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06 April 2006

"The Wager," Part 5

(© 1998, 2006, Doug Tarnopol. All rights reserved.)

Parts 1-4 can be accessed here.

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Henry came out of his section happy, as usual. He was glad he had talked his committee into letting him TA his second semester. Normally, you had to wait for your second year. Henry loved interacting with the students, and especially enjoyed drawing out the shy ones.

A couple of his students were waiting by the elevator. They asked him if he wanted to go the White Dog for the usual post-section beer. At that moment, a bent figure scurried out of the mail room and spied Henry. Henry groaned inwardly. He begged out of the weekly beer session, blaming work. The elevator carried the students away.

"Hello, Henry. Done with your urchins for the day?"

Randal P. Stoopgoul, professor of Russian Cultural Studies -- not Russian Literature. He insisted on the differentiation.

Stoopgoul had a deformity. His spine was so weak that even the relatively light weight of his small head had been sufficient to arch his body progressively forward until he looked like a question mark. To look you in the eye, he had to crane his neck and cock it to one side. This took great effort. He had quick, nervous movements and high-pitched voice.

"Yes, my section is over."

Henry tried to get around Stoopgoul, but was held up by a thin, bony hand on his arm.

"Where are you running to? Tell me, have you read my latest piece?"

"Uh, no -- not yet," Henry quickly added.

"Oh, you should, you should. It's brilliant. It got the lead in Re(con)figu(rat)ions. It's called '"Get On Your Knees!": Re-presenting Power/Knowledge through Boundary Transgressions in Russian Snuff Pornography, 2000-2005.'"

"Nice title."

"Thanks. I was going to go with a different pre-colonic -- 'Putin on the Hits' -- but you need a sexier pre-colonic than that to get published nowadays." Stoopgoul looked Henry in the eye, nibbling on his lower lip with his large incisors. "What is your dissertation going to be about?"

"I don't know; I'm still a first-year."

"Well, come on, you have to start thinking about it sometime! You can't hang around here for eight years, nowadays, you know. The University wants you guys out in five, max. They're really cutting down on grad-student funding in order to put up that mall. So, what'll it be on?"

Henry paused uncertainly. "Well, I thought I could do something on Dostoevsky...perhaps The Karamazov Brothers. I love that book."

"Yes, yes, we all love Dostoevsky, but what's your angle going to be?"

"My angle?"

"Yeah: the hook. You do want to get a job, don't you?"

"Of course."

"Well, then, you better come up with something that distinguishes you from the herd."

"Shouldn't the quality of my scholarship do that?"

A pitying smile spread across Stoopgoul's face. Henry pressed on with increasing unease.

"I just want to analyze great works of literature."

Stoopgoul's smile split his face even further.

"You know, social and psychological influences on their composition, various readings, reception...influences..." Henry trailed off, blushing in confusion at Stoopgoul's amusement.

"I see, I see. Very quaint. Some formal analysis, perhaps? Maybe a little historical context thrown in?" Stoopgoul nodded his head, scratching his chin in mock-thought. "Yes, yes...mmmmm...."

He spat out a derisive laugh.

"Yeah, maybe if this were the 1940s! Let me clue you in, Henry: the French have invaded since then. Postmodernism runs litcrit in America now." Stoopgoul furrowed his brow. "I remember seeing all those courses on your transcript: 'Post-structural Modalities of Criticisms,' 'Derrida and the End(s) of Language'" -- Stoopgoul tagged the parentheses by drawing them in the air as he emphasized the plural -- "'Beating a Dead Horse: Ivory-Tower Resistance to the Post-Literate Society,' 'Deconstructing the Imperialist Codex in the Age of the iPod' -- all that shit. You aced them; we thought you liked that stuff. You wouldn't have gotten in here otherwise."

Henry paused, then plunged. "Actually, I hated those classes."

"So, you were lying to us during the interviews, then?"

Henry was beet-red. "Yes. But it was easy to mimic the rhetoric, so..."

Stoopgoul laughed. "Then we were right to accept you! That's the first lesson of graduate school: master the lingo."

"But I don't agree with most of the lingo."

"So what? Only a few die-hards have convinced themselves of this crap; the rest simply know what will get them a job. You think everyone at IBM believes in the holy mission of the company? C'mon! Anyway, listen: you better join the parade, my friend. Go to a deeper level in your dissertation."

"Like what?"

