Think Like Us

There is an excellent post at Critical Mass – starting, interestingly enough, from a comment on Crooked Timber. So we’re in a hall of mirrors here, or the land of infinite regress, or something. Bloggers commenting on bloggers commenting on bloggers commenting on (finally) an actual newspaper column. But that’s all right. The truth is, plenty of blog posts are better than plenty of newspaper columns. And this one is very good indeed. Erin O’Connor quotes Timothy Burke on the excessively narrow terms in which charges of political orthodoxy in universities are framed.

Virtually anything that departed from a carefully groomed sense of acceptable innovation, including ideas and positions distinctively to the left and some that are neither left nor right, could be just as potentially disastrous. Like a lot of right-wing critics of academia, [David Brooks] generally thinks too small and parochially, and too evidently simply seeks to invert what he perceives as a dominant orthodoxy. If they had their druthers, Horowitz and Pipes and most of the rest of the victimology types would simply make the academy a conservative redoubt rather than a liberal one. The real issue here is the way that each successive academic generation succeeds in installing its own conventional wisdom as the guardian at the gates, and burns the principle of academic freedom in subtle, pervasive fires aflame in the little everyday businesses and gestures of academic life.

That’s great stuff, and spot-on. Parochial is just exactly what this kind of thinking is. Anyone who’s ever listened to a putative Shakespeare scholar, say, droning on about what sadly imperfect views Shakespeare had on the Other, knows all about that parish, and wants to get the hell out of it and move to the big city. Clearly O’Connor is one of those:

I have often had occasion to say to students that the things that draw them to advanced literary study–a love of learning, a love of literature, a deep desire to share those loves with students through teaching–are not the things that drive most English professors, and have next to nothing to do with what they would be expected to do in graduate school and beyond. The student who enters grad school intent on becoming a traditional humanist is the student who will be labelled as hopelessly unsophisticated by her peers and her professors. She will also be labelled a conservative by default: she may vote democratic; may be pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, and anti-gun; may possess a palpably bleeding heart; but if she refuses to “politicize” her academic work, if she refuses to embrace the belief that ultimately everything she reads and writes is a political act before it is anything else, if she resists the pressure to throw an earnest belief in an aesthetic tradition and a desire to address the transhistorical “human questions” out the window in favor of partisan theorizing and thesis-driven advocacy work, then she is by default a political undesirable, and will be described by fellow students and faculty as a conservative.

This is what I’m always wondering about the trendy lit-crit crowd. Do they even like literature particularly? They don’t seem to. They seem to want to talk about anything and everything else under the sun except literature. Which is understandable in a way – I love the stuff but I’m not sure I would want to write about it, and I’m especially not sure I would want to keep on writing about it for thirty years or so. But then why get a PhD in English? If you want to read and think and write about politics, why not get a PhD in that? Or in history or sociology? Why go into literature and then talk about something completely different? It seems so futile, so silly, and such bad manners. Like going to a pizza place and screaming the place down because it doesn’t serve sushi.

As Burke points out, this is at least as much about conformity as it is about politics…It’s the culture of academe–or at least of the academic humanities–that is the main problem. If you don’t have to be a conservative to get labelled–and reviled–as a conservative, then “conservative” means something other than “conservative” in the academic circles I am discussing here. It means something more like “non-conformist,” which, ironically, often translates into either “traditional humanist” or “person who questions prevailing orthodoxies of any stamp” or both. Certainly, left-wing politics are central to this problem–the people who are labelling the “conservatives” in their midst are by definition on the left. But what they are labelling “conservative” is more often than not not conservative per se, but simply different from them.

Just so. I’ve had people solemnly inform me that B and W is ‘culturally conservative’. Which seems to me a silly thing to say on about ten different levels. One, so what? Two – so is everything that is newer than something else automatically better than that something else? Does everything invariably get better and better in an uninterrupted trajectory towards perfection? Do things never get worse from time to time? Hasn’t the Whig view of history had some doubts cast on it now? Three, if you take that view, doesn’t that mean that whatever New Thing someone comes up with tomorrow is necessarily better than whatever it is you’re doing now, and if so, doesn’t that make it all seem a tad pointless? Four, is it really sound to judge ideas chronologically? Does it work to simply date everything and then say ‘Well look, this idea is from 1825 so obviously it’s much better than this other one from 1789’? Hitler was newer than, say, Kaiser Wilhelm II. The Kaiser was not a great guy, but was he worse than Hitler? For that matter, Colly Cibber was later than Shakespeare; was he better? Well, the reductio is obvious enough. But people go on saying it. Erin O’Connor is exactly right, it seems to me: it’s all about conformity and orthodoxy, group-think and fashion, playing well with others instead of thinking clearly on your own.

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