John M. Ellis
Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities
Yale, 272 pp., $ 25
In 1984, when the then-director of the National Endowment for the Humanities William J. Bennett published To Reclaim a Legacy -- a pointed attack on the way that the humanities were being taught -- evidence that something had gone dreadfully wrong at our colleges and universities was plain for all to see. Yet the response to Bennett's report from the academy was a combination of disbelief and rage: disbelief that anyone could still seriously speak of such things as "civilization's lasting vision" and "its highest shared ideals and aspirations," and rage that a Reagan appointee (albeit one with a Ph.D. in philosophy) should dare to criticize . . . well, them, the intellectual and moral elect. Judging from the abuse showered upon Bennett, one would have thought that he represented a monstrous threat to the survival of academic freedom, scholarly creativity, and true culture.
But that reaction was mild compared with the apoplexy that greeted the late Allan Bloom when he published The Closing of the American Mind in 1987. Condescension turned to shock and, once again, to rage, as this impassioned expose of the spiritual degradation of America's elite students shot up the bestseller list. Additional assaults on the academy followed: my own Tenured Radicals, Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education, David Lehman's Signs of the Times, Charles Sykes's Profscam, Camille Paglia's stinging essays on women's studies programs and kindred follies, and Paul Gross and Norman Levitt's Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science. Whether the subject was the institutionalization of sixties radicalism on campus, political correctness, professorial dereliction, the moral and intellectual fatuousness of deconstruction and radical multiculturalism, or the grotesque attacks on science and technology by avant-garde "humanists," the message was clear: Something was very, very wrong with liberal education in American colleges and universities.
Again and again, though, the response from the academy began in denial and ended in denunciation. The phenomenon of political correctness, though documented in countless books and articles, was recently dismissed by one politically correct academic as a "myth." Spokesmen for the academic establishment have busied themselves assuring parents, trustees, and alumni that criticism of the academy is overstated, that the hue and cry over the politicization of the humanities is a fantasy concocted by "right-wing" extremists who don't know what they are talking about.
One marvels at the persistence. But the publication of John Ellis's eloquent new book, Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities, makes one wonder anew how much longer the charade can continue. Ellis, professor emeritus of German literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is a founding member of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, the organization of literary scholars that was started a few years ago to provide an alternative to the thoroughly politicized Modern Language Association.
It should be said straight off that the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics is not a conservative organization; indeed, in many ways it is a bastion of liberalism. It was created in the hope of providing a forum where literature could still be discussed not as a political tool but --mirabile dictu -- as literature. The eminent literary scholar Christopher Ricks, another founding member, summed it up thus: "The concern is not the presence of politics in the MLA; it's the absence of non-politics . . . . It does seem that race, gender, class, and gayness are the only aspects under which literature is seen to exist there."
It almost goes without saying that this effort to foster a little "non- politics" in the study of literature has been attacked as a viciously ideological activity. And so it is not surprising that the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics and its members have been branded as right-wing apologists by bien-pensant deconstructionists, new historicists, queer theorists, radical multiculturalists, and devotees of "cultural studies."
This is the fate that surely awaits Literature Lost. Even now, I imagine, Yale literature professors are writing furious letters to the director of the Yale University Press to express their outrage that such a book was published under its auspices. And the situation is all the more serious because Ellis is not a first-time offender. His 1989 book Against Deconstruction, a brief but meticulously argued attack on one of the most poisonous and influential academic fads of our day, marked him as an untrustworthy ally in the pursuit of intellectual fatuousness. It was all the more objectionable for being written in clear, precise English, and for subjecting the arguments (and pseudo-arguments) of the deconstructionists to the unflattering light of rational analysis.
Literature Lost continues and expands on the discussion Mr. Ellis began in Against Deconstruction. As in that earlier book, he is at his best when patiently setting forth and criticizing the key assumptions and arguments of his opponents. He brings a philosopher's rigor to the notoriously muddled field of literary "theory," subjecting its often grandiose and pretentious claims to the tribunal of common sense.
But where Against Deconstruction focused on a fairly narrow set of arguments and attitudes, Literature Lost steps back to consider the fate of the humanities -- and literary studies in particular -- in the age of political correctness. Along the way, Ellis devotes particular attention to a number of influential figures Terry Eagleton, Gerald Graff, and Stephen Greenblatt, among others -- whose work epitomizes one or another aspect of what he calls "PC logic." As Ellis notes, so successful has this radicalization of the academy been over the past two or three decades that " it requires some effort to recall what the typical attitudes toward the study of the humanities were just a short while ago." We live now at a time when -- to quote the influential literary Marxist Fredric Jameson -- even literature professors believe that "everything is 'in the last analysis' political."
In essentials, the argument is as old as Thrasymachus' insistence, in Plato's Republic, that "might makes right," though it got a major overhaul when Marx came along with his theory of ideology. As Ellis puts it in what is perhaps his neatest analogy, "As Marxism is to the economic sphere, so cultural political correctness is to the cultural sphere." Just as the one promised abundance and everywhere brought penury and unhappiness, so the other promises greater freedom and diversity and winds up demanding a twisted puritanical conformism in intellectual as well as moral matters. The great peculiarity is that "just at the time when in the real world Marxism was collapsing so completely that its viability as a political theory seemed almost at an end, its influence in the universities of the English-speaking world was increasing just as dramatically." To a large extent, Literature Lost is a meditation on this puzzle.
