Blind Man with a Pistol

Crtitical Hostility

The latest foray of conservatism, this time from the Wall Street Journal, in its interminable hostility towards critical theory:

Priya Venkatesan taught English at Dartmouth College. She maintains that some of her students were so unreceptive of “French narrative theory” that it amounted to a hostile working environment. She is also readying lawsuits against her superiors, who she says papered over the harassment, as well as a confessional exposé, which she promises will “name names.”

The trauma was so intense that in March Ms. Venkatesan quit Dartmouth and decamped for Northwestern. She declined to comment for this piece, pointing instead to the multiple interviews she conducted with the campus press.

Ms. Venkatesan lectured in freshman composition, intended to introduce undergraduates to the rigors of expository argument. “My students were very bully-ish, very aggressive, and very disrespectful,” she told Tyler Brace of the Dartmouth Review. “They’d argue with your ideas.” This caused “subversiveness,” a principle English professors usually favor.

Ms. Venkatesan’s scholarly specialty is “science studies,” which, as she wrote in a journal article last year, “teaches that scientific knowledge has suspect access to truth.” She continues: “Scientific facts do not correspond to a natural reality but conform to a social construct.”

The agenda of Ms. Venkatesan’s seminar, then, was to “problematize” technology and the life sciences. Students told me that most of the “problems” owed to her impenetrable lectures and various eruptions when students indicated skepticism of literary theory. She counters that such skepticism was “intolerant of ideas” and “questioned my knowledge in very inappropriate ways.” Ms. Venkatesan, who is of South Asian descent, also alleges that critics were motivated by racism, though it is unclear why.

So, this “journalist” throws a few scare quotes over “problematize,” “heteronormativity” and “deconstruction” in a gleeful stitch-up of academia while casually dismissing claims of sexism and racism on the part of the school’s administration and student body. What never seems to come up in these conversations about the absurdity of academic-speak (as if scholars of literature have no stake in promoting clear and concise writing) is that they are almost always directed at radical leftist writers from conservative or bourgeois liberal corners.

Forget the ignorance or sheer refusal to study the fundamentals whence this kind of theory issues, such decontextualization highlights the very political motivation such critical theory attempts to foreground in areas it is presumed not to occupy. It is no accident or act of providence that the most widely used technology was developed as military projects, nor is it simply an interest in bettering grammar and scientific logic in his readership that compels this “journalist” to attack Dr. Priya Venkatesan (referred throughout the “article” as “Ms.”). When Dennis Dutton premiered his “Bad Writing Contest” in the (conservative) culture journal he edits, he curiously targeted some of the most radical leftist thinkers in North America, like Judith Butler and America’s premier Marxist critic, Fredric Jameson.

This is not to say that bad writing or suspect comprehension of science is not a problem in literary scholarship, on the contrary, the publish-or-perish mentality of many young academics generates all manner of futile text. But the underhanded treatment of Dr. Venkatesan (by an administration that refused to support her when it presumably knew what kind of research she was involved in) underlines what is at stake when such ignorant attacks are levied at studies in the humanities: the freedom to challenge the conservative, regressive tenets that underpin our society with which as progressives, we should ceaselessly seek to dispense. It is anti-intellectualism at its worst: a profound expression of ignorance, entitlement and fear.

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