November 17th, 2003

Travel Blogging

Steven and his wife Robin are in Spain right now. He has expressed his dissatisfaction with other writers' accounts of travel and wonders, on his blog, whether anyone will want to read his postings from abroad. I happen to love travel writing, though, however mundane. Indeed, I often prefer the mundane sort to the rhapsodic musings that transport us to an idealized Provence or Tuscany.

And I'll never say no to someone's vacation pictures. Of course, when my amazing daughter is featured, the incentive to look is appreciably greater. . .

When cpratt and danlmarmot were in Australia, I checked their blogs every day in the hope that a new entry would appear. Sometimes, when they were in the back country, a week or two would go by with no word. And then, suddenly, there would be a flood of news.

I loved the waiting, in retrospect, once I was sure that I had been waiting for something.

I'm not sure how readily I'll be able to follow in my friends' footsteps on my next few trips, but I'll give it a shot. My parents have a dial-up connection, though, so I may not have the patience.
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Erin O'Connor's Blog

Laura notes that she was excited to receive correspondence from Erin O'Connor, whose blog has partially filled the void left by the demise of Lingua Franca.

The other day, worked up over Steven's comments from 11/12/03, originally titled "In Judith Butler's Cut" and now recast as "Judith Butler" -- I posted a quick response that concluded with the following paragraph:
Right now it will suffice to say that I have the same visceral reaction to arguments that cite those "Bad Writing" contests -- inevitably bestowed on the progressive academics I read for both work and pleasure -- as I do to ones that refer to Erin O'Connor's blog as if she were the only person who noticed that the Emperor has a distinctive mark on his penis.
While I was careful to distinguish between Erin O'Connor herself -- more on her below -- I didn't explain what I meant by implicitly critiquing those who cite her blog around the departmental coffeemaker.

I won't retract my comments of the other day. I do think that there is an affinity between some of the people who delight in "Bad Writing" contests and those who delight in O'Connor's blog. While it by no means follow that someone in either category is necessarily "conservative," there are enough line of affiliation between the contest, the blog, and the academic Right to suggest the emergence of a political phenomenon.

I use "political" here, not because "everything is political" -- more on that phrase below, too -- but because stirrings at American universities continue to influence strongly the nation's political life, even when the results of that influence take a while to become visible.

Having been an undergrad at UC Berkeley at the same time as Erin O'Connor, in the same major, I can attest to the stupidity of many leftists activities in the university community. And I can also attest to the rise of a new breed of right wing thinkers, combining the ideological convictions of the Thatcher-Reagan set with the intellectual firepower to confront liberal and leftist academics on their own turf.

Most prominent of these new right wingers was Max Boot, who has now risen to the status of a think-tank "talking head" you see regularly on Fox News.

It was at Berkeley, in its supposedly ultra-liberal trenches, that the backlash against so-called "political correctness" really picked up steam.

Because I arrived at UC Berkeley on the heels of the Anti-Apartheid movement, I got to hang around with the last generation of 60s-style activists who felt an affinity for the campus. They introduced me to the use of the term "political correctness" in its previous incarnation, as a tool leftists used to mock pretentiousness in their ranks.

Between 1987 and 1991, though, the right-wing usage of the term, which implied that that liberals and leftists regarded "political correctness" as an ideal to aspire to, gradually supplanted its predecessor.

I bring all this up because I can't help but think that Erin O'Connor -- taking many of the same classes I took, walking by the same "demonstration of the week" absurdities on Sproul Plaza -- had to have been deeply affected by what was going on around her.

Perhaps she would be horrified to have her name mentioned on the same page as Max Boot. But it is also pretty clear, from where I sit, that the Max Boots of this world wouldn't hesitate for a moment to use her blog for their own political ends.

To the extent that her current blog, "Critical Mass," derives from an earlier project specifically dedicated to exposing "cant" on college campuses, it partakes of the same general impetus as those "Bad Writing" contests.

My problem with those contests is political. They tend to pick out the worst paragraphs from leftist/progressive/radical thinkers and subject them to ridicule, without making the slightest attempt to be "fair and balanced." Lord knows, there's plenty of incomprehensible prose coming out of those conservative think-tanks that dreamed up the current Iraq war, but you aren't going to see it in the "Bad Writing" contest.

O'Connor is more careful than that, to be sure. But I still detect a pretty distinct ideological slant to her perspective on the academy. The first link she suggested to Laura was for the blog of Joanne Jacobs, which she described as, "not so concerned with higher ed, but *very* smart on K-12." In addition to being an advocate of charter schools, however, Jacobs has this to say today:
Social studies teachers are discussing whether to teach students to love their country or sneer at it, says the Chicago Tribune. I think the story sets up a false dichotomy: Either teachers can teach "critical thinking" or teach facts.
The topic of class discussion was "Iraqification"--a term associated with the transfer of responsibility for Iraq's security from American soldiers to the Iraqi people -- and the students did not lack opinions on the subject.

Leading the Advanced Placement World History lab at Noble Street Charter High School in Chicago, teacher Joe Tenbusch asked his students at what time during the Iraq conflict more people have been killed.

