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Public InteLLectuaLs 1 and Out of Academe n
SiLvia Nagy-Zekmi and Karyn HoLUs
Dedicafed to the memory o/Howard Zinn
Truth to Power: Public Intellectuals In and Out of Academe
Silvia Nagy-Zekmi and Karyn Hollis
Truth to Power: Public Intellectuals In and Out of Academe, Edited by Silvia Nagy-Zekmi and Karyn Hollis This book first published 2010 Cambridge Scholars Publishing 12 Back Chapman Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE6 2XX, UK
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
Copyright © 2010 by Silvia Nagy-Zekmi and Karyn Hollis and contributors All rights for this book reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner. ISBN (10): 1-4438-2260-4, ISBN (13): 978-1-4438-2260-2
Dedicated to the memory of Howard Zinn. The train is still moving and so are we…
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Preface ........................................................................................................ ix Howard Zinn: A Public Intellectual Who Mattered Henry A. Giroux Introduction ............................................................................................... xv Questions of Response/Ability: Public Intellectuals in the Information Age Silvia Nagy-Zekmi and Karyn Hollis PART I. TRUTH TO POWER Neoliberalism and the Crisis of Intellectual Engagement............................ 3 Sophia A. McClennen The Saidian Public Intellectual: Writing Between Culture and System .... 17 Matthew Abraham “But Let’s Not Be Stupid Together!”: The Responsibility of Intellectuals in an Age of Mass Killing.......................................................................... 33 Daniel L. Zins PART II. IN AND OUT OF ACADEME The New Treason of Intellectuals: A Case of Misunderstanding and Misconstruction .................................................................................. 53 Karlis Racevskis Affiliations, Academic Values and Corporate Intellectuals....................... 65 Jeffrey R. Di Leo Intellectuals and the Amateur: Advice to the Outsider .............................. 75 John G. Nichols
Table of Contents
PART III. MODELS OF ENGAGEMENT The Artist and the Intellectual: Rabindranath Tagore and Transnationality .................................................................................. 89 Ranjan Ghosh English Only: The Hegemony of Language in Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt....................................................................................... 103 Susan Shin Hee Park Between Complicity and Resistance: Christa Wolf and Nadine Gordimer ................................................................................................. 113 Lisa Bernstein Imagined Community of Female Intellectuals: Mistral, Ocampo and Castellanos ........................................................................................ 125 Lois Wolfe A Vision of the Public Intellectual, Benjamin Franklin Style ................. 141 Anne Melfi
PREFACE HOWARD ZINN: A PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL WHO MATTERED HENRY A. GIROUX
In 1977 I took my first job in higher education at Boston University. One reason I went there was because Howard Zinn was teaching there at the time. As a high school teacher, Howard’s book, “Vietnam: the Logic of Withdrawal,” published in 1968, had a profound effect on me. Not only was it infused with a passion and sense of commitment that I admired as a high school teacher and tried to internalize as part of my own pedagogy, but it captured something about the passion, sense of commitment and respect for solidarity that came out of Howard's working-class background. It offered me a language, history and politics that allowed me to engage critically and articulate my opposition to the war that was raging at the time. I grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, and rarely met or read any working-class intellectuals. After reading James Baldwin, hearing William Kunstler and Stanley Aronowitz give talks, I caught a glimpse of what it meant to occupy such a fragile, contradictory and often scorned location. But reading Howard gave me the theoretical tools to understand more clearly how the mix of biography, cultural capital and class location could be finely honed into a viable and laudable politics. Later, as I got to know Howard personally, I was able to fill in the details about his working-class background and his intellectual development. We had grown up in similar neighborhoods, shared a similar cultural capital and we both probably learned more from the streets than we had ever learned in formal schooling. There was something about Howard’s fearlessness, his courage, his willingness to risk not just his academic position, but also his life, that marked him as special, untainted by the often corrupting privileges of class entitlement. Before I arrived in Boston to begin teaching at Boston University, Howard was a mythic figure for me and I was anxious to meet him in real
Howard Zinn: A Public Intellectual Who Mattered
life. How I first encountered him was perfectly suited to the myth. While walking to my first class, as I was nearing the university, filled with the trepidation of teaching a classroom of students, I caught my first glimpse of Howard. He was standing on a box with a bullhorn in front of the Martin Luther King memorial giving a talk calling for opposition to Silber's attempt to undermine any democratic or progressive function of the university. The image so perfectly matched my own understanding of Howard that I remember thinking to myself, this has to be the perfect introduction to such a heroic figure. Soon afterwards, I wrote him a note and rather sheepishly asked if we could meet. He got back to me in a day; we went out to lunch soon afterwards, and a friendship developed that lasted over thirty years. While teaching at Boston University, I often accompanied Howard when he went to high schools to talk about his published work or his plays. I sat in on many of his lectures and even taught one of his graduate courses. He loved talking to students and they were equally attracted to him. His pedagogy was dynamic, directive, focused, laced with humor and always open to dialog and interpretation. He was a magnificent teacher, who shredded all notions of the classroom as a place that was as uninteresting as it was often irrelevant to larger social concerns. He urged his students not just to learn from history, but to use it as a resource to sharpen their intellectual prowess and hone their civic responsibilities. Howard refused to separate what he taught in the university classroom, or any forum for that matter, from the most important problems and issues facing the larger society. But he never demanded that students follow his own actions; he simply provided a model of what a combination of knowledge, teaching and social commitment meant. Central to Howard’s pedagogy was the belief that teaching students how to critically understand a text or any other form of knowledge was not enough. They also had to engage such knowledge as part of a broader engagement with matters of civic agency and social responsibility. How they did that was up to them, but, most importantly, they had to link what they learned to a selfreflective understanding of their own responsibility as engaged individuals and social actors. He offered students a range of options. He wasn’t interested in molding students in the manner of Pygmalion, but in giving them the widest possible set of choices and knowledge necessary for them to view what they learned as an act of freedom and empowerment. There is a certain poetry in his pedagogical style and scholarship and it is captured in his belief that one can take a position without standing still. He captured this
Henry A. Giroux
sentiment well in a comment he made in his autobiography, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train. He wrote:
From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than “objectivity;” I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble (183).
In fact, Howard was under constant attack by John Silber, then president of Boston University, because of his scholarship and teaching. One expression of that attack took the form of freezing Howard’s salary for years. Howard loved watching independent and Hollywood films and he and I and Roz [Howard’s wife] saw many films together while I was in Boston. I remember how we quarreled over Last Tango in Paris. I loved the film, but he disagreed. But Howard disagreed in a way that was persuasive and instructive. He listened, stood his ground, and, if he was wrong, often said something like, “O.K., you got a point,” always accompanied by that broad and wonderful smile. What was so moving and unmistakable about Howard was his humility, his willingness to listen, his refusal of all orthodoxies and his sense of respect for others. I remember once when he was leading a faculty strike at Boston University in the late 1970s and I mentioned to him that too few people had shown up. He looked at me and made it very clear that what should be acknowledged is that some people did show up and that was a beginning. He rightly put me in my place that day—a lesson I never forgot. Howard was no soppy optimist, but someone who believed that human beings, in the face of injustice and with the necessary knowledge, were willing to resist, organize and collectively struggle. Howard led the committee organized to fight my firing by Silber. We lost that battle, but Howard was a source of deep comfort and friendship for me during a time when I had given up hope. I later learned that Silber, the notorious rightwing enemy of Howard and anyone else on the left, had included me on a top-ten list of blacklisted academics at Boston University. Hearing that I shared that list with Howard was a proud moment for me. But Howard occupied a special place in Silber’s list of enemies, and he once falsely accused Howard of arson, a charge he was later forced to retract once the charge was leaked to the press.
Howard Zinn: A Public Intellectual Who Mattered
Howard was one of the few intellectuals I have met who took education seriously. He embraced it as both necessary for creating an informed citizenry and because he rightly felt it was crucial to the very nature of politics and human dignity. He was a deeply committed scholar and intellectual for whom the line between politics and life, teaching and civic commitment collapsed into each other. Howard never allowed himself to be seduced either by threats, the seductions of fame or the need to tone down his position for the standard bearers of the new illiteracy that now populates the mainstream media. As an intellectual for the public, he was a model of dignity, engagement and civic commitment. He believed that addressing human suffering and social issues mattered, and he never flinched from that belief. His commitment to justice and the voices of those expunged from the official narratives of power are evident in such works as his monumental and best-known book, A People’s History of the United States, but it was also evident in many of his other works, talks, interviews and the wide scope of public interventions that marked his long and productive life. Howard provided a model of what it meant to be an engaged scholar, who was deeply committed to sustaining public values and a civic life in ways that linked theory, history and politics to the everyday needs and language that informed everyday life. He never hid behind a firewall of jargon, refused to substitute irony for civic courage and disdained the assumption that working-class and oppressed people were incapable of governing themselves. Unlike so many public relations intellectuals today, I never heard him interview himself while talking to others. Everything he talked about often pointed to larger social issues, and all the while, he completely rejected any vestige of political and moral purity. His lack of rigidity coupled with his warmness and humor often threw people off, especially those on the left and right who seem to pride themselves on their often zombie-like stoicism. But, then again, Howard was not a child of privilege. He had a working-class sensibility, though hardly romanticized, and sympathy for the less privileged in society along with those whose voices had been kept out of the official narratives as well as a deeply felt commitment to solidarity, justice, dialogue and hope. And it was precisely this great sense of dignity and generosity in his politics and life that often moved people who shared his company privately or publicly. A few days before his death, he sent me an email commenting on something I had written for Truthout about zombie politics. (It astonishes me that this will have been the last correspondence. Even at my age, the encouragement and support of this man, this towering figure in my life, meant such a great deal.) His
Henry A. Giroux
response captures something so enduring and moving about his spirit. He wrote:
“Henry, we are in a situation where mild rebuke, even critiques we consider “radical” are not sufficient. (Frederick Douglass’ speech on the Fourth of July in 1852, thunderously angry, comes close to what is needed). Raising the temperature of our language, our indignation, is what you are doing and what is needed. I recall that Sartre, close to death, was asked: “What do you regret?” He answered: “I wasn’t radical enough” (personal letter).
I suspect that Howard would have said the same thing about himself. And maybe no one can ever be radical enough, but Howard came close to that ideal in his work, life and politics. Howard's death is especially poignant for me because I think the formative culture that produced intellectuals like him is gone. He leaves an enormous gap in the lives of many thousands of people who knew him and were touched by the reality of the embodied and deeply felt politics he offered to all of us. I will miss him, his emails, his work, his smile and his endearing presence. Of course, he would frown on such a sentiment, and with a smile would more than likely say, “do more than mourn, organize.” Of course, he would be right, but maybe we can do both.
Truthout. <www.truthout.org> accessed in April 2010. Zinn, Howard. You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times.  Beacon Press, 2002. —. A People’s History of the United States 1492 to Present. New York: Harper, 2005.
INTRODUCTION QUESTIONS OF RESPONSE/ABILITY: THE ROLE OF PUBLIC INTELLECTUALS IN THE INFORMATION AGE SILVIA NAGY-ZEKMI AND KARYN HOLLIS
The notion that public intellectuals in the U.S. are in decline has again become fashionable with their portrayal as trapped between Academe and the “real” world. The questions to be addressed are: How can the voices of scholars and erudite thinkers penetrate the globalized, corporate media and how does media receive and represent the contribution of intellectuals to the academic and public spheres. We pose these questions all the while recognizing the “the nonidentity of intellectuals as a group” (Bové). The collection of eleven articles presents new scholarship on the role of the intellectual in a society, and specifically in Academe, from many different perspectives. Indeed, intellectuals have been negotiating access to public discourse for centuries, but never have their opinions been more crucial to the public good. The inspiration for this volume comes from Edward Said’s notion of intellectuals whose role—according to the critic—is to “uncover and elucidate the contest, to challenge and defeat both an imposed silence and the normalized quiet of unseen power, wherever and whenever possible.” The main function of the intellectual is to “speak truth to power” (hence the title of the book) and to be “a witness to persecution and suffering . . . supplying a dissenting voice in conflicts with authority” (Said, “The Public Role…”). The fact that these voices are often drowned out in the media fray or absent altogether cries out for public deliberation. We start by examining some of the factors that influenced public discourse in the last few decades changing the modus operandi of intellectual discourse, but not its Saidian function.
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New technological media challenge the traditional, grammacentric concept of intellectual activity (i.e. the superiority of written language as opposed to spoken language), as scholars are confronted with a broad diversity of cultural expressions that cannot simply be reduced to words (written or spoken). “Computer technology is creating a new kind of public, a cyberculture with all its utopian and apocalyptic possibilities” (Tofts 4). Current cultural theories have addressed many aspects of the electronic age: Hyper-reality (Baudrillard), the human/inhuman, the cyborg (Haraway), and others. Virilio advanced an alternative theory that views acceleration as the defining feature of the “information age” and the key to the organizational and transformational possibilities of postmodernity. Paul Virilio, who coined the term, “dromology”1 suggests that our era—with fiber-optic and satellite networks, cruise missiles and drones—is approaching the limits of acceleration, and is pushed to the edge of the ‘integral accident,’ the unavoidable catastrophe that is a “diagnostic of technology” (Der Derian 20), the result of an “instrumental culture” in which only positive aspects of technology are emphasized while the negatives are censored (Adams). Whereas the “end of History” advanced by Fukuyama (and by Hegel and Marx before him) was not based on entirely convincing arguments—due to its evolutionary angle— Virilio’s idea about the “end of Geography” seems much more evidenced in the global(ized) world where distance is conceived of differently in this “information age”. Although the immediacy of communication gives the impression of closeness, experiences are transmitted by images, rather than sensory means. The objective element of speed and efficiency in the exchange and transition of information results from the new technologies; however, the subjective element of time and space generates the experience of a dramatically decreased time and space presupposing changes in the parameters of human perception due to the increased speed of electronic media, internet, etc. that provide the “twin phenomena of immediacy and of instantaneity” (Virilio, “Speed…”). Virilio also sees the “invasion of technology” into our bodies through miniaturization: Miniaturization is a dwarfing effect that concerns both the medium and its object. Thus, the new transportation technologies—supersonic planes, high-speed trains—reduce and miniaturize the distances of the territorial body, in other words, the environment. (55).
From dromos (from the Greek word, to race) meaning, the logic of speed.
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An example which illustrates both the “miniaturization” of the world and the instantaneous exchange of information is television, more specifically, news reporting. Because the screen transmits a representation, just like any form of discourse that separates us from real-time events, reactions are provoked not by the events themselves, but by conveyed images. Because speed destroys the diachronic logic (of Modernity) and transmits information in a manner contrary to sensorial expectations, experiences of this kind of hyper-reality seem real and unreal at the same time. The televised emissions of the falling buildings of the World Trade Center were transmitted as silent imagery while the sound of the destruction was heard only after the buildings had already collapsed. The public’s perception of the World trade Center disaster manifests the characteristics of “time and space compression” and thus provides a prime example for the “integral accident” that signals the true end of Modernity for Virilio, as opposed to Gianni Vattimo’s philosophy of “pensiero debole” (weak thought) as the advent of the Postmodern era.2 All “integral accidents”, such as 9/11, the economic meltdown of 2008—whose full consequences are not yet assessed—and Hurricane Katrina have been followed by swift political and economic actions, such as the privatization of the New Orleans public schools,3 bringing to mind Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine. Immediate action is key in these cases to create the impression that authorities have responded decisively to the situation, something has been done, and actions have been taken, in ways even more important than the event that prompted them in the first place. This is why actions that, in fact, do not respond to the initial problem but serve certain interests may be enacted without any public resistance, not even by those whose interests are at stake. Post-disaster, a reorganization of cultural memory takes place whereby public discourse is hijacked by
2 “Weak thought” for Vattimo is based on the assumption that “thinking” is not able to know the “being.” Consequently societal values are produced in specific historical circumstances and may not be universalized either in space (geography) or in time. In terms of Post/Modernity, “weak thought” has a positive connotation for the present by distancing itself from the rational foundations of modernism rooted in the Enlightenment.” (Zabala passim). This idea provides the foundation for the parallel existence of Modernity and Postmodernity. 3 Milton Friedman observed: “Most of New Orleans schools are in ruins, as are the homes of the children who attended them. The children are now scattered all over the country. This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity to radically reform the educational system.” “The Promise…” Thus, a great portion of the money destined for rebuilding went to provide families with vouchers to send their children to private institutions subsidized by the state. This became a “permanent reform,” i.e. the privatization of the public schools. (cf. Klein 5).
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groups whose interests are intimately tied to the advancement of the governmental or “official” version. One such example is the 9/11 Public Discourse Project, http://www.9-11pdp.org/about/-index.htm, a “nationwide educational campaign for the purpose of making America safer and more secure”. This site, supported by a number of foundations and corporations such as The America Prepared Campaign, Inc. and The Carnegie Corporation of New York, in fact, was legitimizing racist and discriminatory practices in the name of “national security”.
The control over intellectual discourse
These examples of “integral accidents” illustrate why it is crucial that intellectual discourse not be controlled by either economic or political interests and that it be allowed to flow with (relative) freedom fueled by the excitement of inquiry and the desire to find answers and explanations free of self interest, though not subjectivity. It is one of the tasks of intellectuals to disentangle the complex web of interrelations in the representation of the “hypermodern”4 (Virilio), an economic, political and cultural realm. On one hand, changes in the transmission of discourse from the handwritten page to the blogosphere have to be taken into account. As the medium changes, so does discourse. Arguments have become shorter and more concise, which does not necessarily mean more precise. Because of the competing spaces in which public discourse is displayed and accessed, (internet journals, the blogosphere, and the like), its style has become simpler and more direct, displaying an unapologetic subjectivity. Another reason why intellectuals may not have made more impact on the public has to do with the complexity of their prose and the jargon so prevalent in traditional scholarly discourse. The narcissistic selfreferentiality, the replacement of the object at hand by the authorial subject has created a gap between the authors and the public they were supposed to reach and inspire. The changing nature of intellectual discourse is partly due to the abundance of media (beyond the traditional journalistic media), and the horizontal scope of its availability which has expanded so much that information gathering is done by individuals at an ever increasing speed (while surfing the internet, for example); the method of choice is often to skim through the material in hypertextual order, with the attention captured by the tree-like structures of links. Long articles offering an overarching synthesis within a diachronic chain of proceedings infused
“Or the cultural logic of contemporary militarism” (Armitage: Hypermodern…)
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with “objectivity” are being replaced by Wikipedia (which—despite efforts at ‘neutrality’, contains entries displaying evidence of a subjectivist perspective), and openly subjective blogs offering opinion pieces that are short and spattered with hyperlinks. The acceleration of access (both for consumers and authors) from the printed page to the internet, Kindle, and iPad, and from reading to viewing/listening is also a symptom of the change in the nature of the production and dissemination of knowledge, therefore, the function of public intellectuals in society and, more specifically, in Academe must also (have) change(d) as a consequence. Among the contributors to this volume, several have written about the changing nature of discourse and what constitutes a proper response to it. According to Karlis Racevskis, it is a mistake to deny the current complexity and interconnectedness of global events in efforts to reach audiences beyond academia. Racevskis calls for the development of new symbolic systems to map the physiology of truth which will lead to a new kind of critical understanding. He believes there has been a convergence of disciplines uniting the sciences and the humanities. Today’s hyperlinked discourse seems to point out the interdisciplinary connections that have lead to this convergence. As Academe, especially in the U.S., is run not unlike the corporate world, private universities are seeking more and more profit (at the expense of their ‘workers’, the faculty), and public institutions are hostage to dwindling state support and the privatization efforts by their Board of Regents. States are giving less and less funding to their public universities (New York State, 19%), yet mandate explicit financial obligation of their administration. The scandal that recently erupted in the California system was caused by an attempt to seriously undermine public higher education by starving it of funding (20% new budget cuts, above the previous cuts). Furloughs adopted by many state institutions after the 2008 market crash have demoralized faculty, especially because the burden has not been shared equally by the faculty and the administration. Sophia McClennen’s article in this volume continues this line of reasoning and shows how neoliberalism in the university keeps academics from approaching critical ideological terrain, material workplace issues and progressive political causes.
The intellectual in/out of Academe
Statistics show (cf. Posner) that many public intellectuals are academics, and thus experience the existential problems of academics—particularly those in the Humanities—which arise as university administrators emulate
Questions of Response/Ability
the corporate model to run their institutions. After eight years of G.W. Bush’s intolerant political climate and the continuing ideological uncertainty of the Obama administration, this economic concern is timelier than ever. In spite of the economic hardships, academics at lease have certain job security, due to the tenure system. That is, if they get tenure. One of the politically motivated5 unsuccessful tenure cases was that of Norman Finkelstein, a political scientist who was denied tenure at DePaul University in 2008. As we have indicated, it is also of utmost importance to examine the relationship between non-academic public intellectuals and the corporatized media. The key issue, of course, is the function of power with its ability to oppress, silence and censor. Jeffrey R. Di Leo describes the reconfiguration of academic identity to that of “corporate intellectual,” which recognizes that corporate and academic values are now meshed. Instead of denying this situation,—he suggests that —we can gain from considering the mass “market value” of our ideas, not in the sense of academic dishonesty, but in focusing on rhetorical considerations of audience, and purpose, to gain a wider following. In a similar vein, John G. Nichols, recalls a time in our history when intellectuals could become amateurs and enter the mass marketplace to affect public discourse. Fortifying his idea with Said’s notion of the amateur, he points to the end of the 20th century, when intellectuals wrote books keyed to the American tradition of self-help and advice texts, responding to public needs, e.g. I.A. Richards’, How to Read a Page and others. This approach leads us to consider all those who write and have an audience on the internet as non-academic amateurs. Such amateurization democratizes knowledge production and acts against corporatization of culture presenting “a way for outsiders to become insiders and insiders to become outsiders” (128). Richard Posner, “America’s most prolific celebrity jurist and legal theorist” (Alterman), confines his notion of public intellectuals mainly to academics, arguing that not all intellectuals are academics, but “most of
Finkelstein said he clearly “met the publishing standards and the teaching standards required for tenure” and that DePaul’s decision was based on “transparently political grounds” and an “egregious violation” of academic freedom. This argument is supported by the president of DePaul University, Father Holtschneider’s upholding the University Board on Promotion and Tenure’s decision to deny tenure to Finkelstein, in spite of the fact that he considers Finkelstein “an excellent teacher and a nationally recognized public intellectual,” for the sole reason that Finkelstein does not “honor the obligation” to “respect and defend the free inquiry of associates.” (Cohen New York Times).
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them are” (5). He holds the academic system of tenure (at least partly) responsible for what he perceives as the decline of public intellectuals. “Tenure contracts make the intellectual’s career safe, comfortable, one which can breed aloofness and complacency” (4). This characterization of the declining intellectual is quite pervasive in the public sphere, particularly the representation of academics as intellectually feeble and disconnected from the ‘real world’. However, even Posner recognizes the growing trend of academics in the public intellectual arena. According to a statistic table in his book (207), academics comprise 2/3rd of who he considers public intellectuals and the trend is growing.6 If we consider Edward Said’s prescription of what a public intellectual must do, namely: to “speak truth to power,”— an “egoistic fantasy”, according to Posner (cf. Alterman)—or more specifically, to “publicly raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (and not to produce them), to be someone who cannot be easily co-opted by governments or corporations” (Said, Representation 23), it should come as no surprise that conservative intellectuals, such as Posner, wish to downplay the importance of contributions by academics to public discourse. The challenge to existing hierarchies by public intellectuals through new ways of disseminating information has been increasingly influential in the political process. Prime examples are the 2008 election of Obama and the rising voices regarding the climate change crisis. What are these new ways and how are they different from previous manners of dissemination? There are three aspects that we wish identify as agents of difference: 1. The internet, particularly the blogosphere that is owned and restricted by no-one (at least so far in the U.S.). 2. The speed with which information is transmitted. 3. Ownership of media definitely determines the content; as Michael Parenti puts it: the “corporate news media faithfully reflect the dominant class ideology” (Parenti, internet source). Discourses that challenge these ideologies were not published in the so-called mainstream media in the past. They were deemed of “no interest to the public.” With no owner, the internet represents a full spectrum of ideologies, and open censorship is difficult to implement in the U.S. because of the First Amendment considerations and because no one may claim that content must offer
According to Posner’s (somewhat arbitrary) statistics, 99 of the dead intellectuals were academics, as opposed to 79 non-academics. However, among the living, this proportion is much different: 255 academics as opposed to 113 non-academics (216).
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“what readers/listeners/viewers, want to read/hear/see” which is a typical argument to implement corporate-owned media censorship. However, a frequently raised criticism of the internet is that it fragments and polarizes communities rather than builds consensus. But as Corie Lok astutely points out: “weren’t communities already polarized before the Internet came along?” Furthermore, according to the Pew Internet and American Life project, only one fourth of Internet users seek information on-line that supports what they already believe. This means that three quarters of users encounter (or even seek out) ideologically diverse information that may cause changes in their thinking. But the most important reason to disregard criticism about the internet as a polarizing medium comes from Said’s definition of the public intellectual, who is “neither a pacifier nor a consensus builder but someone whose whole being is staked on a critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas, or ready-made clichés, or the smooth, ever so accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to say…” (Representation 23). Said contextualizes this definition not in political or even social terms, but as a matter of method.
Daniel L. Zins points out why it is paramount for intellectuals to intervene in public discourse, identifying six areas of dire global emergency: genocide, militarism, climate change, human rights violations, structural/economic/ecological violence, and erosion of basic liberties. Indeed, the more we venture to define the task of the public intellectual, the more we must evoke the Lévinasian concept of ethics7 echoed in our title, namely, responsibility conceived as the ability to respond to the human Other resulting, in our case, in the connection of ethics and politics. The public intellectual generates discourse, in the Foucauldian sense, to enable the analysis of large bodies of knowledge, ever conscious of the vicious cycle of the interconnection of power and discourse. The intellectual aims “to break down the stereotypes and reductive categories that are so limiting to human thought and communication” (Said, Representations xi).That is why public media shuns intellectuals who are “disturbers of the status quo” (x). As Raymond Williams suggests, unfavorable references to “intellectuals, intellectualism and intelligentsia” are dominant and “it is clear that such uses persist” (170).
7 Lévinas conceives ethics as the interruption of one’s complacency when faced with the Other, “le visage de l’autre”.
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The centerpiece of Posner’s book, Public Intellectuals, a Study of Decline, is a listing of 546 “top intellectuals” based on the mention of their name in the media (194-214). Posner considers the media’s mention of public intellectuals as an innocent, and above all, objective measure or fame. However, the publishing industry and the media function according to corporate rules whose bottom line is profit. Therefore, inclusion in and exclusion from the public media (TV, newspapers) is not an objective matter, nor it is necessarily linked to intellectual merit. At the top of Posner’s list (according to his own criteria, i.e. being mentioned in the media) are Henry Kissinger, Pat Moynihan, George Will, Larry Summers, William Bennett, and Robert Reich—all politicians, pundits and excabinet members (of course, G. W. Bush is not included). They will certainly not speak truth to power, for they are part of it. However, omitted from the list are Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Tzvetan Todorov, Jean Baudrillard, Juan Cole, Néstor García Canclini, bell hooks and Stuart Hall, all academics who do speak up and shape the public mind, but are not often mentioned (or interviewed) in the “mainstream” (i.e. corporate) media precisely because of their critical thought. (We do not consider “mainstream” media such venues as LinkTV, Democracy Now, Free Speech TV, MIND TV and others because of their (relative) marginality. They are not available on cable TV although some of them appear on PBS stations and satellite providers. Therefore, it is in the interest of someone like Posner, who supports the status quo, to contribute to the myth of the declining intellectual and propagate mistrust and defamation of thinkers who profess a different ideology. To (re)turn to Said, the challenge (and perhaps the appeal) of intellectual expression is found in dissenting against the status quo on behalf of underrepresented and disadvantaged groups (xvii). Matthew Abraham’s article provides an extensive review of Said’s work on the intellectual. Abraham details how Said urged academics to move beyond narrow professionalism to engage with the wider culture, imperialism and resistance politics. We might ask whether Said is building his definition on Sartre’s notion of the “intellectuel engagé,” or responding to Lévinas’s ethical mandate. Here Gramsci’s division of intellectuals in two groups comes to mind for he proposed on the one hand, the “traditional intelligentsia” such as teachers, administrators, priests, and the like, whose job revolves around intellectual inquiry and who (wrongly) see themselves as an elite, a class apart from the rest. On the other are the “organic intellectuals” who articulate experiences that the masses are not able to do by and for themselves (9). This would place academics—as professionals—in the first group. But it seems that Sartre, Said and Chomsky wish to merge these two Gramscian categories so that
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intellectuals would fill both roles, particularly those in Academe, who are, indeed, professionals, but at the same time are the most able to enact the Saidian directive to speak up in the face of injustice because of their protected labor status (tenure). Even so, such public defiance is increasingly difficult to carry out within Academe. If one takes a look at the 2009 issue of Works and Days dedicated to the topic of academic freedom, it becomes clear that academic discourse is being seriously undermined for several reasons: 1. The corporatization of universities. Save the World on Your Own Time, Stanley Fish’s latest book8 illustrates the significance of free speech by focusing on academic discourse. Fish argues that there is but one proper role for the academic in society: to advance bodies of knowledge and to equip students for doing the same. “When teachers offer themselves as moralists, political activists, or agents of social change rather than as credentialed experts in a particular subject and the methods used to analyze it, they abdicate their true purpose” (description of the book on the Oxford University Press website). In other words, faculty members are workers; they are paid to teach their subjects and not to disseminate “lofty [leftist?] ideals” about the world, as one commentator put it in reaction to Mark Taylor’s article, “End the University as We Know It” that appeared in The New York Times. What is not taken into account by this argument is the fact that in the Humanities—where inquiry revolves around questions of representation and articulation of discourse—it is not possible to deideologize the argument to objectively present a point, because the point is precisely the subjectivity of discourse in which representation is motivated by a certain world view resulting from one’s experiences, beliefs, and values. Power is an organic part of the equation, for truth, morality and meaning are created through discourse. What is wrong with Fish’s argument is that power, in fact, is based on knowledge (episteme) and, in a circular fashion, it also produces knowledge that will justify and sustain it through discourse. Thus it is not possible to “advance bodies of knowledge and equip students to do the same” (Fish) without transmitting the power structures upon which the meaning of this knowledge is based. As Judith
8 According to Jonathan Culler’s piece in The Profession, “Writing to Provoke” Fish’s motivation for giving these titles, like the one above and There is No Such Thing as Free Speech… and It’s A Good Thing Too, is none other than to provoke intellectual discussion pioneering a different, novel kind of role for the public intellectual, in addition to the two that Culler defines: “someone who mediates between the academy and the general public” and who “operates outside of the academy and pronounces judiciously on a range of public issues” (84).
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Butler notes, “the distinction”—suggested by Fish—“between the academic and the political is itself a political judgment” (89). Thus, Butler argues, Fish’s point is to advocate not a politically bare classroom discourse, but perhaps to advocate one type of political judgment. This presumption is supported by Fish’s own statement: “I am urging the restriction on what is done with the content when it is brought to the classroom” (Fish, “Professor…”). 2. The decreasing public support for public institutions of higher education and the dwindling public9 and institutional support for research projects in the Humanities and Social Sciences.10 3. Financial support by conservative groups targeting specific academic programs and areas in a desire to “take back” universities from the “grip of the left”. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that in 2007, $40 million was spent in the U.S. in such a manner. One such example is the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions founded in 2000 at Princeton University (Blumenthal 16).
It is crucial to return to the question of access as academic discourse is becoming indirectly, but increasingly influenced by corporate donors not only in the Sciences but also in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Nevertheless, as more people, including intellectuals, have access to the internet and rely on it for obtaining information, the easier it becomes to have the ‘public ear’ although it must be noted that the abundance of material posted on the internet diffuses this potential. It is not unusual for a simple search to turn up as many as 2 million hits. How large an audience can one voice reach in such a jungle of information? The speed with which users can jump from one topic to another and the quantity of hyperlinked pages that may be looked up in a short period of time enable users to gather an enormous amount of information compared to earlier methods of research (in libraries, from printed material). A concern
Funding for institutions that support the Humanities, such as the National Endowment for Humanities has been steadily decreasing. In 2011 NEH will have to cut $ 7.2 million, after cuts by 18.4 million and 13.9 million respectively in 2008 and 2009 (NHA). 10 We do not wish to address the issue of sciences, for it is a rather intricate question and does not fit within the limits of this writing. It involves such complex issues as the relationship of sciences with Academia and the corporate world, and the arbitrary divisions of sciences, humanities and social sciences, just to name a few.
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frequently raised deals with the quality and reliability of the information acquired on the internet. Because of its rhizomatic structure and lack of hierarchical controls, the internet is different from libraries where sources have been previously vetted and evaluated before the public is given access. In addition to the internet, new forms of electronic media appear regularly that provide a powerful dialogic space and change the nature of discourse. Here are a few examples: 1. Hypertext is a fairly new form of electronic writing that attempts to take advantage of the digital media and gives the reader the freedom of navigating through a large number of sources in a short time. 2. Zine, or e-zine is a type of electronic magazine published on the internet concerned with a specific subject and containing contributions in several discursive forms (poetry, essays, reviews, criticism, and narrative). Many e-zines are refereed. (Kairos, TechKnowLogia,). 3. Blogs, ranging from personal diaries to collective knowledge displays, often an eclectic array, but occasionally dedicated to specific subjects. 4. Wiki, a website for creating bodies of knowledge. Collective authorship and (relatively) open editing is the major characteristic of wikis, many of which are open source (Wikipedia). In the last article, Anne Melfi ties together the assessment of pastcentury public intellectuals, such as Benjamin Franklin, whose work— despite the distance in time—provides lessons for the internet age. Online discourse, like the pamphlet in Franklin’s day, has encouraged grassroots engagement and a democratic broadening of access to the public discursive arena. Melfi draws lessons from Franklin’s practices and makes tentative recommendations for today’s intellectuals. These practices include finding access to the public ear, advocating free and open discourse, inventing a forum, using wit and charm when possible, developing a trustworthy persona, relying on plain talk, calling on a network of friends, committing to public service and educating the populace. The changes in the media used for the transmission and acquisition of information affect not only intellectual academic and non-academic discourse, but also the entire literary realm. Multimedia is included in some of the electronic narrative production available now on the internet. For example, a new epistolary e-genre has emerged: the email novel, such as Intimacies by Eric Brown that he calls a digital epistolary novel (DEN),
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modeled after and based on the 18th century epistolary novel, Pamela by Samuel Richardson. “The problem with e-books has always been that they use traditional text and layout,” Brown said in an interview with Adam Baer. With Intimacies, the multimedia interface had to be developed before the narrative could unfold. With such developments it is not surprising that U.S e-books sales rose in 2009 by 136.2 % compared with 2008 (E-book News), and it seems clear that e-literature and the prevalence of on-line information will continue to grow in the future. And while the large-scale social and cultural changes that are bound to occur with the spread of digital culture cannot be foreseen, we believe digital media offer countless opportunities for public intellectuals to insert their voices more forcefully into the public discursive arena.
The structure of the volume
The book is dedicated to Howard Zinn, who passed away on January 27th, 2010, for he was, indeed, a public intellectual “who mattered” as Henry Giroux put it in the preface. Zinn embodied both the intellectual and the moral qualities that are customary and necessary “traits of the trade” coupled with a (com)passion that made him memorable and unique. Falling into three chapters the eleven articles that comprise the volume aim at offering definitions of the public intellectual, while scrutinizing the complex relationship between knowledge and power in an interdisciplinary context. In Chapter I: Truth to Power, the possibilities of the reconceptualization of political discourse are examined. The contributions are informed by concepts from cultural and media studies that deal with representation, subjectivity and the manipulability of public discourse. This comprehensive approach enables a deeper understanding of the historical and discursive processes of the political sphere. Some of the articles included here provide references to the efforts of past U.S. administrations to silence public intellectuals and to discredit academic programs, such as area studies, namely Latin American Studies and Middle Eastern Studies, the two most targeted on ideological bases. Chapter II: In and Out of Academe, echoes the spirit of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Outside in the Teaching Machine in addressing the academic context of intellectual activity. The articles demonstrate that inclusions in and exclusions from the realm of power are discursive and deliberate, and that Academe proves to be no exception to this dynamic, especially since corporate models of management have been widely adopted.
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Chapter III: Models of Engagement, offers several models of intellectual engagement and political/cultural intervention. Using critical frameworks such as Réda Bensmaia’s “experimental nations” and others, authors provide re-articulations of intellectual heritage within the different schemes of imperial expansion. However, contributors also defy binarisms and other essentialist approaches as they move from scrutiny of the oppressor/oppressed dynamic to a more nuanced view that includes cultural hybridity and métissage. Globalization provides the context for an analysis of the representation of national identities and imageries in which the modernist idea of a nation is deconstructed and reconceived as a site where moral responsibility of citizens is required and expressed. Among the volume’s essays articulating the way influential intellectuals from various eras and nations have interpreted their public roles, Ranjan Ghosh’s explores the life of Rabindranath Tagore and his model of crosscultural dialogue at Visva Bharati. On the other hand, Susan Shin Hee Park examines a model of an “organic intellectual” (Gramsci) in Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt and both Ghosh and Park draw conclusions about the power dynamics of linguistic imperialism. In a comparative vein, Lisa Bernstein uncovers the struggle between complacency and activism in the work of Nadine Gordimer and Christina Wolf, which seemed to have defined their lives. Following Bernstein’s piece there is another attempt by Lois Wolfe to deal with three women writers who were influential intellectuals of their time, Gabriela Mistral, Victoria Ocampo and Rosario Castellanos, who succeeded beyond the norms set for women in the early twentieth century by inventing “imagined communities” to support and sustain their work. Such “experiential legitimacies” could be used by intellectuals today to maintain their engaged commitment. By interpreting exemplary texts that expose a distinct transformation in the concept of intellectual production, the articles assess the transition from an objectivist, historical standpoint to an imaginative construct of cultural relativism. Examples of past and current attitudes vis-à-vis intellectuals are thus analyzed from a transnational perspective by focusing on the exchange of ideologies and the practices of state-power, democracy, and anti-democracy, including the recent “war(s) on terror.” The wide ranging and nearly totalizing coverage achieved by the discursive representation of such issues demonstrates the undeniable fact that academic and mediatic discourses are often at odds with each other. Furthermore, the economically supported power structures find expression, albeit in diverse forms and with periodic justifications, in public discussion that aim to delineate and limit the function of the intellectual in a society.
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9/11 Public Discourse Project. <www.9-11pdp.org/about/index.htm> accessed December 15, 2009. Adams, Jason: “Denaturalizing "Natural Disaster: New Orleans as La Ville Panique.” C-Theory 11/16/2006 <www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=566> accessed December 12, 2009. Alterman, Eric. “Judging the Wise Guy” The Nation. January 10, 2002. Armitage, John. “Beyond Postmodernism? Paul Virilio's Hypermodern Cultural Theory” Ctheory.net November 15, 2000 <www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=133> accessed December 20, 2009. —. Paul Virilio: From Modernism to Hypermodernism and Beyond. London: Sage 2000. Baer, Adam. “Call me email.” The New York Times. April 15, 2004. Baudrillard, Jean. Selected Writings. Ed. Mark Poster. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988: 166-184. Blumenthal, Max. “Princeton Tilts Right.” The Nation. March 13, 2006: 11-19. Bové, Paul. “The Intellectual as a Contemporary Phenomenon.” Surfaces 12. <www.pum.umontreal.ca/revues/surfaces/vol2/bove.html> accessed January 2010. Brown, Eric. Intimacies. 2004. Downloadable at <hyperex.co.uk/reviewintimacies.php> accessed December 2009. Butler, Judith. “Which Politics?” Profession. 2009: 89-93. Cohen, Patricia. “Outspoken Political Scientist Denied Tenure at DePaul.” The New York Times. June 11, 2007. Culler, Jonathan. “Writing to Provoke.” Profession. 2009: 84-88. Curthoys, Ned, and Debjani Ganguly, eds. Edward Said: The Legacy of a Public Intellectual. Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 2007. Der Derian, James, ed. The Virilio Reader. London: Blackwell, 1998. E-book News. <http://www.e-book.com.au/newsarchive 2009.htm> accessed December 2009. Fish, Stanley. Save the World on Your Own Time. Oxford University Press, 2008. —. “Professor Do Your Job.” Policy Review. August-September 2008. <www.hoover.org/publications/policyreview/26074024.html> accessed December 2009. Friedman, Milton. “The Promise of Vouchers” Wall Street Journal. December 5, 2005.
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Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks [transl. and ed. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1971 Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York; Routledge, 1991:.149-181. Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine. The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Picador, 2007. Lévinas, Emmanuel. Altérité et transcendance. Montpellier : Fata Morgana, 1995. Lok, Corie. “What Can the Internet Do to Improve Public Discourse?” Boston Blog <network.nature.com/hubs/ boston/blog/2008/04/12/ what-can-the-internet-do-to-improve-public-discourse> accessed December 2009. National Humanities Alliance. <www.nhalliance.org/> accessed December 2009. Parenti, Michael. “Monopoly Media Manipulation”. May 2001. <www.michaelparenti.org/MonopolyMedia.html> accessed November 2009. Picot, Edward. “Rogue Mail. Intimacies. Digital Epistolatory Novel (DEN), by Eric Brown.” Hyperliterature Exchange. 2005. <hyperex.co.uk/reviewintimacies.php> Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project <www.pewinternet.org> accessed December 2009. Posner, Richard. Public Intellectuals. A Study of Decline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000. Said, Edward. Representations of the Intellectual.  New York, Vintage Books, 1996. —. “The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals” The Nation. 17 September 2001. Taylor, Mark C. “End the University as We Know It.” The New York Times. April 26, 2009. Tofts, Darren and Murray McKeich. Memory Trade: A Prehistory of Cyberculture. Newark, NJ: Gordon & Breach Publishing, 1998. Virilio, Paul. Politics of the Very Worst. New York: Semiotext(e), 1999. —. Negative Horizon. Transl. Michael Degener. London: Continuum, 2005. —. “Speed and Information: Cyberspace Alarm!” CTheory.net August 27, 1995. <http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=72> accessed December 2009.
