You might think that after all the attention lavished on the annual, post-Christmas meetings of the Modern Language Association in recent years, the 110th convention in San Diego, California, last December would have little to offer in the way of shock or surprise. After all, the rampant politicization of literary study that the MLA has aggressively supported in our colleges and universities is now an established datum of American cultural life. The priority that this mammoth academic bureaucracy (total membership: 31,000) accords to such issues as race, gender, and class in its professional deliberations is no longer news, and neither is its elevation of popular culture to a position of parity with great works of literature as subjects for classroom study. Yet the growth of the MLA’s radical agenda continues to spawn new outrages. Readers of The New Criterion in particular may think that they already know the worst that an annual convention of the MLA can bring, as we have reported on it in detail twice before. Unfortunately, the old adage that things are always worse than you think has a special relevance when it comes to the MLA: the actual discussions that dominate the organization’s meetings continue to outdistance even the most dour expectations. Hence this firsthand report on the MLA’s latest gathering.

At the outset it is worth recalling that it was as long ago as 1972, in the first Thomas Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, that Lionel Trilling expressed his dismay at the historic change that had overtaken the profession which the MLA represents. “Within the literature-teaching profession itself,” Trilling observed, “there is now a significant body of opinion which holds that literature, so far from having an educative power, can only obscure truth and impede virtue.” It is noteworthy, too, that Trilling cited the leadership of the MLA as the locus of this fateful shift in attitude toward the teaching of literature. The key passage is worth quoting:

This view has been put forward by a person no less eminent in the profession than a recent president of the Modern Language Association, Professor Louis Kampf, who in his presidential address of 1971 assured his colleagues that the teaching of literature in American colleges is now virtually at its end, having lost all rational justification. Professor Kampf made references to what he correctly takes to have been Matthew Arnold’s shaping influence upon the literature-teaching profession in America. But he did not locate that influence in the part of Arnold’s theory of literature where it truly resides, in the continuing force of the famous characterization of literature as “a criticism of life” and in Arnold’s definition of criticism as the effort “to see the object as in itself it really is,” the objects upon which it directs itself being not literature alone but also ideas in general and most especially ideas about society. Professor Kampf characterizes literature in a way that is at an opposite pole from Arnold’s—literature, he says, is nothing but “a diversion and a spectacle,” it exists wholly in what he calls the “realm of aesthetics” and thus stands at an ultimate remove from “practical activity.” That is to say, it has no possible bearing upon the matters which must be the chief or only objects of concern, the anomalies and injustices of American life.
Trilling further observed that because Professor Kampf spoke “as the elected chief officer” of the MLA, “in his estimate of the morale of his constituency there must be a quantum of truth.” His conclusion was appropriately stark, and in retrospect turns out to have been prophetic: “We must therefore say that in our time the mind of a significant part of a once proud profession has come to the end of its tether.”

What has supplanted the teaching of literature in the classrooms of our colleges and universities since that grim pronouncement was made has, of course, become a subject of widespread and acrimonious debate beyond the teaching profession itself. To say that politics of a certain kind—the kind that stems from the campus insurrections of the Sixties—has displaced literature as the primary object of study is true as far as it goes; but it does not begin to suggest the many bizarre and insidious changes that have overtaken the radical politics of the academy and the culture in the interim. Although what Trilling called “the anomalies and injustices of American life” continue to enjoy an unquestioned priority in classrooms ostensibly devoted to literary study, the question of what constitutes an anomaly or an injustice has been so greatly and so rapidly expanded in recent years that it may now be said to apply to life itself and not merely to those aspects of American political life that are found wanting in social and economic perfection.

To understand what has happened to the study of literature and the humanities in our colleges and universities, it is therefore necessary to understand the ways in which the radical movement that came out of the Sixties has itself been so profoundly altered that the conventional use of the word “politics” no longer completely suffices to describe the objects of its wrath. It is now the fundamentals of life and their role in shaping our destiny that constitute the “texts,” as they are called, which are believed to be in urgent need of explication and revision. Literature, to the extent that it is still studied at all, tends to be cited as an accessory to the crimes that have been committed against the “texts” of life.

Gender, for example, is especially favored among these scrutinized “texts,” and it is generally assumed—for the purposes of political analysis, anyway—to be culturally determined and therefore subject to cultural redefinition. And if it should be objected that this radical concept of gender does not enjoy scientific support, then science itself must be indicted as a repressive “text” in similar need of cultural revision. Exactly how these and other forms of ideological mystification now shape the discussion of literature and culture in the academy will become apparent, we believe, in the report which follows.

