Literary criticism in the 21st century : theory renaissance - Vincent B. Leitch 2014
Twenty-first-century theory favorites
There are a number of groundbreaking books, favorites of mine, which, taken together, provide a suggestive panorama of the twenty-first-century theory renaissance, particularly in its symptomatic preoccupations with globalizing neoliberal economics, identity politics, and the corporate university. Most of these books are best sellers pitched at general audiences with theorists in the role of public intellectuals.
First on all lists is doubtlessly Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s bestselling Empire (2000). Its main contributions come with its influential conception of the multitude, its account of immaterial labor, and its portrait of Empire as the latest form of global hegemony. In place of the masses, the crowd, the people, or the working class, Hardt and Negri put the multitude. Like the later 99% versus the 1% of the 2011 Occupy movements, the multitude names the worldwide multipolar collective, real and potential, solidified yet scattered in resistance to the intensifying global capitalist order. Here resistance takes the form of both antagonism and autonomy. Immaterial labor, following upon industrial manual labor, designates the combined intellectual-affective work increasingly characteristic of the service economy. As the leading edge, it models the coming future of work and challenges contending residual modes. Characteristic and recognizable negative features of the new labor practices include (1) eroding the 8 hour workday (being on call 24/7), (2) valuing mobility and flexibility particularly through temporary contracts, and (3) rendering work precarious, for example, through deunionization and shedding benefits. “Empire” is the term Hardt and Negri famously use to depict postcolonial and post-Cold War globalization that promotes not only the rapid movement across borders of money, information, technology, products, and people, but also the ceding of considerable national sovereignty to supranational non-democratic institutions that increasingly regulate life. Well-known instances include the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank (WB), World Trade Organization (WTO), United Nations, and the Groups of 8 and 20 as well as transnational corporations and nongovernmental organizations. Many cooperative nation-states belong here, as do central banks.
Narrowly construed, Empire carries out a retrofitting of Marxist criticism and theory for the new century. More broadly, it develops strong arguments about globalization for cultural theory, which the immediate and voluminous outpouring of responses to it signal. Among the earliest book-length collective responses are Debating Empire (2003), edited by Gopal Balakrishnan; Empire’s New Clothes (2004), compiled by Paul Passavant and Jodi Dean; Negri plus Hardt’s own second-round Reflections on Empire (2003; trans. 2008); and the extended critique of Atilio Bóron, Empire and Imperialism (2005). Much more reaction has followed these immediate substantial responses. Empire remains a major work of the new century.
Of the twenty sections of Empire, none is more obviously pertinent to the concerns of cultural theory than “Symptoms of Passage.” Hardt and Negri here attack reigning accounts of postmodernism, postcolonial theory, and religious fundamentalisms. As is well known, both postcolonialism and postmodern philosophy criticize the errors of the past, specifically modern colonialism and Enlightenment modernity, while promoting contemporary hybridity, difference, and flexibility. But, note Hardt and Negri, the latter are the very values of today’s corporate capitalism and the world market. So the theorists of the “post,” cosmopolitan elites have been outflanked, misrecognizing the new forms of power, being too focused on the past rather than on the present and future. Similarly, Hardt and Negri construe fundamentalisms not as revivals of the premodern past but as refusals of the globalizing present. The ancient traditions championed by them are really inventions of the present. In their animus against modernity, fundamentalisms, both Christian and Muslim, share a certain postmodern frame of mind. But in Hardt and Negri’s broad view, the usual “postmodernist discourses appeal primarily to the winners in the process of globalization and fundamentalist discourse to the losers” (150). From the perspective of cultural theory, they argue, postmodernism, postcolonialism, and present-day fundamentalisms all constitute significant sentinels, symptoms, of the passage on the way to globalization in the age of Empire.1
Like other admiring readers of Empire, I have some reservations. As a critic, I am obliged to weigh the strengths and the weaknesses of the work. Hardt and Negri too readily dismiss national sovereignty in their depiction of the transnational supersovereignty of global institutions such as the IMF and WB. Also, they reduce both postmodern and postcolonial theories to the critique of traditional binary concepts underlying the Enlightenment and to the advocacy of abstract differences. Nevertheless, they note that we are living in a historical period persuasively and repeatedly named by them “postmodernity.” As I see it, they dispatch the archaisms of fundamentalisms too easily. And for me their tone is off: while the flipside of the developing global world market is the forming multitude (a communism to come), their hope for this countervailing utopian force feels overly optimistic. All that said, Empire has effectively reenergized leftist cultural theory, challenged postcolonial and postmodern philosophical theory, and sharpened plus broadened critique of the juridico-political institutions and practices of globalization.
