Selling Out in a Buyer's Market

Selling Out in a Buyer's Market

Michael Bérubé

Michael Bérubé responds to the respondents in Selling Out (Spring 1996).

First of all, I’m grateful for so engaging and voluminous a response to Selling Out, and grateful to Joe Tabbi for orchestrating the whole exchange. Since he’s also allowed me a response to my respondents, my debts to him are really piling up. I can’t (and almost certainly shouldn’t) reply to every point raised by every writer in ebr2, but I do think it’s worth dealing with the essays more or less to the degree that they challenge or improve on mine.

Under that heading I’ll have to devote my most sustained response to Cary Wolfe, who, in the course of graciously agreeing with me about almost everything, manages to unravel the most important threads of my essay - the ones that hold my argument in place. So I’m going to have to patch things up here and there before I get to more specific points of disagreement. Basically, Wolfe’s identified the most serious tension in the stuff I’ve been doing over the past few years - that is, the tension between the theoretical positions I’m most comfortable with (generally-sympathetic-to-but-critical-of-poststructuralism) and the “left liberal humanism” I endorse in the realm of practical policy making. Wolfe’s argument on the passing of representationalism is particularly bracing, and the extent to which I agree with it is also the extent to which I find inadequate Todd Gitlin’s and John Patrick Diggins’ calls for a return to the Enlightenment rhetoric of universal rights. I wish “Selling Out” registered more materially my agreement with Wolfe on these counts, because I think that our agreement on such matters sheds some necessary light on the relation between the work of theory and the exigencies of public policy. For instance, I think Wolfe is entirely right to suggest that my essay tends to stress the latter at the expense of the former. The question remains, however: how might our theoretical differences signify when translated into ideas about the social efficacy of intellectual work?

I’ll answer that question by opening with the most fundamental of our theoretical disagreements. To wit: I think Wolfe is quite wrong to throw out the idea of normative accounts along with Habermas’ conception of the public sphere, and, furthermore, I think this kind of slippage is characteristic of one of the signal failings of the academic left. On the one hand, Wolfe is probably right to reject Habermas’ idea of an undifferentiated public sphere (and here again I wish my essay had been more rigorous in this respect), but on the other hand, probably wrong to think that claims about justice and freedom can be advanced without reference to normative accounts of justice and freedom. In other words, I agree with my friend and colleague Amanda Anderson (see “Cryptonormativism and Double Gestures: Reconceiving Poststructuralist Social Theory”), and with her reading of Habermas, in that I do believe there’s a “cryptonormative” dimension to poststructuralism, as indeed there is a cryptonormative dimension to any form of social critique. “Critique,” in my vocabulary, does suggest that some social dispensations are better than others, and that they are better for some reasons, with reference to some political standards. It’s in that sense that critique always has a “normative” dimension for me. But “normative” is not the same thing as “universalist,” nor is it the same thing as “normalizing.” In practical terms, that means that we (Wolfe, myself, and everyone of a sympathetic bent) should understand and try to negotiate with that fraction of “the public” we address when we speak to university administrations, K-12 schools, students, and readers of Harper’s: we should understand the generic and political conventions we engage by moving into discursive arenas other than that of boundary2, and (to derive an illegitimate ought from a merely implied is) we should move into those other discursive arenas with every chance we get. (I throw in this last clause,”with every chance we get,” as a concession to Stanley Fish’s latest salvo against the idea of the public intellectual, in Professional Correctness, because I agree with Fish - hence my critique of Jacoby, Dickstein et al. - that our “extra-academic” engagements are not simply a matter of voluntarism. I know perfectly well how difficult it is to crack the pages of mass-circulation magazines, never mind CNN).