Commencing on Tuesday, December 27, at 3:30 P.M., last year’s convention—which included nearly eight hundred sessions and and brought together some nine thousand members of the MLA—continued through 1:15 P.M. on Friday, December 30. As we were obliged to depart on the morning of December 30, we could not attend the Friday sessions and so missed the opportunity to attend convocations devoted to such topics as “Constructing … a Female Symbolic,” “Sapphic Authorship in Nineteenth-Century England,” “Russian Lesbian, Gay (and Queer?) Studies: The State of the (Emerging) Field,” “Feminist Criticism and the Politics of Theory,” “Queer Space,” “Que(e)rying Sexuality,” and “Modernism, Gender, and Culture,” among many others. (The ellipsis and parentheses, by the way, are part of the original decoration.) We trust, however, that our observations about some of the sessions that we attended Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday will be sufficient to convey a sense of the spirit that presided over this 110th annual convention of the Modern Language Association.

Tuesday, December 27

It would be paltering with the truth to say that we approached the commencement of the convention festivities this afternoon with light hearts. We had both been to MLA conventions before and therefore knew what to expect. Persons with complicated dental histories will perhaps understand our emotions. As we threaded our ways through the buzzing corridors to our separate sessions, we felt as if we were in for three straight days of root-canal therapy with only boredom as an anaesthetic. In this respect, at least, we were not to be disappointed.

We were not alone in our apprehension, however. The weather in San Diego was beautiful that first day, but in the crowded chambers of the San Diego Marriott, the Hyatt Regency, and the San Diego Convention Center, there were many, many gloomy faces. They belonged to the hordes of graduate students and assistant professors who each year fly thousands of miles at their own considerable expense to congregate at the MLA convention and compete with each other for the meager handful of jobs that exist in their specialized fields. At such gatherings, there are two main types of facial expression among academics: the smug countenance in all its varieties belongs to the person with tenure; the haunted, hollow look, tremulously parched-mouthed and sycophantic, belongs to members of the untenured mass. The latter provided the convention’s one note of genuine pathos.

Of the many other things that this opening day of the convention made clear, the most important was this: that the feminization of the profession is now complete. It determines not only a vast number of the subjects that are discussed but also the methodologies and language that are employed in their analysis. Where, then, does this leave the other sex, as it were? Lest they find themselves intellectually marginalized by this development—if not, indeed, shut out of the discussion entirely—male members of the profession have hastened to conform to the new gender-based ideological standards by abjectly adopting the language, the methodologies, and the objects of feminist discourse.

Or else they take refuge in gay studies and “queer” theory—an expanding field of academic study, and the only one, it seems, in which a male perspective now enjoys an unchallenged legitimacy. Given the dominance of feminist discourse, however, even in the prospering field of gay studies and queer theory the feminist imperative shapes a good deal of the discussion, for the lesbian perspective commands a privileged status in this field. One of its privileges is precisely the freedom to engage in a derisive assault on male sexuality—a practice it is obviously not in the interest of male homosexuals to emulate, and one that it would be impolitic for them to respond to by similarly ridiculing female sexuality.

Does all this suggest that the agenda of the MLA convention is, among much else, a battleground on which conflicting strategies of radical sexual philosophies are being tested for legitimacy and preferment? That was certainly our impression, and more often that not it was the programs devoted to sexual theory and sexual politics—as well as those devoted to the politics of race, imperialism, etc.—that drew the largest and most enthusiastic audiences.

It is said, of course—most emphatically by the press office of the MLA—that despite these ideological deformations, the traditional study of great literature is alive and well at the convention. To test this claim, we decided that one of us would devote the first afternoon of the convention to sampling the offerings of precisely those programs that seemed to be about great writers.

The first visit was to a session sponsored by the Joseph Conrad Society of America about what was called “The Dynamics of Genre Shift in the Conrad Canon.” The speaker originally scheduled to give the opening paper, on “The Secret Agent and Hitchcock’s Sabotage: The Engendering of Desire,” had to drop out, but there are apparently so many Conrad specialists who now prefer to talk about movies instead of literature that the Conrad Society had no difficulty in finding another speaker on this subject with a paper ready to be read. The author of that paper, however, turned out to be a professor of feminist and cinema studies at Drexler University, and what she mostly talked about wasn’t Conrad’s novel but Alfred Hitchcock’s “emerging concept of the cinematic.” We stayed the course for that paper, however, and only made our exit as we heard the next speaker invoke the authority of—who else?—Walter Benjamin for a discussion of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematic travesty of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. There was clearly no hope here of hearing Conrad’s own writings discussed as literature. Leaving when we did, we missed the final paper of the session, “The Secret Agent from Serial to Comic Book,” but we were willing to suffer that loss.

Our next stop took us to a session on “Midwestern Literature,” in which another of our favorite writers—Willa Cather—was scheduled for discussion. It was painful, however, to hear Cather’s fiction reduced to the terms of pop anthropology—“the gendering of the land,” etc.—and the comparisons made between Cather and Toni Morrison were too preposterous to be borne. The speaker who delivered this feminist tripe was only interesting as an example of male abasement in the face of an ideological juggernaut. It was a sad spectacle.

