Academic journal article Humanitas

Left and Right Eclecticism: Roger Kimball's Cultural Criticism

Academic journal article Humanitas

Left and Right Eclecticism: Roger Kimball's Cultural Criticism

Article excerpt

Roger Kimball, managing editor of The New Criterion, has recently received extraordinary praise in America. He has been hailed by Irving Kristol as 'among our most intelligent, thoughtful, and provocative cultural critics', and by Frederick Morgan as 'one of the ablest and most philosophically skilled critics on the current scene'. According to John Simon, Kimball is 'uniquely qualified to deal with literary and philosophical matters alike'. William J. Bennett, William F. Buckley, Harvey Mansfield, John Ellis, and the late Allan Bloom are among the many who have lauded Kimball's books. (1)

In 1996 Claes G. Ryn questioned the quality and the philosophical depth of American conservatives' concern for culture in his article 'How the Conservatives Failed "The Culture"'. (2) In his view, an unhistorical, abstract way of thinking, inspired mainly by Leo Strauss, had eclipsed the older 'cultural conservatism' of writers like Russell Kirk and Peter Viereck, which in turn had deep affinities with the earlier tradition of cultural criticism represented by Irving Babbitt and the New Humanism. Ryn often has argued that the ahistorical rationalism of much American conservative thought should be corrected by the simultaneously Burkean and classicist humanism of Babbitt, supplemented by the historicist and epistemological insights of modern idealism, especially as represented by Benedetto Croce. Kimball, along with Buckley, Bennett, Kristol, Bloom, et al., clearly has his roots in the form of American conservatism criticised by Ryn. The nature of the praise for Kimball, as an eminent example precisely of a cu ltural critic with philosophical qualifications therefore calls for a closer look at his work.

Eclecticism Revisited

Kimball's Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education, first published in 1990 by Harper Collins, is one of the best known of the many critiques of the predicament of American higher education in the grip of what Kimball, with a term borrowed from Frederick Crews, calls 'left eclecticism': 'not identical to Marxism, exactly', but representing 'any of a wide variety of anti-establishment modes of thought'. In the new, thoroughly revised edition, (3) Kimball follows the development through the nineties, adding new trends to the eclectic whole. Along with neo-neo-Marxism, it now comprises structuralism, poststructuralism, Lacanian analysis, deconstruction, women's studies, black studies, gay studies, queer theory, critical legal studies, new historicism, cultural studies, and Afrocentrism (and the list is not exhaustive): Kimball himself is not tenured; he analyses the attitude of the new academic establishment which, in the name of a new professionalism formed in accordance with the canon of left eclecticism, looks down upon 'free' intellectuals like himself. Formerly, persons with Kimball's views could also be part of the professoriate; now, Kimball thinks, they are increasingly marginalised and not even accepted as independent writers. Many readers, Kimball recounts, protested against the dark picture he presented and wondered if the situation was really as bad as he depicted. In the new edition, he answers that it is even worse. But it might be more accurate to say that the situation is indeed as bad as Kimball reports, as far as he does report it, but that he does not tell the whole story: there are still many professors with academic integrity who do not run with the pack.

The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America, (4) and Experiments Against Reality: The Fate of Culture in the Postmodern Age, (5) are collections of articles previously published in The New Criterion. Together, they provide a progressive deepening and broadening of the analysis initiated in Tenured Radicals. The Long March looks partly beyond the academy to the general culture of the sixties, following the counterculture from the emergence of the 'Beats' in the fifties and through the sixties, and often rounds off with a look at the fates of the leading figures in the last decades of the twentieth century. …

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