The Deep State of the Culture Wars

“The University in Ruins”: A Retrospective Appreciation

Twenty odd years ago, I undertook a “career” change, although one could hardly call the decades I spent as an editor and independent publisher a “career.” If anything, “career” as a verb (taken over in contemporary usage by “careen”) would best describe my youthful adventures in West Coast poetry. That I ended up starting graduate school at age 49, with only a B.A. on my educational resume, and within twenty years managed to get promoted to full professor at CSU Long Beach is a very peculiar evolution.

In one of my first courses at UCSD, I read Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins, which was published posthumously. My recollection is that the manuscript had reached an almost final polish, but that he was still working on it when he was killed in a plane crash. If I had had a chance to give his penultimate draft a quick bit of advice, I would have urged him to point out to readers something that was probably all too obvious to him, but that most readers might not be aware of. Readings emphasized that the term “excellence,” which was the keyword at that time for the purpose of the university, no longer had any meaning. It was an empty term. My quibble had to do with his lack of its genealogy. “Excellence” can be traced back to Plato’s academy, which might seem like a negligible point, but in not mentioning it Readings misses a chance to show how long a shelf-life “excellence” has had; in fact, its expiration date would seem to have rubbed off its label, and only those who were paying attention would notice this lacunae.

Readings further argued that the State no longer had need of literature to provide a bulwark for its ideological work in sustaining the fiction of a nation. His points are exceptionally well argued, but I am no longer so certain of that severance. Has not the rhizomatic impetus of multiculturalism become an aggravating provocation to the racism of those who aspire to corporate hegemony? Indeed, the advocates of neo-fascist legitimation have made literature’s proliferating diversity an even more urgent target, especially in the favoritism they grant to STEM education.

The infrastructure of 21st century capitalism in the United States may no longer need novels and poems to sustain the self-reflecting mirror of its pragmatic metanarrative of national identity as the springboard of its global imperialism, but literature’s critique of canon formation still remains an elusive adversary. The educational bureaucrats who insist on minimizing the role that critical thinking and imaginative literacy should play in undergraduate education only serve to demonstrate the potential that the ability to encounter and analyze our “patrimony” of national literature still possesses as a mean of subverting the agenda of corporate tyrants.

The irrelevance of the humanities in general and literature in particular to economic “progress” has apparently not sunk in yet with advertisers, however. Perhaps a future issue of “WATCH YOUR TIME: The First Watch Magazine with Augmented Reality” will realize that using canonical literary quotations has no impact whatsoever on sales of new watches, but the brand names that signed off on the current issue’s must have believed that cultural capital still retains its allure. “Full fathom five thy father lies. Of his bones are coral made.” Such is the opening for Blancpain’s ecologically-primed ad for its Fifty Fathoms watch. Further pages in, we find:

“The best ideas are common property.” — Seneca

“There is no exquisite beauty … without some strangeness in the proportion.” — Edgar Allan Poe

What is now proved was once only imagined.” — William Blake

“I will go anywhere, provided it be forward.” — David Livingstone

The inclusion of Livingstone would seem to be the perfect touchstone for literature and empire still being capable of being collegial in this planetary transmogrification.

While I have no desire to own one of these watches, or to wear one under any circumstances, I have to compliment the editorial director for the way that Poe’s quotation invokes another line of Ariel’s song: “into something rich and strange.” Indeed, in the “sea-change” of this era, it is strange to see wealth simultaneously intent on erasing literary knowledge in the educations of its future employees, and yet still using literature to fashion the surface demarcations of its hierarchy’s status.