How I Got Through Graduate School in the Midst of the PC Decade

My parents raised me telling me that it wasn’t polite to talk about politics or religion. As a result, I have measured my life on other (I would say more lasting and important) matters. My family is by far the most important thing in my life. I have been married to the love of my life for 20+ years, and have two perfect children to show for it. I have a PhD in English, but instead of pursuing a career as a teacher I managed to work for myself (until I had a stroke) as a SQL programmer, a job that wasn’t for everyone but I loved it.

I’ve said it before. I’m not a political person. I don’t have anything against those who are political. And I do not mean to diminish anyone else’s political positions. I would simply prefer not to talk about them and get about the work of raising my family and doing my work. Nor does that I mean that I don’t have political positions. My political positions are based on the idea of freedom. I want the government out of my life and out of my pockets. Live and let live is my motto, and as long as you don’t have your hands in my pocket, it doesn’t really matter what you believe, nor should it affect my relationship with you.

But in reality, it’s not so simple, or at least it hasn’t been for me. My experience in graduate school made it necessary to declare myself on a whole host of political issues. In my humble opinion this was the result of intellectuals working in the post-Marxist world of the 20th century.

Hegel, Husserl, and Marx

The dialectical universe posited by Hegel (of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis leading to the appearance of ‘Spirit’ in history) was appropriated and reversed by Marx, who thought that the appearance of economic factors were the drivers of history and that the (unselfish) mass proletariat were being appropriated by a few oligarchic (and selfish) capitalists. I have no problem with that theory as theory. People can (and do) believe all sorts of things.

People who cling to Hegel cling because he solves many of the previously unresolved problems of ‘truth’ in the history of philosophy. However, the belief in Hegel arises, not from the truth of the matter—how could anyone prove such things as are posited in the Phenomenology of Spirit?—but from the deep representation of the history of philosophy in his Phenomenology. The representation of ‘truth’ is posited by Hegel, but in fact that Hegel begins with a section on ‘Consciousness,’ and from this starting position works his way to a section of ‘Spirit.’ There is some imaginative work going on in his configuration of ‘the truth.’

Once we recognize the creep of imagination into Hegel’s ‘picture’ of ‘the truth,’ we have a problem sorting out truth from fiction in the Hegelian world. This was the work of Husserl in the 20th century, who asked about the boundaries of experience and found that by ‘bracketing’ off characteristics of objects outside the mind that there was little left of the individual mind which was a central and critical piece of the Cartesian puzzle.

Soon we had the whole Cartesian experience of a solid individual at the center of the universe who is connected to God (or a metaphysical substitute for God) falling apart in the works of Wittgenstein (in particular) and Derrida (more generally). It was in the sphere of public language that communication takes place, and not in the private language of the individual mind. This leads Roger Scruton to divide modern theories between first person accounts (Descartes) and third person accounts (Wittgenstein) of individual minds with no sure resolution to such problems.

Marx is a late attempt to reveal the causes of the world through the reversal of Hegel’s drive towards the appearance of ‘Spirit’ in the world. Marx was more interested in those things that the drive towards ‘Spirit’ were concealing from thinkers. History was being driven, not by the positive role of top-down ‘Spirit,’ but by the gradual forgetting of the true causes of history: bottom-up economic factors.

In terms of the tradition of philosophy’s quest to bring the ideal and the possible in line with the world of the actual, this theory has a lot going for it. Marx posits a history of philosophy based in Plato’s doctrine of memory. We as individuals have forgotten our ancient home, which is not in our individual selves (species) but in the generic (genera) sense of community.

Now, as it turned out, the Soviet Union had tried to implement this ‘perfect’ system and they found that, although it appeared to bring the ideal and the real together for the first time in history, it suffered setbacks. Eventually, the Soviet Union collapsed out of the weakness which was born of their inefficient use of resources in a competitive world of competition. China has learned many (though not all) of the lessons of the failed policies of the Soviet Union.

The lesson here is that a simple reversal of a bad theory does not a good theory make.

Academia’s Marxism

No one will admit it, but academics rely too much on Marx in their configuration of the economic world. I don’t want to argue with them, so I will simply tell you a story that happened to me when I was leaving the Champaign-Urbana campus for Dayton, OH. Another perfectly nice woman was facing the fact that, though she liked graduate school and was a great student, she was going to run out of time before she could finish her dissertation. She was discussing her plans with me. She said (without any sense of irony) that she was going to teach the world outside academia about economics. She thought that Americans in the business world were unsophisticated rubes who had no organization in their greedy pursuit of a dollar.

