Evil Forces in the World

Reflections on ''Evil Forces in the World,'' as well as occasional remarks concerning ''Good Forces in the World.''

Saturday, September 14, 2002

I have to say that I don't have much in the way of a specific rejoinder to the claim that "academic prose" is an "immense confidence game." This sort of generalization about the academy - English and Comp Lit programs specifically - is all the rage at undergraduate instituations these days. A sophomore at an elite east coast college reads a little Butler or Spivak, finds it a bit obscure and polemically written, and proceeds to jump on the anti-theory, anti-academic bandwagon headed mainly by a few malcontents at high-media magazines. "This is all bullshit!" is the chorus heard from college 'intro to theory' classes from Berkeley to Princeton, and naive undergrads proclaim the end of the relevance of the humanities, and burn their respective copies of Gender Trouble and The Political Unconscious. Frankly, all of this has become a bit trite. I think that it's too bad that college professors too zealously introduce theory at a high level to untrained undergrads, without the proper background in philosophy - from Aristotle to Hegel to Marx. Without this sort of training, it is true that Butler and Spivak are fairly incomprehensible and it does sound like a lot of bullshit. Those that don't naturally take to the theory find other things to do in college, and spend the rest of their time at school decrying all theory. But in all fairness, those that do take to theory, gain access to these texts by reading the necessary prequisite materials, and find more meaning in seemingly far too difficult academic prose. I mean, non-academics find validity in works like Butler's Gender Trouble because they have taken the time to really oriente themselves to the arguments being made. We shouldn't forget that, for example, Skip Gates' The Signifying Monkey won an American Book Award. It seems to me that the recent trend in hot-headed undergrads bashing academic works to be an exercise in deliberate ignorance. Who would I rather listen to: a neutral party, a non-academic - a journalist in fact - like Leon Wieseltier who regularly praises academic work (sure, he slammed Cornel West, but for years before this he has long respected the writings of Sara Suleri and others), or some kid at Columbia who's read the first seven pages of Foucault's "The Order of Discourse" and says, with grave authority, that this is all "hogwash" and should be done away with?

But anyway, that's not what I wanted to respond to. Unless Mr Dueholm can muster a more specific argument than all theory is bullshit, I'm afraid I don't have much to respond to. What particularly is false and silly about academic prose would help further the debate, I think.

However, I can respond to the added claim that the falsity of humanities scholarship is "unraveling" and exposing itself as the crock of shit that it is. I'm not sure what evidence Mr Dueholm is citing in order to prove this claim. What might help is (1)evidence that American and international students have grown increasingly disinterested in the works of literary scholarship, and are steering clear of English classes like the plague and (2) evidence that literary scholars have a diminishing influence and role in contemporary intellectual dialogues, and are losing presence in American culture. I will wait for Mr Dueholm to marshall such evidence, but in the meantime, I have some of my own to present.

First, the English major at major universities across the US remains one of their most popular majors. At UPenn, Brown, and Berkeley, for instance, it is the most subscribed-to major, along with biology. Since the late 60s, literature has seen a steady increase in the number of undergraduate majors. Even in the face of the onslaught of the popular "marketing" and economic majors - which are the most popular majors in the US, in the aggregate - English has stood its ground. Now, with the decline in economy and proof that majoring in a pre-business field will not insure career security, literature majors are expected to rise even further. The simple explanation for this is that writing remains a strong commodity in whatever field one goes into.

Also, in terms of graduate programs, likewise, most grad programs have seen regular increases in its number of applications. Numbers are quite impressive, and even with the come and go of the economy, interest in English graduate school remains. Typically - and this is in the early 90s with the economic boom as well as the recent 00s with the downturn - acceptance rates at top programs like Stanford and Yale are at 3.8 percent, and at good state programs, such as UNC and UVA, acceptance rates are only slightly higher at 9-10 percent. Let's see: 737 people applied to Columbia English for 15 PhD spots, and 414 people applied to Harvard's program for an expected 9 spots.

Is this a sign that the literary discipline is "unraveling" and that everyone is in on the fact that all literary scholarship is a bunch of nonsense? Is this a sign that we are witnessing the utter decline and fall of English departments across the US?