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Williams, Raymond. Keywords. A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Zabala, Santiago (ed). Weakening Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Gianni Vattimo, Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007.
PART I. TRUTH TO POWER
NEOLIBERALISM AND THE CRISIS 1 OF INTELLECTUAL ENGAGEMENT SOPHIA A. MCCLENNEN
On May 16, 2003, only fifteen days after President Bush landed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln to announce a “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq, Stanley Fish published yet another polemical piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Aptly titled “Aim Low” Fish’s essay called for focusing on skills and disciplinary competence as the central mission of higher education. Teaching moral and civic responsibility, from Fish’s view, is not only a bad idea, it is unworkable (n.p.). This essay complemented an earlier piece that was equally controversial, entitled “Save the World on Your Own Time,” where he stated unequivocally: “My assertion is that it is immoral for academics or for academic institutions to proclaim moral views” (n.p.). Fish’s claims would have likely been divisive regardless of the context within which they appeared, but it is fair to say that their publication in the midst of debates about the morality of the war in Iraq, the curtailing of civil rights post 9/11 in the US, and the chilling atmosphere on university campuses caused by the USA PATRIOT Act and other legislation served to exacerbate the ongoing debates about the role of politics, social critique, and intellectual engagement in classrooms. What perhaps is most surprising about Fish’s essays is their lack of reference to 9/11 and to the logical politicization of college campuses that ensues from a state of war. What is more, Fish was well aware of the extent to which higher education had been under attack from right-wing groups such as those led by David Horowitz post 9/11, and he even subsequently published an essay in the Chronicle critiquing Horowitz’s call for intellectual diversity (2/13/2004). Reading these essays by Fish one finds it hard to recall that simultaneous to his remarks entire departments such as Middle Eastern studies and women’s studies were coming under attack, faculty were being fired and arrested, foreign students were being denied visas, affirmative action was being abandoned, legislation calling for con1 This article is included here with permission of Works and Days for which the editors are grateful.
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gressional oversight of curricula and faculty was being introduced, and these were only some of the most visible signs of the chilling atmosphere on post 9/11 college campuses. Aside from the McCarthy period, the post 9/11 environment for higher education has been one of the most hostile and contentious moments in US history.2 In what follows, I suggest that we read Fish’s response to the question of the politicization of higher education as symptomatic of a far broader condition, one that oddly enough dovetails neoliberalism with certain features of anti-foundationalist left critique. My first point is that, despite the work of scholars like Henry Giroux, Susan Searls Giroux, Stanley Aronowitz, Masao Miyoshi, Jeffrey Williams, Zygmunt Bauman and others who have analyzed neoliberalism and the post civil rights university, we have yet to thoroughly appreciate the impact of neoliberalism on institutions of higher education, on teaching practices, and on faculty and student life.3 My second point is that the focus of left dissent regarding the assaults on higher education post 9/11 has largely been organized around questions of academic freedom and classroom practices at the expense of debating equally important and politically devastating issues concerning student debt, affirmative action, academic labor, and public defunding of higher education. My argument is that the ideological issues of classroom practice cannot be separated from the material ones, and that, in fact, one could claim that the successes of the right’s assaults have been due, in large part, to their ability to convince the public that higher education should be a privatized commodity rather than a common good. I conclude by reflecting on how both the encroaching ideologies of neoliberalism and the actual nature of academic work has heralded a crisis of intellectual engagement for university faculty. For those of us who study Latin America, neoliberalism has long been on our scholarly radar. Dating back to Milton Friedman’s “Chicago Boys” and their influence on Augusto Pinochet’s economic practices in the 1970s, we have an extensive history of analyzing the ways that neoliberalism leads to the erosion of public services, the substitution of market values for social values, the cult of privatization, and the progressive elimination of the concept of the common good. It would be thanks to the work of Pierre Bourdieu in France and Henry Giroux in the US that scholarly interest in neoliberal practices would take a broader global view of these trends and Giroux’s work, in particular, has focused specifically on its impact on institutions of higher education. Three key books by Giroux
For an overview of these assaults and a comparison with the McCarthy period please see my essay “The Geopolitical Assault on Higher Education.” 3 See the works cited for specific references to these texts.
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analyze the intersection of neoliberalism, higher education, and the post 9/11 culture of fear. The Terror of Neoliberalism, Take Back Higher Education (co-authored with Susan Searls Giroux), and The University in Chains combine to provide an incisive critique of the authoritarian effects of neoliberalism, the assault on higher education post 9/11, and the increasing militarization of universities. Giroux’s books are indispensable reading for those of us interested in understanding how neoliberal market mentalities depend on cultural and ideological practices. He explains that the ideology of neoliberalism “makes it difficult for many people either to imagine a notion of individual and social agency necessary for reclaiming a substantive democracy or to theorize the economic, cultural, and political conditions necessary for a viable global public sphere in which public institutions, spaces, and goods become valued as part of a larger democratic struggle for a sustainable future…” (Terror xxii). The three books I’ve highlighted complement one another and address three interrelated features of neoliberalism’s impact on higher education. The Terror of Neoliberalism analyzes how neoliberalism necessarily leads to the destruction of democracy. The logic of the pure market that drives neoliberal practices converts democratic policies that at one time served the interests of the people into corporate policies that support only the interests of the market. Key to understanding the social influence of neoliberalism is appreciation of its pedagogical function, of the precise ways in which it teaches individuals to live, to understand their place in the world, and to imagine the future. To this end, Giroux casts neoliberalism as a form of public pedagogy. Only by appreciating the way that neoliberalism depends on convincing the public that they have “little to hope for –and gain from – the government, nonprofit public spaces, democratic associations, public and higher education, and other nongovernmental social forces” can we begin to analyze its power to influence all aspects of social life (105). In Take Back Higher Education Giroux and Searls Giroux focus their analysis on neoliberalism’s impact on higher education. The push to privatize all public services has resulted, they argue, in a disintegration of the university as a site of social agency and critical engagement. These shifts are notable in the language used to describe the function of the university “where […] the corporate commercial paradigm describes students as consumers, college admissions as ‘closing a deal,’ and university presidents as CEOs” (253). Behind this shift in language are the massive material shifts in the economics of higher education and the social changes that have diminished public perception of the university as a site of civic agency and “education as a public good” (254). An ongoing thread throughout the
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book is the role of faculty in this environment. Noting that faculty have progressively retreated into narrow specialties, have favored professionalism over social responsibility, and have increasingly refused to take positions on controversial issues, Giroux and Searls Giroux argue that more and more faculty have become “models of moral indifference and civic spectatorship” (278). In his latest book, The University in Chains, Giroux focuses on the role of the military in higher education. He argues that: “In a post-9/11 world in which the war on terrorism has exacerbated a domestic culture of fear and abetted the gradual erosion of civil liberties, the idea of the university as a site of critical dialogue and debate, public service, and socially responsible research appears to have been usurped by a patriotic jingoism and a market-driven fundamentalism that conflates the entrepreneurial spirit with military aggression in the interests of commercial success and geo-political power” (ms 9). While much attention has focused on the corporate role in universities, Giroux argues that these influences are best read in light of what he calls the “military-industrial-academic complex.” This book asks readers to consider how the university serves the “warfare state” both in terms of training and support for the military and also in terms of promoting the ideology of an increasingly militarized society. The book reads the military as a central and often-overlooked source of assault on the university. He then traces the way that this source intertwines with two other important angles of attack: the right wing attempt to close down dissent and remove power from the hands of faculty post 9/11 and the rabid corporatization of the university. I’ve surveyed these critical interventions by Giroux because I consider him to be the leading scholar of neoliberalism’s impact on higher education. Since a complete diagnosis of these effects is beyond the scope of the present essay, I would simply remind readers that Giroux’s work is complemented by a number of other scholars, such as Stanley Aronowitz and Jeffrey Williams, who have analyzed the economic, ideological, and social consequences of neoliberalism on university life. Much of this work has focused on the changing ways that the university is funded, structured, and socially perceived. Necessary attention has been paid to what Aronowitz calls the “knowledge factory” where students no longer engage in critical thinking but acquire skills instead. Giroux and Searls Giroux highlight how the changing nature of classroom practices has atrophied the potential for engaged critical debate on campuses – a practice that threatens the “very viability of politics” (251). Williams speaks of the transition in public perception of the university from a “social to an individual good” (Dissent 2006, 56).
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I want to build on these analyses by highlighting the consequences of these shifts on the life of faculty. Much has been said regarding the increasing fragmentation and contingent nature of academic labor (and I will speak more on this point below), but for the moment I want to draw attention to the ideological impact of neoliberalism by considering its affects on the way that faculty think about their work and their social roles. If we reread the essays by Fish that I mentioned at the opening of this essay, one notes if not an agreement with neoliberalism’s core concepts, then at least a submission to them. In addition to the aforementioned controversial position that the university should be about education and not about politics what I find of interest in Fish’s essays is his description of the responsibilities of tenure line faculty. First is his description of the research expectations for faculty:
Researchers should not falsify their credentials, or make things up, or fudge the evidence, or ignore data that go against their preferred conclusions. Those who publish should acknowledge predecessors and contributors, provide citations to their sources, and strive always to give an accurate account of the materials they present. This is no small list of professional obligations, and faculty members who are faithful to its imperatives will have little time to look around for causes and agendas to champion (“Save” n.p.).
I have no quarrel with his description of our research duties. What is missing here is a frank admission of why a faculty member who follows such research practices, teaches their courses, and performs university service might not have time for anything else. Tenure expectations continue to rise as the number of tenure track faculty declines, giving those of us on the tenure line greater service roles than in the past. Add to that the increasing teaching commitments caused by a student body who understands faculty as providing them with a service and administrations who call on us to teach larger and more numerous sections while simultaneously asking us to raise money for our own grants, etc. and it becomes obvious that the question of faculty time and what we may or may not do with it goes directly to the neoliberalization of higher education. The point I want to make is that Fish’s remarks are indicative of a broader trend where tenure line faculty no longer seriously question what it is we are asked to do and whether or not we should do it. Certainly there have been questions raised, especially about the importance of books for tenure given the changes in the publishing industry, but it is fair to say that the neoliberal pressures on higher education have resulted in a faculty too fearful or at least too docile to ask questions, challenge, and debate the way that our
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work has changed. Beyond grumblings at the water cooler, there has been an astonishing lack of serious engagement with the material changes caused by neoliberal practices that leave faculty unable and/or unwilling to “look around for causes and agendas to champion.” This restructured notion of time reflects the power of neoliberal ways of thinking and it is evident well beyond the university. What happens when the public no longer has time to think about politics, to build community, to debate issues, and so on? The neoliberal model pushes us to spend all of our time working or consuming. There should be no time for questions, not even for questions about what our responsibilities are at work or whether we agree with workplace policies. Fish makes this point in the same essay when he imagines a scenario whereby faculty vote on an athletic program:
Let's suppose the issue is whether a university should finance a program of intercollegiate athletics. Some will say "yes" and argue that athletics contributes to the academic mission; others will say "no" and argue that it doesn't. If the question is decided in the affirmative, all other questions— Should we have football? Should we sell sweatshirts? Should we have a marching band?—are business questions and should be decided in business terms, not in terms of global equity. Once the university has committed itself to an athletics program it has also committed itself to making it as profitable as possible, if only because the profits, if there are any, will be turned into scholarships for student athletes and others (“Save” n.p.).
Why should voting in favor of such a program necessarily mean that we should want it to be “as profitable as possible?” Fish makes a major assumption that the logic of big business is the right logic and he presumes it to be beyond question. In addition to assuming that the greater the profit, the better, Fish’s claim that any profits earned by his imaginary athletics program will translate into scholarships belies his absorption of neoliberal mantras about the benefits of market economies and the ethics of corporate practices, since as we well know increasing tuition costs have not translated into more faculty lines, larger endowments have not translated into more scholarships, and student loan programs have not served the students. Elsewhere in the essay Fish states that if we oppose sweatshops, we should not buy clothes made in them, but it is none of our business whether our university does business with sweatshops. The idea that the financial practices of the university should not be the business of the people who work in the university is so patently absurd that I will bracket prolonged critique of this claim. I merely want to underscore Fish’s vision of faculty who ask no questions as symptomatic of neoliberal ways of thinking. According to Zygmunt Bauman, this uncritical acceptance of the
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status quo is an essential feature of neoliberalism: “What […] makes the neoliberal world view sharply different from other ideologies—indeed a phenomenon of a separate class—is precisely the absence of questioning; its surrender to what is seen as the implacable and irreversible logic of social reality” (127). According to Fish, we should not only avoid teaching our students to ask questions about the world in which they live, since such moral and political questions should not be the task of higher education, but the faculty themselves should also not ask questions about the world in which we live (since we should not have time to do it) nor about the place in which we work (since it is none of our business). It goes without saying that such an uncritical acceptance of social life forecloses the possibility of civic engagement and democratic action. That Fish would write such things as the US public was being told by the US government that they should not ask questions about the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, the motives for the war in Iraq, the dissolution of civil rights, or any aspect of social and political life is especially disturbing. I have chosen to focus on how Fish’s comments support neoliberal ideologies because I take him to be representative of a much larger trend of left-associated faculty who have become disconnected from political agency, because they have become thoroughly incapable of taking a political stand. The consequence is ironic, since Fish himself never suggested that one could operate absent beliefs. In his famous essay “Is There a Text in this Class?” he specifically explains that: “No one can be a relativist, because no one can achieve the distance from his own beliefs and assumptions which would result in their being no more authoritative for him than the beliefs and assumptions held by others, or, for that matter, the beliefs and assumptions he himself used to hold” (his emphasis; 53). But, alas, in the moment of post-postmodernism as it is coupled with advancing neoliberalism, it appears that relativism has become a position that one can occupy. Masao Miyoshi’s “Ivory Tower in Escrow” analyzes the way that faculty have retreated from politics, especially in humanities departments. He suggests that the “gradual rejection [by US humanities scholars] of the idea of totality and universality in favor of diversity and particularity among the ‘progressive’ humanities scholars” has had devastating effects for political resistance (39). He goes on to argue regarding postmodern critique that: “This ideological shift seeks to rectify enlightenment collectivism, and it is no doubt salubrious. At the same time, it must be recognized that the idea of multiplicity and difference parallels—in fact, endorses—the economic globalization” (39). The push to debunk master narratives, to disengage language from meaning, to question all forms of knowledge, despite the fact that the theorists who originally offered such
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theories often did so at the service of politics, has led rapidly to an inability to formulate any constructive view. The result has been nihilism, skepticism, and anti-foundationalism. Most importantly this view has led more to suspicion of higher education than to advocacy for change, as Miyoshi argues: “the cant of hybridity, nuance, and diversity now pervades the humanities faculty. Thus they are thoroughly disabled to take up the task of opposition, resistance, and confrontation, and are numbed into retreat and withdrawal as ‘negative intellectuals”’ (48). The consequences of this negative intellectualism are nowhere more apparent than in university faculty’s reluctance to debate, question, and discuss their own workplace issues. Donald Lazere has also analyzed the uncanny overlap between relativism and neoliberalism: “although most of the advocates of [postmodern pluralism] consider themselves and their causes as politically liberal or progressive, their insistence on unlimited proliferation of localism and diversity––coincident with an age of unprecedented concentration of economic ownership, political power, and social control by multinational corporations and the right wing in America––has had profoundly conservative consequences in obstructing the kind of unified opposition that progressive constituencies need to counter-act the right” (257). For years, the mantras of difference, relativity, and deconstruction have dominated left language to such an extent that even scholars who more closely align themselves with radical politics have found themselves focusing on negative critique and a politics of suspicion.4 The postmodern urge to question everything is absolutely essential to any discussion of progressive politics. The problem with faculty engagement is not due to this urge to question, but rather to the motives for such questions and their intended consequences. The key nuance between postmodern political critique and postmodern apolitical critique is that in the former questions are posed in the service of struggle and vision and in the latter the questions are an end in themselves. In this latter view, not only are there no answers, there are no prospects of dialogue. Moreover, many left-leaning faculty have abandoned efforts to speak to the public, retreating ever more into obtuse language that speaks only to a highly professionalized class, and they have become increasingly reluctant to understand the social implications of their work as educators and as citizens. This turn is especially visible in recent debates over academic freedom post 9/11.
It is beyond the scope of this essay to engage more carefully in the subtleties of these critical positions. I do, however, want to highlight the fact that my treatment of them here deals specifically with their mass mediated forms, where theoretically incisive modes of critique are watered down and stripped of any critical potential.
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As I mentioned in my introduction to this essay, the most significant faculty engagement in critical debate over university life post 9/11 has been regarding the assaults on academic freedom. To summarize, there have been a number of related attacks on “leftist,” “liberal,” or “antiAmerican” curricula and faculty that roughly break down into investigations and accusations regarding area studies, women’s studies, American studies, the political affiliations and critical perspectives of faculty, and student rights.5 The response to these assaults from faculty was fairly substantial and a number of major academic associations like the Modern Language Association, the American Studies Association, and the American Historical Association issued statements on behalf of their faculty members that called for an end to these attacks. What interests me most about these faculty responses is the fact that, in general terms, faculty critique consisted of condemning the assaults on academic freedom— positions largely based on negative critique and on a denunciation of governmental interference in classroom practices. Few were the voices that claimed that the assaults on higher education called for not only their rejection, but also a concerted effort to “take back higher education.” As Giroux and Searls Giroux explain in the introduction to their book, “‘[t]ake back’ is an ethical call to action for educators, parents, students, and others to reclaim higher education as a democratic public sphere, a place where teaching is not confused either with training or propaganda, a safe space where reason, understanding, dialogue, and critical engagement are available to all faculty and students” (12). The culture of fear fostered by the war on terror coupled with the culture of complacency and consumption fostered by neoliberalism have combined to wreck havoc on the public’s sense of civic agency and responsibility and, rather than be at the forefront of debates over how to restore civic agency to our nation, faculty have too often found themselves unable or unwilling to engage in political action. Signs of this retreat are prevalent, so I will only offer brief anecdotal evidence regarding my own campus of the Pennsylvania State University at University Park, a major public research institution with a faculty of approximately 3,000, including tenure and non-tenure line. First, I offer my experience gathering signatures on campus for an MLA resolution condemning the Academic Bill of Rights in December of 2003. While I was able to gather about ten signatures from faculty and graduate students in literature departments, those that chose not to sign generally explained
For a more detailed account of these assaults please see my essay “The Geopolitical War.”
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that they either they did not see the Academic Bill of Rights as an issue that affected them or they did not like the wording of the resolution. The first explanation indicates the degree to which faculty have largely become unaware and uninterested in public issues regarding their work and the second is yet another example of negative intellectualism, since, rather than suggest alternative wording, these faculty simply used their negative critique as a reason not to be engaged. My second example concerns a meeting held on campus for faculty to discuss legislation based on the Academic Bill of Rights (HR 177) that had been passed in the Pennsylvania State Legislature with representative Lawrence H. Curry on October 25, 2006. Some three years after I had walked the halls looking for signatures prior to MLA, we now had state legislation that sponsored hearings on campus indoctrination and a veritable witch hunt was taking place in the state. This was now an issue that seemed to affect us all and faculty were being given a chance to meet with a Democratic House Representative to discuss concerns. Fewer than fifteen people showed up. It seems that faculty either did not have enough time or they did not feel that the legislation was their business. It may also be true that faculty were reluctant to take any stand on these issues given the extremely chilling environment on many post 9/11 campuses, where faculty were being fired, arrested, and harassed for doing such things as taking political stands, teaching evolution, or showing documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth. This retreat from politics, as disturbing as it might be in a moment that seems to call on us ever more forcefully to defend the principles of democracy and to struggle for the civic possibilities of higher education, does not fully explain, however, the lack of faculty engagement on workplace issues such as contingent labor and student debt. In fact, faculty activism, as paltry as it has been since 9/11, has focused largely on hot button issues like academic freedom and on challenging right-wing encroachment into the curriculum, ignoring almost entirely other important issues like the assault on affirmative action, rising tuition and student debt, public defunding of higher education, and academic labor. These activities (or their lack) are linked, though, and the link is via neoliberalism’s influence on the shape of the university and the role of faculty. As Jeffrey Williams explains, today’s university is best described as the “post-welfare state university” (“Post-Welfare” 197).6 “The postwelfare state university more accurately represents the privatized model of the university after the rollback of the welfare state [and] it ushers students
6 See his essay for a review of the scholarly books dedicated to analyzing the state of the university.
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into the neoconservative vision of the public sphere as wholly a market” (198).7 In his survey of faculty responses to these shifts Williams notes a “paucity of practical solutions” (208). He concedes that this lack may be a consequence of the “protocols of criticism,” what I have described as the uncanny overlap of anti-foundationalism with neoliberalism. Such protocols according to Williams are highly problematic since “we need to switch stances […] to a more pragmatic, prescriptive mode. [F]or the university in which we work and have a stake, we need to distinguish how it is made and what would make it better – without the conceit that only we hold the true ideal but with the confidence that it might be a more democratic institution” (208). Williams’s recent work has argued for more faculty attention and activism regarding the problem of student debt. According to Williams, “[t]he average undergraduate student loan debt in 2002 was $18,900. It more than doubled from 1992, when it was $9,200” (“Pedagogy” 156). And the rise in debt is due to the rise in tuition, a change which reflects the shifting funding for higher education: “The reason tuition has increased is in large part a significant reduction of federal funding to states for education and direct state allocations, in real dollars, to colleges and universities, and states fund a far smaller percentage of tuition costs. In the immediate postwar years, states funded around 80% of their universities; now the figure is nearer 30%, and at major public universities often nearer 15%” (159). These changes are entirely due to the neoliberal practice of privatization, where the state no longer provides higher education as a public good to its citizens, but rather expects each individual to pay his or her own way. Williams analyzes what he calls the “pedagogy of debt,” the way that student debt pushes students into market mentalities shaping public views of the university as a “consumer service” and of the state as merely a way to “augment commerce” (165). “Debt teaches that the primary ordering principle of the world is the capitalist market, and that the market is natural, inevitable, and implacable” (164). The student debt crisis, which should not be confused with, but should be read in relation to, the student loan scandal, affects all of us who teach in universities. Not only does it gravely affect the career choices, educational paths, and the work habits of our students, but it also has direct bearing on how students, parents, government legislators, university administrators, faculty, and the general public perceive of the social role of higher education.
One feature of the combined corporatization and privatization of the university that needs to be taken into account is the way that corporations are controlling intellectual property rights.
Neoliberalism and the Crisis of Intellectual Engagement
Another closely related issue is the problem of contingent labor. Again, for some time now, we have been facing massive changes in the material realities of academic work and again the silence on the part of faculty is distressing. Current statistics suggest that sixty-five percent of all faculty members do not have tenure and the trend seems to be rapidly moving to an 80/20 split. On this point there has been much steady activism, but too often the non-tenured activists have not been joined by their tenured colleagues. Roger W. Bowen makes this point clearly in an article entitled “More Oblige, Less Noblesse: The AAUP has for a long time argued that without tenure, intellectual and economic security for faculty is problematic if not impossible. What we have not argued as forthrightly is the unconscionable negligence of the tenured to champion the academic freedom rights and the economic security of the untenured and never-to-betenured” (135). Also, as in the case with student debt, the casualization of academic labor must be read in light of its pedagogical implications since it teaches those within and outside of the university about the value and social role of teaching and teachers, about the relationship between teaching and research, and about the relationship between teachers, students, and the public. Most importantly it implements a structure within the university that impedes understanding the work of faculty collectively. The division between “tenured bosses and disposable teachers” has turned the tenured faculty into a managerial class that oversees an ever expanding class of teacher-workers and that no longer imagines that we share a common mission (See Bousquet, et. al). One consequence of these attitudes is the fact that contingent academic labor is often directly tied to what we call “service departments,” the home departments of many of us who work in the humanities and who work in fields that under neoliberalism appear less and less “valuable.” Here the vicious circle comes around, directly affecting the tenured managerial class who are increasingly perceived as service faculty rather than researchers and who find themselves defending the viability of their programs each year in their meetings with the university administration. There is no escape from the impact of these economic shifts—not for students, not for contingent faculty, not for the tenured, not for society. I want to close by emphasizing that all of these issues are linked and inseparable. The assaults on academic freedom cannot be separated from the neoliberal restructuring of the university. Faculty responses to these changes need to be read in light of both the internalization of neoliberal ways of thinking as well as the critical trends that have favored nihilism over vision and skepticism over debate. The solution, at least from the perspective of the faculty, is to become engaged. As retrograde as such
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language may sound today, it is time to revisit such basic political activist ideas as consciousness-raising, intellectual engagement, and dissent. For too long, faculty have allowed the market to dictate the terms of the university, perceiving these shifts as inevitable, intractable, and unstoppable. For too long, faculty have allowed neoliberalism and anti-foundationalism to combine to create an ideology of individualism, particularity, and privatization. What would happen if faculty imagined themselves as meaningfully connected to the lives of their students and to the lives of their colleagues and to the world at large? Bourdieu suggests the possibility of such collective thinking in Acts of Resistance: “If one can retain some hope, it is that in state institutions there still exist forces which, under the appearance of simply defending a vanishing order and the corresponding ‘privileges’, will in fact, to withstand the pressure, have to work to invent and construct a social order which is not governed solely by the pursuit of selfish interest and individual profit, and which makes room for collectives oriented towards rational pursuit of collectively defined and approved ends” (his emphasis, 104). If we want to challenge neoliberalism, we have to rescue the power of intellectual engagement. If we want to challenge neoliberalism, we will have to do more than “aim low.”
Aronowitz, Stanley. The Knowledge Factory: Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning. Boston: Beacon, 2000.Bauman, Zygmunt. In Search of Politics. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999. Bourdieu, Pierre. Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market. Trans. Richard Nice. New York: New Press, 1999. Bousquet, Marc, Tony Scott and Leo Parascondola. Tenured Bosses and Disposable Teachers: Writing Instruction in the Managed University. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 2003. Bowen, Roger W. “More Oblige, Less Noblesse.” Academe 93.2 (2007): 135. Fish, Stanley. “Aim Low” The Chronicle of Higher Education Friday, May 16, 2003. <chronicle.com/jobs/2003/05/ 2003051601c.htm> accessed May 1, 2006. —. “'Intellectual Diversity': the Trojan Horse of a Dark Design.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. February 13, 20004. <chronicle.com/free/v50/i23/23b01301.htm> accessed May 1, 2006. —. “Is there a Text in This Class?” in H Aram Veeser, ed. The Stanley Fish Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999. 38-54.
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—. “Save the World on Your Own Time.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. January 23, 2003. <chronicle.com/jobs/2003/01/2003012301c.htm> accessed May 1, 2006. Giroux, Henry. The Terror of Neoliberalism: The New Authoritarianism and the Eclipse of Democracy. Boulder, Co: Paradigm Press, 2004. —. The University in Chains. Paradigm Publishers: 2007. Giroux, Henry, and Susan Searls Giroux. Take Back Higher Education: Race, Youth, and the Crisis of Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Era. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Lazere, Donald. "Postmodern Pluralism and the Retreat from Political Literacy." JAC 25.2 (2005): 257-293. McClennen, Sophia A. “Neoliberalism and the Crisis of Intellectual Engagement.” Works and Days. 26-27 (2008-09): 459-472). —. “The Geopolitical War on U.S. Higher Education.” College Literature 33.4 (Fall 2006): 43-75. Miyoshi, Masao. “Ivory Tower in Escrow.” in Masao Miyoshi and H. D. Harootunian, eds.Learning Places: The Afterlives of Area Studies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002: 19-60. Williams, Jeffrey. “Debt Education.” Dissent (2006): 55-61. —. “The Post-Welfare State University.” American Literary History 18.1 Spring (2006): 190-216. —. “The Pedagogy of Debt.” College Literature. 33.4 (2006): 155-169.
THE SAIDIAN PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL: WRITING BETWEEN CULTURE AND SYSTEM MATTHEW ABRAHAM
Even if one is not an actual immigrant or expatriate, it is still possible to think as one, to imagine and investigate in spite of barriers, and always to move away from the centralizing authorities towards the margins, where you see things that are usually lost on minds that have never traveled beyond the conventional and the comfortable. —Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual
Those who were threatened by Edward W. Said’s presence on the critical scene for nearly forty years were perhaps most frightened by his explorations of, and theorizations about, the role of the intellectual in society. Those who felt threatened were not simply political enemies, who disagreed with his positions on the Israel-Palestine conflict, but were also professional enemies disturbed by the political turn in his work, announced most prominently in Orientalism and continuing through to The Question of Palestine, The World, the Text, and the Critic, Covering Islam, Culture and Imperialism, and Humanism and Democratic Criticism.1 From his extensive writings on the Question of Palestine to his frequent reminders about the pitfalls of professionalization and hyper-specialization and how these (perhaps purposively) tame the most persistent of critics,
See Said’s heated debate with Robert J. Griffin and Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin (611-633). As a follow-up to that exchange, see the letters from Geoffrey Hartman, Said, Masao Miyoshi and the editors in Critical Inquiry (199-204); Edward Alexander’s “The Professor of Terror,” Mark Krupnick’s “Edward Said and the Discourse of Palestinian Rage,” Hilel Halkin’s “Whose Palestine? An Open Letter to Edward Said,” Justus Reid Weiner’s “My Beautiful Old House and Other Fabrications by Edward Said,” and the Bruce Robbins-Catherine Gallagher exchange in Diacritics, prompted by the publication of Robbins’ review of Said’s The Question of Palestine and The World, the Text, and the Critic. See Robbins’ “Homelessness and Worldliness,” Gallagher’s “Politics, the Profession, and the Critic, and Robbins’ “Deformed Professions, Empty Politics.”
The Saidian Public Intellectual: Writing Between Culture and System
Said kept us alert and just a little uneasy about our possibly complicity in discursive formations (literary canons, professional norms, and structures of attitude and reference) that contribute to the subjugation of the Other. Foremost in Said’s mind was the role of the intellectual in society, a theme he explored in his Reith Lectures from 1993 which became Representations of the Intellectual. In these lectures, Said looked at the intellectual as an agitating force in society, a presence that could—in the service of justice and speaking truth to power—disturb orthodoxies and taken-forgranted habits of thought and action. Said found these intellectual representations in James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Mary McCarthy, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hannah Arendt, and Noam Chomsky, whose pictures appear on the front cover of Representations of the Intellectual. Beyond these figures, however, Said also found inspiration in the intellectual representations of C.L.R James, Frantz Fanon, Theodor Adorno, Julian Benda, and Antonio Gramsci, who are also discussed in the book. For Said, the intellectual’s primary task is to tell the truth, consequences be damned, and these intellectuals did so in the context of anti-colonial and anti-fascist struggles throughout the twentieth century. In the Reith Lectures, Said aptly described the pitfalls of professionalization and how the professional reward system can tame the fiercest critics, trapping them in a guessing game about whether their pronouncements against the status quo might put them on the wrong side of the powers that be. To succumb to this professional reward system is the modern trahison des clercs, as there will always be excuses and rationalizations available to justify walking away from a controversial position or divisive pronouncement that might cause one to lose friends and allies. If one is looking for that next prize, major grant, or much sought-after speaking engagement, the natural tendency is to hide one’s political passions and to go with the flow for fear of offending some powerful interest or wealthy patron. This tendency reduces most intellectuals to the status of functionaries who are willing to serve the interests of power and most hesitant to upset the reigning political configuration for fear of having to stand against a powerful constituency. Said, of course, saw this predicament play itself out again and again with respect to the Question of Palestine, as intellectuals and politicians have found every possible excuse to avoid confronting the powerful Israel Lobby in the United States, as Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians continues to create oppressive conditions in Gaza and the West Bank. Looming in the background, of course, are the prospects of a wider regional war in the Middle East involving the United States, Israel, and Iran, and the possibility of a nuclear war. All too frequently, intellectuals
cite their relative lack of expertise to speak out on issues of public concern, noting the importance of possessing the right credentials before speaking truth to power. Said viewed this emphasis upon credentials and expertise as a smokescreen designed to exclude the average citizen from the arena of debate, with the arcane mysticism surrounding the technical terminology of the guild seemingly designed to intimidate the un-initiated and the unconnected.
Said’s Intellectual Legacy
Said sought to develop a model of the public intellectual that would enable academic workers to pursue a state of being he labeled “amateurism,” a willingness to speak on issues of public concern outside of the their areas of scholarly expertise—demonstrating that such issues would not be ceded to the cult of expertise dominating so many debates in the public sphere (Said, “The Public Role…”).2 Although he held no formal training in Middle East Studies, Said established imself as a reputable commentator on the Middle East (see Said, “U.S. and the Conflict…”). He experienced “the punishing destiny of a Palestinian living in the West,” and he used that experience to write movingly about the pain of Palestinian dispossession at the hands of the imperial powers. In a response to the Gramscian call to trace the cultural influences upon the construction of his subjectivity, Said brought an autobiographical component to his public intellectualism as he sought to understand his unique condition as an “Oriental” writing back, so to speak, against the Western discursive mechanisms that reduces Middle Eastern peoples to caricatures and stereotypes. Whether writing about the insidious ways Orientalism and Zionism accrete discursive authority for their political goals through a slow process of negating the remnants of the Palestinian presence, or denouncing intellectuals in the Arab world for continually blaming the West for the region’s many problems (petty dictators, lack of economic development, lack of religious toleration, abuse of human rights, restriction of the women’s movement, etc.), Said sought to arrest the tendency among humanists to leave the field of political battle to pundits and media personalities intent upon reducing human experience to the binary of “us and them,” seeking instead to highlight the discrepant experiences that bind human beings to one another. This constant prodding, one might even say goading, was disturbing to many because it was a persistent reminder that academic professionals
The essay is reproduced in Said’s Humanism and Democratic Criticism.
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could be so much more than academic professionals in the context of the public sphere, if they would only push themselves to leave their petty fiefdoms of professional concern and venture into the realm of the political. For those who chose not to develop their professional life in this way, Said’s ruminations about “speaking truth to power” may have created a cognitive dissonance of sorts. What is the proper way for an English professor, for example, to become engaged with issues of international significance when her professional training has equipped her to interpret poetry? Said’s point was that such interpretative training enabled radical intellectual engagement with ideas, communities, and constituencies in the world. There was also a less-than-hidden indictment in texts such as The World, the Text, and the Critic, as Said seemed to heap scorn upon his fellow literary theorists, suggesting that they had essentially given up in the wake of the “Rise of Reaganism” with its emphasis on free markets, laissez faire capitalism and deregulation (“Opponents…”). Critics were content to pursue arcane hermeneutics and irrelevant invocations of the post-human.3 As Said suggests, the 1980s represented the time of the literary critic’s departure from the political scene, as the critic gave up the field of struggle to politicians, generals, and policy intellectuals; realizing perhaps that she was no longer really relevant to the burning debates about culture, imperialism, and resistance politics. Said’s great refusal to accept this predicament positioned him against the reigning sentiments within the Modern Language Association, which seemed to subscribe to a politically correct version of public intellectualism, while avoiding stands on difficult issues such as Zionist colonization of Palestine. Said’s constant reminders about the importance of affirming human agency seemed to irritate those who counted themselves among the poststructuralists, who argued that human agency and subjectivity were limited and conditioned by institutions, language, as well as one’s race, sex, and class, and that the belief in the prospect of meaningful human action was naïve. His seeming dismissal of Derrida and Foucault created a minor scandal within the profession, with allegations that Said had misunderstood both thinkers (“The Problem of Textuality”). Said had to hold on to the prospect of human beings exerting their agency in the world to transform it; otherwise, he was would have been left with the prospect that op3
Said discusses Northrop Frye’s The Great Code, Harold Bloom’s Kabbalah, and others in the final chapter of The World, the Text, and the Critic. Also, see the special issue of Boundary 2 on “The Problems of Reading in Contemporary American Criticism.” Of note here are the contributions by Donato, Logan, Warner, and Crites.
pression was somehow natural, perhaps metaphysical, a simple part of the world humans inhabit. That was a sure route to despair. As part of this insistence that social change can be initiated by human beings working with one another in the world, Said sought to establish with master conductor Daniel Barenboim a collective effort between Palestinian and Israeli youth to create a traveling orchestra called the WestEastern Divan Orchestra, which performs throughout Europe and the Middle East. This effort captures how Said viewed the field of cultural production, as a space for bringing people—who are alienated from one another because of differences produced by geography, religion, political affiliation, and language—together through art. That musical performance enables cross-cultural exchange among a group of young people separated by walls, borders, checkpoints, the ethnic exclusivism of Zionism, and the aspirations of the Palestinian people searching for a state of their own, speaks to the capacity of people to transcend the limitations of their filiative origins and to embrace affiliative beginnings. If it is the case that antiSemitism and Orientalism spring from the same discursive well, we must, then, recognize the Palestinian Arab as the new Jew. Orientalism, as antiSemitism’s “secret sharer,” configures the Palestinian Arab as the new vulnerable whose liquidation and removal is at the heart of the Zionist project. Comparing the discrepant experiences of Palestinian Arabs living under Israeli occupation to those of Jewish displaced persons at the end of World War II can promote an understanding of the commonality of human suffering. In assessing the gravity of Said’s explorations and theorizations about the role of the public intellectual, while deciding upon how Said’s legacy must become a part of that exploration and theorization. Indeed, we must evaluate how Said created new conceptualizations of what it means to be an intellectual in a basically depoliticized society. Some recently books and edited collections have attempted to do just that by situating Said’s critical legacy within a number of different disciplinary domains and by extending that legacy to a variety of social concerns that will undoubtedly trouble us for some time to come4. The complexity of Said’s thought can be measured in several ways. First, Said’s Beginnings—written in the 1960s—seemed to sketch out the full dimensions of Said’s critical program, which he enacted through the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Said wished to bring a diverse group of thinkers—such as Barthes, Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, and Derrida—around to questions of how human agency could be
See Sokmen and Ertur, Waiting for the Barbarians, Radha Radhakrishnan, History, the Human, and the World Between, and William Spanos, The Legacy of Edward W. Said.
The Saidian Public Intellectual: Writing Between Culture and System
obtained and enacted in oppressive social circumstances, although each of these thinkers was considered anti-humanistic and skeptical about human agency. Second: the problem of human agency became, in the midst of immensely important world events of the 1960s, central to Said’s projects. Although Said’s political transformation took place early in his academic career, it was during the 1967 Israeli-Arab Six-Day War in fact when he came to consciousness as an Arab-American. One can trace a political urgency in Said’s Orientalism, The Question of Palestine, and Covering Islam, in which he seemingly predicted the current situation in the Middle East. The demonization of Palestinians, and Arabs more generally, in the intellectual and media discourses of the 1970s clearly played a role in mobilizing the general public’s sentiments against the Palestinian liberation movement and the PLO as the movement’s representative. Increasing gas prices, an oil embargo, the Iran hostage crisis, and the killing of Israeli athletes by Palestinian fighters at the 1972 Munich Olympics contributed to the Western belief that Arabs—particularly Palestinian Arabs—were inscrutable, uncivilized, irrational, and committed to the use of violence in the service of extremism. As Jack Shaheen documents in his book Reel Bad Arabs, the hundreds of movies that Hollywood produced in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s depicting Arabs as the epitome of evil made Washington’s task of portraying the Arab world as a bastion of corruption and villainy, where U.S. intervention was necessary, that much easier. Said viewed with increasing skepticism the U.S.’s involvement in the Middle East, sensing and expressing his concerns about the prospects of an impending catastrophe in the region with the escalating arms race between Israel and its Arab neighbors (see Shaheen’s Reel Bad Arabs). Third, Said realized that any attempt to represent a people, a territory, or a conquest within a discourse involved immense metaphysical machinery—bringing together power, knowledge, and truth—to simplify what is a complex human reality. For all these reasons, Said was ahead of his time. A recent collection of essays, entitled Waiting for the Barbarians: A Tribute to Edward Said, attempts to make sense of Said’s career as a professor of literature, a prominent public intellectual, and, perhaps most memorably, as an activist in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The contributions by Rashid Khalidi and Saree Makdisi assess Said’s fashioning of a distinctive intellectual style in his advocacy for the Palestinian narrative in the United States, bringing his commitment to humanism to this effort. Khalidi notes, “When he spoke about Palestine, [Said’s] focus was essentially humanist: this was a problem, he argued, that could not be solved in an annihilationist manner, a problem that admitted of no zero-
sum solution, a problem that finally had to be resolved by both peoples accepting the humanity of the other” (49). Consistent with this humanist outlook, as Makdisi argues, “… Said’s work offered us the very antidote to which he was referring: interference, transgression, a breaking out of the confines of specialized disciplinary audiences, and speaking to a broader public” (60). Said brought together an enlightened humanist outlook and a committed public intellectualism that disturbed the conventional location of the English professor in the research university. How else could he have addressed the Question of Palestine so effectively and in front of so many different audiences? Humanism, as he reminded us during his March 2003 address before the Arab-American AntiDiscrimination League, is “the last remaining resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that have disfigured human history” (see Said, “Dignity, Solidarity…”). As Makdisi claims, “Thus the idea of Palestine was always, in Said’s work, inseparable from the larger humanist project on which he had embarked, a humanist project that sought to rescue humanism itself from the larger claims of European imperialism with which it had come into the world” (see Said, “Palestine, and the Humanism of Liberation”). This project has found an application within contemporary academic debates about the Middle East. The intense attacks that have been waged against academic freedom in the wake of 9/11, with Said’s Orientalism being blamed for the supposed anti-Americanism in Middle East Studies, anthropology, area studies, and other related disciplines, signal that it is more important than ever to defend the university as a place of critical intellectualism and as a site devoted to the open exchange of ideas and positions. In Uncivil University: Politics & Propaganda in American Higher Education, Tobin, Weinberg, and Ferer claim that,
What could possibly be more horrific in terms of perverting the purpose of multiculturalism than the notion that scholarship has to be based on one’s race, ethnicity, or gender in order to be legitimate? This is partially due to the sad legacy of Saidism, the paradigm put forward by Edward Said that [sic] led to the ideological poisoning of Middle East Study centers and departments all over academe (56).
