There has been a lot of talk lately about the “dumbing down” of our major cultural institutions—what we used to be able to call without quotation marks “elite” cultural institutions. That the quotation marks are now necessary already speaks volumes about the degradation of American museums, orchestras, universities, publishing houses, public television, and serious—that is, “serious”— newspapers. We feel a little silly calling attention to the phenomenon at this late date: it is a bit like observing to Noah that it has been an unusually wet season. And yet every now and then something comes along that catches us up short, that makes us appreciate with new force the wisdom in the old adage that things are always worse than you thought.
The latest such reminder came to us from the “Week in Review” section of the Sunday New York Times early in September. There, under the heading “Ideas & Trends,” was what the editors at the Times undoubtedly referred to as a “think piece” called “Retooling Critical Theory: Buddy Can You Paradigm?” It was written by Ben Yagoda, who teaches journalism at the University of Delaware and who is the author of Will Rogers: A Biography. This essay brought us the cheerful news that the reign of “theory” in the humanities departments of our colleges and universities was now “on the ebb.” Everyone who had been critical of deconstruction, poststructuralism, and the other unlovely allotropes of politicized hermeticism that had all but destroyed the study of literature in the academy could at last breathe easily. Mr. Yagoda and his sources in the academy agreed that we were now in the age of “Posttheory.” Happy thought! Quoth one authority from the University of Virginia, “deconstruction is pretty much dead.” What had happened? According to Mr. Yagoda, the attacks on the academic establishment mounted by writers such as Camille Paglia, Dinesh D’Souza, Roger Kimball, and David Lehman combined with economic pressures to roll back the tide of “theory” and nudge many professors toward “more accessible, belletristic writing styles.” “Obscurity,” Mr. Yagoda explained, “has lost some of its appeal.”
Will Rogers used to say that he only knew what he read in the papers. We wonder what he would have thought had he come across Mr. Yagoda’s rumination in the Times. It strikes us as one of those special pieces in which even the punctuation contains a distortion or gross simplification. Mr. Yagoda is correct that deconstruction as such is no longer the novel rage it was a few years ago; he fails to see, however, that this is not because deconstruction is “dead” but because its techniques and its corrosive cynicism have been assimilated and are now simply taken for granted.
Sometimes, to be sure, Mr. Yagoda is simply wrong, as when he writes that “undergraduate classes … are by and large insulated from the winds of fashion and continue to be conducted in the traditional way —close readings of great books.” Would that it were so! In fact, both the undergraduate curriculum and the methods of teaching it have been deeply compromised by the radical fads that Mr. Yagoda assures us have disappeared. How else can one explain the prevalence of pop culture, the movies, and third-rate “ethnic studies” novels in the curricula at the vast majority of colleges?
But the really unforgivable thing about Mr. Yagoda’s little effort at cultural analysis is not that it is wrong—although it assuredly is wrong—but that it operates at such low intellectual wattage. Just how dim are the readers of The New York Times? What Mr. Yagoda presents them with is the Special Ed version of cultural criticism. He trivializes the astute analysis of deconstruction that David Lehman provides in his book Signs of the Times, completely misses the radical agenda behind the movement called “cultural studies,” and generally simplifies out of recognition every idea he stumbles over. Here for example is his précis of the new theories that are supposedly on the wane: “Drawing on the doctrine of structuralism, which held that human behavior and creations were the product of deeply ingrained, not easily discernible patterns and structures, the new theories argued that meaning was ambiguous, socially constructed, frequently self-contradictory. So was the concept of the Great Author, which was seen as a once useful, now outmoded fiction.” And War and Peace, as Woody Allen said after taking a speed-reading class and reading the novel in ten minutes, is about Russia.
Mr. Yagoda belongs to the Don’t Worry, Be Happy school of criticism. Things seem A-OK to him partly because he believes that when you get right down to it ideas don’t really much matter. All those obscure theories and dicta emanating from the English departments of our great universities: to Mr. Yagoda they are just a parade of academic fashions—some are pink, some are blue, but all, to vary another famous dictum of Will Rogers, are pretty much applesauce. About midway through the piece we came to a sentence that epitomized Mr. Yagoda’s approach. “Academic styles,” he writes, “are always coming and going, of course, with a new approach sometimes even being a demonstrable improvement on what came before (Einsteinian versus Newtonian physics, for example).” This amazing sentence is wrong in more ways than we could have thought possible: it is wrong to presume that the substance of intellectual debate is simply a matter of “style” or fashion; it is wrong to suggest that “improvement” in the humanities is relevantly comparable to progress in scientific theories; and it is wrong to imply that the theory of relativity superseded Newtonian physics. Members of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Adverbs will also want to take note of the abuse that “even” suffers in this sentence.
Still, we hesitate to be too hard on Mr. Yagoda. In some respects, he is an innocent who has strayed into foreign territory. But we might have hoped that the editors of The New York Times would demand from the writers that they publish at least elementary competence in the subjects they write about. That the Times no longer does is part of the scandal of our time.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 13 Number 2, on page 2
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