The Selective Critique · 10 July 2006

By Mark


One of the first things a graduate student in the humanities and "softer" social sciences learns is that communication is rarely simple. Words carry latent values and vestigial biases, they are told, and over time the consequences of a word's usage exceed its ostensible meaning. Post-bac training begins with that distinction, and students advance by attuning themselves to the tacit and the subtextual. "Language is not transparent," announces the favorite T-shirt of a colleague, and to interpret statements accordingly isn't just common wisdom. It's a professional duty.

I've felt its pull many times, once while watching a debate on television around 1991 when the campus had become a central theater of the culture wars. Catharine Stimpson, Stanley Fish, and two others took on John Silber, William Buckley, Dinesh D'Souza, and Glenn Loury, with the canon, speech codes, and political correctness the topics. At one point, when Silber asserted the silliness of substituting the title "chair" for "chairman" - women "calling themselves furniture," he put it - Fish replied with a point about the "deep culture of the language." Often, he argued, "linguistic assumptions can be so deeply assumed that the society that uses them is not aware of them," and when scholars and teachers unveil them, people feel threatened and confused. It's a common premise, and it makes it easy to cast the academics as tenured meddlers going against common sense. The academics, in turn, feel that the more figures such as D'Souza resist, the more they know they're on to something. That some of these expressions carry discriminatory baggage sharpens the analytic radar and adds a moral imperative to the labor. Indeed, no mandate has granted literary scholars so strong sense of mission in the last 25 years.

It certainly touched me, and I recall judging Buckley et al as obtuse anti-intellectuals and cheap-shot artists pitiably ignorant of advanced arguments. With a fresh Ph.D. in hand, and infused with Heidegger and Derrida, I believed fervently in the interpretative calling, disdaining what phenomenologists called the "natural attitude," the outlook that takes things at face value. Added to that, I claimed language and literature as a professional subject, which meant that my livelihood depended upon the under- or other side of words, and that it took a special acumen to access it.

Fifteen years later, though, after countless written and spoken readings that lifted the political sediment out of ordinary and extraordinary language, the practice sounds pedestrian and predictable. In some cases, the search for "linguistic assumptions" exposed sexist and racist attitudes underlying different discourses, invisible but operative - for instance, Gilbert and Gubar's analysis in The Madwoman in the Attic of patriarchal motifs in critical discussions of creativity - and it also reflected handily upon the institutional circumstances of them. But when it ascended into a theoretical premise, and soon after settled into a professional habit, the conclusions it drew lapsed into routine. Indeed, much queer theory has involved the extraction of queer subtexts from canonical texts and popular culture, influentially enough that assertions such as that of a lesbian undercurrent in "Laverne and Shirley," as one book offered several years ago, produces the effect of either whimsical curiosity or a rolling of the eyes.

The theory provided no guidelines as to where it did and did not apply, and so it was stretched too thin. It provided no means for distinguishing between content that was invisible from content that actually wasn't there. The professors saw implicit meaning everywhere, much of it political or identity-oriented. Persons outside the academy looked at the whole of their exchanges and found most of them uncomplicated and transitory. The surface was all. To that audience, conservatives such as Silber had a better grasp of the nature of "linguistic assumptions" than the professors did. And it didn't help that so many professors shared Theodor Adorno's belief in "the stupidity of common sense." That, indeed, may explain why conservative intellectuals routed the professors in public settings over the years - not because they lacked nuance, played on irrational fears, or traded in simplistic, but telegenic gibes. Rather, they understood better when to analyze and when to assert, when to dismantle and when to affirm.

Both camps would agree, however, that the disclosure of assumptions and biases in language does apply to certain contexts, especially those in which an institution weighs heavily upon the utterances. When the protocols of communication are strict, when a statement reflects a speaker's knowledge and legitimacy, when misstatements violate a group's sense of mission, when entry into the discourse requires a long and regulated preparation by the entrant - such settings are "overdetermined," and they need detailed analysis and thick description. The terms are loaded and the topics authorized. Statements impart norms as well as ideas, mores as well as referents. The expressions licensed there reinforce the institution and echo its rationale. The subtext is dynamic, and if we don't analyze it, then we do, indeed, break our promise to critique.

For this reason, it has been astonishing to watch the professors respond to indictments leveled recently by conservative, libertarian, and First Amendment figures against academic practice and politics. These figures cited voter registrations, campaign contributions, and occasional acts of oppression, but most of the time the first exhibit of bias and illiberalism was a sample of institutional language. Scholarly articles such as a 2003 study of the "conservative personality" that found fear and aggression at the heart of conservatism ("Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition," Psychological Bulletin. May 2003); course descriptions such as those gathered by American Council of Alumni and Trustees in a report issued last month; speech codes targeted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education; paper titles culled by Frederick Hess and Laura LoGerfo from the last meeting of the American Educational Research Association ... these formed the evidence. They served well because of their patent absurdity, or because of their offense to public taste, or their adversarial dogma (anti-American, anti-capitalist, etc.).

But while the manifest content had an immediate impact, sometimes entering national circulation as a reviled token (e.g., "little Eichmanns"), many claimed a deeper meaning for them. In a word, they were offered as symptomatic expressions, an index of the values, norms, biases, and interests of academics. Conservatives and others presented them as precisely the kind of language packed with "linguistic assumptions," performing subtextual feats, and ripe for socio-political analysis.