Meanwhile, as one of us listened to these assaults on Conrad and Cather, the other chose to visit the session on “Feminist Perspectives on the Frankfurt School,” which drew a standing-room-only crowd and turned out to offer a little of everything—except, of course, literature. No sooner had we seated ourselves and unpacked the trusty tape recorder than we heard the familiar whine of the dentist’s drill—no, sorry, our mistake: it was only the sound of the first speaker, who had come to “clarify the function of femininity in Frankfurt School thought, with an emphasis on re-reading the work of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in the context of gender.” Ah, yes, we knew it well: the “critique of patriarchy and logocentricsm,” old friends such as the feminist icons Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva, not to mention Judith Butler, the young philosopher of queer theory who our rough tabulation identified as the second most frequently referred to person at the convention. The most frequently cited figure was undoubtedly Walter Benjamin, the hapless Marxist critic and protégé of Adorno who committed suicide while fleeing from the Nazis in 1940.

Although he is sometimes a suggestive writer, Benjamin is also a consummately fuzzy thinker, and his opacity, combined with his portentous animus against all things “bourgeois,” make him an ideal mascot for the contemporary academic radical. Consider: the second paper, “The Gender Politics of Benjamin’s Theory of History,” began by quoting the edifying thought that “I have never been able to imagine a creative spirit without genitalia” before proceeding to enlighten us about how Benjamin opened up the “general question of gender and discourse”:

The affinity of language, naming, and sexuality allows us to read Benjamin’s text not only as a metaphor for the gendering of language but conversely as … linguistification or discursivization of gender and sexuality. Gender itself is quite literally for Benjamin a moment of language in its metaphorical productivity and interlinguistic …
Actually, this is a calumny upon Benjamin, who could be loopy but never this loopy, and who, to his credit, at least wrote well.

“Feminist Perspectives on the Frankfurt School” continued with someone who insisted on reading long passages in German aloud despite her execrable accent, and wound up with “‘Babe’ Feminism’s Salable Image: The Co-optation of Women’s Resistance by the Culture Industry,” which filtered Anna Quindlen (the heroine) and Naomi Wolf (the villain) through the thought of Horkheimer, Adorno, and, yes, old WB. It should be mentioned that left-wing academics have always been wild about Horkheimer and Adorno’s essay on “the culture industry” because, in addition to being anti-modern and anti-bourgeois, it is violently anti-American. For example, it is full of accusations that the “culture industry,” a.k.a the Hollywood movie establishment, was “totalitarian.” Never mind that Max and Teddy wrote it while sitting out World War II in California, refugees from another species of totalitarianism across the Atlantic. That they found it impossible to distinguish between the vulgarities of American popular culture and the jackboot of Nazism might seem to disqualify them as serious commentators on cultural matters, but to paid-up members of the academic establishment such disabilities have only enhanced their reputations as subtle and penetrating thinkers. In any event, this meditation on culture and feminism was full of choice moments, including a peroration that invited the audience to be “utopian for a moment”: “Imagine if you will that gender and queer theorists—for example theorists like Eve Sedgwick—had joined in common with lesbians dishonorably discharged from the military” to influence the way mainstream, heterosexual feminists thought about various pressing public-policy issues.

It would have been instructive, no doubt, to pause with the assembled multitudes to contemplate this bright “utopian” prospect. But it was getting on toward 5:00 P.M., and “The Epistemology of the Queer Classroom: A Roundtable” awaited in an adjoining hotel.

If Walter Benjamin was the most frequently cited author at this year’s MLA, “queer” and “queer theory” were among the most frequently used terms of commendation. And if this seems a little… well, queer, it is, but not entirely in the old-fashioned, vanilla meaning of the term. What distinguished “The Epistemology of the Queer Classroom” from the many other sessions advertising their queerness was its emphasis on bringing the teacher’s sexuality—that is to say, his or her homosexuality—into the classroom as part of what we might call the learning experience. We think that parents of college-age children will be especially interested to learn about some of the pedagogical debates that their tuition dollars help to support.

The first presentation, a joint production read alternately by Thomas Piontek, a professor of English at Ohio State University, and Mary Elliot, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, brooded about the topic of “coming out,” a subject on which the two had been working “for quite some time now.” Their “research” into this subject dealt with such questions as “When should we come out? Should we come out in a composition classroom? Or only when teaching gay and lesbian literature? Questions like that.” Hitherto, “the literature” on coming out had insisted that there was a “political, ethical, and pedagogical imperative” for teachers to declare their sexual orientation. Recently, however, coming out had been criticized as a “totalizing gesture” that creates a “privileged discourse in the classroom” for the teacher. Naturally, one can’t go around condoning “totalizing gestures” or “privileged discourses,” so Professor Piontek explained that their own approach had evolved “from a hands-on, how-to guide to a more theoretical discussion of the pros and cons of coming out.”

