I W A S M I C H E L F O U C A U L T ' S L O V E S L A V E
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by theory,
well-fed complacent leather-coated, dragging themselves through the
Caucasian campuses at dawn looking for an angry signifier.
BY CAROL LLOYD
the voices dissolved into the warm pre-dawn darkness as I watched vomit drip between the ferns and fallen leaves. Muttering consolations, my friend held my elbow. Only moments before we had been making impassioned if sloshy love in my single bed, while my 21st birthday party raged outside. Now I was hurling what seemed like a infinite fount of bile into the bushes behind my little room.
As my friend led me to bed, I thought: You really are 21 now. You got horribly drunk, dragged a guy to bed, and then got sick. Just like a made-for-TV movie. These thoughts were accompanied by an odd, abstracted rapture I have come to take for granted. For want of a better term, I'll call it the rapture of irony.
Halfway to my bed, I must have laughed out loud, because my friend asked, "What are you thinking about?"
"The narrative," was all I could manage. I wanted him to know that even in this humiliated, impaired state, I was fully cognizant of the mind boggling paradox of the situation. I may have been a walking cliché but at least I was self-conscious.
As I drifted off into a tangle of dehydrated nightmares, I comforted myself with the thought that Theory had suffused my life so thoroughly that I couldn't get laid, get drunk and get sick without paying homage to Roland Barthes' notion of the "artifice of realism" or Baudrillard's "simulacra." Though now I live a practical life, with more actions and fewer theories, I still struggle with the convoluted mind-set of my higher education. Even after years of trying to acclimate myself to a more concrete world, this odd theology lives in me so much so that it is only recently that I have recognized it for what it is: a religious doctrine.
I am a child of Theory. I avoided this truth because I didn't want to confront the deep, strange river of pretentiousness that courses in my veins. But lately I've begun to think my predicament is less reflective of a private eccentricity than of a weird historical moment. The moment when the most arcane, elitist mental gymnastics Theory in all its hybrid forms was reborn as sexy, politically radical action. The moment when well-meaning liberal intellectuals who a decade before had dedicated themselves to activism, volunteerism and building social programs turned inward, tending to their private experiential gardens with obsessive diligence. Theory offered intellectuals the same escape from the public world that self-help and therapy offered the masses. But unlike self-help and therapy, which never claimed to be anything but psycho-spiritual Darwinism, Theory draped itself in revolutionary verbiage and pretended to be a political movement.
For those of us who got liberal educations in the wake of this shift, being radical meant little more than voting when it was convenient, reading the newspaper and thinking about doing charity work. The only thing that separated us from the ignorant masses was our intellectual opinions, which we shrouded in baroque revolutionary rhetoric. The "tyranny of grammar," the "subversion of sexual mores in extinct Native American tribes," and the "colonialism of the novel" these were our mantles of honor.
Though I always believed that my upbringing was free of ideological trappings, I now see that the seed was planted long before I reached college. My eldest brother was a political activist in his teens, but with the onslaught of the '80s he threw away his ideals and pursued the good life: drinking from the corporate tit as an organizational consultant. After two years in Africa as Peace Corps volunteers, my parents shed their activist habits, moving to a resort town with the intention of getting rich building houses for retired millionaires. Aside from the little holes punched in their secret ballots and token checks made out to various nonprofit organizations, politically my family acted no differently than our blue-blood, conservative neighbors. They pursued the free market with a vengeance, bought as many nice things as possible and hobnobbed at the tennis club. But they still talked like the lefties they once had been. And how they talked.
At dinner we served up steaming topical cauldrons of death, child rearing, art and gender, then skewered them whole. We asked unanswerable questions and then imperiously proceeded to invent the answers. We had no interest in facts. Facts were just things you made up to win arguments. Once I brought home a boyfriend whose old-fashioned education and conservative family had taught him none of the liberal preference for ideas over facts. When the dinner conversation turned toward his hobby of California history and he began to speak in facts, my family paused to stare at him like he was sporting antennae. My mother hemmed; my father hawed; my brothers began to babble invented statistics. Through my family I learned to love ideas "for their own sake," which made me a kind of idiot savant (with emphasis on the idiot) and a prime victim for the God of Theory.
