Just what is wrong with academia these days? If you’ve been reading Tablet, you are surely versed in the grand guignol that is the attempt by clusters of professors in a host of professional associations that have little or nothing to do with the Middle East to single out Israel as the world’s singular source of evil. It’s a fun story to follow, mainly because—as that great poet of power, Henry Kissinger, noted—the politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low. With precision that would’ve made Newton swoon, for every BDS action there is an equal and opposite and much greater anti-BDS action, and unless you’ve got your mind set on becoming a post-modernist, post-colonialist, post-Focauldian doctoral candidate in a second-tier university, chances are you can live a happy and fulfilling life and never give the rumbles of a few nasty and misguided fools another thought.
But BDS isn’t the problem. What should concern us, what is truly harmful, isn’t what a few academic organizations choose to do, but what many academic departments choose to teach. And the spirit of what they choose to teach is intimated in Evelyn Barish’s thrilling new biography of Paul de Man.
Largely forgotten today, de Man was, in the decades preceding his death in 1983, a towering figure in American academia and the don of literary studies. Along with the French intellectual Jacques Derrida, he is considered the father of deconstruction, a theory which I would have attempted to explain here had it not been for its insistence that any attempt at explanation is itself subject to linguistic constructs that in turn present new problems, as no word is without the complications we bestow upon it when we read or write. Themselves aware of their method’s inherent obfuscations—the critic Louis Menand quipped in a recent review of Barish’s book that the practice of deconstruction was “like digging a hole in the middle of the ocean with a shovel made of water”—de Man, Derrida, and their disciples expressed a fondness for wordplay, mammoth footnotes, and other blunt tools of breaking through the text and, supposedly, into another sphere of meaning.
This is a good point in the introduction to mention that some years after his death it was discovered that de Man, born to a prosperous Belgian family in 1919, had, during the years of the German occupation, collaborated with the Nazis by contributing essays to an anti-Semitic publication, the most notorious of which was titled “The Jews in Present-Day Literature” and argued that European civilization had remained healthy despite Jewish attempts to soil it and that it would probably have been best had the Jews scurried about and found themselves some colony far away to settle lest they pollute the purity of the master race.
Barish sheds much light on de Man’s Nazi affiliations. Rather than explain away his Fascist sympathies and argue, as had most of de Man’s friends and colleagues, that the eminent scholar was either tragically misunderstood—attempts at deconstructing “The Jews in Present-Day Literature” were not unheard of and never short of bizarre—or merely a young man making the best out of an impossible situation, Barish’s exhaustive research shows that de Man’s collaboration was principled and sustained, ending only after his attempt to unseat his editor, by inciting the overlords in Berlin, fared miserably. Barish also delivers enough sex and subterfuge to fill four seasons of Scandal: de Man, in her telling, had swindled his loved ones out of considerable amounts of cash, curtly abandoned his wife and three children to live with a student he had impregnated, faked his academic credentials, and generally seldom missed an opportunity to stretch society’s moral fabric to the tearing point.
What, then, of it? For all his darkness, de Man was not the first and will not be the last prominent man to be unmasked as a charming and cruel sociopath. If we choose to read his life’s story as a thriller—“The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ph.D.”—we’re left with nothing but the pleasure of a good yarn; de Man’s habits tell us no more about his fellow academics than Rob Ford’s do about his fellow Canadian mayors.
But there’s another reading of the de Man story, one at which Barish hints and that suggests that the life and the worldview are intertwined, and that even if there’s not necessarily causation there is certainly a correlation between the man perpetually eluding his past and the theory perpetually resisting definitions. It’s in this way that Barish’s book is most illuminating, giving us not only a clearer view of de Man but an intriguing framework through which to understand the sorry state of the contemporary academic landscape he helped shape.
As we’re dealing with deconstructionists here, I should note that landscape is probably the wrong word. A landscape is harmonious, contiguous, continuous. By contrast, large swaths of American academia—not all! Not always! Not everywhere!—have become fragmented beyond cohesion. Any serious attempt to tell this story in full will require a greater canvas than this, but it will not be too gross a distortion to suggest that the story can be distilled to one word: difference.
