Last weekend, the graduate students of the UCLA Department of French held their second annual conference, entitled States of Identity, complete with guest speaker, local faculty respondents, six panels, reception, refreshments, and a nicely printed program. As I noted on the same occasion last year, the students have once again mounted, with scrupulous professionalism, a far more elaborate academic gathering than anything the departmental faculty have ever put together. In the not-so-distant past, however, it was indeed the faculty that organized such things. If the trend continues, in another decade, the undergraduates will hold conferences at which the grads will give the keynote addresses. The obvious reason for this is the inevitable diminishing-returns one-upmanship of tight markets. Since the academic life is still pretty soft, there is plenty of room for added demonstrations of zeal. When I was a student, no one thought of giving papers or writing articles, but in those days, colleges would write to new PhDs urging them to come out for an on-campus visit. Today, when for a mere MLA interview, you may have to send out your CV to a hundred schools, you want to be sure there are some publications and conferences on it. Graduate student colloquia have a built-in clientele.
But I think there is another reason. In times of crisis, one has no time for idle speculation. Just as there are no atheists in the foxholes, so, with the endemic decline of funding for departments of Eurocentric high culture, there are no disbelievers in the Idols of the Tribe. In today’s job market, it is essential that students learn to play variations on the themes that will serve them in conferences to come. The result is curiously similar to what happened when American popular music was transformed by youth culture in the fifties: mature thought has been replaced by the ideologies of youth. Like rock’n’roll lyrics, the victimary ideologies that the academy continues to serve up express resentments appropriate to adolescence. For a mature thinker to take seriously the binary articulations of the cultural world provided by the phallogocentric patriarchy and the deconstructed subject, and more recently, the postcolonial body and its various inscriptions, requires at the very least the incentive of a juicy foundation grant.
The days of the sage old professor are no more. There still remain distinguished scholars whose years have been spent deepening their knowledge of their field, but such figures have little to tell hurried and harried doctoral candidates, always in search of new discursive practices on which to practice their discourses. The real hotshots keep one step ahead of the market by ferreting out the latest victimary wrinkle. They know without ever daring to think it that resentment is the crucible of culture, and, by the same token, that the purpose of their theorizing is to disguise the resentment it exploits. To use the word “resentment” itself in reference to anyone but a member of the religious right would be the academic equivalent of Eugène Rastignac’s fateful mention of le père Goriot in the Restauds’ salon.
My first point concerns phallogocentrism–the idea that Western or perhaps all cultural discourse, or even language itself, presupposes and covertly legitimizes an ontology that treats men as humans-in-general while women are “marked” as other. Far from attempting to debunk this theory, intellectual vulgarity aside, I find it generally true. But why is cultural discourse essentially masculine? On this point, the psychoanalytic thinking that makes Phallus the new and supposedly concrete (aha!) synonym for Being, is about as helpful as the theories of phrenology quoted in Bouvard et Pécuchet. The originary hypothesis, on the other hand, by conceiving the scene of culture as a means for deferring violence, explains its masculine bias–a feature for which GA has been criticized by some of the very feminists who denounce phallogocentrism.
Some Chronicles ago, I developed the idea that the difference between men and women could be minimally understood in anthropological terms by noting that, whereas the concept of otherness is founded on the externality of the participants of the originary scene, as preserved in ritual and in culture generally, women possess the potential for an internal otherness, that of gestation and childbirth, on which the survival of the species depends. That there is a “woman problem” in culture at all–something no feminist should want to deny–can be explained only in this manner. If, as some claim, language originated in interactions of mothers with their children, then only the resentment-blinded notion of usurpation could explain masculine domination of the cultural sphere. But if the originary function of language is to defer violence, then male domination is perfectly understandable: it is the sex that has no internal other to worry about that is most prone to mimetic violence, and that is biologically selected for its potential for physical violence.
This in no way implies that women must remain excluded from culture. The fundamental equivalence of all human subjects before language is not in question. On the contrary, the tension between this linguistic and therefore moral equivalence and the ethical need to protect and integrate the “internal other” as perceived by specific cultures is what generates the “woman problem” in the first place. The weakness of victimary thinking–guaranteed, as I have claimed, by the horror of the Holocaust, and encouraged by cleverly paranoid ideologies like the “power” theory of Foucault–is that it takes “domination” as self-explanatory. The scandalous contrast between our intuition that all human subjects are morally equivalent and the realities of gender difference–of social difference in general–are denounced but never explained. As a result, academic thinking on the subject of gender, and the politics it inspires, remains dominated by mindless mimeticism. We see one result of this mentality in the current eminently predictable sex scandals in the armed forces.
My second reference is to the “linguistic” idea of the human subject, defined by one conference participant as a tissue of discourses. Poor old Descartes has been taking it on the chin ever since Sartre rejected Husserl’s transcendental Ego. I have always looked upon the “death of the subject” with suspicion, aware as perhaps only an old Bronxian can be of the intense egoism of those who proclaim it. This theorizing is a crude version of Girard’s vérité romanesque, whose revelation that “my” desire is not unique is a sufficient shock to make “me” abandon “my” self altogether. Yes, we acquire our goals by mimesis, and all meaning comes through language; but originary thinking offers a hypothesis of how and why the human is immersed in a universe of language. What is more, as I tried to show in Chronicle 88, GA provides an understanding of the moral-linguistic free will that lies at the heart of the “self” or “soul,” inaccessible to the post-structuralist model of the language-traversed subject.
Contrary to what these theories claim, but in consonance with the upper-middle-class lives of the theoreticians, our horrible late-capitalist consumer society, which Baudrillard many years ago understood as a system of product-signs, offers the subject-as-consumer an increasingly broad set of materials from which to compose his own “discourses.” But consumption aside, we also produce new discursive models of the world. Descartes, after all, didn’t just think therefore he was; he also invented analytic geometry. Scientists are still generating new paradigms, continually proving wrong those wet blankets who try to convince us that we have reached the end of history in chemistry, physics, or what have you. And even in the humanities, where our selves indeed feel like tissues of tired-out ideologies, we can develop new ways of thinking about human culture. But it might be a good idea to get tenure first.