Culture, Deconstruction, English (Academic Department), English Major, Princeton, Treasonous Academic Clerisy, Walter Kirn
Walter Kirn, in his autobiographical Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever, describes the post-modern English major experience and explains the nature of the conversion process to full membership in the contemporary elite educated community of fashion.
[A] suffocating sensation often came over me whenever I opened Deconstruction and Criticism, a collection of essays by leading theory people that I spotted everywhere that year and knew to be one of the richest sources around for words that could turn a modest midterm essay into an A-plus tour de force HerÄ™ is a sentence (or what I took to be one because it ended with a period) from the contribution by the Frenchman Jacques Derrida, the volume’s most prestigious name: “He speaks his mother tongue as the language of the other and deprives himself of all reappropriation, all specularization in it.” On the same page I encountered the windpipe-blocking “heteronomous” and “invagination.” When I turned the page I came acrossâ€” stuck in a footnoteâ€””unreadability.”
That word I understood, of course.
But real understanding was rare with theory. It couldn’t be depended on at all. Boldness of execution was what scored points. With one of my professors, a snappy “heuristic” usually did the trick. With another, the charm was a casual “praxis.” Even when a poem or story fundamentally escaped me, I found that I could save face with terminology, as when I referred to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as “semiotically unstable.” By this I meant “hard.” All the theory words meant “hard” to me, from “hermeneutical” to “gestural.” Once in a while I’d look one up and see that it had a more specific meaning, but laterâ€”some-times only minutes laterâ€”the definition would catch a sort of breeze, float away like a dandelion seed, and the word would go back to meaning “hard.”
The need to finesse my ignorance through such trickery-” honorable trickery to my mind, but not to other minds, perhapsâ€”left me feeling hollow and vaguely haunted. Seeking security in numbers, I sought out the company of other frauds. We recognized one another instantly. We toted around books by Roland Barthes, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Walter Benjamin. We spoke of “playfulness” and “textuality” and concluded before we’d read even a hundredth of it that the Western canon was “illegitimate,” a veiled expression of powerful group interests that it was our duty to subvert. In our rush to adopt the latest attitudes and please the younger and hipper of our instructorsâ€”the ones who drank with us at the Nassau Street bars and played the Clash on the tape decks of their Toyotas as their hands crept up our pants and skirtsâ€”we skipped straight from ignorance to revisionism, deconstructing a body of literary knowledge that we’d never constructed in the first place.
For true believers, the goal of theory seemed to be the lifting of a great weight from the shoulders of civilization. This weight was the illusion that it was civilized. The weight had been set there by a rangÄ™ of perpetratorsâ€”members of certain favored races, males, property owners, the church, the literate, natives of the northern hemisphereâ€”who, when taken together, it seemed to me, represented a considerable portion of everyone who had ever lived. Then again, of course I’d think that way. Of course I’d be cynical. I was one of them.
So why didn’t I feel like one of them, particularly just then? why did I, a member of the classes that had supposedly placed e weight on others and was now attempting to redress this crime, feel so crushingly weighed down myself?
I wasn’t one of theory’s true believers. I was a confused young opportunist trying to turn his confusion to his advantage by sucking up to scholars of confusion. The literary works they prized â€”the ones best suited to their project of refining and hallowing confusionâ€”were, quite naturally, knotty and oblique The poems of Wallace Stevens, for example. My classmates and I found them maddeningly elusive, like collections of backward answers to hidden riddles, but luckily we could say “recursive” by then. We could say “incommensurable.” Both words meant “hard.”
I grew to suspect that certain professors were on to us, and I wondered if they, too, were fakes. In classroom discussions, and even when grading essays, they seemed to favor us over the hard workers, whose patient, sedentary study habits, and sense that confusion was something to be avoided rather than celebrated, appeared unsuited to the new attitude of antic postmodernism that I had mastered almost without effort. To thinkers of this school, great literature was an incoherent con, and Iâ€”a born con man who knew little about great literatureâ€”had every reason to agree with them. In the land of nonreadability, the nonreader was king, it seemed. Long live the king.
This lucky convergence of academic fashion and my illiteracy emboldened me socially. It convinced me I had a place at Princeton after all. I hadn’t chosen it, exactly, but I’d be foolish not to occupy it. Otherwise I’d be alone.
Finally, without reservations or regrets, I settled into the ranks of Princeton’s Joy Divisionâ€”my name for the crowd of moody avant-gardists who hung around the smaller campus theaters discussing, enjoying, and dramatizing confusion. One of their productions, which I assisted with, required the audience to contemplate a stage decorated with nothing but potted plants. Plants and Waiters, it was called. My friends and I stood snickering in the wings making bets on how long it would take people to leave. They, the “waiters,” proved true to form. They fidgeted but they didn’t flee. Hilarious.
And, for me, profoundly enlightening. Who knew that serious art could be like this? Who would have guessed that the essence of high culture would turn out to be teasing the poor saps that still believed in it? Certainly no one back in Minnesota. Well, the joke was on them, and I was in on it. I could never go back there now. It bothered me that I’d ever even lived there, knowing that people here on the great coast (people like meâ€” the new, emerging me) had been laughing at us all along. But what troubled me more was the dawning realization that had I not reached Princeton, I might never have discovered this; I might have stayed a rube forever. This idea transformed my basic loyalties. I decided that it was time to leave behind the sort of folks whom I’d been raised around and standâ€”for better or for worseâ€”with the characters who’d clued me in.