They say miracles are past; and we have our
philosophical persons, to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless.
—All’s Well That Ends Well Act II, scene 3
“If academic writing is to become expansive again,” wrote Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker a year ago, in one of the more Marxist sentences to appear in a mainstream publication lately, “academia will probably have to expand first.” What Rothman is referring to was the minor controversy set off by a piece by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times entitled “Professors, We Need You!”—a rant attacking the “unintelligibility” of contemporary academic writing blah blah blah. Rothman’s take on the business—as a former graduate student himself—is that the increasing obscurity of the superstructure of academic writing is the result of an ever-smaller base: “the audience for academic work has been shrinking,” he says, and so building “a successful academic career” requires “serially impress[ing] very small groups of people,” like journal editors, hiring committees, etc. So, to Rothman, turning academic writing around would mean an expanding university system: that is, one in which it wasn’t terribly difficult to get a job. To put it another way, it’s to say that in order to make academics visible to the people, it would probably help to allow the people to become academics.
To very many current academics, however, that’s precisely off the table, because their work involves questioning the assumption necessary to power Rothman’s whole proposal: to write for large numbers of people requires the writing not to need some enormous amount of training in order to be read. A lot of academics in today’s humanities departments would “historicize” that assumption by saying that it only came into being with the Protestant Reformation at the beginning of the modern era, which held that the Bible could be read, and understood, by anyone—not just a carefully chosen set of acolytes capable of translating the holy mysteries to the laity, as in Roman Catholic practice. Academics of this sort might then make reference, as Benedict Anderson did in his Imagined Communities, to “print capitalism”—how the growth of newspapers and other printed materials demonstrated how writing untethered from a clerical caste could generate huge profits. And so on.
The defenses of obscure and difficult writing offered by such academics as Judith Butler, however, do not always take that turn: very often, difficult writing is defended on the grounds that such esoteric kinds of efforts “can help point the way to a more socially just world,” because “language plays an important role in shaping and altering our common or ‘natural’ understanding of social and political realities.” That, one supposes, might be true—and it’s certainly true that what’s known as the “cultural left” has, as the philosopher Richard Rorty once remarked, made all of us more sensitive to the peculiar ways in which language can influence the ways in which people perceive other people. But it’s also true that such a kind of thinking fails to think through the entire meaning of standing against intelligibility.
Most obviously, though this point is often obscured, it means standing against the idea of what is known as the doctrine of “naturalism,” a notion defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as “asserting that reality has no place for ‘supernatural’ or other ‘spooky’ kinds of entity.” At least since Mark Twain adopted naturalism to literature by saying that “the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone,” a baseline belief in naturalism has been what created the kind of widely literate public Kristof’s piece requires. Mysteries, that is, can only be understood by someone initiated into them: hence, to proceed without initiates requires outlawing mystery.
As should be obvious but apparently isn’t, it’s only absent a belief in mystery that anyone could, in Richard Rorty’s words, “think of American citizenship as an opportunity for action”—rather than, as Rorty laments so much of this so-called “cultural left” has become, possessed by the “spirit of detached spectatorship.” Difficult writing, in other words, might be able to do something for small groups, but it cannot, by definition, help larger ones—which is to say that it is probably no accident that Judith Butler should have left just what she meant by “socially just” undefined, because by the logic of her argument it almost certainly does not include the vast majority of America’s, or the world’s, people.
“In the early decades of” the twentieth century, Richard Rorty once wrote, “when an intellectual stepped back from his or her country’s history and looked at it through skeptical eyes, the chances were that he or she was about to propose a new political initiative.” That tradition is, it seems, nearly lost: today’s “academic Left,” Rorty wrote then, “has no projects to propose to America, no vision of a country to be achieve by building a consensus on the need for specific reforms.” For Rorty, however, that seems blamable on the intellectuals themselves—a kind of “blaming the victim” or traison des clercs that is itself a betrayal of the insights of naturalism: according to those notions, it’s no more possible that large numbers of smart people should have inexplicably given up on their political efforts completely than a flaming shrubbery could talk.
It’s that possibility that the British literary critic Terry Eagleton appears to have considered when, in his The Illusions of Postmodernism, he suggests that the gesture of denying that “there is any significant distinction between discourse and reality”—a denial specifically aimed at naturalism’s attempt to rule out the mysterious—may owe more to “the deadlocked political situation of a highly specific corner of the globe” than it does to the failures of the intellectuals. What I presume Eagleton is talking about is what Eric Alterman, writing in The Atlantic, called “the conundrum of a system that, as currently constructed, gives the minority party no strategic stake in sensible governance.” Very many of the features of today’s American government, that is, are designed not to produce good government, but rather to enable a minority to obstruct the doings of the majority—the famous “checks and balances.”
While American civic discourse often celebrates those supposed features, as I’ve written before the work of historians like Manisha Sinha and Leonard Richards shows that in fact they are due, not to the foresight of the Founding Fathers, but instead in order to protect the richest minority of the then-newborn republic: the slaveowners. It isn’t any accident that, as Alterman says, it “has become easier and easier for a determined minority to throw sand in the gears of the legislative process”: the very structure of the Senate, for example, allows “the forty Republican senators … [who] represent barely a third of the US population” to block any legislation, even excluding the more obscure senatorial tools, like the filibuster and the hold. These devices, as the work of historians shows, were originally developed in order to protect slavery; as Lawrence Goldstone put the point in the New Republic recently, during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, “slaveholders won a series of concessions,” among them “the makeup of the Senate” and the method of electing a president. These hangovers linger on, defending interests perhaps less obviously evil than the owners of slaves, but interests by and large not identical with those of the average citizen: today, those features are all check and no balance.
Such an explanation, I think, is more likely than Rorty’s stance of casting blame on people like Judith Butler, as odious as her beliefs really are. It might explain better how for instance, as the writer Seymour Krim described in his essay, “The American Novel Made Me,” intellectuals began “in the mid 50s [1950s] to regard the novel as a used-up medium,” so that the “same apocalyptic sense of possibility that we once felt in the U.S. novel now went into its examination”: what Krim calls “the game” of “literary criticism.” In that game, what matters isn’t the description of reality itself, but rather the methods of description by which “reality” is recorded: in line with Rorty’s idea of the intellectual turn against reality, not so much the photograph so much as the inner workings of the camera. Yet while that pursuit might appear to some as a ridiculous and objectively harmful pursuit, blaming people, even smart people, for having become involved in such efforts because you have blocked their real path to advancement is like blaming butter for melting in the sun.
What all of this may show, in other words, is that for academic writing to become expansive again, as Joshua Rothman wishes, it may require far more than just academia to expand, though almost certainly that may be part of it. What it will also require is a new band of writers and politicians, recommitted to the tenets of naturalism and determined, as Krim said about “the American realistic novel of the mid to late 1930s,” to be “‘truthful’ in recreating American life.” To Kristof or Rothman, that’s a task unlikely even to be undertaken in our lifetimes, much less accomplished. Yet it ought to be acknowledged that Kristof and Rothman’s own efforts imply that a hunger exists that may not know its name—that a wanderer is abroad, holding aloft a lantern flickering not because of a rising darkness, but an onrushing dawn.