Perhaps the most striking academic book in the area of recent contemporary minority identity studies is Craig Womack’s little-noticed Red on Red: Native American Literary Separatism (1999). As a Muskogee Creek and Cherokee Indian, Womack advocates national tribal sovereignty against both synthetic pan-tribalism and globalization theory. There are more than 500 federally recognized tribes in the US, spanning many different geographies, cultures, and languages. Womack’s opening chapter provides an account of the history, government, and religion of the Creek nation. It has a population of 40,000 today. This is followed by a chapter not only criticizing the pan-tribalism of mainstream social sciences and humanities, but simultaneously reclaiming the distinctive traditions and motifs of the Creek nation. Next comes an illustrative chapter analyzing the Creek oral story of Turtle, which is transcribed into the native language and accompanied for contrast by several English translations. Womack then mounts an unsparing critique of Creek author Alice Callahan’s 1890s novel Wynema as an assimilationist and Christian supremacist tract written for a white audience. He turns thereafter to separate chapters of appreciative analysis of Creek authors Alexander Posey, Louis Oliver, and Joy Harjo, plus to conclude gay Cherokee writer Lynn Riggs.
Given his primary Native American audience, Womack registers but doesn’t rehearse in detail the traumatic history of European invasion, genocide, colonization, removal (diaspora), racism, language eradication, and land theft. Along the way he debunks the popular cultural stereotypes of the Indian as noble savage, stoic warrior, nature-loving mystic, lazy full blood, tragic figure, and vanishing American. As a self-identified queer Creek Cherokee Indian, Womack holds firmly to an essentialist view of identity grounded in life-sustaining difference. “Behind the liberal ’why can’t we all just get along?’ line of reasoning, often applied to race as well, is an underlying supremacism, a demand that everybody be white and heterosexual, that cultural identities be sacrificed so that dominant culture can rest safely” (300—301). Womack’s separatism, hostile to ideas of assimilation, is wary of Europeanized postcolonial theory. He regards American tribes as living today under decidedly colonial not postcolonial conditions.
Red on Red adds a new dimension to subaltern race and ethnicity studies by casting the Native American aesthetic as a factitious white liberal construct. The book is critical of broad general categories—disembodied syntheses—characteristic of globalized theory such as academic indigenous studies, Anglophone literature, postcolonial theory, and Native American culture. It is, moreover, an instance of the twenty-first-century rebirth of US literature as multilingual memorably advanced in the Multilingual Anthology of American Literature: A Reader of Original Texts with English Translations (2000), edited by Harvard Professors Marc Shell and Werner Sollors. In addition, Red on Red is a distinctive blend of scholarship and intimate critique written resolutely from a first-person point of view, a mode pioneered by other minority scholars in the 1980s and thereafter.
Another distinctive feature that sets Red on Red apart, and that represents one path of theory, is that it is a kind of creative criticism from novelist Womack. The book contains eight fictional letters scattered across the work as interchapters written often in dialect by Creek Jim Chibbo to Hotgun (a Creek full-blood traditionalist), both fictional characters. The letters cover a wide range of topics, tones, and genres, mashing up Creek history, literary criticism, and popular culture.
Last but not least, Red on Red repeatedly returns to the land, specifically the details of Muskogee Creek land. It’s less an ecocritical concern with the environment than a tribal commitment to land-based collective identity, sovereignty, and survival. “The importance to this kind of place-specific writing, I believe, is, in fact, increasing over time … because the land provides a constant against cultural deterioration. No matter what happens with language and culture, the land remains if jurisdiction over it is protected, which means that tribes always … continue if a relationship to the land is still possible” (171). Not surprisingly, Red on Red is preoccupied with homecoming and retribalization more than migration, diaspora, or mobility so fundamental to globalization theory.
