Dispatch from the culture front: a declaration of impotence from the Political Correctness cops

November 05, 1995|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

The hot news is a strategic retreat by the legions of Political Correctness and the associated doctrines for which that term has come to be loathed and ridiculed. Keep the champagne corked; this is a stratagem, not a capitulation. The intent is to preserve the tribe's most culturally crippling devices.

The bearer of these tidings is Stanley Fish, associate vice-provost at Duke University, where he serves as professor of English and of law. He has been one of the more powerful leaders in the movement on American campuses to give the arts and humanities a main emphasis on political action and ideology.

Professor Fish has written "Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change" (Oxford University Press. 139 pages. $19.95), an elaboration of his 1993 Clarendon Lectures at Oxford. In it, he declares outright that literary scholars don't belong in the practice of politics, which at first appears to be virtually a reversal of creed.

Though parts of the book are clearly written, much of it breaks down into the tribal cryptography of the hi-lit priesthood. Here is the credo:

"Literary critics do not traffic in wisdom, but in metrics, narrative structures, double, triple, and quadruple meanings, recondite allusions, unity in the midst of apparent fragmentation, fragmentation despite surface unity, reversals, convergences, mirror images, hidden arguments, climaxes, denouements, stylistic registers, personae. This list goes on and on, but it does not include arms control or city management or bridge-building or judicial expertise or a thousand other things, even though many of those things find their way into the texts critics study as 'topics' or 'themes'."

Rights and standards

Screechingly obvious? Of course, you might say, professors have no more (or lesser) right to command armies or set political standards, than politicians have to set academic values.

But no. The core of campus doctrine for something like 30 years now has been the opposite: That the proper role and destiny of academics are those of philosopher-king, or at worst philosopher-kingmaker, favoring a "new" political/social agenda. That has often demanded denigrating or purging what until this era had been regarded as classic values. Which, in turn, has meant chucking out much of the intellectual foundation of what used to be called, with some pride, civilization.

The agenda? It has been far from firmly agreed. One popular extreme favors totalitarian Marxism, long after that has been repudiated by virtually everyone on earth but seven doddering Chinese tyrants and a pathetic self-caricaturist in Havana. On the other end is a squishy, feminist burlesque of traditional liberalism - such PC howlers as replacing the misogynous term "history" with "herstory" or campaigning to expunge words like "manhole" in favor of "personhole".

(And don't let them fool you: It has long since been declared un-PC to use or abide the term "political correctness.")

Beware of making too much of the personal shift Professor Fish professes. His position is entirely clear: Academics should stay out of politics simply because nobody in power is listening to them; they waste their time if they try - however desirable it might be if they were listened to.

Even this concession, Dr. Fish reports, has "drawn the wrath of those who are committed to the project of transforming literary studies into a politically emancipatory activity."

Nonetheless he insists, quite soundly, that "changing the mode of literary analysis or changing the object of literary analysis or changing the name of literary analysis will not change the material effectiveness of literary analysis and make it into an instrument of political action."

Lamenting this impotence, he instructs the reader: "1. Do not read [this book] as evidence that I have changed my mind or my politics. 2. Do not read it as a repudiation of cultural studies, black studies, feminist studies, gay and lesbian studies, and other forms of activity that have re-invigorated the literary scene."

Marginal students

And lest anybody imagine this has much to do with what simple folk used to think of as the role of education, in the entire course of the book, Professor Fish only three times mentions students or the teaching process, and then only in passing.

But "teachers," however detached, do influence book-swatting students. The damage is not only that millions of American students are being brought up with literature and other arts torturously distorted through political lenses. Worse, the political lenses keep changing.

University agendas are seized and run with, sometimes serially, by New Americanists, deconstructionists, new historicists, cultural materialists, post-modernists, other groups with different concepts and rituals. Those doctrines seem only subtly different to outsiders. But between the times of entering high school and completing college, shifting ground can leave a kid with severe, perhaps incurable, intellectual vertigo.

There is nothing new or freshly sinister in the professorial yearning to make the scholarly life mainly one of research and personal exploration. But teaching - shaping students' awareness in the broadest sense - should remain the primary purpose of universities.

Even if Professor Fish's tribe fully endorses his declaration of impotence - which seems utterly unlikely - the ideologies survive unchanged. Their trivialization of students and of teaching cries out again that these professors, under the guise of dispassionate scholarship, are deadening the minds of too many young Americans with ideological inanities.

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