Assumptions of Power

The academic belief that politics determines everything is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.


The University of California, where I work, provides a handbook to all new faculty members. Among the portentous statements contained in this book is a declaration first issued a half-century ago as part of University Regulation Five: "The University of California is the creature of the State and its loyalty to the State will never waver."

When I leaf through the handbook, I often run across this statement. It used to inspire an amusing daydream. I would picture a besieged fortress, and inside it a little platoon of unwaveringly loyal professors battling to save the California Republic from the invading forces of Princeton and MIT.

Eventually, however, I read all of Regulation Five, and I discovered the kind of "loyalty to the State" that it envisions. The university, it says, is meant to "serv[e] the people by providing facilities for investigation and teaching free from domination by parties, sects, or selfish interests. The University expects the State, in return, and to its own great gain, to protect this indispensable freedom, a freedom like the freedom of the press, that is the heritage and the right of a free people." What Regulation Five means by "the State" is something like "the free society"—which, by a typically academic confusion of terms, has become identified with the political institutions of that society.

The tendency to identify a society with its political institutions is a serious problem. It is a problem not simply for universities that receive a significant share of their financial support from the state (which nowadays is virtually all universities, public or "private") but for anyone grappling with the current problems of higher education.

The American university is a creature of the free society. As the first attempt ever made to bring higher learning to every intellectually qualified member of society, it could not be supported by anything except the profits of a dynamic free-enterprise system. As an institution intended to enable individuals—students and teachers—to seek the truth, it could not function outside of an environment in which freedom of inquiry is protected.

The university can be loyal to the free society only when its faculty and students maintain their independence—most importantly, their mental independence—from the coercive forces that constitute a state. That's why "investigation and teaching" should be free from what Regulation Five somewhat quaintly describes as "domination by parties, sects, or selfish interests."

But the loyalty of American universities now seems to be wavering. I don't need to rehearse all the dreary, overtly political symptoms that have emerged at one university after another: the use of institutional funds to support faculty and student political organizations, often of a radically statist kind; the imposition of anti-libertarian codes of speech and behavior; the hiring of academic administrators with decidedly political agendas for change. The regulatory excesses of the university's know-nothing left now compete with the excesses formerly committed by the know-nothing right.

The more profound problem, however, is the degree to which many academic intellectuals, especially in the humanities, have lost their ability to distinguish the "state" from "society." They have lost the ability to distinguish processes of regulation and supervision—governmental processes—from the processes of open discourse that are the lifeblood of society in general and of academic society in particular. The problem lies not in rules but in intellectual assumptions—which, of course, have a way of engendering rules. A striking characteristic of today's academic intellectuals is a tendency to assume that both the discourse of society and their own discourse are inseparable from politics, and to read such assumptions, often very naively and without any attempt at the "investigation" treasured by Regulation Five, into every aspect of their professional work.

To illustrate the point, here is an article, published in a recent issue of PMLA, the prestigious journal of the Modern Language Association, which typifies the work of the new academic humanists. The article, by Professor Elizabeth Langland of the University of Florida, is about certain middle-class women in Victorian novels and the middle-class "power systems" that (Langland insists) govern their lives. Langland believes that literature, like all other products of "discursive practices," not only reflects political ideology but inescapably embodies it.

"Discursive practices" are wily and coercive things. They "regulat[e] what is sayable and how it can be articulated, who can speak and in what circumstances." They "constitute knowledge." They even constitute the people who use them. Thus, "middle-class women were produced by these discourses even as they reproduced them to consolidate middle-class control." Everyone's experience is "constructed," and "politics governs its construction." What these assumptions about the coercive political power of discourse doom us to find in David Copperfield, for example, is the way in which "discursive practices constitute and regulate a field of individual possibilities."