Within Native American specialist circles, Red on Red elicited immediate spirited criticisms to its tribalcentrism and initiated a major controversy. It started with Elvira Pulitano’s Toward a Native American Critical Theory (2003), followed by the collective responses gathered both in American Indian Literary Nationalism (2006) by Jace Weaver (Cherokee), Craig Womack, and Robert Warrior (Osage) and then in Reasoning Together (2008) by the Native Critics Collective (a group of twelve authors). My own criticism of the book concerns its understandable yet dispiriting avoidance of relevant contemporary theory movements, for example, indigenous studies, cultural studies, postcolonial theory, and queer theory. This avoidance is less an example of antitheory than a determined reliance on tribal resources. Also Womack’s book adheres to an inside/outside binary that leaves scant room for mixed bloods not to mention fellow travelers like myself. It has nothing to say about social class. Whether this omission is simply an oversight or a tactic, it misses a key topic of concern in the new post-1988 era of proliferating American Indian gambling casinos and the resulting exorbitant amassing of wealth by a few select tribes.
The most pointed and passionate twenty-first-century critique of identity theory from an academic literary critic appears in Walter Benn Michaels’s The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (2006). About nationalistic tribalism like Womack’s, Michaels complains angrily: “New forms of ’ancient’ identities are being invented every day. And the function of all of them is to provide people with ways of thinking about themselves that have as little as possible to do with either their material circumstances or their political ideals” (160). In the name of economic fairness and justice, Michaels criticizes as distraction all talk of difference, multiculturalism, affirmative action, and cultural resistance. What matters in present circumstances is class not culture.
Unlike his earlier works of literary criticism published by university presses, Michaels’s jeremiad is a fast-paced trade book aimed at the American public. It is an iconoclastic effort to revive US left populism from a non-Marxist pragmatic position. The Trouble with Diversity is arguably the best example early in the new century of a book by a distinguished liberal literature professor metamorphosed self-consciously into a public intellectual. It is reminiscent of mid-twentieth-century non-academic discourse from the New York intellectuals not the New Historicism with which Michaels is firmly associated. Tellingly, it does not concern itself with globalization but with national political economic conditions and the American university.
The main target of Michaels’s book is post-Cold War capitalism in the US, specifically growing inequality and its role in national education, health care, law, politics, and culture. Disappointingly, he does not suggest any political programs, or question national sovereignty or, worse yet, figure in the forces of globalization. Also he presents a too stark either/or for theory and criticism—either focus on class or on race, gender, and sexuality (identity). A choice of both/and would work much better than this shortsighted either/or tactic of smart polemic. As leading American philosopher Nancy Fraser has long eloquently argued, recognition and redistribution are both essential democratic social and political ideals. What Michaels does passionately is to excoriate the US academic left and right, the culture wars, and higher education’s preoccupation with diversity. “American universities are propaganda machines that might as well have been designed to ensure that the class structure of American society remains unchallenged” (17).
While there are many critics of identity theory, none remains more antithetical than Giogio Agamben, especially in his famous book Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995; trans. 1998). Agamben’s conceptualization of “bare life” derives from ancient philosophy in Greece and Rome but updated to account for contemporary situations such as Nazi concentration camps, genocide in Rwanda, and rape compounds in former Yugoslavia. The foundation of the political, argues Agamben, is not the social contract, or the friend/enemy distinction, but the sovereign’s declaration of a state of exception (which produces bare life). Bare life, this “originary political element” (90)—for example, the homo sacer in Rome, or the sans papiers in Europe, or the illegal combatants in Guantánamo Bay—is the real matrix of political theory and practice. Ever more obviously, as one critic observes, it’s “the default status of any person whatsoever” (Shütz 96). The camp form is the key locus of bare life. Agamben’s prophetic book precedes the US war on terror by six years. But it is this war that gives the book a second life at the dawn of the new century. The work foresees the spread of black sites of terror, maximum security prisons, and Abu Ghraib-style human rights violations. Stripped of law by a juridico-ethical ban (abandonment), a regular founding function of politics, bare life, an inclusive exclusion, precedes all features of identity. Here Agamben self-consciously and memorably politicizes Heidegger’s phenomenological ontology of Dasein and recasts Foucault’s biopolitics of carceral society no longer limited to modernity. Myself and other critics, however, are quick to point out Agamben’s memorable account of bare life ignores contemporary inequalities, for example of race, gender, and sexuality, which constitute empowering bases for resistance undertaken by many powerful social movements. Moreover, its implicit desubjectivization of life, an unstated anarchist motif, sets aside all consideration of political economy.
