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April 18, 2009 [feather]
Fukuyama on tenure

Francis Fukuyama, in the Washington Post:


I'm a tenured professor. But I'd get rid of tenure.

Tenure was created to protect academic freedom after a series of 19th-century cases when university donors or legislators tried to remove professors whose views they disliked. One famous instance in the late 1800s involved progressive movement leader Richard Ely, whose critics accused him of socialism and tried to remove him as an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin.

The rationale for tenure is still valid. But the system has turned the academy into one of the most conservative and costly institutions in the country. Yes, conservative: Economists joke that their discipline advances one funeral at a time, but many fields must wait for wholesale generational turnover before new approaches take hold.

The system also hamstrings younger untenured professors, making them fearful of taking intellectual risks and causing them to write in jargon aimed only at those in their narrow subdiscipline: Thus in economics, people have "utility functions" instead of needs and wants.

These problems are made worse by a federal employment law that bars universities from instituting mandatory retirement. Deans and provosts can't remove elderly professors who take up slots that could fund two or three younger colleagues. Two developments are about to exacerbate this problem: a decline in university enrollments as the baby echo generation passes through college, reducing overall demand for professors; and the financial crisis, which has decimated professors' retirement savings, giving them incentive to hold on to their sinecures even longer.

Things don't have to be this way. Academic freedom can thrive in think tanks and research institutes. U.S.-style tenure doesn't exist in Britain or Australia. Japan grants tenure but forces professors to retire at a relatively early age (60 at Tokyo University).

The freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious. But it's time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly, both financially and intellectually.


Fukuyama is a professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins.

Quick thoughts, as I have a beehive to build today (long story, perhaps shall write about it here at a future date).

Fukuyama is right about many things here--tenure locks institutions in structurally, intellectually, and economically in ways that grow less and less workable over time. Colleges and universities need to be able to respond flexibly to shifting needs as well as to market conditions; while tenure may be able to more or less insulate individual professors from market conditions, it makes institutions exceptionally vulnerable to them because it interferes with their ability to adjust to them. Faculties really need to wake up about that before the game is entirely up. They need to stop incentivizing the adjunctification of academic labor and show a willingness to talk more honestly and frankly about making tenure work--from an educational quality standpoint, a research productivity standpoint, a governance standpoint, a free inquiry standpoint, an economic standpoint. And that means they have to start taking accountability seriously--and stop hiding behind the magical, distorting mantra of "academic freedom," which is not synonymous with "free pass," "immunity," "anything goes," "protect me and mine no matter what," "exemption," or "transcendence."

Revisiting the retirement issue would be a place to start, though it is by no means all that is needed. Increased teaching loads at the 2-2 schools, particularly in the humanities, would also be important. So would more rigorous post-tenure review, with carrots for the good performers and sticks for the bad--though the Ward Churchill case tells us pretty much all we need to know about the rubberstampery that passes for post-tenure review across the country. If you don't believe me, check out this article, and look for the places where it talks about how pro forma and inconsequential post-tenure review is in most places.

I really have to go build that beehive now. Comments welcome.

UPDATE 4/20: Thanks to Lexington's Notebook at The Economist for linking to my post. And welcome to folks who have found their way here by way of there. Please feel free to look around and to leave a comment.

posted on April 18, 2009 9:53 AM




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Comments:

I do not buy the argument that tenure leads to groupthink. Sure, some young academics may mimic what is accepted until they get tenure, but the protection of tenure also allows for increased questioning of received paradigms. And I see no problem with untenured faculty mimicking standard thinking for five years -- most professions call that a journeyman period. (And I'm making a worst-case scenario argument here; there's no decent evidence that many or most junior faculty members actually do parrot what is accepted, or that they parrot out of fear rather than out of true intellectual agreement.)

The issue of retirement is entirely unrelated to tenure, and it does need to be addressed. But forcing 60 year olds to retire without any sort of retirement safety net or any plan for one is absurd and cruel. And positing an age limit is a classic one-size-fits-all bureaucratic solution to a messy human problem.