Now that I’ve sketched out my major disagreement with Getting the Dirt, the question remains, embedded somewhere in the preceding paragraph: what does this disagreement have to do with Wolfe’s ideas, and mine, about the social efficacy of intellectual work? For one thing, it means that “selling out” is not a single-standard, one-size-fits-all imperative: it involves different kinds of negotiations, contestations, and (sometimes) concessions in various intellectual/pedagogical settings. And that means that while Wolfe and I may agree about policy initiatives that concern homelessness and universal health care, we disagree about how we’re structurally related to those “public” spheres in which those initiatives are debated, as well as about how those structural relations condition the terms of our engagement with various publics (should we get to engage them at all). And if we take Wolfe’s critique of Habermas and Nancy Fraser into account, then he and I also disagree about the status of the truth-claims embedded in social critiques even while we may want to make the same claims: as for me, when I am asked to explain why x is better than y for purpose z, I plan to have in my pocket a local normative account of purpose z (its history, its insights and blindnesses, and the various rationales and justifications germane to its pursuit), regardless of whether that normative account can be referred to a universal theory of justice.

I came up against precisely this problem in concluding my book (Life as We Know It about my son James, disability law, prenatal testing, inclusive education, Down syndrome, and the idea of justice: I want to argue that welfare-state social policies are indeed more just, with regard to citizens like James, than laissez-faire capitalism, and I want to argue this from the standpoint of Habermas and John Rawls without subscribing to Habermas’ Enlightenment moral universalism or to Rawls’ formalist conception of an “original position” in which social agents deliberate justice behind a “veil of ignorance” according to which they do not even know their own interests. In fact, I have to start from a position other than Rawls’ precisely because James does: there’s no chance he can come to the bar of justice without bearing the traces of his idiosyncracies (from idios, meaning - of all things - “private”). I do not know whether Life as We Know It makes a sufficient case for a nonfoundationalist scheme of justice in which societies can sustain realms of “private” moral decision (as in the case of prenatal testing and inclusive education). But the point remains that neither Wolfe nor I can be comfortable with jumping horses in mid-gallop; neither of us is willing to say, we know these representational claims about human rights and democratic procedures are intellectually corrupt but politically effective so we’ll endorse them for now. How then to argue that it might be otherwise than it is right now, with regard to social policy, without (a) giving up on the idea of normativity or (b) acceding to the universalist terms in which most people think of the normative?

Compared to that impasse, our disagreements over the practical value of nationalism are pretty minor. Wolfe asks me to look at the left’s response to Michael Lind, but that response proves my point more than his: the left regards nationalism with schizophrenia, and can only answer Lind’s call for checks on the mobility of global capital by dreaming of internationalist labor unions. My point was somewhat more mundane than this, and though it isn’t in the body of the essay it formed the base of my original response to Joe Tabbi, who (being a savvy character) challenged me on my appeal to nationalism the minute it was uttered, back in Kansas in March of 1995. The point was this: in 1988, in one of those brief flashes of Truth that cut across national politics like undiscovered comets and then disappear, Jesse Jackson argued that our trade deficit was an epiphenomenon of corporate multinationalism: if we built in the U.S. all the things that U.S. corporations were contracting out to Singapore, Jackson noted, we wouldn’t be importing so many goods from Singapore. Indeed, if U.S. companies manufactured their products within U.S. borders, there wouldn’t be a trade deficit at all. Who benefits from the current arrangement? Consumers pay the import duties while corporations (and their investors) reap the rewards of Asian (or Mexican, or Caribbean) labor costs. We already have 80/20 laws on the books regulating interstate trade: a company incorporated in Delaware (and taking advantage of Delaware’s 2 percent corporate tax) must do at least 20 percent of its business in Delaware (which is why major bank loans tend to be financed by a variety of bank holding companies only 20 percent of which are based, legally, in Delaware). Why not, I suggest, propose similar constraints on the international movement of capital, instead of trying to create three major “free trade” zones via the EEC, the Pacific Rim, and the Uruguay Round? Why not seek to stabilize local production and international wages the way the EEC negotiated the competing claims of capitalism and nationalism, by setting an international floor for wages and national constraints on the movement of manufacturing bases? My sole point, with regard to the discourse of nationalism, is that there’s only one political force at present strong enough to contest the reign of global capital, and that’s the force of the “nation.” I think it’s a mistake, then, to see nationalism simply as a matter of suturing, interpellation, dyadic bonding in the imaginary, and so forth. It’s also a mistake to cede the discourse of economic nationalism to Pat Buchanan. Can’t we imagine, in theory and in practice, a discourse that draws on the affective appeal of nationalism (as Buchanan does artfully to fascist ends) but that reconceives that appeal as a pragmatic necessity rather than as a matter of blood and soil? To do this, I think, would first involve separating the cultural sense of nationalism from the social and political sense - as Lind fails to do, as Stuart Hall has increasingly sought to do, as Arthur Schlesinger apparently cannot do.(The most effective theoretical separation of the two can be found in Liah Greenfield’s Nationalism, in which she defines the nationalism of which I speak as “civic nationalism” as opposed to “ethnic nationalism”). And thus I come around finally to (almost) full agreement with Wolfe that in such matters, we who have lingered long at theory’s salad bar have a positive obligation to keep our pundits and politicians honest - and, if possible, intelligent and intelligible - to the best of our ability.

