University Diaries
A professor of English describes American university life.
Aim: To change things.
Contact UD at: margaret-dot-soltan-at-gmail-dot-com

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

March on the English Department

Via Butterflies and Wheels, from a review of Todd Gitlin’s book, The Intellectuals and The Flag:

'The left, [Gitlin] argues, took a wrong turn when it abandoned knowledge as its guiding light on the grounds that knowledge, as argued by theorists like Michael Foucault and Edward Said, was merely a masked form of power, and illegitimate power at that. "If discourse was central to power," Gitlin writes with a note of bitterness, "then the exposure and transformation of discourse was the left's central task, and academia would become indispensable ... the university would become the main battlefield in the struggle for power. ... Defeated in Washington, you could march (as a consolation prize) on the English department."

Gitlin recounts a conversation with a committed feminist who, like her fellow postmodernists, thought, as did the premodern scholastics, that there was no reality other than that constituted by "discourse." For the postmodernists who dominate many of our humanities departments, it is as if the scientific revolution never occurred. "The category of 'lived experience' was, from her point of view, an atavistic concealment; what one 'lived' was constituted by a discourse that had no more -- or less -- standing than any other system of discourse."

When asked, the feminist was unable to provide a reasoned justification for her own commitments. They could only be asserted as a matter of power and will. But her problem was more than personal. If, as Michel Foucault told the Berkeley faculty in 1983, "There is no universal criterion which permits us to say, this category of power relations are bad and those are good," then there is no way to prefer a liberal society to fascism, communism, or Islamism.

What that means, by extension, is that, as in the 1930s, many leftists either sympathize with an authoritarian alternative to liberalism or have a hard time explaining why a liberal society should be defended against its enemies. The upshot is that the "fundamentalist left" -- Gitlin's description -- is reduced to the role of a spectator jeering at the American team in its conflict with terrorism.'