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The Humanities in Love with Themselves

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 26, Number 2, October 2002
pp. 415-431 | 10.1353/phl.2003.0002

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Philosophy and Literature 26.2 (2002) 415-431

The Crafty Reader, by Robert Scholes; 272 pp. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002, $24.95.

WHEN I STARTED GRADUATE SCHOOL in English in the early Eight ies, a typical thing happened. Those few students with a background in philosophy drifted together, shared influences, and developed a hierarchy of critical works. A few pushed analytic philosophy and pragmatism, but overall Continental theory took first place, especially Derrida. "Structure, Sign, and Play" and "White Mythology," de Man's "Rhetoric of Temporality," Shoshana Felman's "Turning the Screw of Interpretation," and other weighty essays had the status of cutting-edge wisdom, and the hostility deconstruction drew from traditionalists and Marxists in the department only sharpened our commitment. Having no other professional standing, we savored the stigma, the roguishness. It complemented our poverty, and eased our transition from hot-shot undergraduates to first-year, prequalifying Ph.D aspirants. In the evenings, after instructing freshmen in comma splices, we gathered to trade Nietszchean epigrams and mock professors who looked befuddled at the mention of a priori and aporia.

Other students found us insufferable, and doubtless we were, but not in a partisan way. We panned each other just as hard as we did the uninformed. This was UCLA, not Yale or Johns Hopkins, and personalities mattered less than arguments. If in discussion I backed a point with "As Derrida says . . . ," someone always answered, "So what?" We frowned on arguments from authority. Popularizations such as Jonathan Culler's On Deconstruction earned our scorn. They were one step up from Cliff's Notes, packed with servile observations like "Jean Baudrillard wants to take us further, into a world where everything is so textualized that there is no space left for the real." We preferred to understand deconstruction through laborious readings of Being and Time and Beyond Good and Evil, not in watery effusions about textuality or the mechanical pairing of binary oppositions. The latter we placed among the scribes, those well-intentioned professionals canny enough to recognize the broad import of deconstruction, but not acute enough to discern the real meaning of différance or the radical disclosure of the ontic-ontological difference. The genius of philosophy, we thought, lay in plumbing the fundamental habits of cognition, like Hegel breaking down sense certainty and Heidegger questioning the determination of Being as substance. Exegesis of other texts was a lesser activity, though we acknowledged exceptions such as Starobinski's book on Rousseau and Kojève's lectures on The Phenomenology of Spirit.

Lower in our rankings were the quasi-Leftist attacks just emerging, such as Frank Lentricchia's Criticism and Social Change, which cast theorists as mandarin functionaries treating interpretation as an apolitical game. They filled the page with spiteful terms like "the mask of pure reason" and righteous declarations like "it is wrong to claim that you are above politics," spurning argument for the rhetoric of the reformer. We diagnosed them as puny reactions to the Reagan Revolution, carried out on the irrelevant ground of literary theory. Philosophically, Lentricchia was a hack, and we rejected the imputation that theory nullified activism and justified the status quo. Not that we thought theory bred activism. We just considered them separate activities, and saw no determinate connection between hermeneutical stance and party affiliation. However, we accepted the elitist charge. How could ambitious academics avoid elitism? It wasn't hard for graduate students struggling on $900 a month to see that populist attitudes didn't suit the tenured Ivy Leaguer. Professors were paid by exclusive institutions to teach poetry, to write letters for the best and brightest, to run recondite journals and jet to prestigious symposia. We wanted to join them, but not with phony expressions of social injustice that targeted theory as the problem.

Allied with the political attacks on theory, and esteemed even lower, were critiques of the humanities as a bastion of high culture. Polemics such as Andrew Ross's No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture treated literature departments as conservative enclaves blind to the cultural realities of the public sphere. Humanities professors guarded a narrow white-male canon with spurious notions of taste and truth, they argued...



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