But the salient feature of Langland's article is not her interpretations of a few episodes of Victorian fiction; it is, rather, the grand political theory that produced the interpretations. This theory, which describes the discourse of society as a prison in which some people may be jailers but from which nobody can escape, might be expected to arouse a good deal of opposition from other students of literature, who have traditionally regarded discourse as the ladder that enables people to scale the walls of imprisoning circumstances. Yet Langland provides no argument whatever for the political theory that she and countless other academics have adopted. She knows that most of her intended audience will not consider it controversial. It can be left as an unargued "given."

Surely, though, one can expect a formidable display of arguments from Richard Rorty, one of this country's most distinguished philosophers, when he is invited by the American Council of Learned Societies to discuss "The Humanities in the 1990s" and he turns to the obvious topic, the politicization of humanistic discourse. But if one expects arguments, one will quickly be disappointed. Although Rorty is trying hard to stake out a moderate position, he nails a saucy (and unargued) thesis to the college door:

"We humanistic intellectuals find ourselves in a position analogous to that of the 'social-gospel' or liberation theology' clergy, the priests and ministers who think of themselves as working to build the kingdom of God on earth….We are accused of being paid to contribute to and communicate knowledge, while instead 'politicizing the humanities.' Yet we cannot take the idea of unpoliticized humanities any more seriously than our opposite numbers in the clergy can take seriously the idea of a depoliticized church."

If there is anyone in the audience who has ever wondered whether the seminary education of the local priest really qualifies him to lecture his congregation about politics; if there is anyone in the audience with enough literary knowledge to remember that Jesus said, in his usual blunt, nontheoretical way, that his kingdom is "not of this world"—then Rorty may have some trouble making his religious analogy work in the way he wants it to.

But Rorty can be confident that his audience consists of other academic humanists. He can therefore predict that no one will take the foregoing objections "seriously." He can expect his readers to join him in assuming that the discourse of the humanities is inevitably political. He can expect them to agree to his definition of their own political role: "The taxpayers employ us to make sure that their children will think differently than they do." He can even expect his readers to agree with his description of the curious strategy that society forces them to use if they want to make money, a strategy appropriate to unbelieving priests in an established church:

"We are still expected to make the ritual noises to which the trustees and the funding agencies are accustomed—noises about 'objective criteria of excellence,' 'fundamental moral and spiritual values,' 'the enduring questions posed by the human condition,' and so on, just as the liberal clergy is supposed to mumble their way through creeds written in an earlier and simpler age."

It is a short step, though not necessarily a logical one, from the assumption that the discourse of the humanities cannot escape from politics to the assumption that humanists are entitled, by virtue of their calling, to a prominent political role, even if they are disinclined to justify it with anything better than "ritual noises." As much evidence as there is of "politically correct" discourse in the humanities, there is even more evidence of politically entitled discourse. That discourse is encouraged by the assumption that shared humanistic interests are virtually equivalent to shared political convictions. It is this assumption that gives every academic humanist who is even slightly to the right of Ted Kennedy the power to startle academic gatherings, just by confessing a political opinion. The conformist assumption is so prevalent that its expressions no longer provoke surprise, however abrupt and unargued they may be.

No one can be surprised, for instance, by the frequent political declarations that Harold Bloom, a leading academic critic, inserts in his new book on American religious belief. According to Bloom's The American Religion, "Nietzsche taught us that cause-and-effect is a fiction, a figuration compelled by our grammar." But Bloom still finds reason for worry about the probable effects of America's individualist values, effects such as "denial of communal concern" and "exploitation of the helpless by the elite." Bloom is upset about the possibility that "we will never again see a Democrat in the Presidency during [his] lifetime."

Bloom feels no need to argue, even perfunctorily, for his political views. He claims not to be "particularly exercised by politics"; indeed, he is so far to the right, in academic terms, as to doubt the Marxist idea that politics strictly determines culture. But he is automatically hospitable to the common academic belief that individualist society is a system of compulsion and exploitation, and that a particular political group offers a solution to this social problem.

Nothing is surprising here—nothing, perhaps, except the author's own lack of surprise, his confidence that what he is saying is the obvious thing to say, his expectation that no one in his intended audience will require justification for his views. He can even treat the denial of "cause-and-effect" as a given, as something we already accept, so long as he can assure us that this is something "Nietzsche taught us."

