Marjorie Garber, PI | The Nation


Marjorie Garber, PI

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If nothing else, Garber's lively romp through the lives of cultural figures who one had thought were steadfastly straight or gay--John Maynard Keynes, Harold Nicholson, John Cheever, Leonard Bernstein, Marlon Brando, Erik Menendez, Georgia O'Keeffe, Frida Kahlo--was extremely entertaining. Although her overheated prose sometimes resembled fashion magazine advertising copy ("Borderlines are back: Ethnic, racial, religious, and sexual minorities assert their visibility and, thus, their power"), her point was serious. After all, the world is full of sexual and romantic entanglements that defy standard categories; sexual identity does seem to operate along some kind of a continuum. Reading Vice Versa, one suspected that bisexuality--even if not present absolutely everywhere, as Garber intimated--was surely vastly underrepresented in a world bound by the assumptions of identity politics. While Garber's thesis was not particularly radical (Gore Vidal quipped that it was "about three centuries overdue") and her reasoning occasionally flimsy (does a single heterosexual dalliance really transform a lifelong homosexual into a bisexual?), these were important issues about which she was genuinely concerned.

About the Author

Robert S. Boynton
Robert S. Boynton, head of the Magazine Writing Program at New York University, is the author of The New New Journalism...

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Unfortunately, things went downhill from there. Two of Garber's later works, Dog Love (1996) and Sex and Real Estate (2000), are the kinds of literary follies men of leisure might write on a dare. Though prodigiously researched and fluently written, neither offers an argument for anything beyond its author's intellectual ingenuity. Writing in The New Republic, Zoë Heller described Sex and Real Estate as "so serenely silly--so untroubled by any whiff of a serious idea--as to invite a kind of awe." Sentiments like these have made Garber, along with Berkeley's Judith Butler and NYU's Andrew Ross, the whipping girls and boy of cultural studies.

Garber doesn't identify it as such, but Academic Instincts is clearly a response to her critics. The book is advertised as an exploration of the pleasures and pitfalls of the academic life that opens the door to an important nationwide and worldwide conversation about the reorganization of knowledge. Published by the staid Princeton University Press, sporting a cover illustrated by Raphael's School of Athens (although "digitally enhanced" with a photo of Garber posed with her golden retrievers, Wagner and Yofi), the book is a valiant attempt to convince her colleagues that she can do the job after all. Although filled with her standard potpourri of pointed observations and illuminating examples, the text positively bristles with arguments. But after describing the book in her preface as an analysis, an intervention and a credo, Garber hastens to add that it is also a love letter. And indeed, although seemingly structured with the precision of a work of analytic philosophy (three slender chapters on persons, institutions and language), Academic Instincts is ultimately informed by Garber's favorite psychoanalytic theme: the ineluctable desire everything has for its opposite--a process during which it, inevitably, subverts itself, thereby undermining the very distinction it sought to overcome.

Garber navigates her tripartite structure brilliantly, ferreting out traces of desire in every corner of the dusty academy. Professors are jealous of amateur thinkers' independence (and vice versa); each academic discipline covets its neighbor's superior insights (literary studies envies philosophy, which in turn envies law and/or science); and on the level of language, each discipline attempts to create a technical vocabulary specific to its area of expertise (a k a jargon), while at the same time longing for "a universal language understood by all."

According to Garber, these feuds are essentially unstable, rife with a "doubleness" that precludes any side from ever triumphing over another. As with cross-dressing, and bisexuality before it, Garber's point in Academic Instincts is that we should not--we cannot!--help but look beyond the false binarity of these intellectual constructs and appreciate the exhilarating cacophony of "the conversation of mankind," a phrase she borrows from Richard Rorty (who is, in turn, echoing Michael Oakeshott). "The point is not to choose the right inflection for each term but to show how intellectual life arises out of their changing relationship to each other," she writes. More succinctly, Garber's point is never to choose anything.

With Raphael's School of Athens as her talisman ("a transcendent, multitemporal, interdisciplinary moment in which everything in intellectual life is in the process of being discussed, negotiated, and remade"), Garber does what she does best: she champions a relatively uncontroversial thesis--human sexuality is multifarious, dogs are man's best friend, people love their homes, vigorous discussion enhances intellectual life--with a panache that makes it feel at once daring and completely palatable. (I wouldn't be surprised if Harvard's wizened Board of Trustees slipped in a copy of Academic Instincts with its next request for alumni donations.)

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