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  • Left Conservatism, Introduction
  • Chris Connery (bio)

I’m Chris Connery, Director of the Center for Cultural Studies here at UCSC. On behalf of the center and my fellow co-director Gail Hershatter, I welcome you to this workshop on LEFT CONSERVATISM.

In calling this a workshop, we mean that the speakers do not share a unified or coordinated position—I don’t believe they know what the others are going to speak about, with a few exceptions, maybe. This is not structured as a debate between positions, but as an analysis of a constellation of positions within the historical situation. The format will be: our speakers will speak, and then there will be a short time for questions and comments among the panelists themselves.

The term, Left Conservatism, I believe originates with Paul Bové in private conversation. We were referring then to Richard Rorty, who was at that time emerging as an important and very public intellectual of the left, and some of the positions that were circulating after the Sokal affair. It is a term that could also be applied to the editorial policy of The Nation’s poetry editor, and the kind of cultural conservatism suggested there. In addition, it could also be used to describe various positions taken in anti-theory or anti-60s circles.

In an electronic discussion list, an excerpt of which was forwarded to me last week, Katha Pollitt writes, “I am not a Left Conservative.” I agree with that. It is my opinion that if Left Conservatism proves to be a useful concept, it will be primary used to describe an act, and not an identity. It could be used to describe positions like this one, one taken by Katha Pollitt in a column she wrote after the Sokal affair, in June of 1996:

And the biggest misconception of course is that the “academic left,” a k a postmodernist and deconstructionists, is the left, even on campus. When I think of scholars who are doing important and valuable intellectual work on the Left, I think of Noam Chomsky and Adolph Reed, of historians like Linda Gordon and Eric Foner and Ricky Solinger and Natalie Zimon-Davis; I think of scientists like Richard Lewontin, Stephen Jay Gould; and feminists like Ann Snitow and Susan Bordo. None of these people—and the many others like them—dismiss reason, logic, evidence and other Enlightenment watchwords. All write clearly, some extremely well. All build carefully on previous scholarly work—the sociology and history of science, for instance goes back to the 1930s. . .

How ‘the Left’ came to be identified as the ‘pomo Left’ I think would make an interesting Ph.D. Thesis. I think it has something to do with the decline of actual left-wing movements outside academia, with the development in the 1980s of an academic celebrity system that meshes in funny, glitzy ways with the worlds of art and entertainment, with careerism—the need for graduate students, in today’s miserable job market, to defer to their advisers’ penchant for bad puns and multiple parentheses, as well as their stranger and less investigated notions. . .

How else explain how pomo leftists can talk constantly about the need to democratize knowledge and write in a way that excludes all but the initiated few? Indeed, the comedy of the Sokal incident is that it suggests that even the postmodernists don’t really understand one another’s writing and make their way through the text by making their way from one familiar name or notion to the next, like a frog jumping across a murky pond by way of lily pads. Lacan . . . Performativity . . . Judith Butler . . . scandal . . . (en)gendering wholeness . . . lunch.

(“Pomolatov Cocktail,” Subject to Debate, The Nation, V.262, no.23, (June 10. 1996), 9).

Or, Barbara Erenreich, writing June 9, 1997, in The Nation as well.

It was only with the arrival with the intellectual movements lumped under the title “postmodernism” that academic anti-biologism began to sound perniciously like religious creationism. Postmodern perspectives go beyond a critique of the misuses of biology to offer a critique of biology itself, extending to all of science and often to the very notion of rational thought. . . Glibly applied, postmodernism...

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