By Mary Grabar
When charges of doctrinaire Marxism are leveled against professors, the standard procedure is to charge the accusers with misinterpretation---they just can't understand the subtleties of the literary and philosophical profundities being dispensed. In English departments these theories have touched deconstruction, new historicism, post-colonialism, gender studies, disability studies, etc. Most in the field--promoters and detractors alike--know that these theories have roots in Marxism. For those of us alarmed by the politicization of literary studies, it's a difficult message to get out to the world because the cloud of academic verbiage obscures the real sources and aims of such theories.
But when announcements for a world literature conference begin with a long quotation from The Communist Manifesto and a co-director approvingly quotes the left's most popular dead Stalinist, Che Guevara, the aim became clear: the conference wasn't really going to be about literature. The first International World Literature Conference at Kennesaw State University in suburban Cobb County, Georgia, on March 16, announced the purpose of the conference in the call for papers and on the English Department's website with the quotation that reads in part, "The bourgeoisie has, through its exploitation of the world market, given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. . . .The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature."
The conference promised to address "the role of World Literature in reflecting, mediating, and transforming the concepts of empathy, democracy, forgiveness, cosmopolitanism, and the status of the nation state." This apparently was understood to mean: "We do not intend to let a neutral and purely literary conference topic stand in the way of our political harangues." While some of the papers recycled theories from the 1970s, all landed decidedly on the conclusion that with the Arab "Spring" and its presumed offshoot, the Occupy Wall Street movement, a bold new political day is dawning. All eight of the panelists I heard promoted in some way a new, non-Western form of "democracy."
Co-director Khalil Elayan in his paper, "Occupation as Mimetic Reversal: Imperialism in The Thousand and One Nights," boldly referred to Che Guevara's decidedly non-literary 1960 speech, "On Revolutionary Medicine," as an example of such transformation. He quoted from this passage:
"We must review again each of our lives, what we did and thought as doctors, or in any function of public health before the revolution. We must do this with profound critical zeal and arrive finally at the conclusion that almost everything we thought and felt in that past period ought to be deposited in an archive, and a new type of human being created."
Of course, for Guevara, creating "a new type of human being" entailed a good deal of torture and executions of those who were reluctant to be transformed. Guevara's vision for the near future also included his plan for an attack on New York City that would have killed more than 9/11 and wiped out a hundred or more naive people wearing his image on their T-shirts...
Elayan did not note Guevara's real legacy, but described the "current situation" as made up of "corporate imperialists," an apathetic majority, with a few revolutionaries. For him, the Eastern notion of democracy is superior to the Western because it acknowledges Marx's "discovery" that the source of all wars and world problems is "class struggle."
The literary analysis of the One Thousand and One Nights was thin and clumsily used to invoke Guevara's theory of the "bestiality of imperialism--whether militaristic or emotional." It consisted of noting the king's intense jealousy after discovering his wife's "orgiastic infidelity" (and thus her execution and subsequent wives' executions until Scheherazade discovers how to delay through the "discourse" of her never-ending stories). It is "discourse" that brings about real change; Scheherazade's stories force King Shahryar to experience shame and empathy. What is standing in the way of such discourse today are the teargas and bombs thrown at the Occupiers, the "true representatives of civilization," by today's "god-kings," the "corporate imperialists." (For Elayan, this includes the Israeli "occupation" of Palestine.) Elayan posed the question, "Do we return to barbarism or a new type of human as Guevara states we should?"
That politics was the driving force at this conference is also evidenced by the choice of keynote speaker, Dr. Fouad Moughrabi, who teaches political science and specializes in Palestinian causes.
Co-director Larrie Dudenhoeffer, too, after dutifully referencing the mainstays of literary criticism today, Friedrich Nietzsche, Gilles Deleuze, and Edward Said, used his paper analyzing four drawings, "Visions of the Hereafter: A Tetraptych of Sociopolitical (Ins)urgencies in French Art," to advance the agenda against the West, specifically, one of its institution, the Church. Dudenhoeffer would not confirm for me the names of these artists, but his presentation focused on their mockery of the Church, with scenes of "parabolic insurgencies" in the form of naked, demonic worshippers, upsetting the Western "absence-presence duality." His slide of a "semiotic square" showed "state ideology" and "state formation" as representative of the uneven distribution of wealth and status. He engaged in the common practice of using the "text," now visual, to mock and describe an institution upholding the hierarchy of the West.