Vociferous complaints from the 1970s onward about the rise of raw unregulated free-market capitalism, associated with the Reagan and Thatcher eras, spread in the fin de siècle and very broadly in the new century. While such complaints are clear in the work of Hardt and Negri and Michaels, though not with Womack or with Agamben, it culminates in David Harvey’s often and justly cited A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005). Harvey’s critical history of this fundamentalist strain of political economy famously first attracted notice in his landmark The Condition of Postmodernity (1989). But it is the later much less ponderous more pointed book addressed to a general audience that helped solidify, condense, and widely disseminate the critique of worldwide national neoliberalisms. From the present vantage point in the second decade of the new century, Brief History foresees the likely coming of the financial crash of September 2008. For North American and British literary and cultural critics, it is the most cited book on political economy in an era of innumerable such works. The whole area has and is undergoing a revival not seen since the 1930s. Among Harvey’s most significant contributions are a comprehensive and convincing account of neoliberal theory and practice; an unabashed critique of the consequences and contradictions of neoliberalism; and a scrupulous attention to national differences in his cameo case studies of Mexico, Argentina, South Korea, Sweden, China, the UK, and the US.
David Harvey treats neoliberalism very convincingly as a global phenomenon with distinctive national features and histories. Here is how he defines it at the outset:
Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade … . The state has to guarantee, for example, the quality and integrity of money. It must also set up those military, defence, police, and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights … . Furthermore, if markets do not exist (in areas such as land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution) then they must be created, by state action if necessary. But beyond these tasks the state should not venture. (2)
Today there is little surprise in such neoliberal theory and practice. And that is a key point. Neoliberal doctrine has become hegemonic in nation after nation. It seems common sense that we encounter all the time. Historically speaking, it replaced the idea of the Welfare State that reigned from the 1930s to the 1960s. The Welfare State nowadays holds the status of a dying vestigial form. Across the globe, neoliberal governments withdraw from or reduce funding for social provisions such as higher education, health care, and pollution prevention. Instead they privatize medical care, tertiary education, and environmental safety. Typically, they auction to businesses that seek profits through commodification such goods and services as water, pollution rights, and hospital care. Costs get shifted onto individuals for higher education expenses, health insurance, and retirement funding. Other well-known policies of neoliberalism that Harvey highlights include low wages, low tax rates, and deregulation of industries, for example, banking, airlines, and telecommunications.
What’s wrong with neoliberalism in Harvey’s view? It creates a dog-eat-dog world of disposable workers, a small class of super wealthy elites, widespread social insecurity, rampant debt and bankruptcy, race-to-the-bottom outsourcing, shrinking middle classes, plutocracy, corporate welfare (for instance, bank bailouts), and explosive growth in rates of the working poor. He is particularly critical, memorably so, of financialization, which has displaced industrial production as a leading sector of economic growth. During the neoliberal era, the financial system has dramatically expanded its share of national economies and redistributed wealth upwards from public to private realms, which is especially clear in the US and UK:
Deregulation allowed the financial system to become one of the main centers of redistributive activity through speculation, predation, fraud, and thievery. Stock promotions, ponzi schemes, structured asset destruction through inflation, asset-stripping through mergers and acquisitions, the promotion of levels of debt incumbency that reduced whole populations, even in the advanced capitalist countries, to debt peonage, to say nothing of corporate fraud, dispossession of assets (the raiding of pension funds and their decimation by stock and corporate collapses) by credit and stock manipulations—all of these became central features of the capitalist financial system. (161)
Harvey is especially critical of the practice of stock options replacing salary for top managers and CEOs. Why? They lead to preoccupation not with manufacturing and productivity but with short-term profitable stock bubbles. Outrageously high CEO pay comes to symbolize the financial dynamics of neoliberalism. What other critics have aptly labeled casino capitalism, fast capitalism, and vulture capitalism, David Harvey delineates and links to both planned political systems and the whole way of life of neoliberalism. His work is an impressive fusion of ideological and cultural critique.
