Russell Jacoby is in fine form.

If you missed the 1995 CUNY “Question of Identity” conference, the issue of October magazine devoted to it, the “remarkable” essay on the same subject in Diacritics or – even worse – you are unaware you have missed these, don’t despair. Help is on the way. Eric Lott, who teaches English and American studies at the University of Virginia, will bring you up to speed. His book The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual is to stay-at-home tenured radicals what the television remote is to couch potatoes. Without parking hassles or library bottlenecks, you get the latest on unforgettable conferences and pathbreaking journal articles. Did you know, for instance, that Gene Wise’s “famous” essay “Paradigm Dramas in American Studies” was “intriguingly revised” in Pease and Wiegman’s anthology The Future of American Studies? No?

No, I don’t think I did, but I’m terrifically interested to know, because I have that book! (Someone sent it to me – as a joke, I think.) I made ruthless fun of it here a long time ago. I can even find the fun again, thanks to dear Google. Quite astonishing, to be able to type ‘Wiegman notes comment’ into the box and find links to posts of mine from two and a half years ago. How the two passages quoted in the first comment bring it all back – that combination of mirth and suffocation.

Like most founding gestures, this one gave monumental status to an origin retrospectively invoked, thereby giving the past authority over the present in a management strategy that seemed aimed to contextualize, if not override, the present threat of rupture and incoherence. In so doing, Wise sought to repair the conceptual ground of a field whose fissuring into multiple programs and subfields at once reflected and gave expression to the aspirations of social movements that had exceeded the ‘founding’ field’s epistemological grasp.

That’s just part of one passage – do read the rest if you want to laugh and smother at the same time. Anyway, it amuses me a good deal that Jacoby mentions that appalling book right at the beginning, and it also tells me where we are and what’s up. (I love the bit about the ‘famous’ essay. That is so typical. Famous? Famous where? Well, in the same places that Judith Butler is a ‘household name,’ of course.)

In an era of pallid Democrats and furtive leftists, Lott comes out shouting his revolutionary loyalties. He marches with real working people. So far, so good. Unfortunately, he marches only from the podium to the speaker’s table. Sometimes he gets to the library or logs on to to check out what Etienne Balibar, a French post-Marxist, has written. His radical commitments amount to promoting leftist colleagues in American studies departments and a few European Marxists.

Dude, those are as radical as commitments can get, don’t you know that? Course you do.

Throughout this tract Lott charges boomer liberals with reformist politics and theoretical simplicity. Even if one grants these points, what does he offer to replace them? He claims the high political ground, but he cannot formulate a single coherent sentence about politics as seen from there. He tosses off phrases about “intersectionality” and “the praxis potential of antinormativity,” but politics hardly enters this political book.

Yeah but dude the praxis potential of antinormativity is as politics as – oh never mind.

Consider Lott’s criticism of Mark Crispin Miller’s The Bush Dyslexicon, a collection and analysis of Bush’s malapropisms. Miller’s critique of Bush is apparently limited by his “own boomer investments” and his simple-minded theory of propaganda. “You don’t have to be a media specialist,” sniffs Professor Lott, “to recognize how crusty this apparatus seems in an age of post-Althusserian, post-poststructuralist, and post-Lacanian cultural studies.” Imagine that! Miller does not refer to post-poststructuralism or post-Lacanian cultural studies! Where has he been?

Well exactly! Not browsing, that’s obvious. Dang fool – dang crusty fool. Dang crusty unhip out of touch clueless old uncool unfashionable (did I mention unhip?) fool geezer old bastard. Fashion! Fashion is everything! If you don’t keep up with the fashions, you’re selling out the workers!

A hundred pages later, however, Lott rolls up his sleeves and tells us about these widely debated theorists and their purchase on reality. First place belongs to Laclau, an Argentine post-Marxist theorist who teaches in England. While Gitlin and other old fogies yearn for a universal left, Laclau provides the essential key as to how to push ahead. Oh, no! In a bad piece of luck, just as Lott turns to Laclau, the bell rings and he is forced to close with a few hasty remarks. “I haven’t the space to lay out the intricate conceptual elegance of Laclau’s discussion,” apologizes Lott…

Good one! Doncha just love it when they do that? It just cracks me up (along with slightly suffocating me). Andrew Ross does that in Strange Weather – makes wild speculative claims and then bashfully says it’s ‘beyond the scope’ of the book to go into detail. I give him a hard time for it in Why Truth Matters – I wish I’d thought of ‘the bell rings’ though; that’s hilarious.

Lott briefly summarizes Laclau’s discussion for us:

Its most important move is to argue that the only acceptable political notion of the universal – and therefore of the organizational imperative – is that of the empty signifier, not a present, given, or essential fullness waiting for troops but an impossible ideal whose very emptiness and lack create a pluralized, difference-based competition on the part of various particularisms in a democratic social-symbolic field to assume the position of the universal organization.

Well you can see why he’s so pleased with himself. Besides, he went on this march once, to support the service workers…

After 200 pages of hyping antinormative intersectionality and dismissing boomer liberals for their reform politics, Lott steps out of his classroom to support service workers who seek several bucks more an hour–living wages, plain and simple. Good for him, but nothing here about subversive egalitarianism. Not a word about postidentity politics….Lott and his allies, 150 strong, brush past the mounted police. “Juiced,” they rush the maw of state power: the Lawn. “We were not stopped…We were a movement now, and we couldn’t lose.” Their march lasts all of five minutes – but Lott has lost interest, and tells us nothing more. Presumably another conference beckons.

Crusty, dude.

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