Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Camille Paglia on Post-Structuralism, or Why I Dropped Out of Grad School

From an interview in America magazine:

Briefly put, what is post-structuralism and what is your opinion of it?

Post-structuralism is a system of literary and social analysis that flared up and vanished in France in the 1960s but that became anachronistically entrenched in British and American academe from the 1970s on. Based on the outmoded linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and promoted by the idolized Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault, it absurdly asserts that we experience or process reality only through language and that, because language is inherently unstable, nothing can be known. By undermining meaning, history and personal will, post-structuralism has done incalculable damage to education and contemporary thought. It is a laborious, circuitously self-referential gimmick that always ends up with the same monotonous result. I spent six months writing a long attack on academic post-structuralism for the classics journal Arion in 1991, "Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf" (reprinted in my first essay collection, Sex, Art, and American Culture). Post-structuralism has destroyed two generations of graduate students, who were forced to mouth its ugly jargon and empty platitudes for their foolish faculty elders. And the end result is that humanities departments everywhere, having abandoned their proper mission of defending and celebrating art, have become humiliatingly marginalized in both reputation and impact.

It felt so affirming to read a prof state what I believe.

I did one semester of graduate English. I had so enjoyed studying literature at the undergrad level that I thought I would try grad school. I thought it would like the undergrad level, only with longer essays. Well, foolish me, I had no idea I had to base my analysis on post-structuralism, that I couldn't just write what I thought. As if my thought were any less worthy than this trash.

Oh, I suppose you might have a point that at the grad level, essays have to reflect some knowledge of critical theory, so I couldn't just write what I thought.

The stupid thing is that this theory, which opposes any concept of absolute truth, is treated like absolute truth. So why shouldn't my opinion-- the fruit of my own study-- by any less valid than that of a lit prof? Why no! Post-structuralism is the truth!

Now you could fault me for my lack of reference to critical theory. But the dumbest thing about this theory and its adherents is that it really undermines the concept of fact.  As a result of this mentality drilled into its practitioners, facts are not taken that seriously. And so historical claims are made fideistically, with no actual references, and nobody bothers to fact-check. And attempts to fact-check might even come off as gauche. I remember this one prof (this was during my undergrad) who made the absurd claim that Thomas More's novel Utopia showed that he was in favour of women's ordination.

I wrote a paper disproving that Thomas More could have had any such concept using-- of all things-- sources-- including primary sources. That essay only garnered a B+ even though the prof said it was well argued. In hindsight, I suppose I should have known that challenging a prof's statement during a lecture was not a good way to earn an "A".  I suspect that my exasperation at the disregard for the facts might have made a poor impression, even though I was right and I could prove it.

But that little episode illustrates the kind of mentality that's rampant in English lit.

For someone such as myself, who studied history, where your statements had to be backed up by data, this drove me batty. I could forgive non-history majors for making mistakes-- everybody makes mistakes. I find it difficult to forgive the cavalier attitude towards basic facts, especially at the university level. Truth should matter.

But it's not ultimately about the truth, is it, in humanities, is it? Maybe that's why facts don't matter.

Thank God I majored in history.