For her part, Miss Elliot assured her auditors that even if coming out were no longer the hot topic it once was in gay studies, the recent Republican landslide had brought about the dire situation where “the institution of school prayer” seemed “more likely than the institution of a Rainbow Curriculum.” Clearly, this betokened a state of emergency. They concluded by introducing a dollop of post-structuralist relativism to the mix. Not only was coming out a “political, ethical and pedagogical imperative”— something that Professor Piontek reaffirmed at the end of his part of the talk—but it was also a means of challenging “truth with a capital ‘T’” as well as “the assumption of heterosexuality and the liberal humanist fiction of a universal, objective, impartial position from which one can speak.” Anyone who has been paying attention to bulletins from the academy lately knows that about the only thing considered worse than “the assumption of heterosexuality” today is the idea of “a universal, objective, impartial position.”

If you are wondering what the alternative to objectivity looks like, Linda Garber, who teaches at California State University, Fresno, provided a good introduction. Professor Garber began by questioning the article “the” in the session’s title, “The Epistemology of the Queer Classroom.” What she wanted to talk about was the plural, queer classrooms, and “different ways of being queer.” Above all she wanted to avoid the “false unity implied by a transcendent queerness.” To this end, Professor Garber explained, her own queer classroom is informed by her biography and consequently “is feminist; is taught by a white Jewish woman; is taught by a white Jewish woman who is chronically ill; it’s an anti-racist classroom.” It’s also, one can safely conjecture, a classroom from which students emerge with greater exposure to a species of politically correct sexual psycho-drama than to literature.

Believing with Professor Garber that everyone should do his bit to avoid the “false unity implied by a transcendent queerness” (isn’t language marvelous?), we left “The Epistemology of the Queer Classroom” to peek into “Henry James and Cultural Criticism.” Alas, we missed “‘A Queer Confusion of Yearning and Alarm’: Disavowing the Family Fiction in James’s ‘The Pupil.’” But we did hear Priscilla Wald from Columbia University speak about “Frontiers of Identity: ‘Daisy Miller’ in Cultural Context.” Those of you who have not read “Daisy Miller” for a while may have forgotten that the story is partly about the breakdown of gender roles. But that is something that anyone who has spent five minutes at the MLA could have guessed, since the breakdown of traditional gender roles is what every third session seemed to be about.

The annual MLA convention always manages to offer its little surprises, however, and one of the chief surprises for us this year was to discover that the unfortunate woman known as Typhoid Mary “embodies the merging of Daisy Miller and the expatriate woman”: both, according to Professor Wald, are “transgressive on many levels,” and “embody the threat of the wrong kind of reproduction.” If you are wondering how one gets from “Daisy Miller,” the story by Henry James, to this grotesque scenario, the answer lies in James’s phrase about a “beneficent contagion of contact and communication.” There’s that word “contagion,” you see, a lovely, “transgressive” sort of word that licenses the flight of fancy that Professor Wald delivered to her audience. T. S. Eliot once said that James had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it. But how could Eliot have foreseen the indignities of the contemporary academy? James himself remains inviolate, of course, but his work has been subject to every imaginable violation as the race-gender-class machine has got to work reducing his exquisite, civilizing prose to the rebarbative vulgarities that pass for criticism in the academy today.

While James’s fiction was being made to suffer these indignities at the San Diego Marriott, Virginia Woolf and her writing weren’t faring much better next door at the Convention Center. Woolf, though she was herself one of the most literary of twentieth-century writers, is now so fully established in the academy as a feminist cult figure that her acolytes can no longer bring themselves to discuss her work in merely literary terms. She must be seen instead to be a historical colossus, capable of dispensing wisdom and shedding light on whatever worldly problems happen to be nominated for academic interest. Thus the program devoted to Woolf on this occasion was called, improbably, “Virginia Woolf: The Constructs of Community in the Contexts of Fascism.” It has lately been observed that the last two decades of Woolf’s life coincided with the rise of fascism in Europe, and so it is naturally assumed that Woolf must have had something important to tell us about this political phenomenon.

On this program, however, Sigmund Freud loomed rather larger than Adolf Hitler, and one wondered at times if some of the feminists assembled to worship at the Woolf shrine hadn’t gotten those two figures confused. Sex, in any case, was the real subject, and the star turn of the session was a paper entitled “Defying the Dic(k)tators from Freud to Fascism: Virginia Woolf and Penis Mockery.” It must be acknowledged that its author, Vara Neverow, proved to be gruesomely amusing. Penis mockery was indeed the leitmotif in a presentation that, in the sheer comic viciousness of its sexual humor, resembled a rather specialized night-club act. Professor Neverow is undoubtedly a talent, but literature is not her forte. Recalling that Woolf thought Joyce’s Ulysses an “ill-bred” book, we shudder to think of how she would have characterized this protracted discussion of “dicks,” dictators, and other matters more or less irrelevant to the books she actually wrote.

