What are academic instincts, and are they about more than survival? For Frederick Crews, emeritus professor of English at Berkeley, literary study in the university is a Darwinian battle for power and status, with professors ‘teaching the conflicts’ as they claw their way up the academic ladder. For Marjorie Garber, William R. Kenan Jr Professor of English at Harvard, the university, if not a utopia, is nonetheless a satisfying environment where intellectual controversy reigns. Garber believes that academic jargon is actually ‘language in action’, marking ‘the place where thinking has been’, while Crews believes that it is the inscription on the tombstone of the place where thinking died. While they deal with many of the same issues – the star system, cultural studies, literary theory – these two writers come up with revealingly different descriptions of the profession of English in the American academy.
If anyone qualifies as an expert on academic instincts, it must be Marjorie Garber. She has been aptly described by the New York Times as ‘one of the most powerful women in the academic world’, and in Prospect as ‘the reigning queen of cultural studies’. In a career that spans Shakespearean scholarship, cultural criticism, important administrative duties and journalistic visibility, Garber has consistently demonstrated her understanding of what makes the tenured tick, and her ability to keep a steady footing on the steepest slopes of academia. Her wide-ranging books – including Vested Interests (1992), on cross-dressing; Vice Versa (1995), on bisexuality; and Sex and Real Estate (2000), on the erotics of property – are noted for their originality, wit, erudition and tact.
Garber has described the unifying theme of her work as ‘unsettling boundaries’, and in Academic Instincts she attempts to blur the boundaries between such vexed oppositions as amateur/professional, specialist/generalist and jargon/plain English. She maintains that the divisions in academic life are perennial, and uses her favourite tools of etymology and deconstruction to undermine apparent differences between disputed terms, either tracing the origins of words to show that that what was once complimentary is now pejorative, and vice versa; or arguing that the disputes around polarised academic institutions, languages and identities ‘depend on one another for their strength and effectiveness’. Her own role in taking up these issues, she explains, is non-partisan: ‘not to take a side in the polemic, not to position myself above it, but to explore the ways in which these controversies are essential to the nature of intellectual life’. Moreover, she treats all her opponents with courtly deference, describing them as respected colleagues, admired teachers or wise critics. One reviewer, Russell Jacoby, has called her ‘a bad girl with only the nicest things to say’.
To enter academic controversy effectively, however, originality, wit, ingenuity and tact are not enough; you also have to be willing to risk offending someone, and that requirement violates all of Garber’s academic survival instincts. Indeed, she describes Academic Instincts as ‘a love letter . . . addressed to a lifelong partner and companion, the profession of literary study’. Writing a love letter to the profession, rather than the subject matter, of literary study may well be the most daring and original aspect of the book. Many literature professors have declared their undying love for reading and teaching, but few have admitted to loving the academic game itself. More typically, they view joining the profession as the heavy price they have to pay for doing what they love, more or less as marriage and its responsibilities and woes used to be regarded as the price men paid for sex.
Now that a slow academic job market makes it harder for even professorial stars to divorce their departments when they get bored, complaints of burn-out and collegial dysfunction proliferate. Perhaps Garber, who has taught at Harvard, Haverford and Yale, can keep the magic alive in the monogamous long-term academic relationship. For many others less well located, or more disillusioned, however, the notion of a love letter to the profession might seem perverse. Indeed, for Crews, literary criticism today is a racket in which values have taken second place to career success.
Garber seems more interested in deflecting criticism of her work in cultural studies than in interrogating the overall state of the discipline. While she has been successful in reaching a wide general audience as well as a specialised one, she emphasises her position as a Harvard professor rather than as a bestselling author, and avoids seeing any contradiction between the two. Taking up the question of the public intellectual, she approvingly quotes a definition by Thomas Bender: one who ‘uses literature for larger purposes, to talk about subjects that matter to contemporary society’. The public intellectual has ‘the capacity to speak to more general and deeply felt questions and aspirations, and to do so in a common idiom’.
But Garber glosses over the way this capacity is widely disparaged in the academy, and the idiom overtly discouraged. While every academic, as she says, would love to write a ‘crossover book’ that ‘impresses one’s colleagues and perhaps even makes the bestseller list’, few actually do so. The reasons, I think, lie in the continuing mythology of ‘two voices’ – the idea that proper literary intellectuals must speak theoretical jargon to their colleagues (and students), and retain a second voice in which to reach the general public. Although Garber advocates the erosion of disciplinary boundaries, she also defends the use of jargon, which she calls ‘terms of art’, and defines very narrowly as a specialised shorthand of the trade. ‘Resentment of jargon comes from several sources,’ she argues. There is
resistance to being left out of an in-group conversation; fear (often transmuted, as a defence mechanism, into dislike or even hatred) of what is not understood or recognised; suspicion that something subversive may be going on, enabled by a code or cipher; and, on the other hand – if it is indeed another hand – aesthetic recoil at language that is perceived as ugly, pretentious or anomalous.
The problem with literary jargon, however, is not that outsiders resent it. The problem is that the habit of expressing one’s ideas in a highly conventional idiom gradually incapacitates the ability to write with clarity and force, and sometimes even to have opinions at all. Many a literary critic, trying to summon up the ‘second voice’ after years of speaking and writing in a code, finds that it has disappeared. Conversely, graduate students are trained to write the received English of the academy, and learn to suppress whatever flair, individuality and humour they had when they arrived.
