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Review by James Seckington
Besides an additional line on an academic resume or use as a dust magnet on some forgotten shelf in a university library, today's humanist scholarship is about as useful to humanity as silly-putty. Of course, to speak of “use-value” is to run the risk of being labeled a vulgar marxist by the cool kids on campus and essentially dismissed as a Neander- thal (as opposed to say, a professional “marxist literary critic,” i.e., one who sips micro-brews in between sessions at the regional conference as he lectures a group of first year grad students on the revolutionary potential of a Friends episode). In today's post- modern, post-feminist, post- marxian, post-colonial, post-fill-in- the-blank world, scholarship need not be useful—just colorful. As Russell Jacoby argues in his latest book, The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy, today's humanist scholars are no longer animated by a vision of a new and radically different world founded upon the old values of liberte, equalite, and fraternite. Instead, he claims, today's scholars are moved to produce in the hope of fame, tenure, and office space.
If, as Zack de la Rocha once rapped, “anger is a gift,” then Russell Jacoby is one generous fellow. He's angry as hell in The End of Utopia as he distributes his gifts like so many molotov cocktails. While some of his students at UCLA, where Jacoby teaches in the history department, may sport purple mohawks and pierced pink parts, Jacoby's rebel stance is far from fashionable. He's an old- school radical eagerly “boring from within” an established institution. A self-imposed outsider, Jacoby tears into the academic scene with the delicacy of a brain surgeon. His prose glistens with the blood of his cadaver as he expertly dissects the decaying body of leftist oriented scholarship.
Citing numerous examples, from the neutral do-nothing stance taken by many western intellectuals regarding Ayatollah Khom- eini's death warrant for novelist Salman Rushdie (and all those involved with the publication of his book Satanic Verses) on the grounds of cultural relativity; to the proponents of “ethno-mathematics” who denounce the “Eurocentric” approach to math due to its “pretense of universality”; to the pop culture pep squad who, shaking their populist pom-poms, cheer on the corporate forces of mediocrity, Jacoby richly captures the flavor of the intellectual “left” of today.
To say that Jacoby is worried about the decline of leftist ideals within the humanities is an understatement—flipping the pages of this book produce the melancholic notes of a funeral dirge. Jacoby argues that today's leftist oriented academics have turned “utilitarian, liberal, and celebratory.” He reminds us: “The left once dismissed the market as exploitative; it now honors the market as rational and humane. The left once disdained mass culture as exploitative; now it celebrates it as rebellious. The left once honored independent intellectuals as courageous; now it sneers at them as elitist. The left once rejected pluralism as superficial; now it worships it as profound.”
Perhaps more importantly, the left once sought a new world where, as Bertrand Russell articulated one of many incarnations, “the creative spirit is alive, in which life is an adventure full of joy and hope, based rather upon the impulse to construct than upon the desire to retain what we possess or to seize what is possessed by others. It must be a world in which affection has free play, in which love is purged of the instinct for domination, in which cruelty and envy have been dispelled by happiness and the unfettered development of all the instincts that build up life and fill it with mental delights.”
The left no longer shares this vision, nor any vision, for that matter. As Jacoby argues throughout the book, a left without a utopian vision (however nebulous) is a dead left.
“Once upon a time,” Jacoby tells us, “leftists and radicals talked of liberation or the abolition of work.” Today they talk about MTV and the subversive nature of Madonna. For example, John Fiske writes of the material girl: “Her image becomes, then, not a model meaning for young girls in patriarchy, but a site of semiotic struggle between the forces of patriarchal control and feminine resistance, of capitalism and the subordinate, of the adult and the young.”
“Once upon a time,” Jacoby tells us, “revolutionaries tried, or pretended to try, to make a revolution; they harbored a vision of a different world or society. Now dubbed radical multiculturalists, they apply for bigger offices.” Case in point: M. Annette Jaimes Guerrero, a California professor who claims that up until recently Eurocentrism “marginalizes Ethnic Studies or American Indian Studies or Gender Studies.” Fair enough. But, as Jacoby ponders, “What must be done? Head for the hills? Blow up the mainstream institutions?” No, rather, Guerrero states, “American Indian Studies will need to be able to stand on its own as a fully accredited discipline with departmental status and even with a broader institutional status.” I guess radical times call for radical measures.
“Once upon a time,” Jacoby tells us, liberals and leftists “believed in a new and better culture for people. No longer. In the name of democracy they anoint the daily fare of entertainment and movies; their confidence in a transformed future has evaporated.” From pastel painted strip malls to Star Wars, cultural studies radicals embrace pop culture artifacts with the enthusiasm of a Madison Avenue marketer. According to cult studies pin-up boy George Lipsitz, even good old fashion American consumerism can sow the seeds of revolution. He writes, “acquisition of consumer goods is no longer posed as a universal private need, but rather, it becomes part of a class conscious sense of entitlement to the good things in life.” Lipsitz and company have morphed Gramsci into Nintendo's Super Mario—someone please pass the ‘shrooms.
Jacoby's critical eye makes him unique in today's celebratory intellectual climate. Jacoby is actually animated by a vision of a new world founded on a belief in human solidarity and an equality of being. This vision provides the foundation for the judgments that he passes on his colleagues in The End of Utopia. While academics have never been much for passing judgments or stating an opinion on something that might impact present realities, they have occasionally infused their scholarship with a healthy dose of concern for their fellow beings and the planet, which supports them. This concern often led to the passing of judgments, the pointing of fingers, and the general production of a critical scholarship. For all practical purposes, critical scholarship no longer exists. To criticize Madonna or even George W. is to make a claim on the big bad concept known as the universal—to appeal to a morality, authority, or ideal that exists independent of time and place.
However, as Jacoby understands all too well, true criticism requires a foundation, a set of principles, a—dare I say it?—center from which a critique can blossom. “Once writers and scholars isolate local conditions from universal categories,” writes Jacoby, “they lose the ability to evaluate them. They become cheerleaders, nationalists and chauvinists.” Instead of producing any meaningful critique of the status quo, which, I don't know, hell, could be used as a foundation from which to build a movement, today's young scholars fill page after page with platitudinous brain spew on how music videos represent a semiotic struggle in which dominant ideology is both subverted and reinforced. The lesson of such careful analysis? Watch more music videos, kiddies, and subvert the dominant paradigm. Working people of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your signifiers.
Commenting on the issue of human freedom, Noam Chomsky once said, “if you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, there are opportunities to change things, etc., there's a chance to contribute to the making of a better world. That's your choice.” While Jacoby paints a rather bleak picture of the academic left in The End of Utopia, he has yet to abandon his hope for a better world. His vision “evokes neither prisons nor programs, but an idea of human solidarity and happiness.” It is a vague vision and perhaps a bit simplistic, but a necessary one at that. As Jacoby concludes, “The effort to envision other possibilities of life and society remains urgent and constitutes the essential precondition for doing something.” Z