And yet, how have the professors responded? Not by taking up the critical challenge and carrying out the analysis. Not by bouncing the samples off of the institution in which they appeared. Instead, they shot the messenger. They declared the samples isolated and un-representative, or they denied to them the symptoms alleged by the critics. The course description wasn't a fair stand-in for the course itself, they protested. Ward Churchill's post-9/11 rant was an aberration. The conference paper title was just a way to garner an audience, so let's not confuse it with the real substance of the paper. In sum, they put the most benign construction on the samples. That turned the allegations back upon the people who cited them, David Horowitz, Anne Neal, and the rest, who were cast as sinister crazies pushing a vile political agenda.

One can understand the professors' defensiveness, but to let it squelch the exercise of a practice that they have at other times wielded so boldly is a breach of their own ideals. Have they lived so long and so closely to "social justice," "social change," "queer," "whiteness," and "gender equality" that they do not recognize them as loaded terms? Have they imbibed the political currents of the campus so thoroughly that they regard a polemical phrasing in a course description as merely a lively description? By their own instruction, we should regard the widespread attention to race, gender, and their social construction as emanating from a world view and signaling an ideological commitment. When Ward Churchill's notorious speech made headlines, the professors were correct to cite his First Amendment rights and reprove those calling for his job. But as more information came to light, and his political attitudes seemed to bear a closer relation to his scholarship, academic doctrine demanded that the institution that rewarded him be reviewed. Roger Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, has assured the Commission on the Future of Higher Education that "Faculty members are accountable for their work in many ways," including peer review of scholarship and grant applications and annual departmental review for salary and promotion. What, then, is the relationship between Churchill's high ascent in the profession and his discredited writings? Humanities and social science professors work backward from institutional statements to the culture of the institution itself all the time. Why exempt academic language from the process?

The academic defense comes down to this: conservatives and libertarians read too much into bits and pieces of language - an ironic turnabout, given that they used to make the same charge against literary theorists 20 years ago. Tim Burke, responding to the ACTA report, chooses the term "Eurocentric" as a case in point. While ACTA's report selected a course description containing the term as an instance of bias, Burke replied, "I'll let them in on a little secret: it can also be just a plain-old technical term for historiographical models that argue that modern world history has primarily been determined by factors that are endogamous to Europe itself." So it can, but even if we accept that as one meaning of Eurocentric, it doesn't erase the occasions when, as Burke concedes, "the term is also used as a fairly dumb epithet by nitwitted activists." That is precisely one of the dangers of loaded terms. They can function neutrally or tendentiously, and when pressed the users can always fall back upon claims of innocence.

The question rests upon the frequency of biased meanings, "the existence of telling linguistic patterns," as Erin O'Connor puts it while commenting on the issue. When a call for papers foregrounds anti-union corporatist practices, is that a tendentious usage, or are the libertarian commentators who cite it being oversensitive? The answer largely depends upon one's relation to the institutional setting. When a libertarian delivers a talk at a symposium sponsored by Reason Magazine, the mention of government will have over- and undertones different from those issuing from government at a meeting of social justice advocates. From my perspective in 1991, I regarded Eurocentric, theory, patriarchy, and even the blank terms race and gender as descriptive ones. Yes, they had a political thrust, but essentially they were justified because they were accurate names for real phenomena in history and society. Indeed, it was the other discourse that was politicized, the one from which race etc. were absent. Now, having watched those terms in action, I see them as more often tendentious than not. In the majority of cases, their "institutional meaning" overshadows their denotative meaning.

That's my experience, and maybe it's too partial to count. But we can't know for certain so long as leading academics remain as quick to deny the possibility that a narrow political agenda underlies academic discourse. Apart from the wall it erects against further inquiry, the reflex draws them into a vulnerable position. First of all, it results in overt intellectual blunders. For example, in the article cited above on the conservative personality, the authors define "conservatism" as, at heart, "opposition to change," a simplistic and sweeping characterization that allows them to conclude, "One is justified in referring to Hitler, Mussolini, Reagan, and Limbaugh as right-wing conservatives ... because they all preached a return to an idealized past." (They also add Stalin, Khrushchev, and Castro to the list of political conservatives.)

A second and more damaging problem in neutralizing their own terminology is the double standard it represents. Academics recognize the tension in terms such as race and sexuality, but they attribute its source to the resistances of others, persons who can't give up their own biases and anxieties. That tactic will only work behind the campus walls. Try it in an outside setting and the arrogance comes across immediately. The hypocrisy shows, too, as academics fail their own standard. They present themselves as hard-headed, clear-sighted analysts, but in this case they prove selective in their labor. People outside the campus recognize that academia is just the kind of Establishment that calls out for ideological and social criticism, and its language is one place to begin. Academics already have a credibility problem when discussing their own practices, and if they wish to face down their many critics, they need to start extending those criticisms by themselves. Public observers realize, however reluctantly, that the best people to conduct that examination are the professors themselves, if only they will stop acting so proprietary. If academics don't assume the lead, then they will find their credibility falling still further, having revised one of their favorite dicta to their own advantage - "a ruthless criticism of everything existing," everything, that is, but their own.

Mark Bauerlein is professor of English at Emory University.