It should not be thought that this afternoon’s panoply of feminist, Marxist, gay, and new-historicist critical methodologies exhausted the radical professoriat’s means of avoiding literature. By no means. When it comes to slighting literature in favor of a political agenda, professors of literature have shown themselves to be endlessly inventive. Yet another gambit was on view this evening with “Teaching the Political Conflicts.” The MLA organizers had clearly anticipated a large turnout for this special session, for it was booked into a huge room at the San Diego Marriott. In the event, the room was about half full. The session was organized by Donald Lazere, a dependably earnest Marxist who teaches at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and who is a fixture at the annual MLA conventions. “Teaching the Political Conflicts” featured comments by Gerald Graff from the University of Chicago and the Marxist economist Richard Ohmann from Wesleyan University. Richard Marius, who teaches at Harvard, was unable to attend, but he sent along a prepared talk that Professor Lazere read aloud. Linda Brodkey, a self-advertised “post-structuralist” teacher of composition at the University of California, San Diego, concluded with some seemingly interminable remarks that in their studied irrelevancy might be described as aggressively, even ostentatiously, post-structuralist.

Professor Graff has the dubious distinction of coining the phrase “teaching the conflicts.” What it comes down to is this: people have criticized left-wing academics for politicizing the humanities. Instead of answering those criticisms, Professor Graff came up with the idea of incorporating the whole debate over the curriculum into the curriculum. According to him, “teaching the conflicts” solves the problem of “how to teach political literacy without indoctrination.” For example, instead of teaching Shakespeare, one might teach the various ways that contemporary academics try to cut Shakespeare down to size by finding (say) sexist or Eurocentric or racist or imperialist themes in his plays. If there is a controversy over whether to teach Rambo or Rimbaud (an example that Professor Graff has used), one should not decide this controversy but teach it, lining up the arguments in favor of both. Professor Graff claims to believe that this approach helps students “enter the arena of debate” without predetermining the stance they will take on the substantive issues.

Probably the best response to Professor Graff’s proposal was set forth by the philosopher John Searle a few years ago in The New York Review of Books. In the first place, Professor Searle noted, what Professor Graff envisions is “second order. It is teaching about teaching rather than teaching about first-order subject matter.” Moreover, the controversies that he would have us place at the center of academic study are either narrowly political (e.g., the question of whether The Tempest endorses an imperialist script) or simply ephemeral (e.g., the question of whether to study Rambo or Rimbaud will evaporate as Rambo is quickly forgotten and the poetry of Rimbaud lives on). What is left out when we focus on teaching the conflicts is—everything: instead of reading Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, the student reads up on contemporary debates about whether it is really worth reading them. In the meantime, the semester ends and he leaves that class no more knowledgeable than when he entered it.

The astonishing thing about “teaching the conflicts” is that people have continued to take the idea seriously in the five or six years since Professor Graff first formulated it. If he were really in earnest about equipping students to enter the “arena of debate,” Professor Graff should insist that students avoid classes that “teach the conflicts” and concentrate instead on mastering Aristotle’s Rhetoric and as much of the traditional literary canon as they could. Then at least they would know what they were talking about. And then they could enter the debate aware that many of the current “controversies” are little more than attempts to destroy literary studies by transforming them into a battleground for one or another political agenda.

This was something that Richard Marius recognized in the paper he sent in to be read. Although he began by declaring his liberal credentials, Professor Marius took sharp issue with Professor Graff’s proposals. A teacher’s goal, he wrote, should be to keep his politics out of the classroom; the ideal was a “detached study of texts” in which reason, not politics, determined the course of argument. Professor Marius represented the voice of traditional liberalism—a distinctly minority position at the MLA convention. Richard Ohmann was one of many representing the voice of radical Marxism. In his view, teaching the conflicts would be a fine thing—if only it worked. Professor Ohmann expatiated at some length about this, but what we found most interesting in his presentation was his frank acknowledgment that the college curriculum had been transformed by the radicalism of the 1960s. “Feminism, black studies, cultural studies, history from below, lesbian and gay studies, Marxism”—such areas of study, he noted, were not present in the curriculum three decades ago. Today, the “critical legacy of the Sixties” is present in humanities departments “almost everywhere.” Of course, this has often been pointed out in the pages of The New Criterion, only to be greeted by a chorus of denials from the academic establishment. It was refreshing, then, to encounter such plain speaking at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association. It was not, we were to discover, a common occurrence.