As a cultural theorist trained in social sciences, Harvey relies heavily on data, statistics, and empirical case studies. Conversely, Hardt and Negri, humanists in the tradition of European philosophy like Agamben, compare and contrast the history of legal and political systems. They do Continental philosophy. Michaels for his part uses commonsensical yet innovative polemical argumentation in the tradition of American pragmatism. All these contemporary cultural critics are responding in their different ways to consequences of the passage from the Welfare State to the hegemony of neoliberal political economy. In the process, they revitalize the approaches of Marxist social science, Continental philosophy, and neopragmatism while reviving the mission of the public intellectual. Womack seeks to elude all such foreign methods by retribalizing, that is, reenergizing tribal traditions, perspectives, and land holdings treated as life-sustaining resources in a hostile white world. The Native American Renaissance entails homecoming and defensive sovereignty. At the same time it puts on poignant display the counter-globalization tendencies of minorities that are a central feature of twenty-first-century experience and theory. When all is said and done, subalterns can speak. They are part of the disorganized multitude.
In this context, the high-profile work of Alain Badiou is something of an outlier. On the one hand, he addresses the degraded life world of contemporary “unleashed capitalism.” Like others, he dates this latest phase of capitalism from the counter-revolution of the 1970s and its symbolic culmination in the 2007 presidential election in France of Nicolas Sarkozy. Written for the general public and a bestseller in France, his spirited fast-paced The Meaning of Sarkozy (2007) paints in detail a grim picture of neoliberal times. On the other hand, this polemic, oddly enough, does not mention neoliberalism while all along closely paralleling the indictments of Hardt and Negri, Michaels, and Harvey. As a French political philosopher, Badiou is interested in the history of resistances to capitalism dating from the French Revolution to May 1968, the phases of which he specifies with care. But the Byzantine technical history of capitalist economics is neither his concern nor his specialty. What Badiou adds, nonetheless, to the catalogue of current neoliberal economic outrages are, for example, the systematic reductions of inheritance taxes that perpetuate hereditary wealth; the nonstop emphasis on selfish personal gain and savage competition; the “dictatorship of the market” (48) in all spheres of life including the arts; and the spread worldwide of walls and surveillance devices to lock out the poor, people of color, and foreigners. Along the way Badiou excoriates politicians and mainstream media for systematically serving the wealthy. And he is especially hard on leftist converts (socialists included) to the neoliberal dogma of the free market.
For Badiou the only viable solution to capitalism is communism. The world must “move beyond capitalism, private property, financial circulation, the despotic state … ” (39). This “communist hypothesis,” as he propounds it here and elsewhere, is linked to the key performative maxim “there is only one world” (60), an existential as well as a political axiom. Badiou’s argument raises the question of where things stand with contemporary identity politics. His straightforward answer: “The principle of the existence of a single world does not contradict the endless play of identities and differences” (68).
Critics of Badiou regularly single out certain features of his systematic philosophy, which comes to a culmination and much public attention during the opening years of the new century. The usual list includes complaints about his faith in universalist truths (most deriving from science and mathematics); his relentless advocacy of fidelity to a single cause or life-changing miraculous “event”; and his Platonist, seemingly aristocratic, contempt for current democracy in both its representative statist and its parliamentary party forms. He deplores the sham of voting, for instance. I concur with these criticisms of Badiou. In addition to his avoiding political economy, I find disappointing and perplexing the absence in Badiou of solutions to well-documented political problems. Of course, he fashions the communist argument as a “hypothesis” in order not to draw up programs. This way, he calculates, the future remains open to experimentation and innovation, with past missteps firmly in mind. In any event, in our time strong cases against capitalism must be made and communist options entertained. Badiou forwards this argument much more directly and incisively than all other major twenty-first-century theorists.