Instead, I agree with Erin that tenure should come with concrete requirements. So long as the professor meets those requirements, she should have tenure no matter how old she is. One major problem with tenure review today is that university administrators are not trained to be able to evaluate good teaching or, often, good research in a specific field, and student evaluations tell us little more than how students are feeling at the end of the semester. And as Stanley Fish pointed out about the Ward Churchill trial, *some* of CU's objections to Churchill were nothing more than standard intellectual disagreements and not grounds for dismissal.

Increasing the teaching load is also a reasonable idea, provided that the research requirements are lowered accordingly. But teaching loads are also misleading data. The phrase "2-2" load sounds like a cakewalk, but that simply means two preps per semester. If each of those preps comes with 100 students, then the professor is looking at 200 students each semester. So we need to factor in course enrollment and TA figures. For a job like teaching English, we need to decide matters such as what is a reasonable number of essays to grade each week. (This infuriates me as a high school English teacher. I have as many students as the math teachers, but their grading loads are about a quarter of mine in raw numbers, and English grading is objectively more work than high school level math grading to begin with.)

Posted by: Luther Blissett at April 18, 2009 3:35 PM



It is important, I think, to recognize that market forces *are* at work within academia, and we can thank them for 2-2 teaching loads, among other things. When universities eager to boost research productivity compete for candidates, "light" teaching loads (though Luther has a point when he notes that 2-2 is not necessarily light) are inevitable. 2-2 may not be right for every institution (and indeed it is the exception rather than the rule), but what is wrong with a university prioritizing research, even (gasp) in the humanities?

Posted by: Peter Shoemaker at April 20, 2009 8:03 AM



The Ward Churchill case tells us pretty much all we need to know about the rubberstampery that passes for post-tenure review across the country. If you don't believe me, check out this article....

I checked out that article. In it Anne Neal does not say that PTR is "rubberstampery" across the country. What she says is that we "do not know very much about whether post-tenure review actually works."

The article notes that, even though colleges and universities are now, as demanded, assessing their tenured faculty, they're not assessing their assessment. They've got systems of post-tenure accountability, but no way to hold their accountability systems accountable. Or something like that. Neal has a point: we should probably make some effort to see how well PTR is working. But that's obviously not the same as saying we already know PTR is mere rubberstampery across the board.

Having said all this, I'll add that my own guess is that PTR works better at some places than others. I suspect that a fair number of PTR programs really are little more than rubberstampery. I also think that it's very difficult to design and implement a PTR policy that has real teeth but is not open to abuse. What I've seen debating various PTR proposals at my own institution is that some proposals are predicated on the suspicion that faculty are essentially slackers who will naturally perform as poorly as they're permitted to. Others are predicated on the suspicion that the administration wants to be able to fire at will. Two conflicting purposes--is it any surprise that the resulting compromises often don't work very well?

Luther, I agree that tenure does not lead to groupthink. The fact that certain conservative ideas don't get the hearing their proponents think they deserve is not evidence that all academics think alike. And my own experience on tenure committees suggests that people are very much open to candidates pursuing novel approaches to their fields.

And Peter, I think you're right about 2-2 loads. They exist primarily because of mission (the institution's desire for research and the money and/or prestige it garners) and market (competition among the best faculty for the best pay and research opportunity). I'm not sure whether Erin is proposing that institutions disregard the market or that they re-think their missions. The latter might be reasonable; the former not so much.

Of course, the public has some funny ideas about academic workloads--but then, many of academe's critics have no interest in clearing up those misperceptions.

Posted by: Eveningsun at April 20, 2009 11:31 AM



On the subject of faculty groupthink, I find it interesting that conservative critics of the academy at once attack the attempts to challenge received wisdom in the 70s and 80s and then lodge the charge at those attempts of being one, big example of groupthink.

Partly, this is narrativized: the radicals became the tenured radicals, the new boss is the old boss, etc.

But too often those "radicals" were criticized for the very fact of challenging the previous paradigm. Every month, it seems, we're treated to another essay or blog post about how the New Critics were wrongly criticized by the deconstructionists, or how the canon didn't need to be challenged or expanded, or how wrongheaded it is to look at issues of race or colonialism in literature.

So they were wrong for challenging the past and they are wrong for not challenging themselves. This turns the entire critical enterprise from 1960 to now into a monolithic Borg hive-mind, as if the feminist and race critics didn't severely criticize semiotics and deconstruction, as if the Lacanians agreed with the Foucauldians, as if the New Historicists and the New Old Historcists didn't challenge all of the above, as if recent work on sentiment, affect, and subjectivity or on the return to aestheticism wasn't a new direction.

