One of the perhaps minor consequences of the ongoing devaluation at the symbolic and not only the practical level of the academic humanities, specifically in the literary and cultural studies fields, in art, in film, perhaps also in non-analytic philosophy, is that we have allowed the use of the misnomer “research,” taken from other fields of inquiry, to stand in for our intellectual activity. But research is for most of us a subsidiary activity. Perhaps there always have been some hard-core philologists whose hermeneutic practice could more precisely be called research in the archival and nowadays mostly digital dust, but for a great deal of us it is the alternative notion of “writing” that commands and should command our attention—writing and thought, even if the latter is rarer. Surely writing requires some research, because most writing in the literary and cultural studies field, perhaps also in non-analytic philosophy, is critico-exegetic, therefore based on commentary of other texts that must be found and selected and analysed. And then of course what others have said about those very texts, or about similar texts, must be found out and considered. But, if we chose to be true to ourselves, we should admit that we do less and less of that secondary study nowadays. At any rate, all of that activity is for us, thank god, I am not complaining, at least in the best of cases, subsidiary and derivative in terms of our goals, or in terms of what our goals should be. In principle we aim to say something that cannot be reduced to research, because the truths we seek, whatever content we give to that word, are not factical truths. No object research will exhaust them: it can only set the conditions for them. And they are conditions for which any specific piece of research is to an extent replaceable.
I wonder whether, in the face of the ongoing radical delegitimation of writing as an academic pursuit, it is perhaps time to revise our own presuppositions and to take a second look at what the institution (in the wider sense) seems to expect or to demand of us, even if in an increasingly derisive manner. I suppose it is not in our interest to claim that most academic writing is simply subservient to the play of ideology. It is common, nevertheless, to plan and then deploy our writing at the service of some social opinion or other, at times a hegemonic one, at times counterhegemonic. We write—the field writes—for the most part in order to confirm ideological opinion, whether it is the majoritarian one or the one that is itself the consequence of some prior critical rejection of the majoritarian perspective. In either case, however, our writing remains confined to the procedure of following, and following up on, ideological production. But it is only deluded to think that such particular confinement might move by itself into the terrain of heroic machination. If we do seek to be true to ourselves, we should admit that some form of heroic machination is the real motor of our writing activity, and the institutional calls for “social impact” and “social relevance” are threatening to make that behavior overwhelmingly present. The writer sets out, under or within the heroic machination device, to triumph out there, to be hailed by the people, or by some sector of the people. The writer deludedly puts on the mask of the hero—the hero of the majority, the one who will confirm social presuppositions, or the hero of the oppositional party, the denouncer, the one who has some potent social message to impart in order to rescue the masses from their somnambulistic abyss. But the masses could not care less. The writer falls short. And how could it not be so?
I seek to claim, say, that the conservative right is wrong and has always been wrong in its interpretation of the symbolic importance of Chicana fiction; or I claim that the hapless left continues to make unfair mistakes in its understanding of the biased sexual identifications of Latin American boom writers. Well, boring as all of that normally is, the fallen industry of critical production in literary and film studies, in cultural studies and philosophy, thrives on those distinctions and, what is worse, or much worse, can rarely move past them. And when it does, it finds hostile reproach or deadening silence. Critico-exegetic discourse today follows ideological lines under the pretext of politicization, as if the latter value were all that can be adduced, and precisely in terms of the social relevance and impact so cherished by our thoroughly hypocritical administrations and state legislatures. As if politicization were one way or another all that academic writing can do, all that merits doing. But then of course it is forgotten to what utterly dialectical extent the aim of total politicization necessarily depoliticizes and ends up producing mere undistinguishable white noise and static chatter. Academic writing in the literary and cultural studies fields, also in film studies and philosophy, also in other disciplines, is gambling at its lethal risk with its conversion into white academic noise and static chatter, thus indirectly helping the life mission of our current administrators to sink writerly reflection into what would then be its well-deserved grave.
Is it not time to rescue writing from its self-created doldrums? I remember when, some years ago, a well-known and generally better-disliked conservative critic thought that his moment of glory had arrived when somebody in the LASA executive committee made the mistake of sending him an invitation to speak about his latest book at the LASA convention, since LASA was for that critic nothing but a vipers’ nest of liberal leftism. The thought he had reached the pinnacle and acme of his career as he triumphed over his enemies was of course outright laughable. And he has never again been seen at LASA. But let me use him as an example of what I am calling the heroic-machination device as the main motor for critical writing today.
What is it to me, or to you, that many of your colleagues find that you contribute to their social and political opinions? Or even that they find themselves so perplexed by your cunning that they have no choice but to act as if they shared them or could countenance them? Is that really the mark of glory and prestige in our career fields? If we were to be true to ourselves, I am afraid, we would have to admit that it is—primarily and for the most part. This is the way careers are made, and there is no other. In our literary and cultural fields, etc. So perhaps after all a little revision of what it is we do and aim to do when we write is in order. We do not have to internalize the bogus parameters of our administrators, who are themselves the parrots and cockatoos of other administrators; indeed, it is only because we do internalize them that they succeed in their banally destructive momentum—which will cease being banal only when we discover that it is already too late to put an end to them. In the meantime we write as if social relevance and impact were what mattered, which is certainly the best way of turning our writing into a publicity stunt, of prostituting it, and of cancelling it out, and of making sure it will never have any possible impact whatsoever, whatever some hapless dean committees and funding agencies out there seem to think (but they don´t think, they just follow orders.)
God knows, I am not calling for any depoliticization of critical writing. Much to the contrary—I am writing this tirade under the desperation prompted in me by a number of articles sent to me for review over the summer—I say that the university, at least in the humanities, is today much less political than it ever has been, and this right at the moment when its employees think of themselves at their most political, because both faculty and graduate students claim, now more than ever, that they cannot and will not see anything beyond the political issue that is calling for an opinion, because there is nothing to be seen other than political opinionating. So political opinionating, at times frank and outright, but most of the time barely disguised as (inadequate, trivial) research, is all they can and will come up with. For the sake of their minor heroic machinations, redescribed of course as major contributions to the enlightenment of a world spirit that will not arise from its cold ashes. But there is no foam of the infinite in our contemporary modalities of critical writing, which are at the end of the day a symptomatic manifestation of a massive shrinking of existential experience. Do we still think, will we allow ourselves still to think, from there, that we could conceivably have anything worthwhile to teach our students?