This crudely reductive rendering of Said’s intellectual legacy is unfortunately representative of the kind of caricatures that have gained wide circulation in the public sphere, where the construction of a strawperson— assembled from the arguments of a serious intellectual critic—serves to render serious intellectual debate moot.
The Saidian Public Intellectual: Writing Between Culture and System
As a Palestinian educated in the Ivy League, Said became a professor of literature at Columbia in 1966 and used his privileged position to question the very knowledge traditions of which he was a beneficiary. He recognized the uniqueness of his predicament, realizing that the humanistic traditions he had mastered were responsible for subjugating people who looked just like him. The works of the great humanistic tradition, Dante’s Inferno, Pope’s Epistles, or Auerbach’s Mimesis, spoke to the condition of the European subject and did not consider the specificities of the minority positions Said was interested in examining. Herein resides a paradox— Said became the native informant, translating for his Western interlocutors the secrets of the East, demanding that knowledge and power be held responsible for the human catastrophes they have produced, whether in the context of Indian resistance to British rule or Palestinian resistance to Israeli colonization. However, such an observation rubs against the grain of Said’s own thought, as he called for intellectual workers to transcend the markers of class, race, ethnicity, and religion and to recognize the lines of solidarity that bind them. However, he always sought “criticism before solidarity,” a call to reject the easygoingness of belonging to a group, club, party, or organization. Edward Said deeply believed in the power of human beings to shape the world around them. His continual emphasis upon how agency is created in concert with traditions or through the making of counter-traditions belied his absolute belief in how people can change oppressive circumstances through their efforts. Of course, the one situation that was most on his mind, the Question of Palestine is the one situation the no one has been able to change. Said, the Palestinian intellectual, steeped in the learning of the American academy, dismantled the imperialism of the West and exposed its effects upon literature, art, and our very perceptions of the world. How do humans come to perceive the world around them in the multitude of ways that they do? Is it merely happenstance that some perceptions predominate over others? I think Edward Said’s work gives us intelligent ways to think about these questions.
Said and the Contemporary Public Sphere
The declining role of the public intellectual was of concern to Said, particularly as this decline coincided with the rise of the policy intellectual who was certified to speak on certain questions within narrowly defined knowledge configurations, but unprepared to address larger themes of justice, universal human rights, and speaking truth to power. By the mid1970s, the disappearance of figures with the stature of Bertrand Russell,
Jean-Paul Sartre, and Hannah Arendt from the public stage created a serious crisis for the concept of the public intellectual itself, as the number of individuals capable of speaking to a wide range of concerns and issues seemingly disappeared. In his The World, the Text, and the Critic, Said notes that “the rise of Reaganism” brought with it a change in critical practice within the field of English Studies, as once renegade professors found themselves tamed by the poststructural turn, which dictated that expressions of insurgency could be confined to textual investigations without participating in risky, and potentially costly, radical politics. In other words, instead of speaking truth to power, the public intellectual could become immersed in the intricacies of textual analysis, almost to the point of avoiding the reality before her. As Timothy Brennan explains in Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right, intellectuals stopped making claims upon the state by the 1980s, preferring instead to nurture radical states of being without risking the prospect of announcing one’s political allegiances in scholarship (9-10). Said worried that the emphasis upon textuality and discourse, announced most prominently in the critical programs of Derrida in Of Grammatology and Foucault in The Order of Discourse, sought to actually restrain intellectual intervention and question whether stable representations of the world are possible, suggesting that reality itself was more complex than human perception itself could appreciate. Derrida’s “there’s nothing outside the text” and Foucault’s conception of the archaeology of discourse complicates the concepts of power, resistance, and intellectual intervention to such a degree that human agency becomes constrained; so much so that those who are naïve enough to believe that people are free actors in the world are belittled as “volunteerists.” It is this dismissal of human action in the world that so disturbed Said, as he condemned these invocations of complexity and textuality as a modern version of the treason of the intellectual. Within the context of the Question of Palestine, Said confronted the treason of his fellow professional intellectuals on a regular basis, condemning the unwillingness of those who were ideally situated to question the U.S.-Israel special relationship and its implications for the dispossessed and powerless Palestinian population living under an occupation that seemingly went unreported and unacknowledged in the West. The power of the Israel Lobby intimidated supposedly progressive intellectuals from speaking out against Israel’s growing hegemony in determining the shape of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East (see John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy). This power of such an immense lobby to limit free expression and dissent about such
The Saidian Public Intellectual: Writing Between Culture and System
an important policy issue signaled to Said that special interests were coming to dominate the American public sphere in a harmful way. If the silence of the intellectual classes could be obtained through intimidation tactics and smear campaigns, which have come to characterize debate about the Israel-Palestine conflict, particularly as these attacks have been directed against those challenging the ability of the Israel Lobby to control the parameters of speech about the Middle East, Said feared that public debate about the crucial and relevant issues would end. That he would not cede the field of debate to the cult of expertise represented by the likes of Paula Zahn, Bernard Lewis, and Fouad Ajami spoke to his passion for dismantling knowledge systems that accrete false authority for themselves in the process of colonizing large swathes of intellectual territory, neutralizing challengers along the way. The trappings of power are seductive, easily reducing the most alert intellectual to a state of apathy and subservience to the status quo. This tendency to gravitate toward and serve concentrated power is perhaps recognition of human finitude. As mortal beings, humans come to quickly recognize their limits and as these are created between culture and system. This famous phrase, “between culture and system,” is a condition Said elaborates upon in his The World, the Text, and the Critic. With this phrase, Said is attempting to pinpoint the specific limitations that are placed on human agency and freedom by the filiative and affiliative relationships one develops throughout one’s life. Human beings, then, are caught between cultural norms and discursive constructions—literally systems of discourse created by institutions—that create the very grids of intelligibility for human possibility. Filiative relationships refer to the connections human beings form with one another based on blood and common ancestry, whereas affiliative relationships arise in the context of professions, organizations, and movements; they are relationships that are chosen rather than determined. In choosing to affiliate with a group, an organization, or an institution, one exercises agency in deciding with whom one will associate, work, and develop programmatic goals. This freedom of choice in the affiliative relationship held all sorts of creative possibilities for resisting injustice in the world, as men and women—regardless of race, religion, or creed—could join with like-minded people to challenge and transform troubling cultural hegemonies. The possibility of affiliation provides the conditions of possibility for intellectual kinship, resistance politics, and organizational mobilizations and movements. These are relationships that depend upon people being inspired by ideals and long-term goals, rather than tribal solidarities for the promotion of an identity politics. For example, people from a variety of religious
faiths and political locations affirm the fundamental importance of protecting human rights within the context of the Palestinian struggle against occupation, believing that it is important to show solidarity with those populations experiencing oppression and dispossession. It is the possibility of creating affiliative relationships, in the face of the crippling effects that filiations have left in their wake throughout human history, that interests the public intellectual, who seeks to address issues of human concern that appear to be intractable and irresolvable. As a public intellectual, Said sought to address the Question of Palestine in the American public sphere by identifying the political forces preventing an open discussion about Zionism’s treatment of the Palestinians, whose plight as a colonized people hangs in the balance. That the Palestinian liberation movement has come to represent an instance of the last resistance against colonial occupation, catalogued with the Algerian War for Independence as a classic case of indigenous resistance facing down imperial expansion, motivated Said to explain the Palestinian perspective to Western audiences (see Jaclyn Rose, The Last Resistance and James Le Sueur,
Uncivil War: Intellectuals and Identity Politics during the Decolonization of Algeria. That Said’s intellectual resistance against the accommodation of most
academic intellectuals took its inspiration from Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation naturally produced controversy and suspicion about Said’s political motives. Condemned as an enemy of Israel, reduced to the caricature of “The Professor of Terror,” Said fought against the American corporate media’s tendency to traffic in the Orientalist discourses he devoted his life to exposing in such works as Orientalism, The Question of Palestine, and Covering Islam. It is the cult of expertise informing the supposed War on Terror that Said was prescient in exposing and deconstructing in this famous trilogy (Orientalism, The Questions of Palestine, and Covering Islam). As Said notes in Humanism and Democratic Criticism, “The cult of expertise has never ruled the world of discourse as it now does in the United States, where the policy intellectual can feel that he or she surveys the entire world” (123). Figures such as Steve Emerson, Daniel Pipes, Martin Kramer, and Fouad Ajami make the Arab world understandable to Western psychologies sympathetic to Zionism’s aims in the Middle East. That there has been such a relative dearth of effective public intellectuals speaking and writing on the Israel-Palestine conflict confirmed Said’s fear about American Zionsim: that an open discussion and examination of this socialpolitical hegemony is one of the last remaining taboos in the U.S. public sphere—where asking probing questions about the U.S.-Israel special relationship is ruled out of bounds within intellectual and journalistic circles.
The Saidian Public Intellectual: Writing Between Culture and System
With the exception of a handful of dissenting intellectuals, including Alexander Cockburn, Noam Chomsky, Jeffrey St. Clair, Ali Abunimah, Rashid Khalidi, and Said himself before his passing, the number of effective and well-known advocates on the Question of Palestine can be counted on two hands. This flight from critical thought within American civil society represents a clear triumph of the corporate state, which teaches the citizen how and what to think on the critical issues. This tendency to adopt what is offered up by the corporate media as sacrosanct is a theme that Said picked up on in his Humanism and Democratic Criticism, where he writes in a chapter entitled “The Public Role of Intellectuals and Writers” that “True, it is a considerable disadvantage to get asked on to PBS’s NewsHour or ABC’s Nightline or, if one is in fact asked, only an isolated fugitive minute will be offered” (132-133). Despite the slim prospects of critical discussion emerging in such constrained formats, Said is hopeful that creative intellects will be in a position to “tak[e] advantage of what is available in the form of numerous platforms (or stages-itinerant, another Swiftian term) and an alert and creative willingness to exploit them by an intellectual (that is, platforms that either aren’t available to or are shunned by the television personality, expert, or political candidate), it is possible to initiate a wider discussion” (Humanism and Democratic Criticism 133). Said’s disillusionment with the erosion of the public’s faith in the public intellectual was most prominently announced in his Representations of the Intellectual, where he provided a historical analysis of the intellectual’s diminishing role in society beginning with Julian Benda’s The Treason of the Intellectuals and ending with Richard Crossman’s The God That Failed. Whereas Benda documented how nineteenth-century intellectuals succumbed to the temptation to become apologists for nationalism, Crossman examined how communism failed as an appropriate political program in the twentieth century for intellectuals such as Ignazio Silone, André Gide, Arthur Koestler, and Stephen Spender, as each experienced increasing disappointment with “his experiences to the road to Moscow, the inevitable disenchantment that followed, [and] the subsequent reembrace of noncommunist faith” (Representations of the Intellectual 111). This god-that-failed-syndrome, for Said, continued well into the last years of the twentieth century; as far too many intellectuals in the Arab world could not bring themselves to denounce U.S. policy in the Middle East, particularly in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict, while issuing facile condemnations of other Arab intellectuals who took dissenting positions with respect to U.S. support for Israel and other U.S.-supported regimes in the region (Said “Dignity, Solidarity…”). It is this willingness to stand alone and to draw energy from one’s isolation and principled po-
sitions that distinguishes the intellectual from a policy analyst or the media pundit.
A Way Forward
The Saidian intellectual transgresses the usual modes of expression and the normal ways of doing, risking the possible loss of friends and patrons in the spirit of radical interrogation and human emancipation. As Said reminds us, “Part of what we do as intellectuals is not only to define the situation, but also to discern the possibilities of active intervention, whether we then perform them ourselves or acknowledge them in others who have either gone before or are already at work, the intellectual as lookout” (Humanism and Democratic Criticism 140). Said’s call to intellectuals to locate possibilities and entry points for interventions into difficult debates and conflicts confirmed his humanistic outlook, demonstrating a commitment to what he long believed—that humans are capable of changing the world around them by working toward universal ideals of truth, justice, and human liberation. Despite what he believed to be the deliberate mystification of these ideals in the service of self-serving political agendas, Said held on to the prospect of human action making a difference in resisting occupation, injustice, and tyranny. As he noted,
[O]ne needn’t always present an abstruse and detailed theory of justice to go to war intellectually against injustice, since there is now a well-stocked internationalist storehouse of conventions, protocols, resolutions, and charters for national authorities to comply with, if they are so inclined (Humanism and Democratic Criticism 136).
Said’s seemingly complete rejection of the notion that reality is socially constructed or that it is merely a linguistic construction captures quite perfectly, I think, his attitude toward the task of the contemporary intellectual. In the face of so much intellectual fashion and posturing, Said forcefully asserted that if intellectuals are to remain true to their mission, they must risk the possibility of being burned at the stake in the course of speaking truth to power. Said’s stance confirms the relevance of his example for our current historical moment.
The Saidian Public Intellectual: Writing Between Culture and System
Alexander, Edward “The Professor of Terror,” Commentary. 88, 2, August (1989): 48-50. Brennan, Timothy. Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. Couzens Hoy, David. “The Problems of Reading in Contemporary American Criticism.” boundary 2, 8, 1, Autumn, (1979): 223-236. Gallagher, Catherine. “Politics, the Profession, and the Critic,” Diacritics 15, 2. Summer (1985): 37-43. Griffin Robert J., and Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin in “An Exchange on Edward Said and Difference,” Critical Inquiry 15 Spring (1989): 611633. Halkin, Hilel. “Whose Palestine? An Open Letter to Edward Said,” Commentary. 69, 5 May (1980): 21-30. Hartman, Geoffrey, Edward Said, and Masao Miyoshi. “Editorial Note.” Critical Inquiry 16 Autumn (1989): 199-204. Krupnick, Mark “Edward Said and the Discourse of Palestinian Rage.” Tikuun, November/December 4, 6 (1989): 21-24. Le Sueur, James. Uncivil War: Intellectuals and Identity Politics during the Decolonization of Algeria. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, 2005. Mearsheimer, John and Stephen Walt. The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. London: Farrar, Giroux, and Strauss, 2007. Radhakrishnan, Radha. History, the Human, and the World Between. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. Robbins, Bruce. “Homelessnes and Worldliness,” Diacritics. Fall (1983): 69-77. 37-43; —. “Deformed Professions, Empty Politics,” Diacritics. 16, 3. Fall (1986): 67-72. Jaclyn Rose. The Last Resistance. London: Verso, 2007. Said, Edward. “Dignity, Solidarity, and the Penal Colony,” Counterpunch. January 29, 2010. <www.counterpunch. org/ said09252003.html>. —. Humanism and Democratic Criticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. Print. —. Representations of the Intellectual. New York: Vintage, 1994. —. “The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals. The Nation. September 2001. (accessed February 20, 2010) <www.thenation.com/doc/20010917/ essay> —. “Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies, and Community.” Critical Inquiry. 9, 1. September (1982): 1-26.
—. “The United States and the Conflict of Powers in the Middle East” Journal of Palestine Studies, 2, 3, Spring (1973): 30-51. —. “The Problem of Textuality: Two Exemplary Positions” Critical Inquiry. 4, 4, (1978): 673-714. —. “Palestine, and the Humanism of Liberation,” Critical Inquiry, Winter 2005: 451. Shaheen, Jack G. Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. 2nd Ed. Brooklyn: Olive Branch Press, 2009. Sokmen, Muge and Basak Ertur. Waiting for the Barbarians: A Tribute to Edward Said. London: Verso, 2008. William Spanos’s The Legacy of Edward W. Said. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009. Tobin, Gary A, et al. Uncivil University: Politics & Propaganda in American Higher Education: Roseville, CA: Institute for Jewish Community and Research, 2009. Weiner, Justus Reid. “My Beautiful Old House and Other Fabrications by Edward Said” Commentary. 108, 2. September (1999): 23-31.
“BUT LET’S NOT BE STUPID TOGETHER”: THE RESPONSIBILITY OF INTELLECTUALS IN AN AGE OF MASS KILLING DANIEL L. ZINS
Because we live in a time—unlike all previous human history—when human beings are jeopardizing the very continuation of much if not most life on earth, intellectual work perforce now takes on unprecedented urgency. But regularly reminding all of us that we are confronted with nothing less than multiple emergencies demanding immediate and unremitting action will do little good until we effectively address the enervating layers of denial, willful blindness, solipsism, and unacknowledged cynicism that have depoliticized and disempowered most citizens. Intellectuals and educators must convince ordinary citizens who really do want to make a difference that they actually can do something about the issue or issues that matter most to them—and that however seemingly modest one’s contribution might appear, it does matter. Helping citizens to acknowledge and transcend the soul-destroying cynicism and debilitating despair that lie at the heart of the emergencies we face is where our intellectual work should commence.1 Of the many emergencies we face I would prioritize the following five constellations: (1) The very real possibility that any number of the many thousands of nuclear weapons still extant in the world could be detonated in or over cities—the ultimate holocaust—and militarism/interventionism in its multifarious permutations. In his especially important study on the normalization of war and America’s unprecedented and unbridled militarism, which still exceeds even the grotesquely excessive (if largely
Perhaps the most effective antidote for overcoming citizen cynicism and psychic numbing is to make everyone more aware of the numerous examples, past and present, of ignored or forgotten ordinary citizens—who often overcame seemingly impossible odds—doing truly extraordinary things. See, e.g., George and Loeb.
The Responsibility of Intellectuals in an Age of Mass Killing
unnoticed and unremarked) militarism of the past six decades, Andrew J. Bacevich writes that those who continue to blame our failure to eradicate war on warmongers might do well to recall an observation made long ago by historian Charles Beard: “[War] is not the work of a demon. It is our very own work, for which we prepare, wittingly or not, in times of peace” (34). Bacevich adds that this is also true of the “new American militarism,” which makes wholly unnecessary wars much more likely. We still seem oblivious to the various ways that the militarized, myopic, and ongoing bipartisan overreaction to 9/11—especially the fateful foundational error of placing our nation on a perpetual war footing in response to an act of massive criminality—has severely deformed both our domestic and foreign policies, creating less security and freedom, and much greater injustice, for Americans and countless others. The debased, simplistic, and self-righteous discourse unwittingly employed even by most “intellectuals” in discussing and framing the “war on terrorism” remains especially in need of meticulous demystification. (2) Genocide. In writing and teaching about the many examples of genocide before and after World War II, we should avoid the temptations of exaggerating the uniqueness of any particular genocide or underscoring that a specific genocide is more horrific than all others. Our focus should be on addressing the root causes shared by all of these episodes of mass killing, which is the only effective form of prevention. Again and again since World War II our own nation and the world community have failed egregiously in stopping recurrences of genocide. (3) Overpopulation, overconsumption, climate change, species extinction, and many other indissolubly linked environmental problems, which could lead to what many have been warning for quite some time now is an increasingly possible environmental holocaust. (4) The wide range of human rights violations not only in other nations but also within the United States. These (often lethal) assaults on human life and dignity could be rank-ordered in any number of ways, but perhaps torture should be placed at the very top of the list, especially in light of our own government’s widespread use this unconscionable practice (almost always disguised by euphemisms) during our hypocritical and largely counterproductive “war on terrorism.” Never morally defensible, torture is nothing less than barbarism—and should be called by its right name. (5) The invisible but virulent form of violence that peace researchers call structural violence—and its intimate connections to neoliberalism and predatory capitalism—which greatly diminishes the life chances of much of the planet’s population. Why do we not consider it an emergency that a third of the human beings on our planet have to try to survive on two
Daniel L. Zins
dollars a day, obviously lacking the most basic necessities required for a minimally acceptable level of health and dignity? How can we remain so oblivious to this not irremediable evil, and to other systematic crimes of elites? (See, Kinzer and Klein). However complex and seemingly disparate the etiologies of these five (and other) emergencies, it is important to appreciate that they have many similar root causes, and that successfully addressing one or more of them can often ameliorate others. I am convinced that the root causes that must be addressed first are a number of largely unrecognized linguistic, psychological, and epistemological/ethical factors that underlie and sustain our numbing or indifference. It is often difficult not to feel overwhelmed merely trying to discharge all of our other mundane responsibilities even as we should be prioritizing these emergencies. But in an age when the possibility of human-caused planetary apocalypse is all too real, and in the face of staggering human suffering, misery, and premature death, nothing less than a thorough rethinking, and fundamental redefinition, of the mission and possibilities of intellectual work is incumbent upon all intellectuals and educators. Burdened with exigencies that earlier generations of educators and intellectuals could scarcely imagine, not nearly enough of us are acknowledging and meeting our unprecedented challenges. Why is not a great deal more of our reading, writing, teaching, and activism focusing on the undeniable emergencies of our time? A sine qua non for sharply reducing the diurnal devastation caused by these emergencies is challenging the still pervasive anti-intellectualism lamented by historian Richard Hofstadter decades ago, commencing with the demystification and elevation of our thoroughly debased public and political discourse. When much if not most of our public and political discourse and visual culture is intended above all to deceive and infantilize us, intellectuals and educators should be devoting far more attention to helping citizens to detect and resist this ubiquitous propaganda and linguistic legerdemain and its incalculable damage. Even if it is true that language has long been used in such venal and self-serving ways, the potential costs of our superficial and fraudulent public discourse (e.g., the “nukespeak” that has been continually deployed and uncritically absorbed since Hiroshima) are now much greater than ever. Although it is often argued that the first responsibility of intellectuals is to “speak truth to power,” many of us, like historian Orlando Patterson, cannot help but wonder if this will do any good. In a Salmagundi symposium on “Jihad. McWorld. Modernity: Public Intellectuals Debate ‘The Clash of Civilizations’”—a model of thoughtful, intelligent dialogue about some of the most important issues of our time, and precisely the
The Responsibility of Intellectuals in an Age of Mass Killing
kind of discourse that is missing in virtually all of our mass media— Patterson observes that as a historian of slavery he cannot help but
conclude that all kinds of people like to exercise power and are reluctant— to put it mildly—to give up any part of it. This is, I know, a pessimistic view of human beings, but I really need to understand why we should assume that the powerful will even listen to what we’re saying. (150)
Although it strikes me as cynical to conclude that “speaking truth to power” will necessarily be as futile as Patterson suggests, it is perhaps even more important that intellectuals speak truthfully to the majority of ordinary citizens who have convinced themselves—erroneously—that they are powerless. The powers-that-be will only be inclined to listen to mere “intellectuals” when their counsel is shared—and thus their voices greatly amplified—by an informed and aroused electorate insisting that their nation live up to its professed ideals, i.e., demanding policies at home and abroad that foster real security (which entails far more than “military” security), social justice, and environmental sustainability and restoration. Living in a nation composed chiefly of distracted consumers rather than engaged citizens, we are obviously very far removed from this ideal today. Those who speak truthfully have always been unpopular, especially during times of painstakingly manufactured fear and hysteria like the McCarthy era and post-9/11 America.2 Anyone who speaks truthfully and is appropriately critical of corruption and injustice will threaten not only unethical elites and their legions of timorous and unprincipled supporters in the mass media and other institutions, but also countless ordinary Americans who seem content to be mere consumers rather than taking on the very demanding work of citizenship. One of the cardinal responsibilities of educators and intellectuals is telling people not what they want to hear, but what they need to hear, even if uncompromised truth telling is frequently met with fierce resistance. This minimal requirement of intellectual integrity entails far less risk here than in so many other parts of the world, and cynics might be surprised by the number of citizens who eventually come to appreciate finally being treated as adults who are expected and encouraged to think critically and empathically. Writing in the immediate aftermath 9/11, the late Susan Sontag was predictably excoriated for having the chutzpah to proclaim:
In both instances very real threats were (often cynically) and exaggerated— sometimes wildly—for political ends.
Daniel L. Zins The disconnect between last Tuesday's monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. ...The unanimously applauded, self-congratulatory bromides of a Soviet Party Congress seemed contemptible. The unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seem, well, unworthy of a mature democracy. ...Those in public office have let us know that they consider their task to be a manipulative one: confidence building and grief management. Politics—the politics of a democracy—which entails disagreement, which promotes candor—has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let's by all means grieve together. But let's not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. (32)
Or, as Martin Luther King, Jr., put it decades earlier: “We have a moral responsibility to be intelligent” (qtd. in Cone, 298). Akeel Bilgram, a participant in the Salmagundi panels, observed that many progressives in the United States, “intellectuals especially, regard those who support the Iraq war as stupid and vile. I mean, this is not designed to win over ordinary people, and in a way it might be more honest for those who regard ordinary citizens in this way to just say they dislike and distrust democracy” (184). Intellectuals and educators who neither distrust nor dislike but instead champion strong democracy have an admittedly formidable challenge here. As long as a majority of Americans continue to get most of their (very minimal) information about what is going on within and beyond their own borders from television, talk radio, and other sources which similarly discourage critical thinking or thoughtful reflection, how could we not have a citizenry that is woefully uninformed about root causes and possible solutions of today’s emergencies? The extraordinary popularity of the internet, and more recent and emerging sources of “information” that will also be enthusiastically and uncritically embraced notwithstanding, who can doubt that during our next national security crisis most Americans once again will be glued to their televisions? But how many of these viewers will possess the critical media literacy required to appreciate why our most widely viewed “news” channels invariably fail to provide the kinds of information, depth, and context, especially historical context, that is essential for anything even approaching an informed and thoughtful citizenry resistant to lying and intimidation?
The Responsibility of Intellectuals in an Age of Mass Killing
Tim O’Brien, arguably our best novelist of the Vietnam War, dramatizes in his powerful story “On the Rainy River” his anguish over being drafted for, and ultimately serving in, a war he could never really believe in. During sleepless nights after receiving his draft notice, O’Brien would find himself screaming at the denizens of his small Minnesota town,
telling them how much I detested their blind, thoughtless, automatic acquiescence to it all, their simple-minded patriotism, their prideful ignorance, their love-it-or-leave-it platitudes, how they were sending me off to fight a war they didn’t understand and didn’t want to understand. I held them responsible. By God, yes, I did. All of them—I held them personally and individually responsible—the polyestered Kiwanis boys, the merchants and farmers, the pious churchgoers, the chatty housewives, the PTA and the Lions club and the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the fine upstanding gentry out at the country club. They didn’t know Boa Dai from the man in the moon. They didn’t know history. They didn’t know the first thing about Diem’s tyranny, of the nature of Vietnamese nationalism, or the long colonialism of the French—this was all too damn complicated, it required some reading—but no matter, it was a war to stop the Communists, plain and simple, which was how they liked things, and you were a treasonous pussy if you had second thoughts about killing or dying for plain and simple reasons (48).3
That was more than four decades ago. Plug in the word “terrorists” for “communists,” and how much has really changed? Despite the profound explosion of mass media since the Vietnam era, in 2010 even most ostensibly educated citizens obviously still lack critical media literacy. To take but one example, think of how many educators, intellectuals, and others who are understandably contemptuous of the idiocy of Fox News nonetheless rely quite uncritically on sources like CNN, CNBC, or CSPAN for much or most of their information about the most important domestic and international issues. We may have hundreds of channels to watch and an endlessly enthralling Internet to surf, but we are still, in the words of the late media critic Neal Postman, “amusing ourselves to death.” If half or more of the American people could continue to believe that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 bombings long after this linkage—relentlessly and cynically insinuated by the Bush administration—was discredited, who can say that
O’Brien concludes his story with these words: “I was a coward. I went to war.” Perhaps yet another reminder of just how much of what our presidents read—or do not read—matters.
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we do not have a pernicious “stupidity problem”? A no less distressing example, also with profound policy implications, especially for the more than forty million invisible and forgotten Americans trapped in the underclass, is reported by environmental writer Bill McKibben: Threequarters of Americans believe that Ben Franklin’s utterance, “God helps those who help themselves,” can be found in the Bible. But as McKibben points out,
not only is Franklin’s wisdom not biblical; it’s counter-biblical. Few things could be further from the gospel message, with its radical summons to love of neighbor. On this essential matter, most Americans—most American Christians—are simply wrong, as if 75 percent of Americans believed that Newton proved gravity causes apples to fly up (13).
One could, of course, adduce similarly distressing examples ad nauseum. Anyone who listens attentively, as I have done for the past quarter century, to the quality of “thought” that is routinely voiced during CSPAN’s call-in shows, will also have to ask how we can possibly have a democracy, which after all requires informed consent, with such appalling levels of ignorance. Most C-SPAN callers, of course, proclaim their views with remarkable dogmatism and certitude. But as Wendell Berry reminds us, “the first responsibility of intelligence ... is to know when you don’t know or when you are being unintelligent” (60). The problem is not so much that we know so little, which can be remedied, but that we seem to have no idea how little we really know—and have so very few doubts. Novelist E.L. Doctorow has commented on the consequences of this widespread problem:
In the course of my own life I have observed that the great civilizer on earth seems to have been doubt. Doubt, the constantly debated and flexible inner condition of theological uncertainty, the wish to believe in balance with rueful or nervous grieving skepticism, seems to have held people in thrall to ethical behavior, while the true believers of whatever stamp, religious or religious statist, have done the murdering. The impulse to exclude, sanitize, eradicate, is a religious impulse. But to hold in abeyance and irresolution any firm convictions of God, or of an afterlife with him, warrants walking in his spirit, somehow. (115)
It is sobering indeed to recall how many Americans were willing to at least tolerate, if not enthusiastically support—for eight costly years—an insouciant commander-in-chief who repeatedly demonstrated that he knew almost nothing about anything that matters, all the while seemingly unable to entertain even a modicum of such indispensable doubt. God only knows
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how many lives have been lost, and will continue to be sacrificed, as a result of such cavalier certainty and entirely unwarranted arrogance. In the wake of the celebrations which greeted her nation’s 1998 nuclear weapons testing, Indian novelist, essayist, and activist Arundhati Roy could only lament: “What wonderful, willing, well-behaved, gullible subjects we have turned out to be” (11). Would this somber assessment be any less merited for the vast majority of individuals in our own nation? During one of the Salmgundi panels Akeel Bilgrami observes that although most Muslims are not absolutists or fundamentalists, they are “just too busy with their everyday lives to be very much invested in politics” (137). If this is no less true of the majority of our own citizens, what does this says about the possibility of finally bringing democracy to America? Moreover, how many even of those who do take an active interest in politics are willing to seek out enough accurate and relevant information (and are sufficiently open minded) to provide the quality of input needed to improve the prospect of wise and just policy decisions at all levels of governance? So while we obviously have a grave problem here, I am not unaware of a related and severe complication that arises when anyone dares to offer such a harsh assessment of his fellow citizens. “NthnBrazil,” who describes himself as a “pro-choice, pro-civil union, Alternet-reading, Born-Again Christian Republican,” asks:
How do you expect to be heard by people you revile? ...If progressive ideas are so compelling (and I believe some of them are), then the real problem is you are not being heard. Part of that is caused by the fact that when you call people idiots, they tend to find excuses to ignore you (qtd. in Derkacz).
Even as I cannot help but make these unsparing comments about the discouraging state of the citizenry today I am hardly unaware of my own shortcomings, intellectual and otherwise. But what needs underscoring is that when our rulers expect so very little of us—when we expect so terribly little of ourselves—we are being dishonored, and we are being less than human. Why do our rulers, our mass media, and various other institutions—is education really innocent here?—so seldom appeal to the best in us, but to precisely the opposite? And why do so few of us resist being treated with such contempt? How can we have so little self-respect? I have little hesitation in offering such an unflattering assessment about the dismal state of our people and our polity not only because I cannot help but conclude that such a gloomy conclusion is warranted, but, more importantly, because I am convinced that we can do so much better. “In an
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era of the infantilization of culture,” writes Frank Furedi, “treating people as grown-ups has become one of the principal duties of the humanist intellectual” (156). Because this is precisely what our rulers, the mass media, and other opinion-shaping institutions have repeatedly refused to do, it behooves intellectuals and educators to repudiate rather than emulate this shameless pandering, which only exacerbates the already alarming dumbing-down of our citizenry. Here, as is so often the case, we would do well to take to heart Antonio Gramsci’s aphorism: “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” It is incumbent upon us to unflinchingly, and as accurately as possible, assess what we are up against; successfully addressing the five emergencies I cited at the outset will be an enormous challenge for the human race. We are confronted with an inescapable choice: we can continue feeling utterly overwhelmed by the state of the world, wallow in despair, and indulge our deadly denial, or we can redouble our efforts in the conviction that every one of us can make a difference, that the contribution of every one of us really does matter. The kinds of (willful?) ignorance, stupidity, and foolishness I find so troubling are at least as common in high places as amongst the unlettered masses. And the problem goes far beyond what many would like to believe were the singular deficiencies of a George W. Bush, whose truncated intellectual and ethical development should be seen as symptomatic of a culture-wide malady. Were the other highly “educated” reactionaries who were driving the disastrous U.S. policies after 9/11 any less lacking in wisdom? And if I may pose what for many is a truly heretical question: why has so little changed with the administration currently at the helm? In our (at least tacit) support of an ineffectual and hyper-militarized “centrism” that continues to drift ever further to the right, and our disinclination to ruminate on the ethics of enabling, we valorize a “bipartisanship” where the political right—and far right—is routinely permitted to frame our (non)debates on crucial domestic and foreign policy issues. Thus another heretical question: is it really reasonable to believe that the kinds of changes we so desperately need can come to fruition if the Democratic Party’s most loyal long-term supporters and most enthusiastic younger members repeatedly refuse to hold it accountable? Especially troubling here is the likelihood that large numbers of young people who worked so hard to elect Barack Obama will become disillusioned and depoliticized as they are forced to suffer what is merely the latest chapter of the Democratic Party’s incorrigible expediency, ineptitude, moral and intellectual bankruptcy, and breathtaking moral
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cowardice. We should not underestimate the consequences of this shameless betrayal. We also err if we try to confine this ignorance to policymakers or opinion shapers in general. Even in academia how many of us have adequately informed ourselves about the most pressing issues of our times? Israel Charny reports a disturbing (but undoubtedly representative) example which occurred at M.I.T. in 1984 following the showing of The Killing Fields, a dramatization of the 1975-1979 Cambodian genocide. During the question-and-answer session following the film a third of this “educated” audience conceded that they knew nothing about these horrors of the previous decade in which their own nation had been deeply complicit. (Charny 207) In her book on mass killing and the legacy of World War II, Marianna Torgovnick provides a more recent example, lamenting the lack of awareness at Duke University of Daniel Goldhagen’s very controversial book on the Holocaust, which had already generated a great deal of highly critical commentary. Torgovnick writes that “when asked, graduate students at my elite institution know nothing about Goldhagen or the Einsatzgruppen nor do some otherwise knowledgeable colleagues. Why? And to what effect?” (12). There are of course any number of reasons for this historical amnesia and ignorance, but obviously the most important one is that not nearly enough of us have been willing to give more than minimal attention to the horrors of the previous century or to their persistence in the new millennium. As horrific as the past genocidal century truly was, our own could prove to be much worse yet without fundamental changes in the priorities of all of our institutions, including education at all levels. Intellectuals and educators should not minimize their own culpability for our ongoing bipartisan leadership vacuum on the issues that matter most. If I refuse to despair over our very depressing times it is because I am convinced that the kind of stupidity I see all around me is, as Gandhi said of western “civilization,” not an incurable disease. The epistemological/ ethical antidotes include, inter alia, intellectual curiosity, intellectual courage, intellectual humility, open-mindedness, a concerted effort to bring our unconscious biases (and shadow) into consciousness, a willingness to be offended on occasion, a principled refusal to be lied to, and not exculpating ourselves with the all-too-convenient rationalizations that we “just didn’t know,” or “couldn’t do anything about it anyway.” Willful blindness and willful stupidity do not exonerate us; on the contrary, our carefully cultivated “innocence” inevitably increases our complicity in the worst evils of our time. Because our complicity is understandably a most disquieting topic for us to think about, we rarely
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do. But however vexing we find this failure, it is one that we should be grappling with and talking about all the time. Living in a nation that is in denial about virtually everything, educators and intellectuals should be encouraging everyone to embrace the liberating enlightenment motto that we ourselves do not always live up to: “dare to know!” We can better understand our current predicament if we acknowledge that after 9/11 we allowed ourselves to be ruled not by conservatives, but by ultra-conservatives or reactionaries with a number of unmistakable fascistic proclivities that unfortunately went unremarked for eight years. Given the gravity of the charge, it is important to make a distinction here: there were clearly major differences between the deplorable state of our nation in the years following the 9/11 attacks and full-blown fascism. But this is hardly grounds for complacency: fascism, here as elsewhere, can emerge in stages, unrecognized by a cynical, easily cowed, and depoliticized populace until it is too late. The candidacy and inauguration of Barack Obama may have captivated and thrilled many millions of Americans, but if, as in Clinton-Gore years, his administration continues to abet our nation’s hyper-militarization while betraying the deepest interests of most Americans, it is hardly paranoia to fear a recrudescence in the near term of the catastrophic eight years of the Cheney-Bush administration. Or something even worse. In a double issue of amerasia journal on “After Words: Who Speaks on War, Justice, and Peace?” published in the wake of 9/11, Mari J. Matsuda, a member of DC Asians for Justice and Peace and a professor at Georgetown Law School, insists that
[w]e are a good nation of good people. I believe this in spite of every piece of evidence you can show me of American inhumanity at home and abroad. My people came to this country with hope, and even as they went off to the internment camps, they had neighbors, teachers, and friends who were sad to see them go. The witnesses felt helpless to make it otherwise, but they did not all cheer.... These good people could not easily watch an Iraqi child dying from lack of simple medicines or an Afghan child crying in the street, searching for a dead parent. I have known the generous American heart all my life even as I have fought my own battles against racism and sexism (145).
Vinay Lal, assistant professor of history at UCLA who also contributed an essay to this invaluable issue of amerasia journal, is considerably less sanguine concerning the complicity of ordinary Americans for what is being done in their names. In his critique of the arguments of Arundhati Roy, Noam Chomsky, and other radicals, Lal writes:
The Responsibility of Intellectuals in an Age of Mass Killing To imagine that the ‘American people’ have a government wholly at odds with their sensibilities is to suppose that they are entirely gullible and ignorant, and yet wiser than their leaders; it also makes a mockery of the idea of representation, which is the formal mainstay of all democratic polities.