Melissa Keith, also of KSU, continued the anti-West, anti-imperialist theme by recycling 1970s feminist theory in her paper titled, "Defining the Erotic Mystical Global Paradigm: From Inanna to the Bhagavad-Gita to Audre Lorde." The feminist discovery of the "wild" (thanks to Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Judy Grahn) dismantled the archetypical story of the West, that of the hero, with God as the patriarch. Lorde's rescuing of the "erotic" from its association with the "pornographic" and overturning--again--the old "dualities" of spirit over nature, was enthusiastically hailed. "Reclaiming" and "renaming" private body parts (this was soon after the Vagina Monologues season, after all) leads to staking out "intellectual space." As for implementation, Keith said teaching the explicit poetry of Judy Grahn in a small class of "mature" students provides "quite an amazing experience."
Every other of the papers I listened to supported writers or interpretations of literature that called into question the legitimacy of the West. Gordon McNeer, of the Spanish department at North Georgia College and State University, in his presentation, "In Defense of Poetry," discussed the younger poets he has been translating. All they seemed to have in common was uncertainty and communicating about their confrontations against "political power."
"'Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Western Civ Has Got to Go!': T.E. Hulme, Wyndham Lewis, and Modernist Multiculturalism," by Kevin Rulo of Catholic University of America, did not invoke Jesse Jackson, as I expected. But there was the obligatory reference to Marx and Engels before Rulo's attack on the West via a reinterpretation of Hulme and Lewis that rejected the conventional one of them as "reactionaries." According to Rulo, Hulme and Lewis are really arguing for multiculturalism, understood as anti-Western. To understand all this, you had to be there.
The paper--get ready for this title--"Thomas De Quincey's Retreat into the 'Nilotic Mud': Orientalism as a Response to Social Strain," linked De Quincey's alienation from the British culture of "hegemonic masculinity," to the symbol of the crocodile, to his drug use. The attack on "hegemonic masculinity" complements the feminist celebration of victory over body-spirit duality (and hence traditional religion).
Jennifer Randall of Dalton State College too promoted global citizenship in her paper, "The Complexity of Global Citizenship: The Search for Cosmopolitanism in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels." Kant's solution of "world citizens" who display "hospitality" leads to the conclusion that "no one has more right [than anyone else] to occupy a part of the world," as she put it.
Dalton State College's Lorena Sins' paper, "The Global Village Flies Home to Roost: Pretty Birds," about a novel by NPR correspondent Scott Simon, based on the siege of Sarajevo, too pushed the anti-West agenda. Sins, with somewhat of an air of schadenfreude, said that until 9/11 Americans were sheltered from violence and knowledge of the imperialistic influence of our culture. ("We are like a hawk blocking out glory by silhouette of the sun.") The title and the bird symbolism come from the protagonist in the story, a seventeen-year-old nominally Muslim Bosnian female resistance fighter.
By 3 p.m. I had been thrown back to my confusing days of graduate school in the 1990s, before 9/11 and the Occupy movement. As a master's level student at Georgia State University and Ph.D. student at the University of Georgia, I sought shelter with the older professors, and believed that maybe on a far-flung campus like Dalton, an English department would not be as politicized. But even in the solidly Republican country of Cobb County, where Kennesaw is located, professors openly advertise conferences by favorably quoting The Communist Manifesto, and in Tea Party country, North Georgia, where Dalton is located, professors use "texts" in English classes to advance the idea of dismantling the West to build the new "global citizen."
While most of the public might believe that courses in world literature advance the Western Enlightenment ideas of cosmopolitanism and openness to learning about other cultures, they would be shocked at learning how boldly these professors used the pretext of teaching world literature to advance a political agenda explicitly Marxist and aligned with the Occupy Wall Street movement.
But could there be a bright note? At one time I despaired about explaining to the average person the cultural rot that passes as scholarship in English departments today. The more they invoke Che Guevaras their hero, the easier it is to show people what's going on.
Mary Grabar is an English instructor in Atlanta.