That easy "us" is a sure sign of self-enclosure. Substitute "Republican" for "Democrat" in the words quoted above (this may be easier to do, now that Mr. Clinton has been elected); substitute your least favorite right-wing religious leader for "Nietzsche": How different is the rhetorical world of the cosmopolitan academic from that of the small-town fundamentalist clergyman?

Everyone knows that a battle has been raging at the better universities (now it rages at the worst ones, too) about the "canon" of books that unwilling students need to be taught. This battle of the books would look even more preposterous than the newspapers have made it look if everyone realized that the academic left, which never neglects a chance to "interrogate" or "subvert" the "canon of Western literature," meanwhile piously worships its own canon of sacred texts and preaches as credulously from Marx, Nietzsche, Foucault, Fanon, Gramsci, and innumerable radical feminists as the creationist pastors preach from Genesis.

The canon of the new academic humanists is, on the whole, quite a lot less readable than any of the older canons. Much of it is too abstruse to provide much guidance for political action, until it is interpreted as tortuously as fundamentalists interpret the Bible. The effort is commonly so exhausting as to deprive the aspiring humanist of any energy for detailed investigation of actual political conditions, especially modern ones.

But even when academics perceive this loss, they seldom regret it. After all, detailed study of the world outside the canon might unearth evidence that called the new humanists' assumptions into question. It's better to leave particular investigations alone and use the canon of radical theory to validate a comprehensive "perspective" on reality. Academic activists can then use this perspective to validate whatever demands they choose to make. It's not important for professors of English to find out, for example, how political or economic individualism actually works, when a perspective that allows them to "unmask" it and demand its demise is so readily available.

For such purposes, the most useful perspective is clearly one that permits academics to redescribe social and cultural processes in terms appropriate to coercive institutions. It is a perspective that licenses any tendency to confuse the dominant (or, to use the academic jargon, "hegemonic") power of the state with the varied and spontaneous forces of a society still oriented toward individualism. This perspective encourages academics to congratulate themselves on understanding or "speaking truth to" power, even while they are discussing 19th-century fiction, the Campbellite church, or the detective novels of the 1930s.

To attain this perspective, the new academics must take care to ignore certain parts of their own sacred canon. In Nietzsche, for instance, whatever looks like an affirmation of the scope of individual thought must be edged onto the back burner, so that continuous emphasis can be placed on his ideas about coercive "social practices." What the new academic requires from Nietzsche (or Marx or Gramsci or Foucault) is usually just a little package of assumptions about the "social construction" of human reality as a whole.

The phrase social construction is everywhere in trendy academic theory. It is used to portray "society" as the active, coercive shaper of individuals' perceptions, beliefs, and roles. It effectively obscures the distinction between what happens in a real and diverse society, which has many unprogrammed ways of affecting and being affected by individuals, and what gets done by the supervisory power of just one part of "society," the state and various state-like institutions.

If meaningful reality is constructed for us, without our consent, then our responsibility as individuals diminishes to the vanishing point, and the collectivist thinker's age-old war with the individualist is won. If, for example, the radical feminists are correct in assuming that our idea of "gender" is constructed for us, then a woman who asserts her ability to choose what its proponents gratingly call "a traditional lifestyle" is not an individual who has chosen rightly or wrongly but a shadowy "reproducer" of "mystifications" created by political forces far beyond her control. At this point, the slogan "Sex Is a Political Act" begins to make sense, and the way is open for virtually all people—emphatically including white, male, heterosexual academics—to pity themselves as victims of "social" control.

To be sure, one can advance arguments both for and against this politicized theory of reality, this notion that all meaningful reality is constructed for us rather than by us. The commonsense argument in favor of it is that in many instances people discover that they obtained their guiding ideas from the covert influences of "parties, sects, or selfish interests," not from investigation and choice. The common-sense argument against the political-constructionist theory is that people often do discover that they have been influenced in this way and decide to put a stop to it.