"Beats me. All I know is I never met a level I didn't like. I'd drop Dostoevsky altogether, if I were you, actually."

"Why?"

"He's dead, he's white, he's male, and he wrote books. There's four good reasons. Stay away from the canon; don't be such an elitist!"

"You don't have to be Harold Bloom to recognize that some works are for the ages, you know."

Stoopgoul put a hand on Henry's shoulder and lowered his voice. "Look, you and I know that, but it's best not to say something so anti-relativist aloud." Stoopgoul looked behind him to make sure no one was within earshot. He did this by bending forward even further, until his head was nearly upside down, lifting his arm, and glancing out from underneath his armpit. He drew Henry down to his level and continued sotto voce. "Just between you and me, the feminazis are taking over the whole field." Stoopgoul looked around again and scuttled into the mail room. He motioned with his head for Henry to follow, which he did, reluctantly. Stoopgoul spoke quietly and quickly, sniffing constantly, his eyes darting about, never resting on Henry's for more than an instant before looking over Henry's shoulder to make sure he wasn't being overheard.

"Look, I'm your advisor, so I'm giving you some good advice. If I were you, I'd find some unknown female writer, perferably pop-lit and contemporary, and position yourself as her champion. Attack whomever you need to, but make sure you attack some cherished somebody. If no female is available, find a subaltern author of some kind -- class is almost as good a selling point as gender among guilty upper-middle-class academics nowadays. In fact, find a black Russian author and you'll get tenure at Harvard; I guarantee it."

Henry pulled away from Stoopgoul, revolted.

"Look, I'm not a fan of exclusive canonization, and I know all about how writers get unfairly ignored, but don't you find this use of those you purport to champion a little hypocritical? And condescending? Who, exactly, are these 'feminazis,' by the way?"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Stoopgoul waved him off. "You just don't get it, do you? Wait -- I have an angle for Dostoevsky. Didn't he beat his wife? I remember reading that somewhere. Spousal abuse is big now. You can even claim she ghost-wrote some of his work."

"Wouldn't I need some evidence for the ghost-writing? Or spousal abuse?"

"Oh, for Christ's sake, Henry, don't be so positivistic! It's so passé." Stoopgoul rolled his eyes. "Just make a case; it's your 'reading.' One of his characters whacked two women. Who but a misogynist would even think to write that? Ergo, he probably beat his wife."

"But surely a cheap exposé like that would not pass as scholarship?"

Stoopgoul exploded in piping staccato laughter. He stopped short, staring at Henry, mouth agape.

"Oh, my god. You're actually serious." Stoopgoul reached up and placed his hands on Henry's shoulders. "Don't you realize that over the past decade 'cheap exposés' have had the greatest year-on-year organic growth of any segment in the field?" Stoopgoul rubbed his face with his hand in exasperation. "We need to talk more; I've been remiss in my advising, clearly. Look, sit down."

Stoopgoul pushed Henry into the chair next to the copying machine and leaned back against the table that supported the department mailboxes.

"You have to understand the inverted snobbery of academics, Henry. Reading People-like exposés of great literary figures flatters them in a million ways. For one thing, they get to enjoy People-like exposés without actually lowering themselves to read People. Thus, they can still look down on People at cocktail parties." Stoopgoul paused. "Let me step back for a second. Actually, I think People is in now. You know, on the theory that if an intellectual consumes kitsch, kitsch assumes the aura of the intellectual. It's like a kind of reverse-Communion."

Stoopgoul jammed his hands into his pockets and thought for a moment. "Anyway, if you're not willing to do that, you'll have to drop Dostoevsky altogether. Hey, speaking of People, why aren't you into pop-culture studies?"

"I'm not really interested in that. Some stuff I've read is really great -- sociological studies, really -- but a lot of the lit stuff seems to lack rigor."

"'Rigor'? That's the first word in 'rigor mortis.' Don't get caught up in 'rigor' -- liven things up a bit, if you want to get noticed. 'Rigor' means arguments and footnotes and analysis -- everyone skips block quotes, for Christ's sake; didn't you know that? Don't bore people; entertain them."

Stoopgoul whacked Henry mock-scoldingly on the chest with the back of a bony hand.

"Why the hell are you still reading books, anyway? Just about every grad student in this department is doing a dissertation on comics, movies, or fashion magazines. What's your problem?"

Stoopgoul was really starting to annoy Henry. "Gee, I don't know, I guess I wanted to get a Ph.D. in Russian literature because I loved reading Russian literature."