Her problem (in my opinion) was her hubris in thinking that a) America business didn’t know about business, management, finance, and economics and that b) she did. She is not alone in academia.

I would characterize her as a Marxist, but she would have argued with me had I said it to her face. There are all sorts of subtle grades available to them to avoid affixing the appellation of Marxism to their thought. But the fact remains that people within academia have a very narrow (yet unbelievably deep) sense of economic possibility that is ultimately derived from Marx’s reversal of Hegel’s too optimistic configuration of the universe into a neatly balanced set of opposites based in nature.

Herbert Marcuse

Herbert Marcuse wrote one of my favorite books in the academic tradition: One-Dimensional Man. In it, he posits most men as having a ‘one-dimensional’ approach to looking at the world. But, being a dialectician, he knew that there were two sides to any question. By concentrating on only the one-side, the ‘positive side,’ ‘one-dimensional man’ becomes an oppressor. It is the obligation all men to ‘fight the power’ of one-dimensional man by bringing—by revolution, if necessary—the repressed, oppressed, and suppressed wonders to light.

We can glimpse his plan by looking at his Table of Contents, which I reproduce in full:

PART I One-Dimensional Society
	1 The New Forms of Control
	2 The Closing of the Political Universe
	3 The Conquest of the Unhappy Consciousness: Repressive Desublimation
	4 The Closing of the Universe of Discourse
PART II One-Dimensional Thought
	5 Negative Thinking: the Defeated Logic of Protest
	6 From Negative to Positive Thinking:
		Technological Rationality and the Logic of Domination
	7 The Triumph of Positive Thinking: One-Dimensional Philosophy 
PART III The Chance of the Alternatives
	8 The Historical Commitment of Philosophy
	9 The Catastrophe of Liberation   
Conclusion

Analysis of Marcuse

Marcuse sets himself up, after Marx and Hegel, in an ‘either/or’ dialectical pattern. From this firmly held position, he utilizes a set of military metaphors: defeat, conquest, triumph. He then proceeds to sort people on the basis of the ‘you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us’ model.

He believes, moreover, that all this sorting is ‘natural,’ rather than ‘artificial.’ Artificiality, in fact, is something we should rid ourselves of. In the introduction to the book, Marcuse talks about this very fact.

Such abstraction which refuses to accept the given universe of facts as the final context of validation, such “transcending” analysis of the facts in the light of their arrested and denied possibilities, pertains to the very structure of social theory.

In other words, he is going to tell us ‘the truth’ using social theory rather than the ‘lies’ that the one-dimensional men tell themselves. He continues to ground his thought in history, rather than metaphysics:

It is opposed to all metaphysics by virtue of the rigorously historical character of the transcendence. The “possibilities” must be within the reach of the respective society; they must be definable goals of practice. (xli-xlii)

There are a lot of assumptions in these statement that I for one cannot accept. The first is Marcuse’s denial of his ‘transcendence’ as metaphysical, because of the ‘rigorously historical character of the transcendence.’ He is, in other words, trying to be ‘metaphysical’ through history rather than leaping off into another (non-existent) world of spirits, ghosts, and undines. That is fair. Another is that the possibilities of social theory ‘must be within the reach of the respective society.’ That is also fair, if true.

Unfortunately, neither assumption is necessarily true on its face. Just because he has denied metaphysics as ‘otherworldly’ doesn’t mean that he is searching for something other than transcendence. He has simply reconfigured ‘transcendence’ from the other world to this, and by this rhetorical maneuver he thinks to have solved the problem of metaphysics.

This has a long history in Western civilization, starting in particular with the Humanist movement, which substituted history for transcendent truths (see Lorenzo Valla for the most important proponent of this idea). This was followed up in the Enlightenment, where reason was all and we were to ecrasez the infame of religion in order to restore lost human perfection.

Marcuse’s system only makes sense if there is no break in the rational argument. But there is a break, and rather than acknowledge it, Marcuse allows a vague ‘unconsciousness’ to impinge on an otherwise perfect consciousness. What is in our unconscious mind? Who knows? It’s unconscious. But that doesn’t forbid thinkers (like Freud) from telling us what they think is going on in our unconscious minds. (It’s all about sex, you see. Oh wait. It wasn’t all about sex after all. It’s now all about chemical imbalance in the brain. What will those wacky psychologists think of next?)