Similarly, Garber makes a strong distinction between literary journalism and literary scholarship: ‘The journalist of ideas attempts to explain and describe them, while the scholar of ideas attempts to think through them, to enter into and advance an ongoing intellectual discussion. Every scholarly move is part of a dialogue.’ Garber is writing here about periodicals like Lingua Franca, or the ‘Arts & Ideas’ pages of the New York Times, but even in these limited terms, she underestimates the intellectual impact of the highly educated journalists who write for these publications, as well as for the New Yorker. On the other hand, Garber dismisses complaints about the star system within the academy as envy: ‘When professors of the humanities and social sciences make headlines, it is often because someone thinks their salaries or lecture fees are too high.’
Perhaps inevitably, Garber’s example of such an envied and resented star is Stanley Fish. Fish’s salaries and lecture fees have been part of the lore of academic culture since David Lodge’s Changing Places (1975), where he appeared thinly disguised as Morris Zapp, who, ‘enviably offered his first job by Euphoria State, had stuck out for twice the going salary, and got it’; and who had ‘the professional killer instinct’ in a ‘profession as steeped in the spirit of free enterprise as Wall Street’. Fish has never written a crossover book, but he might be called a crossover person, especially now that he has been the subject of a lengthy New Yorker profile, ‘The Dean’s List: The enfant terrible of English lit grows up’ (11 June 2001), in which his salary as Dean at the University of Illinois in Chicago is prominently featured. (It’s $249,000 – a lot for an academic, but chump change for a software tycoon or Hollywood mogul.)
In Crews’s Postmodern Pooh, there are echoes of Fish in N. Mack Hobbs, America’s ‘highest-paid humanities professor’ and a pragmatist who defines a literary classic as ‘a work that facilitates professional discourse production’. All critical discussion, according to Hobbs, is really ‘about playing the tenure-and-promotion game’. The debate Garber describes as the process of advancing ideas, Hobbs calls the rules of the ‘criticism racket’ – keep arguing ‘so that the presses can keep humming and we can all (well, most of us) retain our jobs and keep making the conference rounds.’
Postmodern Pooh is the cynical opposite of Garber’s idealistic view of literary studies. In The Pooh Perplex: A Student Casebook (1963), Crews, then a starry-eyed young professor with an interest in psychoanalytic criticism, gently parodied the reigning schools of literary criticism of the period, such as they were – approaches so innocently concerned with matters of politics or taste that they now seem quaint. Most strikingly to a modern reader, all of Crews’s 1963 critics were men. From Simon Lacerous (F.R. Leavis), whose attack is titled ‘Another Book to Cross Off Your List’, to the Southern Agrarian C.J.L. Culpepper’s essay on ‘The Sacramental Meaning of Winnie-the-Pooh’, these critics confidently held forth on scholarly procedures and moral values.
Now Crews, as well as the academic market, has changed, he to become a fiercely polemical anti-Freudian, the casebook to become an essay collection supposedly based on papers given at the MLA, where a bunch of academic superstars, holding university chairs that indicate the capitalist endowment of their schools – the Joe Camel Professorship at Duke, the Exxon Valdez Chair at Rice, the Classic Coke Professorship of Subaltern Studies at Emory – slug it out over Pooh. Here a group of worldly hypocrites and egotists who would be at home on the stage of Jonson or Molière reveal themselves through their theoretical papers. The Irvine deconstructionist Felicia Marronnez contemptuously dismisses the notion of a real writer or reader, but goes on to say: ‘Now that we’ve disposed with both author and reader, you will be interested to learn that I’m going to go right on discussing them.’ The suave Victor S. Fassell, a facile New Historian (he calls his theory New Negotiationism), manages to find connections to historical events and power even in Pooh. In one of the book’s running jokes, he is a world traveller and conference-hopper, blithely indifferent to the political situations in the countries he visits: ‘I found myself in the capital city of Uganda a few weeks ago, receiving a small prize and helping to inaugurate a humanities institute that had been badly needed there.’
Fassell is followed by Carla Gulag, the Jamesonian Marxist critic from Duke, who protests against those doing ‘academic business as usual while millions suffer and die’, but defends her mentor’s Postmodern need to explore the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles and expose its late-capitalist horrors. Das Nuffa Dat, the Oxford-educated critic of the Colonial Unconscious, condemns the West’s exploitation of the East as he has seen it through the windows of his father’s Bentley and heard it from the lips of his grandfather the Maharajah. No slouch at jargon, Dat also quotes the jargon of his real-life peers:
We have so much to discuss! For, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has said so well, ‘The rememoration of the “present” as space is the possibility of the utopian imperative of no-(particular)-place, the metropolitan project that can supplement the post-colonial attempt at the impossible cathexis of place-bound history as the lost time of the spectator.’ That’s what we’re all here for, wouldn’t you agree?
BigGloria3 (formerly known as Herbert L. Dribble), now enjoying the ‘glamour and hassle of academic stardom’ as a cutting-edge cultural critic from Syracuse dressed in purple suede, chains and an orange Mohawk, explains his journey through critical studies as it has expanded through queer studies, slash fiction and animal liberation to virtual texts and online social games, involving ‘flat-out interactive sex with lots of strangers . . . This is how I have been spending most of my spare time lately, and it beats the hell out of reading PLMA, or whatever it’s called.’ He sees virtual opportunities for rewriting Milne’s book as fanfiction. Indeed, Crews notes, in his po-faced preface, ‘the bright critics assembled in this volume will doubtless show, in their sophisticated and ingenious new ways, that just as Pooh is suffused with humanism, our humanism itself, by this late date, has become full of Pooh.’
But of course Crews is of the devil’s party whether or not he admits it. He can’t resist the opportunity to invent clever and weirdly convincing theories about Winnie-the-Pooh even as he mercilessly mocks those who live by the criticism racket. Ultimately, the most basic of academic instincts is to play with ideas. If literary theory can generate a book as funny as Postmodern Pooh, you have to love it.