My response to Wolfe basically encapsulates my response to everybody else, with due apologies to everybody else. I found Robert Markley’s essay to be at once delightful and psychic: upon pulling it off the ‘Net I emailed him and insisted that he had read my mind about the political potential in the unprecedented concentration of wealth in the hands of black entertainers and athletes. ebr readers are hereby invited to email me and ask me about my pet theory on this subject, namely, my conviction that Christian evangelists seek out black athletes so assiduously not merely because their tithes are really something but also because they realize how devastating the results of black economic nationalism could be when it’s driven by Michael Jordan, and they want to nip that blossom in the bud. To date, it’s not clear what we might expect from this new distribution of wealth: some athletes dream simply of buying their own team, while some dream of running for governor of Alabama as a Republican. Only Spike Lee, to date, has pressed the question, and even he doesn’t seem to be getting dramatic results; Kellen Winslow’s efforts, as Markley notes, haven’t yet gotten a column inch of news space.

So perhaps it would be best for us intellectual types to heed Markley’s advice to us: pool your resources. Nothing could be further from the academic habitus than the pooling of resources, which is one reason it’s so frustrating to see so many smart, literate, voluble leftist humanities professors consigned to political irrelevance (that’s also one reason why I give these damn pep talks nearly every chance I get). My advice on this front is pretty simple: get tenure and dig your heels in. Then say to hell with the academic habitus, and try, regardless of what your administration or your referees think of the attempt, to change the world without making it worse. Once you have the kind of job security tenure affords - a job security now enjoyed by less than sixty percent of the professoriate and by almost no one, save Bill Gates and Clarence Thomas, outside academe - you don’t have to jump through the rest of the hoops academe offers you. You can devote the rest of your (“private”) time to the revival of grass-roots progressivism - by joining the New Party, working for proportional representation, joining The Nation Associates, buying a radio station (with pooled resources), running for local office, you name it. That’s what terrifies the Right on slow news days when Billy Kristol worries about tenured radicals: they fear that thousands of us, with our decent prose styles, solid typing skills, and compelling pedagogical practices, will actually get our act together and behave like the intelligentsia behaves in other industrialized nations - like a thorn in the side of the forces of privatization. The problem is, of course, that when the Right isn’t worrying about us, they’re laughing at us, because the only things we’ve been able to do so far are to prevent the MLA from holding its convention in most of the fifty states and to circulate a bunch of letters from named chairs in Yale’s English department, all of whom scorn the idea of negotiating with mangy union workers.