"Shows how much you know." Stoopgoul further considered his advisee's problem.

"Well, if you must stick with 'high culture'" -- Stoopgoul mimed the quotation marks by stretching his arms out and flexing and unflexing his index fingers -- "then you'd better take some sexy theoretical tack. Dig up your notes from those classes you hated. They'll save your ass now."

"Which tack did you have in mind?"

"Well, it's always a safe bet to use as much deconstructionist or post-structuralist jargon as possible. You ever read Anti-Oedipus? Yeah, me, too -- didn't understand a goddam word of it. So, make sure your sentences are so convoluted and opaque that no one knows what the fuck you're talking about -- but make sure you pepper the prose with enough recognizable jargon so that it's reassuringly tasty. Other than that, the more incoherent you are, the more you'll be hailed."

"But what if someone actually asks me what I meant by something or other I wrote?"

Stoopgoul shook his head. "No way it'll happen like that. First, most will never call you on it in public -- they'll be afraid to be shown to have missed the point, especially if they lack tenure. Anyway, no academic wants to look stupid in public; it's the primal fear. Of course, if all else fails, you can always accuse the questioner of foisting a hegemonic reading on you -- that's the beauty of it. Make yourself the victim and your protestations of victimhood will always draw a good chunk of people to your side. This is the land of feeling, of Spielberg, not of thinking."

"Professor, don't you think it's dishonest to bamboozle your audience?"

Stoopgoul raised his hands palms out. "Woah, woah, I don't make the rules. It's all about enlisting allies, anyway, so what difference does it make? Those who disagree with your approach will denounce you, most of the time, no matter what you produce, regardless of its brilliance. And those who are in your camp will usually praise what they know to be shit out of loyalty to the cause. Sure, there are still some brave souls who don't act that way, but they are few and far between. There's plenty of space to hide in academia." Stoopgoul put his hands on his thin chest and repeated, "I don't make the rules, buddy; I just try to survive. Bamboozling in the service of your career is no vice."

Henry looked away in despair. Stoopgoul contemplated his advisee.

"Henry, look, before you discard deconstructionism or whatever-you-want-to-call-it, don't underestimate its appeal. It knocks great authors off their pedestals, even those who might actually deserve a pedestal. It flatters your audience into privately, even subconsciously, feeling superior while publicly decrying the very possibility of 'superiority' or distinctions of any kind. It works on everyone. Students we get now are barely literate, and often anti-intellectual to boot. They love to hear that any kind of difficult scholarship that actually engages with an outside reality can be completely ignored in favor of an infinite number of equally valuable solipsistic readings."

"Oh, come on," Henry said. "Students aren't any stupider than you or me -- what, did some kind of devolution take place?"

"Of course not. It's a cultural phenomenon. Of course there are still brilliant students. But look at the average, and think about why it has fallen in nearly every subject. It's not just TV advertising -- although that helps kill any critical faculties. Most kids have parents who are hell-bent just on surviving, working two jobs, never at home. Schools their kids go to have been systematically starved. What time do they have to inculcate a love of learning in their children -- especially if they lack it themselves? Even in those families that are upper-class or upper-middle-class, who aren't just hell-bent on surviving, most people look at knowledge as only a means to an end, the one and only end that matters: making money and getting or maintaining status. Period. You know that."

Stoopgoul shook his head.

"Henry, I think you underestimate just how anti-intellectual this country is. Why do you think all this solipsistic crap found a home in America? It's the ultimate anti-intellectual stance -- your own personal reality; your own personal Jesus -- what's the difference, really? We're a nation that canonizes tinkerers and inventors -- and pragmatic businessmen who don't fuck around with pansy-ass, navel-gazing 'knowledge' that has no conceivable exchange value. We are known for two philosophies: 'Transcendentalism' -- anti-Enlightenment, watered-down Romanticism; and 'Pragmatism' -- what sounds like a hard-headed, utilitarian approach to knowledge, but which makes no distinction between fact and value, and eschews skepticism and certainty at the same time. Not that both schools have no value -- they have a lot of value --but, c'mon, look at it historically. That's what we've come up with here, and the rivulets of those streams of thought that have percolated into the public mind are usually stripped down to some faux-democratic notion that all opinions are valid. What else would you expect in a culture in which 'I feel...' has become synonymous with 'I think...'? A culture in which material production is king -- God, even."