A key element of the renaissance of twenty-first-century theory involves mounting attention to the dramatic changes affecting the university under neoliberal conditions. Several dozen recent books explore this topic. Jeffrey Williams argues a new twenty-first-century subfield has matured that he usefully labels “critical university studies” (J. Williams 2012). The most dynamic branch of this subdiscipline dwells on academic labor studies. In my judgment the best book in the field is Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (2008). From the vantage point of the twenty-first-century theory renaissance, this book and the new field revitalize both personal criticism and institutional critique by focusing on work, specifically disposable academic workers, offering macroscopic critical perspectives on the university. As I write, “corporate university” appears to be the most widely accepted critical term depicting today’s neoliberalized higher education.2 Here I offer a cameo of its American version for remaining skeptics.
Beginning in the 1970s, the corporate university in the US started transforming the teaching workforce from approximately 75% of the faculty tenured or on the tenure track to by the early twenty-first century about 75% contingent faculty and a mere 25% in the tenure stream. The American academic work force is roughly 1.5 million professors. This reversal constitutes a major transformation of the teaching corps toward precarity. Meanwhile the funding of the university gradually shifted the burden onto student tuitions, private gifts and endowments, plus auxiliary businesses (“profit centers”) often outsourced such as campus food courts, bookstores, gift shops, parking, housing, and logo licensing and merchandising. US universities have come increasingly to prize patents, copyrights, and cooperative financial arrangements with corporations. Government support for public higher education has diminished dramatically in recent decades. It is not uncommon for a university’s annual operating budget to have dropped from 50% to 15% state supported. And a substantial amount of this reduced funding comes from new state-run lotteries (casino capitalism). Undergraduate student debt has increased precipitously in tandem with steep tuition rises and loss of state funding. The majority of students have to work extended low-wage hours, which increases time to completion of degree, dropout rates, and debt.
In the era of the corporate university, education has been turned into a private rather than a social good. New unregulated and unaccredited, expensive for-profit higher education institutions continue to pop up everywhere. Given considerable oversupplies of PhDs in most fields, graduate students have for their part slowed time to degree. They fill the ranks of the contingent labor force as long-term teaching assistants while being pressured to publish and professionalize in order to compete in fierce job markets. Ten years in a PhD program has become typical. Half that time was the norm in the preceding decades (1945—1975). Graduate student debt has proliferated. In addition, faculty governance, its role in shared democratic decision-making, has eroded as many more layers of administration have been added and as top-down managerial practices borrowed from the corporate world have come to predominate (Ginsberg). Academic CEO pay has skyrocketed. Given such forces at play, the mission has shifted from enlightenment and critical citizenship education to vocational training and professional preparation. The public university today resembles Wal-Mart more than the ivory tower of earlier eras. Speaking in London during 2009, Italian philosopher Franco Berardi concluded, “In the first decade of the new century intellectual labor was made precarious and forced to accept any kind of economic blackmail. The criminal class enslaved the cognitive class: knowledge was fractilised, revenue reduced, exploitation and stress grew and grew.”
Marc Bousquet highlights three waves of contemporary academic labor theory and practice in North America. The first wave from the 1960s and 1970s saw more than half the faculty unionized in state institutions. It was linked with the broader movement of the postwar Welfare State era toward public employee unions and workplace democracy. The second wave, coming to prominence during the Reagan era, witnessed the arrival of neoliberal market theory promoted by administrators, politicians, and business people. It remains committed to “assessment, ranking, pay-as-you-go, revenue maximization, and continuous competition in pursuit of excellence … ” (93). It has facilitated the rise of the disposable academic workforce. Associated with graduate student unionization drives starting in the 1990s, the third wave propounds nonmarket or market regulation accounts of academic labor.
Bousquet identifies with the third wave in his project of critiquing the corporate university and its dominant job market ideology. He is particularly critical of the reigning supply-side model of the so-called job “market.” He argues there is not an oversupply of PhDs but a deliberate undersupply of decent jobs. If higher education were to adopt a model of 85% tenure stream and 15% contingent labor, as recommended in 1993 by the American Association of University Professors, there would be a labor shortage and plenty of jobs (AAUP). Or if the wages of all contingent workers were fair—for example, $8,000—$10,000 per course instead of the usual $2,000—$3,000—there would no longer be an incentive to exploit academic workers. Another way to turn things around would be to unionize faculty (contingent and tenure stream), which Bousquet advocates while soberly assessing the past problems of academic unions. Part of Bousquet’s mission is to convince not only faculty but also their influential professional organizations to abandon the rhetoric of second-wave neoliberal market theory in favor of third-wave discourse. Not incidentally, he, like Franco Berardi, correctly observes that the corporate university is a “global phenomenon” (176) increasingly common in Europe and the global South and enforced by conditionality agreements of support required by the IMF, WB, and most other funding agencies, governmental and non-governmental.