The unconscious mind is one of those tools that have allowed Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers to posit solutions to ever-present problems of human life and to bleed off the waste product of their thought into the unreal world of the unconscious. By this move, Marcuse erases any uncertainty of outcomes. He knows. If you don’t agree, then there is some ‘unconscious’ tendency to ‘one-dimensionality’ buried in your unconscious mind (or is it your subconscious; silly me is always getting get those two mixed up). You must be sent for reeducation in order for you to see ‘both sides’ of every question. And your progress will be measured on your willingness to accept the claims of under-carriage of society and to reject the outward and appealing body of the societal automobile.

This is a classic reversal that has a long history in Western philosophy, one which is repeated in Marx’s reversal of Hegel. In rejecting the theory, you are rejecting the way of Socrates himself. And who you to reject the thought of a thinker like Socrates?

My Experience

There was no relief from these kinds of ‘with us or against us’ arguments when I was in graduate school. For this reason, I had a hard time fitting in. I take full responsibility for this.

What happened (in my opinion) was that I left school at 19, determined to find answers outside of school that I could not find within. During the course of my education, I worked through Joseph Campbell. This was the greatest experience of my life out of school. But I found him wanting in certain respects. I went back to school confident that someone knew the answers that had eluded me but seemed so apparent in figures like James Joyce, a man whose work appealed (and still appeals) to me as the intellectual to beat all intellectuals. I went back to school determined to resolve what I (foolishly) thought were easily resolvable questions.

While I was out of school, I had worked in a bank. This gave me a better sense of economics than those who had worked in academic environments their whole lives. Not that my sense of how the economy works was very good. My sense was merely better in a relative sense.

This business experience made me suspect in the eyes of my Marxist-trained colleagues. I thought if I just explained myself to them and just explained my reservations about their configuration of thought that we could have a public discussion and resolve these questions together.

This actually worked in my undergraduate program. But as soon as I got into graduate school, everything changed at once. On the first day of school, I became involved with one of my teachers because I spoke up and said I like to outline every paper in advance. She told me I was a Nazi, and for the rest of the semester—until I made it my new year’s resolution never to answer a question with anything more than a yes or no—I was singled out whenever anybody (students as well as teachers) needed to have someone take the Nazi position on teaching.

Unfortunately, I didn’t catch on at once. At first I thought that it was just a matter of having gone to a second-rate school. I hoped that the first-rate school that I got into for my PhD would prove me right. It turned out to be worse at UIUC than at the second-rate school.

My Unfortunate Position

This was only apparent to me who was on the outside looking in. I decided to major in Medieval Studies on account of my having taken a class with Caron Cioffi in The Sources of Chaucer. In that class we read Virgil, Ovid, Dante, and the Roman de la Rose in preparation for reading Chaucer’s Troilus. The comprehensiveness of that course of study appealed to me. I was fortunate to have met Sylvia Huot as an undergraduate student. She was the world’s expert on the Roman de la Rose, and she got me excited about that work in particular.

Medieval Studies at UIUC was extremely conservative on account of having to master many languages like Old French, Latin, and Old Norse. And I actually enjoyed the conservative nature of Medieval Studies as opposed to ‘looser’ subjects that didn’t have such emphasis on rigor.

But at the same time, I was a forward-thinking person who thought that there was something wrong with the standard picture of the Middle Ages as other (‘alterity’ is what we used to call it). This seemed to me to divide modern reactions from medieval reactions (‘specific difference’ (‘species’) in the language of logic that I was working in) without a base of similarity (‘genus’ in the language of Aristotle). Everything was difference. I found that position (ironically) to be the modern position. Moreover, after 4 years of learning the language of logic, I knew that Aristotle had a fuller description of logical processes than modern man did.

Moreover, I liked the medieval configuration better (still do). This was largely due to the fact that the standard rules of disengagement (of us from other) didn’t seem to apply to my cherished Roman de la Rose. I thought that it deconstructed the world of logic from the metaphysics that i was being told that ‘every medieval thinker must adhere to.’ It did, but not in the proscribed manner.

