- Closed Encounters: Literary Politics and Public Culture
Jeffrey Wallen begins Closed Encounters: Literary Politics and Public Culture with the following observation: “The goals of literary criticism have never been so ambitious.” What follows is an analysis and a critique of the hyperbolic nature of academic ambition. It is the relative modesty, however, with which Wallen presents his pleas for a more reasonable discussion of our political and intellectual disagreements that will make the radical core of this book almost impossible to recognize.
In this historiographical account of recent conflicts in academic politics and discourse, Wallen argues for a renewed consideration of the questions of academic freedom and autonomy. Recent epistemological paradigm shifts have had institutional effects that are inimical to preserving the ideal of academic freedom. For example, Wallen shows that the administration of progressive politics can lead to the suppression of conflict and that it offers instead a kind of “struggle of interests.” Wallen argues that the overturning of the ideal of disinterestedness in debate, and its replacement with a model of conflict in which every individual is his or her own special interest group, works hand in glove with the notion of free market competition where rivals for power vie for domination. Thus Jane Tompkins’ critique of freedom of thought in the “Introduction” to her Reader-Response Criticism is “exacerbated by the insistence that the position from which one speaks ‘makes all the difference’—that the identity more than the ideas of the speaker is what matters” (Wallen, 44). Louis Menand’s insistence that the “debunking of disinterestedness” will have no effect on the conditions of academic debate lays the groundwork for a pedagogy of advocacy whose logical outcome would result in students’ being taught how best to defend their self-interests.
Wallen owes much to the work of Bill Readings whose The University in Ruins has allowed for a renewed debate about the status and the mission of the modern university. Like Readings, Wallen’s genealogy of the university emphasizes the need to re-evaluate the conditions of conflict, dissension, and thinking within the post-Enlightenment institution, and it offers a return to the conflictual model of the modern university drawn up by Kant in The Conflict of the Faculties, a text written at the end of his life, addressed to the sovereign, Friedrich Wilhelm, pleading for the sovereignty of the regime of judgment and evaluation within the modern university.
Academia, for Wallen, has become a very special, insider’s place where the espousal of marginality becomes a claim to authenticity: thus even Stanley Fish will claim “to feel like an outsider.” The gestures of self-marginalization Wallen argues, make academics unwilling to and incapable of addressing a wider public: as long as academics, on both right and left, regard themselves as a marginalized, more enlightened elite, whose messages and images are consistently distorted by journalistic media, they will reject opportunities to engage in wider debates. Wallen’s arguments for more public intellectual [End Page 1141] discussions are welcome, but his exhortation for academics to cross the gap and to abandon their superior and self-protective stances demands further analysis of the conditions of “crossing over.” The media-saturated world in which we live has produced various caricatures of the academic and the intellectual that even the most persistent and well-intentioned interventions on our part will not efface. It is because the journalistic media have monopolized the space of public discussion that intellectual labor has been cast in the very worst light.
Going for the worst light is symptomatic for Wallen of a certain type of academic engagement with popular culture, and it is here that he moves to a rather unexpected analysis and critique of the academic assimilation of pornography. He shows how recent attempts to secure this degraded medium as one of legitimate study (as in Laura Kipnis’ Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America) offer “the perfect fantasy of border crossing”(p. 104) while they foreclose any real analysis of the ease with which the institution can master...