The true modern academic preempts both these commonsense arguments with the assumption that what people see as common sense is merely a mask for politically imposed structures of thought. Common sense and experience are scarcely an issue. The view from the new academic perspective is limited to a professionalized world in which experience is not respectable until it has survived a graduate-school boot camp in "theory."

If the wall of academic professionalism protects otherwise intelligent writers from sensing that their faith in canonical theory requires them to recite absurdly fallacious statements about cause and effect, imagine what it can do to protect absurd statements about mere politics. What it can do is, simply, everything. So complete is the intellectual isolation of the new academics that the recent spate of books attacking their views—Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals, for instance, or Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education—has left many of them innocently astonished that anyone could become upset about their explicit attempts to "subvert" what they regard as "Western civilization."

Contributing to their astonishment is their nearly complete freedom from contamination by any tradition of modern social thought aside from their own. You will have to go a long way before you meet an academic humanist who has actually read F. A. Hayek or Michael Oakeshott or Milton Friedman or who has actually heard of Ludwig von Mises.

Nor are the new academics interested in the revolutionary results of modern social thought. To the frequently asked question, "What effect has the collapse of international communism had on academic humanists?", the disappointing answer is, "Practically none at all." Academic humanists are not flocking to seminars on "What Went Wrong with Marxist Theory"; they're flocking to seminars on "Marxist Feminism and Post-Colonialist Oppression."

When the death of Marxism as a European, African, and American political movement awakens no reconsideration among academics for whom Marxism is presumably a subject of absorbing interest, we know that something serious has happened to academic claims to authority. Academic authority (as popularly imagined, at least) is based on individual scholars' superior understanding of certain determinate features of the world. Today, in the humanities especially, authority is often merely the complicated, ingenious, and (narrowly) learned repetition of views unconnected with anything but one another. "The academy," as Frederick Crews observes in his perceptive volume of essays, Skeptical Engagements, becomes a "heaven for concepts that have slipped their earthly moorings." Debates continue about differences among various applications of outrageously outmoded collectivist assumptions, while the assumptions themselves go undebated.

Activity of this kind irresistibly recalls the disputes over fine points of dogma that used to arouse the clergy—although the current disputes are much less likely than the old ones to excite the layman's sympathies. At present, an academic clergy is separating itself, by a wall of assumptions about the "social" construction of reality, from the concrete reality of the society around it—a society in which individuals are remarkably free to create their own "constructions" by choosing from among the many sources of experience available to them.

In his book Going to the Territory, the great African-American writer Ralph Ellison found a precise image for modern American society. He called it a realm of "random accessibility." In this realm, people of both genders, all ethnic groups, and all social classes can learn how life looks to other people and use that knowledge to define their own highly individual (not to say eccentric) identities. But against the threatening wave of freedom, an academic class solidifies itself in statehood, using not just debate and discourse but institutional power to give potency to its assumptions about power. It does this naively, for the most part, because its narrow understanding of a narrow canon of political and cultural theory has led it to forget the distinction between an open culture and a politicized one.

Let me describe the situation more concretely. A person who denies the political construction of reality is about as likely to get hired as a professor of English in a modem American university as a blind man in a wheelchair is likely to execute a surface crossing of the Hollywood Freeway at rush hour. If you don't believe it, try to find four or five people who have done it in the last 10 years. Should you find them, remember that they may not get tenure.

The reason is not that their colleagues are all witch-hunters. It's that the anticollectivist candidate for tenure may very well not have the "professional qualifications" necessary to merit a good review when tenure time rolls around. Indeed, he or she will probably lack the "professional background" that is necessary to get a job in the first place, because a "professional" is known by the ability to work happily with the politicized assumptions of the profession.

Consider a young scholar of English literature who is not especially interested in politics; he is interested in, say, image patterns in the works of T. S. Eliot. He will discover that this is not the kind of thing that the most advanced students are studying, unless with a view to "unmasking," for the thousandth time, the reactionary nature of Eliot's "discursive practices." The young scholar's interest in a major English poet will not help him much when he tries to get into a good graduate school or when he tries to get one of those jobs commonly advertised as dealing with "20C Brit, lit., feminist & multicult, studies, crit. theory."