In 1978 my high school history teacher, a Harvard-educated, Jewish-turned-Catholic New Yorker, promised to give "extra credit" to anyone who read and did a book report on Paul de Man's "Blindness and Insight." (Though later exposed as a Nazi sympathizer, at that moment de Man still carried the mantle of "subversive" in the hippest sense.) Dutifully, I read every page understanding it the way a little boy understands the gurgles of his toad. I had no idea what it meant but the densely knotted language of ideas made my head implode and my body sing. For the rest of my high school years I would only have to read a paragraph or two of deconstruction's steamy prose to have a literary orgasm.
In his recent disavowal of literary criticism in Lingua Franca, Frank Lentricchia confesses that his "silent encounters with literature are ravishingly pleasurable, like erotic transport." My experiences with Theory were equally exalted delivering me into a paroxysm of overdetermined signs. In the blurry vertigo of those pages so full of incomprehensible printed matter I felt myself in the presence of a God: the God of complex questions, the God of language's mysteries, the God of meaning severed from the painful and demanding particularity of experience. In abstractions, I found absolution from a world in which I was utterly unprepared for any real responsibility or sacrifice. By surrendering myself to Theory, "reality" became a blank screen upon which I projected my political fantasies. My feelings of responsibility to a world that I had once recognized as both unjust and astoundingly concrete, slowly and painlessly seeped out of me until all that remained was the "consciousness" of the "complexity" of any "serious issue." I didn't need to fix anything, utterance was all, and all I needed were the words long and tentacled enough to entrap meaning for a slippery, textual moment.
Like any religion, Theory provided perks to the pious. In my freshman year, I took an upper-division class on the 17th century English novel. The books were long and difficult but I secured my standing in the class when I responded to the teacher's mention of deconstructive theory. "Yes, each idea undermines itself," I parroted, channeling the memory of my sophomore extra credit report. "Paul de Man says..." With that bit of arcane spittle, I hit pay dirt. The teacher gave me such a hyperbolic recommendation, I was able to transfer to a better school. Once there, I evaded undergraduate classes with their demanding finals and multiple writing assignments and insinuated myself into graduate theory seminars of all departments: anthropology, literature, political science, theater, history. With a host of other would-be intellectuals, I honed the fine art of thinking about thinking about ... What we were thinking about was always pretty irrelevant. I developed minor expertise in the representation of the hermaphrodite in psychiatric literature, the uncanny relationship between classical ballet and the absolutist state of Louis XIV and the woman as landscape in Robbe-Grillet's "Jealousy." Now I was just warming up, I told myself. Someday I would find an important issue worthy of all my well-exercised mental muscles and then watch out hegemony!
While I was being treated to the many joys of a great liberal education, I was also learning some rather insidious lessons. I discovered I didn't have to read the entire assigned book. After all, the "ideas" were what was important. Better to read the criticism about the book. Better yet, read the criticism of the criticism and my teachers would not only be impressed but a little intimidated. By extension, I learned not only a way of reading but a way of living. The more removed I was from a primary act, the more valuable it was. Why scoop soup at the homeless shelter when you could say something interesting about how naive it was to think that feeding people really helped them when really what was needed was structural change.
My friends now fall into two categories: ex-Theory nerds (like me) making a living off their late-learned pragmatism, and those who still live and breathe by Theory's fragrant vapors political theorists, literary critics, historians, eternal graduate students. I love talking to them and often I covet the little thrones their ideas get to perch on. Yet when I come away from a conversation that has swooped from the racist implications of early French embalming techniques to the "revolutionary interventions" in the margins of "Tristram Shandy" and ended with the appalling hypocrisy of the right wing, I often feel a strange discomfort. Because these are some of the smartest, kindest and most energetic people I know, I cannot resist the question: Is this the best way for them to spend their lives? If they acknowledged that they were largely engaged in the amoral endeavor of pure intellectual play, that would be one thing, but each of these people considers their work deeply, emphatically political.
