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April 15, 2003

Critical Inquiry symposium questions role of academia

Pre-emptive war, Czech literary theorist Slavoj Zizek, and Neo-Marxist philosophy were all topics of discussion in the literary journal Critical Inquiry?s first-ever board symposium. W.J.T. Mitchell, the Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service professor in the department of English language and literature and the editor of the journal, assembled editors, frequent contributors, and humanities luminaries to discuss the agenda for Critical Inquiry in the coming century.

There was some discussion as to whether literary criticism and thought is still relevant in the current technological culture.

?What will be the fate of the humanities, of literature, the arts and philosophy in what is widely heralded as a post-human age?? Mitchell said in a statement announcing the board meeting.

Mitchell called for new direction and innovation in literary criticism and analysis at the symposium.

?The purpose here is to come together and not give lectures, but to give the past, present, and future of what we call ?critical theory,?? Mitchell said. ?We want to be the Starship Enterprise of theory.?

The discussion quickly turned to interpretations of current events relating to the war in Iraq.

?Are we in a post-political era or that of new political domination? Are we to use ?liberty? and ?democracy? to justify unspeakable acts of cruelty?? Mitchell asked.

Proclaimed as a body of critical theory that eschews political orientation, Mitchell said that although traditional readers look at the journal as backing the left, there should be no obstacles in the way of forsaking established thought for ?risky and experimental? thought.

A number of speakers assumed the podium, giving their own analyses on the state of literary inquiry. Many complained of the failings of current theory to take a practical view of society.

?Theory is coming to resemble a language police as a search and destroy mission of language practices,? said Frederic Jameson, the William A. Lane, Jr. professor of comparative literature at Duke University.

Jameson proposed a new line of literary inquiry to parallel the established theories of post-modernism and post-colonialism, which he labeled ?collective subjectivities.? As Jameson described his approach, he placed emphasis on its inter-disciplinary focus. ?One might acknowledge a refractive dissonance between philosophy and literature,? he said.

Jameson identified what he saw as a major shift in the focus of literary studies since post-modernism.

?The focus is no longer the individual masterpiece,? he said, explaining that more attention is being give to the structure and dynamic of a literary event rather than the individual work.

One member of the audience questioned whether or not the simple act of questioning constituted resistance to unjust authority, asking the panel if a critic like Noam Chomsky in his book 9/11 can affect the course of events.

A majority of the panelists were against the idea that cultural criticism affects the world at large.

?Most criticism is a poisoned pill,? said Sander L. Gilman, professor of liberal arts and sciences at University of Illinois at Chicago. ?You shouldn?t go into academic work if you want to go beyond it.?

Robert P. Morgan, professor of music at Yale University, warned of the danger of believing in the inherent good of intellectual critique.

?Intellectuals have not only been wrong most of the time, but wrong in corrosive and destructive ways,? Morgan said.

Others believe the power of intellectual inquiry lies in its ability to persuade.

?[Critics] don?t know what [criticism] is, but then they do it anyway,? said Harry Harootunian, professor of history at New York University, referencing the work of Zizek and his theory of Neo-Marxism.

Many panelists were concerned that the left has become a counter-nationalist position.

?The left sees itself as engaging ameliorative social transformation. It is self-critical of any action taken in the name on nationalism,? said Homi Bhabba, former University of Chicago professor in the English department and now a professor at Harvard University.

Catherine R. Stimpson, Dean of the Graduate School and professor of English at Rutgers University, cautioned the leaders of the left to resist always taking a fierce anti-war position.

?When you cry ?apocalypse,? you get yourself in the situation of Chicken Little: you lose credibility,? Stimpson said.

There was heated debate about the idea of the ?post,? referring to critical theories such as ?post-modernism? or ?post-structuralism.? For most panelists, ?post? is a non-term.

?[Historians] did not call it post-Feudalism, they called it Democracy,? said Thomas Pavel, chair of the department of Romance languages and literatures at the University of Chicago, adding that he regrets the way in which ?post? has only been useful as a reference point. ?Most people do not realize that there is a tear in this ?post.??

Harvard professor of African-American studies Henry Louis Gates, Jr. made a surprise appearance at the end of the symposium, apologizing for his tardiness and explaining that he had been held over from another conference.

Gates immediately reprimanded the panel for not discussing the political state of colonized people and minorities, arguing that the economic status of African-Americans has not improved at all.

According to Gates, in 1968, 40 percent of black children lived below the poverty line, and the percentage has not changed today.

Gates voiced his support for the creation of an African studies department at the University of Chicago but scorned the English department?s penchant for new intellectual theories.

? You?ve got to have a canon before you can deconstruct the canon,? Gates said.

Critical Inquiry is published on a quarterly basis.