However, on the topic of market-driven teaching loads, Mark Bauerline has made important observation that universities are wrong in thinking that humanities research is worth the investment. It might seem market driven to think that a university offers fewer preps to attract better researchers, but the fact is that, according to the market, no one buys or reads humanities research. Of course, what the university has always paid for in having humanities researchers around is cultural capital. While science research brings in grant money and corporate funding, humanities scholars' research brings with it the illusion that the university is a place of humane learning. As that illusion breaks down (not the fault of the humanities scholars, as much as MB wants to fault them), I think we will see more universities being forced to re-think the value of extensive benefits for humanities researchers. And while their motives will be wrong, the process seems right to me: it's time to consider, even at research institutions, if English departments might not be better served by having two tiers of faculty: a small group of productive, rigorous researchers and a large group of dedicated, effective teachers. Provided those tiers are considered equal and fluid (i.e., the researcher with writers' block might become teaching-centered, while the teacher who begins to publish wowing work might receive the benefits of the researchers) I see no problem with them.

Posted by: Luther Blissett at April 20, 2009 2:00 PM



This turns the entire critical enterprise from 1960 to now into a monolithic Borg hive-mind, as if the feminist and race critics didn't severely criticize semiotics and deconstruction, etc., etc.

Absolutely. Right now I'm teaching an American Studies class focusing on environmentalism. Lazy, dishonest cranks like Roger Kimball and David Horowitz might get no further than the course's title and have no idea that most of its "theory" readings (from the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad 80s and 90s) are attacks from various angles on the simplistic green ideologies of the 60s and 70s--Annette Kolodny analyzing the gender politics of exploration literature and nature writing, William Cronon deconstructing the idea of wilderness, Richard White foregrounding the class politics of environmentalism, Jennifer Price critiquing green consumerism, Andrew Ross deriding the iconic wilderness-loving backpacker as the "Great White Dude" and pointing out that environmentalism was the only major 60s movement that did not call upon white-heterosexual-middle-class-males to examine their own privileges....

I'm every inch the librul perfessor, but this class is doing a better job of critiquing environmentalism than any number of hacks from the American Enterprise Institute ever could. "Groupthink" my eye.

Posted by: Eveningsun at April 20, 2009 4:10 PM



It is kind of Luther and Eveningsun to provide an example of the very sort of group-think, echo-chamber phenomena being discussed.

Posted by: John Drake at April 20, 2009 6:01 PM



ES wrote:

Lazy, dishonest cranks like Roger Kimball and David Horowitz . . .

Gratuitous slur noted.

Posted by: minerva at April 20, 2009 7:49 PM



So, John, when two people agree on an issue they are simply an example of echo-chamber groupthink? So we should all simply be contrary?

Still, if you think we're wrong, you might consider providing an argument against our ideas. But it's easier to simply label us intellectual lemmings. Ironically, that's exactly the behavior we were criticizing above.

Posted by: Luther Blissett at April 20, 2009 8:19 PM



When I can barely tell the difference between you and Eveningsun, I begin to think there is a problem.

When I see that 95% of my colleagues agree with you and Eveningsun on just about everything, I see a problem.

When I see that the major journals in my field present ideological solidarity with you and Eveningsun, I see a problem.

You can argue about the differences between one theoretical school and another as much as you like, and you can cite instances of the silly turf wars brought on by the advent of Theory, but in the end, you are *all* coming at this from a far-left political perspective, and therein lies the problem.

Now go ahead and make some obfuscatory reply to try and hide the truth of the matter.

Posted by: John Drake at April 22, 2009 8:28 PM



You can argue about the differences between one theoretical school and another as much as you like...but in the end, you are *all* coming at this from a far-left political perspective, and therein lies the problem.

At least it's now clear that the discussion is not about intellectual diversity but about political diversity. And maybe there is a problem with that. IIRC, someone determined once that most English profs were registered Democrats--people who vote for candidates like Bill Clinton. May I humbly suggest that using the term "far-left" to refer to such people is a bit hyperbolic?

Sorry for any obfuscation, John. I try to be clear, but sometimes I do seem to be misunderstood.