Lal also challenges radicals who insist that the heart of the problem is the public’s ignorance of what is being done in their names when so much information is now available, and “poll findings showing massive public support for military intervention, whether at the time of the Gulf War or in the aftermath of 9/11.” (115) Lal observed, in the aftermath of 9/11, that neither the government nor the citizenry was prepared to accept as credible that our democracy had generated into an “entirely farcical exercise.” (114) But during the past few years more and more Americans appear to have concluded that it has in fact become uncomfortably close to precisely that. “Democracy” may have an especially dulcet sound to Americans’ ears, but the mere invocation or reverential repetition of this talismanic term does not a democracy make, nor forestall its usurpation here or elsewhere. As any number of observers have noted, much more accurate terms to describe the hyper-militarized and criminal system we live under today would be plutocracy, lootocracy, or kleptocracy. I submit that establishing anything approaching a genuine (strong) democracy in the United States will require, at a minimum: (1) that far more of us be willing to be thoughtful citizens unafraid to live in a reality-based universe, rather than disengaged and cynical consumers; (2) a much greater commitment to upholding freedom of the press (including net neutrality) and other civil liberties, which may be honored in the abstract but all too often not in specific instances, especially in times of real or fabricated national crises; (3) sharply reducing the enormous and widening rich-poor gap; Judge Louis Brandeis long ago remarked: “We can have a democratic society or we can have concentrated wealth in the hands of a few. We cannot have both”— and remedying the almost total corruption of our political system, and mass media, by unbridled greed; (4) dismantling the planet’s structurally undemocratic thermonuclear national security states, starting with our own; (5) restraining the imperial presidency, which frequently flouts checks and balances, especially on national security matters; (6) ending our presidential non-debates, and demanding real debates in which a variety of candidates with wide-ranging viewpoints are allowed to be heard. This is a censorship issue of enormous magnitude and consequence; (7) sharply reducing the staggering amount of altogether unnecessary secrecy and classification of information that citizens have a right and
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need to know; (8) replacing our kept press/tabloid journalism which is routinely compromised by market censorship and self-censorship with a truly free and independent mass media; (9) finally providing citizens of Washington, DC, with representation in the U.S. Senate, and restoring voting rights to felons who have served their time in prison; and (10) an opposition party. For those who enjoy pretending that we have or have had an opposition party, where has it been hiding since 9/11 (1945)? Moreover, after 9/11 why did almost no one whose voice was allowed to be heard not immediately point out the fatuity of an administration which obviously harbored enormous contempt for democracy at home having pretensions of exporting its irresistible fruits to a highly selective list of benighted nations? “Democracy” is merely one of dozens of keywords that intellectuals and educators should be regularly interrogating and problematizing. Instead, it is almost always used uncritically, enabling those who have no real allegiance to anything more than nominal democracy to continue to successfully deflect our attention from its moribund condition. I know very well that most liberals, and perhaps even many progressives or radicals, will find my jeremiad on the state of our “democracy” unduly bleak. But John Ralston Saul, who like E.L. Doctorow accentuates the lifeaffirming role of doubt, reminds us that “change can only come through what will seem at first to be outrageous statements, provocation and a stubborn refusal to accept the smooth, calm, controlling formulae of conventional wisdom” (2). The kind of doubt that Doctorow and Saul champion is not at all nihilistic or even cynical, but rather the healthy skepticism that is especially needed in a culture rife with half-truths, misinformation and disinformation. If it is indeed now much easier than ever before to ferret out a vast amount of incriminating information about the lawless clandestine activities of our government, the Pentagon, and multinational corporations, we need to know where to look and have the acumen to evaluate the relevance and accuracy of what is truly an inundation of (mostly useless) information—skills few Americans appear to possess even in the age of the internet. But much more troubling yet is that far too many of us seemingly don’t want to know, because that would require a reorientation of our priorities, and at least a modest commitment to help end or mitigate one or more of our nation’s or the planet’s most grave injustices. With “evidence of human disaster everywhere available,” writes Norman Geras,
[n]ot to know or not to know enough, you have to turn aside, you have resolutely to ignore the signals of distress that come your way. In these circumstances the plea of a lack of knowledge is uncompelling. It treats as
The Responsibility of Intellectuals in an Age of Mass Killing an involuntary state what is itself in fact a choice. To adapt the judgment of one scholar concerning this same plea by many Germans after 1945 with respect to the fate of the Jews: those who are unaware know enough to know that they prefer not to know any more. (35)
Because today we have access to so much more information than these “good Germans,” intellectuals and educators should be encouraging us to confront the myriad forms of our self-deception and willful blindness, and their exorbitant costs. In an incisive study published three decades ago on the role that this problem plays in U.S. foreign policy, William H. Blanchard responded to those who claimed that his
theory of inadvertence serves as a perfect escape for those who rule America. They maintain that American policy is deliberately manipulated by a "power elite," a group of people who know what they are doing, and that I am naive in ascribing the acts of this group to inadvertence. I do not deny the existence of a power elite, but it is a different kind of power elite than the one described by C. Wright Mills. If there is a conspiracy to control America, it is an implicit, not an explict, conspiracy. It is based on a tacit, and not an overt, understanding. Most importantly, it is a conspiracy in which no one admits that he is conspiring, not even to himself. Furthermore, it is a conspiracy that has the full cooperation of the members of the American middle class, who find that it serves their ends very well. It absolves them of responsibility for injustice. (10)
“We” shop, and “they” fortify their kleptocracy at home and relentlessly pursue hegemony abroad. But we and they are one. Even if many advantages appear to redound to us from this tacit covenant, empires also entail considerable costs that no decent human being should be willing to pay. In the vaunted land of the free and the home of the brave, why cannot we muster the very minimal courage to appreciate what this arrangement is doing—throughout the world—to all of us? And to non-human life forms, which also have an intrinsic right to exist. In her book lamenting the repeated failures of governments, including our own, to stop the postWorld-War-II genocides, Samantha Power reminds us that we all choose whether to be bystanders or upstanders. Citing George Bernard Shaw’s observation that “[t]he reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself,” Power concludes with this exhortation: “After a century of doing so little to prevent, suppress, and punish genocide, Americans must join, and thereby legitimate the ranks of the unreasonable” (516). And that, of course, requires a refusal to take refuge in the cynical self-deception that we are powerless to effectively do anything about the most terrible evils of our
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time—or that the kinds of rulers Americans have endured for the past seven decades are about the best we can hope for. In manifold ways both at home and abroad the Bush-Cheney regime was nothing less than a disaster, and the repercussions and blowback of its profoundly misguided policies will likely plague us for a very long time. But what may very well prove to be its most deleterious legacy of all has already begun to manifest itself, i.e., the cynical capitulation of most ostensible opponents of that regime, who are triumphantly exploiting those calamitous years as the new benchmark to calibrate not merely what we should henceforth find tolerable or acceptable, but even worthy of celebration. Or deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize. The bar, which we were willing to set lamentably low long before January, 2001, is now approaching its nadir. Those of us who are fortunate not to be living lives of misery and desperation might do well to ponder the catastrophic consequences of this unacknowledged cynical surrender for every human being (and every other life form) living on the very edge of survival. In our willingness to settle for so very little, we continue to be complicit in the deaths of tens of thousands of human beings who die every day from hunger and other entirely preventable causes. And we may very well hasten our own extinction. Politics is indeed the “art of the possible.” But our notion of what is possible continues to contract ever further, a baneful failure of imagination and courage that we fail to even recognize let alone address. Calls for anything more than the most modest changes in the status quo are summarily dismissed as too costly or politically unrealistic or naive or “utopian” (yet another keyword crying out for careful deconstruction). All ordinary citizens should ask themselves who really benefits from this cynicism, because surely they do not. And this is true a fortiori for the many hundreds of millions of the planet’s most desperate human beings who are depending on each one of us not becoming discouraged for their very survival, not to mention a chance to live with the minimal dignity that is everyone’s birthright. Finally, intellectuals and educators of every political persuasion have a fundamental responsibility to be at least as critical of their own side as they are of their adversaries’ in all areas where scholarship and politics are contentious. All too often this is not the case; our ideological allies routinely get a free pass, while the evil other side is held almost entirely responsible for whatever elicits our outrage. If not honestly acknowledged and corrected, this complacent and indefensible failure to be self-critical— a manifestation of the very Manicheanism we often decry in other situations and other human beings—will continue to severely compromise
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whatever effectiveness we might hope to have in creating a more just, decent, and sustainable world.
Bacevich, Andrew J. The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War. New York: Oxford, 2005. Berry, Wendell. The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays. Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005. Blanchard, William H. Aggression American Style. Santa Monica, CA: Goodyear, 1978. Charny, Israel W. Genocide: A Critical Bibliographic Review, Vol. 2. Ed. Charny. New York: Facts on File, 1991. Cone, James H. 1992. Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare. New York: Orbis, 2002. Derkacz, Evan. “Re-Examining ‘The Left Hand of God.’” 20 Feb. 2006 <http://www.alternet.org> accessed December 2009. Doctorow, E. L. Reporting the Universe. Cambridge: Harvard, 2004. Furedi, Frank. Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? Confronting 21st Century Philistinism. London: Continuum, 2004. George, Susan. Another World is Possibe If....” London: Verso, 2004. Geras, Norman. The Contract of Mutual Indifference: Political Philosophy after the Holocaust. London: Verso, 1998. “Jihad. McWorld. Modernity: Public Intellectuals Debate The Clash of Civilizations.” Salmagundi Spring-Summer (2006): 150-151. Kinzer, Stephen. Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. New York: Times, 2006. Klein, Naomi. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Picador, 2007. Lal, Vinay. “Terrorism as a Way of Life.” amerasia journal. 28,1 (20012002): 103-124. Loeb, Paul Loeb, ed. The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear. New York: Basic, 2004. Mari J. Matsuda. “Asian Americans and the Peace Imperative.” amerasia journal 28,1 (2001-2002): 141-151. McKibben, Bill. “The People of the (Unread) Book.” Getting on Message: Challenging the Christian Right from the Heart of the Gospel. Ed. Peter Laarman. Boston: Beacon, 2006. O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. Power, Samantha. A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. New York: Basic, 2002.
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Roy, Arundhati. “The End of Imagination.” The Nation September 28, 1998. Saul, John Ralston Saul. The Doubter’s Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense. New York: The Free Press, 1994. Sontag, Susan. “Talk of the Town.” The New Yorker September 24, 2001. Torgovnik, Marianna. The War Complex: World War II in Our Time. Chicago: Chicago, 2005.
PART II. IN AND OUT OF ACADEME
THE NEW TREASON OF INTELLECTUALS: A CASE OF MISUNDERSTANDING AND MISCONSTRUCTION KARLIS RACEVSKIS
Ever since Julien Benda inaugurated the notion of intellectual treason in the 1920s, it has become a custom in the West to periodically announce a new betrayal perpetrated by one form of intellectual activity or another. The most recent constituency to stand indicted in this manner is academia in the United States. Thus, shortly after the end of the Cold War, Roger Kimball diagnosed the latest betrayal as part of a global phenomenon:
From the savage flowering of ethnic hatreds in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to the mendacious demands for political correctness and multiculturalism on college campuses across America and Europe, the treason of intellectuals continues to play out its unedifying drama. (4)
More recently, a “special education” issue of the National Review bemoaned the behavior and attitude of scholars in the humanities by exhuming old and familiar arguments concerning the betrayal of the university’s educational mission. Today’s faculty teaching the humanities, so claimed its lead article, are out of touch with what is going on in American society and ill prepared for their educational responsibilities. The proof of this, according to its author Victor Davis Hanson, was the overwhelming opposition to the Iraq war by college faculties. This theme has been taken up by a number of other authors and pundits and has served to revive yet another familiar complaint, namely that campuses are in the grip of secular liberals who are openly hostile to Western civilization, traditional values, and Christianity. The complaint acquired a political edge, as right-wing activist David Horowitz attempted to influence state legislatures across the country by having them pass his so-called Academic Bill of Rights—a set of legal restrictions aimed at diminishing the influence of liberal ideas on American campuses. While the most vocal attacks against universities are obviously emanating from the conservative right of the political spectrum, the growing
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gap between what intellectuals do and how the public perceives their activities is an undeniable cultural reality in this country. The discrepancy between the concerns of university intellectuals and those of the public at large is felt most keenly, I would argue, by those of us engaged in the study and teaching of critical theory. It is also in this area that the last decades have witnessed some remarkable advances that have given new shape and scope to the knowledge constituting our various disciplines. But it is also the area that has elicited reactions ranging from incomprehension to scandalized condemnation. The incomprehension is largely due, I would like to suggest, to a generalized misunderstanding of the changing role and nature of the humanities. The aim of higher education can hardly be taken to be the cultivation of virtue or the promotion of moral values any more—that is, in terms of a myth derived from the nineteenth-century model for a university, an ideal of inner perfection eventually promoted by Matthew Arnold, whose phrase “the best that has been thought and known in the world” has often been taken to sum up the tradition of humanistic learning. As an ideal,
it was carried over into our century, both in the general argument that a liberal arts education not only trains the mind but helps to form or shape “values”; and in the more specific one that the study of literature has a “humanizing,” even “moralizing,” effect upon the student. (Proctor 105)
The ideal has been promoted, most recently, by two former directors of the NEH, William Bennett and Lynne Cheney. The kind of rhetoric both directors of the NEH indulged in, which can still be found in some college catalogues, has clearly lost its powers of conviction and sounds rather hollow today. This is because the traditional abstract concepts of moral values only serve to magnify the unbridgeable gap between words and world and, as a result, arguments relying on transcendental notions with capital letters are quickly losing their currency. Jean-François Lyotard famously announced three decades ago that metanarratives had lost their credibility. This loss of credibility in truth claims affected not only the arts and sciences, Lyotard noted further, but even more profoundly the very rules that determined the legitimacy of scientific knowledge. The problem, as Lyotard saw it, was that scientific discourse owed its legitimacy to another kind of discourse which was not scientific. As a consequence, the moral responsibility for advancing the cause of humanity, which science had assumed at the dawn of the Modern Age, was eventually relinquished in light of the glaring discrepancy between Modernity’s promises and achievements. The failure to live up to the promise of progress guaranteed by advances made in scientific knowl-
edge has been attributed to an implicit choice made at a time when Western thought opted for mathematical exactitude and logical rigor as the preferred path to intellectual certainty and moral purity (Toulmin x). This choice was to have disastrous consequences in the realm of human affairs, as Alain Besançon, among others, has argued. In the eighteenth century, Besançon points out, it seemed evident that “nature was rational, human life was not.” What needed to be done therefore, it seemed evident to some thinkers, was to discover the laws of nature, “to rediscover man as nature first created him, man in whom an internal lawfulness would be in accord with the aims of nature,” and organize the social order accordingly (31). Such thinking was of course thoroughly vitiated by a fallacy that was to become a cornerstone of modernist thought—it was the belief in an objective nature conceived as a realm untouched by human thought or purpose. Paul Feyerabend has diagnosed most succinctly the absurdity of this idea: “To say that a procedure or a point of view is objective(ly) true,” he points out, “is to claim that it is valid irrespective of human expectations, ideas, attitudes, wishes.” Laws of nature, he also notes,
certainly are not found independently of a particular culture. It needs a very special mental attitude inserted into a particular social structure combined with sometimes quite idiosyncratic historical sequences to divine, formulate, check and establish laws such as the second law of thermodynamics. (5, 88)
Having abandoned the earlier lofty goals of discovering and promoting universal or objective truths, humanists and scientists have been led to focus on the concrete process of thinking, on the specific ways in which the mind engages the world. It is an approach that has been of primary concern to a number of French thinkers over the past two or three decades. For the purposes of the present essay, I would like to highlight some revealing parallels between two such thinkers—the philosopher Michel Foucault and the neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux. What makes the comparison particularly fruitful, I would like to argue, is the commonly shared theme of their investigations. While Foucault could be said to represent the humanities and Changeux the sciences, they are both intent on gaining a better understanding of truth—the notion that serves to validate knowledge and its application in both of their disciplines.
Truth and the Power to Subject
Foucault’s take on the concept of truth is clearly traceable to his reading of Nietzsche, who linked it to an obsession with the idea of origins.
The New Treason of Intellectuals
“We like to believe,” notes Foucault, “that in the beginning, things were in a state of perfection, that they came out sparkling bright from the hands of their creator or in the shadowless light of the first dawn” (II, 139). When we examine this notion in terms of its history, however, of the different ways access to truth was reserved for sages or priests, of the manner it was eventually “withdrawn to a world out of reach where it played both the role of consolation and of an imperative, rejected, finally, as a useless, superfluous idea, contradicted everywhere,” one has to wonder, muses Foucault, whether “all that, is it not simply the history of an error named truth?” (II, 139-40). For Foucault, the value of history is its capacity for demystifying and demythifying and its role, in this regard, is comparable to that of the demythifying effect of the medical sciences: “A genealogist needs history to dispel the chimera of the origin, a little like the good philosopher needs a doctor to drive away the shadow of the soul” (II, 140). Foucault does not intend to suggest that truth does not exist, however—it is indeed very real, but it is essentially political, even though the West, at least since Plato, has been “dominated by the great myth according to which truth never belongs to political power,” by the idea, in other words, that knowledge and power are antithetical (II, 570). Truth is indeed “of this world,” Foucault tells us, and “it is produced there thanks to multiple constraints” (III, 158). Each society has its particular regime of truth, and “we are judged, condemned, classified, bound to certain tasks, dedicated to a certain manner of living or a certain manner of dying in accordance with true discourses” (III, 176). Likewise, the idea that such truths could somehow be applied and promulgated free from strategies of power serving special interests is an illusion that only serves as a useful cover for those benefiting most from such strategies: “There is no question of liberating truth from all systems of power—that would be pure fantasy, since truth itself is power” (III, 160). The promotion of a belief in categories that provide humans with an essence or a foreordained meaning is an effective way of occulting the fact that the subject is a process. The subject, as Foucault reminds us emphatically, “is not a substance. It’s a form, and this form is not above all nor always identical to itself” (IV, 718). That is, the subject does not constitute an identity that is replicable over time. To develop a comprehension of the reality of human being and thought that is as little distorted by preconceived notions as possible, a different approach that pays attention to the events in their present materiality has to be cultivated. The questions to be answered are also rather basic: “Who are we? And what is happening?” Admittedly, notes Foucault, “These two questions are very different from traditional questions: What is the soul? What is eternity?” To tackle the newer questions, he therefore suggests,
what is needed is a “philosophy of the present, a philosophy of the event, a philosophy of what is happening” (III, 573). Moreover, we need to admit to a profound ignorance in regard to the events constituting our convictions and thoughts. It is of course Nietzsche who taught us to appreciate the extent to which we are subject to processes, movements, and forces that we do not understand. This realization imposes a new responsibility on the philosopher, whose role, says Foucault, “is to be the diagnostician of these forces, to diagnose the present time” (III, 573). The ultimate aim then would be to develop a way of thinking that should be the true purpose of philosophy, “a way of thinking, not so much about what is true and what is false, but of our relation to truth” (IV, 110). Whether anything is true or false is of secondary importance—or even, of no concern at all: what matters is arriving at a comprehension of the process we undergo when we are led to assent to a truth.
Neuronal Patterns of Truth
Such is indeed the concern guiding Changeux in his investigations. The diagnosis provided by the neuroscientist, to be sure, is much more specific and focuses primarily on the concrete mechanisms at work in the process of filtering the movements and forces that remain rather vague notions for Nietzsche and Foucault. Changeux begins by positing a necessary correspondence between brain and world, “between the facts of the world and our ideas of them.” That is, the brain has to be receptive, ready to make connections, to receive signals and interpret them—there has to be what Changeux calls “an ‘isomorphism’ between the structures of thought and reality” (39, 40). What makes the brain receptive and ready to connect is a grid of pre-representations that “form the basis of the brains ability to make sense of the world” (60). These are neural patterns in the brain that have developed over time in response to sense experience and have been enhanced and reinforced by positive rewards and signals. If, on the other hand, “the signals are negative, or attention is no longer sustained, this pre-representation can be revised or replaced, through a process of trial and error, by another discrete combination of workspace neurons” (93). All of this activity of selection, reinforcement, or elimination takes place in an area of the brain Changeux calls the “global workspace.” It is a space of neuronal activity that is open to input from four types of sources. Two of them are the perceptual systems representing the present and long-term memory relating to the past. These, in turn, are filtered or enhanced by the attention systems providing the necessary focusing and by evaluation systems that control the reception of signals in terms of es-
The New Treason of Intellectuals
tablished values. The primary result of the activity taking place in the global workspace is to produce a future-oriented output affecting, in particular, the motor systems of the body. The effectiveness of the whole process is to be understood in terms of the evolution of the human species because
genetic evolution led to the stable storage in memory—that is, the brain— not only of a large endowment of innate knowledge but also of impressive capacities for acquiring, processing, communicating, and testing knowledge obtained from experience of the outside world. (183)
In addition, Changeux considers a fluid interaction between genes and the environment to be an indisputable given. He explains:
The individual character of each person is thus constructed as a function of what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “habitus”—a unique synthesis of one’s genetic endowment, circumstances of birth and upbringing, and subjective experience of the social and cultural environment in which one has grown up. (208)
The mind’s interaction with its social and cultural environment is therefore to be seen as a fundamental constitutive process serving to shape and develop the individual’s neuronal patterns. To be sure, our understanding of this process has undergone a marked evolution. While there was a time when this interaction was mainly conceptualized in terms of myths and rituals, explains Changeux, “they have to a considerable extent been transformed or replaced in the course of recent cultural history by a new type of representation—scientific ideas” (220). Science, he is convinced, can certainly offer a more reliable account of reality and provide better guidelines for coping with present or future difficulties we may encounter in our interaction with the world around us. The main reason for preferring science over myths is that myths are “frozen,” whereas “scientific theory, by contrast, … is constantly modified and amended in the light of new evidence” (234). It is the evidence of a changing world that scientific thinking is particularly adept at discerning and, in this regard, what scientists understand better than anyone else, perhaps, is that “the natural world must now be protected against destruction by humankind” (259). The solution, Changeux is quick to add, “does not lie in a wholesale rejection of technology. It resides instead in the development of a culture that is more harmoniously adapted to the realities of the world” (257). Moreover, to develop a better understanding as well as more efficient and accurate ways of conceptualizing these realities, we are facing today an “urgent necessity to
devise new symbolic systems suited to the promise and the dangers of a world of perpetually evolving technologies” (259). What is noteworthy in this manner of formulating the problem is the distinction made between truth and science. Essentially, for Changeux, the basic functioning of the brain can be characterized as that of a “sort of truth apparatus” (152). The search for truth thus appears to be a fundamental, ontological propensity of the brain but it is also a philosophical question, as Changeux is quick to acknowledge. In light of advances made in the neurosciences, however, “it has now become possible to recast the ancient questions of philosophy in the light of modern neurobiological research” (2). In other words, scientific thinking, which is a product of the truth-seeking function of the brain, is now in a position to examine the very source of its capacity. In outlining a physiology of truth then, Changeux uses science, not to uncover a truth or truths but to provide a description of a mental condition that marks a particular state of equilibrium at which the brain has arrived. To put it in the simplest terms, using the title of one of the paper’s read at a conference on the “Neurobiology of Human Values” organized by Changeux, “How does the brain know when it is right?” Wolf Singer, the author, is interested in identifying particular patterns of neuronal firings that could be taken as a signature for a moment when things “feel right.” Specifically, it is the coherence of signals originating in different cortical areas that is hypothesized as the identifying mark for such a feeling. “Such could be the case,” Singer supposes, “when agreement is reached among the ‘votes’ of the various centers that contribute different aspects such as innate incentives, early imprinted convictions and later acquired rational arguments” (133). A moral or epistemological determination called a “truth” is thus conceptualized as the outcome of a complex and multi-layered process involving determinants that are both conscious and unconscious, rational as well as affective in origin, innate as well as external. In opposing Platonic or theological explanatory schemes, such an approach produces a fundamental inversion in a conventional understanding of truth and its relation to the reality of being and of experience. Changeux is quite explicit in this regard: “My own view,” he explains, “is that there is no longer any justification for assuming the existence of an immaterial and eternal world independent of human minds” (246). Truth is the name given to an outcome and is not to be seen as a given. Furthermore, it is achieved through a process a good part of which is carried out independently of any rational or purposeful act of volition. As we have seen, Foucault shares a similar outlook and considers his main purpose to “undertake to think something other than what one thought before” (IV, 668) in order to enter into a different arrangement of
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truth effects, to become, in effect, different from what one was before, in order to “make oneself permanently able to become disengaged from oneself” (IV, 675). This new approach thus would cast a new light on a traditional prejudice that has maintained its hold over our thinking since the time of Plato and which has manifested itself as “the scorn with which the philosopher, the man of truth, the man of knowledge has always viewed the one who was but an orator, a rhetorician, a man of discourse.” It is therefore high time, thinks Foucault,
to reintroduce rhetoric, the orator, the struggle of discourses within fields of analysis … in order to study discourse, even the discourse of truth, as rhetorical procedures, as ways of winning, of producing events, of producing decisions, of producing battles, of producing victories (II, 634).
The purpose would then be “to see historically how truth effects occur within discourses that are in themselves neither true nor false” (III, 148). This clear separation of discourse from the truth it produces would have the effect of recognizing and validating processes over which we have little control. What we do control, however, is discourse and the ways we can utilize it in order to affect the way we think. Both Changeux and Foucault seek to recognize the capacity that our ways of talking about things have for changing the way we think about them. What characterizes the approach of the two thinkers, then, is a concern for creating a new kind of critical understanding that is predicated on the possibility of separating truths from the processes that constitute them.
The Changing Paradigms of Knowledge
In this regard, such a project becomes inevitably political in its purpose and effects. For two main reasons: First, it shows the political involvement and implications in any knowledge and truth construction—something a traditional view of scientific discourse has always attempted to deny by putting forth claims of objectivity and neutrality. Second, and this is a point, Changeux has emphasized repeatedly, such a project recognizes explicitly the need for a secularization of the process of understanding who we are and how we relate to our world: it requires, specifically, the abandonment of transcendental alibis such as the divine guarantee posited by the Cartesian enterprise. Although the paradigm put into place by Descartes has lost much of its credibility, the pattern it established for validating its claims is still very much in evidence, especially in certain kinds of political discourse, which routinely hark back to original, self-evident truths that simply are not to be questioned. For Changeux, then, what justi-
fies the replacing of a mythical mentality with a scientific one is the promise of change, the possibility of being different. Accordingly, instead of clinging to perceived or established truths, the scientific mentality should consist of a studied detachment. Scientific knowledge, Changeux explains, is paradoxically “born of a dual process of detachment, not only from sensory perception of the external world, but also from the imaginary world— no less profoundly anchored in the sense of the self—of myths and the social structures in which they are embedded” (234). Who we are and the truths that constitute the subject are thus seen as obstacles to achieving a better understanding of the relations that bind individuals to their environment and their group. One way of neutralizing the effects of the truths that determine our very being is to follow the suggestion made by the neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, namely to realize that “you are your synapses” or, to put it differently, “your ‘self,’ the essence of who you are, reflects patterns of interconnectivity between neurons in your brain” (Synaptic Self 2). Such an approach does not necessarily lead to a narrowing or simplifying of the ways in which we conceptualize human nature or existence, assures us LeDoux, if we keep in mind that
synapses are simply the brain’s way of receiving, storing, and retrieving our personalities, as determined by all the psychological, cultural, and other factors, including genetic ones. So as we begin to understand ourselves in neural, especially synaptic, terms, we don’t sacrifice the other ways of understanding existence.(From Soul to Brain 302-303)
In other words, and in this regard, there is no conflict or contradiction between the goals of science and those of the humanities. What is taking place is indeed what could be termed a rapprochement between the “two cultures,” a trend that is clearly not limited to France. A conference held a few years ago at the University of Buenos Aires was revealing in this regard, bringing together over 2000 scholars from around the world. The colloquium was the basis for an anthology of essays whose purpose, as the editor Dora Fried Schnitman explains in her introduction, was to survey the “paradigmatic changes in our manner of thinking and operating in culture, science, and in the disciplines that study subjectivity and human relationships” (11). According to Schnitman, there is a convergence taking place today between sciences and other areas of human cognition “thanks to the restoration of the subject to science and the restoration of science to subjects” (7). This merging of concerns brings with it, as a consequence, a new approach to understanding the ways in which knowledge connects with reality. Traditionally, the acquisition of knowledge took place in the context of a culture of expertise—that is, the growth and
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refinement of knowledge was to be achieved within the narrow confines of a specific field of inquiry, often in isolation from other, adjacent fields. A knowledge that is gained through the convergence of disciplines, on the other hand, is considered valuable to the extent that it can be shared, that its usefulness is transferable to fields other than the one to which it owes its validity. This new epistemological requirement is attributable, mainly to two related factors that have marked the evolution of thinking in both the natural and the human sciences. One is a generalized loss of certitude, also referred to sometimes as a loss of the future; the other is a growing appreciation of complexity, of unpredictability, both in human affairs as well as in nature. Paradoxically, these developments have been viewed as positive trends because, as Edgar Morin observes,
we are thus compelled to work with disorder and uncertainty, and in so doing we realize that this does not mean letting ourselves be overwhelmed by them; it means, rather, finally coming to terms with them by means of a more dynamic and complex form of thinking (“The Notion of Complexity” 329).
It is the kind of thinking that must inevitably take into account the individual subject’s insertion in the world, a knowledge of the subject being inseparable from knowledge of the world—just as consciousness of the self is inseparable from a consciousness of the self in the world. “Which is to say,” explains Morin, “that to refer to oneself, one must refer to the outside world.” We are thus made aware of an ontological link between humans and their environment, “between humanity and the biosphere,” a link that effectively alters the traditional anthropocentric humanistic mode of thought because it
also allows us not to adhere purely and simply to a classical humanism— which privileged humanity and made it supernatural—but, on the contrary, to a humanism that is rooted not only in the external biological world, but also in our own biological being (Chapter, “The Epistemology of Complexity” 49 and 62).
Another way of formulating this dual obligation is to consider knowledge, not for its own sake, but in terms of a larger purpose that would combine the epistemological with the practical. Thus Ernst von Glaserfeld speaks of the “purposiveness of knowledge” explaining that “the new pieces of knowledge we construct not only have to satisfy the particular problem for which they were constructed at the moment, but—ideally— should also fit into the other structures that we already have” (Schnitman
94 ). That is, knowledge still has to be held accountable to certain epistemological requirements, to standards of rational and practical considerations. In addition, as it evolves in terms of problems it seeks to resolve, knowledge has a responsibility—Evelyn Fox Keller speaks of knowledge as “intervention in the world”: “We develop knowledge systems—that is, we construct forms of knowledge—that are tested by their effects in the world and selected according to the extent to which those are effects that we as a culture want to embrace” (Schnitman 95). To meet these requirements, the humanities find themselves faced with the challenges posed by our world’s growing complexity and impending crises. They are no different from the sciences, in this regard. What they bring to the table, on the other hand, is what has always made them a vital component of higher education: it is the historical perspective, the analytical and theoretical tools needed for defining the problems, as well as the ethical and political commitment necessary for transcending disciplinary, ideological, and even national boundaries of self-interest. Instead of promoting ready-made truths, intellectuals today dissect and relativize them. Their purpose, paradoxically, is not to abolish truth but to get closer to it, to gain a better understanding of the very notion of truth as well as its manner of functioning in society. This sort of questioning is part of a process that has given rise to what Morin has termed “la pensée complexe.” It is a way of thinking made necessary by the knowledge explosion taking place in a number of disciplines as well as by the development of interdisciplinary connections—especially with such fields as sociology, economics, and neuroscience. Which is to say that the work of theory today is not merely disengaged contemplation but a praxis fully aware of its political implications. Not surprisingly, as numerous studies by cognitive psychologists have shown, it helps to be endowed with the cognitive style and motivational needs that are characteristic of a liberal mind-set in order to succeed in these circumstances.
Besançon, Alain. The Rise of the Gulag: Intellectual Origins of Leninism. New York: Continuum, 1981. Changeux, Jean-Pierre. The Physiology of Truth: Neuroscience and Human Knowledge. Trans. M. B. DeBevoise. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. Feyerabend, Paul. Farewell to Reason. London: Verso, 1987. Foucault, Michel. Dits et Écrits. 4 vols. Paris: Gallimard, 1994.
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Kimball, Roger. “The treason of the intellectuals and ‘the undoing of thought.” <www.newcriterion.com/archive/ 11/dec92/ treason. htm> accessed December 2008. Hanson, Victor Davis. “Topsy-Turvy: American universities are places of dizzying unreality—and this does considerable harm.” National Review. October 13 2003. LeDoux, Joseph. Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. New York: Viking, 2002. —. Jacek Debiec, and Henry Moss, eds. The Self: From Soul to Brain. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 1001. New York: The New York Academy of Sciences, 2003. Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. Morin, Edgar. “The Epistemology of Complexity.” In Schnitman, Dora Fried, ed. New Paradigms, Culture and Subjectivity. Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press, 2002: 325-40. —. “The Notion of the Subject.” In Schnitman, Dora Fried, ed. New Paradigms, Culture and Subjectivity. Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press, 2002: 83-103. Proctor, Robert E. Education’s Great Amnesia: Reconsidering the Humanities from Petrarch to Freud. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988. Schnitman, Dora Fried, ed. New Paradigms, Culture and Subjectivity. Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press, 2002. Singer, Wolf. “How does the brain know it is right?” In Changeux, JeanPierre, Antonio Damasio, Wolf Singer, and Yves Christen eds. Neurobiology of Human Values. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer, 2005: 12535. Toulmin, Stephen. Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
AFFILIATIONS, ACADEMIC VALUES, AND “CORPORATE INTELLECTUALS” JEFFREY R. DI LEO
The question addressed by the essays in this volume is the relationship of intellectuals to the academic, public, and private spheres. Given that intellectuals can play a central role in directing the social and political agenda of a nation, their relationship to the academic, public, and private spheres is one of the most important issues facing American society. Social and political events, such as the recent bank crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our responses to natural disasters, reveal America to be a society that seems to have lost its ability to question authority, to separate knowledge from opinion, and to discern what is valuable from what is worthless. Intellectuals play a crucial role in the circulation, production and identity of knowledge though have traditionally found themselves in a tug of war between academe and the public-private sector, with both sectors desiring their allegiance and affiliation. In this essay, I will point out some of the major challenges facing intellectuals today. I will argue that we should look back to the thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson for a way to balance the interests of the academy with the demands of public intellectualism. My contention will be that we should consider abandoning the dichotomy between academic and public intellectual, and consider in its stead a new category—something I will call the “corporate intellectual.” As a whole, my argument in this essay is in part a response to those like Stanley Fish who say that academics cannot become public intellectuals “except by some happy contingency” and in part a way to conceive of the public intellectual in terms consonant with the widely discussed and debated notion of the “corporate university” (118).
Academic or Public Intellectual?
Academe has frequently been believed to be an oasis from the marketdriven forces of the public-private sector. Within the academy, ideas are
Affiliations, Academic Values, and “Corporate Intellectuals”
said to be pursued without regard to their market value by individuals dedicated to the life of the mind. Students and teachers enjoy in academe an oasis from the pressure to conform their practices to the requirements of “cash value” or “public sentiment.” Academe is a site where knowledge is disseminated, discovered, and debated, and academic values are directly linked to these knowledge-driven practices. In contrast to academe, however, the public-private sector is associated with a different set of activities and values. Moreover, arguably, this set of activities and values is defined in opposition to those of academe. For example, if academe is dedicated to the life of the mind, then the publicprivate sector is not; if academe disseminates, discovers, and debates knowledge and ideas, then the public-private sector does not. If academe is not motivated by market values, then the public-private sector is. Positively, the public-private sector is a site where ends are pursued relative to their potential to either appease public and private sentiment or produce “cash value.” Whether or not the characteristics attributed to academe and to the public/private sector are accurate is not important because this is the way that they function within the value logic that has been ascribed to them. Consequently, intellectuals often find themselves torn between affiliating with either academe or the public/private sector: affiliating with both is out of the question because it is widely believed, particularly in the humanities that these two sectors stand in opposition to each other. Moreover, affiliation with the public-private sector is often akin to “selling out.” This affiliation is part of the reason that terms such as “public intellectual” and “academic” are often used in a mutually exclusive manner: either one is a public intellectual or one is an academic. One cannot be both. In this configuration, public intellectuals promote or sell ideas whereas academics pursue or discover ideas; public intellectuals speak to and for the masses, whereas academics speak to and for academics. Moreover, public intellectuals are often distinguished by considerations of quantity, whereas academics are differentiated by considerations of quality. For a public intellectual, the more attention that their ideas or they themselves receive, the more valued they are as public intellectuals. In other words, one cannot be a valuable public intellectual without a public, and the greater the public, the greater the value that is ascribed to the public intellectual. Academics, however, are valued differently. The key factor in judging the value of academics is quality: quality research in their discipline, quality teaching of their students, and quality service to their institution and community. While quantity can sometimes positively influence determinations of academic value, this is always tem-
Jeffrey R. Di Leo
pered by considerations of quality. Standards of academic quality are determined within the academic community, and may vary from discipline to discipline. In large part, quality in academia is a relative and subjective affair as much depends on the standards established by the community. This is particularly true within the humanities but arguably holds as well in the sciences. Quality, the relative and subjective factor at the center of determinations of academic value, is much different than the key factor used to determine the value of public intellectuals. Issues of quantity are largely objective and empirical. As we shall see, for some, one only needs a tally-sheet and a calculator to determine the value of a public intellectual, whereas one needs very discipline-specific information to determine the value of an academic. This is, in large part, part of the problem with public intellectuals today.
Public Intellectuals Today
Public intellectuals in America have good reason to be discouraged— as do those who look to them for political, social, and intellectual leadership. As far as such purely speculative matters can be determined, the range of their intellectual influence seems to be waning, increasingly relegated to smaller and smaller circles of influence, while at the same time their entertainment value is increasing, finding wider and wider audiences and outlets. Society at large doesn’t seem to afford its iconic or star public intellectuals respect anymore: a situation unimaginable back in the days of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walter Lippman, and John Dewey, the heyday of American public intellectualism. The recent passing of Susan Sontag and Edward Said, two of America’s most recognizable and respected public intellectuals, could very well be the last stage of an age when our public landscape was marked by larger than life individuals whose work captured what Emerson aptly called “the world’s eye” and “the world’s heart.” It is ironic that at a time in history where globalized knowledges are on the rise, public intellectualism seems to be increasingly marginalized to smaller and smaller domains. While we are living in a time when the meaning and function of public intellectuals is being radically reshaped, much of the discussion of public intellectualism seems to overlook the most significant aspects of this reconfiguration. In specific, the relationship of intellectuals to academe and the nature and scope of the discourse of public intellectuals are understudied topics in major studies of public intellectualism. For example, take Richard Posner’s widely debated and skewered book, Public Intellectuals (2002).
Affiliations, Academic Values, and “Corporate Intellectuals”
Posner thinks that American public intellectualism is in “decline,” and he presents a range of empirical evidence to support this conclusion. By a variety of methodologically questionable means, including statistics on media mentions, Internet traffic, and scholarly mentions, Posner presents a list of 546 major public intellectuals. He also offers a list of the top 100 public intellectuals most frequently mentioned in the media, with Henry Kissinger, Pat Moynihan, George Will, Larry Summers, William Bennett, Robert Reich, and Sidney Blumenthal at the top. Posner’s taxonomy of public intellectuals is as worthless in some respects as E.D. Hirsch’s list of “What Every Literate American Knows” in Cultural Literacy (1987) or Robert Maynard Hutchins’ selection of the Great Books of the Western World (1952). Nevertheless, it is as symptomatic of our times as People magazine’s annual personality taxonomies or David Letterman’s nightly Top Ten Lists—we crave lists regardless of their validity, and nothing seems to be able to satiate this desire. Posner’s study of public intellectuals is interesting and well intentioned, though the fact that his relentless quest for the biggest figures in the intellectual world literally is solely based on quantitative factors, and never on qualitative ones, is disappointing. It furthers the notion that public intellectualism is merely a matter of “getting noticed,” and never a matter of the type of contribution one is making, let alone its epistemological, social, and political value. Work like Posner’s continues to promote the unfortunate notion that public intellectuals should be judged based on the size of the market for their ideas, and not on the quality of their contributions to public discourse. In addition, Posner treats public intellectualism in America as though it were merely part of the entertainment industry— which it very well may be—and, as such, judged by standards more akin to the Nielson ratings than the tribunal of reason. Work on public intellectuals by cultural theorists like David Shumway, Jeffrey Williams, Sharon O’Dair, and Cary Nelson is vastly superior to work like Posner’s. Their work seldom gets bogged down in the quantitative and “Who’s Who” aspects of public intellectualism but rather focuses on the cultural and disciplinary logic of what they call “the star system.” Effectively, their work on the star system is a commentary on the transition of some individuals from (private) academics to public intellectuals: a transition noteworthy for its shift between differing criterions of value, among other things. One aspect of the star system is that a small coterie of academics makes the transformation from being merely the most recognizable face of the life of the mind (academic stars) to being quite literally part of the entertainment industry (super-stars). As super-stars, their entertainment qual-
Jeffrey R. Di Leo
ities and market value exceed those of mere academic stars. They operate in a value system more like that of movie stars than that of academic stars. If one can raise a stir, then one achieves a higher value in this system. Movie star Russell Crowe throws telephones, whereas academic super-star Stanley Fish throws outlandish theses. Fish’s columns for the Chronicle of Education and the New York Times, for example, are little more than academic entertainment. Most read them to see what outrageous comments or anecdotes Fish has come up with and treat the columns about as seriously as they would by a guest on the Tonight Show or a verbal combatant on Bill Maher’s old talk showdown, Politically Incorrect, or on his more recent Real Times with Bill Maher. This is unfortunate, for not only does it detract attention from the valuable work Fish has done say on Milton, it promotes publicly the view that the best that academia can offer the public is entertainment, spectacle, and showmanship. These are the kinds of persons and types of ideas that tend to take a very privileged place in the mass media oversoul of America. We value persons proficient at the one-liner and the outlandish statement, often presented to us with a wink and a nod. The circulation of ideas in the public sphere at this “super-star” level requires a certain willingness to take part in the greatest media show on earth, one that cycles toward a wider section of the public and increasingly generalized topics. In the process, academic stars as public intellectuals forego the normal circulation cycle of academic ideas, namely toward smaller and more specialized spheres of interest. As general curiosity in their work increases by those outside of their discipline, they also increasingly find themselves subject to the suspicion and ire of their colleagues. Public intellectualism in America is in crisis in part because a wedge has been driven between the interests of academe and the interests of the public-private sectors. Either one is a mere academic or one is a mere public figure. As an academic, one’s audience is at best the members of one’s profession, and at worst, the members of one sub-area of one’s profession. In either case, the audience is strictly delimited. As a public intellectual, while one finds their audience expanded beyond the limits of one’s profession, one also finds it increasingly difficult in America to carry on a high level of discourse. Given the unfortunate situation of intellectuals in America today, it might be instructive to look back to a time in America when the promise of a strong relationship between intellectuals and both academe and the public-private spheres existed, and then ask how this relationship might be re-established. In looking back, I would like to comment on Ralph Waldo Emerson, in whose work there is the promise of a compromise between
Affiliations, Academic Values, and “Corporate Intellectuals”
mere academics and mere public intellectuals; in looking forward I would like to suggest that we abandon the academic-public intellectual dichotomy, and establish a new category that might be called the “corporate intellectual”—a term more consonant with the values of the new academy as well as with the public-private sector.
Emerson on Academics and Public Intellectuals
In his 1837 address to the Phi Beta Kappa society, “The American Scholar,” Emerson envisioned the American public intellectual as a person who would do whatever possible to communicate ideas to the world, not just to fellow intellectuals. Emerson regarded the American intellectual to be a “whole person while thinking.” As a whole person, the American intellectual would speak and think from the position of the “One Man,” which “is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all. Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier” (44). In the act of thinking, the intellectual becomes this whole person. Emerson writes,
In this distribution of functions, the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state he is Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking (44).
