Ergo, academic theories that heavily involve politics are likely to be poorly grounded.

That may or may not be the case for an academic that actually studies politics.  But for those in the English Department, they’re generally fooling themselves.  A lot of the sort-of-marxism, for instance, bears no relationship to actual marxism, although it mines it for buzzwords.  Sokal could just as easily have written up a parody using all Marxist words as scientific ones.

As for the bit about making politics voluntary, it’s basically an aside.  Politics is not voluntary for those people who are actually going to be hurt if the wrong politics takes hold.  One of the purposes of leftism is to create a society in which people will not be too bad off if even they make mistakes, or stop looking out for themselves politically all the time.  That’s the same kind of thing that tenure is.

By on 11/20/06 at 07:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks again Bill Benzon. I always appreciate your comments around here.


“Academics, in general, don’t know politics.”

I’m curious who you think does know politics?

By on 11/20/06 at 07:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Anthony, Alberto Moravia.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 11/20/06 at 08:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

APS: “I’m curious who you think does know politics?”

People who do politics.  In my opinion, politics isn’t something that you somewhat passively have, like an ideology; it’s an activity, and one that you can become more skilled in and knowledgeable about.  Of course, an academic who happens to do it can become skilled in it, just as a occasional truck driver or sculptor can become skilled in politics.  But academics often seem to presume that they have some special kind of knowledge about it that they gain through reading in their non-political specialty.  That’s not the case.

Like all activities, people try to replace knowledge gained through practise with knowledge codified into theory—it’s easier to learn and communicate that way, not to mention that it allows you to try to control events more effectively.  But the political theory that goes along with general academic faux radicalism is not serious.

By on 11/20/06 at 08:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"And because What’s Progressive about the Progressive Arts? sounds like a cross between Madame Blavatsky and Montessori school.”

I already suggested What’s Cultural About Cultural Studies?.

By on 11/20/06 at 08:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, a lot of the literature I take seriously is discussing “the political” as a concept, so I like to think you’re misunderstanding it (but I’m not sure we’re talking about the same stuff).

Still, your response begs the questions, “Who are the people who do politics? And what does ‘doing politics’ mean?” I’ve engaged in what I think is politics. I’ve written letters to Democratic leaders who will never do what I ask. And I’ve marched with striking teachers. Which one of those is politics? Surely you don’t mean that only those who work in NGO’s or governmental organizations can talk about politics. That’s government, not politics (and they are different if necessarily related).

I think you’re right that there is too much faux radicalism in universities, but of course my issue is with the faux and not the radicalism. I do think that intellectuals through research and teaching are doing political and social work on a small scale.

By on 11/20/06 at 08:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Anthony, you might do an MLA search on “John McClure,” a scholar in Rutgers’ English department.  He’s written a few articles on the ties between postmodernism and postsecularism, which arose out of his previous work on “the late imperial romance”: the postmodern novel in which characters travel to far away lands in pursuit of the exotic and in reaction against the disenchantment of the West. 

I took McClure’s seminar on Postmodern/Postsecular culture back in 1999.  We read a variety of theory, from Raymond Williams on residual culture to Haraway on the cyborg, as well as a great selection of fiction: Pynchon, Morrison, Silko, Rushdie, DeLillo, and others.  All the magical thinking that Sean McCann and others have traced back to the New Left was seen by McClure as potential versions of counter-hegemonic politics.

By on 11/20/06 at 10:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A small, late note on something that has, I think, unfortunately big complications.  Though I wish it were otherwise, it’s not clear to me that Michael’s two points quoted below can be neatly separated--in theory or practice.  Coincidentally, this was one of the interesting points in Crooked Timber’s Sheri Berman seminar.  This seems like a serious problem to me. 

I used to vacillate between (a) arguing that the nation-state should remain an object of left analysis insofar as its administrative agencies either do or don’t advance progressive policies and (b) arguing in a more Rortyan vein that left intellectuals in the U.S. would do well to recognize and deal with Americans’ possessive investment in Americannness.

