The Magazine

Identity Crisis

The high costs of feeling good about yourself.

Aug 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 46 • By MARK BAUERLEIN
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[We will examine] ways in which power is deployed over and through bodies for use of the nation-state and elites. We will critique feminist histories, knowledges, and production in the face of imperialism, colonialism, environmental development-destruction & the negative consequences of violences deployed against poor, subordinated, and indigenous peoples.

The words tumble forth with the momentum of an imposing critique behind it; but pause over the phrases, and they sink into meaninglessness. The language is bloated and hackneyed (“power is deployed .  .  . violences deployed”), the basic sense fuzzy (power works “over and through bodies for use of the nation-state and elites”). Here are some lines from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s idolized queer theory volume Epistemology of the Closet:

In “The Beast in the Jungle,” written at the threshold of the new century, the possibility of an embodied male-homosexual thematic has, I would like to argue, a precisely liminal presence.

Not just a “liminal presence” but a “precisely liminal presence.” And it is not just the “male-homosexual thematic” that bears such presence, but an “embodied” one, or rather, the possibility of that embodied one which does so. The prose slides into ever more nuanced and qualified assertions, as if the reality the theorist broaches has such a tremulous existence that only the most delicately stated propositions can capture it.

Bawer also quotes from a historical tome on California by a Chicano Studies expert:

Those immigrants who arrived under Spanish rule, I call simply “Spanish,” or “Spanish colonizers.” .  .  . I call those arriving or living in California after 1821 “settler-colonizers.” .  .  . For those colonizers and settlers who were raised in California, I also use the term by which they identified themselves, Californianas/os. .  .  . I refer to Californianos and Mexican immigrants collectively as “Chicanas/os.”

The nomenclature discussion goes on for a full page, Bawer notes—part of the “tireless attention to labels [so] common in Chicano Studies.” Naturally, of course, for in fields based upon markers of identity, the taxonomy of human beings rises to an obsession.

The problem with these statements isn’t the stilted prose or conceptual jargon or posturing personae. It is that they exemplify customary academic speech, which is to say that they couldn’t stand any farther from the revolutionary impetus of identity studies. For all the adversarial, aggressive extremism of identity studies ideology, the practice accords neatly with the Establishment. Identity studies professors parse identitarian terms just as English professors do the terms of prosody. They analyze cultural texts just as art historians analyze a Caravaggio. “This academically approved rhetoric pretends to be unorthodox, deviant, threatening, and anti-normative,” Bawer observes, “but is, in point of fact, mind-numbingly conformist.” 

Even more ironically, they have secured money and resources for three decades while being held to low intellectual standards. Shelby Steele recalls his days in the early 1970s building such programs, at a time when “there was so much white guilt that you could just go into these places and they’d give you anything you wanted.”

The very endurance of Women’s Studies, Bawer remarks, “belies its own rhetoric about the ruthless hegemonic power of the patriarchy.” For years, University of Pennsylvania professor Alan Charles Kors tells Bawer, Michael Eric Dyson, author of books like Know What I Mean? Reflections on Hip-Hop, was the highest paid arts-and-sciences professor at Penn in spite of his youth. To watch individuals who enjoy such lavish professional rewards denounce American racism, sexism, and homophobia is either comical or pathetic. Steele labels them “hustlers.”

The professors might respond, “Academia may, to some degree, escape those evils, but America doesn’t, and we aim to change that.” If that’s the case, though, then why make academia your home? Why speak in terms that only “Ivory-Tower initiates” (Bawer’s term) can understand (e.g., “marginal positionality,” “paranoid modality”)? Academia forces them into academic behavior that blunts the radicalism. No wonder they are so defensive; they are living a transparent pretense.