As for (2), literary academics still enjoy a preeminent place in American culture, as authorities and revered experts. Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco was recently cited by Time magazine as America's "number one social critic." Louis Menand just one the Pulitzer for The Metaphysics Club. Edward Said and Skip Gates still regularly appear on CNN and enjoy positions on the mastheads of The Nation and The New Yorker. Stanley Fish remains one of the nation's most in demand public speakers and writers, regularly appearing in the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times and on the air at NPR.

Is this a sign that the authority and relevance of literary scholars and scholarship is on the wan? Apparently, those that lead the public discourse on culture and politics - those editors at high-media magazines, in particular, that Mr Dueholm seems to think very highly of - don't think so. The influence of literary scholars (and their scholarship) continues to enjoy quite a respected and appreciated place in American society. Someone with a background in cultural history would know that this has been the case since the late 1800s in England with Matthew Arnold, through Lionel Trilling in New York in the mid 1900s, up to today. I would think it rather naive to say that the work of literary scholarship is - unbelievably - just now, after two centuries of precedence, starting to "unravel," and that it is (amazingly) a bandwagon full of American undergraduates - with their self-consciously transgressive "I Hate the Academy" pose - that have discovered this crushing fact.

And just with basic observations: the number of literary scholarship journals continue to increase. The number of positions in US universities for English PhDs continues to rise. The number of English classes offered at colleges continues to increase. The number of interdisciplinary programs, stemming from English graduate programs, continue to increase at an impressive rate (Ethnic Studies at Berkeley, American Studies at Yale, History of Consciousness at UC Santa Cruz, and many more on the way - this is the trend at universities). Those with literary PhDs are given more and more respect in the workplace - McKinsey, the consulting firm, regularly hires humanities PhDs, and MA + PhDs still fill the ranks of respected magazines and newspapers (Caleb Crain at the NY Times, Virginia Heffernan at Slate and Harpers, etc etc etc). All this would suggest that normal people who go to college - which is a very large chunk of the US today, and those that go into jobs either in the corporate sector or media sector, both respect the work of literary scholarship, and find some value in pursuing it.

Is all of this really a sign that the academic enterprise is on the decline, and that it is "unraveling" thus exposing to the public how bullshitty it is? Hmmm. As far as I can tell, the public doesn't seem to think so. Most people who go to college - more than 60 percent of the US population, generally don't think so. Even the media - generally speaking - which has always maintained a contentious relationship with the academy, doesn't seem to think so. Well then, you might ask, who does think that literary scholarship is on the decline, and indeed, "unraveling?" This question, I think, has already been answered by the person who posed it as an argument.

Friday, September 13, 2002

Dedicated, once again, to Tuesday Morning Quarterback:

Jameson: "Terror
cause--no Left in Middle East."
'Nasser' ring a bell?

As a cultural critic, Jameson is merely portentious and mandarin. As a political commentator, he is a disaster. Anyone who claims that the People's Republic of China is a hopeful, unfinished project (as he does in an aside in "The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism") without being bullied or threatened into doing so is either a fool or, well, a Communist.

Stalin was actually a very bad person, despite all the fiendish recent efforts to foist his evilness off on "the" "representations" "of" "totalitarianism." While it may be true that Americans have an irrational response to the name Stalin, I would have to nominate Poles, Czechs, and Ukrainians--who, after all, have much more experience with the old monster and his successors--as the most heatedly anti-Stalin peoples in the world.

Can anyone define economic class for me? G. A. Cohen gave it a decent shot, but otherwise people seem to use the word either assuming a known definition or hiding the fact that they don't have one.

The Sokal affair was not a big deal in my eyes, considering that Social Text was just doing what it always does--publishing fraudulent work. Academic prose, especially that which comes from English and Comp Lit departments, is an immense confidence game which is only lately starting to unravel. It was hardly the insecurity of the mass media that was on display during the Sokal affair.

Thursday, September 12, 2002

Oh, this is so petty, I know, but I just can't help myself.