Stoopgoul paused and bent toward Henry.

"Henry, don't you realize that this deconstruction/postmodern/whatever is the perfect 'philosophy' for intellectuals in a hypermaterialistic culture? It's the perfect intellectual assembly line -- disassembly line, actually. No need for archives; no need for contexts -- just exegesis; personal essays tarted up with some jargon and less insight than most real essays. You can turn this shit out as fast as this copier, practically. Henry Ford, Frederick Taylor -- they would have loved it. Low investment; high return on investment. 5,000 years of culture to debunk -- that's organic growth potential, pal."

Henry slumped in his chair. Stoopgoul pulled up another chair beside Henry's.

"Look, Henry, seriously, you should know all of this." Stoopgoul stared at Henry with uncharacteristic passion. "I have to tell you. It actually gets worse: money is tight in academe, and is only going to get tighter. Because we're a poor country? Obviously not: because we are market fundamentalists. That's the true God, and He determines everything. Whose invisible hand do you think they were referring to? Medical care as well as sneakers; scholarship as well as hamburgers: His omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent hand determines all.

"In our case, our livelihood depends on our undergraduate students. If we didn't give everyone at least a B+, word would get around and they'd stop taking our courses. For Christ's sake, they fucking publish the average grades various courses get for students to read! Can you think of anything more likely to water down education? If undergrads stop taking our courses, we become a 'top-heavy' department -- a lot of expensive professors and grad students, who are paid by the university, serving fewer and fewer undergrads, who pay the university. You do the math, because the MBAs who run this university sure as hell do, and I hear it from them periodically: Get lean or get cut. See ya. Later. Look at what happened to the Folklore and American Studies departments. Gone; bye-bye!"

Stoopgoul waved his hand.

"So, before you get too high-and-mighty, consider these economic realities. We have to please our students. We're hostage to teenagers. Best not to work them too hard or challenge them too much. Best to ratify their propensity to reduce great works of literature to their own adolescent identity crises. We exist, economically, to produce grad students. They become professors who create more grad students, and so on. No saleable item is produced, just knowledge and perhaps wisdom. No true American believes that the pursuit of knowledge or wisdom for its own sake is a worthwhile activity, unless it somehow spins off wealth. That's why academics are grouped with welfare recipients in public discourse -- we're seen as parasites, as opposed to multinational corporations whose parasitism is several orders of magnitude greater. But no matter; very few see that. The supposedly free market is God. Bottom line: the humanities survive only insofar as we can convince suburban parents with disposable income that studying literature and history, et al, will help their children get good enough grades to get into something they deem useful, like law school or business school."

Stoopgoul paused, as if wondering whether to go on. He did.

"Henry, have you ever wondered why Chem 101 is so difficult, whereas an intro history class, say, tends to be easy? It has nothing whatsoever to do with the innate difficulty of the subject matter, no matter what people like to think. The reason is economic and social: the chemistry department can afford to 'weed out' students; we can't. Chemistry is required for medical school. Russian literature is not. There's no pot of gold on the other end of our classes -- unless we give them the high grade they want to get into b-school or law school, after which they'll get their pot of gold. So they think. Believe me, you can make any class in any subject as difficult or as easy as you like. It's the social context that determines the level of difficulty.

"And consider this, too: we're not making napalm over here. We're not hurting anyone with this bullshit. Go over to the polisci, econ, or science departments if you want to get really pissed off. Dig up where a lot of their funding comes from -- not, of course, that they're all bad or all take CIA money. But we don't make bombs here. We write books."

"Fine," said Henry. "I get that we're not hurting anyone. I don't see how we're helping anyone, though. And being hostage to teenagers? C'mon, professor -- you could give them what they want without perverting scholarship they'll never see. I don't buy that argument."

"Look, anything that tears down a great author is catnip to lit professors who are incapable of producing even a middling work of literature."

"You already said that. You're claiming that all lit profs are frustrated writers? I don't buy it."

"OK, Henry, try this argument on for size. You won't get a job if you don't talk the talk. But what's even more important is that since the 'talk' is basically solipsistic exegesis, who do you think is going to have the longer CV, the guy who spent seven years in the archives to produce one dissertation and one article, or the guy who spent seven years churning out exigesis upon exigesis?"

"That can't always be the result."

