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Deconstruction doesn’t solve—material power relations are unchanged

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Deconstruction doesn’t solve—material power relations are unchanged

Bauerlein, 01 (Mark, professor at Emory, Partisan Review, Spring, proquest)
Social constructionism is one such expedient method. It has widespread support in the humanities, and so practitioners need waste no paragraphs validating it. It scoffs at empirical notions, chastising them as "naive positivism" and freeing scholars from having to prove the truth of constructionist premises and generalizations. It lightens the evidentiary load, affirming that an incisive reading of a single text or event is sufficient to illustrate a theoretical or historical generality. Objectivity as an ideal collapses, for while objectivity requires that one acknowledge opposing arguments and refute them on logical or empirical grounds, constructionism merely asks that inquirers position themselves as a subject in relation to other subject-positions. True, constructionism proposes to study phenomena as historical constructs, a proposal entailing a method of enumerating historical particulars and their convergence in this or that object. But in fact, constructionist analysis typically breaks the object down into theoretical, political, and (a few) historical constituents, most of which are common currency in academic parlance. In analyzing the text or event as a construct, inquirers suspend the whole question of the reality of the thing and the truth of the construction. All that counts is the particular version of the thing, and with no objective standard by which to measure the version, the laborious process of justification dissolves. Last month a scholarly journal asked me to assess a submission on Jacques Lacan's adoption of certain semiotic principles of Charles Sanders Peirce. After reading the essay, I recommended publication, but added that Lacan largely misconstrued Peirce's arguments and that the author needed to discuss the misrepresentations. He replied that whether Lacan was right or wrong was beside the point. He was only interested in how Lacan "appropriated" Peirce. To focus on whether Lacan understood Peirce correctly would sway the discussion from Lacan's creative uses of Peircean ideas, he said. Of course, the author's defense was epistemologically dubious, but it was institutionally beneficial. Although it put the author in the position of purveying Lacan's misconstruction of Peirce uncritically, it simplified his task enormously, saving him the trouble of checking Lacan's appropriations against Peirce's voluminous, difficult corpus. If only conservative evaluators would agree to the constructedness of Lacan's notions, not their truth, then the essay could proceed to publication. Apologias like this one are rampant in the humanities, and the books and articles that they enable flood the scholarly marketplace. University press catalogues, booknotes and ads in periodicals, and "list of contributors" pages in journals announce these publications as breakthough efforts and necessary reading, but despite the praise, most of them soon disappear into the library stacks never to be heard from again. They are hastily conceived and predictably argued, and notwithstanding the singularity promised on their dust jackets, they are all of a type. They begin with approved constructionist premises, bolster them with arguments from authority ("According to Richard Rorty. . ."), and attach them to standard generalities about power, race, and gender. They vary only in their subject matter, the texts and events selected for commentary. They also suffer from the stylistic and design flaws characteristic of scholarship pushed into production too quickly. Last year, I read six booklength manuscripts for university presses, five of them by junior faculty. All five I returned to the press with detailed instructions for developmental editing. The authors possessed considerable intelligence and earnest motives, but they obviously tried to compose too fast. Sentences were unpolished and contained uniform expressions. Transitions were jumpy and casual, as if the chapters succeeded one another with "Now, let's look at. . . ." The introductions were elliptical and rambling, as if the authors had not yet settled the question of what concerns the projects were aimed at resolving. But however rough and incoherent, such manuscripts often make it into print and the authors win promotions. This is the research result of the productivity requirements of the profession. Junior faculty scramble to get dissertations published before their time, and the market is saturated with scholarly ephemera. Younger humanities professors no longer spend ten years investigating a subject, sharpening their theses, and refining their prose. Lengthy archival studies and careful erudite readings no longer appear. Career trajectories of figures like Rene Girard, M. H. Abrams, Paul de Man, and Meyer Shapiro are eschewed, for none of those talents produced enough work early in their professional lives to merit tenure under the present system. Penalized for selecting long-term projects, assistant professors have too little time to embark upon studies such as The Mirror and the Lamp. This book-for-tenure requirement affects professors at the top fifty to seventy-five research institutions alone, but the general trend it represents-the acceleration of scholarship-reaches into all areas of academic life. Whenever faculty observe annual salary increases tied to their productivity for the year, and whenever graduate students face tuition support packages due to expire after four years, they will opt for a method of inquiry that ensures their professional livelihood. Whenever academic press editors favor topical culture studies over archival research, ambitious scholars will follow practices that help them keep pace with intellectual current events. Whenever hiring committees and funding agencies emphasize their interest in innovative, non-traditional forms of inquiry, applicants will fashion themselves accordingly, mindful of the ever more tenuous line between the avant-garde and the old hat. In each case, a commitment to painstaking induction and catholic learning proves disastrous. This is the bare and banal advantage of social constructionism: it saves time. Truth, facts, objectivity-those require too much reading, too many library visits, too much time soliciting interlibrary loan materials, scrolling through microfilm records, double-checking sources, and looking beyond academic trends that come and go. A philosophy that discredits the foundations of such time-consuming research is a professional blessing. It is the belief-system of inquirers who need an alibi for not reading the extra book, traveling to the other archives, or listening to the other point of view. This is why constructionism is the prevailing creed in the humanities today. It is the epistemology of scholarship in haste, of professors under the gun. As soon as the humanities embraced a productivity model of merit, empiricism and erudition became institutional dead ends, and constructionism emerged as the method of the fittest. Scholars may have initially embraced constructionism as a philosophical position, but the evolution of constructionism into a brash institutional maneuvering indicates that it now functions as a response to a changing labor environment. How unfortunate that humanities faculty did not fight back against the productivity standard as soon as it arose and insist that scholars need time to read, time to reflect, time to test ideas in the classroom and at conferences if they are to come up with anything lasting. What a shame that they were able to concoct a mode of thought that cooperated with the quantification system, a plan of survival that now stands as the academic wisdom of the age.

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