The idea that "everything is "in the last analysis' political" reduces art and literature as traditionally conceived to little more than a self- indulgent diversion. For the race-class-gender lobby, all social, artistic, and intellectual life must be subjected to a battery of political tests. It's the Sovietization of intellectual life, where the value or truth of a work is determined not by its intrinsic qualities but by the degree to which it supports a given political line.
In some ways, as Ellis points out, this approach to cultural life is a highly moral -- or, rather, a highly moralistic -- one. Although it is thoroughly anti-bourgeois and thoroughly anti-traditional in its morality, it nevertheless seeks to judge every product of the human spirit by the degree of "virtue" it exhibits -- where "virtue" is defined beforehand by whatever gay, feminist, Marxist, racial, or ethnic totem the particular critic has sworn allegiance to. In this respect, gender-race-class criticism --let's call it Gerc-Crit for short -- is no less vigilant than Mr. Bowdler and no less sanctimonious than Mrs. Grundy.
The extraordinary, if perverted, moralism of Gerc-Crit (the "G," incidentally, is soft, as in "German," the "C" hard as in "arc") is one of its great appeals. Few things are more titillating to intellectuals -- who grow up being told that their pursuits are of limited social utility -- than the prospect of infusing their work with high moral purpose. How edifying to think that one was not simply teaching a novel by Jane Austen but was somehow also striking a blow for female emancipation! How exciting to believe that one was not just reading Shakespeare but was somehow challenging imperialism as well!
There is, however, a problem with the moralistic approach that Gerc-Crits employ, and that is its terrible simple-mindedness and philistinism. It was a problem for Mrs. Grundy, and it is a problem for the likes of Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton, too. Moralistic tests of cultural achievement always wind up being reductive, and the more ruthlessly applied, the more reductive they appear. This is where the jargon of deconstruction and kindred continental imports has been a godsend for academics. It has allowed them to indulge their moralism to the hilt while at the same time appearing intellectually sophisticated (or incomprehensible, which is often just as good). As Ellis observes, "Combining race, gender, and class criticism with the language of deconstruction takes care of both problems at once. Politicized criticism gives deconstruction an apparent seriousness of purpose, and in return deconstruction makes a rigorously moralistic position seem avant-garde and sophisticated." Nice work if you can get it.
Unfortunately, as Ellis shows, the moralism is as unconvincing as the sophistication is bogus. Ellis is hardly the first to point out, but he nevertheless usefully reminds us, that the anti-Western and (in particular) anti-American animus of so much Gerc-Crit has its origins in a utopian Romanticism that goes back at least to Rousseau. It was disastrous then, and it is disastrous now. Moreover, in extolling the virtues of societies and civilizations other than our own (and at the expense of our own), Gerc-Crits are merely following in the footsteps of the intellectually disgruntled from Johann Herder to Margaret Mead and beyond. The most ironic aspect of this whole performance is that "Those seized by this mood may imagine that they are taking an anti-Western stance, but that is all part of the same pattern of self-delusion."
In fact, criticism of the West has been a prominent ingredient in the West's self-understanding at least since Socrates invited his fellow Athenians to debate with him about the nature of the good life. As Ellis suggests, no civilization in history has been as consistently self-critical as the West. The very concept of "ethnocentricism," which is used like a sledgehammer to disparage the West, is a Western invention.
Our Western cultural inheritance is not perfect, but it has succeeded in raising us from the barbarism of a state of nature. It has managed to abolish many forms of human cruelty, has given us forms of democratic government that actually work, and has a record of human thought in literature and philosophy that offers extraordinary range, depth, and complexity. Far from debasing human beings, it has enhanced their dignity in a thousand different ways. We can build on it, extend it, modify it; but if we allow the politically correct to pull it down with their characteristic utopian promises about what they can replace it with, we have only ourselves to blame. We can be sure that if we allow their destructive resentment to destroy yet again so that they can create perfection, we shall witness the destruction but never see the benefits promised.
As a kind of corollary to this observation, Ellis enunciates a political dictum, the wisdom of which is worth the price of Literature Lost: If, when a great moral principle is introduced, its full cost must be paid immediately, progress will never occur. When it comes to moral progress, we have more to fear from self-declared partisans of virtue than from cautious traditionalists.
If the claims of Gerc-Crits to greater moral sensitivity and insight cannot stand, neither can their assumption of superior intellectual sophistication. One of the first things one notices about Gerc-Crit is how drab and unvarying it is. Works of literature are read not for their own sake but for predetermined political lessons about some form of racial injustice, sexual oppression, or class warfare. The result is formulaic criticism-by-number. As Ellis notes, Gerc-Crits "are convinced that their triad of issues is fundamental and that anything else is superficial." But, he asks with refreshing common sense, "Why must all literature be about the same thing?" What is left out of the Gerc-Crit view of literature is literature. Trivializing the nature of aesthetic experience -- which in its highest sense binds us to a larger community by educating that most social of faculties, taste -- Gerc-Crits reduce everything to politics. But even their view of politics is simplistic, for, as Ellis observes, "A meaningful politics must recognize other important values in human life. Indeed, politics makes no sense when it stands by itself. If the question who wields political power is not broadened to take account of what that power is to be used for -- that is, what human values it will serve --then it reduces to a matter of who manages to subdue whom . . . . "And that is not so much politics as its barbaric alternative.
The real villain in this story is not, as Ellis puts it, "theory but bad theory." The irony is that "theory," which once meant a respectful, disinterested beholding of reality, has come to be synonymous with a form of intellectual political activism. In tracing the course of that devolution, Literature Lost tells a very sad tale.
Roger Kimball is executive editor of the New Criterion.