Jewish World Review March 31, 2002 / 18 Nisan, 5762
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | It's rare that squabbling among college professors makes the front page of the New York Times, but such was the case recently with a report on the 14-year civil war within the Columbia University English Department. The battle lines are predictable: traditionalists on one side and a loose amalgam of postmodernists including postcolonialists, muliculturalists, feminists, and queer theorists on the other. The fight itself is joined whenever a new faculty position opens up, or whenever a new chairperson is elected, or whenever curriculum changes are weighed. The result has been 14 years of departmental stagnation.
The Times report calls to mind an encounter I had two years ago with Gayatri Spivak the postcolonial theorist whose hiring in 1988 seems to have been the spark that kindled the hostilities at Columbia. I recount it now for the light it sheds on how an apparently bloodless rivalry between approaches to literature degenerates into the kind of personal animus detailed in the story.
On April 7th, 2000, Spivak, sporting pink hair and a sari, delivered a lecture at my alma mater, the City University of New York Graduate School, in which she discussed the state of the profession and the challenges graduate students would face in the years to come. She was introduced by John Brenkman, a deconstructionist theorist who teaches at CUNY. It was Brenkman who brought up a then-recent attack on postmodernism by traditional scholar Andrew Delbanco. According to Brenkman, the essay represented "an allergy to ideas" which had no place in a public university. Spivak rolled her eyes in solidarity with Brenkman's comments and then launched into her rambling, forty minute talk about how graduate students needed to carry on the vital work of championing marginalized perspectives and fighting against reactionary forces within the university.
Since I'd read and admired Delbanco's essay, I jotted down a question for the discussion that followed Spivak's talk. I addressed it to Brenkman since he'd brought up the Delbanco in the first place. The exact question was: "Maybe the 'allergy to ideas' you find in Delbanco's article is simply a recognition that some ideas are so profoundly wrong, or epistemologically absurd, or just plain silly, that a university need not engage them. For example, history departments in the United States seem to be allergic to the idea of Holocaust denial. Or is that an allergy you feel they should be inoculated against?"
Both Brenkman and Spivak seemed to think I'd just blamed postmodernism for the Holocaust a somewhat forgivable misapprehension given the Nazi pasts of postmodern icons Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man and dismissed that suggestion, rightfully, as ridiculous. Since that wasn't what I'd asked, however, I approached them informally afterwards to clarify my point. Spivak was surrounded by fawning admirers, so I sought out Brenkman first; we had an amiable discussion in which I argued that postmodernism's denial of the independent truth of propositions, measured by their correspondence to an objective reality, would seem to leave postmodernists unable to contest a "discourse community" that did in fact deny the Holocaust. Brenkman conceded, startlingly, that he hadn't thought through the epistemology adding, to my mind naively, that the circumstances I described would never arise in any event.
Thereafter, I approached Spivak to explain myself . . . and found myself not engaged in a conversation but immediately reprimanded, loudly and sternly, for having asked such a question in the first place. When I tried to explain that she might have misunderstood what I'd asked, she told me that I was not qualified to comment on postmodernism because I did not read French. When I pointed out that I'd read Derrida in her own translation, she responded, "So what? So I got it wrong! What does that prove? Go and learn French!" When, in reply, I cited a remark from her preface to Derrida's book, written in English, her response was: "So that was thirty years ago! I was wrong! Don't give me this bullsh**!"
Spivak continued in this vein for perhaps three minutes, mentioning how she had taught Aristotle in a bilingual edition, questioning my capacity to teach literature and scaring away several audience members within earshot of her harangue. Because she was a guest at my alma mater, I only stood there, suppressing a smile, until she ran out of breath.
I recount the incident now not to make Spivak look bad the pink hair took care of that. Nor to make her sound irrational a cursory glance at her writings will do the trick in that respect. Rather, I recount it as an illustration of the intellectual crisis in the humanities of which the pitched battle at Columbia is a microcosm. If one side of a debate stakes out a position as postmodernists do in which reason itself is viewed as a tool of Eurocentric oppression, then attempting to show them the logical flaws in their position becomes an exercise in futility. Spivak's preface to Derrida's Of Grammatology contains such metaphysical howlers as the assertion that "knowledge is duping" and the question: "Does not thinking seek forever to clamp a dressing over the gaping and violent wound of the impossibility of thought?"
My confrontation with Spivak was, in its own way, emblematic of the rift within the humanities that exists in every major university in the United States. I asked what was essentially a straightforward question: Are certain theories, such as Holocaust denial, so absurd that a university need not address them? Implicit in that question, however, was another: If Holocaust denial is beyond the pale, then what about an epistemological posture that effectively levels all theories?
For that is exactly what postmodernism does: It levels all theories. Evolution and creationism. Neuroscience and phrenology. Astronomy and astrology. What gets taught and what doesn't, according to postmodernists, is a function of political power, not of a desire for truth. Teaching postmodernism is not the same thing as teaching Holocaust denial; rather, teaching postmodernism is teaching that Holocaust denial is no more or less a form of "duping" than any other body of "knowledge."
That was the if-then question that I put to Brenkman and Spivak. But postmodernists don't do if-then logic. They misheard what I asked because the question would otherwise have forced them into an untenably awkward position: Either renounce the entire epistemological basis of postmodernism and else accept the academic admissibility of Holocaust denial.
The fact that postmodernists cannot, within their theoretical framework, pass judgment on the ontological validity of Holocaust denial would seem a knockdown argument against that framework. But the postmodern "out" is that such a critique is merely logical and logic itself is one of the things postmodernism calls into question. "We must remember this," Spivak writes, "when we wish to attack Derrida, or for that matter Heidegger, on certain sorts of straightforward logical grounds."
If you cannot attack a position on "straightforward logical grounds," what grounds remain? That's when the shouting starts. Which is the current state of affairs in the Columbia English Department. And, sadly, in literature and humanities departments nationwide.