Wednesday, December 28

Ten-fifteen on Wednesday promised to be an exciting time at the MLA convention. One could choose among such sessions as “Feminism and the Unspeakable” (Part II), “The Politics, Ethics, and Erotics of Collaborative Scholarship,” and “Women and Gender in Islamic Discourse.” But the MLA had organized a press briefing to discuss the results of its national survey on “What’s Being Taught in Survey Courses?” and so, reluctantly, we forsook pleasure for duty and went to the sparsely populated press briefing.

The MLA’s new survey tabulated the results of a questionnaire that was sent to some five hundred English-department chairmen asking them to name the five most frequently taught authors in lower-division survey courses in 1990–91. According to a press release, “the MLA findings suggest that authors and periods considered to be part of the ‘traditional’ English literature canon continue to maintain a strong presence in undergraduate survey courses.” There followed a number of reassuring statistics: Chaucer was named by 89 percent of those questioned, Shakespeare by 77.7 percent, Milton by 71.7 percent, and so on.

“Reassuring,” in fact, was a word that cropped up often in the press briefing. Phyllis Franklin, executive director of the MLA, noted that the “findings should really be reassuring to parents of college-age students” because it showed that “traditional authors continue to be the mainstay” of English survey courses. It is true, Miss Franklin allowed, that “works by newly recognized and contemporary authors are making their way into the curriculum,” but this represented a process of “evolution, not revolution.” This was a theme echoed by Patricia Meyer Spacks, the outgoing president of the MLA, chairman of the English department at the University of Virginia, and the author of books about gossip and (most recently) boredom. The MLA’s survey was undertaken, she said, “to see whether it was true, as some people have suggested, that the great literature of the Western canon was disappearing from the curriculum of our colleges and universities.” Her conclusion: this was “demonstrably not the case.” Furthermore, Professor Spacks said, the reason that many more black and women authors (for example) are showing up on reading lists is “not political” but “historical,” having to do with “the sense that history is or can be a lot larger, a lot more inclusive than it was once thought to be.”

Hmmm. We hardly know where to begin to criticize the MLA’s survey. Some minor objections include the fact that it is out of date (things have gotten a lot worse in the academy since 1990–91) and that limiting the response to five authors was bound to skew the results. About the “reassuring” statistics derived from the survey, we recall Disraeli’s description of the three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics. What do the statistics compiled by the MLA, even assuming they are accurate, tell us? Precious little. For the issue is not only whether Spenser or Shakespeare or Milton shows up on lower-level reading lists, but also the way in which these authors are taught. Teaching Shakespeare as an exemplar of Western imperialism and patriarchy is not the sort of “reassurance” that most parents or state legislatures would welcome as they contemplate the future cost of higher education. But the whole question of teaching practices was deliberately excluded from the survey, the official responsible for the survey explained, because collecting data on it was “not feasible.” That may be true; but far from being reassuring, it simply shows up the worthlessness of the survey—except, that is, as a public-relations blind.

Where was Richard Ohmann when one needed him? At least he admitted that the curriculum had been transformed by the radical ethos of the 1960s. When asked whether she was “actually suggesting that these curriculum changes do not reflect the pressures … by Afro-American cultural politics, feminist cultural politics, gay cultural politics,” etc., Professor Spacks temporized: the changes were not political, she said, because “one sense of intellectual possibility and intellectual demand comes out of a cultural context, and the cultural context is established by everything that is happening in the culture. But it seems to me very important to realize that this is not a matter of identity politics.” No, we didn’t get it either. But this verbal arabesque did give us some insight into one reason that Professor Spacks might have been elected to the presidency of the MLA. At a time when the organization is under increasing scrutiny and criticism, having a president who is adept at such smoke signals is a valuable asset.

We thought back to her accomplished performance that evening during her presidential address, piquantly entitled “So What?”, Professor Spacks’s main points concerned the fate of her profession: the widespread attacks on the MLA and the profession as a whole, the dearth of jobs for graduate students, the dwindling of state and federal monies for higher education. In essence, she attempted to suggest some answers to the taunting question “So what?” by outlining the reasons that an education in literature is important.

Professor Spacks said both interesting and opaque things about this subject. But perhaps the most illuminating part of her talk came early on, when she described the eight-hour course in media training she had taken a few years ago when she became an officer of the MLA. The point of the course was to teach her “how to function effectively on a talk show,” and the primary advice was to “figure out in advance no more than two things you want to say and say them over and over again, no matter what you’re asked.” Professor Spacks noted that she had found the advice quite useful, and, thinking back to the way she handled the press briefing, we can see why.