Isn’t this still true today? Doesn’t public intellectualism suffer from the exact form of degeneracy noted by Emerson? Are there not too many public intellectuals who are parrots in the public arena, speaking merely from the parameters laid out for them by others? Is regurgitating established discourses and strictly defined conceptual frameworks public intellectualism or public propaganda? Emerson is right in asserting that such things both discredit the ideas of individuals and render suspect the quality of their thoughts. In all fairness though, perhaps “parroting” is more of a practical necessity today than it was in Emerson’s time. The need to affiliate one’s ideas with a group, school or individual is perhaps a function of the soundbite age, where metonymic or telegraphic communication abounds. We demand labels for and from our public intellectuals, and when we don’t have them, people become nervous. And the labels we put on and demand from our public intellectuals are perhaps more important than what they actually think. “He’s a Republican” or “She’s a feminist” go a long way in the public arena in terms of persuading people of the value of our “thinking”; phrases like she sides with “moral values” and he is “against big
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government” serve as short-hand for more complete explanations and serve to short-circuit public debate. This presents the conditions for an unending repetition and circulation of crystallized, unchanging doctrines within the public sphere. As a public intellectual, Emerson’s whole person thinking wears a number of different hats. “The office of the scholar,” writes Emerson, “is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances. He plies the slow, unhonored, and unpaid task of observation” (52). “He is one who raises himself from private considerations and breathes and lives on public and illustrious thoughts. He is the world’s eye. He is the world’s heart” (53). Emerson closes his address with a beautiful vision of public intellectuals as a group. He says,
“We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds. The study of letters shall be no longer a name for pity, for doubt, and for sensual indulgence” (59).
Emerson provides us with a very clear response to the relationship of intellectuals to the public-private and academic spheres. For him, intellectuals live among these spheres, but do not affiliate with either one exclusively. For him intellectuals are always already involved in the public and private spheres as well as in the academic spheres and others. The concept of an “intellectual” for him implies a relationship with public, private and academic interests. Emerson himself, as perhaps the premier public intellectual of his day, if not in American history in general, both promoted or sold his ideas as well as worked hard to pursue or discover ideas; he both spoke to and for the masses as well as to and for the scholar.
From Public Intellectuals to Corporate Intellectuals
Public intellectualism today seems remote from the ideals of the Emersonian intellectual. In contrast to Emerson’s notion of the intellectual, our own appears overly narrow. Intellectuals today are often portrayed as “trapped” between affiliating with academe and the public-private sector—a relationship that would be unfamiliar to Emerson’s all-embracing intellectual. The rise of the “corporate university” is alleged to pull intellectuals away from the realm of academic values and into the realm of corporate and market (or neo-liberal) values. The general conclusion of most commentary of this type is that the intellectual’s values and identity are compromised in some way—a conclusion that is reached by assuming that corporate and academic values are fundamentally incompatible.
Affiliations, Academic Values, and “Corporate Intellectuals”
But why do we need to continue to consider corporate and academic values as incompatible? Can there not be some common ground between them that allows not only for the continuing integrity of academic values in themselves but also of corporate values in themselves? Furthermore, what would happen if we consider the intellectual from the position of the compatibility of academic and corporate values? Would the resultant intellectual be admirable or despicable? Progressive or reactionary? While the answer to these and similar questions will need to be worked out at a later point, the opportunity to posit such an intellectual must be taken. If nothing else, it provides an opportunity to rethink our notion of the nature, value and role of intellectuals in American society—an opportunity that should be taken given the state of public intellectualism today. One might reasonably call the type of intellectual that is the result of the rise of the new corporate university a “corporate intellectual.” This designation would not only be appropriate, but also ultimately a fair one. While some might look upon the designation “corporate intellectual” with fear and disdain, I will offer that it is no less disdainful than the shopworn and outmoded designation “public intellectual.” As has been noted, not only is public intellectualism in America on the decline, but it also implies a disconnect with the interests of academe. Most American academics are not our public intellectuals, nor are most of America’s public intellectuals academics. In fact, we seem to be more comfortable with separation here than without it. More often than not, public intellectuals function in America today as part of the entertainment industry—as part of a space set apart from academe. Academe is no longer, nor will it ever be again, an oasis divorced from private and public interests. Therefore, intellectuals must view the recent demand to straddle academe and the public-private sector as the continuing condition of the academy and work to develop a sense of intellectual self-identity that does not view itself as “trapped” or “compromised.” As the nature of academic identity changes, so too must the identity of intellectuals. These changes in the configuration of the university call for academics to consider the markets for their ideas. In other words, instead of merely pursuing ideas in themselves or ideas as such, academics would weigh the market value of their ideas along with more purely knowledge-based considerations. This would simply be an extension of a practice already well established in academia. For example, most doctoral candidates balance the knowledge-based virtues of possible dissertation topics against the potential of these topics being appealing to prospective employers. Moreover, this situation is not limited to graduate students alone.
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Professors of all levels working on manuscripts with an eye toward publication are remiss if they do not consider the market for their manuscript in the early stages of its development. Academic presses are increasingly behaving more like trade presses in that they are refusing to publish otherwise academically sound manuscripts that do not have much potential for sales. On the down-side, this puts more pressure on academics to publish books with appeal beyond a small coterie of specialists; on the upside, this compels academics to think in terms of a wider-audience for their ideas and to pursue projects that engage a broader set interests and knowledges. Furthermore, while it would be easy to be disdainful of the type of intellectual that results from this process, one should avoid this and maintain an open mind as to the potential of this new breed of intellectual for producing progressive change in both their particular profession and society at large. Corporate intellectuals are persons who would always take into account at some level the market for their ideas, and who would never merely pursue ideas as such. Market considerations of one’s ideas of necessity bring them into the public sphere—and ultimately to a wider audience. Consequently, corporate intellectualism would in effect be a new type of public intellectualism. Moreover, given the current state of public intellectualism in America, this might not be a bad thing, particularly if it brings more of a market to the kinds of knowledge and questions pursued by academics. The necessary condition for proper academic values and identity should not be gauged by one’s disassociation of interest with the market. As “corporate intellectuals,” members of academe would configure their identity as allied to both the insular world of the academy and to the public sphere. Not only is this a potentially more positive, socially responsible identity for intellectuals, it is more in tune with the current and continuing material conditions of the academy. So, for example, in considering writing a book or offering a course, intellectuals would weigh market considerations with academic concerns, asking both whether the project will have a market and whether it will further academic discourse. Offering a course that will have students is very similar to publishing a book that will have readers—and both are advisable, particularly given the dismal economic state of higher education and the academic publishing industry. Furthermore, as many academics are considering ways to have more public influence, this reconfigured identity will be more consonant with their values. Academics in the humanities are increasingly turning attention to the public-private sphere in their work, particularly in the wideranging field of cultural studies. This reconfigured form of academic iden-
Affiliations, Academic Values, and “Corporate Intellectuals”
tity will arguably be more in tune with the shift toward cultural studies as it is more in sync with the material conditions of the academy. Rather than feeling we are trapped between academe and the publicprivate sector, as academics, we should take advantage of the opportunity to align our identity with the public-private sphere. One of our goals as intellectuals might be to find ways to bring the two spheres to work together more organically, exercising public accountability without compromising our intellectual freedoms. In the process, increasing numbers of academic intellectuals might come to be regarded as public intellectuals. While the phrase “corporate intellectual” might grate against those ideologically opposed in toto to the corporatization of the university, it will be much more difficult for them to reject prima facia the notion that academics should weigh market considerations along with purely knowledgebased ones. If nothing else, the phrase “corporate intellectual” will spark much needed conversation about the positive role for academics in the emerging corporate university, particularly with regard to their relation to the public sphere. This will be one of the more encouraging consequences of the corporatization of the university, a material condition that does not appear to be passing away very soon. In the end, these newly minted corporate intellectuals have the potential to not only alter the meaning and nature of the American intellectual, but also to capture, as Emerson says, the world’s heart and the world’s mind, something that they will do without causing serious harm to the values so cherished by academe today.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American Scholar.” In Brooks Atkinson, ed.The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Modern Library, 2000: 43-62. Fish, Stanley. Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. Posner, Richard. Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.
INTELLECTUALS AND THE AMATEUR: ADVICE TO THE OUTSIDER JOHN G. NICHOLS
The intellectual today ought to be an amateur …. [T]he intellectual’s spirit as an amateur can enter and transform the merely professional routine most of us go through into something much more lively and radical; instead of doing what one is supposed to do one can ask why one does it, who benefits from it, how can it reconnect with a personal project and original thoughts. —Edward Said Representations of the Intellectual
To counteract all such provinciality and selfishness, such loss of the love of honor in the love of gain, one may rightly plead for some breath of the spirit of the amateur, the amator, the ‘man who loves;’ the man who works for the sheer love of working, plays the great complicated absorbing game of life for the sake of the game, and not for his share of the gate money; the man who is ashamed to win if he cannot win fairly, —nay, who is chivalric enough to grant breathing-space to a rival, whether he win or lose! —From Bliss Perry’s The Amateur Spirit
In the conclusion to his now-famous Reith Lectures on the representation of intellectuals, Edward Said poses the question, “How does the intellectual address authority: as a professional supplicant or as its unrewarded, amateurish conscience?” (83). Meditating on the relationship of the intellectual to society, Said posits that intellectuals must inject their professional positions with an amateur spirit or “conscience” that interrogates rather than merely asserts the intellectual’s relationship to power and authority. In essence, Said issues a warning to intellectuals who continue to echo powerfully within academia, in part because it appears at the end of a century that had witnessed the rapid professionalization of universities and disciplines. Said’s admonition reiterates calls for an amateur perspective that were voiced at the beginning of the twentieth century by Atlantic Monthly editor and Harvard professor, Bliss Perry, at a
Intellectuals and the Amateur: Advice to the Outsider
moment when disciplinary and university professionalism were in their earliest forms. Wary of the emergence of an American professionalism of letters, Perry sought to recall an inherent American self-reliance, an amateur spirit that should meld with professionalism in order to create attitudes of efficiency and expertise without sacrificing unselfishness and concern for fellow laborers. Perry and Said both attest to the continual appeal of the figure of the amateur, especially amateur’s presumed imitable attitude compared with intellectuals working within cultures of professionalism, such as the university. The amateur offers a powerful counterpoint to the professional through a supposed reluctance to specialize, a suspicion of institutions, and an embrasure of the ideal of learning for learning’s sake. Moreover, the amateur offers an outsider’s perspective on the profession, consistent with what Bruce Robbins has called the “discourse of vocation” that professionals produce as part of a critical examination of their professional legitimacy. According to Robbins a
discourse which inserts some representative of the public to participate in a moment of professional inventory and self-evaluation is not restricted to over dramatic confrontations. It is also to be found concealed in the most ordinary critical prose … (88).
Intellectuals include images of the public in their professional speech, Robbins argues, because these references help legitimate professional activities, preventing the sense of hermetic isolation and solipsism that specialization can cause. More importantly, Robbins concludes, appeals to and configurations of outsiders
invite us to surrender the illusion of a professional identity that is hermetically sealed and to recognize instead the social reality of an identity that is looser, less autonomous, more diversely populated (89).
For professionals, the amateur helps imagine a professional structure which allows intellectuals to move in and out of both institutional and societal debates, granting the professional a controlled relationship to both. Robbins specifically invites his readers to rethink the boundaries between intellectuals and their publics by drawing attention to the ways outsiders are acknowledged by experts. Said and Perry, however, point to a potentially more disturbing, and hence more powerful, public figure that can be used to expose the mechanism of professional authority. The amateur is not simply an outsider or member of the public at large, on whom Robbins focused; rather the amateur is the unique outsider who is
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invited inside to practice and inhabit the customs and skills of professional elite. Appeals to amateurs are not attempts to attract potential clients for intellectual’s services. They are instead intended as acts of enlistment. In reaching beyond the professional sphere, Said and Perry call for amateurs, even in spirit, to imagine an audience that, as Said suggests, “is there to be challenged, and hence stirred into outright opposition or mobilized into greater democratic participation in the society” (83). Through the amateur, Said posits the possibilities of forging coalitions across institutional structures, including the university. An historical review of such efforts, this essay seeks to uncover early disciplinary attempts to invoke the amateur, revealing the complex cultural negotiations necessary to enact the kind of professional critique Said, Perry, and Robbins imagine.
Advice Books and Amateurs
At the beginning of the twentieth century, as the professionalization of the modern university began to take shape, a range of intellectuals sought to fashion and mobilize an amateur class of cultural workers. Beyond calling for an amateur spirit or conscience, they advocated and took part in the training of individuals who would stand alongside and replace, even challenge, those in positions of professional power. The medium for this enlistment of amateurs was advice manuals, or “how to” books. With books bearing such titles as How to Read a Page, How to Produce Community Theater, and How to Appreciate Motion Pictures, authors such as Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and I. A. Richards invited their readers to become diligent, active interpreters of theater, literature, and film. Moreover, the readers of these advice books were asked to envision themselves as antagonistic to the monopolization of cultural power, wary of national self-interest, and critical of social prejudice. Through their critical scrutiny of films, literature, and theater, as well as their local participation in alternative theater and film events, these amateurs were encouraged to cross boundaries of professionalism and hence enliven cultural debates, localize artistic endeavors, and form broad-based cultural coalitions. These efforts to create an amateur class had varying results, from an enlivened community theater movement to new methods of instruction within universities. Collectively, however, advice to amateurs represents early twentieth-century intellectuals’ nascent attempts to understand the affinities, exchanges, and contestations between the academy and society. For authors of guidebooks on reading and viewing, the genre of the advice text helped them mediate the particular dimensions of early
Intellectuals and the Amateur: Advice to the Outsider
twentieth-century society, a moment of what could be called the “corporatization of culture” that redefined the relationships between owners and workers, producers and consumers, or in cultural terms, artists and audiences. Martin J. Sklar demarcates this moment between 1898 and World War I as one when American industrial capitalism passed from “its early proprietary-competitive stage to an early phase of its corporateadministered stage” (4). The transformation, guided by the presidencies of Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson, involved, in part, the reorganization of business in the United States. The “proprietary-competitive stage” consisted of industry controlled by an owner-manager or managers who had relatively close contact with workers and the market (4). Yet, this close contact did not enable control over the market, as this stage of capitalism placed business at the whims of supply and demand. During the 1898 to 1916 period, however, the corporate reorganization of capitalism shifted to more of a “dispersed ownership” and the consequent development of bureaucracy, worker specialization, and financial centralization. The move, in particular, emphasized industrial control of the market, including the industry’s ability to set the price for goods and services, rather than let the market determine them (Sklar 4-5). Sklar’s assessment of the centralization of business extends to the business of culture at the beginning of the twentieth century. Touring theater companies gradually restricted their travels to major cities, leaving small urban areas without access to either classic or contemporary plays. The growing dominance of film not only limited local theatrical performances, but Hollywood would begin in the 1920s and 1930s to centralize filmmaking in California, away from other cultural centers such as New York or even Pittsburgh. The disciplinary formation of English departments in the 1930s around the practices of the so-called new criticism helped focus literary studies inside the university in contrast to the belletristic study of literature in middle-brow periodicals. Advice texts attempted to articulate for their readers ways to respond to this growing cultural monopoly that left both audiences and performers with shrinking artistic venues. Guidebooks advised their readers to create alternative, local opportunities for performers and writers to exhibit their works and to form an energetic audience willing to subscribe to local cultural events. In advice books, the amateur in advice texts was imagined as working as both actor and audience member, writer and reader, filmmaker and moviegoer, crossing the boundaries between artistic production and reception that the centralized cultural centers such as Hollywood and Broadway enforced in order to maintain a hierarchized vision of cultural participation.
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Amateurs on the Stage, in the Audience, and in the Classroom
Advice books on community theater were the most strident in promoting amateur dramatic participation in response to declining professional touring companies. Manuals for pageantry productions—outdoor spectacles of a region’s local history—were particularly antagonistic to professional actors in favor of local talent. In the Handbook of American Pageantry (1907), Robert Davol trumpeted the quality of amateur performers:
The players may not be Bernhardts or Edwin Booths; Pocahontas may enter shod in high-heeled shoes; a glimpse of blue jeans may appear beneath King Philip’s blanket; grapes may be gathered from willow trees; slight historical anachronisms may occur; but the community pageant, as a whole, was never a complete regret, and never failed to inspire finer fellowship. (23)
In Davol’s view, amateur productions not only permitted but also encouraged solidarity among local citizens who participated in the pageant, a shared communal feeling that would otherwise be threatened if actors pretended to disguise themselves in order to a play a historical figure like Pocahontas or King Philip. Advice manuals on little theater— indoor dramatic productions that favored more intimate and aesthetically challenging plays—emphasized professional standards of performance that pageantry guidebooks downplayed. These texts mentioned above called for more sophisticated audience members and attempted to train them. While pageantry advice books privileged amateurism in order to develop local talent, little theater guidebooks viewed small community theater as a staging area from which to mount attacks against professional theater. Alexander Dean, professor of Dramatic Art and Literature at Northwestern University’s School of Speech and director of the North Shore Theater Guild, described the challenges for the little theater movement after World War I in Little Theatre Organization and Management (1926), where he asserted the need to reconnect local talent with a tradition of theatrical experimentation that had been co-opted and subsequently deadened by professional actors. Consequently, Dean imagined that “the future of the amateur theater lies not as an avocation, but, as soon as it has educated and developed a public that will support it, as a vocation: then it will become professional” (Dean 37). In amateur productions, Dean argued, it was not amateur actors who would challenge professional theater; rather, it was a newly educated public whose attendance at local artistic theaters would transform theatrical fare.
Intellectuals and the Amateur: Advice to the Outsider
Community theater advice texts delineated two counterstrategies to professionalism that later advice texts would struggle with. In effect, advice texts balanced the necessity of mobilizing local support with the need to mount larger campaigns against centralized sites of cultural production. Edgar Dale, an Ohio State University professor of education, drew attention to this very division in his advice book, How to Appreciate Motion Pictures (1933), a handbook for high school classes devoted to studying Hollywood motion pictures. In the textbook, Dale delineated various levels of critical inquiry by adolescent moviegoers who, Dale reasoned, could decentralize Hollywood’s control over film production over time. Dale’s primary strategy involved training viewers to move beyond emotional responses to films, such as the identification with star performers or imaginative leaps into the fictive world of the film. Instead, Dale urged an initial attention to cinematic form, such as cinematography, editing, and sound design. Dale coupled this formalistic critical approach with a focus on social critique, for he maintained that viewers must attend to representations of race, gender, and in particular, wealth in films as a way to understand the complexities of United States society during the Depression. High school classes devoted to studying film, Dale posited, would create film-savvy adolescents who would, in turn, “vote at the boxoffice” by attending better motion pictures and thus send a message to Hollywood to make more responsible films, rather than gangster films or films that celebrated luxurious lifestyles (or the types of films most popular during the early 1930s). As Hollywood tightened its grip on what local theaters could and could not show, thereby limiting the degree to which students could affect local theater managers’ decisions as to what to exhibit, Dale shifted his strategy to encourage amateur filmmaking by students in an attempt to “gear the work of the school into the fact of social change” (“Seeking” 2). Dale’s plans to change Hollywood production shifted across the 1930s from immediate action (lobbying theater owners) to long-term initiatives, such as training adolescents as filmmakers who could potentially join Hollywood and make the kinds of socially oriented and activist films Dale encouraged. As an educator, Dale was one of several advice text writers to imagine classrooms as sites of social activism. However, while Dale characterized the classroom as a staging area for cultural critiques, some advice text authors chose to critique the classroom via the advice text. Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading (1934) was intended as a textbook in university classrooms to encourage students to study stylistic innovations in literature. Imitating a middlebrow culture’s preference for reading lists of canonical literature, Pound’s advice text offers a range of lists, from books
John G. Nichols
that teach people how to read novels to those that represent the latest innovations in literary language. Pound’s playful suggestions to readers (he tells students to disdain footnotes in order to concentrate on the words in a poem and then prints a medieval Provencal poem without bothering to translate it into English) point to the ways intellectuals used advice texts to critique a professional literary authority centered on static or mediatory notions of cultural knowledge, such as readings lists or explanatory footnotes provided by literary editors. Instead, Pound advocated more immediate and direct contact with literary culture, such as reading poems in relation to one another. Gertrude Stein’s How to Write (1931) maintains a similar line of attack; written in her characteristic style, Stein’s advice manual offers little explicit advice on writing and instead suggests that to learn how to write, one must first become an expert reader in Stein’s linguistic funhouse. “Successions of words are so agreeable. / It is about this. / Arthur angelic angelica did spend the time” (135) While Stein provides an initial sentence of advice, “Successions of words are so agreeable,” she quickly constructs a series of words whose “succession” seems guided at times by assonance, alliteration, repetition, and mere whim. Such modernist advice texts parody a culture of advice, and by extension a culture of professionalism that relies upon experts. Pound and Stein attempted to dislodge an academic literary expertise and replace it with their own writerly advice to readers. While some modernist authors used the advice genre to insert their aesthetic theories into the university, university educators such as Mortimer Adler and I.A. Richards employed the advice text genre to speak out from their posts to concerns about educating an American population during World War II. Adler, in How to Read a Book (1940), popularized the study of Great Books, culled from his own teaching at the University of Chicago. In an institutional critique, Adler created a difference between “dead teachers” and “live teachers,” designating instructors like himself as mere facilitators of knowledge (and hence “dead” and not contributing to the advancement of knowledge); “live teachers” were the classic nonfiction works of Plato to Freud which, Adler claimed, were the best kind of “how-to” book. I.A. Richards, written in response to Adler, claimed the necessity of one-hundred great words in How to Read a Page (1942). While Adler attempted to free a liberal education from universities, Richards aimed to liberate questions about reading that Adler attempted to resolve through the imposition of a great books canon. The one-hundred great “words” Richards examined, such as “virtue,” “being,” and “reason,” were the words that Richards viewed as carrying the most connotative meanings, and therefore caused the most misunderstanding in
Intellectuals and the Amateur: Advice to the Outsider
communication, from conversations in daily living to international diplomacy. Understanding the flexibility of linguistic meaning, Richards argued, would promote a global community less tied to national interests and prejudice and more attuned to fellowship and general humanity, or, in effect, to an amateur spirit for a global set.
Invoking Amateurs: Limits and Consequences
Advice text authors invoked the amateur to break open what they viewed as cultural monopolies that limited wider public participation in the arts and that, in turn, challenged their own artistic relationship with these publics. Pound and Stein composed their advice texts in the 1930s when their reputations had begun to wane and before some of their majors works brought them wider recognition, such as Pound’s Cantos and Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Despite being a favorite of University of Chicago President Robert Hutchins, Mortimer Adler was often at odds with his fellow professors, so much so that his department chair resigned in protest after Adler joined the philosophy department. Dale attempted to reclaim educators’ opportunities to act as cultural critics of film even as Hollywood usurped local critique of films by creating its own body of inhouse censors who administered the Production Code. Advice texts offered such intellectuals the opportunity to imagine better relations with publics that their dubious status within professionalized cultural spheres rendered difficult. Advice to readers on theatrical, literary, and cinematic participation served as a route to renew affiliations with potential new audiences. Forced to construct new kinds of expertise and relationships with outsiders, these advice texts authors justified their counsel on reading and viewing with grandiose visions of societal change. Community theater guidebooks formulated the growth of a national American theatrical tradition developed solely through small community theatrical endeavors. Edgar Dale argued that adolescents, not the Catholic Legion of Decency or the federal government (who routinely threatened Hollywood with censorship in the early 1930s) would have a better chance of affecting the types of films Hollywood produced. Pound argued for a polyglot education as the general standard for a university education. Adler and Richards argued for nothing less than the survival of a Western liberal tradition and global peace in the wake of Nazism through the reading techniques their advice texts espoused. Such plans which were to be enacted solely by amateurs overlooked the complexities of a society adapting to a corporate capitalism that
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promoted a division of labor and cultural participation dependent upon bureaucracy and specialization. Yet, the actual consequences of these advice texts point to the complexities of professional boundary-crossing and to the more realizable affiliations with amateur publics. Pageantry and little theater did not displace professional theater. Pageantry, in particular, by the Depression, had become limited to displays of civic pride on national holidays in the form of parades, rather than the grand spectacle of a town’s history across a hundred years. But the concept of training performers outside of professional theater repertory companies (the standard form of actor training throughout the nineteenth century) became the driving concept in the first drama department in the United States at Carnegie Mellon University, then Carnegie Institute, in 1912. Designed by pageant director Thomas Wood Stevens, the drama program adapted little theater ideals to the university, positioning that the little theater ideal of a critical audience could best be achieved with students within the school whose association with the department, as both performers or audience members, would help create a new generation of theater patrons. While the guidelines of community theater advice texts found their ways into early university drama classrooms, books such as Pound’s advice text did not become a widely adopted pedagogical aid for students in literature classes. However, Pound’s pedagogical style, particularly his use of excerpts and sample of poetry that students would use to test their reading of stylistic traditions, would be replicated to greater effect with Brooks and Warren’s seminal Understanding Poetry two years later. Ironically, however, Pound’s categories of great literature were used by his primary biographer and critical apologist, Hugh Kenner, to canonize Pound and to historicize the modernist poetic movement according to Pound’s aesthetic principles which were laid out in ABC of Reading. Adler and Richards’s grand plans for great books and great words also became downsized into more realizable cultural projects. Adler became a popular speaker at women’s clubs on what to read, and he eventually left University of Chicago to help in the design of the Aspen Institute, a vacation resort in which corporate executives would attend educational seminars on great books. Richards’ Basic English program did not become the global language he had hoped; instead he employed Basic English in the teaching of first and second generation immigrants in New York, Chinese Nationalist submariners trained in the United States for military operations, and in mobile English labs that taught English to urban schoolchildren using animated films Richards helped create. Many of these advice text authors despaired at the somewhat meager ends of their theories of reading and viewing. Richards, looking back over
Intellectuals and the Amateur: Advice to the Outsider
his career in 1976, exaggerated both the acceptance of Basic English (“It sold like mad.”) and its decline (“Nobody’s been reading Basic English” since it was trumpeted by Winston Churchill in 1943, even though Richards had just begun to utilize the language system widely at that time) (Epstein 17). Dale abandoned his efforts to affect motion picture production via film appreciation by the onset of World War II, shifting his attention to other forms of mass media, such as newspapers, with their capacity to represent societal debates. Community theater proponents noted the necessity of the university in harboring an experimental theater. But by the 1930s, the inter-relationships of university theaters with the theater outside the university was increasingly difficult to theorize. In A Study of Drama (1934), Shakespearean avant-garde theater director Harley Granville Barker maintained that while drama classrooms should encourage their students to perform part of plays in class, “We should always be left well aware,” he warned, “that this study of the play, however lively and thorough, is in its nature an incomplete thing. Completion comes with performance. And that is a theater’s business” (Study 29). For Barker, and for other advice text authors, the immense responsibility they placed on training amateurs failed to produce the radical social changes for which they had hoped. Yet, despite advice text authors’ personal reactions to the limited realization of their advice, their efforts to mobilize the public in democratic ventures, as Said describes the role of intellectuals, resulted in focused projects rather than the grandiose effects the advice text authors imagined. These ventures do not, perhaps, fit utopian professional narratives in which institutional boundaries are quickly erased or overcome. As Robbins maintains, professional critiques do not occur outside institutions because “the state and the profession exist in an organic and dynamic relationship to political constituency” (220). A culture of advice, and the intellectual who dispenses advice, depends, at some level, on a notion of expertise supported by the tenets of professionalism. While these advice text authors wished to critique the potential narrowness of their disciplines and professions, they could not imagine doing so if it meant that they destroyed the very structures that gave them the license to make their critiques in the first place. The invocation of the idealized amateur became a strategy to pry open the limits of that expertise, not make that expertise limitless, and hence, make all amateurs experts (or all experts amateurs). By invoking the ideal, if not the actualized amateurs, these advice texts point to a more difficult task than simply envisioning a level cultural playing field; rather they attempt to forge the pathways by which outsiders could become insiders and
John G. Nichols
insiders outsiders. For the public, the figure of the amateur was the route inside institutions such as the university; but for the intellectual, acting as a guide, the mentor, the advisor to the amateur that became the route across professional boundaries. Their advice, or rather their cultural pedagogy, then, helped create the acts of engagement with a general populace to practice, model, and potentially adapt the theories of reading and viewing that intellectuals such as Richards, Adler, and Pound promoted. Consequently, the efforts of advice text authors to mobilize a public suggests that such a democratizing project means recognizing the numerous publics that intellectuals should engage, both outside the university, such as marginalized political groups, or those within the margins of the university, such as students. If for many advice texts authors, the amateur increasingly became synonymous with the student in the classroom, then one legacy of these guidebooks for intellectuals is that the classroom can become a site not only where the intellectual imagines the amateur, but where the two come face to face.
Adler, Mortimer. How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1940. Barker, Harley-Granville. The Study of Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1934. Dale, Edgar. How to Appreciate Motion Pictures. New York: Macmillan, 1933. —. “Seeking New Educational Objectives through the Use of Films.” Education. April (1938): 2. Davol, Robert. Handbook of American Pageantry. Massachusetts: Davol, 1907. Dean, Alexander. Little Theatre Organization and Management for Community, University and School. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1926. Epstein, Bob. “I.A. Richards Speaks at University.” University of Minnesota Daily. 8 Nov. 1976: 17. Perry, Bliss. The Amateur Spirit. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1904. Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading. New York: New Directions, 1934. Richards, I. A. How to Read a Page: A Course in Efficient Reading with an Introduction to a Hundred Great Words. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1942.
Intellectuals and the Amateur: Advice to the Outsider
Robbins, Bruce. Secular Vocations: Intellectuals, Professionalism, Culture. London: Verso, 1993. Said, Edward. Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures. New York: Vintage, 1996. Sklar, Martin J. The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916: The Market, the Law, and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Stein, Gertrude. How to Write. Paris: Plain Edition, 1931.
PART III. MODELS OF ENGAGEMENT
THE ARTIST AND THE INTELLECTUAL: RABINDRANATH TAGORE AND TRANSNATIONALITY RANJAN GHOSH
Education and Transnationality
As an artist of creative humanism, Tagore believed that the final nature of the world does not depend upon the comprehension of an individual person; rather, comprehension is associated with the “universal human mind” which has the power to comprehend greater possibilities of realization. As the artist-intellectual, he went for pushing the limits of knowledge, power, love, enjoyment, and hence, eventually, remained on course to approach the universal. The spirit of the artist is not an abstraction from the world; it draws upon the “worldliness.” It feeds on a dynamic aesthetic of wholeness, working out a vision which refutes “absolute divisions between body and mind, matter and life, individual and society, community and nation, and empire and the world” (Radhakrishnan 408). This artistic aspiration for the “universal,” the continual intellectual striving to partner the local with the global, the reasoned articulation emerging from a profound understanding of Indian culture which he always wanted to see as removed from selfcontainment and insularity, made Tagore conceive “Visva Bharati” (the name of the university he established in 1921). It fledged and flourished as an institution where the West and the East took close measure of each other in a cultural and intellectual dialogue of varied scope and potential— “Yatra Visvam Bhavatyekanidam”—“where the whole world finds one nest.” Ascribing to a belief that he who confined himself to his own self lies lost, and he who realized himself in all attains self-expression, Tagore proposed to survive at the centre of things. Civilization for him meant a life among many; barbarism is “isolation.” The derivative meaning of the Sanskrit sabhyata, is “civilization”; sabhyata is derived from the word company which again derivatively means “where there is light.” Visva Bharati symbolized sabhyata for him. Peter Cox writes:
The Artist and the Intellectual At one end of the scale is the home or the nest, to use his phraseology—the single community or village or the small institution where essential relationships can be created, where the issues and the needs are particular and specific, where action can be initiated and taken. At the other end of the scale there is the world at large—the sky where he could take his flight— with its many diverse elements and different peoples with their own religions, cultures and languages, all to be taken into account, none to be imposed on others, none to be exploited at the expense of others.” (Cox 180)
Visva Bharati’s defining element was its commitment to the constructive work of knowledge. Tagore proposed that people should be brought together and full scope given to them for their work of intellectual exploration and creation. Teaching, he asserted, should be like the overflowing water of this explorative spring of culture, spontaneous and inevitable. Education can only become natural and wholesome when it is the direct fruit of a living and growing knowledge (Tagore, The Centre… 2). He alone, of all educators, could grasp the profound historic significance of the “awakening of the East” and the coming together of the East and the West in the physical sense. And he alone was powerfully actuated by the mission to convert that physical closeness into a truly spiritual union. However, the union that Tagore advocated was by no means a complete loss of one’s identity and individuality, for he believed that only those who have real individuality can truly unite, and true union is based upon genuine individuality. So the nations of the world must stir to attain true individuality, to achieve what Tagore termed as “true unification of mankind.” The responsibility to effect this union can come with modern education. Tagore declared:
The education of the present epoch, should be in harmony with the ideals and endeavours of the epoch. The most important education today is the education of mankind to give up national pride. For the history of tomorrow shall begin with the chapter of international co-operation. That is why the educational institutions of our country should become the meeting place of the East and the West—this is my heart’s desire (Mukherjee 144).
The revolutionary educationist that he was, Santiniketan (the place where the university was established) emerged out of this rebelliously different spirit. Santiniketan fleshed out into a unique experiment in naturalistic education departing from the earlier attempts on such lines by Fanny Fern Andrews and Paul Geheeb during his time. This experiment was also centered on his continued and creative investments in the arts, especially music. The experiment was a move away from the philosophy of art education which hitherto was confined to symbolism and formalism. In fact, it
was only as late as the twentieth century, primarily through the progressive education movement led by John Dewey, that art education was gradually emancipated from this conceptual confinement. Under changing coordinates of idea and function, it became a form of free creative activity (Mukherjee 444). Tagore turned his institution into a rare domain of eclectic and cross-fertilizing creativity received through experiments in interlocking traditions and dialogues among ideas across continents. Deeply ingrained in the philosophy of “aesthetic education,” Tagore marked his difference out from Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel, combining his heavily accented artistic self with wide cultural and philosophical consciousness and nuanced perception of nature in relation to humanity. Widely different from other intellectuals of his day—a distinctness in thinking and functioning that often provoked others to persistently criticize him—Tagore explored the possibilities of defining a premise, in this case his ashram, as a geo-cultural place, embedded in “differences.” Visualizing an ideal commonwealth, he went on to reveal different peoples to one another, exploring the meeting ground where there could be—albeit ideally—no question of intractable conflicting interests. He wrote, ‘some of us belong to the Brahma Samaj sect and some to other sects of Hinduism; and some of us are Christians. Because we do not deal with creeds and dogmas of sectarianism, therefore this heterogeneity of our religious beliefs does not present us with any difficulty whatever” (Tagore, Personality 136). Visva Bharati was one such territory, a university, where people could work together in a common pursuit of truth, share their common “human” heritage, and realize that artists in all parts of the world have created forms of beauty, scientists have discovered secrets of the universe, philosophers the problems of existence, saints made the truth of the spiritual organic in their own lives, not merely for some particular race to which they belonged but for all mankind. So Tagore could not have allowed Visva Bharati to simply grow into a Hindu university. He wrote:
Religious sects are formed in every country and every age owing to adversity of historical causes. There will always be many, who, by tradition and temperament, find special solace in belonging to a particular sect; and also there will be others who think that the finding of such solace can only be allowed as legitimate within the pale of their own, . . . making ample provision for such inevitable and interminable squabbles, can there be no wide meeting place, where all sects may gather together and forget their differences? (Tagore, The Centre… 43)
By substituting wisdom for knowledge, practical experience for theoretical abstraction, fostering a harmonious interplay of mind and body, Tagore
The Artist and the Intellectual
dreamt something into existence that—however, imperfect, to an extent, in reality—aspired toward a unity from which neither the concerns of everyday life nor human attempts at creative endeavor were excluded. The English mind arrested Tagore’s attention for its intellectual courage. The British thought that education had its permanent vessel in their own mind: its permanent supply came from their own living spring of culture. This organic triadic unity of the mind, life and culture enabled them to seek knowledge from all lands and all times, conflating them into a position of discernment and appraisal. This spirit of embracement in learning, this espousing attitude toward knowledge was a close fit with Tagorean ideas about transnationality, which did not propose to cobble things or ideas together but clearly accented the discovering of one’s tradition inflected with creativity and self-awareness. Each tradition, each culture, has its own identity and peculiar standard for judging identities. European culture, Tagore wrote, has its “truth and strength” in its “fluid mobility” for nothing comes as fixed (Tagore, The Centre… 12). Uncritical drawing upon other cultures and mere aping do not speak for cultural progress; progressive dialogue thrives in reinventing oneself, in investments in newer things, in lessons learnt through the interaction among cultures. Tagore observed that
“culture, which is the life of the mind, can only be imparted through man to man. Book learning, or scriptural texts, may merely make us pedants. They are static and quantitative; they accumulate and are hoarded up under strict guards. Culture grows and moves and multiplies itself in life” (Tagore, The Centre… 13).
He believed that adjustment of knowledge through comparative study, the progress effected through cross-intellectual solidarity, is the “keynote of the coming age.” Tagore’s intuitive comprehension of world problems inspired in him a remarkable idea that national interests the world over were interrelated. Human problems are indivisible and interdependence is man’s nature. He believed that the nature of our problem was “world-wide,” and salvation will never be forthcoming in any recourse to detachment. But he urged on the need to ensure “nurture” in comparative seclusion—a fact necessary for the growth and consequent consolidation of the universal element in each civilization. This seclusion in the event of a “cultural dialogue” could be a kind of strategic initial retreat. Tagore’s Visva Bharati was, in its initial years, on a retreat, nurturing its position by basing its structure on a synthesis of all different cultures that it promoted and had nested with, working continually and productively “within its protecting sheath of indi-
viduality.” Tagore, by being an intellectual legislator and interpreter, ensured that Visva Bharati took time to enter into a dialogue with the West, grow its own views of truth, form its vantage ground of argument and became confident of exuding a “sense of mental freedom.” Consequential and meaningful collaboration and communication cannot begin from a platform between non-equals, not when one is heavily loaded against the other, a phenomenon which Tagore observed in Asia’s exaggerated intellectual dependence on the West. He wanted a world to grow on the accumulation of knowledge drawn from different cultures and civilizations. A prophet of “free inquiry,” he called for sympathy, a connection, a mutuality, which would succeed to contribute to such consortium of cultures and constitutions of knowledge. Knowledge makes us powerful, but sympathy helps us to attain fullness. The knowledge inherited by birth is not the gift of any one nation. Tagore’s transnationalism was a natural and logical manifestation of his humanistic philosophy, his philosophy of ‘secular humanism,” generated from his distinct and nuanced understanding of the Upanishad. Shocked by the horrors of the world wars, he realized that calamities in history have always sprung from “misunderstanding,” the “nonavailability” for the other. Tagore noted that “we are really separated from him whom we do not know” (qtd. in Fried). The “ghosts” in international relations emerged from misunderstanding and, hence, miscommunication and a certain espousal of ignorance seriously opposed to man’s freedom of moral communion in the human world.
So the rabid drumbeats of ultra nationalism could only have troubled him. He advocated one history, which was the history of humanity, and considered all national histories as merely chapters in the larger one. Stephen Hay explains that the chauvinism motivating the sudden heroworship of nationalists
seems to have contrasted painfully in his mind with the spirit of internationalism he had so recently found among his Western admirers. The irony of his position lay in the fact that he was upholding an ideal—that of cultural synthesis between Eastern spirituality and Western practicality— which has been vigorously championed by nineteenth century Bengali intellectuals; moreover, just at that moment when Western intellectuals seemed most receptive to this message, Indians were betraying it by becoming increasingly nationalistic, anti-western and unspiritual (Hay 50).
