Duke Literature program implodes

Last night I read the Lingua Franca article on the decline and fall of the Duke Literature department with morbid fascination. ("The Department that Fell to Earth," David Yaffe, Feb. 99) While not quite as scandalous as the discovery that Paul De Man, Yale's post-structuralism guru, had been a pro-Nazi journalist during WWII, the collapse at Duke should remind us how tenuous the whole postmodernist/poststructuralist enterprise is intellectually. Now that the material base for these trends is dying down--namely, the economic expansion of the 1980s-- it should be apparent that much of the intellectual energy will begun to dissipate. That is the real story behind Duke's debacle.

What you might also find interesting is that the Marxism list at Panix is actually the spawn of a mailing-list that a Duke literature major started over five years ago. There is a core of people, including me, who met each other on that list and who have stayed together in one permutation or another for around a half-decade.

Jon Beasley-Murray was a member of the Spoons Collective, a group of students and non-academic intellectuals who shared an interest in cultural studies. They already had begun lists on Deleuze-Guattari, Bataille, Lyotard, etc, when they decided it would be useful to have one on Marx as well. They saw Marx not as a proletarian revolutionary, but as an intellectual forerunner to Frederic Jameson! Jameson was Beasley-Murray's professor at Duke and I would be the first to admit that Jon was closer to Marxism politically than the rest of the Spoons Collective put together. He was strongly influenced by Jameson, Deleuze-Guattari and Bourdieu. His papers are online at:


Mostly what Jon was interested in was escalating the importance of culture, as opposed to underlying class relations that supposedly typified classical Marxism. This paragraph from his paper on "Value and Capital in Bourdieu and Marx" should give you an idea where he is coming from:

"Traditionally, only the exchange at the cash register concerns economics. In Marxist terms, the price paid is related to the book's value which is a combination of: the value of its means of production; the value of the variable capital (wages) required for the reproduction of the socially necessary labor time; and the value of the surplus, which is more or less equal to profit. Everything else concerns use value. On the other hand, for Bourdieu this is only the beginning of the story: selecting and then reading the book require a certain amount of cultural (particularly linguistic) capital, and the benefits of such investment yield an amount of cultural capital which may acquire a new form of exchangeable value at an academic dinner party or job interview, or with the granting of an educational diploma. Thus while for an orthodox economist the choice of Great Expectations over Neuromancer (say) is of no concern, for the economist of cultural capital such distinctions are the essential points of analysis. Indeed, Bourdieu appears to overturn the common economistic conception that use is the immediate and uncomplex satisfaction of need. Rather, he demonstrates the way in which use value is transformed into a new form of value, and thus produces cultural capital, at a scene removed from the initial, economic exchange. The question now is that of the relation between these two moments of exchange."

The Spoons Marxism list was characterized by internal contradictions from the very beginning. The post-Marxists like Beasley-Murray were frustrated by the direction the list took, when activists and classical Marxist academics signed up. By the same token, this camp found itself at war with sectarians from across the political spectrum who thought that they were in the Russian Duma of 1911 rather than a mailing-list. Jon, in keeping with the free speech metaphysic that had been institutionalized by Duke department head Stanley Fish, insisted that the list remain unmoderated. It was only during the course of a particularly bitter flame war with supporters of Peru's Shining Path that a decision was made to moderate the list. Unfortunately, one of the moderators turned out to be not only incurably sectarian, but certifiably insane, so we were forced to look elsewhere. Doug's LBO-Talk list and the Marxism list at Panix are the grandchildren of Jon Beasley-Murray's original list.

I suspect that the internal crisis at Duke and other shake-ups in the world of postmodernism have taken their toll on Jon. He was profoundly shaken by the Sokal affair and wrote a short article on how this had made him reconsider many of his theoretical assumptions. Unfortunately, his web page no longer has the piece otherwise I would have included it.

The most interesting observation in the Lingua Franca article is that nearly all of the Duke literature professors had gone off on a memoir-writing jag. Postmodernism, with its obsession with the "subject", seems to have compelled all the various professors to describe how their own subject was constructed. Hence, confessional writings became the norm for such superstars as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who dwelt on childhood spankings in her anthology "Tendencies".

David Yaffe observes that "In retrospect, the department's memoir-writing phase seems virtually predestined, an inevitable turn for an institution that made little effort to foster a sense of collective purpose or identity among its members, stressing their value as individuals instead."

This is the underlying logic of all postmodernist thought, and is at the root of Judith Butler's philosophy as well. "Collective purpose" is nowhere to be found, as each individual seeks his or her own personal liberation. Bracketing out politics and society seems essential to this enterprise. Once you do this, you end up with the sort of extreme individual isolation that characterizes existential philosophy.

I know that Duke was driving Jon a bit crazy. Now that he has gone back to England and is a lecturer in the Department of Hispanic Studies at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, he must be a lot happier. I can't help but wondering whether a class he gave at Duke might be a commentary on the insanity that was taking place all around him at the time:

Lit 20s.01: Why Education is Bad for You (and for everyone else you know)

Instructor: Jon Beasley-Murray

Synopsis of course content: This course will look at debates concerning school and schooling from a variety of perspectives, and in a variety of media (social theory, literature, film, etc.). Particular (but not exclusive) attention will be given to the suggestion that the function of educational institutions is above all to perpetuate and legitimate an unjust social order. This suggestion will be compared above all to the contrasting proposals either that a) schooling can be a force for liberation or b) that it is possible to liberate oneself from schooling.

Correction from Jon Beasley_Murray:

Greetings from Scotland, and thanks to Lou for his comments and analysis, which seldom fail to be interesting and are usually pertinent, if not always 100% accurate.

On accuracy, I'll just mention that the department at Duke that has "imploded" is not the Literature Program (at which I did, and continue to do, my PhD), but the English Department.

And while the press may consistently confuse various theoretical and political tendencies--tarring them all with the same brush--it would be unwise to repeat this move if one wants an effective analysis. Thus beware: not all poststructuralisms, postmodernisms or postmarxisms are alike. Specifically, in this case, Stanley Fish (former chair of the English department) is an avowed conservative--if one worth listening to--while Fred Jameson (chair of the Literature Program) is more Marxist--of a Hegelian or Lukacsian variety--than postmarxist.

But the fact that the Literature Program (whose program is generally much more recognizeably leftist) remains sturdy while serious problems have been revealed in the (generally more conservative) English Department is less, I think, a result of its political or theoretical orientation than of rather different hiring strategies, relations among the faculty, and the fact that it has always had fewer significant internal divisions.

Not such an interesting story, but perhaps a more complicated one concerning academic labor practices and corporate organization.

Meanwhile, rather than search for the apocryphal article that might reflect how much I was shaken by the Sokal affair (and rather than take the ironic reference to this affair at face value), perhaps better to look at my article "Peronism and the Secret History of Cultural Studies: Populism and the Substitution of Culture for State," in _Cultural Critique_ 39 (Spring 1998): 189-217. This might also clarify, a little better than can Lou, my position on the role of culture in politics.

And education is bad for you whether you are at Duke, Aberdeen, or anywhere else. I know many said this on the old marxism list (Lou first among them), but they sometimes forgot that you don't have to be outside of academia to say it. Indeed, some of us hope that we may be heard saying it within academia.

Take care and regards to all, especially to Lou


Jon Beasley-Murray
Hispanic Studies University of Aberdeen