Posted by: Eveningsun at April 23, 2009 6:34 AM



John Drake: It's true that humanities profs in particular occupy a range of political opinion quite farther to the left than the citizenry at large. The advent of "Theory," following on the heels of the Vietnam War, starkly politicized humanities academics' discourses much to their discredit. I care little for tenure myself and since I wasn't reticent about expressing my views to interested parties in the departments I've taught in, I've contented myself with visiting professorships in the main. Before my academic career in Nam we had to be prepared to call down air strikes on our own positions for the good of our missions, and analogously that's what I've been doing in various politicized humanities departments in which I've taught for years now. And I do thank Messieurs Kimball and Horowitz for providing me with some occasionally effective ammo.

Posted by: mavprof at April 23, 2009 11:52 AM



Eveningsun, you are truly either dense or so used to dodging the issue that you can longer even recognize the substance of a question that critiques your perspective.

It *is* about diversity of opinion. If the opinions available in the study of English all stem from a certain set of assumptions about society, then regardless of the differences between them, they still remain the "children" of the same parent. What is the difference between feminism and postcolonialism? Between feminism and race theory? For these, it's simply which victim is to be championed as most in need of rescuing from the evil white man's dominance.

If you cannot recognize this, then frankly, you don't really deserve to be in academia. If you can't be self-critical, you aren't really worthy of a professorship.

As for identifying you and my colleagues as far-left, since all of my colleagues with the exception of one identify themselves as socialists and Marxists, I'm not really the one doing the labeling; I'm just reporting their own self-labeling. Throwing voting for Clinton into the argument is just a red herring.

But thanks for playing. Now get back to planning out your methods of indoctrination for tomorrow.

Posted by: John Drake at April 23, 2009 4:29 PM



Mr. Drake:

There is plenty of contemporary scholarship in "postcolonialism" and gender studies that doesn't focus on the politics of victimhood (not to mention the vast body of more traditional scholarship on genre, poetics, literary history, etc. etc.). If you're unfamiliar with this work, then perhaps you need to read more widely and with a more open mind.

As for academic Marxists, our experiences differ. I only know one or two personally, and the occasional socialist whom I run into is generally of the "democratic" stripe. (I encounter many more conservatives in academia than either Marxists or socialists.) For the record, most academics whom I know label themselves either liberal or progressive and vote Democratic.

I agree that more diversity in the academy would be welcome. I also agree that *some* left-leaning faculty are intolerant of those who hold differing opinions. But do I believe that 95% of academics "agree... on just about everything" and are on a campaign of "indoctrination"? Not so much.

Did you notice how I managed to stay civil?

Posted by: Peter Shoemaker at April 23, 2009 9:00 PM



Mr Shoemaker: In theory "post-colonialism" (like "ethnic" and "gender" studies) can be simply one more area of academic interest, but in the wake of "Theory" that seems hardly the case.

To pretend that foundational works of the post-colonial industry, like Edward Said's "Orientalism," with all its heavily and radically politicized Marxist, Freudian, Foulcauldian, and Derridean influences, do not practically establish certain limits to inquiry within the field itself, is disingenous. How many post-colonialist scholars, for example, think it important enough to balance Said's views with fair consideration of the works of real historians like Bernard Lewis, Robert Irwin, or Keith Windschuttle? Or the art historian George Landow? Or the current affairs writer Ibn Warraq? For in various ways all these thinkers challenge the very foundations of the dubious academic specialty developed from Said's controversial claims; and some post-colonialist partisans are so aggressively appropriative as to include by definition all works written during or after the expansion of European colonialism, even, as did Said, fiction like Austen's "Mansfield Park."

Every academic specialty or area of interest must have certain given premises on which to base further inquiries into its subject, but if its premises include the practice of highly tendentious readings of historical and literary works combined with pitched social and political advocacy (likewise for ethnic, gender, and multicultural "studies"), how can disinterested scholarship be but a rare exception among its specialists?

Posted by: mavprof at April 24, 2009 6:06 AM



Mavprof,

I won't deny that many of the proponents and practitioners of postcolonial studies have an ideological ax to grind, but surely so do your "real historians." I'm thinking in particular about Bernard Lewis, who seems to done just fine in academia, thank you, and whose work (whatever its merits might be) can hardly be characterized as "disinterested."