The Artist and the Intellectual
Avoiding being a poseur in nationalism, he strongly objected to the nationalist advocation to eliminate English culture and restitute an “authentic past” typical of Hindu civilization. “Alien government in India,” he admitted, “is a veritable chameleon. Today it comes in the guise of the Englishman; tomorrow perhaps as some other foreigner; the next day, without abating a lot of its virulence, it may take the shape of our own countrymen” (Tagore, Towards Universal Man 255). Decimating dissent, indicative of self-delusion rather than self-appraisal, nationalists attempted to make “everyone talk in the same voice and make the same gestures.” They insisted that “all questioning must stop; there should be nothing but blind obedience” (Tagore, Towards Universal Man 263 italics mine). Tagore disapproved splinter nationality, the troubled notion of human freedom cankered by nation-worship and geo-political inhibitions. “Patriotism,” Tagore averred, “cannot be the final refuge for my soul.” He clearly admitted:
I have embraced humanity—I will not buy glass at the price of diamonds— I will not permit patriotism to take precedence over humanity in my life—I took two steps down this path and saw that I could go no further—if I cannot see religion and all mankind as superior to my country, if God is obscured by attachment to the country, then I am deprived of the food of my soul.” (Hay 45)
India for him was an “idea” and not a “geographical expression (Tagore, Letters… 381). He, thus, called for a moral adjustment which believed in the shared interconnectedness of our existence, in contestation of established boundaries, in interdependencies that acknowledged responsibility and respectability. With a pronounced disapproval of a monolithic national culture which expires in a nexus of racialization, he tried to rationalize various means of cultural communication by proposing, for instance, to keep alive “village fairs” which served as a conduit for cultural exchange. It brought the world closer to the villages and to their people through conscious reflection and sustained interaction. Tagore was, arguably, in support of a “revolution by consent.” As a reformist-intellectual, he knew the difficulty of retrenching a deeply founded establishment for a new social order. The cosmopolitan and internationalist structure that he desired as a replacement could only follow after the present possibilities of reform and compromise had been thoroughly exhausted. Bandana Purkayastha rightly notes that “social unity is not political unity but it is clearly not a top-down process of homogenization” (57). Tagore’s cosmopolitan ideas were remarkable in that they involved the simultaneous penetration of local worlds by non-local forces, and the dis-
lodging of meanings both cultural and social, from their “anchors” in the local environment. Tagore helps us to realize that interdependence is not adventitious but a necessary condition within which the fundamental goodness of our humanity is realized. She observes further that “instead of thinking of “pure” or inherent cultures as typical of groups, Tagore thought of groups as constantly reconstituted, enriched by cultural exchanges with other groups. Conscious acknowledgment of both the difference and interdependencies implied that group boundaries are neither clearly defined nor discernible. Tagore felt that bureaucratization restricted the development of interchanges and the awareness of the dynamism and change inherent in each group (57). Without believing in the “colourless vagueness of cosmopolitanism,” Tagore tried to intellectualize a balance in all areas of thought and life. He alerted Indians about the English habit of hemisphering the world into “good” and “bad,” the lazy entrapment into the notion of national unity which bespeaks of cultural homogenization and subservience to the “notion that the culmination of national unity is reached by pounding all differences into an undifferentiated mass” (Tagore, Toward… 144). With his anxious intellect he feared that such “pounding of differences” would result in the garroting of artistic and intellectual creativity. This will produce a nation of unintelligent people— non-inventive, allergic to change and flaccidly submissive before authorities. Tagore argued that “the world-wide problem today is not how to unite by wiping out all differences, but how to unite with all differences intact” (Toward… 146). This acknowledgment of differences goes back deep into India’s past when difference was scarcely treated as conflict, dissent as intransigent opposition and all strangers viewed as enemies. This spoke of a different socio-cultural order which accepted “difference” as being written into nearly all its configurations and exfoliations. Tagore could not take kindly to the sort of Indianization which foreclosed all possibilities of experiment and crossbreeding; a lame and limp Indianization symbolized in the Gandhian spinning wheel which Tagore explained “does not require anyone to think; one simply turns the wheel of the antiquated invention endlessly, using the minimum of judgment and stamina” (Dutta & Robinson 365). No cultural relativist, Tagore was, however, not prepared to accept all “differences,” for being different all the time is not the only marker of cosmopolitanism; rather, he was interested to argue the principles of selection which determined what features could be part of a national culture.
The Artist and the Intellectual
The Cosmopolitan Intellectual
Tagore expatiated his ideas on cosmopolitan nationalism through his traditional cyclic theory of history; his approach defined national diversity better than enlightenment progressive theories. Central to his historical attitude lie wrought the distinction between superior and inferior values and not such tired contrasting correspondences between issues hailed from the West and from the East. Tagore’s reading of history, then, does not inscribe a triumph based on such exclusive divisions which, thus, does not empower the nation to wring out certain portions from its past, exscind some features of its identity and obliterate some groups of people from its narration. Tagore saw a vigorous connection between tradition and modernity. He saw universalism with individual talent. His understanding of history—the incorporative, inclusive, and accumulative discourse—made him endorse the sway of Britain over India. This brought a sense of questioning and, hence, some regeneration of values in the ways in which Indians thought and acted. With the eclectic spirit of the Renaissance, Tagore, despite his loving commitment to the Upanishads, Sanskrit literary tradition and Buddhism, did not go into a defense of frigid status quoits Hinduism incapable of reflexivity and reformation. Contact and contiguity with the west brought “unrest”; it set in motion certain forces which kept working unabated until freedom became an established reality. Essential to the life of the nation, it weighed in the creative momentum, the opportunity to discover the soul crusted over several generations with certain agonizing immovables like caste distinctions. The perceptive intellectual that he was, Tagore knew that India owed her political ideal of freedom to Britain. He urged in his countrymen an “open mind” which would strive to fulfill the purpose of their connection with the British. He realized how the East and the West held each other in debt and, thus, called for a new ethics of communication which vouchsafed for self examination over self glorification. Making such divisive claims about Europe being all “material” and bereft of all philosophical appeal and the East being the spring of spiritual revival does not engender meaningful progressive dialogue. Europe, though wrapped in materialism, never lacked the currents of deep thinking. There is not much promise in having any Asian or European consensus as to certain claims to cultural uniqueness. But Tagore drove home the point that the dissensus is not in the nature of uncritical rebuttals but is conflictual in that disagreements are generative, interrogative, and not closed to re-examination. Coexistence is not about erasing differences in momentous flights to secure universals that eventually corroborate cultural uniqueness; it has more to do with questioning what a nation and its tradi-
tion have come to accept as “unique.” Approving of each other, Tagore’s cosmopolitan nationalism is not an undifferentiated tread upon a quiescent middle ground but a domain of dialogue inflected with mutual respect and tolerance. Identity then was not codifiable for Tagore; in his world of differences and sharing, hybridity became as much a reality as multiple identities. Indians could not have remained staunchly non-British by rejecting whatever came from the West. Tagore claimed that appropriation was not imitation; acknowledging the good was not submission. Identity is not polarization, for it should allow for revision of commitments and values; it cannot allow immutable primordiality and static essentialism. Tagore favored the “conflict of values” so that identity formation became dialectical, not violent and antagonistic; it encouraged history and experience to share a constitutive relationship. But identity becomes hypostasized when civilizations are divided into territorially determined spaces and lines of separation and geographical caging are clearly drawn into account for the clashes. Tagore relentlessly proposed deterritorialization of cultural systems which such succinct conflictual separation never allowed into being. Clashes are inevitable, for differences at some junctures can remain irreconcilable but do not become as dangerous as cultural homogeneity which, most often, is externally coerced into imposition. Having made journeys to twenty-five countries, and having engaged intellectuals of varied stripes and ideologies—Moritz Winternitz, Carlo Formichi, Benedetto Croce, Henri Bergson, Albert Einstein, Romain Rolland, Paul Richard, Sylvain Levi, John Dewey, Bertrand Russell and others—Tagore knew the significance of both personal and institutional commitment in the construction of a global community. It was a promise of a community which did not build up by replacing the local with the global but consolidated instead through interconnectedness, through multiple allegiances, through awareness of a set of values based on a belief in diversity. Tagore observed:
What is the truth of the world? Its truth is not the mass of materials, but their universal relatedness. A drop of water is not a particular assortment of elements, it is their mutuality. . . .We see a flower but not matter. Matter in a laboratory has its use but no expression. This expression alone is creation; it is an end in itself. So also does our civilization find its completeness when it expresses humanity, not when it displays its power to amass materials (Soares 61).
Relationships between societies demanded being underwritten by selfdetermination, the freedom to acknowledge the complexities of inter-
The Artist and the Intellectual
communal existence. In trying to engineer some kind of mechanical race adjustment, India failed to produce a “living political organism,” more so because of a caste consciousness that did not allow unbarred flow of human sympathy (Dutta & Robinson 303). Tagore as an artist expected communion, an appreciative oneness, in response to creations. He could not envisage an existence away from a deeply networked plexus founded on self-interest and sympathy where sympathy is predominantly understood as the power to “listen.” For Tagore the history of the growth of freedom was the history of the perfection of relationships, the dialectically alert terrain of the insider and the outsider. S. Radhakrishnan makes a pertinent point:
As morality, in individual relations, means the subordination of the individual inclinations to the law of duty, so international morality means the subordination of the selfish advantages of nations to the claims of humanity and the world at large. It is immoral to think that moral principles have no place in politics. They are for international use as much as for home consumption. The state represents the general will of the community. Truth and honour are as sacred to it as to individuals. The state is not an end in itself. It is not higher than the moral law. When this reversal of values takes place then the better minds of nations will repudiate war as the failure of reason and the abdication of spirit. From this holocaust real spiritual democracy may be born. The belligerent peoples are in a mood of selfexamination. The note of interrogation meets us everywhere (175).
These urgings to interrogate lead to several ways of expressing humanity which are means of understanding a variety of levels of relationships. Modern culture cannot be limited within the reifying boundary lines of grammar and the laboratory. The artist urged humans not to ignore their aesthetic life; he insisted that this particular premise never be left uncultivated. Indians, he noted, made experiments, and the solutions they arrived at were different from those of Europeans. These differences from the Europeans were not markers of seclusion but agencies of mobility, vindicators of the ability of Indians to join the “procession of man’s discoveries.” True modernism is freedom of mind, not slavery of taste. It is independence of thought and action, not tutelage under European schoolmasters. It is science but not its wrong application to life. Tagore argued that freedom is not estrangement from life or killing of faculty, but the enlargement of self, the expansion of personality, and the utmost possible extension of faculty and desire. Modern culture called Indians into line, to move to the “drumbeat of life.” So as a public intellectual, Tagore looked into the prospects of growing a democratic citizenship where one was obligated to question “tradition”
and allowed to engage with “examined life” (in the Socratic sense of the term). It is space, as Martha Nussbaum argues, where citizens “can think for themselves without simply deferring to authority, who can reason together about their choices rather than just trading claims and counterclaims”. Tagore’s call was to make democracy perform in a more reflective and reasonable way. There was the need to see human beings bound to all other human beings by ties of “recognition and concern.” These modes of recognition for Tagore were ways to find the “human heritage.” Cultivating humanity in a complex interlocking world involved understanding the ways in which common needs and “isms” were realized differently in different circumstances. This realization speaks for “narrative imagination” at different levels and contexts, an ethical imagination which makes a person “think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story, and to understand the emotions and wishes and desires that someone so placed might have” (Nussbaum). It is sympathy for the “other,” something that Tagore ascribed as “the sympathetic insight to place themselves in the position of others”; this, for me, is Tagore’s way of describing dharma which in its encompassing sweep becomes his version of globalization also. Dharma discourages anarchy by upholding norms of order and well being; by acknowledging “sympathy” and “otherity” it acknowledges the uniqueness of individuality too. It becomes an integral planetary Hindu vision of upholding differences amidst a cohering mechanism of togetherness. It points to a pluralism which is not merely based on tolerance, at least not a tolerance that is content with merely putting up with the “other” out of political expediency. Outlining a solidarity based on genuine participation in the life of the “other,” Tagore advocated deterritorialization of cultural systems as means to bring down conflicts and secessions at every important level of human existence.
Artist as Intellectual
Profoundly aware of the central function of the artist, Tagore questioned: What are poets for? Artists capture on their instruments the “secret stir of life in the air” and give it “voice in the music of prophecy.” A poet’s mission, Tagore believed, is to “inspire faith in the dream which is unfulfilled” (Tagore, Talks in China 57). Tagore as the poet-intellectual made re-evaluative inroads into several deep-seated concepts in the European tradition, bringing Europe into contact with a difference of knowledge which was a challenge at once to its parochialism and the provinciality prevalent in his own country. Compared admirably with the likes of
The Artist and the Intellectual
Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe, he generated massive interest in the European public by his sheer intellectual presence. He made people in the West think out of their own provinces into the unmapped territories from the East (Aronson 1978: 10). He “humanized” the East. He demystified the East for the West. His ambitious mission to unite the people of Japan, China, and India was not meant as a military mobilization against imperial Europe but was a move—arduous, vexed, and expansive—to introduce oriental cultures and knowledge systems into a global circulation with a view to bring discernment and understanding in the imperial eyes. Aronson rightly observes that “there existed at that time a very real desire for a revaluation of standards all over Europe; and this desire was brought about not by books, but by events of a political as well as of a moral nature. Rabindranath in his own inimitable language, expressed the need of the hour better than any other writer at that time. Whether the mass intuitively grasped the meaning of his message, it would be difficult to say. But the response of intellectuals was undoubtedly due to the awareness that Rabindranath succeeded “in saying the things that are in our minds, but which we cannot quite bring out.” The fact that Rabindranath did say them evoked among them responsive attitudes which had long lain forgotten or repressed. And all of a sudden they found that “Dr. Tagore is not alone in his dismay, nor is he alone in desiring a restatement of personal values in a wilderness of impersonal forces” (Aronson, 29). Both the European middle class and many intellectuals sought the refuge of “ideals” in trying to envision, rather vaguely though, a new Renaissance, a sort of spiritual reawakening. They held common cause with a spiritual crisis and the need for a moral integration and fulfillment in the years following the First World War. Tagore’s prophetic emergence with a spiritual accent went down well with them. For a while, the prophet-intellectual found his voice and cornered the acclaim. But the stint of his glorified intellectual position was short-lived, for Tagore-worship came under acerbic attacks. However, his ideas left a strong stir among the intelligentsia and civil society; it introduced disquiet; his position became vexed and censorious through concerted opposition which, however, did not fail to remind us of the strength and freshness of his messages. That his ideas caught the worm of a dwindling popularity and misgivings goes to show the nature of the world which was not prepared to read deeply into the merit of his views. Stephen Hay rightly notes that
stripped of the colourful rhetoric about Eastern civilization in which he unfortunately clothed it, the message Tagore tried to bring his audiences in China, Japan, the United States, Europe, and even the Soviet Union was essentially a warning against the dehumanizing potentialities of unlimited
Ranjan Ghosh technological modernization. . . . No man in his own lifetime had tried harder than Tagore to establish this ‘world-wide commerce of heart and mind,’ and historians reviewing his life will judge him more fairly by what he tried to do than by what he failed to achieve (331).
As it is true of all visionary thinkers, Tagore had his faults: a failure to problematize a nuanced reading of a rather simplistic dichotomy of spiritual and material culture, insubstantial understanding of contemporary sociopolitical complexities, unwavering efforts to find a way out of all crises through universal humanism which needed a more cultivated rhetoric and insightful exposition to become effective and credulous. But he did not force his criticism upon people; “he wants to help people to see the danger and to overcome it. He gives them hope and consolation, he demonstrates to them in his own being and work the integrity and profundity of genuine humanity, and thus he shows them that after all mankind is not living in hell, estranged from all that is divine, without love and soul” (Rothermund 47). In the face of all odds, Tagore believed that the world is a movement and the truth of the world is “in its law of relatedness,” the law of “keeping step together” (Soares 61). He was deeply convinced that an artist cannot be left out of any decisive movement for change because his exclusion will invariably wreck a disaster. As an artist-intellectual, he looked into a “rhythm” which did not allow ideas to run off in disorder, which made the “commercial and political man” give way to the “moral man,” ensuring a vitalizing force which translated finally into the “unity of man.” The visionary Tagore awaited a day when “unvanquished Man will retrace his path of conquest, despite all barriers, to win back his lost human heritage” (Tagore, Crisis.. 18). The struggle, the waiting, the crisis of restitution of “human heritage” continues. And sixty-seven years into his death, Tagore still disturbs; he still inspires; he still coaxes out a dream which is all it should always be for an archetypical intellectual—the tout ensemble with an arresting combination of an artist, an educationist and, most importantly, a relentless transnational.
Aronson, Alex. Rabindranath through Western Eyes. Calcutta: RiddhiIndia, 1978. Cox, Peter. “A Journey into the World of Rabindrananth Tagore,” in Bhudeb Chaudhuri & K. G. Subramanyan, eds. Rabindranath Tagore and the Challenges of Today Simla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1988.
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Dutta, Krishna & Andrew Robinson, eds. Rabindranath Tagore, The Myriad-Minded Man. London: Bloomsbury, 1995. Republished: Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Fried Schnitman, Dora and Jorge Schnitman (eds.) New Paradigms, Culture and Subjectivity. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2002. Hay, Stephen N. Asian Ideas of East and West: Tagore and His Critics in Japan, China and India. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970. Mukherjee, Himangshu Bhushan. Education for Fulness. London: Asia Publishing House, 1962. Nussbaum, Martha. “Education for Democratic Citizenship” Doctor Honoris Causa Lecture. Institute of Social Studies, Hague, The Netherlands, 9 March, 2006. <www.iss.nl/content/download/6932/63727 /file/nussbaum.text> accessed February 2010. Purakayastha, Bandana. “Contesting the Boundaries between Home and the World: Tagore and the Construction of Citizenship” in Patrick Hogan and Lalita Pandit. eds. Universality and Tradition, Madison: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003: 49-64. Radhakrishnan, S. The Philosophy of Rabindranath Tagore Baroda: Good Companions Publishers, 1961. Rothermund, Dietmar. ed. & trans. Rabindranath Tagore in Germany. New Delhi: Max Mueller Bhavan, 1962. Shils, Edward. The Intellectual between Tradition and Modernity: The Indian Situation. Hague: Mouton, 1961. Soares, Anthony X. ed. Lectures and Addresses by Rabindranath Tagore. London: Macmillan, 1955. Tagore, Rabindranath. The Centre of Indian Culture. Visva-Bharati: Calcutta, 1921. —. Talks in China. Calcutta: Visva-Bharati Bookshop, 1925. —. Crisis in Civilization. Visva-Bharati: Calcutta, 1950. —. Towards Universal Man. London: Asia Publishing House, 1961. —. Personality. Bombay, London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd, 1970. —. Letters to a Friend. Tagore’s letters to C. F. Andrews, 1928. New Delhi: Rupa, 2002.
ENGLISH ONLY: THE HEGEMONY OF LANGUAGE IN MONIQUE TRUONG’S THE BOOK OF SALT SUSAN SHIN HEE PARK
As we might extrapolate from Edward Said’s essay “Representing the Colonized,” a lingua franca, or universal language, becomes imperialist when it is used within a system of general equivalence bridging disparate, multiple languages. Recourse to a universal language privileges one language over all the others by reinforcing the
heedless appropriation and translation of the world by a process that for all its protestations of relativism, its displays of epistemological care and technical expertise cannot easily be distinguished from the process of empire (302).
Said’s argument linking language and imperialism exposes the hegemonic role of English in American literary production. His insights are valuable for considering Monique Truong’s best-selling 2004 novel The Book of Salt. The novel exemplifies the problem of using a single language in order to transcend the limits of a multiplicity of languages: it does so through a deployment of English that is fundamentally imbricated within the power dynamics of intellectual imperialism. The Book of Salt focuses on Bình, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’ fictional personal chef. A Vietnamese native, he barely speaks or understands English. Truong uses English to “translate” Bình’s personal experiences in an attempt to disclose his psychic reality. Simultaneously she uses English as the particular language in which Stein, Toklas and their various expatriate friends communicate. This deployment of English to translate Bình’s thoughts, the expressiveness of Truong’s writing and her narrative structure imply that “pure” consciousness can be captured in a process of transparent linguistic mediation through which events and thoughts enter into direct commerce with the reader. The Book of Salt can only accomplish this by obscuring the differences in signification and articulation
The Hegemony of Language in Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt
between English, French, and Vietnamese. English becomes the chosen means of producing subjectivity, the method of “universal” communication and the medium by which to represent non-English ideas, thoughts, and experiences. This monolingual representation warrants serious discussion in literary studies; it is of special relevance within the fields of Asian American literary production and criticism. This analysis looks to the work of Edward Said, Antonio Gramsci, and Rey Chow in order to explore the hegemonic dilemma that Asian American writers find themselves confronting when articulating “ethnic” experiences using English as both a form of knowledge production and as a means of linguistic representation.
Hegemony and language
The imperialism of language involves complex intersections between multiple sites of power and the production of immigrant, diasporic, colonial, and postcolonial subjectivities. Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, developed in his essay “The Intellectuals” from The Prison Notebooks, corresponds to these power dynamics and to the complicity of intellectuals as conductors within such power relays. Gramsci defines hegemony as composed of coercion and consent. Coercion denotes the use of force in the absence of consent. Unlike direct domination, hegemony operates through a tangle of both force and complicity involving cultural, economic, and political forms of mediation to which the population as a whole is subjected. Whereas coercion is an enactment of sheer state power, consent infiltrates the population from seemingly internal and organic sources. Ostensibly emerging from their “hearts and their minds,” consent is “spontaneously given” by the masses to the dominant class. Gramsci contends that the perception of the dominant class as “prestigious” persuades the masses into unreflectively consenting to “bourgeois interests.” However, the source for this prestige coincides with its own conclusion: it is both a point of departure and a point of destination. Prestige functions similarly as both the birthright of and the reward for the “bourgeois class.” In the process, prestige obscures class struggle (1971). Class interest is additionally muddled through the manufacturing of affect and through the commodification of desire used to further marshal the consent of the masses. The masses accept their subordination because they desire to have the same imagined interests as the dominant class, even if this identification betrays their own class interests. They desire the opportunity to identify with the bourgeoisie if not the birthright. In a nutshell, hegemony functions through explicit force, the allure of prestige and the cultivation of desire. It circulates through the coordinated
Susan Shin Hee Park
efforts of dominant and subordinated classes. Hegemony is, moreover, not constrained by economic class or by national boundaries. As Gramsci writes in the essay “Problems of Marxism,” hegemony operates under the aegis of the West throughout the entire world. His analysis critiques the colonial inclinations of Western epistemology by problematizing Europe’s claim as “the only historically and concretely universal culture” (416). Gramsci abandons a Eurocentric agenda that assigns non-European cultural influences as peripheral contributions to European culture. In order to do this he indicts Hegel’s hierarchical classification of value in the construction of “world culture.” For example, in The Philosophy of History Hegel commends Europe for being both the center of the world and its ultimate end. Hegel then hypothesizes that America, as New World extension of European culture, will come to epitomize the supremacy of the West and will also assume a paradigmatic role in promoting a global future. In this way, North America and Europe will constitute both the central point and the point of climax within an entire global context. Hegel implies that this process happens synchronically, as it progresses territorially, and diachronically, as it promotes a moral, cultural, and historical telos (1900). In The Book of Salt Bình illustrates the geo-temporal-spatial dispersal of effects which characterizes the diasporic after-effects of imperialism. Bình’s experiences are written in fragmentary form. From chapter to chapter he wanders from a colonial mansion in Saigon, to Stein and Toklas’s celebrated Paris salon on Rue de Fleurus, to the French countryside, to unbounded mobility crossing the high seas. The temporality of the novel also reflects a kind of mobility by shifting back and forth between the 1920s and the 1930s and then back to the 1910s. Likewise, peripheral characters in the book fill Bình’s life as if his existence were a transit station. The novel itself ends on a note of indeterminacy and transition: relieved of his service as their personal chef, Bình watches Stein and Toklas steam off in a US-bound ocean liner. Without the stability of employment, Bình is burdened with the terrible freedom to seek out migratory work where he can find it. Such are the circumstances of a Vietnamese laborer living in 1930s Paris. Yet even in his homeland, Bình lives under the most colonial of conditions. His predominant employment while living in Vietnam is as a sous-chef in the Governor-General’s kitchen.1 In this capacity he gains gourmet culinary instruction which he augments with recipes and tips taught to him by his mother, older brothers and friends. Bình’s skills enThrough a play on words, the “sous” of sous chef assigns minimal value to his labor: consider “sou,” the French coin, in relation to “sous,” the preposition “under,” as in “assistant” chef.
The Hegemony of Language in Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt
able him to escape life in the colony. Yet through a circuitous route motivated by colonial dynamics, Bình arrives at the center of the Empire, Paris. Just as Bình’s relationship to colonized subjectivity is exemplified by his poignantly ambivalent relationship to the French Empire, his inner turmoil is elegantly and pleasingly expressed through gastronomic description. The novel serves the reader tantalizing descriptions of Bình’s experiences through savory, luscious prose. Through these descriptions Bình also demonstrates moments of disavowal with the Empire. He simultaneously takes enormous pride in his cooking while exhibiting disdain for those who eat it, such as Chef Blériot, his arrogant and boorish culinary and sexual mentor in Vietnam. Bình’s first-hand knowledge about one of the pinnacles of civilization, gourmet cuisine, is often greater than that of his employers. He takes great satisfaction in the delicate quality of the foods his employers consume even though he is restricted from partaking in it. Likewise, he delights in selecting the ripest local ingredients fresh from the open-air markets he frequents. The edible bounty he fetches for his bosses is secured through his finely honed training as a chef and through his role as “native informant” of the region’s botanical resources. His actions may scream of subservience; however, his attitude grumbles with discontent. This grumbling is restricted to the thoughts that he shares with the reader as he barely communicates with other characters. When he does speak, in very limited French or English, his speech never reveals defiance or criticism. The language Truong employs invokes subtle combinations of contradictory flavors and textures analogous to Bình’s ambivalence in the kitchen. Truong richly describes Bình’s feelings in tart, crisp language like Toklas’s beloved green apples prepared for her doting “wifey” Stein; Bình’s thoughts are brooding and profound like fig-infused port wine specially selected for the object of Bình’s love, the “Sweet Sunday Man”; Bình’s erotic moments are suspended between a sensuous, honeydrenched stupor and a unyielding sourness reminiscent of the yellow quinces in the white and blue bowl that Bình frustratingly and speechlessly identifies as “love.” Indeed, Bình associates with other characters primarily through cooking. Life in the kitchen connects Bình to his deceased mother in Vietnam through simple recollections of copper pots, verdant bamboo leaves and fresh running water healing bloodied fingers. The pleasure of food connects Bình to his “Sweet Sunday Man,” an American “mulatto” for whom he cooks and with whom he enjoys an exquisite affair until Lattimore suddenly disappears from Paris altogether. Naturally, the flavor that lingers on the reader’s tongue throughout the entirety of the novel is salt. The Book of Salt is literally a book about salt. Salt becomes
Susan Shin Hee Park
racialized through the medium of blood which connects Bình to his mother and brothers in Vietnam but excludes him from his mother’s husband. Blood also complicates the role of his “Sweet Sunday Man” who is traveling abroad in part due to his “miscegenated” ancestry. Bình’s culinary training in “la cuisine indochinoise” complies with the needs and desires of imperialist domestic arrangements. Edward Said articulates the useful phrase “zone of dependency” to describe the discrepancies between “invention” and “use” that come to characterize such intimate colonial relations. It is commonplace to think of the colonized as “fixed in zones of dependency and peripherality.” The colonizer, reciprocally, is assigned to a position of “antithetical overlord,” overseeing “underdeveloped, less-developed, developing states” (295). Yet these colonial relations are rarely so polarized as to create a stark dichotomy between dependency and sovereignty, production and consumption, invention, and appropriation, etc. Rather, both the colonizer and the colonized are responsible for technical and cultural invention upon which they grow dependent. This is rather seductively illustrated by Truong’s many enticing descriptions of gourmet western dishes enhanced with exotic ingredients and “secrets” of native preparation. The specific kind of cuisine that Bình cooks, French-Vietnamese “fusion,” attests to uneven power dynamics wherein native invention is subject to appropriation by colonial efforts to refine natural resources. In this way, Bình’s contribution in the areas of gastronomic innovation is rendered invisible. Bình, like the colonized in Said’s scenario, is conscripted into a position of “secondariness” that merely reinforces the hierarchy between colonizers and colonized. In his inferior station, he is thus restricted to the role of domestic cook though his talents are those of a gourmet chef. The role of the mute Asian qua menial laborer coincides with Bình’s inability to speak English. Bình, like the houseboy and the coolie, attends to the desires of his masters and mistresses in relative silence. However, the contradictoriness of Bình’s ambivalence toward his employers still requires explanation. Although he is aware of his subordination, Bình is complicit in accepting a form of labor that puts him in the most intimate contact with the empire. The question may arise as to why he won’t simply leave. Rey Chow’s concept of “coercive mimetism” is useful for considering this contradictory and affective form of hegemony. Coercive mimetism refers to a form of subjectification that relies on the interconnection between desire and mimesis which, in turn, corresponds to the assumptions that the colonizer has about natives and to the colonizer’s continuing demands that the native simultaneously “perform” difference while endeavoring to acculturate to the homogeneity of colonial standards.
The Hegemony of Language in Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt
Chow establishes her theory of coercive mimetism as a three step process. The first step of mimesis occurs when the colonized is strongarmed into “imitating the master.” As efforts to colonize intensify, the colonized is coerced into playing the role of the “inferior, improper copy” (104). When Chow discusses the function of the copy, she indicates that what is being copied is humanity itself. If the ethnic subject can only relate to the universal (human) subject mimetically, we can infer that the ethnic subject is not quite “human,” or not quite as human as the colonizer. In the context of The Book of Salt Bình functions as an approximation of a fine French chef. Though his skills may be comparable to those of a white, native Frenchman, his race and his ethnicity relegate him to the status of “hired help” in the Stein-Toklas household. Through the construction of the racialized other the second aspect of coercive mimetism occurs. Invoking the work of Frantz Fanon and Homi Bhabha, Chow employs a psychoanalytically nuanced approach to the problem of mimesis. The other undergoes a secondary, internalized form of colonization reflecting an explicitly psychic dimension of mimesis. The colonized’s psyche fractures under the pressure and ambivalent desire to mimic the master. The second step constitutes the emergence of a fully ripened colonial subjectivity. Desire to identify with the colonizer mixes with destructive impulses aimed both at the object of resentment, the master, and the consciousness resulting from interaction with the master. That consciousness is located within the traumatized subject who still bears the “shame” associated with being an inferior copy of the colonizer. The second step of coercive mimetism may thus explain Bình’s ambivalence towards his employers. The third step of coercive mimetism is the culmination of the first and the second. Having undergone the hail of interpellation and its internalizing side effects, the colonized subject is now afflicted with a splintering of identities within a single subject as well as by the ongoing conflict between divergent interests within the subject. Interestingly, Bình is referred to in various ways by different characters: to Stein he is “Thin Bin” and to Lattimore he is “Bee.” Perhaps Truong is subtly hinting here at the indolence the Americans demonstrate over pronouncing Bình’s name. Or perhaps Truong is critiquing the Americans for choosing qualities about Bình which they find familiar or endearing and stamping them, in English, upon his very identity.
Susan Shin Hee Park
As I argued at the beginning of this essay, Truong elevates English to a universal by using it to translate Vietnamese and French while simultaneously retaining it as a particular language used by American characters. English does not merely translate impressions, feelings and emotions. English is endowed with the power to create an aggregate mode of knowledge: Truong ultimately wields the power of knowledge by writing a character that is subject to a transparent form of knowability. And the audience for the novel accesses knowledge about Bình through the privileged position of the English reader. Interestingly, Truong conceals her deployment of English as universal language under the cover of the negation of language. Specifically, she employs descriptions of non-language to resolve semiotic disputes. Bình communicates the word “pineapple” as “a pear… not a pear” by pantomiming a crown of spiked leaves with splayed fingers on top of his head (35). He selects a specific chicken at the poultry market by pointing and requesting “a chicken … not this chicken” (18). Whereas Bình grapples with the whittling of language to get his point across, Truong produces a surfeit of words to reach the same effect. Her opulent writing invokes deliberately selected clusters of memories and garlands of associations that counter the more impromptu stream of consciousness style penned by Gertrude Stein. Truong also uses language to direct the emotional traffic of the reader: what she denies the reader in agency she provides in pure affective pleasure. Significantly, the novel at times rebukes the American characters Stein, Toklas and Lattimore for wallowing in the privilege that accompanies bohemian intellectual complacency. Truong portrays them as somewhat clueless, often obnoxious and always rapacious: they are wholly driven by the insatiable urge to consume. Truong’s writing, however, enters a similarly privileged epistemological space when she attempts to narrativize Bình’s indecipherable, inscrutable, and even untranslatable thoughts. Although the novel chastises Stein for “capturing” Bình in writing and Lattimore for absconding with Stein’s documents, Truong commits a parallel offense. Throughout the novel, Truong subjects Bình to a peculiar form of telepathy that, historically, invokes the colonial desire to “know the mind of the native” and the ethnographic urge to “capture” a subject in the act of writing. Accordingly, one ought to inquire into the political implications of using English in order to create a reality wherein language transparently and seamlessly reflects Bình’s psyche. Truong’s writing exemplifies a crisis between expression, mimesis, hegemony, and representation that occurs when these terms enter into a condition of direct confrontation.
The Hegemony of Language in Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt
Indeed, part of the problem lies in Truong’s ability to write beautifully, articulately, and realistically in English. Yet what results in The Book of Salt is a representation of narrative realism alongside an elision of the real. There is nothing real about Bình—his thoughts, his experiences, his life are a fiction. Truong’s well-versed descriptions, however, seductively suggest that the sensations and intimate thoughts she offers are “real”: they have a vividness and attention to detail perfect for textual tourism. “Foreign” smells, tastes, textures, bodily responses, feelings, and thoughts are captured in English and conveyed to the reader. This novel likewise represents a portrait of authenticity that was written with consumption in mind. Bình is both the cook serving food to characters in the novel and the literary food being served by Truong to the reader. The reader’s palette is cultivated by linguistic imperialism: the reader wants to taste what it normally does not have access to, that is, remote locales, exotic characterizations, and rich flourishes that stave off the blandness of the mundane. Truong is thus drawn into a hegemonic discourse in which she articulates the grievances of the colonized in the script of the master. Whilst reading The Book of Salt this reader is left to wonder if Truong herself is complicit in a form of coercive mimetism by presenting Bình’s voice and thoughts without calling into question the implicitly imperialist narrative convention to which she uses to do so. How then might Truong write in a way that does not participate in coercive mimetism nor make her complicit within a literary production privileging the imperialism of English? How might she avoid the trappings of consent and coercion lurking behind the hegemonic barriers that precede the Asian American writer? How might she create characters whose lives, bodies, and histories convey the richness of ethnic experience without becoming either an “inferior copy” of a Western anthropologist or performing as a “native informant” for a Western reader? Truong’s is not a solitary dilemma. These are crucial questions both for writers, readers and critics of Asian American literature. Truong’s work reflects a seemingly impossible position for Asian American writers. As demonstrated by The Book of Salt, language has an essentially geopolitical stake in the production of subjectivity, thought and affect. For this reason writers must remain carefully attuned to the privilege accompanying the use of a universal language. Otherwise, as Truong demonstrates in her book, the representation of an object or experience—the texture of fruit, the scent of a lover, the memory of pain, the idea of a word, the sensation of sexual bliss, the flavor of salt—are not merely subjected to the mediation of language. These experiences are also subjugated under the hegemonic relation of English over other languages. This hegemonic rela-
Susan Shin Hee Park
tion is reinforced by the intellectual desire to understand the native mind under an imperialist gaze. The Asian American writer would thus be left with little option to write beyond the limitations imposed by coercive mimetism. Asian American writers are in an epistemologically privileged and historically burdened position to address this situation directly. There is no binding linguistic tie to connect diverse Asian ethnic groups.2 Thus, English is the official language of Asian American literature. The Book of Salt exemplifies the injunction to use “English only” in the context of textual production. On a practical level the English Only rule makes sense. With so many diverse languages within Asia, it seems reasonable to select a language that functions as a common denominator. Further, Asian Americans are distinct from Asian nationals. It appears to be quite sensible for Asian Americans to adopt the dominant language of the United States, their home, rather than to resort to an ancestral language, which may be quite distant. While both these points may be true, there is still a lingering power dynamic which reflects the long history of unequal and imperialist privilege that English has enjoyed over the rest of the world’s languages. For Americans of Asian descent, as well as other minority groups, the English Only rule also signals a whole set of institutional and quotidian measures intended to pressure “foreigners” in the United States to transculturate to Anglo-Americanism. In response to monolingual hegemony, well-coordinated attempts at multilingualism have been and continue to be initiated by US minority communities’ intent on preserving ethnic and cultural integrity. In order to subvert the notion that English is transparent, transcendent and universal, Asian American literature and Asian American literary criticism must vigilantly question uncritical deployments of English in textual expressions of minoritized experience. Vigilance demands examination of the relations between literary production and the production of subjectivity, as well as the representations of agency. If we do not take into account the dialogic nature of language as communicative transmission and language as production of subjectivity, the imperial presence of English remains intact and undisturbed. The crisis of language in The Book of Salt symptomatizes the hegemony of English. Accordingly, it falls upon those invested in defying imperialist and colonialist hegemony to articulate a rejoinder challenging the English Only rule in literary productions.
I make this argument with the knowledge that Chinese script is used somewhat as a “universal language” throughout many countries in East Asia. Mandarin, however, as an ideographic language, allows for a multiplicity of vernacular usage according to region and nation.
The Hegemony of Language in Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt
Chow, Rey. The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. Gramsci, Antonio. Prison Notebooks. Trans. Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1971. Hegel, G.W.F. The Philosophy of History. Trans. J. Sibree. New York: Collier and Son, 1900. Said, Edward W. Reflections on Exile, and Other Essays. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. Truong, Monique. The Book of Salt. New York: First Mariner Books, 2003.
BETWEEN COMPLICITY AND RESISTANCE: CHRISTA WOLF AND NADINE GORDIMER LISA BERNSTEIN
The role of the intellectual in society should be to critique and transform society, but how, when intellectuals are themselves implicated in the existing cultural hegemony, or at least to some degree derive their authority from the dominant power structures? Intellectuals, by definition, are privileged, socially, culturally, often economically. Even within repressive societies, intellectuals experience the authority of their ideas and exercise power over and persuasion of their audiences. At the same time, throughout history and across the world, intellectuals have suffered and continue to be subject to political oppression, physical violence, or death for communicating their knowledge and expressing their views publicly. In an “open,” “free” society such as the United States, intellectuals tend to be either marginalized as inaccessible and irrelevant to “ordinary” people and everyday life, or co-opted into mainstream, consumerist culture. If those who are recognized as intellectuals are to be the conscience of their society and “speak truth to power,” they must do so self-consciously, by recognizing their ambivalent location within and relationship to society, inequality, and injustice. Christa Wolf and Nadine Gordimer are writers who lived most of their lives under two distinct authoritarian social and political regimes during the latter half of the twentieth century. Both women struck a balance between serving as important voices for change within their respective societies and, at the same time, acknowledging the limitations and hesitations of their social critiques. Through their writing, Wolf and Gordimer demonstrate the strengths and also the limits of the socially engaged, critical intellectual. The spectrum of their compromised characters’ perspectives and responses show how the “rest of us” live and how the average person responds to an unjust, oppressive culture. The political contexts in and against which these women spent most of their careers writing were dissolved in the last century, marking the end of two forms of nations that had been forcefully divided: South Africa by a
Between Complicity and Resistance: Wolf and Gordimer
state and legal system of racial apartheid, and East Germany into two opposing political systems symbolized and upheld by a physical wall. Paradoxically, the lessons learned from the situations of these writers have relevance for individuals living under diverse social and political conditions today, including totalitarian as well as democratic systems. In the current climate of perpetual conflict and unrelenting social injustice, a reexamination of these writers becomes crucial to self-evaluation and selfunderstanding. Examination of relevant parts of Wolf’s Cassandra (1983) and What Remains, written in 1979 but not published until after German unification in 1990, and Gordimer’s Occasion for Loving (1960) and July's People (1981), reveal conflicts and questions that continue to challenge ordinary people in today’s globally dispersed, technologically mediated, and politically ambiguous postmodern world. Gordimer and Wolf are women of the same generation, whose careers as writers and public intellectuals span from the 1950s to the present. Christa Wolf was born in 1929, spent her childhood in German-controlled Poland under Hitler’s National Socialist regime and came of age during Eastern Germany’s transition from fascism to socialism in the German Democratic Republic. Born in 1923 near Johannesburg, South Africa, Nadine Gordimer is a white woman of Jewish, Eastern European immigrant and British descent. The disparate worlds of these two writers, South African apartheid and East German state socialism, overlapped in time as totalitarian political systems that experienced protracted periods of dissent but ended through ultimately non-violent revolutions. The German Democratic Republic (GDR) existed as a socialist state from 1949 to 1989, dissolving when the Berlin Wall fell. Free elections were held, and German reunification occurred in 1990, merging the GDR with the West German capitalist, democratic system. South Africa enforced apartheid, its legal, political, and geographical system of racial classification and segregation, from 1948 to 1993-94, when the country created a new constitution banning racial discrimination and held the first elections to include black voters. Both societies are still in the process of shaping new identities, having recently undergone a transition to democracy. From the diverse historical contexts of two very different oppressive state systems, Wolf, in East Germany, and Gordimer, in South Africa, use their fiction and essays in similar ways to challenge social norms and to reveal and destroy consoling ideological illusions. Wolf, a white East German woman, balances her position as a Marxist and a writer recognized by the state with internal critique of her country’s policies. The body of Wolf’s writing tells the story of her changing relationship to state so-
cialism, from enchantment to disillusionment, and narrates the process of her coming to consciousness and learning to speak out against her society. Gordimer’s literature, on the other hand, begins with her rejection of statesanctioned discrimination in her 1953 novel, Lying Days, and traces the culture of violence under apartheid and beyond to the new post-apartheid South Africa. Wolf writes as part of a system that she embraced and a society in which she believed, within the deeper historical context of rejecting Hitler’s Third Reich and constructing a socialist alternative to western capitalism, built on “antifascist and humanistic ideals” (qtd. in Von Hallberg 5). Gordimer writes as a “minority within a minority,” a white woman who opposed the dominant apartheid mentality and regime.