RE: "Lukacs, Jameson ... Pair of rusty Stalinists." What? I can only assume that Americans generally think of "Stalin" as a universally deplorable figure, up there with Hitler and Attila the Hun. And generally, young intellectual folk like to poke fun at contemporary Marxist thought, and so the logic would go that an easy way to poke fun at anyone reading Marxist thought would be to equate the project with being a Stalinist. But wait, first of all, Lukacs and Jameson are staunch anti-Stalinists. Both are also fiercly anti-Communist, in the general sense of the word "Communism." Lukacs wrote his masterpice, History and Class Consciousness, as a rebuttal to Stalin's many attacks on his Marxist ideology. As Stalin continued to gain ground in Russia, Lukacs felt it necessary to issue a tract to slow down his progress. As for Jameson, he is as much a Stalinist or Communist as Bill Clinton is. He is, of course, a "Marxist," but this only means that as a cultural critic, he takes a decidely class-conscious view of the world. To abide by an intellectual Marxist tradition is not necessarily to abide by the historical practice of Communism or believe in its political economy. Rather, most contemporary thinkers who would consider themselves ingrained in a Marxist tradition (this includes many folks from Edward Said to Aijaz Ahmad) only do so insofar as it is a useful way to critique contemporary culture and modes of cultural production.

As for "try another class" ... well, Lukacs and Jameson have typically analyzed the full spectrum of classes that exist: upper, middle, lower, over, under, etc - an account of how all the classes work, in relation to each other, is crucial to the Marxist critical process. What other classes exist? If you mean that generally intellectuals should be less obsessed with class in general, then that I would say, would be a pretty typical bourgeosie rejoinder, to say that over-theorized notions of race, gender, etc trump matters of class; that it is not the quotidian matters of what you can and cannot afford, what type of house you live in, which determine one's consciousness.

And surely I would not take the haiku to suggest that it is critical theory that is all bunk, which needs to get less attention. For its writer goes to school at the home of Critical Inquiry where theory luminaries WJT Mitchell and Francois Meltzer teach. Surely, he must not solely turn to the icons and heroes of the liberal (and conservative) media for intellectual sustenance. For typically the media views the projects of the academy with much discomfort and distrust, for entirely unfathomable reasons, other than some sort of transparent insecurity (see Sokal Affair). Famed journalist David Brooks took it upon himself to visit the English Departments of two eminent universities to see what new progressive things they were up to in the early 90s. He of course exploited the generosity of the department's frank forthcomingness to write a misleading, untrue story in the Wall Street Journal proclaiming the end of Western literature and the takeover of English departments by liberal pinkos run amuk (all of this, of course, has been proven untrue). Well, this is no big deal of course, because the work of journalists like David Brooks tend to fade once the fad has run thin (would anyone still claim that Bobos in Paradise purports an accurate model of American society?), while English departments in the US continue to see rising enrollment in major rates, and rising numbers of graduate school applications. The only thing I personally remember from Brooks' piece in the WSJ is his clear duplicity and anti-intellectualism.

But anyway, I have run adrift. Thoughts?

Patrick J. Buchanan is as splendid and choleric a prose stylist when writing to The New Republic as he is declaring war on homosexuals on national television. From his impressive rant in this week's paper issue:

Do you seriously believe that conservatism is now wholly encompassed by Norman Podhoretz, Jonah Goldberg, Ramesh Ponnuru, Rich Lowry, our virtuous Teletubby William Bennet, Charles Krauthammer, and the Kristols, pere et fils?

In three paragraphs, Pitchfork Pat summons all the sarcasm, overstatement, and condescension for which he is justly both famous and entirely irrelevant. But combined with his ominous references to "subcontracting Mideast policy out to Ariel Sharon" and "nightsticking recalcitrant regimes according to a priority list drawn up for us by Bibi Netanyahu," his particular list of neocons--"Jew, Jew, gentleman of the colored persuasion...more Jews"--is a little suspicious given his flirtation with blood-and-soil nationalism.

I must admit, however, that I enjoy his truculence, especially the dig against that fraudulent blowhard Bill Bennet. That said, it never seems to occur to him that anyone might be internationalist and pro-Israel for anything but the basest, most craven reasons of manipulation and divided loyalty.

