The purpose of these columns has been not merely intellectual but spiritual: the subordination of resentment to love, the critical function of all cultural activities. Different institutions perform this function more or less sacrificially, that is, by conditioning love more or less by the discharge of resentment. But one can’t just measure the sacrificiality of an institution by counting the bodies. The most useful criterion is productivity. The central premise of GA is that for human beings, in contrast to other species, the critical problem is with each other rather than with nature. In other words, we must stop fighting before we can start eating; our interest in nature is subordinated to our concern with culture. By the same token, our culturally mediated, reflective interest in the natural world is an indefinitely rich means of deferring our self-destructive discharge of resentment against one another.
Whence the usefulness of the productivity criterion. As a general rule, whether it be a marriage or a corporation, a successful institution deals with the world outside it (“eating”) while an unsuccessful one is absorbed by its internal relations (“fighting”). Couples in love talk about their experiences; couples with problems talk about the relationship.
This paradigm applies to institutions much larger than couples: for example, to the Humanities profession, which in recent years seems more and more concerned with internal relations and less and less with productive reflection on the world outside. Last month, the graduate students of my own UCLA French Department organized probably the most elaborate and varied (if not the most expensive) conference in the Department’s history. It is impressive to see our students performing these logistic feats; yet I look back with more than nostalgia to a time when the years of graduate study were conceived as training for writing books rather than organizing conferences.
But in most cases where institutions become inwardly-focused and stray from their productive mission, it is not because people have gotten worse (although in the long run, the personnel adapts to the institution), but because the institution’s form has come to interfere with its productive content.
I can be more specific. I don’t think there is much of a crisis in the social sciences, or in fields like history, philosophy, or linguistics that have a clearly defined subject matter. I would even venture to say that there is not much of a crisis in English departments, as compared with language departments like my own. With the increasing integration of France, Germany, and Italy into the larger structure of the European community, the corresponding departments lose their sense of purpose as autonomous units. As a result, professional success tends to go to those who can reach beyond the boundaries of these units. But since these boundaries remain, the reaching-beyond is carried out largely by informal means, that is, by personal networking with members of other units. The traditional serenity of academic life is sacrificed to the urgency of escaping claustrophobic isolation. Hours of reflection are replaced by hours on the phone, the slow maturing of books put aside in the rush of conference papers.
This problem is compounded by demography. For years, the expansion of graduate programs was fed less by demand from below than by the production of PhD’s from above. With the withdrawal of confidence from academic institutions begun in the wake of 1968 and reinforced by the budgetary concerns of the 90s, this academic Ponzi scheme is slowly collapsing. As many formerly productive graduate and undergraduate programs fall below critical mass, large numbers of junior job-seekers struggle for survival. This situation is conducive to trendiness rather than originality or profundity. The intensification of competition in a context of a dwindling sense of professional mission tends to discredit traditional scholarship in favor of visible “relevance.”
Relevance has been sought largely in victimary studies or PC because of the fundamentally sacrificial nature of culture itself. Humanities professors are professionally interested in the idea that culture is important. But the culture of the postmodern era is essentially a victimary counter-culture. Those who care the most about culture are those who, rightly or wrongly, feel the most victimized. The recent passion for third-world or post-colonial culture reflects the fact that only in the third world is culture the primary social product. The cultural centrality and consequent richness of Haitian “voodoo” or Vodou, the subject of an impressive recent exhibit at UCLA (supervised by folklorist Donald Cosentino), reflects the worldly hopelessness of Haitian society. Conversely, the cultural poverty of roughly parallel phenomena like Pentecostalism in our own society reflects the marginality of culture in modern market economies.
This professional interest in victims is a convenient mask for power-seeking on the Bolshevik model: the Humanities professor as the vanguard of the cultural proletariat. The hold of extreme left-wing rhetoric on the profession has been little affected by the failure of Communism (I wonder how many colleagues are praying for a Communist victory in the Russian elections!) But as I have suggested before in these columns, by the time you begin complaining about something, you have already found the rhetoric that will subvert it. Thus I predict that the current victimary vogue doesn’t have much longer to run. PC has lost its raison-d’être; the sensitivity it has taught us allows us to address our social differences without it.
Hence it seems clear that the next generation will learn to live with fewer professors of French or German. At present, I think the most practical measure would be to accelerate the merging of small units into large ones, partially dissolving the institutional isolation that privileges sociability over reflection. Such merging must reflect not ultimate but proximate compatibilities. Thus we may not see departments of Generative Anthropology in the near future, but I am sure there will soon spring up departments of European Languages and Cultures.
There will be no column next week; I’ll be visiting with my son and his family. See you again on June 30th!