Brother From Another Planet
Consider Lott's criticism of Mark Crispin Miller's The Bush Dyslexicon, a collection and analysis of Bush's malapropisms. Miller's critique of Bush is apparently limited by his "own boomer investments" and his simple-minded theory of propaganda. "You don't have to be a media specialist," sniffs Professor Lott, "to recognize how crusty this apparatus seems in an age of post-Althusserian, post-poststructuralist, and post-Lacanian cultural studies." Imagine that! Miller does not refer to post-poststructuralism or post-Lacanian cultural studies! Where has he been? Unfortunately, our miffed tenured radical cannot explain what his high-octane theory illuminates. Propaganda suggests simple deception of the public. "By contrast, trying to read public imaginary identifications with the president assumes a positive content to our subsumption by the state." Like what or how? Lott runs on about Bush and Clinton but cannot figure it out. "It is Miller's 'propaganda,' for example, that allows him to misrecognize his own ideological proclivities enough to write off George W. as impervious to the 60's." Blah, blah, blah.
Or consider Lott's criticism of The Twilight of Common Dreams, in which Gitlin questions the rise of separate "identity" politics. Gitlin does not understand that the "new social movements" have "transformed the idea of the left itself." How so? Lott explains:
As Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe argue in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, the new social movements are rarely laterally compatible in any kind of united-front way, and in fact they call into question the idea that such a front won't wind up suppressing or misrepresenting certain of the interests grouped under its umbrella: this is Gitlin's own mistake, particularly in regard to black struggles.
To this concise statement Lott adds: "To me it is revealing that Gitlin refuses even to consider the most widely debated theorists of particularistic social urgency." To me it is revealing that Lott refuses even to mention any of these most widely debated theorists of "particularistic social urgency," whatever that means. Instead, he moves on to his favorite stomping ground, a 1996 conference that featured an especially "volatile" panel.
A hundred pages later, however, Lott rolls up his sleeves and tells us about these widely debated theorists and their purchase on reality. First place belongs to Laclau, an Argentine post-Marxist theorist who teaches in England. While Gitlin and other old fogies yearn for a universal left, Laclau provides the essential key as to how to push ahead. Oh, no! In a bad piece of luck, just as Lott turns to Laclau, the bell rings and he is forced to close with a few hasty remarks. "I haven't the space to lay out the intricate conceptual elegance of Laclau's discussion," apologizes Lott, so he quickly summarizes:
Its most important move is to argue that the only acceptable political notion of the universal--and therefore of the organizational imperative--is that of the empty signifier, not a present, given, or essential fullness waiting for troops but an impossible ideal whose very emptiness and lack create a pluralized, difference-based competition on the part of various particularisms in a democratic social-symbolic field to assume the position of the universal organization.
Professor Lott! Professor Lott! Will that be on the exam? Will you go over it next class? Is that a translation? Can you explain it in English next time?
To the sellout liberal boomers with their dunderhead politics and ideas, Lott juxtaposes a bevy of postmodern thinkers with cutting-edge politics and ideas. Unfortunately, time again runs out, and Lott can only list his heavy hitters. Professor Lott's List of Top Radical Writings begins--hold your hat--this way:
Walter Benn Michaels's neopragmatist critiques of identity, Paul Gilroy's elaboration of a diasporic "black Atlantic," Lisa Lowe's postnationalist deconstruction of U.S. reliance on and political exclusion of Asian labor, Lauren Berlant's explorations of antinormative citizenship, the exchanges between Judith Butler and Nancy Fraser on the relations between queer recognition and economic redistribution, Robyn Wiegman's attention to the institutional half-life of women's studies and the limitations of so-called whiteness studies, Lisa Duggan's attempts to suggest alternative discourses to redescribe the state....
Even hardened academics would break into a sweat just reading the list or identifying many of Lott's heroes. One figure is familiar: Lott. He puts his own work on the A-list, but it is dangerous at the top. He laments that an especially close-minded critic not only challenges one of Judith Butler's "most powerful pieces"--what insolence!--but "impugns an early version" of Lott's own "critique of boomer liberalism." More insolence! In any event, for Lott the writings of these academic stars or would-be stars constitute "a contemporary political response" to the current impasse.
Political? Where is the politics? Oh, no! The bell rings. Class is over.
Even the narcissistic Professor Lott must have dimly recognized that he set himself up for an easy tripping. After trashing left-liberals for their insipid politics, and after serving supersized helpings of academic jargon, the book closes with a typically opaque sentence: "Let us be for the freedom of transnations." Lott sensed a skeptic might ask, What does fearless Lott do besides blather? To defend his flanks he appends to the text a touching autobiographical epilogue of Eric Lott Revolutionary. It seems that almost ten years ago the underpaid service workers and their supporters at the University of Virginia organized a Labor Action Group to push for better wages. The university stonewalled, and Lott and the Labor Action Group organized a protest march. The day? Parents' weekend of the fall convocation. The plan? March to "the Lawn," where the convocation ceremony was being held.
Get the picture? After 200 pages of hyping antinormative intersectionality and dismissing boomer liberals for their reform politics, Lott steps out of his classroom to support service workers who seek several bucks more an hour--living wages, plain and simple. Good for him, but nothing here about subversive egalitarianism. Not a word about postidentity politics. No damning of liberal allies. Nothing about the black struggle. No talk of an empty signifier.
Lott approaches the Lawn as if it were the Tsar's Winter Palace and he Lenin in the October Revolution. Lott and his allies, 150 strong, brush past the mounted police. "Juiced," they rush the maw of state power: the Lawn. "We were not stopped.... As we took to the Lawn.... We were a movement now, and we couldn't lose." Their march lasts all of five minutes--but Lott has lost interest, and tells us nothing more. Presumably another conference beckons. So closes The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual, an almost flawless exemplar of tenured vacuity and mock radicalism.