My introduction to the media's view of the academy came as something of a shock. Almost five years ago, James Wood, reporting for The New Republic on a Harvard graduate student conference I participated in, cited a particularly unfortunate remark of mine, regarding "the iconography of the Tampax," as evidence of all that had gone wrong with literary studies. His article, of course, was but one of many attacks on the academy as it struggled through the final twitches of postmodernism. Professors of literature were mocked as out of touch and inaccessible, in love with abstruse neologisms ("differance"), artfully placed parentheses ("(en)gendering"), and indecipherable formulations ("Derrida's
trace is the mark of the absence of a presence, an always already absent present"). The New York Times made a parlor game of picking the most ridiculous titles of papers given at the yearly convention of the Modern Language Association. A cartoon in the current issue of the MLA's journal envisions the reporters in full froth: "This is it!" one declares. '"Di-jesting the Borgesture: An Anatomy of Funes'!" "I can top that," another replies. "'The Dubious Memberships of Dis-membering: Mansfield Park and Mall Rats'!!!"
BUT THE TIMES HAS MOVED ON. Opening the paper one morning during this year's MLA convention (held last week in Washington), I was surprised to discover a puff piece on Harvard Professor Marjorie Garber, once regarded as the epitome of academic transgression. Garber, who started out as a scholar of Shakespeare but branched out with books about bisexuality and cross-dressing, was labeled "one of the most powerful women in the academic world" and praised for her ability to break down the traditional separation between popular culture and the academy "[Garber's] new book will have essays on the footnote, on quotation marks and on Monica Lewinsky," the Times wrote, completely deadpan, describing the volume as "a book that knows no boundaries."
GARBER'S POPULIST SPIRIT FILLED last week's convention. At the panels I attended, professors eschewed the willfully obscure postmodernist jargon that used to so amuse journalists in favor of that most accessible of topics: themselves. During a session on Holocaust studies, one Harvard professor argued for the importance of delineating a distinct category for Holocaust survivors who were children during the war years—a group to which she happens to belong. Another, examining "phantom Jewishness" in contemporary Polish novels with Jews as subjects, sprinkled her textual analysis with personal anecdotes about growing up as a Jew in pre-Solidarity Poland. This trend found its natural culmination at another panel, where a professor from the University of Virginia presented a defense of "masturbatory criticism," seeking to reclaim the hitherto derided concept of intellectual masturbation. "It is clear," she noted, "that masturbation and scholarship have much in common: solitary practices, they lead to, or stem from, an unhealthy absorption with the self, and they both often involve reading." In fact, she argued, masturbatory criticism "has attracted opprobrium for much the same reasons as masturbation itself: instead of engaging in healthy (disinterested, procreative) congress with books, the critic's central object is herself."
BUT ISN'T "CONGRESS WITH BOOKS" precisely what we expect of English professors? Whatever their excesses in the 1970s and '80s, at least deconstructionists engaged with actual texts. The movement's detractors seized upon deconstruction's zeal for interrogating (as they would put it) preconceived categories—high and low culture, for example, or reality and fantasy—arguing that an interpretation in which everything is relative undermines the very texts under investigation. And it's true that undergraduates in departments where literary theory was especially fashionable could garner a degree by reading Paul de Man and Luce Irigaray rather than Milton or Shakespeare. But, no matter what one may think of Derrida's conclusions, it's undeniable that his work involves serious philosophy. Moreover, I find it hard to understand how any methods of interpreting a work of literature, even those as controversial as deconstrviction and its postmodernist bedfellows, could in the end have any detrimental effect on the text itself. If the canon is as great as everyone says it is, surely it can take a little roughing up.
ENCOURAGED BY THE NIBBLES AND yaps of television producers, however, today's academics are leaving such inaccessible topics as literature behind altogether. It is presumably no coincidence that Garber's best-selling book, according to barnesandnoble.com, is Sex and Real Estate, an examination of the erotic discourse implicit in real estate ads. Nor is it a coincidence that Garber herself recently bought a new house. And it's not just navels that are being gazed at: In an article last year in The New York Review of Books titled "The Decline and Fall of Literature," Andrew Delbanco describes a professor's analysis of a performance artist who invites members of the audience to shine flashlights into her vagina. This allows her, she says, to view her own cervix reflected in the eye of the beholder. And they say the public intellectual is dead!
EVEN THOSE PROFESSORS WHO FOCUS on topics further removed than their own houses (or bodies) are at pains to make their work relevant to a public that—let's be honest—is not overly involved with literature. At an MLA session called "What's Happening to the Humanities?," Gerald Graff, currently at work on a book to be titled Clueless in Academe, lamented the "gap between the discourse of academics and that of students and other citizens." But, rather than suggest ways to bring students and others into academic discourse, he lauded professors' efforts to insert themselves into existing public discourse. Graff, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, mentioned as one example of such work a conference on children, violence, and families—a topic he praised for its relevance to "the world of Oprah Winfrey and the other TV shows on which academics often appear." Similarly, when the Times asked Garber about her appearance on a "Geraldo" show to discuss cross-dressing, she explained, "It seemed like a way to find a wider audience for... a thoughtful analysis of a subject that has been sensationalized." Is "Geraldo" really the venue for such an analysis?
THIS BRAND OF ACADEMIC INQUIRY may be more superficially "relevant" than analyses of medieval texts—there are certainly more cross-dressers in the viewing public than there are Green Knights. And the desire to understand oneself and one's neighbors is, of course, at the root of the humanist impulse. But this desire is not best served by airing personal histories, secrets, and fantasies. In this Too-Much-Information Age, we don't need literature professors sharing their own stories any more than we need genetics researchers analyzing their own DNA. It's enough to make one yearn for the come-back of the always already absent present.
This article originally ran in the January 15, 2001, issue of the magazine.