Marjorie Garber, PI

Marjorie Garber, PI

A look at a new book by the author of Vested Interests.


When I was an editor at Harper's, I would regularly receive essays from professors hoping to reach beyond the boundaries of their disciplines and communicate with a wider public. Although I confess I opened many of these submissions with a sense of dread, more often than not I was pleasantly surprised by their eloquence and relative accessibility. Contrary to the old saw about academics and impenetrable prose, most of these writers knew how to wear their learning lightly, and their essays were a testament to the proposition that clear thinking and good writing are as likely to be found within the university walls as beyond them.

Occasionally the results were not so happy. I recall one piece by an ambitious young scholar whose prose, he assured me, was 100 percent jargon-free. And, sure enough, it was. The problem, however, was that while he had diligently expunged words like deconstruct, hegemony and problematize–I suspect his computer came equipped with a "find and replace jargon" function–their conceptual ghosts remained. When stripped of his theoretical armor, he limped along unimpressively in an intellectual no-man's land and didn't, it became apparent, have much to say.

Like many academics in recent years, he was consumed by the desire to become a public intellectual. At one point the frenzy for relevance got so out of control that an English professor with a letter to the editor in the local newspaper might boast of having made a "political intervention." (I heard of one professor who had the PI honorific embossed on his business card.) With the proliferation of outlets like cable television and the Internet, intellectuals generally have less difficulty reaching the public than they once did. A trickier task is attracting an audience while maintaining intellectual credibility. Whether motivated by jealousy or dismay, one's colleagues may not look so kindly on one's newfound vocation. If being a public intellectual has never been easier, remaining a private intellectual has never been more difficult.

One might read Marjorie Garber's new book, Academic Instincts, as a meditation on this tension. "In their heart of hearts, scholars long for public and even popular recognition. The Holy Grail of the 'crossover book,' one that impresses one's colleagues but also appeals to the intelligent general reader and perhaps even makes the best-seller list, is a recurring dream in the profession," she writes. The William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English and director of Harvard's Humanities Center, Garber knows whereof she speaks. Recently described by the New York Times as "one of the most powerful women in the academic world," Garber divides her books between cutting-edge presses like Routledge and commercial houses like Random House and Simon & Schuster (which paid a $180,000 advance for Vice Versa, her study of bisexuality). She is an extremely prolific and often graceful writer whose work appears in The New Yorker, the New York Times and The London Review of Books.

The author of three well-received scholarly studies of Shakespeare and a half-dozen works of eclectic criticism, Garber is the reigning queen of cultural studies. Whether opining on cross-dressing, bisexuality, the erotic relationship between sex and real estate–or between dogs and their owners–Garber is so compulsively witty, so imaginative and wide-ranging, that she raises intellectual improvisation to an art form. She is the dinner guest every hostess covets, the indefatigably charming conversation partner who, no matter how obscure the topic, keeps things going.

Garber established her modus operandi in her first crossover book, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing & Cultural Anxiety (1992). "The tendency [of the critic] has been to look through rather than at the cross-dresser, to turn away from a close encounter with the transvestite, and to want instead to subsume that figure within one of the two traditional genders," she writes. Not Garber. Never having seen a distinction she couldn't subvert, she conducts a properly transgressive analysis of cross-dressing, swiftly dispenses with the false sexual binarity separating the concepts of male and female, and declares victory. And what a victory it is. According to Garber, transvestism represents a category crisis–not only for human sexuality but for the very notion of a category itself. Once considered little more than a cultural oddity, in Garber's hands cross-dressing prophesies nothing less than the end of epistemology. The New York Times praised the book as "a provocative piece of cultural criticism." The Holy Grail was hers.

With Vice Versa (1995), Garber ratcheted things up a notch by exploring the false binarity in the "eroticism of everyday life," the Ding an sich of cultural studies. If her strategy seemed somewhat familiar–bisexuality is "an identity that is also not an identity, a sign of the certainty of ambiguity, the stability of instability, a category that defies and defeats categorization"–her subject felt more substantial. "Is bisexuality a 'third kind' of sexual identity, between or beyond homosexuality and heterosexuality? Or is it something that puts in question the very concept of sexual identity in the first place?" she wondered.

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.

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.)

While her point may not be novel, the way she argues it is fascinating, both for itself and for the style of thinking it represents–a style that has become all too typical in cultural studies. Imagine Garber's mind as a kind of intellectual black box from which every either/or proposition that enters exits in the form of a both/and conclusion. Once inside the black box, the either/or proposition is processed through a maze of checkpoints–fake segues, tendentious comparisons, deceptive syllogisms, overbroad generalizations, misleading historical precedents, witty wordplay and sheer chutzpah–before being spit out as elegant yet inoffensive soundbites in the conversation of mankind.

"When you stop and think about it…" is one of Garber's classic introductory phrases–a rhetorical sleight of hand whose effectiveness depends precisely on the reader's not pausing to consider the validity of the what follows. Then, before you can think, Garber is off and running, burying the reader under a mountain of "evidence," occasionally pausing to reload ("It is interesting to note," "It is interesting to recall") before continuing the onslaught.

Take, for example, her argument that the professional wants to seem like an amateur, since amateur status is thought to guarantee virtue. "Politics is a dirty business, and a professional politician an object of suspicion. Better to have a background in something, almost anything, else," she writes. "Like sports, for example," and we're off on the trail of athlete-turned-politicians Bill Bradley and Jack Kemp. "Or consider, at least in the state of California, politicians from the world of entertainment," which is followed by a consideration of Ronald Reagan and Clint Eastwood.