Or consider the more complicated plight of the graduate student who is interested in the literary effects of a central political problem of the 20th century, the totalitarianism of collectivist political regimes. Her interest will not endear her to a professoriate preoccupied with the supposedly coercive features of "Western consumer society." But she perseveres. She reads the major documents of the collectivist tradition; she also reads the major anticollectivist critiques of this century's habit of identifying societies with states. She plans a dissertation in which she will try to explain why anticollectivist literature has not been taken more seriously by academics and other persons of cultural influence. She wants to account for the fact that many allegedly freedom-loving writers rushed to the defense of Leninism, Stalinism, Castroism, and even fascism, while precious few rushed to the defense of free enterprise or tried to draw firm lines between culture and statecraft.

Once embarked on this project, she finds herself almost entirely isolated from professional support and encouragement. She discovers that professional analysts of ideological "mystifications" and "hegemonies" are not eager to discuss the ways in which collectivist ideology may, just possibly, have distorted the academic and literary imagination. Her advisers frequently ask her to explain, just one more time, who this fellow Hayek was, and why he titled his book The Road to Serfdom. They ask her "what progressive alternative" the writers of the 1930s had to "the Soviet model of socialism"—as if an uncoercive society were never an imaginable alternative. Some consider her hopelessly unsophisticated because she believes that literary history is affected by political history but need not be determined by it. Others try to help by urging her to spend more time on feminist applications of Marxist theories of hegemony: "This is something you have to take account of."

Looking about her, she finds a good deal of well-funded activity in the realm of "post-colonialist studies," but she finds no Journal of Post-Collectivist Studies subsidized by the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. If she joins a professional association of scholars, she will discover that its intense interest in politics does not imply an interest in anyone's work on the anticollectivist tradition of political and literary analysis. She will eventually realize that it is preposterous even to think of such a thing.

She may get lucky. She may survive to the end of her dissertation, without the support that goes to more promising students. She may survive a job interview in which she is sharply questioned about her allegiance to "multicultural theory and practice," by which her interviewers appear to mean the monocultural theory and practice of the current academic left. She may get her fledgling essays reviewed for publication by old-fashioned academics who, though overwhelmingly leftist, still respect the individual scholar's ability to handle argument and evidence, and who are just as happy to see an apt quotation from Mises as they are to see one from Rigoberta Menchu. She may therefore succeed in getting a job and in publishing enough to keep it. But she shouldn't bet on it.

Does this mean that American humanities departments are nothing but a wasteland of conformism? No. But incentives do mean something. Art and scholarship tend to assume a specific political character when specific political opinions are objects of reward. And they tend to assume an institutional, regulated character when they are sponsored by institutions with a regulatory mission.

During the last 30 years, funding of the arts and humanities by the state and by large, state-like foundations has increased enormously. Even poetry, formerly the most individualistic and eccentric of the arts, has been eaten alive by state-like things with political ideals. Their assumption is that poetry is a national resource and that its production should be subsidized and regulated in accordance with high national purposes. Gone are the days when poets supported themselves by the sales of their works to a general audience or, if sales did not suffice, by pursuing another occupation, which might still provide their art with a diversity of inspirations.

Now poets become "poets in residence" at multiversities that mimic the goals, structure, and extent of the modern state. Poets publish in subsidized journals, they compete for grants, and even poets of real talent are tempted to write only the sort of thing most likely to appeal to committees of review. Institutional poetry flourishes so mightily that poets have reason to fear that their success may depend on their ability to gratify, or at least avoid offending, the consciousness of people who assume that so personal a thing as poetry is a fit subject for institutional supervision.