Exposing the Contradictions in Self and Society
Gordimer and Wolf occupy ambivalent social and ideological positions within their own countries. Each displays in her art and politics interest and gradual disillusionment with ideologies—nationalist, Marxist, feminist—as they are lived out in the social world. Each has taken up these issues in their creative as well as extensive essayistic work. Their common interest in deconstructing totalizing and universalizing perspectives appears in Wolf’s discussion of the imperialist, masculinist discourses of war and social repression, and in Gordimer’s description of colonialism and the failure of both capitalist and communist systems. As high-profile, female literary intellectuals, Wolf and Gordimer were each trapped, not only between the private and the public spheres, but also between complicity with and contestation of the political status quo, as they struggled to articulate an oppositional culture while maintaining positions of privilege inside these societies. Both women practiced, through their fiction as well as their theoretical reflections on the role of the writer in his/her society, a form of “resistance from within,” to raise their readers’ awareness and register dissenting voices to their regimes’ tyranny and injustice, while striving to negotiate a more humane form of their own social system. The two women share a sense of skeptical morality within their fiction and non-fictional essays; each expresses a personal ethic and subjective authenticity, questioning her motives and critiquing her own authority. Both authors attempt to transform society by provoking a change in consciousness. Their writing plays out disillusionment with social and political movements, substituting ideology with self-confrontation. Rather than providing definitive solutions or delivering absolutist messages, these narratives bring us as readers to our own partial, provisional truths. In
Between Complicity and Resistance: Wolf and Gordimer
accordance with Leszek Kolakowski’s notion of the “jester,” Wolf and Gordimer “stand outside good society and observe it from the sidelines in order to unveil the nonobvious behind the obvious, the nonfinal behind the final” (33-34). Just as they exclude overarching theories and totalizing explanations, Wolf and Gordimer refrain from representing heroes of resistance movements, exposing instead the compromised attitudes and actions characteristic of ordinary people and the ways in which oppressive systems infiltrate the daily lives and interpersonal relationships of ordinary people. By “placing their lives in the context of their country”, these writers demonstrate the ways in which their characters are implicated and benefit from, but also have their lives and identities controlled and curtailed by, belonging to such cultures (Diala 52). Both portray the detrimental impact of the outside circumstances on personal lives, and demonstrate the ways in which living within corrupt social structures distort and destroy intimate relationships within families, whether parent-child, husband-wife, siblings, or cousins. Employing inverse artistic methods, Wolf and Gordimer reveal the connection between their characters’ individual and communal lives, compelling in both the characters and readers, “recognition of their inevitable implication in society, in history” (54). Wolf shows how the structure of personal relationships transfers to social relations, while Gordimer examines the toll of systematic, legitimized oppression on the individual and on the way individuals relate to one another. Through their texts, the authors find connections between past and present, critique their societies’ ongoing systems of militarism, racism, and sexism, and attempt to understand their own place in history as well as the present. In her 1983 novel, Cassandra, and accompanying book of lectures, Conditions of a Narrative, Wolf looks back at ancient Greek mythology for relevant themes and parallels to her own situation. In Cassandra, Wolf uses the Greek mythological character to embody the writer’s conflict as a privileged yet ambivalent figure within a restrictive sociopolitical regime. Through a fictional re-visioning of the mythical woman’s life, Wolf works through problems in her own history and society. Cassandra’s ambivalence towards her position within the royal Trojan family echoes Wolf’s own dilemma as prominent GDR intellectual, which she more explicitly describes in her brief fictional-autobiographical text, What Remains, written in 1979 but left unpublished because of its controversial nature until after reunification in 1990.
Cassandra’s Critical Self-Reflection: The Dutiful Daughter Speaks Out
Cassandra and What Remains present two segments of a continuing dialogue Wolf establishes between the individual subjectivity of herself and her contemporaries in the GDR, and the cultural and sociopolitical systems through which this subjectivity is constituted. In Cassandra, Wolf designs a narrative structure in which a critical self-reflective subject remembers her path to a politics of subjective resistance. The Cassandra character struggles with her desire for relationship with and a sense of belonging to her family, her heritage, and the growing knowledge that she does not belong to them, nor they to her. As she breaks away from the domination of her father’s house and rule, Cassandra discovers a new way of relating, based not on domination and conformity, but on equality and free expression. Among the outcast servant women in the caves outside the city walls, Cassandra acknowledges her own position as outsider and as adversary to her father’s kingdom. She returns to her father’s world in order to voice her resistance, to break with her family and her past existence. Cassandra sees her own contradictory desires and describes them:
I did not want the world the way it was, but I wanted to serve devotedly the gods who ruled it. My wish held a contradiction. I gave myself some time before I noticed it; I have always granted myself these times of partial blindness. To become seeing all of a sudden--that would have destroyed me. (40)
When she finally does “become seeing,” Cassandra is able to resolve her predicament; she finds her voice and refuses either to endorse the scheme to sacrifice her sister Polyxena as bait in luring the Greek enemy, Achilles, to his death or to remain silent about the plan. The text shows how Cassandra’s process of self-understanding leads to active resistance against the corruption of the state. Through contact with the counterworld of women servants, Cassandra experiences selfalienation and self-questioning, which enable her to recognize the deceptiveness of the official palace rhetoric and her own participation in its ideological functioning. Cassandra’s change in consciousness involves a “painful process of separation” from her earlier beliefs, her concept of self, and her filial and national loyalties (238). Acknowledging her inner conflict between the desire to speak out and loyalty to the palace enables Cassandra to find her voice and act on her convictions.
Between Complicity and Resistance: Wolf and Gordimer
In the third of four lectures accompanying the novel, Wolf explains how, through the role of priestess—a role bestowed upon her by virtue of her privileged rank as princess—Cassandra eventually dissolves her bonds to her family, to the palace-world she grew up in, and to her identity as constructed by the society in which she lived. Implicit in her description is Wolf’s interpretation of her own situation as a writer with respect to the GDR:
She is assigned this profession, a privilege. She is expected to fulfill it in the traditional way. This is precisely what she must refuse to do--at first because, in her way, she believes that is the best way for her to serve her people, to whom she is warmly and intimately attached; later, because she understands that “her people” are not her people. (238)
This commentary echoes the dilemma Wolf works through in the Cassandra-text and provides an analysis that serves as the context for her autobiographical story, What Remains. Resembling the contradictory position of the narrator in What Remains, Cassandra’s critical selfreflection forms the basis for understanding this other text. What Remains was written in the summer of 1979, reworked in November 1989, and published in 1990. After its publication, this first postWende work of fiction to be submitted to the public by Wolf was harshly criticized by the West German press and by many East German intellectuals living in exile before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Both East and West German media accused Wolf of using What Remains, the story of one day of a woman writer’s life, under surveillance by the GDR security police, to exonerate her own role within the GDR system. This text became the focal point of a “German-German” literary and political controversy, as Wolf’s moral integrity and the aesthetic value of her literary work were challenged. In his introduction to It Isn’t About Christa Wolf: The Literary Controversy in Unified Germany, Thomas Anz sketches the accusations as follows:
In a situation in which the power of the old SED-state was broken, the turning to the western democracy was already almost complete, and it could only be advantageous for any individual, as it was after the collapse of national socialism, to have been an opponent or victim of the totalitarian system, under those circumstances, it was reasonable to read the story as a belated attempt of an author to conform to the suddenly altered circumstances and to shift her own past into a good light. (9)
Reading What Remains in the context of Cassandra invalidates both the equation of What Remains with an avowal of victimization and the
insinuation that Wolf is trying, through her text, to conform to the new circumstances in East Germany by dissociating herself from the socialist system in her country. The novel Cassandra illustrates a literary-social project in which Wolf repeatedly sets out, “to expose the fears that lie at the root of cooperation in victimization and domination,” as, in text after text, she investigates the inevitability of complicity resulting from “the persistence of relations of domination” (Love). Wolf conceives of individual subjectivity only in relation to the larger social order, so that every individual, including herself, participates in and is to some degree complicit in the workings of that society. Wolf divulges her own fear and inner contradictions, her own potential for self-deception and betrayal, through the voice of the narrator in What Remains, who questions to what extent she resembles the secret policemen who are spying on her:
I, myself. Who was that. Which of the multiple beings, from which “my self” put me together. The one who wants to know itself? The one that wants to spare itself? Or that third one, that has always been tempted to dance to the same tune as the young men out there at my door? (41).
Wolf struggles with ambivalent feelings about her own multiple, contradictory identities in all of her writing. She is fragmented by forces within herself which pull her in different directions. Like Cassandra, she strives for consciousness: “I would like to make myself aware of my own sicknesses, injuries, inner taboos, conflicts” (“Ursprünge des Erzählens” 921); yet, like the narrator in What Remains, she contends with an eternal inner voice of self-censorship, of fear, which prevents her from transgressing “the boundaries of the speakable” (16). Cassandra declares that the time to protest came when the war tried to seize her soul (92); as a mythological figure with a culturally-determined history, Cassandra knew when that moment came. The narrator in What Remains is not a mythological character; she is an average citizen— Christa Wolf, myself, or the reader. She will not have the luxury of knowing for certain when the war tries to possess her soul. She recognizes that the war possesses our soul incrementally, in ways we are not always prepared to see.
Confronting White Privilege in Nadine Gordimer’s Novels
As Wolf grapples with the issues of self-awareness and her conflicted, compromised position within the GDR, Gordimer likewise problematizes her own situation and self-consciousness as a privileged white writer bene-
Between Complicity and Resistance: Wolf and Gordimer
fiting under the system of apartheid in South Africa. In her essay, “Living in the Interregnum,” published in 1988 as part of the collection, The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics, and Places, Gordimer indicates the need for the white ruling class to acknowledge their power and role in perpetuating inequality and social injustice: “We whites in South Africa present an updated version of the tale of the Emperor’s clothes; we are not aware of our nakedness—ethical, moral, and fatal—clothed as we are in our own skin” (303). In her writing, Gordimer deals with issues of struggle and protest, of the contradiction and hypocrisy between the beliefs and actions of many liberal whites, of the fundamental difference between whites, who can choose whether or not to struggle for change and to sacrifice for the liberation of blacks, and blacks, who have no choice, and for whom struggle is “everywhere or nowhere” (Essential Gesture 271). Gordimer argues that whites should have a role in the Blacks’ struggle against apartheid and stresses the white individual’s responsibility to fight for the end of racist oppression. Her position is both a justification for the whites’ continuing presence in South Africa and an acknowledgement of culpability and a holding accountable of white individuals regarding the racist oppression of blacks on a personal as well as societal level. As a socially conscious member of the oppressing race writing under the extreme racist conditions existent in South Africa, Gordimer thematizes the effects of apartheid on individuals’ lives. She presents South African society as an unnatural state of human existence that deprives individuals of their humanity and destroys the integrity of human relationships. Within Gordimer’s writing, power relations between blacks and whites become the location of the breakdown of all discourse and destabilize the subject’s identity. Presuming human identity to be indefinite, unfixed, and environmentally determined, Gordimer explores the impact of institutionalized racism on personal development and interpersonal relationships. novels Occasion for Loving (1963) and July’s People (1981), the In her politics of racism and the oppression of blacks by whites on the social level destroy all possibility of communication and intimate relationships in the personal relations between whites and blacks. In Occasion for Loving, Gordimer portrays the love affair between a white woman, Ann, and a black man, Gideon Shibalo, as infected by their society’s racism. Although Ann responds to Gideon simply as a man, rather than as a black man, their color difference divides them, for Ann can choose to share in Gideon’s life or to return at any time to her privileged world, as she does at the end of the book, while Gideon cannot escape his life as a black under apartheid
and is left to cope through drunkenness and anger at white women, who come to represent his powerlessness within society. The issues of choice and freedom separate whites from blacks, so that no true crossing over is possible. The reaction of the novel’s white characters, including Ann’s husband Boaz, to Ann’s affair with Gideon and to Gideon himself illustrates how societal racism affects individual relationships and undermines human interaction on a personal level. These liberal whites, who are opposed to apartheid and to the inequality between blacks and whites, are unable to treat Gideon Shibalo as they would a white man in his situation; they are prevented from hating him and from condemning his and Ann’s extramarital relationship because of their position as whites in relation to Gideon as a black man. The natural emotions of affection and indifference, attraction and jealousy, are thus precluded under the racist South African system. The narrator explains the way in which political relations infiltrate the most intimate of relations:
Even between lovers they had seen blackness count, the personal return inevitably to the social, the private to the political. There was no recess of being, no emotion so private that white privilege did not single you out there. … So long as the law remained unchanged, nothing could bring integrity to personal relationships. (279)
July’s People: From Political to Personal Transformation
In addition to interpreting the negative effects of existing South African society on individual relationships, Gordimer envisions an imaginary future of revolution and independence for African nations, which she uses both to criticize current white-black relations and to carve out a role for whites within an alternative, majority-ruled African nation. Her slight but powerful novel, July’s People, published in 1981, “extrapolates from the contemporary situation in South Africa a prophetic vision of what one future scenario for that country might be” (Harlow 177). By narrating the gradual, daily transformations in the conversations and interactions between the white Smales family and their black servant, July, Gordimer depicts a post-revolutionary world and its transfer of power from a white-dominated minority to the previously oppressed black majority. The breakdown of discourse between the former mistress, Maureen Smales, and her servant, July, shows how systematic oppression and divisions of people according to race or color distort personal relationships. Through the reversal of these characters’ relative positions resulting from a shift in power relations at the social and political levels, July switches from subordinate servant to “host,” of his former employers.
Between Complicity and Resistance: Wolf and Gordimer
As he assumes power over the Smales as their protector in this transitional, uncertain society, July’s previous misunderstanding and mistreatment by Maureen under the South African social system manifests itself. Maureen’s complacent belief that she had treated July civilly, considerately, as an equal rather than an inferior, is refuted by July, who reduces their relationship to that of master-servant: “What can you say? … That I’m work for you fifteen years. That you satisfy with me” (98). Faced with this challenge to her self-perception, Maureen acknowledges the disparity between the ways that she and July had experienced their earlier communication:
How was she to have known, until she came here, that the special consideration she had shown for his dignity as a man, while he was by definition a servant, would become his humiliation itself, the one thing there was to say between them that had any meaning. (98)
Gordimer shows here that words normally used to demonstrate satisfaction or affinity between individuals become derisive and oppressive in the context of a racist society, and that no true communication or understanding is possible within such unequal power relations. Not only relationships between people, but the individual’s identity itself is portrayed as indefinite and conflicted, subject to external political conditions and determined by social environment. Loss of power means loss of identity for Maureen; her relationship to her husband and children as well as to her own former existence in “the master bedroom” (98) shift with her new precarious and dependent role. Ironically, this loss of identity frees Maureen from her past misconceptions, and allows her to metaphorically escape the chains of her society and the subject position constructed for her through this society. At the end of the novel, July’s refusal to continue the lie of their mutual comprehension forces Maureen into a new self-consciousness. Refusing to speak her language, July shows Maureen that they have never shared an understanding, thereby forcing Maureen to question herself and become aware of her prior self-deception:
She understood although she knew no word. Understood everything: what he had had to be, how she had covered up to herself for him, in order for him to be her idea of him. But for himself—to be intelligent, honest, dignified for her was nothing; his measure as a man was taken elsewhere and by others. She was not his mother, his wife, his sister, his friend, his people. (152)
In Gordimer’s July’s People, as in Wolf’s Cassandra, the traumatic experience of war, of violent upheaval and devastation from without, causes a transformation in consciousness and ultimate freeing of the central characters.
We Must All Become Resisting Intellectuals
In contrast to the situations within these novels, the revolutions experienced by Gordimer’s and Wolf’s societies occurred as non-violent transformations of power, converting both East Germany and South Africa into contemporary democracies and releasing their intellectuals into the globally connected, technologically advanced “marketplace of ideas.” However, crucial questions remain: What role is left for the socially engaged writer within a “free democracy”? How does one make space for change from within a privileged position within an open and dispersed system of power? What forms does activism take today, by whom, and around what issues? More than fifteen years have passed since the end of apartheid in South Africa and over twenty years since the dissolution of the GDR. With the opening of the public sphere, these writers have continued to reflect on their history and study their own positions within their past and present societies. Neither Wolf nor Gordimer is poised to write a definitive historical summation of their country’s political and cultural conditions. Rather, both women have maintained their mode of looking backward and forward at the same time, evaluating their present in terms of its historical roots and contemporary circumstances. By portraying the many ways through which systemic inequality and injustice distort and destroy human relationships, Wolf and Gordimer continue to alert us to the need for questioning, dissenting intellectualism in order to challenge current social and political hegemonies within our own societies and throughout the world. Their writing gives us the tools of critical reflection and shows us the process of moving from self-deception to self-awareness. Now, it is left to us to recognize we all have the ability and responsibility to overcome our complacency and our fear, to speak up and act out.
Between Complicity and Resistance: Wolf and Gordimer
Anz, Thomas, Ed. “Es Geht Nicht um Christa Wolf”: Der Literaturstreit im Vereinten Deutschland. München: Edition Spangenberg, 1991. Diala, Isidore. “Nadine Gorimer, J.M. Coetzee, and Andre Brink: Guilt, Expiation, and the Reconciliation Process in Post-Apartheid South Africa.” Journal of Modern Literature. 25,2 Winter (2001-2002): 50-68. Gordimer, Nadine. The Essential Gesture. Ed. Stephen Clingman, Penguin Books, London, 1988. —. July’s People. Penguin Books, London, 1981. —. Occasion for Loving. Virago Press, London, 1960. Harlow, Barabara. Resistance Literature. New York: Methuen, 1987. Kolakowski, Leszek. “The Priest and the Jester.” In Toward a Marxist Humanism: Essays on the Left Today. Trans. Jane Zielonko Peel. New York: Grove Press, 1968. 9-37. Love, Myra. “‘A Little Susceptible to the Supernatural?’: On Christa Wolf” Women in German Yearbook 7 (1991): 1-22. Von Hallberg, Robert, ed. Literary Intellectuals and the Dissolution of the State: Professionalism and Conformity in the GDR. Trans. Kenneth J. Northcott. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Wolf, Christa. Kassandra: Erzählung. Frankfurt am Main: Luchterhand, 1983. —. “Ursprünge des Erzählens: Gespräch mit Jacqueline Grenz” (1983). In: Die Dimension des Autors. 2. Band. Frankfurt am Main: Luchterhand, 1987/1990: 912-928. —. Voraussetzungen einer Erzählung: Kassandra. Frankfurt am Main: Luchterhand, 1983. —. Was bleibt. Berlin and Weimar: Aufbau, 1990.
IMAGINED COMMUNITY OF FEMALE INTELLECTUALS: ESSAYS OF MISTRAL, OCAMPO, AND CASTELLANOS LOIS WOLFE
If women are seen as an intellectual absence in representations of social and literary history in Latin America, perhaps we should check our “default” frame of perception. Cognitively speaking, frames are units of contextualized knowledge which operate on default assumptions: specific content, dates and times, traditional sovereignties, bordered spaces, national languages, and conventional ways of seeing. Women writers learn to work unconventionally with conventional defaults. This essay explores three female intellectuals whose connectivity extends the boundary of their cultural frame and creates an “imagined community” (Anderson) of coefficient power and knowledge, a network of relations quite different from coercive power and knowledge in the Foucauldian sense. Intellectual temporality of Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, Argentine essayist Victoria Ocampo and Mexican poet, novelist and essayist Rosario Castellanos is linked through close reading of six essays and examination of the cultural space each inhabits. Each writer is connected to the other, either directly, as in the case of epistolary correspondence and friendship between contemporaries Mistral and Ocampo, or through indirect correspondence carried through a subsequent generation of writers, i.e., the Mexican Castellanos’s use of the Chilean Mistral’s poetry as a model for finding a grounded, natural essence for artistic expression of the power of her feminine voice. The paper argues that Latin American women writers form a presence in the delimited historicity of nation by constructing imagined communities of text, influence, and correspondence; that women writers can inhere a lineage of their imagined community across time; and that each writer’s imagined community represents a simultaneous play of pluralistic and single consciousness, a “borderland” (Anzaldúa) of intellectualism that is
Imagined Community of Female Intellectuals
coefficient and collaborative. All three women used the often-marginalized form of the essay as written sign of both embodied and imagined sense of intellectual nation. Essays are pluralistic modes of production; they can be received culturally as recados (Mistral), testimonio (Ocampo) and crónica (Castellanos). Mistral (1889-1957) was a Chilean poet, educator, diplomat, essayist, and advocate of pan-Americanism; she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945, becoming the first Nobel laureate from Latin America. Ocampo (1890-1979) was an Argentine essayist, literary editor, internationalist, and quintessential woman of letters; her literary magazine, SUR, published illustrious names in avant-garde literature and philosophy in the mid-twentieth century. Castellanos (1925-1974) was a Mexican literary artist who wrote poems, novels, essays, and plays in a distinctive dark and ironic style that pioneered forms of feminist critique and discourse in her country; she was an ardent advocate of indigenous peoples, especially those of her home state in Chiapas. To understand the essay as a tool of connection (knowledge) and resistance (power), we need to explore Anderson’s idea of nation as an imagined community where the concept of simultaneity and the roles of sacred language, written script and centers of legitimacy/authority manifest cultural identity. Nation is a complicated concept that paradoxically embraces external realities of power and culture along with internal perceptions of identity and existence. Nation is a concept without borders in the anthropological formulation offered by Benedict Anderson who defines nation as “an imagined political community” that is
inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion. . . . In fact, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact…are imagined. (6)
He posits two cultural systems—the religious and the dynastic—as more influential than political ideologies in inhering a sense of nation. Religious communities create an “unselfconscious coherence” (16) and are made “imaginable largely through the medium of a sacred language and written script” (13). Dynastic realms can be understood classically as political monarchies in which “[k]inship organizes everything around a high centre” and where “legitimacy derives from divinity, not from populations” (19). In both of these pre-modern configurations, the sense of nation is centered in a legitimate authority which emanates outward, territorially and philosophically. The modern sense of nation is bounded by borders
which set limits and create a sense of containment that forces an inward focus. Anderson suggests that a contemporary conception of “the imagined community” is dependent to a large degree on representations of time and image which create a sense of simultaneity for far-flung citizens. Simultaneity is a vital construct of human cognition. Consciousness of time is configured as a vertical connection of the cosmic and the earthly “simultaneity of past and future in an instantaneous present” (qtd. in Anderson 24). Forms of writing have special roles to play in representation of time and sense of simultaneity for individuals and for communities separated in space. Anderson sees two modern cultural products—the novel and the newspaper—as important vehicles for distributing a population’s capacity for “national imagination” outward from an imagined center of legitimacies, creating aesthetic and rhetorical transit systems to diffuse physical and cultural containment. Written accounts of the world show readers other people who are unknown to them but experiencing familiar things— traveling, talking, farming, interacting with sociopolitical institutions— and the effect is one of recognition that collapses time and creates simultaneous awareness of others in an imagined field. Whether fiction or nonfiction, whether the assembled pieces are breaking news stores, vignettes, political instruction, personal messages, or picaresque chronicles of iconic or celebrity characters, the disparate items are linked by coincidence of their contiguous appearance in time and space in a particular form. The linkage can be eclectic, coincidental, wholly imaginary, Anderson argues, but it gives a simultaneous feel of existing with others. In this way, readers and writers sense the imagined presence of the other, and female intellectuals of different nations, different generations, infuse perceptions of one another. It follows, then, that as writers produce their work, they may also sense simultaneity with other writers they have read or known, or writers whose traditions they resist. A writer becomes a representative center of new experiential legitimacies that emanate outward. In this way, an “unselfconscious coherence” of shared cultures within one writer is infused by perceptions of “simultaneity” in contact with other authors. For female intellectuals joining or diverging from male-dominated intellectual traditions through the act of writing, “simultaneity” is the effect of communicating to a far-flung borderless populace that women are a nation of ideas localized by centers of authority but not affixed to them. While the role of the intellectual is often romanticized as that of the lone, epistemologically pure voice in a temporal rift, the ontology of intellectuals rests pragmatically, synchronically, and diachronically on class
Imagined Community of Female Intellectuals
distinction and the tools (writing, publishing, commerce, media, art) which define and sustain the potential for simultaneity and unconscious coherence of “nation.” Intellectual women, who often experience a limited and marginalized sphere of simultaneity, test Foucauldian presumptions that knowledge equals power. Knowledge enables power in specific temporal currents. We can search for hidden temporal currents in female intellectual history in Latin America with a focus on three writers from three countries. Their lives overlap in a brief but significant span of literary time; they were all alive in the years 1925-57, a time span beginning with the birth of Castellanos and ending with the death of Mistral. Despite differences in ages, the span of literary simultaneity reflects extensive activity on the part of a young Castellanos just beginning her career, and the middle-aged Ocampo and Mistral who were moving from early efforts into their most productive years of publishing and writing. It is a period when Castellanos is growing up in Chiapas, moving to Mexico City as a teenager, attending school, defending her master’s thesis in philosophy, “On Feminine Culture” (1950), writing her first book of poems (1952), publishing her first novel which wins national recognition (1957), then returning to Chiapas (1956) to direct a traveling puppet theater and to reconnect with native indigenous culture. During much of that time, Mistral and Ocampo are visiting and corresponding with one another. In 1925, Mistral, then thirty-six, retires from the Chilean public schools having entered the system as a teacher’s aide at fifteen. She has published poetry and essays during those years, including controversial pieces on women and motherhood. From 1922-24 she works as an educational consultant for the new revolutionary government in Mexico, beginning a friendship and lifelong correspondence with Mexican intellectual and diplomat, Alfonso Reyes. Ocampo, too, is a correspondent and social activist contemporary of Reyes. By 1931, Mistral is traveling extensively in Europe, the United States and the Caribbean, teaching, writing essays, doing lecture tours on issues of women and children, and working as a regular correspondent for most of the major newspapers in the Spanish-speaking world. Her school pension has been suspended as a result of Chilean economic problems. Her diplomatic work in Italy and Spain is unsalaried, so she lives meagerly on journalistic work. Ocampo uses her personal and family wealth to launch SUR in 1931. Two years later she launches SUR’s publishing house to bring out books in Spanish and in translation, encompassing writers as diverse and influential as Virginia Woolf, Albert Camus, and Carl Jung. By 1936, the first collection of Ocampo’s Testimonios is published, and she has founded the Argentine
Women’s Union to fight for women’s suffrage and civil rights. By 1940, SUR publishes a volume of Mistral’s poetry, Tala, with proceeds targeted for Basque children orphaned by the Spanish Civil War, and Ocampo cofounds an organization to fight Nazi and Fascist infiltration in Argentina. By the end of the war (1945), she has published her second volume of Testimonios, financed an European magazine to publish French voices resisting Nazism and published translations of Mistral’s poetry. Mistral, suffering health problems and despondency over the suicide of her nephew, wins the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945. Her last book of poems is not published until ten years after her death in 1957. There is no direct contact between Castellanos, a seminal figure in feminist writing in Mexico, and the activist writers of South America born a generation prior. However, the generations are connected aesthetically and politically to an imagined community of women writers who break silences, speak their lives, and manifest a multi-faceted critique of the established order. Each woman uses writing to create an alternative space for survival of self and resistance to dominant cultural norms. Their imagined community is based on more than a shared interest in the advancement of women. For each, writing self creates a legitimate center of authority with the capacity to expand beyond temporal and spatial borders. Though each writer expresses herself in multiple genres, I will focus on use of one form: the essay. Essay is a form of writing easy to overlook in critical surveys of Latin American women writers. The works are short and ephemeral. They can appear and disappear as quickly as the newspapers and periodicals that carry them. However, essays have particular value in the rich variety of subject matter and expressive style they reflect in a writer’s work. The essay form provides writers with capacity to contain the struggles of intellect against emotion, of conception against preconception, dynamically within malleable constraints of space and time. As non-fiction, essays serve as vital historical documentation of the consciousness within a writer’s imagined community. Each writer demonstrates a different approach to the form. Mistral, a teacher-poet, sees her essays as recados.
The literary form most suitable to this process of discovery of self and others undertaken by Mistral is that of the essay, the recados, which most often translates into a missive of edifying testimony. As a communicative medium these prose texts serve as an epistolary bridge between sender and receiver, a means of intimate, interiorized communication that reflects an absence made presence in the evocation of a distant addressee. (Nanfito 33)
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María Ester Martínez has studied Mistral’s recados and defines them as a form of literary critique, in line with the definition of the Spanish Royal Academy. In addition, Martínez indicates that Mistral gave a “goal in spirit…to the recado, to be a text whose purpose is to inform, value and express an opinion” (qtd. in Agosín 16). Agosín suggests that the recado is “a message that reveals a memory” (16). We can characterize recados as connoting a message or greeting and embracing a range of formats: articles for newspapers, sketches, vignettes, personal observations and commentary. Mistral supports herself and her dependents by lecture tours and journalism. “Monetary need forced Mistral to shift from writing poetry to writing what she termed ‘propaganda’ to supplement what she called the consulate’s ‘semi-amusing salaries’” (Horan and Meyer 3). Largely an émigré from her twenties onward, Mistral is sensitive to the luminal borders of a writer’s intellectual identity and she poses choice of language as an authoritative center of personal legitimacy. In a 1942 recado, “Victoria Ocampo,” Mistral critiques the pluralistic, multi-lingual character of Ocampo’s writing and intellectualism, identifying “many Victorias” who inhabit the one. Throughout their friendship the poet chides Ocampo for her love of French and European culture and is especially concerned about Ocampo’s need to write in French. Mistral suggests that Spanish deserves faithful daughters and that a woman’s decision to choose her language of creative expression is secondary to fealty to Spanish-Latin tradition. Yet she suggests that Ocampo’s love of Argentina is clear. “And this Victoria is going to be the one who remains after the fissure, a tenacious and perfect block of absolute Argentineness hidden in the ivy or the European bougainvillea…” (Mistral 75). Her metaphor suggests that the quality of nation is rock-like or marble-carved in Ocampo, and that Ocampo allows the foliage of an old imperial age to hide that aspect of herself. Mistral’s voice, like her personality in dealing with others, is alternately warm with regard or hardened by candor:
How does she live in that language of crystals. . . . And how can she accept the dichotomy of speaking in Spanish while passionately burning to write in a French as smooth as the beautifully varnished mahogany of the finest wood-carver? In what zone of the intellect and of the soul does she suffer her linguistic bigamy? (80).
Tone and content of Mistral’s recado is that of a long-time teacher who knows the danger of marginalizing one’s distinct sense of knowing through socially facilitative roles. She is didactic and diagnostic, instructing Ocampo to focus boldly on her own work. Mistral calls Ocampo’s incessant role of literary amanuensis to other writers and thinkers a “sense-
less habit of affirming, of assisting, of lending,” to the detriment of her own writing (76). Mistral uses a memory of her Chilean homeland in a way that seems to blend both Martínez’s definition of recado as “critical review” and Agosín’s idea that it presents an experience as a “gift of memory.” The image occurs as Mistral critiques Ocampo for being fearful of offending a “mountain of predecessors” in her first book, which is an academic explication of Dante (77). Mistral recalls a trick that her playmates applied in games of blind-man’s buff. When the blindfolded girl is seeking “it” in the woods, one of the group shouts a false warning: “The river!” The blindfolded girl stops short, scared, “excessively timid” (77). She identifies the aristocratic Ocampo as “the little timorous one from my Elqui Valley” held back from her potential in writing because of “a superstitious fear that almost seems like that of the Indian” (76). “The Indian” figures strongly in Mistral’s popularity and her thematic integrity in poetry. Her Nobel Prize concretizes the poet’s image as a maternal protector of indigenous people and celebrant of nature, motherhood and female experience. Ironically, the facilitative habits—which Mistral warns Ocampo to avoid—provide the pathways to Mistral’s success. The “timorous one” retains a role of literary amanuensis and supports Mistral’s Nobel nomination and international reputation through frequent publishing and translating of her work. Mistral’s maternal iconicity in Chilean culture also embeds ironies. Despite her glorification of maternal roles, Mistral does not have children and chooses a vocation of international transience. She “is clearly aware of the burdens working mother face (Nanfito 30) yet she “lived a life that she did not affirm for other women” (28). Still the romantic idealizations which infuse Mistral’s prose are gripping. Her essay, “Gabriela Reflects on Her Absent Mother,” is an example of how she affects honorific rhetoric and image. The essay is profoundly intimate, metaphorical and conceptually rich in awareness of earth, body and soul. “Yes, my entire world was your face; your cheeks, like honey-colored hills, and the hollows that sadness traced toward the borders of your mouth, two small tender valleys. I learned forms and shapes from studying your head…” (38). Mistral acknowledges the extreme dependencies from which such a view arises.
I was a sad child, Mother, a child shy like the nocturnal crickets in sunlight, like the green lizard that imbibes the sun’s rays. . . . Later on, I became an adolescent, and then a woman. I have walked alone, without the protection of your body, and I know that what they call freedom is a thing without beauty (39).
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Mistral, born middle class, displays signs of an ambivalent relationship to issues of class in letters to Ocampo and in essays. Ocampo, born upper class, has landed wealth, distinguished family lineage, social privilege and the choice of whether to work or not. Mistral has to work as an educator and a writer, aware of humility and the contour its shadow gives to female experience. Humiliation is given a sacrificial connection in an essay on Sor Juana, one of the founding figures of feminine discourse in Latin America, as Mistral writes viscerally of the intellectual nun’s need to be humble:
She had then, like Saint Francis, a passionate yearning for humiliation, and she wanted to undertake the humble tasks of the convent that perhaps she had refused for many years: washing the floors of the cells and curing the repulsive illness with her marvelous hands…she sought the penitent’s cilice and experienced the invigorating feeling of blood over her martyred body. This is, in my opinion, the most beautiful hour of her life; without it, I would not love her as I do (47).
Class status is occluded through concrete acts of humility as practiced by Sor Juana and heralded by Mistral. Ocampo, however, acknowledges class privilege in ways that ideologically interrogate its effects without inscribing or idealizing material humility. Ocampo views her essays as testimonios. “In choosing the name Testimonios for her volumes of essays …Victoria wanted to convey the sense of being called to bear witness to a particular socio-historical period, to the drama of life as she lived it” (Meyer 175). Hers is a life in which the personal is indeed political, played out on a broad, intellectually elite stage. Ocampo’s activism on behalf of women, education, suffrage, international exchange of avant-garde ideas and freedom from fascism is transnational. Her persona as a rich woman of letters, combined with her passionate love of European culture, leaves her open to charges that she is part of the cultural hegemony she urges women to resist. Ocampo appears to freely choose cultural domination by the colonial powers of Europe. Antonio Gramsci’s studies of cultural domination and the relationship between culture and power illuminate the issue. He posits that “cultural domination works by consent and can (and often does) precede conquest by force” and that “the supremacy of a social group manifests itself in two ways, as ‘domination’ and as ‘intellectual and moral leadership’” (qtd. in Viswanathan 1). Ocampo is aligned with reigning Latin American intellectuals who believe that an ecumenical play of foreign perspective in national affairs is compatible with nationalism and, further, will be advantageous to social movements for change (Reyes). Ocampo and Reyes are two of the most influential writers and
speakers of their times advocating the position that postcolonial societies should explore a transnational sense of identity to help address the condition of displacement and to renovate a sense of self. Their position fits a Platonic stratum; they posit that the job of leadership for such a task falls to the educated elite. Gramsci suggests that such “intellectual and moral leadership” tends to result in new or continued supremacy of the existing social structure and can invite critique of cultural dominance by those outside the educated elite. However, such leadership can also foster dynamics of renewal and cultural evaluation. Mistral, with her gift of speaking candidly and incisively, addresses the issue in an unpublished essay she prepares as a defense of her friend when Ocampo is imprisoned as a dissident by the Peronist regime in 1953: “Many times,” Mistral writes, “I’ve heard slanted judgments such as this: ‘We don’t like Victoria because we don’t like her social class, but we read all the books that come out from her press.’ It’s a case of receiving without gratitude, and in this matter, alas, we’re legion” (Horan and Meyer 200). Ocampo writes about her prison experience in the essay, “The Man With the Whip,” in 1955. She is not tortured but cellmates are.
I don’t know if those who haven’t been prisoners can imagine what it means to find oneself lying at night in a bed, in the same prison, in the same room and very close to two women who have just been tortured. . . . One meditates on the fate of those victims with the kind of trembling from pity and indignation to which I have already referred, and one winds up asking: “Why wasn’t it I?” (Meyer 257).
Ocampo’s voice is formal and emotionally cool, especially in comparison with more visceral and poetic works of surviving prison such as the one depicted a generation later in Alicia Partnoy’s The Little School. 1 Prolific in her “witnessing” of life in a generation rife with ideological threats and political causes, Ocampo produces ten volumes of testimonios, each volume containing approximately twenty to thirty essays. Her tone changes in formality – some would say in persona – depending on audience and subject. It supports an understanding of the “many Victoria’s” which Mistral notes in her essay. Sylvia Molloy, in a study of autobiographical and “self writing,” finds that “Ocampo the actress is always behind Ocampo the writer, or rather, …the writer is an actress in disguise, living out a role manqué” (63). Ocampo’s father vetoed a career in theater for his daughter, and some critics view her life as international grande dame des letters as a
Partnoy, born the year Ocampo is imprisoned, becomes one of Argentina’s 300,000 “disappeared” in 1977. She published her experiences in 1986.
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search for compensatory roles. Ocampo biographer Doris Meyer, however, reads a more spiritual and psychological fulfillment into Ocampo’s illustrious editorial career. It allows her access to the best minds, the most challenging ideas and the most significant moral activism (anti-Nazism) which her era has to offer, all of which fuel her understanding of the human condition as dualistic. Ocampo’s exploration of binary conflicting forces in human beings—spirit and matter, belief and reason, love and hate, dark and light, appearance and reality—reflect a personal struggle within her. “It was the essential drama of her life: an urge to dominate and impose her will constantly at odds with another urge to achieve selfperfection and self-discipline” (Meyer 187). At times, her testimonios reflect the disjuncture of an intellectual ontology that is fighting with itself for the right experiential space of expression. Her works address gaps in representation with unstructured form, unconventional phrasing and leaps to other languages for expressive comfort and precision (190). Ocampo finds the struggle to unify the substance of many nations a difficult one. One of her imagined models of coherence is the English writer Virginia Woolf. Ocampo publishes translations of Woolf and corresponds with her, developing a feminist understanding of the need to create independence and a “room of her own.” Addressing the death of the English author in “Virginia Woolf in My Memory” (1941), Ocampo’s tone is personal, informally elegiac but not passionate nor effusive:
Virginia would understand me better than anyone else. . . . The dead are not dead except when their slightest gestures or steps are not perpetuated in anyone. . . . When Narcissus looks at himself in the river, the river looks at itself in the eyes of Narcissus. We’re all made of the same substance. So close to one another without knowing it, . . . united by our common human condition (237).
In contrast, her political argumentation offers formal qualities of debate, appeals to reason and intellectual authority. “Woman, Her Rights and Her Responsibilities” (1936) is a carefully developed critical essay on the importance of education for all women.
It is incredible, and I speak now without irony, that millions of human beings have not yet understood that current demands made by women are simply limited to requiring that a man stop thinking of a woman as a colony for him to exploit and that she become instead “the country in which he lives.” (229)
Then there are portrait pieces that reveal much about her class status, entitlement and background. The tone in the 1949 “Fani” is fond and warm, a
testimonio to the life, death and independent personality of Estefania, a serving woman who traveled with her for 42 years. Fani has no surname in the piece, no identity beyond the Ocampo household.
As the doctor had foreseen, she passed from the coma to death at daybreak, when the storm turned into a gentle rain, at the hour when she would have left my room with her pillow and blanket saying to me: “The thunder has stopped. Turn off the light and go to sleep” (208 Ocampo qtd. in Meyer).
The author’s emotional distancing and self-protection are apparent in the essay, and Ocampo’s blindspot regarding the serving classes is noticeable to the reader. She is an ardent advocate of education for women, yet she let Fani spend her life as an illiterate. Ocampo’s blindspot is echoed with a twist twenty-four years later by a different generation of writer, by a voice more self-aware, daring, and ironic. Rosario Castellanos also writes about a personal servant, Maria Escandon, but the author’s approach marks a modernist leap forward from the reverence of classical tradition that is obvious in Ocampo’s style. There is no hiding behind formalities in Castellanos’ work. She mocks herself in “Herlinda Leaves,” her essay on her cargadora or childhood playmate from the servant class who was a companion up to and through adulthood, until marriage: “There I was off playing Quetzalcoatl, the great white civilizing god” for the indigenous people—and “I had never even taught [María] to read well or to write” (qtd. in Ahern 268). Castellanos’s essays fall into a third iteration of essay form which Ahern identifies as the crónica, short creative prose carried in newspapers, putatively non-fiction but using poetic narrative strategies for a literary effect. They are a form of “literary journalism” for Castellanos that allows her wide latitude in style and voice (Schaeffer). Essay is a form which effectively serves Castellanos in her groundbreaking development of a feminist ideology of Mexican women. Castellanos’s second collection of essays, Mujer que sabe latín, is viewed as a milestone in Latin American thought about women (Ahern 39). Castellanos addresses the linguistic and rhetorical gap in discourse of the rights of women and creates a language of ideas about the feminine experience in Mexico, a semiotics of “woman as sign” (Ahern xv). The writer embraces the “unpoetic” nature of women’s domestic life and limns the ordinary for its defining features, writing in the marginalized spaces which hold women, children, indigenous people, and dissenters. Castellanos’ critical explication of feminine ideology begins in earnest in 1950 with her master’s thesis in philosophy, “Sobre cultura femenina,” which offers evidence of how patriarchal epistemology finds rational ways
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of determining women’s biological and, by extension, ontological, inferiority. Travel in Europe exposes her to ideas of influential feminist writers and thinkers. Particularly integral are works by Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex) who emphasizes cultural construction of gender roles and myths; Simone Weil (diaries) whose working experience among oppressed factory workers highlights economic injustice; and Virginia Woolf (fiction and non-fiction) whose rhetorical blend of subjectivity and critical analysis illuminated subtle strategies for presenting the status quo and simultaneously subverting it. One of the hallmarks of Castellanos is a fearless, autobiographical manipulation of tone that can create a bleak irony at the expense of herself, patriarchal authority and even other women. In parodies of domesticity such as “The Liberation of Love” (or, in short fiction, “Cooking Lesson”), the tone is mocking and challenging: “You, madam, self-sacrificing little Mexican woman, or you, self-sacrificing little Mexican woman on the road to emancipation: what have you done in the last few months on your own behalf?” (264). The style is light years away from the formal argumentation of a Victoria Ocampo but in the swift recursive motion of one rhetorical question, Castellanos changes an imperative taunt into a deeply reflective challenge. Castellanos can rebuke traditional rhetoric as she invokes its effect. This quality of bold candor and challenge offers a sign of connection to the simultaneity of the imagined community of female intellectuals. Castellanos’s style bears marks of Mistral’s rhetoric in the “river” taunt, when she urged Ocampo to be a woman working on behalf of her own gifts. There is a key epistemological difference between Castellanos’s parodic lesson and Mistral’s anecdotal one. Castellanos is part of a later community in which incipient ideas of woman’s absence and oppression are given formal expression by de Beauvoir, Weil, and Woolf. It fosters a language of symbols on the dark side of nature and motherhood and critique of the iconic figures of virtue and vice—the Virgin of Guadalupe, Sor Juana and Malinche—used by masculinist Latin American culture uses to categorize woman. “Woman has been a myth,” Castellanos says in “Woman and Her Image,” a 1973 essay. “[T]he victor—who plants his heel on the cervix of the vanquished enemy—feels in each heartbeat a threat; in each gesture, the imminence of flight; and in every move, an attempt to revolt” (237). She warns women of the dark side of doing what others deem right and paints ironic criticism of models of virtue with the use of Woolf’s quintessential portrayal of ineffectual Victorian womanhood, the “Angel in the House.”
