Re: “Celebrity Scholars”


Responding to Russell Perkin:

We seem to be living in an age of sharply diminishing returns when it comes to literary scholarly relevance, let alone “celebrity.”  The “public scholar” is a curio now, a quaint holdover from an earlier age — when someone like Frye, for example, could boast of talking over the heads of his peers to the general reading public, and quip that while he believed in scholarly “rigor”, he was always concerned it might become “rigor mortis.” 

The turning point seems to have been the mid to late 1990s when the market in academic incoherence was reaching its surreal height, and notoriety took the place of celebrity.  First there was the Sokal hoax. Physicist Alan Sokal (above) strung together some poststructuralist gibberish in a paper with the all too familiar sounding title, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, which was then duly published in the journal Social Text.  In announcing the hoax, Sokal said of his fraudulent paper that it was merely “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense”, which was “structured around the silliest quotations [he] could find about mathematics and physics” made by postmodernist academics. 

At about the same time, the journal Philosophy and Literature was holding its annual Bad Academic Writing contest, whose eminent winners included Judith Butler, Homi Bhabha and Frederic Jameson.  Here is editor Denis Dutton explaining the purpose of the competition:

The pretentiousness of the worst academic writing betrays it as a kind of intellectual kitsch, analogous to bad art that declares itself “profound” or “moving” not by displaying its own intrinsic value but by borrowing these values from elsewhere. Just as a cigar box is elevated by a Rembrandt painting, or a living room is dignified by sets of finely bound but unread books, so these kitsch theorists mimic the effects of rigor and profundity without actually doing serious intellectual work. Their jargon-laden prose always suggests but never delivers genuine insight. Here is this year’s winning sentence, by Berkeley Prof. Judith Butler, from an article in the journal Diacritics:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

To ask what this means is to miss the point. This sentence beats readers into submission and instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind. Actual communication has nothing to do with it.

What seems to underlie this kind of phenomenon is a contempt for the non-specialist reading public, and that contempt has been returned.  Whenever you hear the banshees at Fox News howling about an “America-hating liberal elite,” you can be pretty sure the kind of people they have in mind. Universities are now mocked on the right as “islands of repression in a sea of liberty,” which of course is an ugly lie, but it’s a lie with just enough truth in it to gin up the anger on all sides.

In fact, it’s hard not to wonder whether the current sharp rise of demagoguery on the right is the result of the decline of the public scholar.  Frye called the university the engine room of society.  In what used to be known as the Humanities at least, the engine has been hacked at with crowbars for the last thirty years by self-declared iconoclasts and comfortably tenured revolutionists.  It may be that the steadily waning influence of this generation of scholars will have to collapse in on itself completely — the way the old Soviet Union did — before something better can take its place and a scholarship with a wide general audience can re-emerge.  Until then, maybe the best we can hope for are quasi-academic polemicists, like Naomi Klein.

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5 thoughts on “Re: “Celebrity Scholars”

  1. Alan

    “Until then, maybe the best we can hope for are quasi-academic polemicists, like Naomi Klein.”
    What a profoundly depressing conclusion. She is farcical.
    Actually if you look across disciplines, I’d say Universities continue to have major influence, and rightly.
    The Humanities decided to punt a long time ago, and maybe they will fight their way back to relevance. You guys actually seem to be pushing in the right direction, but I still see papers at major artsie conferences that are all puns (the clearest sign of the mess).

    1. Michael Happy Post author

      Well, Alan, when I said “the best we could hope for,” I certainly did not mean the best we could get. However, Klein is infinitely better than the morally insane demagogues of the right: Hannity, Beck, Limbaugh, O’Reilly. These people are what Frye quite rightly called “parasites of democracy.” I’m thinking “tapeworm,” in fact, as the analogy that best captures it for me.

    2. Joseph Adamson

      Yes, you’re right, Al, about papers that are all based on puns. Deconstruction and post-structuralism in particular were based on the patently illogical use of words and their different sounds and senses,and even though Derrida et al are not trading on the theory market the way they used to, the influence of that particular intellectual style has had a baleful influence that still shows. Clayton describes the nightmare well in a previous comment, in his description of what it was like to sit through a graduate class at McMaster. I take the liberty of quoting him: “I remember sitting through graduate seminars completely baffled by papers being read, papers that had clear rhetorical markers of being arguments, of being an attempt to talk about something real, but of not actually containing an argument, of being, in fact, a rhetorical dance.

      The self-contradiction of this rhetorical dance, its claiming to be something that it clearly was not actually wore me down, or rather caused a kind of repression in me to the point that, in an explosive return of the repressed, I went off and did a degree in computer science.

      If I am bad enough and go to hell, I might find it to be an eternal graduate seminar of this type.”

  2. Martin

    Ha ha!!

    Naomi Klein just happens to drive Al mad but she is certainly not guilty of the big sins Michael refers to. She does not write gobbledy gook;one understands quite well what she is saying. She may be wrong in her interpretations but she is not pretentious and empty. I thought thats what Michael meant…There is still a place for Naomi Klein; historical journalism can still work. Similarly sociology, cognitive psychology, anthropolgy as long as they concern empirical study seem to be doing very well.

    I teach first year Biology and one of our challenges is creationism. A scientist, Richard Dawkins, has written a lot about the subject but misses the point entirely with people under the creationist spell—he preaches only to his elite choir. He is a joy to read for the scientist. But anyone outside of that domain feels the contempt he has for them in his writing and many scientists find his simple minded approach hard to take (however clear it is to the lay reader).

    In fact Frye helped me see other more useful ways to approach these issues—through the stories we tell and why we tell them. Scientists still understand through stories (I presume because that is how we all understand things) and their stories are often more charged than they imagine. We absorb more of the story than our experiments can actually justify and the resulting misconceptions can direct (I should say misdirect) our science. Like the man looking for the quarter under the lamplight…which quarter he lost in the a corner away from the light—he persists in looking in the wrong place because the light is better.

    There is a delightful book by William Provine on how genetics came to become part of the new synthesis (synthesis of genetics, development and evolution) [William B. Provine
    The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics] that outlines how presumptions about how evolution and genetics worked blinded scientists from seeing any relevance of Mendel’s laws to evolution for 30 years.

  3. Michael Happy Post author

    Yes, Martin, you are quite right about Naomi Klein. She is, after all, a real journalist in a way that sociopathic screamers like Beck et al are not. There is a place for her. However, I do lament that she is filling (not wholly adequately) a place that the “public scholar” used to occupy. That role has been abrogated by a whole generation of literary scholars who seem only interested in talking at one another rather than to anyone in particular. It’s very difficult to find any awareness of the reading public in current scholarship — except to raise as a bogie in the form of the sinister reader whose unreliable judgment requires us to be censuring if not censoring what is actually deemed suitable to read.


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