Maybe the Vatican is putting him up to this.
In honor of my idol, Gregg Easterbrook, Mr. So's reading list has inspired me to senryuize:

Lukacs, Jameson
Pair of rusty Stalinists
Try another class

Please take in the spirit in which it's meant.

Incidentally, I own the Strokes album (although "permanently borrowed" might be more accurate), and I'm pretty sure I only do so because I managed to avoid the kind of cultural second-hand that you've described. If I had read about the fashion shows and the supposed punkiness before hearing the album, I would have dropped it in a minute. Instead, I just thought of "Someday" that it's nice to hear a pretty straightforward, well-done rip-off of a classic soul progression (cf. "Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You").

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Recent blogs on this site have, as of late, really centered on the political and socio-political. That's good news actually, for one more mention of a recent Nation or TNR piece means one less self-indulgent romantic pity statement (we are all guilty of this). Likewise, rightfully so, in the news-media at large, we are deluged with the shadow of "11 September" and its attendant political valences. That's good news too. All over my college campus in New York today I heard the incessant buzz of commentary and inquiry. But, I must break up the substantiality of all this - blogsites demand asinine-ness now and then, and one can make a powerful argument that 'eliding' the discourse of 9-11 helps to resist the negative aspects of the event-as-reality. I am not one who can make this argument, but I'm sure it has been made in the pages of Tikkun or Raritan.

Anyway, so I was listening to the new Vines album, and good lord, it is superlatively good. How good? Well, I did say "superlatively good," didn't I. So (and my girlfriend will appreciate this)": the new Vines album, "Highly Evoloved" is the SINGLE GREATEST PIECE OF ROCK MUSIC OF THE LAST 2 CENTURIES. I wish I were joking, but my hands, which obey my brain, must only type "the truth," and dammit, the truth is that the new Vines album is the greatest album of the last 2 centuries. It is true that the revival of American garage rock, or what modern day listeners have imagined "garage rock" from the 70s to have sounded like (critics like to drop the names of The Stooges and Television, but it would be a rare 17 year old who could discern any similarities between these seminal punk bands, and say, The Strokes), has become a bit of a cliche. But good lord, The Vines transcend the cultural cliche and make American rock sound wonderful again: young and sophisticated at the same time. It rocks so hard that my head is still slamming against my cranium although it has been 3 hours since I last listened to the album, yet, I was still delightfully moved by the Brian Wilson-esque pop hooks and harmonies. Perfect album.

Actually no: I made all of the above up. I have not listened to a single track of the new Vines LP, much less the whole album. The above was only to demonstrate the recent privileging of "cultural communities" that exist in the US today. By this I mean, we read more reviews of records and movies than actually see records and movies. For instance, we all know the full plot and jokes of say, the Austin Powers flicks, but how many of us have actually see them all, or even just one? We all know what the Strokes are about, and what their "sound" is like, but how many of us own the album? Etc etc. Us young people are all about the culture of "reviews" and dodge the actual original works like the plague. We just don't have the time, and like this MTV-video like thinking millieu demands, we like it fast and punchy. Who has time to really sit and read or listen or watch anything these days when we can just get a nice synopsis via the backs of books of cool magazines like The New Yorker? I don't have the time to watch all the Wong Kar-wai movies, but I can give you a reasonable overview of his entire oeuvre, and a fairly good analysis of each movie.

This came up during a discussion with one of my teachers during a seminar - "mini-me" became a big reference point for the discussion, although only half of us have ever seen an AP movie (my teacher had not seen a single one in particular). Which reminds me - some of you readers have been perhaps asking yourself the question, "hey Rich, where you been brah? Why no blogs as of late? You not down with the wrecking crew anymore?" To which I say, "hey brah, I've been busy as all fuck going back to school and shit. It's kind of hard and I seem to have agreed to undertake more work than I can actually get done." But this isn't entirely the truth you know. School is never that hard. Rather, I have been holing myself in my apartment for hours on end reading Lukacs, Jameson, et al and listening to 2Pac's inimitable early album "Me Against the World," which is the fucking bombshit. And I have actually listened to it.