The point is merely that we need to take our campus politics off campus -and oddly enough, I find myself in agreement with Marjorie Perloff on this score. Perloff tells me that there’s something happening but I don’t know what it is, so as John Lennon says, I feel so suicidal, just like Dylan’s Mister Jones. Actually, I find Professor Perloff’s paper perplexing. I’m perplexed whenever my elders chastise me by citing that old Mr. Zimmerman, but this is a special case. Perloff is apparently telling us that Shakespeare, he’s in the alley, and that all us academic lefties need a weatherman to tell us which way the wind blows. Well, all right. Frankly, I’m thrilled to hear that the arts are thriving outside the precincts of the university; here in the heart of the prairie, I can only read about such things in the papers. I mean this quite seriously: in the wake of the elections of 1994 it is simply a revelation to hear that the arts are not the elite, exclusive enterprise the Right has made them out to be. So I hope that Professor Perloff will do her civic duty, therefore, and inform the Republican Party of her findings, since they seem to be even more ignorant of the public appeal of the arts than I am. Marjorie Perloff is, after all, one of our most distinguished and astute critics of contemporary literature as well as a leading theorist of the history of the avant-garde, and her testimony to Congress would have a gravitas that mine would obviously lack. In the meantime, I feel compelled to remind Perloff that something’s happening and her essay doesn’t know what it is: as writer and social critic James Brown has put it, “stock market goin’ up, jobs / Goin’ down. / It ain’t no funky job to be found.” And since Mr. Brown wrote that line in 1974, it would seem that in this respect, the times they are a-stayin’ pretty much the same. Which is why the field is wide open for a political force willing to ask why wages have fallen since James Brown sang “Funky President” while corporate earnings and executive pay have soared to unprecedented heights. Perhaps a cash-strapped local rep company could stage a dramatization of Marvin Gaye’s epochal question of 1971: what’s going on?

As for Joe Amato’s response: Joe’s designation of me as a “superstar” is, unfortunately for me, not a performative utterance. I am no more superstarry than I was when I arrived in Kansas in March of 1995 for my first-ever keynote address. How do I know this? I’ll explain that in a moment. The important thing, though, is that Amato’s characterization of me absolves him of having to deal with anything I have to say: I may agree with Bérubé, but he speaks from a position of superstar “privilege,” so I don’t have to deal with his actual arguments. This response is important less as a measure of Amato’s feelings about me than as a new and increasingly common pathology among left academics. According to this logic, there’s a class of people you don’t have to engage with at all except to note that they work in more fortunate circumstances than you do. Joe’s complaint, then, is simply that I write too much, and worse, that I strike “an occasional critical pose” as “a spokesperson for the many who are oppressed.” And yet his critique is not that I should be no such spokesperson, for he credits me with knowing that such a stance “is a problem.” Instead, he asks simply that I shut up every once in while: “a better policy, not to say strategy, might simply be not to speak or write, to excise that occasional gloss that gives offense…or exhibit some unease regarding same…because otherwise one risks coming off, as, well, glib - to those who hurt…”

All right, let me theorize my positionality, as we say in the industry, with respect to this critique. By any human standards, my family and I are absurdly privileged: we are free from torture, hunger, and most diseases preventable in industrialized nations. And I myself have been so extremely fortunate, amid a depressed academic economy, as to lay claim to Lou Gehrig’s claim to be the luckiest man alive. But that doesn’t mean I’ve earned full-dress resentment yet. First of all, I have noticed that even when I heed Amato’s advice I get no credit for it: I have not written a thing for four months now, being too busy with teaching, reviewing sixty-plus essays and five books under various professional obligations, and managing the diurnal rhythms of basic childcare, to write anything longer than blurbs and memos since January. It’s funny how that works. Over the past two days Janet and I have worked pretty hard to get Jamie to use the bathroom, and by gum, we don’t feel like academic stars when we’re doing prolonged potty-training with a “disabled” child. And yet it’s not very likely that anyone will notice this work professionally, and write, “during James’ toilet-training period, the work of Bérubé and Lyon took on a newly excremental, post-Deleuzian emphasis” or “during this period of silence, when Bérubé and Lyon wrote nothing, they did a mess of laundry and registered the kids for soccer.” So let’s remember, shall we, that when we throw around the “academic star” designation, we render invisible a domestic economy that has nothing to do with conference invites and feature articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