"No, and it's not always the result. But it usually is. And here's another reason why." Stoopgoul shuffled uncomfortably in his chair, and his voice grew gentler, even wistful. "The generation in charge now in the academy grew up in the sixties. A good deal of 'em spent a lot of their time in college and grad school organizing, protesting, getting their heads busted open in the street." Stoopgoul sighed. "But they're older now, and bitter over the collapse of their dreams. They have kids now, and stocks, investment portfolios. They have a stake in the status quo. It's a lot easier to be radical when you're young and strong and free, and there's a draft hanging over your head. But we still have to look at ourselves in the mirror every morning. So, we publish some pseudo-relativistic attack on something tangentially related to the Establishment. Deconstruction is a great, low-cost way of declaring one's radical credentials, if only to oneself, without having to be politically active, which is difficult, time-consuming, and dangerous -- what with academia fast becoming a joint-venture with the government and multinationals.

"All this postmodern crap -- whatever the hell you want to call it -- the point is, it eases the guilt of lost ideals, of compromises made just a smidgen too easily. It attacks the Establishment in so esoteric a fashion, the Establishment, if it notices, could give a fuck. Of course, we are the Establishment now, too. We are complicit -- and we're useful for the odd op-ed piece rolled out when the administration commits some atrocity. The supposed parasitic academics who are undermining family values and moral certainty are always good copy -- or a good segment -- especially if you'd rather not report what's happening in Iraq. We're also very useful for the rightwing academics and think-tankers, too. But, even more importantly, postmodernism justifies inaction by making any kind of judgment morally culpable."

Stoopgoul nudged Henry gently with his elbow.

"I'll let you in on a little secret: postmodernism is absolutist, despite it's declared hatred of not just absolutism, but of any kind or degree of distinction at all. Behind all the faux-relativism, which is easily dismissable as instantly self-refuting, lurks the self-justifying belief that if we can't be epistemologically -- let alone, morally -- certain about everything, then we can't be even partially certain about anything. Thus, underneath all the intellectualizing is a nice little rationalization for political inaction. It's the argument of the defeated. Believe me, no social activist was ever a relativist. All the downtrodden have on their side is the truth, and the hope that they can appeal to other people's reason and sense of justice in order to convince enough people that things have to change. Disallow that possibility, disallow reason or any sense of justice, and all you have left is naked power. And then the powerful win."

Henry was amazed. He gazed at Stoopgoul, who was lost in thought. "If you really believe all of this, why do you buy into all this shit then?"

Stoopgoul looked at Henry. "I have two children, Henry. They're worth a lot more than scruples, as you may find out some day."

"You have tenure; you don't have to play this game anymore."

Stoopgoul stiffened. "Oh, you'll lose some of those scruples when you come up against a couple hundred competitors for a post-doc or professorship. You think this is a meritocracy? Not with those kinds of odds. At least fifty of those two hundred applicants fully deserve the job. What, then, determines the winner? Connections, politicking, ass-kissing, being lucky or dishonest enough to be unobjectionable to the majority of the faculty. With all due respect, Henry, you're a kid in his early twenties with no responsibilities. Let's see how you fare when your paycheck is on the line. Or when you have innocent dependents."

Henry looked away, embarrassed. Stoopgoul softened.

"Look, I'm sorry, Henry, but it's a war of all against all, and you had better avail yourself of all the weapons at your disposal if you hope to survive in a rapidly shrinking market. It's a zero-sum game."

"I don't remember any of this coming up when I was interviewing."

"Gee, I can't imagine why. I frankly don't know why I'm telling you this now. If we always told the truth, we'd have no grad students. And then our asses would be on the line. You think I want to uproot my kids, my wife?" Stoopgoul laughed cynically. "You think I want to grade exams at this stage of the game?"

Stoopgoul got up.

"I'm your advisor, so I'll give you some advice. If I were you, I'd change my thinking to match the market."

Stoopgoul gazed down at the broken young man sympathetically. He made a lame attempt at humor to cheer Henry up. "Anyway, it's useless to resist. If you can't avoid being raped, you might as well lie back and enjoy it."

Henry cringed. Stoopgoul reddened and turned to go. He turned back again and patted Henry on the shoulder gently. Then his eyes clouded, and he turned and scurried off.

After a few minutes, Henry got up and trudged towards his office. Luckily, none of his office mates were in. He shut the door and fell into his chair, his head in his hands.

***


(© 1998, 2006, Doug Tarnopol. All rights reserved.)