But if you really do stop and think about it, Garber's examples usually fall into two categories: the trivially true and the false. American politics has always been a profession one joins from the outside. Unlike law or medicine, no advanced degree is required, so every new officeholder is an amateur, an outsider–whether he comes from the world of sports, entertainment or business. Therefore being an amateur is a necessary, but not a sufficient, requirement for becoming a politician. Generally, it helps to have been successful in your previous profession; failed actors and mediocre athletes don't tend to get very far in politics. While a candidate's amateur status is hardwired into the structure of the political system (although some wield their "outsider" credentials better than others), the far more important factor, which Garber willfully overlooks, is "success."

The last and most argumentative chapter of Academic Instincts is about jargon, which Garber refers to as "Terms of Art." Jargon is the cultural theorist's Achilles' heel, the point at which the tension between the public and private intellectual is greatest. The purpose of jargon is to make intradisciplinary communication more efficient. Thus, jargon is only a problem for the specialist who wants to cross over and speak to noninitiates about his field. Who has ever criticized a chemist for communicating with fellow chemists in the language of the periodic table, or mathematicians for speaking with algebraic or geometric terms? Objections like these literally don't make sense.

So why don't would-be public intellectuals–professional academics who covet the breadth and audience of an amateur–simply eschew their disciplinary jargon? The reason is that jargon actually plays a double function; as the linguist Walter Nash writes in Jargon: Its Uses and Abuses (1993), it is not only "shop talk" but also "show talk," a means of impressing, sometimes mystifying, the uninitiated. The funny thing about jargon for academic public intellectuals is that it is something–as the old saying goes–they can neither live with nor live without. It makes them both understood (within their profession) and not understood (outside it). And this "intelligibility gap" is the very essence of modern professionalism. Without it you're just another thinker, autodidact or generalist who is at home nowhere and everywhere. With it, you're a fully credentialed specialist, the credibility of whose pronouncements is augmented by your disciplinary and institutional prestige. As with all either/or propositions, Garber wants to have jargon both ways: as a sign of marginality (and hence moral superiority), and of professional expertise.

According to cultural historian Peter Burke's introduction to Languages and Jargons (1995), the word jargon has an extremely long and wide-ranging history. A medieval word, originally found in Provençal and French in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Chaucer used it to describe the twittering of birds. In the fifteenth century, it indicated the language of a marginal or foreign culture (Kafka later called Yiddish jargon). By the sixteenth century it meant gibberish (gargle and jargon are derived from the same root). In an odd twist, there was even a period when it could be used to specify a form of intercultural lingua franca. But by the early eighteenth century, it took on its primary modern meaning as the vocabulary of the professions. Hence the Oxford English Dictionary defines jargon as "any mode of speech abounding in unfamiliar terms, or peculiar to a particular set of people, as the language of scholars or philosophers, the terminology of science or art, or the cant of a class, sect, trade or profession." With the rise of industrial society and the proliferation of professions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there was a veritable explosion of jargons.

This complex history makes jargon a perfect candidate for Garberian analysis. There aren't many shades of meaning that haven't been ascribed to the word in the past 800 years–an ambiguity that Garber uses to suggest that what passes for jargon today "is in the ear of the listener."

Although exhaustively argued, Garber's defense of jargon is relatively simple. Since language is a living thing, yesterday's jargon words may very well be today's normal or standard speech. Then comes the deluge: For Adorno, author of The Jargon of Authenticity, the words "authenticity," "genuineness," "transcendence" and "belief" were jargon. Orwell considered "romantic," "plastic," "values," "human," "dead," "sentimental," "natural" and "vitality" to be jargon. ("It would be interesting to know what kind of response Orwell might have had to the movement that has grown up in his name," Garber asks coyly.) Shakespeare alone introduced more than 1,500 words, including "label," "lapse," "dialogue," "design," "accused," "addiction," "rival" and "anchovy" into written English. "Could we imagine doing without them?" Garber asks.

Well, certainly not "anchovy," although we could probably make do without most of the others. But isn't Garber's suggestion a straw man? Who in his right mind argues that we should dispense (her word) with them? Words like "values" and "belief" are indeed vague and clichéd, the kinds of dead language that good writers avoid in order to keep their work from feeling stale. But are they jargon in any recognizable, modern sense of the definition?

Quicker than you can say Aufhebung, Garber has surveyed jargon's linguistic history, broadened its definition, resolved the tension between technical and nontechnical language and transcended what she calls the "paradox of jargon." She does this by constructing a syllogism so slippery it would make Socrates blush, and then dares us to question her faulty logic: (1) Jargon encompasses two conflicting kinds of language: the technical and the banal. (2) Jargon is any kind of language that has been overused and now substitutes for thought. (3) Neologisms, because they are invented to suit the specific needs of thinking, are the only words that aren't jargon. (4) But since neologisms are precisely the kinds of words that are most frequently recognized as jargon… (5) Then all language is jargon.

With its pristine pedigree, jargon turns out to be the public intellectual's best friend–a friend whose moral power, curiously, comes from having all the right enemies. "Too stale; too new. Too foreign; too familiar. Too pedantic; too demotic. Too plain; too fancy. With all these contradictory strikes against it, clearly jargon must be doing something right," Garber writes. Jargon is everything and nothing, a sign of the certainty of ambiguity, the stability of instability, a category that defies and defeats categorization itself.

And this is Marjorie Garber's genius. Cheerfully embracing the irreconcilable, she beats her critics to the punch. What can you possibly say about a thinker who is so comfortable with intellectual incoherence, as long as it carries a whiff of subversion?

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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