As for your broader point, I would submit that the study of literature has always been underpinned by tendentious ideologies. If it weren't for the nationalistic impulse of the nineteenth century, we probably wouldn't have literature departments.

Posted by: Peter Shoemaker at April 25, 2009 10:05 AM



mr Shoemaker:

Glib and blanket tu quoques like "it's tendentious all the way down" won't explain away the salient point that Lewis and Irwin at least are capable scholars in Near East studies and languages and Said was not. And they are only two of dozens of real orientalists who've found tendentious misreadings and what appears to be deliberate mishandling of sources legion in Said's writings.

If one lacks the background to contribute to the scholarship, then one may find "theoretical" shortcuts to be convenient substitutes, as Said surely did in his "discovery" that Western literature of all sorts in the period of European expansion abetted and encouraged colonial exploitation of the "Other."

Both Windschuttle and Irwin fault his work, among many other criticisms they have, for his scant consideration of the copious work of German orientalists, who weren't a part of the European colonial expansion into the Middle East. But no matter in not arguing against real orientalists' scholarship and in omitting the vast corpus of work done by Germans and others (which Lewis and Irwin have not, in addition to their language competencies)--"Theory" trumps these "mere" accomplishments in serving Said's polemical claims that Western scholars (and writers) could do no other than to promote European colonialism, racism, and imperialism. And no such possibility for any Westerner to "go native." His sources for these sweeping and controversial claims? "Theory" of the "Other" told him so--and one in particular based on another Westerner's dubious theories, though who would not at least have claimed the privilege of judging Western oriental scholars' work: Freud, as filtered through the even more dubious works of the polemically-charged anti-humanist "theoretician" and post-mod guru, Michel Foucault. In the wake of Said's "Orientalism" and the like, the mezmerizing attraction of theory gave Western English and comp-lit profs a chance to indulge themselves in a bit of self-aggrandizing pseudo-intellectual colonialism and imperialism of their own for a bit.

Irwin spares mention of the cosseted Said's self-fabricated autobiography in trying to pass himself off as a Palestinian refugee, but his bogus past caught up with him several years before his untimely death (see the expose in J R Weiner's articles in "Commentary" published in 1999).

Some years ago a colleague of mine, not knowing I'd read Said's "Orientalism" and several of his other works (as it turned out, as a kind of self-vaccination against the post-colonial contagion then raging in several departments at my university) was lavishing praise on Said and touching on his gifts as a amateur pianist. When she fell silent, expecting a response, I said, "Well, yes, I've heard; then at least I can praise him for something."

Posted by: mavprof at April 25, 2009 3:18 PM



It's so interesting to see mavprof repeat (yet again, yet again) the Windshuttle and Lewis critiques of Said, as if any historian who undertakes a project as ambitious as Said's hasn't faced similar criticism. This is not to say that the critiques are wrong -- sure, sure, Said's unprecedented research certainly was faulty at times. But some maverick professors seem to think that the fact of scholarly debate immediately undermines the research being debated.

The main problem with *Orientalism* is that it overstates its case, and Said specifically backs off in later work from claims that knowledge is only (imperial) power. But there's plenty of evidence that every culture produces representations of its enemies that seek to justify violence against them. That's not all that culture is -- as Said shows in *Culture and Imperialism* -- but it's certainly an important and often-neglected part of many plays, poems, novels, essays, scholarly works, etc.

The opening pages of Chapter One of the book explicitly admit that he will leave out Russian and German Orientalism because those nations did not directly engage in Mid-East imperialism. But to say that they disprove his larger thesis -- that Western knowledge of the East was one tool for controlling the East -- is as ignorant as suggesting that Nazi atomic research proves that science is not political because Nazi Germany never achieved the atom bomb. Germany certainly drooled over the idea of empire, even if it was late to the game in the Middle East.

Christ, even the wikipedia entry on *Orientalism* gets this right (even as it gets the English language wrong): "Said also suggests that not all academic discourse in the West has to be Orientalist in its intent but much of it is. He also suggests that all cultures have a view of other cultures that may be exotic and harmless to some extent, but it is not this view that he argues against and when this view is taken by a militarily and economically dominant culture against another it can lead to disastrous results."