So poetry becomes anti-establishment in a thoroughly predictable way. The establishment that it "interrogates" and attempts to "subvert" is not the real establishment—the boards and commissions and institutes that actually give or withhold money from the supplicant artist. The targeted enemy is the putative "establishment" of conservatives or traditional liberals who question the expanded influence that state-like institutions have acquired over people's self-expressions. During 12 years of big-spending Republican administrations, this second "establishment" has managed to do exactly nothing to change the trend toward institutionalization of the arts. Such an "establishment" is a remarkably safe target, especially because attacks on it are generally very gratifying to its enemies, the members of the first and real establishment.

Competition for institutional rewards is an obscure sport with dull but complicated rules. Few spectators show up for the game; sometimes only the officials turn out. Much contemporary poetry appeals to almost no one, despite the fact that it is subsidized by almost everyone. Critic Joseph Epstein recently dared to wonder, in print, if poetry has become marginalized because it has become institutionalized. He was met with some abusive criticism—much of it from poets supported by institutions. He was accused (among other things) of a lack of sympathy for writers in certain groups—women, members of ethnic minorities, leftists, the working class—although he had not suggested that these groups were responsible for the ills of contemporary poetry. His critics, however, focused on poetry as a group phenomenon. This is exactly what one would expect to result from the practice of legitimizing art by group judgments about its political effects on groups—from the treatment of art as a political act.

The difficulty, of course, is that art is neither created nor enjoyed by groups. No literary work is explicable except as a result of individual choices. Every theme, every image, every word of Emily Dickinson's poetry was chosen by her. Her choices were no doubt influenced by her social circumstances, by the ideas and attitudes that were native to her social world. Within that very general context, however, she was free to choose. To put it another way, she had to choose, or she could never have created a line of poetry.

Similar acts of choice occur when people read and assess Dickinson's poems, when teachers teach them and students study them. To understand her achievement, one must choose to examine her ideas, pursue the meanings of her images, and define what one regards as appropriate standards for evaluating these things. This is an individual and not a collective activity. The state can subsidize teachers and students, but it cannot teach or learn; it can subsidize poets, but it cannot write poetry. It can confine creativity or allow it to do its work; but it cannot make it exist or make it be appreciated. Insofar as the university serves the humanities, it serves not the state but a society of freely acting individuals.

Ideas of this kind have long been current among libertarians and classical liberals. They are part of any truly liberal theory of literature. There is now evidence that they are becoming attractive to modern liberals who are concerned about the problems created by the academic fixation on the state as the model and source of cultural endeavor. For example, David Bromwich, professor of English at Yale, has written a new book, Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking, that carefully analyzes the many and various problems of humanistic education in the university, and traces them to academics' (and other politicians') current tendency to conceive of education in political terms that omit the agency of the individual.

Bromwich refers to the institutional assumption that "the mind of the student deserves to survive only so far as it can prove its descent from one of the socially constructed group minds now on the charts." In conscientious (and sometimes hilarious) detail, he describes the state-like decision-making processes of academic departments, in which respect for a "professional consensus"—the mind of the group—"puts every dissenter at fault" and "detaches each member of the community from any responsibility to think about the issue at hand." He develops reasons for believing that tradition can be a force for good but that it is "shaped by the voluntary choices of readers and thinkers." Above all, he insists that "politics is not education," and "group thinking is not thinking."

Bromwich confirms the ideas that libertarian intellectuals have been advancing for the last 60 years, ever since Isabel Paterson started reminding people that it is individuals, not groups, that think and enjoy. "A blind man cannot see by community," she said; and the truth of her observation is evident in the increasing dimness of the university's collectivized sight. As Bromwich's book shows, however, people who want to understand how things happen in the humanities will eventually discover that they can proceed only so far without the benefit of individualist ideas.

From time to time, intellectuals do rebel massively against institutionalized thinking. One rebellion took place in the Enlightenment, when humanists broke violently with the systems of thought that were characteristic of states and state churches. Another rebellion took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when artists refused to turn their work into an expression of the group-think of nationalism.

Yet another rebellion can happen now, in the American university. Perhaps it has already started.

Stephen Cox is professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego. His most recent book is Love and Logic: The Evolution of Blake's Thought (University of Michigan Press).