Marc Bousquet’s engagé work on academic labor attracted early attention with a special issue of the journal Works and Days (2003) that ran a dozen articles in response to four of his essays (Derrickson). These essays later became parts of How the University Works. In his Afterword to that special issue, Bousquet calls for a project of “affective mapping” that links personal feelings to work conditions. He singles out among contingent faculty widespread feelings of desperation, betrayal, and anxiety. Indeed, his very scholarly book is shot through with anger, sarcasm, and outrage, a distinctive tone all his own of intimate critique.
To the criticism of Bousquet in the special issue of Works and Days, I add several points of my own. In his account of academic labor, Marc Bousquet gives very little time to the beleaguered tenured faculty in favor of super exploited contingent workers. Also he overlooks internal class tensions between and within the ranks of faculty, administrators, and students. However, he does pointedly criticize unions for agreeing to lower-paying tiers for younger members. His treatment of privatization is skimpy as is his discussion of debt. Bousquet has almost nothing, positive or negative, to say about minorities, affirmative action, or diversity programs. But what he forcefully advances for cultural theory is the project of teaching the university and most notably its exploitation of labor. The message of his passionate book is that there are fierce cultural struggles going on not just outside but also inside the university.
One of the readers of my manuscript suggested that I spell out the criteria I employ in selecting theory favorites. My favorites exhibit some combination of innovation, relevance, and influence. They tend to be passionate and critical, lucid and stylish, aimed at a general public. While they look back and historicize issues, they contribute to the future of the field, breaking new ground, especially in formulating or refurbishing useful concepts such as multitude, tribalcentrism, and bare life. And although some of these works are not the first, second, or third books on their topics, they are the best, meaning the most well-informed, trenchant, and critical. Examples include Harvey on neoliberalism and Bousquet on the corporate university. In addition, some of my theory favorites, for instance Michaels, are smart, that is, self-consciously and polemically excessive, original, and bold.
Alongside all these politically engaged works of cultural theory, there is a wide-ranging renaissance of academic literary theory in the twenty-first century, particularly responding to globalization. I would cite such contemporary literary types as Anglophone, Black Atlantic, Francophone, indigenous, InterAmerican, Pacific Basin, and Transatlantic literatures. All these literatures have come to undisputed scholarly recognition and flowering in the twenty-first century. In addition, the worldwide phenomenon of national political devolution has very recently revitalized minor language traditions and literatures. In the UK examples would include Irish, Scottish, and Welsh languages and literatures. In the US instances range from tribal to immigrant non-English “foreign” language literatures exemplified in the Shell and Sollors anthology. This transformation has dramatically broadened the scope and definition of national literatures. Other distinctive features of the renaissance in literary theory include, for example, Franco Moretti’s collective project on the novel as a cyclical global form, new cognitive neurobiological theories of literature (Holland), and the rebarbarization of mainstream genres from below. In the latter case, for instance, slam, performance poetry, and hip hop have injected new oral and musical energies into the poetry world (Gioia, “Disappearing”). The revolutionary eruptions of minority literatures, first flaring in the late twentieth century, continue energetically across the globe into the new century. This includes most notably literatures by women, people of color, and LGBTQ writers, for example, in post-communist nations. Last but not least, born-digital electronic literature comes into initial prominence with the extensive online anthologies posted in 2006 and 2011 by the Electronic Literature Organization. The twenty-first century has witnessed upsurges of new theories, forms, and parameters of literature.
