A year or two ago, The Chronicle ran several columns by students recommending the end of faculty tenure. I beg to differ. The following commentary on literary criticism demonstrates why faculty tenure is still necessary:
“Such criticism thus constitutes a virtually endless praxis as opposed to a theoretical propaedeutic. It requires continual lateral procrastinations, a critical-methodological catachresis that (self-)destructs revisions of canonicity by means of formalist self-demystifications (Frye), Oedipal totalizations (Bloom), antioedipal detotalizations (Deleuze and Guattari) and ideological Jetztzeiten or the hypostases of literary texts within an ‘arrested moment of time forced to its revolutionary crisis.’”
In case anyone is still reading, I hasten to explain that these lines purport to facilitate a better understanding of an elegant 19th century story by Sarah Orne Jewett titled “The White Heron,” about a girl’s coming of age in the Maine countryside. The most obvious question evoked by this pile of professional gibberish is why anyone would write it, and the next question, even more pressing, is why anyone would publish it.
The immediate answer to the first question is that the author, a young assistant professor, was doing what he had to in search of tenure at his Ivy League school. He would have to publish a book, and to have any chance of that, he would need to emulate the practice of the high authorities in the profession. Together with this, contemporary with our young scholar’s book, are samples from two of the highest such authorities. Our first sample was compiled by Homi Bhabha, a greatly distinguished professor of English now ensconced at Harvard. (Note that each sample comprises a single sentence):
“If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudoscientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to ‘normalize’ formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.”
The other sample was written by Judith Butler, a greatly distinguished professor of literature and philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley:
“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”
This sort of writing, which I could illustrate with thousands of examples from a decade or so on either side of 1990, set the standard for young faculty to emulate while simultaneously convincing elite academic publishers to either swing along or risk losing their cutting edge in the marketplace of ideas.
So now the question becomes: Why did the academic elite establish so dreadful a style of writing? The answer to this question follows the logic of a syllogism, the first premise of which is that at an elite research institution, the only path to success is doing something new. That is a tough assignment in so ploughed-over a field as 19th century literature, so one must find new ways to be new. When I was a graduate student in the late 1950s, that need was met by the so-called New Criticism, a moniker echoed in other disciplines by the New Economists and New Historians. We don’t have space to go into detail about those movements, but let’s just say that after a generation or so, the New Whatever is no longer new, so getting ahead in the game requires yet more innovation.
In my discipline—and many others in the humanities and social sciences—the 1970s and 80s saw the propagation of ideology as the “Something New” for that time. The ideology itself, which sought to affect a better society by exposing and resisting social evils such as racism, sexism, class inequity and homophobia, was not new. What made those familiar ideas “new” was the foregoing style of writing. How well huge gobs of professional gobbledygook have served to improve society may be arguable. What’s not arguable is that the elite schools that pumped out these innovations have profited well from them, not only by creating a generation of grad students to train but by forcing job openings for these cadres in colleges across the nation, which are themselves obliged to keep up with Whatever New descends from on high. So I see a double motive for the guru-istic style I have cited: Its advocates presumably believe that what they are doing is worthwhile, and not coincidentally, significant benefits accrue to these propagators of the New.
I will leave the value of Whatever New for others to calibrate. What I most value is the practice of independent judgment that enables skeptical thinking. The young scholar cited above could not risk skeptical thinking: Flouting the rules of the game would make him unpublishable and therefore out of work. So the reason faculty tenure is still needed is not fear of a McCarthyite political vendetta, though we can’t rule that out in some future dystopia. The faculty needs tenure to resist the pressure for conformity from within the academy. Without tenure, I (representing many like me) might well have lost my job long ago. In failing to emulate the style I have cited in this column, I would have been guilty of neglecting the Next Big Thing, the Cutting Edge, the Fashion of the Time, the Imperative of the Zeitgeist. (I have known young faculty to be denied tenure on precisely these grounds, and not only in my discipline.) And without tenure, I might not have risked writing this column.
Victor Strandberg is a professor of English. His column is the fourth installment in a semester-long series of biweekly columns written by members of the humanities faculty at Duke.