What I find most ironic is that Said's work has pervaded even Fox News, which tirelessly uses his methods to reveal how jihadists produce dehumanizing representations and ideas about the West in order to justify terrorism. Lewis and others seem to have a hard time admitting that Western Europeans could have produced art and scholarship that dehumanized others. They fault Said for not valuing the humanizing forces in the Western tradition, even as nearly all of Said's scholarly influences are Western European or Westernized: Foucault and Gramsci most importantly, and Fanon and Cesaire as well.

One final point: I was a graduate student in English at the University of Pennsylvania from 1998 to 2007, and I was never once assigned a single piece of writing by Said. So sure, Said is the real evil empire.

Posted by: Luther Blissett at April 25, 2009 4:58 PM



Mr Blissett: Yet again, yet again, indeed I'll remind you that Said was in no sense a "historian" in the sense Lewis, Irwin, and other genuine Orientalists are. Both named have made significant contibutions to Middle Eastern historical scholarship as have other Orientalist critics of Said's works, while I'm not aware of Said's corresponding contibutions, as he lacked the linguistic expertise to do so in order to understand how these real experts handled and interpreted their primary and secondary sources.

And in the wake of the politicized lit-crit industries that Marxism, post-structuralism, radical feminism, and ethnic studies have become since their inception few literary journals and university presses neglect publishing extensive so-called knowledge-power relations "studies" churned out for the delicatation of coteries of lit-crit epigones. And I fail to understand what attracts so many of the lit-crit trade so to the works of Marxist ideologues like Gramsci, Cesaire, Fanon, and the anti-humanist Marxist Foucault.

And pardon my skepticism about Lewis and others failing to acknowledge previous Orientalists' writing on Middle Eastern culture bears comparison with jihadis' crude, gargoyle-like caricatures of Westerners and Jews in particular.

On your final point: A cursory glance at the U of Penn's course selections during your study there yields evidence of ample attention to "postcoloniality" studies, and that's to note only the courses and course descriptions explicitly identifying the subject.

Posted by: mavprof at April 25, 2009 9:41 PM



The knock on Said seems to be that he (and his followers) have built a vast theoretical edifice that is fatally compromised by some very basic errors--errors that stem from self-serving bias (Said's personal investment in the Palestinian cause) compounded by ignorance--by the fact that, at least when it came to orientalism, he didn't know what the hell he was talking about. I gather that these errors are held to be not merely incidental to Said's arguments but central to them. Sadly, the argument continues, this error-riddled theory has become ensconced in a stubbornly self-perpetuating institution (academia) from which it has proved very difficult to dislodge. Furthermore, what with the threat of Islamic radicalism and all, this bogus theory might have dire consequences. To top it off, by suggesting that orientalists were agents of empire, Said managed to slander an entire class of intellectuals.

Well, that should be enough to get Said tossed onto the ash-heap of intellectual history, right? And yet--from back when feminists were the maverick profs whose bomb-throwing too often cost them tenure--I recall similar arguments about, oh, Aristotle, namely, that he and his followers built a vast theoretical edifice that is fatally compromised by some very basic errors--real howlers, like the claim that "Women do not grow bald because their nature is very similar to that of children in that neither of them has sperm nor is capable of ejaculation." These errors stem from a self-serving bias (Aristotle's and his followers' investment in the privileges afforded them by patriarchy) compounded by ignorance--by the fact that, at least when it came biology, they didn't know what the hell they were talking about. The errors are not merely incidental to Aristotle's arguments but central to them (e.g., women shouldn't be accorded the same authority as men because authority is rooted in the essential male nature). Sadly, this error-riddled theory became ensconced in stubbornly self-perpetuating institutions (churches and legal codes and, later, academia) from which it has proved very difficult to dislodge. Furthermore, what with the persistence of slavery and the continued oppression of women and all, those errors had and continue to have dire consequences. Just to make my analogy complete I'll add that in suggesting that women were defective men Aristotle managed to slander half the human race.

And yet, as I understand it, despite Aristotle's blatant bias, his slandering of half the human race, and his ludicrous factual errors, scholars have managed to salvage some good out of him.

Perhaps the same will prove true of Said. All I really mean to say is that knocking Said off his pedestal is going to take more--and it should take more--than simply pointing up his biases and debunking his errors. What it'll take is a demonstration that nothing substantial in his work can survive that debunking.

