Academostars Light up the Sky
Well my questions have been answered – the ones I asked a couple of days ago, about Why is Judith Butler a superstar and who the hell thinks comp lit teachers are superstars anyway and why don’t they embarrass themselves talking that way? Well no, I didn’t ask that last question, but it’s what I was thinking.
I should have realized. Silly me. The subject is a whole field, a discipline, it has an anthology and everything. The excellent Scott McLemee, of the Chronicle of Higher Education as well as other publications, dropped a word in my ear to the effect that he wrote a few words on this subject a couple of years ago. And sure enough, he did, and very good words too. The whole thing is pretty hilarious, frankly.
“I want to debunk the usual idea that this is some kind of illicit importation [into university life] from Hollywood.” The phenomenon owes less to popular culture, he argues, than to processes taking shape within academic culture. In particular, it is a side effect of the dominance of theory within literary studies. The steady growth of literature programs stimulated what Mr. Williams terms “the theory market.” By the 1980s, thinkers who offered powerful, capacious, and stimulating models of critical analysis were becoming household names.
Household names?? Household names?!? In what households, sport? Do you get out much? I don’t get out much myself, but I get out enough to know that Stanley Fish and Gayatri Spivak are not instantly recognizable in your average American household. No, not even good old Eve or Cornel or Skip is that famous, whatever their colleagues may tell them.
But even better than that household name thing is that ‘powerful, capacious, and stimulating models of critical analysis’ bit. Oh, please. More ‘powerful, capacious, and stimulating’ than anything you will find in physics or history or sociology or philosophy or economics or psychology or cognitive science departments, for example? You know – I really, really, really don’t think so.
As Mr. Williams notes in an interview, the discussion of academostardom emerged in earnest during the 1990s — a time of transition for the humanities, during which the academic profession underwent painful restructuring, despite the overall economic boom. In “Name Recognition,” his essay for the journal’s special issue, the editor underscores how scholarly celebrity met a basic psychological need during this wrenching period. “Against the common academic anxiety of ineffectuality, especially in the humanities,” he writes, “the star system heightens the sense of the academic realm as one of influence, acclaim, and relevance.”
Ah – now I understand. It’s a kind of comfort food. Or magical thinking. ‘I am, or will be someday, or could possibly become someday maybe if I’m very lucky and very hip, influential and acclaimed and, by golly, relevant, because of my powerful, capacious, and stimulating models of critical analysis which are more powerful, capacious, and stimulating than almost anyone else’s. I can push down trees with them, I can store all of Manhattan in them, I can bring whole conferences to a frenzy with them. I am – Megacademostar!!’