Saturday, March 25, 2006

Signifying nothing

Here's a cruel, but funny, critique of Eric Lott's book The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual. Lott teaches English and American Studies at UVA, arguably the best public institution in the United States, and, by the sound of it, his book is as unreadable as a number of recent works in those fields. Jacoby's critique gets at many of my problems with many of the academic books that have come out in the past twenty years. For example:

1) They are needlessly radical. Lott "wants to carve out a space for radicals to the left of detestable "boomer liberals," who have seized the limelight and distorted politics." Why a lit prof is especially qualified to answer "What is to be done?" escapes me. Am I the only person who sees a book by a literature professor and wonders what they have to say about literature?

2) Because it is so partisan, it sheds dim light on literature, which aims to be universal. But, because it's so academic, it cannot really be widely political. "He tosses off phrases about "intersectionality" and "the praxis potential of antinormativity," but politics hardly enters this political book." Not rousing stuff, eh?

3) Even worse, it's snobbish about a near-cult of people who speak a language that is, perhaps, dying out anyway. "Consider Lott's criticism of Mark Crispin Miller's The Bush Dyslexicon, a collection and analysis of Bush's malapropisms. Miller's critique of Bush is apparently limited by his "own boomer investments" and his simple-minded theory of propaganda. "You don't have to be a media specialist," sniffs Professor Lott, "to recognize how crusty this apparatus seems in an age of post-Althusserian, post-poststructuralist, and post-Lacanian cultural studies." Yeah. You tell him.

4) It has a shopping list of the latest, hottest stuff in the realm of careerist academic fluff.
"Walter Benn Michaels's neopragmatist critiques of identity, Paul Gilroy's elaboration of a diasporic "black Atlantic," Lisa Lowe's postnationalist deconstruction of U.S. reliance on and political exclusion of Asian labor, Lauren Berlant's explorations of antinormative citizenship, the exchanges between Judith Butler and Nancy Fraser on the relations between queer recognition and economic redistribution, Robyn Wiegman's attention to the institutional half-life of women's studies and the limitations of so-called whiteness studies, Lisa Duggan's attempts to suggest alternative discourses to redescribe the state...."
Supplies are limited! Act now!

5) It is so unsure of itself after suffering so much theory poisoning, that it can only advocate pointless gestures in an obtuse way.
"The only acceptable political notion of the universal--and therefore of the organizational imperative--is that of the empty signifier, not a present, given, or essential fullness waiting for troops but an impossible ideal whose very emptiness and lack create a pluralized, difference-based competition on the part of various particularisms in a democratic social-symbolic field to assume the position of the universal organization."

Just what is an empty signifier you ask? From the sound of it, this book is.

6 comments:

Hiromi said...

This is serious stuff? It's so over the top that I'm reminded of the Sokal Hoax:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_Affair

Rufus said...

Sadly, I think this one is geniune. We have professors who talk exactly like this, and make the same references to the same works. Luckily, most of them are in the English department and I am not.

Hiromi said...

What dept. are you in? French?

Rufus said...

Nope. I'm officially the only French history PhD student at my university.

Paisan said...

Aging, irrelevant, self-important left-wing academics tearing one another to pieces, for no one's edification, and to no good end.

What a revoluntionary contextualization!

Rufus said...

It's the old joke about the fights in academia being so heated because the stakes are so low.