Posted by: Eveningsun at April 26, 2009 10:16 AM



You're right about Said not being an historian, of course; that's my bad. *Orientalism* is a study of how the East and its peoples have been represented. It's not concerned with what they were "really" like but rather with how the West depicted them. (And it's not like this is some wild "theory" -- one of my high school juniors noticed, with no prompting from me, how Mary Shelley represents Saffie's Muslim father in *Frankenstein* as one more tyrant in a world of male tyrants, and she went on to connect this to how the war in Iraq was marketed as a war of female liberation.)

I don't understand your point about Marxist ideologues. Cesaire cut his ties to the Communist Party in 1956, and his worldview was always more in touch with existentialism proper and surrealism. Fanon too had little to do with Marxism in his writing; Lacan and Hegel were bigger influences. And while Gramsci was a Marxist, he completely challenged the central ideas of Marxism (base/superstructure relationship, ideology and false consciousness, class warfare, etc.). To me Gramsci has always seemed like a New Deal liberal with a Marxian vocabulary. And Foucault is clearly not a Marxist. He refused to identify himself as such. His work has more in common with the History of Ideas movement and structuralism.

Finally, about UPenn, you make my point for me. Yes, the department offered plenty of postcolonial lit courses, and I even took three. ('Tho these were African Studies courses, not postcolonial lit courses, and if you don't think there's a difference, try telling people from Africa that their entire history should be put in relation to Western imperialism. Then duck.) Clearly, you subsume lots of distinct area of studies under the "postcolonial" heading," and you assume that Said is the Nobodaddy of all things postcolonial. But you might be surprised that the South African literature course actually forced us to research South African history and culture, not Middle Eastern, and that there were "postcolonial" intellectuals before Said.

Posted by: Luther Blissett at April 26, 2009 10:17 AM



I find it amusing that the credibility of post-Theory academia is somehow supposed to ride on the posthumous reputation of Edward Said. He seems to have become a kind of academic Alger Hiss: what you think of him is the litmus test of your intellectual seriousness and political integrity.

Posted by: Peter Shoemaker at April 26, 2009 11:31 AM



Mr Shoemaker: While in one sense your comparison of Said to Hiss seems apt as a critical "litmus test," in another it fails to persuade, for I'm not suggesting that Said lied--under oath at least, nor was he a spy and traitor as was Hiss.

Mr EveningSun: I like the way you take the trouble to set out objections to Said's claims, although these objections are far more fundamental than pointing out specific flaws in his use or misuse of sources, as you yourself acknowledged. And on Aristotle's errors of observation and speculation one could add many (queen bee misidentified as "king bee," trajectory of falling bodies, etc., etc.), though what Aristotle left of enduring value in his treatments of nearly every natural and human science are the very categories and methods of reasoning that permit us to point out his errors. No mean achievement left to us dwarves who perch on his shoulders. And it simply doesn't follow that Aristotle's collective thought should be characterized by assertions of "fatal" flaws, "blatant bias," or "slander" on his part. Perhaps you might in future touch on what in your view of lasting value scholars have managed to salvage from Aristotle's vast corpus.

Although in considering the history of thought Said's contribution can in no way compare to Aristotle's, that is not to say that it is worthless. A great problem for me here is that Said himself seems to try to anticipate and disarm criticism from Orientalists by suggesting that their criticism in spite of itself demonstrates rather than challenges his claims of universal bias among them. It's analogous perhaps to the claims by Freudians that reasoned opposition to Freud's claims is merely more subsumed evidence of the phenomenon of psychological resistance set out so convincingly in the master's works. What is impressive in Said's work is the influence it's had especially on the lit-crit scene and extending even to dramatic recreations of, say, Austen's "Mansfield Park," where in one recent version a completely extra-canonical and historically inaccurate (for Austen's time) slave-ship is depicted with accompanying invented dialogue for good measure. This example of invention is not of the sort the Age of Said can claim as a faithful tribute to Austen's.