By on 11/20/06 at 10:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m a big fan of Late Imperial Romance, LB, and have read McLure’s pomo/posec essay from ‘95.  My memory is that he was pretty ambivalent there.  Did he change his tune, or do I misremember?

By on 11/20/06 at 10:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Well, a lot of the literature I take seriously is discussing “the political” as a concept, so I like to think you’re misunderstanding it (but I’m not sure we’re talking about the same stuff).”

We are probably talking about the same stuff.  I think that people who actually do politics have found little use for the literature that discusses “the political” as a concept.

And I think that my answer is pretty clear.  Sure, sending letters is doing politics, so is marching.  Like any other activity, involvement with it is a matter of degree, not of kind.  The amount of actual activity that most academics engage in is quite low, considering the norms for educated people in Western society (I don’t think that there are that many college graduates who have not marched for something at some point).  The questions for what I consider to be serious political involvement are: does the person have articulable political goals, some kind of strategy for how to approach them, some regular practice that is supposed to help them get there, a network of people who they work with.  For a simple example, take the people who live near Superfund sites, where the base goal might be “my kid should not get cancer”, the strategy is to put pressure on the polluter and government to get the site cleaned up, the practice is local activism, and the network is a classic Love Canal-style neighborhood group.  Or with a Daily Kos habitue who is seriously involved, the goal might be to get progressive Democrats in control of the government, the strategy is to seize the levers of party control that are available to activists, the practise is regular donation, electoral volunteerism, communication, and the network is the regulars at the site.

Academic work is useful work, but it’s a lifestyle that generally doesn’t require immediate political involvement (unless you are a union-organizing grad student) and it’s one that, until you’re tenured, doesn’t really allow the time for much of it—and afterwards your habits are formed.  It’s not surprising or blameworthy to me that most academics are not really politically involved.  What’s puzzling (and somewhat intellectually self-deluding) is that they so often think that they are.

As for research and teaching—well, I work with academics who do research that affects politics quite a bit; they are generally climatologists, biologists, and economists.  I don’t really see how the humanities comes into it.  For teaching, if you really aren’t trying to indoctrinate your students, then what you’re really doing is teaching them critical thought.  That’s fine, but it’s just as necessary for keeping neoliberal capitalist society going as it is for any kind of left political involvement, and is more likely to be applied to that end.

By on 11/20/06 at 11:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Quick question. Do you think it has always been the case that academic work in the humanities has been politically useless, or is this only the case with today’s academics in the humanities?

By CR on 11/21/06 at 12:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean, my recollection of McClure’s seminar is that he was generally supportive of what might be called “postsecular politics.” He taught a section of William James’s *A Pluralistic Universe* to get at that idea of a world more complex than any single discourse can get at.  He was generally sympathetic to a sort of counter-Enlightenment critique of instrumental rationality, and viewed postmodern literature as an attempt to get at the non-material elements of the world in politically progressive ways.  For example, in our discussion of Pynchon’s *Vineland*, we talked a lot about how the novel supports the idea of “the retreat,” of a necessary withdrawal from the world of politics and power in order to regroup and rethink one’s political (and spiritual) life.  This was also a part of our discussion of Silko’s *Ceremony*, as Tayo must go off into the mountains and remove himself from the degraded world of the reservation. 

My own interests at the time drew me close to McClure’s ideas.  I had written about rituals of healing in the work of Toni Cade Bambara and Michael Harper, and my pre-dissertation work was on traumatic narratives of history.  I was interested in how traumatic histories are often encoded in “postsecular” or magical ways (I’m still interested in this, ‘tho work like your own and Benn Michaels has made me more suspicious of this trend in postmodern lit.) Basically, I pulled away from this line of thought when I read James Berger’s *After the End*, which did everything I thought I’d do in my dissertation. 

