JANUARY 8, 2012
One of the most intriguing and valuable books I read in 2011 was Catherine Liu’s American Idyll: Academic Antielitism as Cultural Critique (University of Iowa Press). We have billionaire antielitists, tenured antielitists, rightwing nutjob antielitists, leftwing wacko antielitists, famous artist antielitists, multi-platinum antielitists, and Congressional antielitists, and Liu wants to know: Why is everybody on this bus? The book articulates some ideas that have been knocking around, inchoate, in my own head for a while. I asked the author to tell us why she wrote it.
— Tom Lutz
I WROTE THIS BOOK BECAUSE, all through college and graduate school, I found academia hypnotized by largely pointless but bitter struggles about “elitism.” At the beginning of the Culture Wars, Allan Bloom and William Buckley were clearly the elitists and they were clearly the bad guys; but then again, anyone who read and liked literature more than listening to Madonna was cast as an elitist too. In graduate school, and then as I started my first job at the University of Minnesota, everyone was drawing lines and taking sides, for or against canons, for or against Deleuze, for or against Habermas, for or against Derrida, all using the word “elitist” to cudgel their opponents. I found it all infuriating and enervating.
“Elitist” is used as an all-purpose insult by both the culturally reactionary and the culturally progressive: people who speak foreign languages are elitist (if they learned them in school); recently on NPR, a Wisconsin Republican called union members “elitist.” How did this term come to be so useful and meaningless at the same time? My generation of academics also throw the word “deconstruction” around all the time, and so I thought we should take up the “deconstruction” of knee-jerk antielitism.
(I also wrote this book because I wanted to understand the Midwest and the U.S. in general. I wanted to understand why my bicoastal existence and my parents’ immigrant self-obsessions had led to me to reach largely mistaken conclusions about the U.S.)
I decided deconstruction and discourse analysis weren’t quite enough. That is when I discovered Richard Hofstadter and C. Wright Mills. In history departments, they were thought of as being passé, but reading Hofstadter and Mills blew my mind. They outline the historical, material, and institutional conditions under which notions of research, critique, and autonomy were forged in the 20th century American university. In graduate school I was too busy reading Foucault to read Hofstadter, and I probably would have considered Hofstadter’s account of conspiracy theory and “paranoia” as hopelessly “normative.” In other words, I would have proved him right. An ingrained suspicion of formal knowledge, of formal education itself, runs like a red thread through Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. (Hofstadter saw the anti-intellectual suspicion of the life of the mind as aligned with reactionary political formations; in this he was greatly influenced by the work of Adorno on the Authoritarian Personality in the context of McCarthyism. Hofstadter abhorred the romanticization of agrarian life, so he didn’t see that the Populist revolt of the 1890s was probably less instrumentally anti-intellectual than he considered it to be. In fact, the People’s Party was for self-education, especially about economic matters in rural America.)
My book isn’t simply a critique of the hothouse politics of the cultural “Left”; I also wanted to show that contemporary right-wing cultural populism, and in particular its toxic antielitism, is not only hypocritical, it isn’t original. Its idealization of popular taste actually comes from the Left!
I wrote this book because I could no longer listen in silence to colleagues, students, and administrators pontificate on either the virtues of the popular or the sins of the elite. I could not escape the idea that political struggle and economic exploitation were obscured by callow critiques of cultural elitism and exclusion. Class as a category was disappearing even as it was invoked. Twenty years ago, cultural studies scholars who studied popular culture and subcultures called their adversaries, the traditional humanists and social scientists who studied literature or art, “elitist.” The other day at a graduate colloquium at U.C. Irvine, an audience member at the presentation mentioned that certain kinds of “fan culture” were elitist. I think that the speaker meant that fan cultures sometimes valorize authority and expertise. This one-word “critique” has been banalized to such an absurd degree that it can be used to describe any community or set of activities that seem inaccessible to “newbies.” To me this is crazy, just completely crazy.
Academic antielitism masks, among other things, the fact that an academic community is by nature exclusionary, for better and worse. It also allows us to believe that what is important for intellectuals and academics is not refining or communicating knowledge by using substantive arguments to persuade our interlocutors; no, the academic antielitist suggests that all we have to do is create some kind of affective and epistemological “accessibility” in order to have done something politically effective. This esoteric and purely academic form of antielitism is completely untranslatable into nonacademic discourse. Who wants to hear a bunch of professors and graduate students flagellate each other and themselves for their “normativity”?
Academic antielitism fails to account for class formation and for the technocratic engineering of higher education into a mechanism of social selection. That is why I write about the SATs and ETS, the private corporation that produces standardized testing. If I had a social science collaborator who was willing to put up with me, I would like to analyze the standardized test scores of Republican and Democratic politicians. New Republicans have come to represent those who do badly on standardized tests, but still make money through business savvy; New Democrats are not just Eisenhower and Nixon’s eggheads, they are the meritocratically selected elite who get perfect SAT scores and then go to private liberal arts colleges and on to good jobs on Wall Street and K Street.
Nixon was maybe the last of the meritocratic, smart Republicans who managed to be elected President. The Republican revolt against the meritocratic elite fills the space where the Left’s critique of political and economic collusion and corruption used to reside.
Is there any cure?
I find the younger generation of graduate students more willing to look seriously at intellectual history, Old Left critiques of capitalism, and even old-school political-economic class analysis. They are less entranced by performative or gestural kinds of subversion or “complication.” Pseudo-populism and antielitism function as fake consensus-builders. For-profit universities claim to be “antielitist” even as they extract profits from federally funded student loans, taken out by the poorest and most marginal students to pay for a credential. Maybe we can finally abandon the pseudo-politics of academic antielitism in the face of contemporary economic upheavals. Maybe we are seeing a turn away from these rhetorical dead ends and back to bread and butter issues about exploitation and expropriation.