Mr Blisset: I take your point about qualifying the Marxist views of the four influences on Said you mentioned. All seem to have been Marxists at some time in their lives, and when they broke or criticized orthodox Marxism they would seem to have been reacting to their own earlier adoption of it (I'm not read up in Cesaire enough to make that point with confidence, and I'm quite willing to be instructed by you on this score). Fanon and Cesaire works certainly seem precursors to Said's, but I suppose one might go back to Lenin's "Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism" and the like for Marxist analyses of the industrialized European West's supposed justifications and rationale for its aggressive pursuit of colonialism and imperialism.

Yes, Said's not the only source for anti-colonial theory, but he seems to be by far the most influential and best-known representative of the school connecting ever-appropriative "Theory" with political advocacy and action. No surprize, though, that theorists usually have some sort of falling out with orthodox political activists tout court.

Posted by: mavprof at April 26, 2009 1:28 PM



Mavprof,

You seem to have missed the point that the Hiss analogy was... well... an analogy. Your argument, as I understand it, is that Said lied *about history* and that he is a traitor *to the profession.* And my not-so-subtle insinuation (if you missed it as well) was that tarring post-Theory academia with the supposed sins of Edward Said is something like (actually very much like) tarring the entire left with the alleged crimes of Hiss.

As for Aristotle, I think that Eveningsun's point was that his errors were not merely errors; rather they were ideological biases that led to serious distortions not only in his work, but in the work of those whom he influenced and in Western society.

Finally, I would submit that whether Said has left "categories" and "methods of reasoning" that will prove of "enduring value" (like Aristotle) is a question that will be decided by history, not on this blog.

Posted by: Peter Shoemaker at April 26, 2009 2:45 PM



Mr Shoemaker: I did get the analogy, though not your allusion to Hiss's being a scapegoat for anti-communists, probably because Hiss WAS a spy and traitor--the Venona tapes and other post-Soviet era evidence sealed the deal--no "alleged" about it except in a technically legal sense, since this damning evidence didn't come to light during his perjury trial. As far as I care, he could've ended his wretched lying and spying life like the Rosenbergs.

I shouldn't put Said in the same category, though I suppose he disparaged and thus "betrayed" whole generations of serious, dedicated, and even quite sympathetic scholars with his blanket "theoretical" analysis of culpable Orientalists necessarily implicated in imperial expansion. And I'm satisfied with Weiner's evidence that Said indulged himself in bundles of lies and prevarications about his past, though again, I couldn't say he was a scapegoat for a whole lamentation of far-left thinkers and lit-critters--witness the lies as well as the self-serving and despicable actions of say, Paul de Man (and Derrida in his contemptible defense of same), Lacan, Sartre, Althusser (AKA the Paris Strangler), and others, including Michel Foucault, a thoroughly dangerous and malignant personality.

Sure, Aristotle was probably not pc--so sue him, even as you enjoy the fruits of his pioneering work; but know that this anachronistic practice of condemning past greats (because the prevailing views of the world then were so different) for their so-called "ideological bias" by smarmy lit-crit sidewalk-lotus-and-latte types today seems quite bizarre to not a few. And I'd be interested in what precious qualities Said has to bring to some fancifully-conceived contest of worth and lasting influence with Aristotle. Said compared with Aristotle--don't make me laugh.

Posted by: mavprof at April 26, 2009 7:13 PM



Oh for cryin' out loud, Mavprof. To argue that one should critique and evaluate Said in the same way one critiques and evaluates Aristotle is not the least bit "bizarre." Nor is it to "condemn" Aristotle or deprecate his importance. You're no longer engaging your interlocutors here, you're just shadow-boxing with a figment of your imagination. But hey--knock yourself out.

Posted by: Eveningsun at April 27, 2009 10:23 AM



Mr EveningSun: Sure, I do a bit of shadowboxing from time to time, but it's been more fun on this thread catching you guys leaning into uppercuts . . .

Posted by: mavprof at April 27, 2009 10:51 AM



Anyone for a latte? I'll bring the lotus.

Posted by: Peter Shoemaker at April 27, 2009 7:10 PM



Fair-trade, organically-grown beans, and you're on, Mr Shoemaker.

Posted by: mavprof at April 28, 2009 8:56 AM



You forgot "shade-grown." :-)

Posted by: Peter Shoemaker at April 28, 2009 10:03 AM



Indeed, Mr Shoemaker, "shade-grown," and perhaps also fondled by virgins?

Posted by: mavprof at April 28, 2009 4:23 PM