Literature in an Ivory Tower of Babel

By Driscoll, Kevin | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 9, 1997 | Go to article overview

Literature in an Ivory Tower of Babel


Driscoll, Kevin, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


In the heady days that followed the fall of the Iron Curtain, an old professor of mine - he was a former dissident who had fled the Soviet Union during the Cold War - was fond of telling the following joke: Communism, he would say with all the mock seriousness he could muster, still survives in three areas of the world - China, Cuba and on the campuses of American colleges and universities.

As with all good jokes, there is more than a little truth in the professor's punchline: Eight years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall set in motion communism's steady slide into the dustbin of history, Marxist theory is thriving in the American academy, and nowhere is it more heartily espoused than among professors of literature. Here, for example, is a sample from the writing of Frederic Jameson, perhaps the brightest light in the constellation that is Duke University's literature department: "Stalinism," he writes, "is disappearing not because it failed, but because it succeeded, and fulfilled its historical mission to force the rapid industrialization of an underdeveloped country."

Lest anyone think that Mr. Jameson is but a loose cannon amid the otherwise staid denizens of academe, John Ellis - himself a well-respected literary scholar and author of the new book, "Literature Lost" - points out that "[Mr. Jameson] is probably the most quoted of all American critics, and citations of his work are commonly accompanied by almost abjectly respectful phrases: `Jameson tells us that . . .' or `Jameson has shown us that . . .'"

Dinesh D'Souza was perhaps the first to alert America to the strange goings on on campus with his "Illiberal Education" (1991) - an important book, to be sure, but a broad polemic whose argumentation has been too easily dismissed as conservative cant by the very people it singled out for criticism - the academics themselves. Such dismissiveness will be hard to pass off in the face of Mr. Ellis' critique - which confines itself to the study of literature and, as a result, is thoroughly and convincingly argued.

The author paints a dismal picture of literary pursuits in today's academy, one that would be almost comical were it not tempered by the realization that Mr. Jameson and his like are not barbarians at the gates, but rather rulers of the academic roost - scholars whose interests and influence range far beyond the literature departments they occupy.

Having devoted his life to the study of literature - his area of expertise is German literature - Mr. Ellis brings to the discussion a sense of history and perspective that is, sadly, often lacking in today's debates over the state of academia in general and literary studies in particular. But "looking back," Mr. Ellis cautions, "has nothing to do with nostalgia for the way things were or a conservative resistance to change. The point is that to grasp the character of what is happening now we must contrast it with what it has replaced."

"What is happening now," Mr. Ellis makes clear, is rather straightforward. The study of literature has been reduced to little more than the airing of race, gender and class grievances, with every text being interrogated for clues about its disposition with regard to that great triad of issues. The author attributes the narrowness of contemporary literary studies to the rise of the French theorists of the 1970s, most notably Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, names that are invoked these days with even more reverence than that of Mr. Jameson.

France, the author points out, was rather late in catching on to 20th-century theoretical developments, in which scholars sought a more systematic approach to literature and criticism. In the 1970s, however, France's reputation as "the most conservative of European nations in literary study" began to give way as critics like Mr. Foucault and Mr. Derrida sought to bring French scholarship up to date. "The eventual catch up," Mr. …

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