Brother From Another Planet
If you missed the 1995 CUNY "Question of Identity" conference, the issue of October magazine devoted to it, the "remarkable" essay on the same subject in Diacritics or--even worse--you are unaware you have missed these, don't despair. Help is on the way. Eric Lott, who teaches English and American studies at the University of Virginia, will bring you up to speed. His book The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual is to stay-at-home tenured radicals what the television remote is to couch potatoes. Without parking hassles or library bottlenecks, you get the latest on unforgettable conferences and pathbreaking journal articles. Did you know, for instance, that Gene Wise's "famous" essay "Paradigm Dramas in American Studies" was "intriguingly revised" in Pease and Wiegman's anthology The Future of American Studies? No? For only twenty-six bucks, you can find out about this and more.
To be sure, Lott seeks more than to guide would-be tenured radicals; he has a mission and an animus. He wants to carve out a space for radicals to the left of detestable "boomer liberals," who have seized the limelight and distorted politics. They constitute "one of the chief obstacles" to a revitalized politics. In fact, Lott's title misleads, and either of his earlier working titles, Boomer Liberalism or The Lost Intellectuals, might have been more accurate. These boomers are the opposite of "disappearing" liberals. They are omnipresent. Who are they? Lott names "a few of the most celebrated of these thinkers": Todd Gitlin, Michael Lind, Joe Klein, Martha Nussbaum, Paul Berman, Stanley Crouch, Greil Marcus, Sean Wilentz and Henry Louis Gates Jr.
For Lott this "new liberal front" oozes with a "piecemeal, reformist self-satisfaction." The new reformers represent a "bone headed degeneration of the radical spirit." They have "created the political fog that obscured the left from view" and buried the "liberal alternative to hawkish conservatism." These liberals pander to state power and American nationalism. They yearn for the "old-boys' left" that was largely white and that claimed to be universal. Their work is "anti-corporate" rather than anticapitalist. (Disclosure alert: Along with Mark Crispin Miller and Thomas Frank, I am listed as suffering from this particular ailment.) They turn politics into adjuncts of the John Kerry presidential bid. They are a "secret sharer of neoconservative ideology," and they legitimate the Bush White House and its politics. They constitute an intellectual and political "disaster."
Lott, on the other hand, writes from a "radical egalitarian perspective" that celebrates "upsurge from below." Instead of liberal wishy-washiness about class and economic inequality, he squarely calls for a "full engagement with working-class hopes" that "necessarily involves a long march through the history of African-American liberation movements, radical women's uprisings, and other insurrectionary energies." The boomer liberals do not understand how "successful activist movements" of "blacks, Latinos, women, queers, and others have transformed" politics. With a self-professed "irony" and polemical zeal, Lott blasts old New Leftists in order to invigorate a new radical politics.
In an era of pallid Democrats and furtive leftists, Lott comes out shouting his revolutionary loyalties. He marches with real working people. So far, so good. Unfortunately, he marches only from the podium to the speaker's table. Sometimes he gets to the library or logs on to hiptheory.com to check out what Etienne Balibar, a French post-Marxist, has written. His radical commitments amount to promoting leftist colleagues in American studies departments and a few European Marxists. Moreover, he wildly inflates the impact of the "liberal front" he is supposedly challenging. With Lott as your guide, you'd think Todd Gitlin and Paul Berman sabotaged the left and ushered in Bush. Were it so simple.
Throughout this tract Lott charges boomer liberals with reformist politics and theoretical simplicity. Even if one grants these points, what does he offer to replace them? He claims the high political ground, but he cannot formulate a single coherent sentence about politics as seen from there. He tosses off phrases about "intersectionality" and "the praxis potential of antinormativity," but politics hardly enters this political book. One might suppose that in the midst of the war in Iraq Lott would take on its liberal supporters, such as Berman, but he never raises the issue. He feels more comfortable flaying Berman for dismissing the Black Panthers and for pining for a '60s before the women and gay "insurgencies challenged the white male hegemony of the baby-boom left." He prefers gabbing about how soft leftists have misinterpreted Clinton or African-American music to explaining how tough-as-nails radicals like him see the world today.
African-American life and culture are actually specialties of Lott; in these areas he deserves an honorary degree in one-upmanship. No one quite gets black culture like Lott. Not only do white boomers like Gitlin and Berman unacceptably depreciate the black movement; so do some black writers. White-guy Lott admonishes Cornel West for "his low estimation of black cultural life." West cannot fathom the genius of ex-Geto Boy Willie D.'s rap single "Fuck Rodney King." West hears nihilism, but Lott registers "rigorous" political thinking and an aesthetic "worthy" of Rimbaud, an aesthetic, he gratuitously adds, "so superbly analyzed in Kristin Ross's The Emergence of Social Space." It gets worse. West is losing touch with black youth. "West can't mention black kids," Brother Lott tells us from the grassy 'hood at the University of Virginia, "without disclosing his sense of distance from them."
There is nothing wrong--indeed, there is everything right--with English professors like Lott appraising, criticizing and savaging the work of other professors and writers, but there is everything wrong about doing it in the name of a righteous revolution that consists of unreadable articles in New Literary History. Lott serves trays of holier-than-thou academic leftism with extra helpings of causes and clotted language. To revive an old label, Lott's work smacks of "infantile leftism," but when Lenin used the term he was referring to new political parties, not professorial posturing.