And then let’s get a few things straight about the professional economy, too. Greg Ulmer speaks, in his reinview with Joe Tabbi, of the experience of being reviewed as the experience of being misunderstood; can I remark, with three books to my name, on the experience of being not-reviewed as the experience of being not-understood? When my second book, Public Access, came out in the summer of 1994, I had recently been promoted to associate professor, at the superstar salary of $37,600. Two years ago, I thought that Public Access would be something of a “breakthrough” book, and I thought that Verso would market it aggressively - especially since, within four months of the publication date, I had placed essays in Harper’s and the New Yorker. I was wrong. And that’s how you know you’re just not a star: it’s not merely that you wake up and realize you’re still driving your own car, or that no one’s heeded your demand that the backstage refreshments be purged of orange M & M’s. It’s when you realize that your book, hopefully (and, in retrospect, foolishly) titled Public Access, has gotten precisely two reviews in twenty months, and that since publication, your book has never been advertised in print media outside the minnesota review. It’s when you realize that Andrew Ross, the post-postmodern icon of academic stardom, gets a cardboard cutout of his cute self at the Routledge book stall at the 1989 MLA; but even though you get mentioned in the same breath as Ross (as in the Chronicle, or in Amato’s reply), Routledge declines even to bring your book to the 1994 MLA.

The point is that stars are, by definition, produced by the apparatus of commodity fetishism. However, when your publisher hides your book and no one reviews it, your book is not a fetishized commodity. You see no cutouts of yourself (which is good), no reviews of your work (which is bad); you even wonder what it’s like to be misunderstood by a reviewer. And at the same time, you know that compared to your child’s health, professional recognition in reviews and MLA conventions amounts to jackshit.

Yet - and this is the interesting thing about Amato’s response - we may have generated an academic apparatus in which names themselves are commodities even when they have no substantial connection to the intellectual work that goes under the name. Indeed, if Joe’s right, my name is now an academic commodity even though I never went through that pre-commodity stage in which people review your books in academic journals. If that’s the case, and I think it is, then I have all the more reason to regret the fact that my former colleague Joe Amato never did get around to addressing the actual content of my essay on the politics of selling out.

Which is to say, yet again, that the problem with the academic left isn’t that it’s “politicized”; the problem is that it’s so politically lame. Writing magazine articles, as I’ve admitted, is only one relatively indirect way of trying to change that; though the op-ed visibility of the 500-member, right-wing Independent Women’s Forum should remind us that print media still matter to policy makers and opinion-shapers, Greg Ulmer is entirely right to suggest that “the interactive matrix of technology, institutional practices, and identity formation” is changing radically in our time (hence the medium of this very exchange). Remember also that most of the people with “public access” to the Internet have median household incomes of $40,000 and up, which not only places them among the top half of wage-earners in the United States but also marks them as people most likely to vote. There is every reason, therefore, for the academic left to regard the Internet as a crucial “virtual public sphere,” and every reason for us to get versed in the theory and practice of using it. I say this partly because I just received, only today, April 20, 1996, my latest mailing from The Nation Associates - a document that practically apologizes for the fact that The Nation now has a home page, as if this development were a betrayal of Nation writers like Kirkpatrick Sale and Neil Postman. Mercy, mercy me, I think, if the readers of the last remaining progressive weekly don’t see the need to clamber up on to the Info Highway, we’re surely doomed to permanent irrelevance. Or think of it this way: should anyone doubt the substance of what I’ve had to say about how the academy both blocks and enables access to the realms of public policy, just reread Jamie Owen Daniel’s eloquent and searching analysis of Negt and Kluge alongside her account of life as an assistant professor, and ask yourself: now, isn’t there something obscene about an academic habitus that requires its inhabitants to write about “the public sphere” while forbidding them from actually participating in it?

My argument about academe and the American left is simply this: there are all kinds of things that prevent left-leaning academics from having greater impact on the policies that shape our lives, and “academic language” (a/k/a “jargon” to Jacoby and Dickstein) is only one relatively unimportant aspect of these. I couldn’t care less about jargon qua jargon; every domain has its languages, and there’s no reason for anyone to expect any one of them to be universally “accessible.” But I really am asking that we reconceive the terms of academic professionalism, academic peer review, and academic influence on the American left. Pace Marjorie Perloff, this isn’t simply a matter of worrying whether a magazine is mucking with your prose. From where I sit, my work on “public access,” my tirades against the Right, and my attention to graduate education and the collapse of the academic job market are all part of the same project: to change the terms by which academics in the humanities interact with extra-academic publics. Everything else is just comic relief.

University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana