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Closed Encounters: Literary Politics and Public Culture
Closed Encounters: Literary Politics and Public Culture, by Jeffrey Wallen; 232 pp. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998, $18.95.
In the late 1980s Jeffrey Wallen and a colleague, both in English, were denied reappointment at Hampshire College because, it was alleged, they were too Eurocentric; they did not provide sufficient Third World challenge to the canon or address the "Third World Expectation" in their courses. As a result of not conforming to the Hampshire norm, Wallen was also accused of having failed to demonstrate independent thinking. (After a long, arduous campaign, resisted by Hampshire College to the end, Wallen and Norman Holland were subsequently reinstated.) Also during Wallen's Hampshire experience, the faculty--at the urging of President and Dean--voted down a resolution affirming the college's commitment to freedom of expression in the arts and in the public sphere generally.
It is from this background that Wallen offers us his meditation on literary politics and public culture. It should be emphasized, however, that the Hampshire story is brought in tangentially and only when it offers concrete examples of political correctness at work. Unlike others who, on the pretext of writing autobiographical criticism, wallow in sentiment and in a cloying obsession with self, Wallen adopts a stance of objectivity. He addresses intellectual issues with rigor and strict adherence to the available documentation. His is a superb example of the generous, rational, high-culture use of intellect to pose questions and find answers concerning the university and the public sphere.
Wallen delves into the implications of current postmodern or poststructuralist ideas (what others might call simply Theory) for academic freedom and participation in the public sphere. He argues that if academics believe that knowledge, rational discussion, and intellectual interchange are determined by and manifestations of the structures of power in a given society, and if "truth" and "meaning" are only instruments for the oppression of women and minorities by white males, then the Academy no longer has a compelling interest in protecting academic freedom--that is, the individual professor's right to seek truth and meaning however he envisages them. Furthermore, if it [End Page 223] can be assumed that the purpose of today's university is to subvert Western society, to strive for social justice, and to protect women and minorities from speech or doctrine that might impair their liberation, then, inevitably, there is no reason to guarantee the freedom of inquiry of those colleagues who decline to assume the desired pro-active stance or who even have the effrontery to speak out against it. It will follow that not only are they morally wrong; they are also criminally ignorant (they are not yet aware of the new doctrines or, if aware, unwilling to engage with them), therefore professionally incompetent.
The new academics are desperately eager to discuss philosophical, political, and social issues in the public domain and to offer ways to bring about greater freedom and equality or, as they call it, social justice. Wallen submits that the current critical practice in our literature departments does not and cannot lead to such ends. First of all, instead of offering answers to the philosophical, political, and social questions of our time, the sundry feminists, postcolonialists, and queer theoreticians assume that everyone agrees to the social justice. They then simply demonstrate their favorite examples of misogyny or imperialism in books from our cultural past. Theirs is a "reading for evil," both simplistic and reductionist. They act as if consciousness-raising (in a handful of students or colleagues) about old books will actually lead to concrete social change in the present. Furthermore, as Wallen seeks to demonstrate, they adopt and, apparently, have to adopt a stance of rebellion against and subversion of Western society. They have also long since repudiated the discredited notion that, in reasonable discussion or debate, you seek to convince your adversaries and, in return, you are willing to be convinced by them. Au contraire--the adversary, by definition, is...