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  • Postmodernism as Usual: “Theory” in the American Academy Today
  • Rob Wilkie
Mas’ud Zavarzadeh and Donald Morton. Theory as Resistance. New York: Guilford Press, 1994.

By opening up a field of inquiry into the production and reproduction of subjectivities, postmodern theory offered the potential to radically transform the object of literary studies. No longer would intellectual work in the Humanities be limited to the scholarly documentation and annotation of “great works” or to the fetishization of cultural artifacts. By making visible the ideological processes by which meaning is naturalized, such work held the possibility of challenging existing institutional structures (academic disciplines and specializations) as well as the ideologics that legitimated their rule. Above all, the aim of such work was directed toward deconstructing the category of the bourgeois individual as the linchpin of a liberal humanism complicit with a variety of dominations along lines of race, class, and gender. Put to practice in a thoroughgoing way, such work would make serious demands on existing institutions, not to mention the power arrangements and modes of production those institutions reproduce and legitimate. Many ways of escaping precisely these consequences have thus emerged. In their contestatory work, Theory as Resistance, Mas’ud Zavarzadeh and Donald Morton argue that at present, the political center of the academy is powerfully reconstituting itself through negotiating its relationship with “theory.” In their book Zavarzadeh and Morton explore the ways in which the “unrest” caused by the theoretical “battles” of the 1980’s is now being settled and managed.

Zavarzadeh and Morton make a strategic intervention into conventional understandings of recent changes in the Humanities. Curricular change is currently attacked by conservatives who argue that the Humanities has abandoned its moral mission of preserving transhistorical aesthetic and philosophical values, instead offering a crassly politicized understanding of culture in order to satisfy the demands of militant activists. Much “left” response to these claims has been little more than weak attempts to “defend” and preserve such small reforms as have taken place. Theory as Resistance, however, intervenes in this debate from a far different angle, arguing that current reorganization in the Humanities, premised on a pluralistic adoption of postmodern and poststructuralist theory, in fact only helps to contain current historical transformations by producing more liberalized institutions capable of training and managing “multicultural” workforces. Thus, the debate between the “right” and “left” (that is, between the outmoded and emergent sections of the academy) has already been won by those representing a new postmodern center. And, as Zavarzadeh and Morton argue, the effect of this “recentering” has been to suppress more radical positions which call not for piecemeal reform of the institutions that manage intellectual production, but for transformation in the mode of production itself.

In each of the essays in their study, Zavarzadeh and Morton chart the emergence of an “anti-conceptualism, an “anti-theory theory” premised on a rejection of theory as critique. That is, they argue what has taken place in academy is an accommodation of the “insights” of postmodern theory to the needs of an uncertain and unstable domestic economy and global situation. In other words, the up-dating of practices in the humanities is related to other current sites of institutional “damage control” as the contemporary university currently finds itself, like all other bourgeois institutions, pressured by a range of internal and external crises. The pressures brought to bear on the academy by economic change, particularly the pressures toward privitization, are making their effects visible in the increasing emphasis on institutional “flexibility.” As a result, the postmodern theories most valuable to current institutional rearrangements are those “ludic” postmodern theories which premise the liberation of “difference” on the abolition of systemic critique. And under this postmodern regime, Zavarzadeh and Morton argue, the category of the autonomous subject, though reconceived and rendered more flexible, remains essentially intact.

Both traditionalists and “theorists” (using “theorists” as Zavarzadeh and Morton do, to indicate progressive liberals who have updated their liberalism through an adoption of a postmodern “ludic liberation”) envision the need for a change in the humanism that contemporary society has outgrown. And both pursue this change through inclusionary curricular reforms that seek to “expand” the subjectivity of the student. Zavarzadeh and...