The renaissance in theory is, to be sure, not simply a matter of a handful of groundbreaking books and theories, my favorites or yours. As noted in earlier chapters, there are numerous backlashes as well as revivals underway such as formalist and phenomenological close reading. In its current state, poststructuralism is entering a new phase, and theory of postmodernism is coming back. In a retro theory wave, moreover, many publishers have recently been reprinting theory books from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. For its part cultural studies, which the current chapter illustrates, has relaxed its longstanding commitment to national borders and traditions, taking into account more and more transnational global phenomena. Meanwhile, American studies has self-consciously fashioned a new globalized paradigm for the twenty-first century as demonstrated by the two dozen contributors to the landmark volume The Futures of American Studies (2002), edited and ably introduced by Donald Pease and Robyn Wiegman, leaders and architects of the reconfigured field. As my map indicates (Figure 1), there are numerous new fields of theory such as affective studies, ecocriticism, and cognitive studies. Other longstanding fields of criticism are undergoing revitalization, for instance, religion and literature, economics and literature, and narrative theory. Some theories like postcolonialism and New Historicism have by now spread so far and wide as to constitute the air most critics breathe. Segments of the twenty-first-century theory renaissance involve vigorous critical countercurrents such as the broad array of explicit antitheory sentiments gathered in Theory’s Empire (2005) and sampled in Chapter 2. The rebirth of the public intellectual, which began during the cultural wars of the late 1980s and 1990s, continues apace in the new century. It has lost some of its novelty but none of its relevance particularly for universities. Over time the cultural wars have shifted critical focus from Great Books and curriculum to the corporate university’s disposable labor and debilitating student debt.
How does the twenty-first-century theory renaissance relate to today’s corporate university? The university is home to theory and its renaissance. Insofar as it encourages innovation, research, and publication, theory cooperates with the mission of the corporate university. In addition, theory contributes to the long-standing modern, though increasingly vestigial, university goals of promoting literacy, critical citizenship, and appreciation of the arts in the context of tradition. Much of contemporary theory is historicist and comparatist in orientation as is the university by tradition. Furthermore, theory aids and abets the ancient admonition to know thyself, although it characteristically extends the project of reflection beyond self to society.
Yet because it came to prominence during the decades when the corporate university began replacing the Welfare State university, theory has developed in a milieu shaped by labor agitation and MBA-style administrative managerialism as well as by earlier minority activism. It has often found itself critical of the university. From the outset in the 1970s such struggles involved advocating antinomian programs in women’s studies and gender studies plus race and ethnicity studies; challenging tradition by establishing multicultural curricula and diversity in admissions and hiring; and unionizing of faculty and teaching assistants to insure adequate pay, benefits, and democratic input. More recently, theory has defended the university during the culture wars while also criticizing it for the practices of increasing tuition and student debt; deprofessionalizing the faculty into a majority low-wage workforce; and diminishing the sphere of democratic shared decision making. So the relation that theory has to today’s corporate university is at once supportive and critical but increasingly so.
I can imagine a day when many more university administrators and external stakeholders decide to relax or perhaps renounce traditions of academic freedom and shared governance, discouraging or silencing all manner of socially critical theory. In such a scenario, I wonder if theorists, many or a few, might decide to depart through silence, careerism, internal exile, or physical leave taking. It’s difficult to imagine any long-term benefits for the partners in such scenarios. They would create more disenchanted adversaries inside and outside the university; more openings for yet higher percentages of alienated low-wage faculty; and more vanquished antagonists. But in my view, theorists and the university are stuck with each other for the foreseeable future. Historically speaking, it has not always been thus. Theory thrived in many times and places separate from the academy. No doubt, the ongoing corporatization of the university will exacerbate relations, generating more calls for unionization, more demoralized internal constituents, and more energetic entrepreneurial projects and debts. Just as students are positioned as consumers, and as knowledge and wisdom have morphed into content-information-product, professors have become individual entrepreneurs in search of support for innovative and profitable outcomes. So, no matter whether professors are dedicated to cultural critique, or to formalist aesthetics, or to pure science, these entrepreneurs are caught up in the flood of values and idols swirling around and through the corporate university. As matters stand now, theory has a role as both support and, increasingly, critic of the corporate university.
1“The coming Empire is not American and the United States is not its center … . The United States certainly occupies a privileged position in the global segmentations and hierarchies of Empire” (Hardt and Negri, 384). This controversial assessment is intensely contested. See, for example, Bóron.
2In a wide-ranging review essay, “The Post-Welfare State University,” Jeffrey Williams assesses several dozen books on the history of the American university, outlining five different directions they follow. He uses the term “post-Welfare State university” to locate it historically, although common usage gravitates to “corporate university.”