To return to your question: McClure was suspicious of certain strains of post-secular thought.  For example, my seminar paper for his class dealt with the religious elements of the poetry of Nate Mackey and Charles Wright, and I used a bit of Levinas.  McClure responded that he didn’t care for Levinas’ idea that the ethical is all about an individual’s openness to the divine, leaving no room for collective action.  At the same time, I think that in the years between *Late Imperial Romance* (which I too respect and use in a diss chapter on Bharati Mukherjee) and his postsecularism seminar, McClure became more open to political articulations of religious ideas and practices.

By on 11/21/06 at 12:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment


“And I think that my answer is pretty clear.”

Well, and I’m not trying to start a flame war, I don’t think it is. Your saying that those who do politics know better what politics is and that doing politics is a matter of degree. OK, fine, but then you kind of go on and on about academics not being involved in what is essentially pretty common grassroots organization. Now, I just don’t know if that’s true. I’d have to see some proof.

“As for research and teaching—well, I work with academics who do research that affects politics quite a bit; they are generally climatologists, biologists, and economists.  I don’t really see how the humanities comes into it.”

Now come on. Obviously the kind of work coming out of the hard sciences is important for politics (I’ve even seen it quoted in philosophy texts, oh me oh my!), but you’re working with only half a tool box. Not everything is reducible to facts as such and many people in the sciences actually see the need for talking with humanities people. I know, I worked with some, and it was precisely because as they got political involved they began to have philosophical questions. They probably weren’t actually political though, I don’t know that they voted Democrat. Might have been Socialists or Greens and they often talked shit about Al Gore. Seems to me your “articulable political goals” is a dig at non-Democratic left politics.


Thanks. What are you suggesting to me though? I do think that postsecular has been kicking around religious studies/theology/philosophy in a non-literary form for awhile now. In ways that I also find more persuasive as well, since I’m not really sure that just saying “religion is crazy! politics is rational!” is at all interesting or particularly well reasoned.

By on 11/21/06 at 05:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It just occurred to me that John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene, Megatrends 2000: Ten New Directions for the 1990’s (Avon Books 1990)—#1 National Bestseller—devoted a chapter to “Religious Revival of the Third Millennium.” William Robert Fogel, The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism (Chicago 2000) is a deeper book.

By Bill Benzon on 11/21/06 at 05:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

religion is crazy AND politics is crazy.  But nothing is as crazy as reading several years worth of the PMLA, the true insanity of which struck me like a thunderbolt in the middle of the night. The sorrow and the pity, John! Sounds like an event on Fear Factor.  Did you have to wrestle snakes and eats bugs afterwards?

By on 11/21/06 at 10:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, Luther

By on 11/21/06 at 10:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

CR: “Quick question. Do you think it has always been the case that academic work in the humanities has been politically useless, or is this only the case with today’s academics in the humanities?”

That question is a little too quick, CR.  I’m not saying that academic work is universally useless for politics; I’ve already (on another blog) mentioned the counterexample of, say, living academic Peter Singer and his work.  (Sorry to bring him up, given his position on disability issues, but his is an interesting case.) The closer you get to ethics or political science, the more likely it is that your work is potentially applicable, and I’m not saying that absolutely none of it is—only that the large majority of it isn’t, and that specifically, the literature of “the political” isn’t.

But, speaking in generalities, yes, I’d guess that this has been true since the formation of the modern university.

APS, I don’t have a survey of levels of political activity among academics in my back pocket.  I’m presenting my opinion, based on my own observation; of course it might not be true.

“Seems to me your “articulable political goals” is a dig at non-Democratic left politics.”

Huh?  The non-Democratic left has almost always been better at articulating goals than Democratic liberals are.

By on 11/21/06 at 11:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sean, I keep feeling that if I keep reading it, the mystery of why it is not very interesting, on the whole, really, would be unlocked for me. The scales of my boredom would fall from my eyes, due to the revelation of why they were put there in the first place.

By John Holbo on 11/21/06 at 12:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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