My thought on the matter was that the author of the Rose knew what he was talking about better than I did. This was not a controversial position. It only became so when it conflicted with the need to keep my modern vision separate from the medieval vision and to value the modern position as more enlightened than the medieval position.

My dilemma was that my adherence to standards of academic rigor made me a conservative in liberal circles (one of ‘them’), while my embrace of deconstruction made my work too liberal for comfort in conservative circles (one of ‘them’). I was a man without a country.

How Marx Took the Place of the Metaphysical Point of View

The modern concept of revolution pre-dated the work of Marx, going all the way back to Rousseau, Voltaire, and their collective call for the French Revolution. Eventually that failed, and people started clamoring for another revolution in 1848 even before Marx had written.

After that movement, too, petered out, tensions slowly within the revolutionary movement to get on with the work of recreating modern society once and for all. These included a young German named Marx who wrote The Communist Manifesto and a bunch of other stuff. Marx’s work fed into the incipient revolutionaries’ work of creating a ‘new’ and ‘modern’ form of government. He put a footing under the work of revolution by offering a more palatable target than Hegel’s vague ‘Spirit’ to aim for. He provided an immediate target of greedy bourgeoisie capitalist pigs who existed now, not in some future that no one could see yet.

With such tools as Marx provided, the real work of the revolution didn’t get underway until the anarchists of the 1890s and completed by the the Russian Revolution in 1917 (history, alas, moves slowly).

Once the revolution had started overseas everyone in America–at least those forward-looking intellectual types–wanted one of their own. But alas, when people overseas were reveling in their bloody revolutions, America remained silent and (for the most part) peaceful.

My Dilemma

My dilemma began in the 20s and the 30s, as well, and if I knew then what I know now…well let’s get into woulda, coulda, shoulda. By the 20s and 30s New Criticism had arrived. It was a system intended to seal off the literary text from cultural influences and focus on the individual mind as the source of all influences. In other words, it, too, was a ‘metaphysical’ system that looked for ‘transcendence’ within the ‘historical’ world and not form some spiritual world that no one had ever seen.

By 1960, New Criticism was coming under perssure by people like Derrida. From my point of view, Derrida was correct. The metaphysical point of view was untenable. In its place, Derrida erected a deconstruction to save metaphysics from the onslaught of science (which everyone knew was not the basis of art).

Before I had fully digested Derrida, I was momentarily captured by the conservatives, who complained about the useless criticism of deconstruction. I wanted to apply deconstruction to liberal culture, as liberals had applied it to conservative culture on the gander principle (‘what’s good for the goose’ etc.). Not surprisingly, I had no takers. This conservatism lasted only a couple years, since conservatives were great complainers but they had no answers that satisfied me.

The culture wars gave great sense of purpose to both sides of the dilemma, but answered no questions. This was my dilemma. I knew something was wrong on both sides, but I had no answers (yet).

I followed the course I always followed and went on to forge my new vision away from the political obsessions of my academic colleagues. This mystified many of them.

What I Did to Combat PC

I basically ignored the cultural issues that obsessed my academic colleagues. I got drunk with a friend when I was called to a mandatory meeting on how the academy was being accused of being politically correct (pc). They were, but they had decided to have a meeting to sort out why it was not only okay but correct to enforce their beliefs on students. I thought it was funny to be in a room of students and teachers who knew that their premise was okay but who were having a hard time coming up with reasons why. This seemed to me to be mixing up cause and effect, but I kept my resolution not to speak and I got a bunch of stories for my blog (all of which I will tell you if you stick around long enough).

My point was that politics isn’t all that important in the real world. It is one way by which we organize our social lives from a disorganized mess into structure. This my academic colleagues had gotten. But they had missed the medieval reason for stepping back from science as an (or the) ultimate end of experience.

This, too, was something I learned from Aristotle, who opens his The Nicomachean Ethics by declaring politics as the ultimate end of the human quest for ends. I thought, based in my reading of Cochrane, that this was short-sighted.

