Marxian lingo and earrings

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Oct 31 07:59:08 MST 2000

Context: A Forum for Literary Arts and Culture, Number 4 (Online Edition)
Class Dismissed

Mark Crispin Miller

Last spring a good friend of mine, a seasoned activist, agreed to take part
in a weekend confab here at NYU: "Intellectual Activism: Coalitional
Politics and the Academy." It looked to be an edifying get-together--an
"attempt," as one blurb put it, "to encourage dialogue between grassroots
activists and institutionalized academics in roundtables and workshops." It
isn't often that such distant cousins get to shoot the breeze, and so my
friend, always up for dialogue, looked forward to that meeting of the minds.

When, over lunch, I asked her how the thing had gone, she went all tactful
and evasive, as if she'd spent an evening with some relatives of mine and
had had a really lousy time. I am myself an academic, after all, and these
were colleagues, so she was trying not to hurt my feelings. But with a
little coaxing, she came out with it.

Some of those who spoke made sense, she said, but there were others who
seemed just as batty and abstracted as the most eccentric tweedy types of
yesteryear, despite the Marxian lingo and the earrings. For every
thoughtful improv on, say, sweatshop labor, global warming, U.S. prison
policy and other such grim features of (to use a vulgar term) reality,
there was a spiel far weirder--someone angrily soliloquizing on another
planet. One professor quaintly urged the audience to embrace
"irrationality," which struck my friend as rather poor advice. ("Hey,
someone could get irrational right upside your head!" she noted wryly over
her stuffed shells.)

Another of the academics went on an extensive rant that started with the
reasonable proposition that we intellectuals have to "go to meet the people
where they are"--and ended, twenty minutes later, by insisting that an
intellectual "has to have a theory." He did not say exactly why an activist
requires "a theory," but was insistent that, without one, you can't "meet
the people." With that non sequitur my friend--who meets the people all the
time--was unimpressed: "I felt like I was in grad school again, and hungry
for lunch."

Not long afterward I had a similar experience, although this time I was
there myself to see the show: Homi K. Bhabha, Chester D. Tripp Professor of
Humanities at the University of Chicago, distinguished visitor at
Princeton, Dartmouth and the University of Pennsylvania, and author of
(most recently) Nation and Narration, came here to give a talk entitled "On
Cultural Respect."

It was a memorable appearance. Before an audience of several hundred (grad
students, mostly), Prof. Bhabha started strong: "I'd like to begin tonight
by thanking four women," he announced grandly, and, as the crowd purred its
approval of so cool an opening, he thanked the chair and dean who had
invited him, thanked Toni Morrison (an old friend, in attendance), and
then: "Finally I would like to thank Sarah Vaughan, for her song
'Respect'--that marvellous Motown recording that in part inspired the title
of my talk." He then added something about No Respect by my colleague
Andrew Ross, and then was off and running.

Now, some might have faulted the professor for not knowing that Aretha
Franklin did "Respect" (and for Atlantic Records, not for Motown).
Mistaking one black woman for another could easily be taken as a sign of
mandarin obtuseness, or worse--and would be, if that error had been made
by, say, Robert Bork, and not by a famed champion of the world's neglected
masses. Although it was embarrassing, however, Prof. Bhabha's gaffe was at
least comprehensible, whereas--as I would soon discover--nothing else he
said made any sense at all. From a winking reminiscence of his days at
Oxford, Prof. Bhabha wheeled abruptly into a faux-Foucaultian reading of
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which, he said, deplorably
extended its protections only to the citizens of sovereign
states--although, he added in a dense parenthesis, there was, in fact, no
such restriction in the Declaration.

Expanding on his theme, whatever it was (humanism? immigration? alienation?
power?), he said something long and quasi-Gramscian about Toni Morrison's
Beloved, made some long and highly dubious comments about Franz Fanon, and
ended with a most dramatic reading of a long-seeming poem by Adrienne Rich,
about the fraught relationship between a teacher and her student. All of
this Prof. Bhabha offered up in sentences of such protracted and
pretentious emptiness that you might have thought that he was kidding,
although not a single snort or titter ever broke the church-like silence of
his auditors, the youthful hundreds rapt or scribbling reverently, and the
man himself showed not a trace of irony.

What with that ecclesiastic atmosphere, and, as usual, the speaker's
stunning overuse of unavailing Latinate neologisms (e.g., "liminality,"
"hybridity," "dialogicality," "vernacular cosmopolitanism"), and, no less,
his BBC-worthy mellifluence, my mind, I must confess, soon started
wandering, or maybe it was trying to escape. From time to time it would
come edging back to me, check the speaker's progress and then run like
hell. But nothing lasts forever. Finally half-awakened by the strong
applause, I stumbled out into the night, and paused, there at 4th and
MacDougal, to try to size up the departing crowd.

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Louis Proyect
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