Friday, November 11, 2011

Perloff on the intellectual first-person plural

LINK: Marjorie Perloff, From PMLA, September 1997 issue, commissioned for roundtable on "Intellectuals"
Though this little piece dates from 15 years ago, its general diagnosis of the economic and institutional position of the intellectual rings true today. Perloff is one of the few academics today who is both willing and able to offer a valid critique of the institutional and disciplinary blockades to critical thought in American universities.

The assignment from PMLA was to write a 1000-word letter on "the notion of the intellectual in the twenty-first century"-- a letter that should be "double spaced and . . . avoid using the universal ungrounded 'we'."
That says it all, doesn't it? For what function can the intellectual have in a world that prescribes double-spacing but doesn't permit the use of the first-person plural? [...]  
The loss of this "we" is the sign that there is no longer a generic intellectual class to which "you" or "I" or "one" might belong. The causes of this large-scale transformation are manifold: the end of the cold war and, with it, of an effective international Left, the dominance of money over the old class formations coupled with an often militant identity politics that creates smaller and smaller micro-units defining the individual's place, and the increasing commodification and media-ization of society, which prompts even a scholarly journal like PMLA to resort to sound-bytes like the one I am writing. But perhaps the greatest threat to the intellectual life is that of the institution, whether the university, the foundation, the professional organization, or the government arts agency, that supposedly fosters it. 
In "The Intellectual Field: A World Apart" (1985), Pierre Bourdieu characterizes intellectuals as "a dominated fraction of the dominant class. They are dominant in so far as they hold the power and privileges conferred by the possession of cultural capital . . . but . . . dominated in their relations with those who hold political and economic power." Intellectuals "remain loyal to the bourgeois order," because it is, after all, the bourgeois order that confers upon them whatever power they have. What this means in practice, is that, in late twentieth-century culture, institutional intellectuals may profess any number of "radical" ideas but are curiously passive vis-à-vis the system itself--that is, the basic university structure with its conferral of advanced degrees, grading and certification of students, and "peer review" of scholarly materials for the purpose of tenure or promotion decisions. [...]

Perloff has said that she doesn't want to write a book on method: I find this regrettable, as her work represents the revitalization of a certain critical spirit lacking from current academic discourse. Her rigorous, historical approach is undistorted by fashionable trends in theory, and she remains always ready to actually criticize—i.e. to praise certain works and denounce others, the original "task of the critic" which very few critics seem interested in today. I always find her work reinvigorating.
More Perloffian material here and here.

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