- Theory as Resistance: Politics and Culture after (Post)structuralism
How do you catch a lion? A patient who was not afraid of lions told Freud of one way: “Take a desert and put it through a sieve and the lions will be left over.” That’s one approach to culture studies. Another is to look at the lion from the wide end of a telescope; when it’s very small, you put it in a matchbox and close the lid. That is Zavarzadeh and Morton’s approach. I too would not be afraid of lions if they were so small, toylike, and portable.
Zavarzadeh and Morton conduct in this collection of nine essays what they call “hand-to-hand combat” with academic practice; poststructuralist writing and teaching, they say, are profoundly conservative forces that have not challenged humanist values and institutions, but affirmed them. Poststructuralists of all stripes have conspired with the old guard against the real threat to the status quo—revolutionary Marxism. Lenin lives. Death to Elvis studies. Furthermore, these radical/traditional theorists mask by their reforms (as liberals have always done) the operation of the powers that sent them: they support and replicate the capitalist structures of exploitation. The book’s title refers to the academy’s resistance to Marxist theory (the global understanding of capitalism): the dominant theory is antitheoretical.
In line with this dogma, the authors explicitly oppose participatory democracy, pluralism, close reading, pleasure, and innovation. Their version of Marxism—whose assumptions and ideals remain unexamined—gives no mind even to differing Marxists like Adorno, Althusser, Benjamin, or Jameson. They want revolution, not reform, and so castigate [End Page 934] organizations like Teachers for a Democratic Culture (TDC), which promote discussion about the profession, as running dogs. And in fact, in the Fall 1993 issue of their Democratic Culture Michael Sprinker professes a “betrayal of strict revolutionary principles” and suggests the left “forge alliances with liberal elements” (“What’s Left?”). Off with his head. The crisis in the curriculum, for instance, is not the result of intellectual developments but has been produced by capital: industry today needs workers with abstract thinking skills for high-tech jobs. Current curricular theories call either for moral truth (humanism), play (deconstruction), or political action (Marxism)—hence fashionable pedagogy (the second of these) aims to survive a challenge to the autonomous, participatory subject. But joy is consumerist; Greg Ulmer, for example, is taken to task for advocating the classroom as “textshop,” a playful place. Laughter is not transgressive, but the tool of common sense. In fact (citing Voloshinov [Bakhtin probably]), class struggle underlies aporia and slippage. The writing workshop takes another tack (but in coalition with the deconstructionists) and shores up the subject in a free creative space.
To make good their claims, the authors scrutinize institutional practice at the Syracuse University English department, where both teach, and (as representing an especially pure professionalism, presumably) at Duke programs. These readings remain abstract and repetitive. Syracuse’s innovative ETS curriculum, passed (they say) by a coalition of traditionalists and poststructuralists, draws their ire—the coalition excluded the authors’ alienist agenda. This appears to be partly true, though Zavarzadeh and Morton seem to exaggerate the coherence of that ideological union. But the particular texture of the curriculum, its advocates and detractors, is not the subject here—Zavarzadeh and Morton are interested in global, not local issues, and it’s useless from that perspective to discuss such minutiae. Similarly, faculty at Duke are attacked one by one—for example, Barbara Smith, Jane Tompkins, Annabel Patterson, Frank Lentriccia, Stanley Fish, with others thrown in for spice (Foucault leads to pluralism)—but each is so much a caricature that the argument cannot persuade, only reaffirm conviction. Is it worth it to argue, for instance (in this context), against Lentriccia’s recent mystical essays, and to ignore his more influential work? These readings flatten their subjects and offer no elasticity, no possibility of engagment; they offer instead verbal violence, calling Gerald Graff a “collaborator,” [End Page 935...