"After we won," said Victoria Janik, 16, with a smirk, bringing nods and smiles of agreement from her peers, who had been pondering President Bush's possible motives for favoring Iraqification.

While some educators might find the exchange valuable--or, at worst, harmless--an outspoken group of social studies teachers around the country say such classroom scenes breed cynical, anti-American attitudes.

High school students, they argue, simply are not mature enough to engage in critical thinking. Teachers should focus on imparting a solid knowledge of history, economics, American traditions and government--in short, the ideals and values of a free society.
Students can't think critically if they lack knowledge. In this case, the student is right in thinking that U.S. casualties (not "people") are a factor in the desire to give more authority to Iraqis. The question is whether she knows other facts. How many people did Saddam Hussein kill, directly and indirectly? How did the Occupation go in Germany and Japan after World War II? How did South Korea become a democracy?

Critical thinking is a lot harder than people think, because it requires knowledge.
Since I'm not a regular reader of Jacobs's blog -- and never will be -- I'm not sure whether the last paragraph in this quote is the sort of thing that leads O'Connor to label her blog "smart." Regardless, it's pretty clear where Jacobs plants her political tulips.

To be fair, though, it's possible -- likely, even -- that O'Connor did not recommend Jacobs's blog out of political solidarity.

Looking through the archives of O'Connor's blog, however, I did find plenty of entries with a conservative patina. Consider this review of a Stanley Fish piece from March 31, 2002:
Stanley Fish's most recent contribution to The Chronicle of Higher Education, "Is Everything Political?," should be required reading for all administrators, faculty, and students--especially faculty and grad students in the humanities. In this short, hardhitting column, Fish destroys what has become, on too many campuses, a sort of pseudo-intellectual rationalization for not thinking well and not doing one's job, showing how the phrase "everything is political" is actually a self-negating claim that does nothing to advance argument, raise consciousness, provoke thought, or teach ethics. Why is Fish interested in such a lame claim? Because even though its lameness should be obvious--if "everything" is political, than everything might as well not be political; if "everything" is political, then important distinctions between kinds of things and kinds of acts, between contexts and behaviors and beliefs, disappear; if "everything" is political, then politics itself gets emptied out--the notion that everything is political holds tremendous sway on campuses.

What kind of sway? Thought control, for one. Fish links the prevailing idea that "everything is political" to the administrative debacles about student and faculty speech in the wake of 9/11, pointing out that admins who make it their business to adjudicate sensitivity, who punish or censure those who express unpopular beliefs, are not doing their job. The "everything is political" thesis also causes great confusion among students and faculty about the difference between being a scholar, a teacher, or a student, and being an activist. Fish is delightfully clear on a point that seems to give folks in the humanities no end of trouble, and he is uncompromising in his commentary about the all-too muddled concept of the "scholarship of engagement." "Literary criticism and partisan politics are both political in this general sense -- any style of their performance will be controversial in the field -- but the point of the one is to produce a true account of a poem, while the point of the second is to win elections. If you mix them up and try for an account of a poem that will help a favored candidate or advance a political cause (unlikely but possible scenarios), you will only be pretending to practice literary criticism, and you will be exploiting for partisan purposes the discipline in whose name you supposedly act," Fish writes, adding that "This is more than a logical point; it is a point about bad academic practices and the sloppy thinking that accompanies them."

It's no accident that administrators and literary critics are the folks who fare worst in Fish's essay: where admins are notorious careerists who routinely abdicate their tougher responsibilities for the short-term crowd-pleasing gains of public relations, the people over in English have ridden the "everything is political" wave longer and harder than just about anyone else on campus. In fact, English has the dubious distinction of being the one academic discipline whose practitioners are by and large frankly embarrassed to be practising it. As anyone who has worked or studied in an English department for any length of time can tell you, traditional literary study--and traditional literary scholars--are the bane of the field's existence. Why? Because they are apolitical. They do not accept the governing, central, unassailable truth about the world: that everything is political. With the help of the Jamesons and Foucaults and Althussers and Spivaks of the world, English departments sold their souls during the 1980s (they mortgaged it during the 60s), and have spent the intervening years desperately trying to prove to themselves that they are socially relevant, that they are the radical interrogators of oppression and the transgressive theorists of progress, that they are the subversive instigators of truly enlightened thought, that they are uniquely equipped to describe the workings of power and resistance and desire, that they are the vanguard of ideological demystification, that they are, in short, so much more than mere literary critics, that they are, indeed, political, and that everything they do, and say, and think, is political too. "Being political" is increasingly how English departments, particularly in their younger constituencies, in their junior faculty and their graduate students, justify their existence to themselves. It's peculiarly self-hating and self-defeating behavior; it's hard to imagine literary study surviving far into the future when more and more members of English departments don't even really read literature, let alone value it.