Is this theory-heavy, fact-free education teaching people to preach one way and live another? Are we learning that political opinion, however finely crafted, is a legitimate substitute for action? Sometimes it seems that the increased political emphasis on language the controversies over "chairpersons," "people of color" and "youth-at-risk" did more than create a friendly linguistic landscape, it gave liberals something to do, to argue about, to write about, while the right wing took over the country, precinct by precinct. After all, in a world where each lousy word can stir up a raging debate, why worry about the hard, dull work of food distribution or waste management?
I know how high and mighty this sounds, and the side of me that appreciates subtlety and disdains brow-beating is wincing. Political moralism has fallen from fashion, leaving us to cobble together myopic philosophies from warmed-over New Age thinkers like Deepak Chopra or archaic scriptures like the Bible. If it's any consolation, I include myself in the most offending group of educated progressives who squandered their political power over white wine and words like "instantiation." Moreover, I'm not saying we're all a bunch of awful, selfish people. We learned to read, we learned to think critically and at least pay lip service to certain values of justice, egalitarianism and questioning authority. But I do wonder if we're handicapped, publicly impaired somehow.
Like most of my siblings of Theory, from time to time I have tried to get off my duff and do something concrete: protest, precinct walk, do volunteer work whatever but I always get impatient. I wasn't meant to chant annoying rhymes. I am trained to relish complexity, to never simplify a thought. I am trained to appreciate "difference" (between skin tones and truths), but I don't know how to organize a political meeting, create a strategy or make a long-term commitment to a social organization. As Wallace Shawn wrote in "The Fever," "The incredible history of my feelings and my thoughts could fill up a dozen leather-bound books. But the story of my life my behavior, my actions that's a slim volume and I've never read it."
Lentricchia argues that by politicizing the experience of reading, we ended up degrading its beauty and pleasure. In the same fell swoop, we also robbed concrete political action of its meaning. The progressive pragmatists studied political theory; the progressive idealists studied literary theory; and the eccentric radicals became conceptual artists and sold their work to millionaires. In any case, everyone bought the idea that they were engaged in political work. Having a radical opinion was tantamount to revolution.
Back in college, I remember going to a party at the home of one of my professors, who was a famous Marxist. The split-level house was decorated with rare antiques from all over the world, exclusive labels filled the wine cellar, the banquet table overflowed with delicacies. Like an anointed inner circle of acolytes, we students sat around as our professors argued that Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait was justified from the perspective of the underpaid Palestinian servants who worked in Kuwaiti homes. The following month, while I was house-sitting at the professor's house, his black gardener came to the door wanting to be paid. I discovered that my professor was paying the man minimum wage for less than a half day of self-employed work. That night as I plundered the refrigerator for the best cheeses that money could buy, I chided myself for not having doubled the man's wages. But that might have embarrassed him, no? It definitely would have embarrassed me. It would have been acting on a belief, and action makes me uncomfortable.
Recently I went to a conference on "Women's Art and Activism." I found precious little of either. Instead I found a lot of Theory garbed in its many costumes. There was a lesbian conceptual artist talking about her work, triangular boxes that "undermined the patriarchy of shapes"; a "revolutionary" poet lecturing on her experience of biculturalism; and an "anarchist" performance artist discussing "strategies for subversion." And what fabulous haircuts! The keynote speaker was Orlon, a French performance artist whose work consists of having her entire face rebuilt by plastic surgery. After a very French explanation as to why she needed a third face lift, she answered questions from the packed house. "I think you're just incredible," said one woman. "You say your aim is to reconquer your body as signifier. How do you feel about letting a doctor touch your signifier? And how do you see your revolutionary techniques emancipating women from the prisons of their bodies as sign?"
Had I stumbled into a satanic ritual, I couldn't have felt a more chilling sensation of alienation. Once I would have smiled at these liturgies and savored their impenetrable truths. Now I only wanted to run away and do what? Dig a ditch? Perform open heart surgery? Administrate a charity? Even after all these years, I was still expecting Theory to visit me like the Virgin Mary and give me more than a sign.
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