Unlike some of her recent predecessors in the presidency of the MLA, Professor Spacks is not a malevolent figure. Indeed, she struck us as kindly and basically well intentioned. But she was also clearly out of touch with what is really going on in the name of the teaching of literature today. It was clear from her talk that she still believed that literature was a primary interest of those teachers affiliated with the MLA. What session after session at the convention made unmistakably clear, however, was that for many in the profession, literature had long since been overtaken by some version of cultural radicalism as their real passion.

One of the most disturbing illustrations of this tendency is the spectacle of intellectual irresponsibility exhibited by the squads of literature and cultural studies professors who have lately presumed to deconstruct or otherwise criticize the natural sciences. The pretentiousness and cognitive bankruptcy of the profession declares itself here in its rawest and most preposterous form.

Of course, there have long been humanists who, innocent of science, have been ensorcelled by the bracing, existential sound of Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle,” the specter of “entropy,” the theory of relativity, and kindred, half-understood scientific concepts. A great deal of muddle-headed social theory has thus come into the world. In recent years, however, this attraction to portentous-sounding abstractions (“chaos theory,” “paradigm shift,” etc.) has been wedded to various radical literary and political theories to produce a whole new genre of nonsense, generally known as “science studies.” Here we see the antics of deconstruction, post-structuralism, and gender madness applied not to literary or other cultural texts but to the basic concepts and methodology of the natural sciences. The result is almost invariably a form of political gibberish: rantings about “feminist algebra” (yes, really), the applicability of Jacques Derrida to chaos theory in physics, and so on.

Last year, two scientists, Paul R. Gross from the University of Virginia and Norman Levitt from Rutgers University, published Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science. Higher Superstition is a blistering attack on the whole field of “science studies,” by turns hilarious and disconcerting. But it is much more than a polemic. By providing a patiently assembled and minutely analyzed catalogue of absurdities, the book is perhaps the most trenchant and carefully argued attack on intellectual fraudulence in the humanities to have appeared in our time.

And so it was only natural that there should have been a session devoted to attacking Higher Superstition at the MLA. Entitled “Who Qualifies to Critique Science?” it was an extremely popular and, in its way, instructive session. Presided over by George Levine, a minor but dependable champion of various left-wing academic causes who teaches at Rutgers University, the session featured three speakers: Sharon Traweek and N. Katherine Hayles from UCLA, and—one of the few academic “stars” to appear at this year’s MLA convention—Andrew Ross, a relentlessly trendy young Marxist who recently left Princeton to minister to the proletariat at New York University.

Intellectually, the session was vapid; politically, it was vicious. Professor Levine began by deriding Higher Superstition as “wildly reductive” and “absurd”; Professor Ross described it as “a leaden-footed, pig-headed attack in the tradition of Bennett, Bloom, Kimball, Kramer, de Souza, Bernstein, and the other Bloom” (i.e., Harold Bloom, as distinct from Allan); Professor Hayles spoke of Professor Gross and Levitt’s “distortions and misrepresentations,” their “doubletalk,” etc. It is worth noting that Professor Hayles and Ross were both eviscerated in Higher Superstition—Professor Hayles for her appositely titled book Chaos Bound, Andrew Ross for Strange Weather: Culture, Science and Technology in the Age of Limits, a work that Professor Ross dedicated to “all of the science teachers I never had. It could only have been written without them.” It is also worth noting that neither Professor Gross nor Levitt was invited to respond to the attacks made on them and their book. Indeed, when someone from the audience asked whether anyone representing an alternative viewpoint had been invited to participate, Professor Levine snapped “No!”— adding for good measure that, having had unpleasant encounters with Professor Levitt at Rutgers, he would have nothing to do with him.

It would be bootless to describe the “content” of this session in any detail: really, there wasn’t any. There was only pose, attitude, political ventilation. Professor Traweek provided an exegesis of My Fair Lady as a paradigm of what is wrong with scientific rationality, while Professor Ross intoned darkly about the “occupying presence of technoscience in all of the institutional spaces that house our intellectual work today.” Professor Hayles made feeble protestations that she really did know some science and that she and others had been treated unfairly in Higher Superstition.

Although there is stiff competition for the prize, we are tempted to award the palm for the most aggressively bogus session to Professor Levine and his colleagues. There was plenty of politicized drivel in other sessions, to be sure, but in raising the question “Who Qualifies to Critique Science?”, Professor Levine et al. at least raised an important topic. Indeed, the importance of responsible science policy is something that Professors Gross and Levitt acknowledge early on in their book:

We recognize that it is necessary for science patiently to abide social scrutiny, since science and its uses affect the prospects of the entire society. That kind of scrutiny is a serious enterprise, requiring painstaking attention to fact and a disinclination to extrapolate beyond the bounds of reasonable inference.
The problem of course is that far from observing a “painstaking attention to fact” and cultivating a “disinclination to extrapolate beyond the bounds of reasonable inference,” the “scholars” that Professor Levine assembled barely acknowledge that such a thing as a fact exists. Consequently, their “critique” of science is little more than an anemic fiction: a few important-sounding technical phrases ornamented with portentous left-wing clichés and fashionable Lit-Crit talk. There were a lot of silly sessions at the MLA; “Who Qualifies to Critique Science?” was a scandal.

