Experiments Against Reality: The Fate of Culture in the Postmodern Age. By Roger Kimball. Ivan R. Dee. $28.50.
Humanities professors hate Roger Kimball, and why shouldn’t they? Ever since the publication of Tenured Radicals ten years ago, Kimball has derided the boorish moralism and pretentious radicalism of multiculturalists, feminists, cultural-studies theorists, deconstructionists, and Marxists, as well as museum curators, educators, and a host of professional diversity-mongers. In his monthly bully pulpit inThe New Criterion, from which the materials of Experiments Against Reality are taken, Kimball sets their sentiments–for the Other, for race and gender relativism, for pop-cultural politics–against his values–erudition, clarity, high culture–with consistent results. Their era of liberation, the sixties, is his pandemonium. In Kimball’s hands, professors and administrators appear barely competent, blithely self-satisfied, and naive or cynical about their own coercions. He mocks their demigods: "One imagines that Nietzsche would have loathed such poseurs as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault (to name only two). Such bad taste! Such bad writing!" He scorns their judgment: "In one memorable effusion, Mr. Hightower [a MOMA director] publicly delivered himself of the opinion that ‘I happen to think that everybody is an artist.’" Kimball’s gloss: "It is not often given to us to encounter fatuousness so deliciously blank and unadorned." He laments their influence: "Deconstructive themes and presuppositions have increasingly become part of the general intellectual atmosphere. . .they float almost unnoticed, part of the ambient spiritual pollution of our time." Unconcerned with academic promotion and grant application (which cow the professoriate), Kimball is a rogue antagonist, a critic-at-large pressing his cultural ideals against the idols of the academic mind with wit and fury.
For academics, the challenge that Kimball poses is triply frustrating. First, he spots errors in their scholarship and solecisms in their sentences–galling criticisms weakening the credibility of professors who pride themselves on their rigor and sense of language. Second, Kimball has an extramural readership, and academics do not. Far better than they, he fills the coveted role of public intellectual. When academics descend the Ivory Tower and go public, they often speak as though they were still in a department meeting. With luck, their books sell seven hundred copies. Last year, Kimball’sThe Long March sold twenty thousand cloth copies.
Third, and most troubling, in the court of public opinion, Kimball won the polemical war. The epithet "tenured radicals" stuck. That a narrow-minded PC mindset dominates the humanities became a truth universally accepted and academics have been on the defensive ever since. The strategy was simple. Kimball observed professors in their habitat, cited their speech–e.g., Houston Baker equating Gertrude Himmelfarb with Strom Thurmond–and readers recoiled. Academics countered that Kimball quoted them out of context and that the terms they used have greater nuance than Kimball acknowledged. Hence, when Derrida says that writing precedes speech, he doesn’t mean that inscribing letters comes before uttering words in a historical or ontogenetic scheme. "Writing" signifies something more complex, bearing upon cognition and representation per se. This may have worked–with people who spent years in graduate seminars incorporating those subtleties. But absent an academic training, the apologies sounded hollow.
This is the space that Kimball exploits, between academic understanding and common sense. The former requires too much forebearance, too much credulousness from the uninitiated. Kimball’s arguments are occasionally rough, and his distinctions could be sharper–e.g., deconstruction is not a species of Leftist criticism–but greater finesse would blur the point. To observe the wily conceptual shadings and stylistic excesses of academic critique would be to capitulate to its rhetoric, which is itself part of the problem. For Kimball, adjusting oneself to its ironies, abstractions, neologisms, scarequotes, sneerquotes, parentheses, paradoxes, qualifiers, and redefinitions is to lose one’s intellectual bearings. Academics say, "First, you must learn our language; then we can talk." Kimball replies, "Your language, from the start, is tendentious."
Kimball’s writings offer weapons of resistance to such indoctrination. Against the dogma of the cultural Left, they set a traditional criterion: the lessons of history, ordinary experience, beauty, reality. In Experiments Against Reality, the choice is, obviously, the latter. The title comes from Hannah Arendt, who conceived it as a description of totalitarianism, in which "gullibility and cynicism" mixed and citizens came to believe "everything was possible and nothing was true." Kimball claims that the formula also applies to the "cultural relativists of today," to the theoreticians of "competing barbarisms": postcolonialism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, cultural studies, "Sensation"-style art, and so on. Their language gainsays the simplest observations of objects; their ideas distort the past into an unrelieved nightmare of repression; their politics ignores the events of the last decade, from the crumbling of the Wall to the opening of KGB archives. The cultural Left is totalitarian in that it recognizes only human forces in the world. Reality is a construct, history the record of those in power, experience the crystalization of ideology. Such revisions are cast as breakthrough insights. Moreover–and this may be their prime attraction–they assign the critic a heady task: not just to evaluate artworks, but also to transvalue all things.
The examples are legion. When Derrida opens Disseminationwith "This (therefore) will not have been a book," he shakes the reality of the thing readers hold in their hand. When critics praise the art of Gilbert and George–"two men, often naked, sometimes in various obscene postures, occupy the foreground. . . .The background usually consists of photographic images of bodily fluids or waste products"–as reminiscent of classical nudes by Michelangelo and Raphael, they not only ignore canons of taste, but also annihilate every historical element save the naked male body. When Foucault asks of the postwar era, "What could politics mean when it was a question of choosing between Stalin’s USSR and Truman’s America?" he concocts an equivalence that many would judge fantastical. Sartre casts all human relations in terms of "‘the Other,’ as if this strangely impersonal, dehumanizing locution named our most common experiences of other people." Grand theories like Hegel’s dialectic "clean up the untoward messiness of reality," absorb any circumstance into a sweeping, adroit design. Indeed, while the term "theory" originally signified a "contemplative attitude of beholding," it now "involves the willful imposition of one’s ideas upon reality."
Kimball broaches this reality-distortion through sixteen chapters, each devoted to a single figure. The portraits illustrate mental aspects, or symptoms (to Kimball), of modern life, and should be treated as specimens of cultural diagnosis, not scholarly analysis. Kimball is an essayist, closer to Dwight McDonald than to a literature professor. He quotes people’s writings selectively, then jumps to broad conclusions. He dispenses judgments of taste with surety. He lets a haughty remark do the job of patient scrutiny. These are the trappings of polemic, directed to a non-specialist audience.
Sometimes the figures chosen are courageous resisters of cultural decay. T. E. Hulme decried the "delusive self-infatuation" of Romanticism. T. S. Eliot searched for a belief concordant with his "craving for reality." Wallace Stevens, despite his aestheticism, "increasingly acknowledged the recalcitrance of reality in the face of the blandishments of the imagination." Austrian novelist Robert Musil recognized the "moral significance of scientific rationality" without slipping into anti-science Romanticism or pro-science Prometheanism. Although "cozy nihilists parrot his ideas and attitudes," Nietzsche predicted the moral bankruptcy and timid valuelessness of contemporary thinkers. German neo-Thomist Josef Pieper recalls philosophy’s former task–to inject life with wisdom and insight.