Purity is presented as ignorance (239) and self-denial is questioned as a virtue (261). Castellanos does not appear to fall into postcolonial evocation of the “nostalgia of lost origins.” The writer’s engagement with the past, whether in essays or fiction, is rendered with an ironic realism that refuses to romanticize yesterdays. She grew up in a post-revolutionary Mexico in which land reform flattened the old class strata and allowed for new manifestations of injustice along age-old lines of race, gender, and work. Loss is a struggle not a “nostalgia” or Westernized “melancholy” (Bartra 11). Critics see subtexts in her work that reveal more anxiety about progress than worry about tragedy of the past. Castellanos’ work consistently acknowledges life of indigenous people as multi-dimensional, full of current and future darkness but inherently dynamic and present. Her preoccupation with making the absent “present” in the history of her country is keenly manifested on behalf of women. She suggests that women recover purity through writing. Words “must be bathed in purity,” by which she means “exactness,” according to her essay “Language as Instrument of Domination” (250). Writing liberates because it is a form that frees. Castellanos notes that when she began writing sonnets, a formal kind of poetry, “as though”—she writes—“I have been emancipated from the dominion of chaos” (254). Her best essays integrate her creative writing and dramatize with spare, rich description of scenes and people. Using small strokes of detail, she oxygenates a scene and gives the illusion of vulnerable people, breathing together. This quality is apparent in “Incident at Yalentay” (226), a crónica about the puppet theater she directs during a tour of Chiapas. The puppet Petul becomes the “safe” mediator between members of the indigenous community and government-sponsored educators. Petul can say the same words as the visitors but not threaten them nor injure their pride. The essay demonstrates the need for imagined contexts for basic discourse and highlights the role of a culturally embodied speaker as a mediator of meanings. Writers seek other writers as mediators in their imagined communities. It is Mistral who acts as mediating model for Castellanos in a critical period of searching for a writing self. She uses Mistral as a model for finding a grounded, natural essence for artistic expression of the feminine voice. In an essay critiquing her own development as a poet (“If Not Poetry, Then What?”), Castellanos speaks of how she turned to the expressive vocabulary and substance of Mistral at a point when she was trying to turn from the conceptual, sterile sphere of academic writing to find her own aesthetic voice.
Imagined Community of Female Intellectuals I could find no better way out of this blind alley than to place a model or example in front of me and then laboriously copy it as faithfully as possible. I chose Gabriela Mistral, the Gabriela of ‘Matter,’ ‘Creatures,’ and ‘Messages,’ the reader of the Bible, a reading which I then of course also applied. The image of such exemplary models casts its shadows and some of its substance over the pages of De la vigilia esteril.” (257)
Clearly, writing creates alternative space for the survival of self and for the evolution of political consciousness. It can be said that all forms of domination inhere resistance but not all forms of resistance are the same. Resistance can be organized and identifiable or inherent “in the very gaps, fissures, and silences of hegemonic narratives. Resistance is encoded in the practices of remembering, and of writing” and of everyday practice in women’s lives (Mohanty 38). Contexts of feminism differ according to proportion of ideology and experiential perspective in the loci of movements.2 The individualistic Anglo-American movement emphasizes the logic of identification which is predicated on a woman subject who claims the autonomous position characteristic of the male. In what is loosely termed third world feminism, there is a collectively-based logic of opposition predicated on a “plurality of self,” on “writing/speaking of a multiple consciousness, one located at the juncture of contests over the meanings of racism, colonialism, sexualities, and class” (36). Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldúa terms this form of plurality “mestiza consciousness” and situates it as the ontology of borderlands, specifically of the United States/Mexican border. As a consciousness of pluralities, it provides a simultaneous play of singular and plural selves with a culture, a form of agency very different from the dualistic structure of Western postmodern theory which posits a splintered subject and multiplicities of meaning.
Feminist approaches are multi-faceted and cannot be reduced to dueling theories. However, sharp and telling critical contrasts have emerged in Western and nonWestern feminisms. Western approaches often derive theories and goals from the status of women as subjects in a developed society; ideological assumptions are that equality with men can redress major problems of inequity and prejudice. NonWestern feminisms often derive frameworks from collective standpoints of cultures in undeveloped locales; these situational approaches see women’s subjectivity more broadly as a sphere of gender relations that supports many forms of human oppression and bias. Fulfillment of basic needs becomes a concrete step toward empowerment across a range of inequities in gender, race, class and social positioning. Latin American feminisms are especially dynamic arenas where ideologies of equality compete with strong socio-political conventions that idealize motherhood and traditional roles.
To connect pluralities of purposes, unify mind and spirit, and bridge cultural and geographical gaps, the essay emerges as a genre that can expand, contract or adapt. For women whose intellectual role may be limited by collective constraints of culture, the essayistic discourse of, in their case, recados, testimonies, and the crónica offer options to engage a sense of simultaneity with unknown others and establish themselves as centers of authority in Anderson’s construct of the imagined community. The writing lives of Mistral, Ocampo, and Castellanos form intellectual centers of authority, connected through correspondence, subject matter, allusion, intertextuality, and resistance, as in the case of Castellanos’s break from an old world formality epitomized by Ocampo. Analysis of their essays show concrete political agency embedded in representation of class, race, gender, and frameworks of institutional power. Each writer demonstrates a plural consciousness of other writers and other women in selected essays. This creates a condition of “unselfconscious coherence” in an imagined community, one in which woman writers perceive the experience of others in an extended intellectual “nation.”
Agosín, Marjorie. “Gabriela Mistral.” Women. Buffalo: White Pine Press, 2000: 3-21. Ahern, Maureen, ed. A Rosario Castellanos Reader. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988. Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983. Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987. Bartra, Roger. “The Invention of the Mexican Character.” Primitivism and Identity in Latin America. Eds. Erik Camayd-Freixas and José Eduardo Gonzalez. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2000 Castellanos, Rosario. A Rosario Castellanos Reader. Ed. Maureen Ahern. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988. —. Mujer que sabe latín. 1973. Horan, Elizabeth and Doris Meyer, eds. This America of Ours: The Letters of Gabriela Mistral and Victoria Ocampo. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003. Molloy, Sylvia. At Face Value: Autobiographical Writing in Spanish America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. Meyer, Doris. Victoria Ocampo: Against the Wid and the Tide. New York: George Braziller, 1979.
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Mistral, Gabriela. Selected Prose and Prose Poems. Ed. Stephen Tapscott. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002. —. Women. Eds. Margorie Agosin and Jacqueline C. Nanfito. Buffalo: White Pine P, 2000. Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Cartographies of Struggle.” Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Eds. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo and Lourdes Torres. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991: 1-47. Nanfito, Jacqueline C. “Memory, Resistance and Identity.” Women. Buffalo: White Pine Press, 2000: 22-34. Reyes, Alfonso. “The Latin American Intellect.” Infotrac. UNESCO Archives. <http://web4.infotrac.galegroup.com/itw/infomark/471/529/54102292 w4/purl=rc1_EAIM> accessed September 2009. Schaefer, Claudia. Textured Lives: Women, Art and Representation in Modern Mexico. Tuscon, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1997. Viswanathan, Gauri. Masks of Conquest. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.
A VISION OF THE PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL, BENJAMIN FRANKLIN STYLE ANNE MELFI
The would-be public intellectual can draw insight and inspiration to address contemporary concerns by reflecting on the life example, the practical wit and wisdom, of Benjamin Franklin. Despite superficial differences, his time and ours have much in common. The Enlightenment of the long eighteenth century was an age of technological innovation, a revolution in communications, a drive for universal education, and for civic engagement that made the American Enlightenment unique, for although the colonists drew their inspiration from the Scottish Enlightenment, the cutting edge of the republic of letters, American discourse was driven by the urgent need to protect safety and liberty in the face of the “continuous irritant of conflict . . . between American and British interests” (Ferguson 87). American intellectuals were activists writing to a literate public (38). “Eighty-five percent of all adult males in New England [could] read” (86); great hope rode on small pamphlets (87). Today, it is computer literacy and internet access that serve. And, as in Franklin’s time, public discourse hails from within and without the academy. Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington, selftaught men of letters, traded discourse with John Adams, Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, and others of their university-trained counterparts, and all took inspiration from Addison, Steele, Swift and other academics from across the pond via the published word. Today, movie star Robert Redford’s NRDC (the National Resources Development Council) deploys a sophisticated interactive internet strategy to educate, inform, and mobilize grass roots support to save the environment. Scruffy independent film maker Michael Moore makes documentaries to supply eclipsed facts and to ask hard questions. Of course, he deploys the net as does Al Gore, who, working with Apple Inc., works to stop global warming. In addition, Gore’s Academy Award-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth and his many books have been educating the public on climate change. He had found a more viable alternative to public office in the private sphere dur-
A Vision of the Public Intellectual, Benjamin Franklin Style
ing the prevailing political climate of the Bush administration. Also discouraged with government work, U.S. Senator Bayh retired in February 2010 despite robust prospects for re-election, frustrated with stalemates over healthcare reform and other urgent issues, blaming “braindead partisanship” (news.yahoo.com). Take heart. Disagreement and dissension have been the lifeblood of American discourse from the start. Benjamin Franklin wrote in his essay The Internal State of America that “by the Collision of different Sentiments. . . . Sparks of truth are struck out, and political Light is obtained” (qtd. in Ferguson 28). Have opposing factions stopped shedding light and now clouded clarity? The job of creating unity in diversity, of invoking vision, purpose, and hope in times of uncertainty and upheaval fell to the writers of the Revolution, who deployed purposeful ambiguity as the language of unity in such public documents as the Declaration of Independence (Ferguson 20). Make no mistake: Franklin, “the first American” (Isaacson 3), “the living symbol of the American Enlightenment” (Ferguson 28), does not represent all of his compatriots’ thinking; rather, he epitomizes a practice of free and open discourse and a masterful harmonizing of diverse views. Jefferson drafted the Declaration; Franklin, et al., revised it. Their vision of the human right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” reads ambiguously. What, for example, is happiness? But all agreed on these universal principles. The American experiment of manifesting the ideal is a work in progress that these thinkers believed to be within the grasp of human nature to accomplish. The work continues. Today, seeing a shortfall of such daunting collaborative work, President Obama turns to the grass roots electorate, elevating over the heads of a divided Congress, and speaks truth to power: “This is not about me; it’s about you,” an invitation to critical engagement. The Internet, too, has empowered and invited overdue grass roots re-engagement (Friedman), in a time when American ideals are constantly tested under pressure of economic and political interests and, perhaps, an occasional fit of amnesia that plagues an age of convenience and comfort. The twentieth century, dominated by a drive for conformity and against dissent, began to change course in the latter half, thanks to pressure against such constriction from books like You Don’t Need Their Approval by Wayne Dyer and Free to Be You and Me by Marlo Thomas, for example, raising a diverse-minded, critical-thinking millennial generation (Twenge 23). Psychologist Jean M. Twenge calls them in her book Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever. The first three qualities sound progressive. Perhaps the millen-
nials can find value in their disquiet in light of some insights from Franklin. Benjamin Franklin culled his pithy aphorisms from the wisdom of many ages and nations, fitted them to American sensibility with wit and local color. They have become part of the fabric of American life. To more fruitfully benefit from Franklin’s hard-won expertise and rise to the challenges we face today, I present Franklin’s sage example and advice in sections labeled according to key principles for living that Enlightenment ideal of public intellectual needed now, as ever.
Benjamin Franklin pronounced bluntly on a dilemma that faces would-be public intellectuals everywhere: “Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.” The wording has been variously rendered, including “They that give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety” (qtd. in Humes 42). The freedom to speak truth to power comes with financial independence from that power. Isaacson (29-33) describes how Franklin had learned at the tender age of sixteen as an apprentice at his brother’s printing company that if he wanted to develop a public voice, he must be his own master. His brother beat him regularly and refused to publish his articles in his independent newspaper, until Franklin submitted them under the pseudonym of Silence Dogood. When his brother discovered who wrote the popular pieces he had been printing, the backlash eventually inspired the youth at seventeen to seek independence and guard it vigorously. The colonies later followed suit. In Philadelphia, he progressed quickly from journeyman printer to eventually build his own printing business, publishing business, and paper mill, not by going “early to bed” as his Poor Richard advises in the Almanac, but by burning the late night oil studying and working his trade. He worked not primarily for wealth, but as a means to independence, whereby he could make himself more useful: He was able to retire at forty-two to devote himself to his own agenda of scientific experiment, study, and public service, never filing patents on his inventions; he could afford to share his discoveries freely for the benefit of his world (Isaacson 127-128). He did not need to fear for his livelihood as retaliation for his actions. He answered to his own conscience that drove his efforts to raise the quality of human life and to realize his full potential as a human being, as his rigorous self-improvement program notes survive to attest (Isaacson 47-51, 67). Thus, Franklin became independent of income and influence by design.
A Vision of the Public Intellectual, Benjamin Franklin Style
He also developed a habit of intellectual independence, for he was largely self-educated, not a product of academia.
Access to the Public Ear
It is not unlikely that Benjamin Franklin set the tenor of the time which rendered the colonies ripe for revolution and independence. The most popular writer in the colonies, his final edition of Poor Richard’s Almanac sold ten thousand copies to a Philadelphia literate population of fifteen thousand (Lupton 2005, 472). The distribution of his newspaper ranged throughout the colonies, thanks to an excellent postal system which he himself designed and was later able to perfect, having risen to Royal Postmaster General of all the American colonies. Newspaper publishers coveted postmaster appointments because they could then use the post to distribute their newspapers and, as a rule, eliminated competing newspapers from such distribution. Arguably, Franklin’s primary purpose in uniting the colonies through an improved postal system that could deliver a letter and its reply between New York and Philadelphia within twenty-four hours was not simply to benefit his newspaper business. He campaigned vigorously for unity among the colonies for the benefit of trade, unified defense, and negotiation with the Indian nations (Isaacson 158), a unity which a better postal system would enhance. (The “Albany Plan” for unity failed, however; unity was going to have to wait until the American Revolution.) Furthermore, Franklin broke with common practice to include his competitors’ newspapers in the delivery system, a disarming measure that kept public discourse lively (Isaacson 115116).
Free and Open Discourse
Benjamin Franklin valued and encouraged free and open exchange of views. As a boy in Boston, he practiced debating different sides of an issue with a bright friend (Isaacson 27). As a tradesman in Philadelphia, he formed a secret service association for improving self and community, which he called the Junto, also called the Leather Apron Club, a club of tradesmen which openly discussed, in addition to practical issues of business and public service projects, natural philosophy, morals, poetry, politics, any “encroachments on liberties of the populace” (Durham 131). More publicly, Franklin created the first newspaper editorial page and printed letters of opposing viewpoints, creating opportunities for civic discourse and catalyzing debate among citizens and educating the public
on issues. He fostered critical thinking by an engaged citizenry, aided and abetted by his design and management of an efficient postal system.
Architecting an American Forum
Jennifer Rose Mercieca’s review of Spreading the News:The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse by Richard R. John (1996) tends to support Isaacson’s conclusion that Franklin’s rise to Royal Postmaster General was the primary factor in making our prenatal nation not only a republic of letters, but also a community that was actively and widely engaged in civic discourse (Mercieca 289). Although John dates that achievement after the Post Office Act of 1792 in Jacksonian America (Mercieca 289), Isaacson describes how it was Franklin who developed the colonial postal system into an efficient, well-oiled machine that spread information, including the newspapers, throughout the colonies. John writes that the postal service created a sense of community:
Post offices became gathering places for local communities where information was freely traded out and let in and the contents of newspapers became objects of public discussion. In short, John locates a vibrant public sphere of debate in each community’s post office (Mercieca 290).
Was this lively civic discourse a far-reaching result of Benjamin Franklin’s efforts or did that postal forum for debate begin to gather momentum in Franklin’s own time? Isaacson’s account would tend to favor the latter, identifying Franklin as the architect of the public forum of civic discourse for all, as does the Internet today, through a colony-wide web which, while not virtual, put everyone on the same page and leveled the playing field as has the internet globally today (Friedman). Such a system served to efficiently distribute Franklin’s newspaper, filled with news, opinion pieces by the editor and the readers, and to project Franklin’s vision of the American ethos, the “middling people,” highly literate, educated philosopher-tradesmen who took an active role in creating their world (Durham; Isaacson). The vision was much different from the socially stratified mother country of lords and commoners. Franklin’s efficient postal service not only helped to make him the most popular writer in America, but more important to his role as an instigator of civic involvement, he delivered subject matter via his newspaper which seems designed to instigate civic discourse, involvement, and critical thinking, as the content of those pages suggest. Thus, Benjamin Franklin achieved the means of both liberty and security through his newspaper business, later augmented by his work as Royal Postmaster General. His
A Vision of the Public Intellectual, Benjamin Franklin Style
work had fostered financial independence and an infrastructure for civic voice for himself and others, be they like-minded or not (Isaacson 66).
Still, Franklin tempered his expression with care. He continued to use sock puppets like Silence Dogood the more freely to speak truth to power, a trick he had learned from Joseph Addison and Richard Steel’s essays from the Spectator, essays on which he rigorously schooled himself in his youth. He admired the airing of views in the letters to the editors, the more freely expressed through the mask of invented “handles,” which protected reputations, livelihoods, and lives from the forces of public opinion and political power. Through Silence Dogood, he could voice plainly points that tended to sound less contentious coming from a rural widow woman than from a more worldly news writer. Amidst a folksy chat about her courtship with a minister and her faults and strengths, she went on to discuss her beliefs and biases. Isaacson writes,
Franklin had Mrs. Dogood assert an attitude that would, with his encouragement, become part of the emerging American character: “I am . . . a mortal enemy to arbitrary government and unlimited power. I am naturally very jealous for the rights and liberties of my country; and the least appearance of an encroachment on those invaluable privileges is apt to make my blood boil exceedingly” (30).
Mark Twain and Will Rogers took up the torch and perfected this “wry, homespun mix of folksy tales and pointed observations” that became a distinctly American genre of social commentary (Isaacson 29).
Wit and Charm
Franklin learned to buffer the sting of critique with wit and charm. If Enlightenment plain rhetoric meant speaking frankly, it did not equate with rash bluntness. Joseph Addison had written in the Spectator, “I shall endeavor to enliven Morality with Wit and to temper Wit with Morality” (qtd. in Isaacson 28). Franklin wore the style well all his life, as did later American commentators who followed his example. Franklin developed ways to make the medicine go down, not with sugar, but with puckish charm—the charm of debate, the charm of human nature, of inquiry, of turning over practical issues and ideas in community, and most significantly, the charm of entertaining an ideal life, and of creating a world that would match a well-considered vision. If no one replied to his sock pup-
pet’s letter to the editor, he invented another one to reply with a different angle to keep the discussion alive (Isaacson 61). Thus he kept his readership informed and entertained with the issues of the day, which not only sold newspapers, but also teased the readers into civic engagement (Isaacson 65). “Not Wit alone, nor Humour’s self, will do, Without Good nature, and much Prudence too,” Franklin clarified through his alter-ego, Poor Richard, of Almanac fame (“Poor Richard Improved 1757,” Yale). He had learned as a youth an important lesson in charm and diplomacy from Socrates and from his boyhood debate partner about what not to do to win friends and influence people. Through engaging in intellectual sport, he “began to tailor for himself a persona that was less contentious and confrontational” to avoid creating enmity, a counter-productive by-product (Isaacson 27). As an elder statesman, he concluded, “Persons of good sense, I have since observed, seldom fall into [disputation], except lawyers, university men, and men of all sorts that have been bred at Edinburgh” (qtd. in Isaacson 27). Franklin wrote, “‘Never contradict another.’ . . . Thomas Jefferson said that this advice was the secret of Franklin’s persuasive powers. He reported that he never heard Franklin directly contradict anyone” (Humes 22 & fn 10). The quintessential critical thinker, the young Benjamin Franklin was pleased to preserve his independence from the academy and think for himself. From his reading on Socrates, he learned to “put on the role of humble enquirer” and soon learned that using dialectic to make others voice their own absurdities created a counter-productive embarrassment and ill will. Enmity meant endgame for open dialogue. He learned to purify his gentle indirection of the more unfavorable side effects (Isaacson 27). He thus became a master at managing affect as an essential element of inquiry and persuasion. Charm served to uphold truth by making truth palatable and thus more readily received. Franklin loved people of all walks and they loved him, writes historian Edmund S. Morgan: “He seems to have charmed them all” (Franklinpapers.org). People tend trust and heed those they hold in high esteem.
The heart grows weary of sly rhetoric, of ceremonial pomp and circumstance that attends aristocratic manners and rule, speeches that proclaim flowery pronouncements but prove of little or no practical value, or worse, subtly undermine liberty, truth, and wellbeing. During the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, essayists challenged such Restoration rhetoric.
A Vision of the Public Intellectual, Benjamin Franklin Style
Philosophers favored plain rhetoric, extolled and defined variously, all agreeing that its purpose was to express as clearly, concisely and transparently as possible the writer’s intent, an intent that should be frank and sincere (Lupton 2007). Such writing could inspire the reader to take its intent seriously. To be sure, essays about plain style could be satirical or humorous. They could be complex. They could entertain the ineffable, sometimes in the form of a riddle. But they strove to reveal truth that would engage the reader in critical thinking rather than baffle or mislead. Expression in plain terms, then, announced itself as a counter-rhetoric that cut through the clutter and invoked a new ethic, a practical purpose that empowered the readers to participate in the discussion, even through quiet reading, and to engage in improving self and world with a fresh new attitude. Franklin strove toward an ethos of frank and open expression tempered by reason, as he envisioned the new American cultural character. In his dress, his manner, his ethics, his thinking, and his rhetoric, he “carefully crafted his own persona, portrayed it in public, and polished it for posterity”; he became the prototypical, the first, American (Isaacson 2-3).
Plain Talk, Plain Dress of “the Middling People”
This was a land of “the middling people,” a prototype for the middle class, self-reliant, self-governing, without pretensions to gentry and its superfluous trappings, Franklin believed. On his diplomatic mission to France, Franklin dressed simply, like a businessman, and eschewed wearing the ubiquitous white wig of courtly society. Franklin the American identity-maker wore a marten fur hat he had acquired on a back-woods mission to Canada as an emblem of the rustic New World. His discovery of electricity and invention of the lightning rod had preceded him to France, and he was already adored for his humanitarian genius. He chose to cast that genius in the light of frank simplicity and captured the French idealist imagination and respect (Isaacson). In addition, Franklin emulated Enlightenment principles of plain rhetoric, which featured sincere expression in relatively simple, though graceful, style, in contrast to florid courtly language that tended toward wordiness and opacity of meaning, hiding any lack thereof in content. Instead, he took the lead of essayists like Addison, Steele, and Swift in addressing the issues of the day. Still, his style was not necessarily simple, but stretched to accommodate the complexities of ideas frankly shared; Franklin’s writing was not always “smooth, clear, and short,” the ideal of plain rhetoric; his essay “On Literary Style” for the Pennsylvania Gazette opens
with a sentence that spans the entire first paragraph and accommodates ambiguity (Lupton 2007, 179). An honest effort at embracing the ambiguities that exist rather than rushing to judgment tends, however, to rise to the very purpose of plain rhetoric to accurately represent the truth, a truth that must then engage the reader all the more in entertaining the questions posed by those ambiguities. Thus confiding with the readers at eye level, not looking down upon them from the considerable stature of his genius and dynamism, Franklin called for their opinions. In his dress, as in his literary tone, he represented himself as one of them, the middling people. Poor Richard advises, “Setting too good an example is a kind of slander seldom forgiven” (qtd. in Humes 26). Benjamin Franklin did not set himself up for such unproductive ill will by putting on airs. He valued the trust and partnership of his community more.
Patience and Silence
On occasion, however, free and frank expression can be counterproductive, occasions when a proposition may not at first appear to favor the other’s self-interest. Words may not do the job, especially those that frame a hasty demand counter to the other’s current policy. At times common ground and receptivity must be carefully courted before requesting a considerable commitment of cash or political capital. Such are the times to partner the principles of patience and silence, as did Benjamin Franklin on his mission to France1 for financial and military support for the American Revolution. He used the extreme degree of “gentle indirection.” Upon arrival, he was pleased and surprised to find that his paper on electricity had preceded him; his experiment had been replicated, and the French people, all of them, apparently, had become exceedingly grateful for the lightning rod that saved their homes from fire due to lightning strikes. He was their idol, a star. This helps. Patience and silence may be much less exciting, even painful, or worse, boring, without such serendipity. Franklin could afford to maintain a dignified silence and court French adulation on behalf of America. He attended parties; he played chess; he wrote entertaining bagatelles; he printed pamphlets; he organized and planned; he made John Adams angry and impatient at such time-wasting when the need was so urgent in America. Franklin knew the French protocols. He
1 For an excellent discussion on Franklin’s mission to France, see Walter Isaacson’s biography 325-435.
A Vision of the Public Intellectual, Benjamin Franklin Style
played the French; he played them against the British. It took years. He won the day, as history records.
A Network of Friends
The success of a great idea tends to depend on how thoroughly it spreads and how it appeals to those that have the power to bring that great idea to fruition. For Franklin, the power rested with the community, the citizens themselves, who were most invested in improving the quality of community life. These were the people to whom he had to appeal. These were the powers he had to reach. In keeping with the tenor of the times, Franklin would not have credited the cult of personality as much as he would value character to accomplish his goals (Morgan). Franklin did not trust the success of his efforts to his ethos. He campaigned actively for causes he deemed valuable for all. His Junto and the subordinate clubs founded by its twelve members all mobilized to influence public opinion and to promote public projects (Durham 132). This networking, aided and abetted by Franklin’s publishing and postal service information channels, constituted full-bodied public awareness campaigns, complete with what would today be called viral marketing. “Buzzing up” projects they deemed would enhance quality of life for their community and their businesses, the Junto may have had an even more profound influence than the print media which are traditionally regarded with reservation.
Public Service: Walking the Talk
Franklin enacted the ideals he described. He walked his talk, his motto “To pour forth benefits for the common good is divine,” which appears in Latin on the building that now houses the library he founded in Philadelphia in 1731(Isaacson 103). It was the first public library in the colonies (Durham 143). He founded and organized the Union Fire Company, the first volunteer fire company in America and “spawned sister fire companies around the town” (Isaacson 105). But he did not accomplish these and his many other projects alone. Meetings of Benjamin Franklin’s secret Junto, which he had founded at the age of twenty-one, followed an agenda of questions. Question number eleven was: “Do you think of anything at present, in which the Junto may be serviceable to mankind, to their country, to their friends, or to themselves?” (Durham 131). Franklin is credited with an impressive list of American firsts for which he enlisted the help of the Junto. The Junto sup-
ported “the formation of the town watch, the academy that Franklin founded (which later became the University of Pennsylvania), the fire company, the Library Company, and Franklin’s pamphlet on the necessity of paper currency” (Durham 132). He campaigned to have the fledgling city of Philadelphia’s roads paved at last and lit at night to keep the houses cleaner and the streets safer (Isaacson). There is no way to know whether he would have succeeded without their support, but the social nature of the institutions he founded would suggest that he could not have created them alone, however excellent was his vision. Poor Richard advises congeniality: “He that drinks his cider alone, let him catch his horse alone” (qtd. in Isaacson 102). Indeed, the community around him was part and parcel of his endeavors—their inspiration, substance, and means of fruition. His civic efforts included his many inventions which he offered as “open source,” to borrow contemporary software development terminology (Friedman), without patent and made available for further development and public use. This ethic would inspire trust in his word and respect for his vision, validating Poor Richard’s aphorism: “Well done is better than well said” (qtd. in Humes 68). Mahatma Ghandhi captures Franklin’s principle in the nutshell in the slogan, “Be the change you want to see.” If Franklin had post-dated Gandhi, he would have put that in his Almanac.
An Educated Populace
A lighthouse of wisdom and vision would be a voice in the desert without an educated citizenry to appreciate and critically engage with the message. Franklin advises, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. . . . They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of liberty” (qtd. in Humes 24). Franklin’s ideal America would be peopled by an educated middle class engaged in self government (Isaacson 3). Franklin, with but two years of formal education at the top of his class in Boston Latin School, followed by much broad independent reading, writing, life-long study, and many years in the school of life, wrote complete and meticulous plans describing a system of education for what was later to become the University of Pennsylvania to develop an intelligent, industrious citizenry (Isaacson; Thorpe).
Conclusion: Dejà Vu
Readers of Franklin will no doubt find more principles than I have identified above and readily recognize their practical value for the twenty-
A Vision of the Public Intellectual, Benjamin Franklin Style
first century. Today, our core values are still questioned, debated, and jeopardized in and out of government, sometimes unwittingly. Adequate education of our public is still a challenge and a necessity. We are still responsible for our own quality of life, though too many do not recognize this truth. But lest we feel helpless in the face of forces that seem beyond our control, consider the resources now available. Our web is now digital and accessible to all, thanks to the inventor who chose not to patent the web and to Al Gore who championed it in the legislature. They leveled the playing field, in concert with a network of unsung heroes from the scientific community collaborating quietly behind the scenes without motive for financial gain. Bottom-up economics and grass roots governance seem more possible, when small individual contributions and connections can tip the scales, and a growing body of research offers the optimistic news that “little things can make a big difference” (Gladwell’s title). Through the Internet and other information technology initiatives that Thomas L. Friedman describes in The World is Flat, initiatives like open source software development, unprecedented infrastructure for education, activism, prosperity, and global unity is still readily available, calling only for one more Franklin principle not yet listed herein—ingenuity. “You have on hand those things that you need if you have but the wit and wisdom to use them.” (These words are widely attributed to Franklin and certainly match his philosophy.) We are still re-inventing ourselves and our world. The advice we can derive from Franklin for those who would lead: Learn to embrace and parse ambiguity in conditions as we find them, for the moral and economic challenges we face are hardly just either-or, black or white, blue or red. It will take not only education and intelligence, but also more patience in this high-velocity world than most have been willing to tolerate to create common ground and trust necessary for free and open discourse among factions that obfuscate civic progress. From Franklin, we can see the need to recall our heritage of independence. A bad habit acquired in years since seems to cloud the collective memory. The habit of looking to others to endorse, to publish, or to otherwise enact the fruits of intellectual activity has set in by force of multiple expedients and has become naturalized. One trades freedom for security and makes an assumption that turns moral philosophy inside out. Franklin writes, “He that is of the opinion money will do everything may well be suspected of doing everything for money” (qtd. in Humes 48). Pick a livelihood that does not jeopardize core values. What makes an effective public intellectual? When a reporter consults ProfNet, finds a professor’s phone number and calls for a chat to round out
an article, the public exposure may help, but falls far short of making that professor a public intellectual; the words thus harvested may be used out of context to serve an agenda contrary to the professor’s own. By Benjamin Franklin’s model, the commitment to uplift life with wisdom demands much more of us all.
Durham, Jennifer L. Benjamin Franklin, A Biographical Companion. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1997. Ferguson, Robert A. The American Enlightenment 1750-1820. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997. Friedman, Thomas L. The World is Flat: A Brief History of the TwentyFirst Century. New York: Farrar, 2005. Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. New York: Little Brown, 2002. Humes, James C. The Wit & Wisdom of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Harper Perennial, 1996. Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. John, Richard R. Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996. Lupton, Christina. “Sincere Performances: Franklin, Tillotson, and Steele on the Plain Style.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 40,2 Winter (2007): 177-92. Lupton, Christina. “Two Texts Told Twice: Poor Richard, Pastor Yorick, and the Case of the Word's Return.” Early American Literature 40,3 (2005): 471-98. Mercieca, Jennifer Rose. “Choice, Loyalty, and Safety and the Construction of a Distinctly American Imagined Nationalism.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 9,2 Summer (2006): 279-302. Morgan, Edmund S. “Introduction to the Papers of Benjamin Franklin.” New Haven: Yale. 29 Jan. 2010 <http://www.franklinpapers.org/ franklin/framedVolumes.jsp> accessed January 2010. Thorpe, Francis Newton. Benjamin Franklin and the University of Pennsylvania. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1893. Twenge, Jean M. Generation Me. New York: Free Press, 2006. Yale University, ed. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. New Haven: Yale. 29 Jan. 2010 <http://www.franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes .jsp> accessed January 2010.
Matthew Abraham is an assistant professor of writing, rhetoric, and discourse at DePaul University in Chicago. His work appeared in Cultural Critique, the Journal of the Midwest MLA, the Journal of Advanced Composition, College Composition and Communication, Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture, and Postmodern Culture. He is completing a book entitled Out of Bounds: Academic Freedom and the Question of Palestine (2009). He won the 2005 Rachel Corrie Courage Award in the Teaching of Writing. <http://condor.depaul.edu/~mabraha5/> Lisa Bernstein is an associate professor of English and Women’s Studies at the University College of the University of Maryland. She has edited a book of scholarly essays, (M)Othering the Nation: Constructing and Resisting National Allegories through the Maternal Body (2008), to which she contributed the essay, “Saving the Motherland?” and co-edited a special issue of the Journal of International Women’s Studies, “Women’s Activism for Gender Equity in Africa and the Diaspora” (2008). Jeffrey R. Di Leo is dean of Arts and Sciences, and professor of English and Philosophy at the University of Houston-Victoria. His numerous books include Morality Matters: Race, Class and Gender in Applied Ethics (2002), Affiliations: Identity in Academic Culture (2003), On Anthologies: Politics and Pedagogy (2004), From Socrates to Cinema: An Introduction to Philosophy (2007), Federman's Fictions: Innovation, Theory, and the Holocaust (2010), and Academia Degree Zero: Essays on the Politics of Higher Education (2010). He is editor of the journals American Book Review and symploke. <http://www.uhv.edu/asa/ 494_3134.htm>. Henry A. Giroux currently holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMaster University in the English and Cultural Studies Department. He has taught at Boston University, Miami University of Ohio, and Penn State University. His most recent books include: Youth in a Suspect Society (2009); Politics Beyond Hope: Obama and the Crisis of Youth, Race, and Democracy (2010), Hearts of Darkness: Torturing Children in the War on Terror (2010), and he is working on a new book titled Zombie Politics in the Age of Casino Capitalism. Giroux is also a member
of the Board of Directors of Truthout <http://www.truthout.org/>. His homepage is <www.henryagiroux.com>. Ranjan Ghosh teaches in the department of English at the University of North Bengal. He was an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow in Germany and European Research Fellow in London. He is published in journals such as the Oxford Literary Review, History and Theory, Nineteenth Century Prose, Rethinking History, Storia della Storiographia, Angelaki and others. Among his many books are (In)fusion Approach: Theory, Contestation, Limits (2006), Globalizing Dissent (2009), and the edited volume, titled Edward Said and the Literary, Social, and Political World (2009). <http://ranjan ghosh.com/> Karyn L. Hollis is the director of the Concentration in Writing and Rhetoric and an associate professor in the English Department at Villanova University. She has published Liberating Voices: Writing and the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers (2004). She also teaches in Villanova’s Latin American Studies Program and has published Poesía del Pueblo para el Pueblo: Talleres Nicaragüenses de Poesía (1991) on the poetry workshop movement in Nicaragua. He articles appeared in several anthologies and journals such as Women’s Studies Quarterly, Studies in Latin American Popular Culture, College Composition and Communication, Journal of Advanced Composition, and The Writing Instructor. <http://www19.homepage.villanova.edu/karyn.hollis/prof_academic/hollis _cv_06.1.htm> Sophia A. McClennen is associate professor of Comparative Literature, Spanish, and Women’s Studies at the Pennsylvania State University where she teaches inter-American literature, women’s world literature, media studies, and comparative cultural studies. She published The Dialectics of Exile: Nation, Time Language and Space in Hispanic Literature (2004), a comparative study of exile literature from Spain and Latin America and Ariel Dorfman: An Aesthetics of Hope (2010). She has also co-edited, with Earl E. Fitz, a volume on Comparative Cultural Studies and Latin America (2004), and with Henry James Morello: Representing Humanity in an Age of Terror (2010). She is currently working on two books: The first, entitled America According to Colbert: Satire as Public Pedagogy post 9/11 is under contract with Palgrave and the second is a study of Latin American Cinema and globalization. <http://www.personal.psu. edu/sam50/>.
Truth to Power: Public Intellectuals In and Out of Academe
Anne Melfi is a Ph. D candidate in Rhetoric and Composition and a graduate teaching assistant at Georgia State University. She earned two M.A.’s from Maharishi University, one in professional writing and the other in the Science of Creative Intelligence. Her research interests include developing a pedagogy of style as an epistemological heuristic and a means to rhetorical visibility for civic voice. Her review of Laura R. Micchiche’s book, Doing Emotion: Rhetoric, Writing, Teaching (2007) was published in Composition Studies Journal. Silvia Nagy-Zekmi is a professor of Latin American and cultural studies and the director of the graduate program in Hispanic Studies and the director of the new Cultural Studies program at Villanova University. Her more recent publications include: Perennial Empire: Literary Declensions of the E-Word, co-edited with Chantal Zabus (2010); Colonization or Globalization? Postcolonial Explorations of Imperial Expansion, co-edited with Chantal Zabus (2009); Moros en la costa: Orientalismo en Latinoamérica (2008); Paradoxical Citizenship: Edward Said (2006, 2008); Arte de vivir, co-edited with Luis Correa-Díaz (2006); Democracy in Chile: The Legacy of 9/11, 1973, co-edited with Fernando Leiva (2005, winner of the Arthur P. Whitaker Prize); Le Maghreb Postcolonial (2003); She was awarded a Fulbright senior grant in 2007. <http://www19.homepage.villanova.edu /silvia.nagyzekmi/>. John G. Nichols is an associate professor of English and director of Film Studies at Christopher Newport University. His projects include a book manuscript, The Amateur Moderns that examines the historical invocation of the amateur as an oppositional force within professionalism. <http://www.cnu. edu/experts/popups/nichols.htm> Susan Shin Hee Park researches the intersection between philosophy, multi-ethnic U.S. literature and emergent politics. Her dissertation, entitled “Conceiving difference through alternative reading strategies: Deleuze, Deleuze and Guattari, Derrida and Post-Civil Rights US minority texts” is currently being revised for publication. Other publications include “The Case of Stolen Identity: Performing Consumerism or Impersonating Citizenship?” in Text, Performance, Practice and “From a Society of Sons to a Society of Brothers: Miscegenating Melville’s Moby Dick” in the forthcoming collection Deleuze and Race. Karlis Racevskis and is professor emeritus of French at The Ohio State University. His principal fields of teaching and research are eighteenth-
century French literature and contemporary critical theory. He has written extensively on issues relating to these areas and his books include Michel Foucault and the Subversion of Intellect, Postmodernism and the Search for Enlightenment (1993), and Modernity’s Pretenses: Making Reality Fit Reason from Candide to the Gulag (1998). He is currently reexamining Foucault’s notion of “the end of man” in light of recent advances in the neurosciences. <http://frit.osu.edu/people/person.cfm?ID=315> Lois Wolfe is a lecturer of English at the University of Miami and is the author of two novels, poetry, book reviews, essays, and criticism. Her novels include Mask of Night (1993). Her short fiction has appeared in Coastlines and her poetry in Mid-American Review and Write In Our Midst: An Anthology of South Florida Writers. Her scholarly publications include an essay on moral aesthetic design and imperative language in Hamlet and an exploration of cognitive aesthetics in the work of J. M. Coetzee. Her current research examines cognitive approaches in creative and critical writing. <http://www.as.miami.edu/english/creativewriting/faculty/loiswolfe. html> Daniel L. Zins taught in the Liberal Arts Department of the Atlanta College of Art from 1978 until the school’s closing in 2006. He has chapters in four edited anthologies, and his essays and reviews have appeared in such journals as College English, The Hollins Critic, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Denver Quarterly, Papers on Language and Literature, Peace Review, and College Literature.
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