Tuesday, September 10, 2002

About six months ago, I was reading a borrowed copy of the late W.G. Sebald's fascinating, beguiling novel Austerlitz. During the narrator's journeys through Europe, he looks at a building (I think a Beaux-Arts specimen in Brussels) and comments that it was the kind of building that could only be seen as an eventual ruin. In the margin, the friend who lent me the novel had made a line drawing of two tall, unmistakable towers.

Shortly after the fear, horror, and rage of one year ago, I personally felt a strange, awful kind of resignation. Sebald and my friend summed it up well for me, but much earlier I had spent too much time mulling Ecclesiastes and "Ozymandias" and T.S. Eliot. I had been infected with a sense, religious at bottom, of inevitability and, behind that, some kind of transcendent meaning. This is precisely the kind of thinking that Leon Wieseltier scolds people for--the perfectly human search for meaning in the face of immense, but plain, horror.

I really liked Wieseltier's column on how not to commemorate 9-11. The natural impulses of the media are to play up sadness, loss, grief, all adding up to a kind of self-pity: we, the living, were the victims. We suffered. This self-pity broadens into narcissism: we survived, we overcame. What we don't want to do, and what we won't be encouraged to do, is to empathize with the victims. Sometimes I try to imagine what it may have been like in those planes, as the Manhattan skyline came closer and closer, or on one of the doomed floors as the unthinkable choice between flames and falling presented itself. I usually can't try for long, because it's too awful. Wieseltier rightly points out that empathy would lead to anger, rage even, emotions we are not supposed to cultivate.

But I place myself outside of propriety--according to my favorite cultural commissar--by thinking about very different things from the same vantage point of (attempted) empathy. Without suggesting anything stupid or perfidious, it does seem to me that remembering and commemorating the attacks could help cultivate a certain humility. Not in the world-historical sense, certainly--the US is the greatest thing since the nation-state. But maybe in a metaphysical sense. Even the greatest nation-state is a ruin waiting to happen.

To climb back down to immanence: one of my first coherent thoughts a year ago was "What if this is just the first step? What if a jar of anthrax has been dropped on the subway tracks--we wouldn't even know for another three days!" Even more than anger, this is still what catches in my throat. Michael Crowley practically scared me into incontinence this morning, and Nicholas Lemann didn't reassure me. quoting Stephen Van Evera:

"It should have been a war on Al Qaeda. Don't take your eye off the ball. Subordinate every other policy to it, including the policies toward Russia, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Iraq. Instead, the Administration defined it as a broad war on terror, including groups that have never taken a swing at the United States and never will. It leads to a loss of focus. Al Qaeda escapes through the cracks."

This is why I'm still scared. We all know that the doves, if we listened to them, would put us in tremendous danger. What gets relatively little airing, however, is the dangers of hawkishness.

Some of you may have noticed that "the Reihan" has taken something of a "hiatus," and that several worthy subjects of a furious rhetorical assault have been given a pass. It's called the element of surprise.


"I'll be back."

Sunday, September 08, 2002


There's a truly remarkable article on Iran in The Guardian. It left me dumbstruck, for more than one reason. For one thing, some of the quotes are almost unbelievable:

...after the fall of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, many Iranians (including opposition clerics) had hoped that the mullahs would be put back in their mosques. "We had really hoped the US army would come and do for us what it did for them."

That discontent is widespread in Iran, especially among its burgeoning younger generation, is no surprise. That people actually had hoped for a liberatory invasion, and moreover were willing to say as much to a reporter, is stunning.

Just as surprising, perhaps, is the fact that this article appeared in The Guardian. If the quote above, and the others like it, appeared in an article by Michael Ledeen, it would look like cherry-picking (not that Ledeen isn't a good journalist doing very valuable work, but NRO is still NRO). But no, the world's leading bastion of fully-literate anti-Americanism published these anecdotes.

Nothing should be more obvious than the fact that Islamism, once it's in power, is drastically unpopular. Who could be thrilled about Calvin's Geneva with lousy weather? I'm not sure what to think about invading Iraq, but if it led to some healthy instability in Iran, we could have, among many other benefits, some very good PR on our hands.