“There are only, everywhere, differences and traces of differences,” Derrida famously argued. Look far beyond the walls of literary criticism, and his assertion still holds: To meet a scholar of the humanities today is, most likely, to meet a connoisseur of difference, whether viewed through the prism of class or gender or race or sexual orientation or a wide array of distinctions that set us apart from one another. No matter the subject at hand, the scholar will likely assume that his or her duty is first and foremost to strip away our bad habits, our biases, and our privileges, and that only then would something approximating the truth have emerged if truth, being a unified concept, were not itself an invention of the hegemony that wishes to keep the downtrodden at bay.
The catastrophic effects of this mindset have been widely documented, most recently with the decision by the English Department at UCLA to replace a core curriculum that mandated the reading of Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton with one that guides students instead to such higher peaks of human achievement as Imperial, Transnational, and Postcolonial Studies. But the atomization of the American mind isn’t just an intellectual disaster; it’s a moral failure as well, one to which Jews should pay particular attention. More than the earthly transgressions of our detractors—from penning anti-Semitic screeds to attempting to ban Israel—it’s these ideas that pose a threat to an ethical heritage the old religion had forged and that is now everywhere under attack.
Call it unity versus disparity. If one were obliged to list the contributions Judaism had made to the advancement of civilization, it’s likely that an early entry on the list would have addressed the astonishing drive to abandon the worldview that assigned each realm of human events its own deity and replace it with one God—face unseen, will unknown—in whose image all were created and to whose service all are called. The consequences of such a move, naturally, are immense; at the very least, it advocates a form of communitarian life, in which disagreements are encouraged and debate is lively but the overall loyalty is awarded to the laws that bind us all.
Such a worldview, sadly, has fallen into disrepair among our thinking classes. We’ve surrounded the Enlightenment’s blessed championing of individual rights with bulwarks of divergence: Whether we read a novel or attempt to understand a distant conflict or study the ways in which humans intertwine, we do so mainly to mine that which sets us apart. What ensues isn’t debate; it’s a battle of particularities, each struggling to carve its difference into—or, better yet, out of—the collective whole.
It’s easy to see this move as comical; it’s not. It’s toxic. The proponents of singling out Israel, for example, seem truly baffled when confronted with the inherent absurdities in their claims. When asked why his organization moved to boycott Israel and not, say, Russia, Iran, or other nations whose commitment to quashing free inquiry is robust, Curtis Marez, the president of the American Studies Association, replied that one “has to start somewhere.” That’s a perfectly sound answer, but only if you don’t believe that we all inhabit the same planet and ought to obey the same moral code by which massacring 140,000 civilians is a far graver offense to humanity than maintaining a military presence in a contested swath of land while trying to negotiate a resolution.
If—like de Man, like the devotees of identity politics, like too many in academia today—you hold that one’s duty is to resist obvious meanings, to reject common joys, and to dissect the human experience into its most elemental forms until it no longer resembles anything alive and whole, you may as well start with Israel, or write for the Nazi-endorsed newspaper, or do anything else you please. It hardly matters; once you’ve deconstructed, problematized, and tortured the notion of the common good beyond recognition, any act is as good as the next one and all are bowed in the service of radical difference.
If this mentality is horrible for all mankind, it is particularly horrible for Jews. You hardly need a Ph.D. in history to realize that we have traditionally thrived in societies that permitted debate while emphasizing allegiance to common values, be it Abd ar Rahman’s Cordoba in the 900s or America for most of the 20th century. Yank out the common thread, and persecution is bound to ensue, as it always does when different groups are permitted or propelled to fight out their differences rather than embrace them as facets of the culture and spokes of the nation-state.
Forget, then, the bureaucrats and their boycotts, and heed the lesson of Paul de Man instead, a cautionary tale of what very bad ideas can do to erode the core pillars of civilization. The fault—to paraphrase a chap we no longer bother reading—is not in ourselves but in our academic stars.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.