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.
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.