And the silver lining in the long tragicomic thing the NYU sexual harassment mess is turning out to be is that it directs us again to the final two sections of Camille Paglia’s hilarious 1992 essay about people like Avital Ronnel, “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders.” Camille, it’s been too long.

I flashed onto Paglia’s classic when I read these sentences, written today in the Chronicle of Higher Ed by a woman who, very unhappily, worked as a grad student at NYU with Ronnel:

Structural problems are problems because real people hurt real people. You cannot have a cycle of abuse without actually existing abusers. That sounds simple, which is why so many academics hate it.

Her point is that deconstructive method has given academics sympathetic to Ronnel a way to sidestep the obvious abuse she doled out to the complainant – by theorizing and complexifying and performatizing human behavior. Derrida showed everyone the way when he denied his friend Paul de Man’s fascism by fogging it up so thoroughly that nothing meant anything.

This is the Paglia excerpt that came back to me:

Hey, fellas: there’s something out there that electrocutes people on beaches, collapses buildings like cardboard, and drowns ships and villages. It’s called nature. The next time the western horizon flames with crimson, remember that this is what Foucault never saw.

Richard Rorty, too, came to mind:

When one of today’s academic leftists says that some topic has been ‘inadequately theorized,’ you can be pretty certain that he or she is going to drag in either philosophy of language, or Lacanian psychoanalysis, or some neo-Marxist version of economic determinism. Theorists of the Left think that dissolving political agents into plays of differential subjectivity, or political initiatives into pursuits of Lacan’s impossible object of desire, helps to subvert the established order. Such subversion, they say, is accomplished by ‘problematizing familiar concepts.’

Recent attempts to subvert social institutions by problematizing concepts have produced a few very good books. They have also produced many thousands of books which represent scholastic philosophizing at its worst. The authors of these purportedly ‘subversive’ books honestly believe that they are serving human liberty. But it is almost impossible to clamber back down from their books to a level of abstraction on which one might discuss the merits of a law, a treaty, a candidate, or a political strategy. Even though what these authors ‘theorize’ is often something very concrete and near at hand – a current TV show, a media celebrity, a recent scandal – they offer the most abstract and barren explanations imaginable.

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The clear and present realities the letter-writers in this case theorized away were, UD thinks, two:

1. Some human beings are very cruel.
2. Human collectives have a perennial tendency to degenerate into gangs that punish outsiders.

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2 Responses to “There’s always a silver lining.”

  1. dmf Says:

    Dick was quite on top of much of the nonsense of his time, Paglia not so much too busy hanging out with the Randian boys of Reason.

  2. Jack Says:

    The punchline to the article made me cackle.

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