All this is to say that as right as Fish is about the anti-intellectualism of the "everything is political" stance, it is nonetheless a stance that certain people in certain corners of the university are deeply invested in, a stance to which they have committed themselves for upwards of a generation now. The people in English, for instance, can't throw the stance off like an unbecoming hat or a pair of shoes that pinch. It's what they know, and it's who they are. Take it away, and they cease to exist.
While I find aspects of this critique appealing -- see my comments on Bad Subjects below -- it is too rooted in nostalgia for a Golden Age of "real" literary scholarship to win me over. Anyone who seriously researches American universities in the years between World War I and World War II can testify to the extreme ideological tensions within the humanities and social sciences. Presumably, then, the Golden Age would date back to the heyday of New Criticism and the Eisenhower Administration. And, while the "permanent" conservative revolution of the past quarter decade has done a remarkable job of making it seem like the 1960s marked the time when the world went wrong, I still think that there are plenty of people who were alive during the 1950s who would have a hard time stomaching the idea that they represented a Golden Age.

The most ideologically pointed portion of the review is when O'Connor writes that, "with the help of the Jamesons and Foucaults and Althussers and Spivaks of the world, English departments sold their souls during the 1980s." It's no accident that these thinkers-made-types all fall, at least within the American academy, on the left side of the ping-pong table. The star system that also singled out Ferrari-driving, vineyard-owning, rent-control-overturning conservatives like philosopher John Searle doesn't get critiqued on its own terms, but through the names of its most leftist members.

Over time, O'Connor's blog has become harder to pin down. She comes to the defense of scholars who run afoul of university bureaucracies. More than that, though, she makes a strong case for preserving scholarly free speech.

Nevertheless, the self-description in her statement of purpose for the blog remains littered with "code words" of the academic Right:
The purpose of Critical Mass is to track moments of monumental malfeasance on campus--whether administrative, pedagogical, or scholarly; practical or ideological; individual or collective--and to reflect on what they mean for the future of education, intellect, free inquiry, and philosophical diversity in the U.S. It is my belief that awareness about the current ideological climate of American campuses needs to be raised, and it is my hope that Critical Mass will contribute in some way to the education of students, faculty, parents, and citizens--alerting them to patterns, explaining the logic (or illogic) behind them, equipping them with the means of identifying and resisting cant when it comes their way, and--ideally--stimulating thought, study, discussion, and debate.
While the wording of this paragraph is ambiguous enough to inspire any fan of freedom to give a cheer, there are pressure points that open O'Connor up to critique. In targeting "the current ideological climate of American campuses," she presumes that there is one climate that must be targeted, that this climate is utterly dominant and her own critique as outnumbered as the Greeks at Thermopylae. Her language is only a couple steps removed from that of the J. Edgar Hoover disciples who warned of radicals in the classrooms back in the 1960s. O'Connor's use of the term "philosophical diversity" is equally loaded, since the term has again and again been deployed by conservative students and their mentors who argue that, in addition to learning about racial, ethnic, and sexual diversity, undergraduates also need to learn the conservative point of view since it is presumably as marginalized as the perspectives of people of color, gays etc.

I suppose O'Connor could argue that she had no intention of writing in conservative code, but to do that she would have to make herself seem a lot clueless than she is.

All this aside, however, I do think that she is doing some good work with her blog. And I'm all for "philosophical diversity" in the classroom, provided that nobody in it pretends that her or his perspective is the "apolitical" one.

No, everything isn't political. But the declaration that something is "outside" or "above" politics almost inevitably is political.

Incidentally, I met O'Connor at the Addiction and Culture conference at the Claremont Graduate School in the spring of 1996.

(One of the graduate students who helped to bring the conference off, BTW, has constructed a website about the 1950s germane to my comments above.)

The presentation O'Connor gave, "Deformitomania: Deformity and Dependency in Victorian Culture," was wonderful and largely free of the gratuitous use of jargon that she now seeks to combat. More impressive, though, was her decision -- moment of narcissism ahead! -- to forego the company of the high-powered professors at the conference in order to hang out instead with Catherine, Kevin and myself, three UC Berkeley graduate students without caché. Some of it surely had to do with her nostalgia for Berkeley, as she admitted at the time, but it was a sweet -- and rare -- gesture all the same.

The other point to mention, in closing, is that the distinctly plural ideological climate at Berkeley during O'Connor's undergraduate years there also led directly to the creation of Bad Subjects. In particular, the rhetoric of early pieces by its co-founders Joe Sartelle and Annalee Newitz -- whether I'm included in that category depends on whether you think the labor of printing issues and securing funds for subsequent photocopying counts or not -- and, above all else, our manifesto -- which I definitely co-authored -- testifies to a grave dissatisfaction with institutionalized "sensitivity." That sort of enforced sensitivity, enacted through campus speech codes and murky administrative practices, is precisely what O'Connor's blog seeks to expose.

The difference is that, once the Bad Subjects folks realized how "Berkeley-centric" our critique was, we began the process of redirecting much of it towards the common enemies of liberal multiculturalism and leftism alike.

I'd love to know how carefully O'Connor has thought through the potential effects of her project:

• Does she want to dismantle current academic practices in the humanities?

• Would she mind if that effort also led to their further defunding?

• Has she fully pondered the ramifications of "wildcat" intellectualizing -- something I could also be accused of, if anyone read me -- for universities struggling to maintain "safe space" apart from the play of market forces?

Maybe I'll ask her someday.
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