Sunday, March 13, 2005


What does it mean to be really alive? Not living in the motions of liveness, but really, really alive? An op-ed piece in the NYT today bemoaned the end of analogy as a section on the SAT, and the demise of logical analogy generally in U. S. thought. And it got me thinking that it's not as if other kinds of thought are alive and well right now, either. The world is full of deadwood--the kind academia defines as resting on one's laurels, or promise of laurels, someone who gets paid to be an intellectual but who has decided for one reason or another to stop working. Academics are pretty generous about deadwood; to them, this means you have stopped publishing. But it's possible to publish and still be deadwood, to produce the appearance of thinking but never say anything really challenging or new. At its most benign and ridiculous, deadness produces a Baby Jane Hudson show on the beach, an obvious caricature of an outmoded greatness posing as itself. At its worst, deadness sadistically terrorizes the colleagues who are its captive audience, desperately extracting protestations of its continued relevance via the academic equivalent of a baked rat entree--non-renewal, reappointment, hiring, promotion, letters of recommendation, salary increases, or dissertation sign-offs.

Anyone who knows anything about art history knows that "academic" painting is synonymous with safe, staid, bourgeois notions of the proper themes and techniques for art. Nineteenth-century french painting is full of very good academic paintings--and brilliant and innovative works that never made it into academic shows. The Orsay museum in Paris, divided as it is into great paintings on both sides of the divide, testifies to the inability of institutionalized creativity to accurately distinguish greatness.

English departments--bastions of institutionalized creativity--are full of "Sixth Sense" scholars, the kind who don't know they're dead because they continue to get invitations to do keynote addresses so they can say the same thing they've been saying for the last ten or twenty years. It is difficult in such anti-intellectual times as these to critique what looks to be intellectual exchange, even when it becomes glaringly obvious that no such exchange is really going on. The rise of the pre-fab conference in post- 9/11 times is a testament to this, its star-studded showcase characterized less by an open call for papers than by a rigidly hierarchical display of yesterday's lineups. The demise of queer theory owes at least as much to these faux forums, where big-name professors are carefully selected by big-name universities to provide the illusion of vibrant intellectual community. These conferences are mainly for the students and professors of said institutions, paid for by them and advertised to almost nobody. These forums are depressingly similar: academic "stars" deliver formulaic talks to awestruck audiences. Audiences some to see the stars, and crane their necks every time somebody opens the door to a conference room. I used to be in those audiences, looking around.

A friend of mine who is one of these "stars" tells me she has lost faith in academia. I believe she believes she has lost some faith, and feels solidarity with the women and queers and disabled Marxists who are getting denied tenure for making the old white guys feel uncomfortable. I think she is feeling the institutional belt tightening around her neck, cutting off her words. I had lunch with my Marxist friend today. She is still angry about what happened to her. She is right to be angry, but I couldn't help thinking as I was listening to her how much better it is to be away from people who not only control your job, but also want to control your thoughts, to make you control your thoughts, to wear down your capacity for resistance by making you help them produce their Potemkin villages of so-called free intellectual exchange. As my father used to say, "You'll eat it and you'll LIKE it." It's bad enough to eat it, but why in the world must we LIKE it?

Just before our ex-provost left our school for a presidency elsewhere (where she has since resigned), she hired a celebrated provocateur to come in as Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences. I spoke with her one day at a new faculty reception. The conversation lasted maybe a half-hour, but it made me feel important. She was extremely proud of herself. She couldn't believe how clever she had been to hire him. She went to a Seven Sisters school. We talked about that too. She was extremely proud of that. I went to a Seven Sisters school. She made me think I belonged in her world because I was sortof like her. I really liked that. I decided I liked her.

By the time Famous Dean actually arrived at here she was long gone. But the land mines she had planted with his hire were live ones. I remember the newspaper sunday magazine did a survey of area professors to see what they thought about the Famous Dean hire. They interviewed people from the top-tier private schools in the city. There were no faculty from my school in the piece. It's as if there were no faculty to ask, or they weren't worth asking. I wrote to the newspaper to say this. They published my letter. A colleague of mine came up to me and said he heard I had written a letter about not liking Famous Dean. I told him I hadn't said anything about not liking him. What I didn't like was the newspaper. I didn't know Famous Dean. I had no reason to care about him one way or another.

What a difference a couple of years makes. Dean came to campus and immediately started to lure stars to come to here by offering them large--some might say, overly large--salaries. He hired friends. I remember one friend delivered a job talk rife with scorn for identity politics. His talk quoted Faulkner, and the many quotes he cited seemed unusually fond of the "N" word. Undeterred by the presence of several faculty of color, who in their dumbfounded disbelief were more respectful than they should have been, he said the whole word. A lot. As if Faulkner's use of it at the height of Jim Crow somehow justified its ventriloquism, over and over.

Say a racial or sexist slur over and over. Listen to it. Listen to the message it sends. It says, you are never safe. It says, you don't belong in my world unless you leave your identity behind you. It says, the price of the ticket is my price, will always be, my price.

I didn't worry, though, because I figured the department would object to someone who thought it was provocative to say the "N" word so many times in a forum. Friend airily dismissed objections. His arrogance during the question-and-answer session and at later social gatherings clearly implied that anyone who disagreed with him was simply too stupid to get his point. Many people found this insensitive and disturbing. I found it disturbing. This was not intellectual exchange. This was provocation and hostility masquerading as intellectual rigor. It was nasty. It felt really, really nasty.

When faculty objected to this hire, this climate, at a meeting that Famous Dean attended, Famous Dean pulled off the gloves and flexed his iron fists. He said we had to eat it. He said that if my department refused to endorse the hire he wanted, he didn't know what more he could guarantee for said department. But the best part was, he said we had to LIKE it. He said that if we voted to bring Friend and co. here, we had to be supportive of them. I couldn't help admiring his unabashed blackshirt tactics. He was a fascist, to be sure, but an honest fascist. The baseball bat was on the table. And the senior faculty, for the most part, crumbled and scattered like leaves in a winter wind.

Last fall the AAUW told us all--surprise--that sexism was rampant in the universities. Now the right wants to eliminate even the pretense of liberal thought that masquerades as politics in academic discourse. I say, let 'em take over. Let the rich Republicans (and Democrats) come in and work for no money and teach kids from bad high schools how to care about reading. I'm all for it.

The snow is melting. It's time for this dyke to get the hell out of this conference room, this paper-mache village, this one-horse town. Somewhere out there, people are starting to wake up, maybe.

1 comment:

dr. m(mmm) aka The Notorious P.H.D. said...

Wonderful, smart rant. Welcome to the academic blogosphere, Sfrajett!