This is the reason I broke with the conservatives fairly early on in the process of the PC Wars. I have always believed what Cochrane says about Roman conservatism in Christianity and Classical Culture when he’s talking about Livy’s account of the idealized past:

What [Livy’s assumptions about the past] involved is a claim that it is both desirable and possible to erect a future upon the basis of an idealized past. Such a claim is, however, utterly unrealistic. In the first place it ignores the truth that history does not repeat itself; that ever-changing situations constitute a perpetual challenge to the ingenuity and endurance of mankind. In the second, it presupposes that men are in fact at liberty to choose between perfectly arbitrary and abstract alternatives of ‘vice’ ‘andvirtue’; in other words, that there is nothing to prevent them, should they so desire, from living the life of their own grandfathers, the ‘valiant men of old’. But this presupposition is wholly fallacious; since it implies that human beings stand in no essential or intrinsic relationship to social reality which, in point of fact, they themselves actually constitute. These effects are not accidental. On the contrary, they are the direct and inevitable outcome of a logic which, by ignoring this relationship, grossly misconceived nature of the ‘law’ operator in human society. The logic in question is, of course, that of classical idealism. (91-92)

Critics like Allan Bloom have glossed over the break with classical reason that Cochrane sets forth so clearly. This is why, despite the barrage of charges that have been leveled against me over the years, that I claim not to be a conservative. It is why I question, both the idealism of the classical world and of the modern world. Both conservatives like Rush Limbaugh (who bases his foundation on the Founding Fathers) and liberals like Barack Obama (who bases his foundational principles on the 100-year old ideas of the Progressives). On the subject of history there is no essential difference between the two.

My Strategy

When I was in grad school I hid in plain sight. One day I was called into the office of the head of Rhetoric Studies at UIUC (the employer who arranged my employment for my full scholarship). He had gotten in trouble with the new conservative newspaper industry. When being interviewed he had defended a particularly liberal Marxist who wanted to tear down the ‘one-dimensional’ constructs in her students’ heads and replace them with fuller ‘two-dimensional’ constructs. When the idiot—he was a conservative engineer who didn’t purport to know anything about English; he had come into his meeting with the great professor with a sense that there was something wrong—wouldn’t acknowledge the professor’s standing as knowing more than he did, he kicked him out of his office with a move known in rhetoric as a ‘this interview is over.’ The student was offended and wrote a horribly scathing article calling for the professor’s job.

The article appeared on Thursday. On Friday I got a call to appear in Herr Director’s office. I had made a huge mistake when attempting to show my students the way they would be graded at the end of the semester. I gave them an ungraded assignment and I graded them as though it was the end of the semester. I realized that this was a mistake even before I got called into the office to meet Herr Director. But my students had complained to Herr Director, who knew that I was a conservative (I said I hiding; I didn’t say I was very good at it).

I was worried about losing my job and so my scholarship. (I’ve since been told that I was in no danger of losing either). So my strategy was to go in and admit everything, tell him I wouldn’t do it again (and I never would have, even if Herr Director had not demanded compliance; it was a stupid idea (not my first or last)). This nipped his diatribe in the bud. He went on with his lecture anyway to my chorus of ‘I’m sorrys’ and ‘It won’t happen agains.’ I capped the whole thing off with an offer to come in once a week and report on my progress. Well, Herr Director wasn’t concerned with monitoring my behavior. He merely wanted to make sure that I was in line. He let me go with a stern warning not to do it again.

How I Got Though Grad School in One Piece

The lesson I took from this encounter was surely not the lesson Herr Director meant to impart. I took it to mean that if I just hid away that I could operate in plain sight and do whatever I wanted to. Politics, I learned from this encounter, was only useful in an environment in which people are willing to translate their power into action. In drawing back from debate—both with me and the engineering student-turned-citizaen-journalist—to his certain position, Herr Director was withdrawing back into a metaphysical ‘transcendent’ position in much the same way that Marcuse denies the otherworldly nature of thought but not his search for transcendent solutions.

My solution was different. I would forgo transcendental solutions for more scientific (albeit more limited) solutions. Culture had replaced the individual as the center point for metaphysics sometime after I was born. But my position as a perpetual outsider forced me to recognize that culture was not metaphysical anymore than the individual was a perfect vehicle for metaphysical thought.

Culture turned out to be something I didn’t have to participate in to have better ideas about things that people who were better educated than me (Who am I, after all?) had. In fact, during my horrible experience in graduate school, I learned a ton of stuff, and because it was relatively easy to hide in plain sight, I have often said the rewards are greater that the disincentives and that I would do it again.

But I have a strong constitution, and my way is not for the weak of heart.

1 Comment

  1. Aw, this was a really well-written post. Taking time and precise effort to make an excellent article is very rare these days!

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