Thursday, December 29

At this point, it would be de trop, not to say unkind, to subject readers to précis of “Feminism and the Unspeakable” (Part III), “The Cultural Logic of Late Catholicism,” or the other treats featured on Thursday. Part of the tedium of attending an MLA convention is the stupefying sameness of the sessions. Yet we must include at least a word about the session called “Homi Bhabha: The Location of Culture,” which convened in a large ballroom in the Hyatt Regency on Thursday afternoon. Homi Bhabha, who recently went to the University of Chicago from the University of Sussex, is one of the brightest stars in the newish field of “post-colonial” studies. He is a frequent contributor to October magazine and, unlike Andrew Ross, who is merely fashionable, Professor Bhabha has a real following. Interestingly, he made his international debut at the MLA in 1983, reading a paper called “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse.”

Professor Bhabha’s new book of essays, The Location of Culture, was the occasion for this gathering, but what we saw was less like a scholarly panel than a political rally. The Manchester Ballroom was packed to overflowing with hundreds of eager celebrants; each participant arose to praise Homi Bhabha’s brilliance and political rectitude (nearly always with appropriate invocations of Walter Benjamin) and then Homi Bhabha himself delivered an extraordinary political pep talk. Having read a bit of Professor Bhabha’s work, a forbidding mixture of post-structuralist jargon and anti-white racial animus, we were stunned by his charismatic presentation. The words were just as forbidding, just as rebarbative; but Professor Bhabha is a ferociously articulate performer, and he had his audience in the palm of his hand. There was great deal said about “the struggle against fascism” at that session. Yet the demagoguery we witnessed on this occasion seemed like nothing so much as a rehearsal of totalitarian rhetoric. Once again, literature had been left far, far behind.

Literature was indeed the principal casualty of this convention. At almost every turn we encountered an open and agreed-upon hostility to it, and on the rare programs where it was discussed as anything but a disguised form of malign political repression or a “text” for some variety of “transgressive” sexuality, it was either derided, condescended to, or openly attacked. Altogether typical of this animus was the unlovely spectacle of Professor Marjorie Perloff delivering an assault on the life and work of Philip Larkin, whose poems were dismissed as “strange cartoons” and the man himself as “paranoid.” And Professor Perloff’s tirade was relatively benign compared to that of Professor Joyce Ann Joyce, who in the course of praising the writings of Ishmael Reed and denouncing those of Henry James, Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, repeatedly declaimed to her largely black audience that “racism, sexism, capitalism, and the Judeo-Christian tradition” were responsible for what she characterized as the troubled “interpersonal relationships between black men and women.” And this was on one of the more literary programs at the convention.

But on a great many of the programs the speakers did not pretend to be interested in literature even as a point of departure, and the audiences for non-literary subjects— “Free Speech and Hate Speech in the Classroom,” for example, or a discourse on “the geometry of lesbian desire” as illustrated on the cover of Vanity Fair (the magazine, of course, not the novel)—were invariably the largest and most enthusiastic. At the “Free Speech and Hate Speech” session, a speaker from Oberlin denounced the college’s “absolutist defense of the First Amendment” as an offense against multiculturalism, and also, not incidentally, deplored what she termed “heterosexualism.” At a great many sessions, moreover, more attention was lavished upon the vaunted iniquities of California’s Proposition 187 than upon any “text” even remotely related to literary study.

It was all a terrible confirmation of Lionel Trilling’s prophetic diagnosis, more than twenty years ago, of “a once proud profession [that] has come to the end of its tether.” Whether the profession can still be saved from this suicidal plunge into radical politics and sexual nihilism remains to be seen. The formation of an opposition group—the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics —is one of the few signs that it might. But whatever fate awaits the literature-teaching profession in this country, one thing is now certain: It is the Modern Language Society itself which has come to the end of its tether, and with this report we bid it farewell. It has fully succeeded in rendering itself irrelevant to the real world of literary and humanistic study. It has established itself as a menace to the very standards it pretends to uphold. It is now just another example of decadent cultural bureaucracy more concerned to perpetuate its own prerogatives than to discharge the intellectual responsibilities for which it was created. Its time has passed.


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  1. See “The MLA Centennial Follies,” in our issue for February 1984, and “The Periphery vs. the Center: The MLA in Chicago,” in our issue for February 1991. Go back to the text.
  2. See “When Reason Sleeps: The Academy vs. Science,” in our issue for May 1994, for a review of this book. Go back to the text.