Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Calling Into Question

A post on Wendy's blog today brought back my previous life as a grad student of literature. She commented on students' overuse of the pretentious phrase, "as it were," in their speech. Back in my day, the phrase of choice was "call into question." "Doesn't Foucault's use of the prison icon paradigmatically call into question the predominant theory of Baudrillard's metasequoical randomness?" one would ask, parenthetically of course. No arguing with that. (Extra points for bringing Baudrillard into the nonsense.) Theory was the hot approach -- the right theory, of course. Deconstructionism was in the past. Post- deconstructionism (anything is better if you toss "post" in front of it) was better, if not exactly up to the minute. The meaning of literature (and, of course, "meaning" itself was called into question) was only worth talking about if it was a political discourse on the inequity of the blah, blah, blah -- I usually dropped off about here.

It's not as if I weren't interested in studying inequalities in literature. I was as critical of the white-male-dominated canon as anyone else and have a distinctly feminist viewpoint when approaching any literary piece (and by literary, I mean anything written). I'm probably more left-leaning, politically, than anyone I know, and my circle includes a whole host of left-of-democratic granola-crunchers. I am the proud owner of Birkenstock sandals. (Well, knock-off Birkenstocks. I'm cheap.)

But what I'm getting at here (yes, Virginia, there is a point) is that these well-meaning students were, in the end, poseurs. It didn't take any deep thought to call something into question. Zefrank noted just a few days ago that you can put down any argument with, "Well, it's more complicated than that." It makes you sound knowledgeable without actually adding anything to the discussion. Calling something into question achieves the same end.

And when a nationally-known and controversial speaker came to campus, these students boycotted her. They urged their students not to attend, and sat outside the lecture hall, encouraging people to go away. When I questioned their own political correctness in refusing to listen to another point of view, furthermore telling other people not to listen to it, they looked at me like I had two heads. I didn't get it. Simply listening to her was falling under the influence of the dominant paradigm. We couldn't be trusted to critically examine her arguments.

I remember an amusing incident one slow day down in the bowels of the grad students' basement offices. There was an old sports magazine lying around with a picture of a college-age woman in a bikini. My friends and I, tired of grading papers, were flipping through the magazine. "Huh," I said. "She has really big boobs." (And she really did. Either she had one heck of a plastic surgeon, or she was substantially endowed.) One of the sharky grad students came in just then, examined the picture, and chuckled. "We examine things on such different levels," he said. "What I see is how she is being forced to agree with the dominant paradigm of female sexuality." Oh, really? That was your first thought?

I left grad school, though not because of that incident. I got married, then pregnant with our first child, thus submitting to the ultimate expression of the dominant paradigm of my female sexuality.


futuregirl said...

Exactly! Being a sheep *is* being a sheep, whether your herder uses big words or short words. Thank goodness you aren't a sheep. :) This post made me fall in love with you.

(The birkenstocks totally made me laugh. I'm cheap, too.)

Lyzzard said...

Ooooh, I forgot to give you a book I picked up at a garage sale last month - Anne Coulter. I picked it up because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. It is important to know what the other side is up to.

And - do I have a bumper sticker for you... The next time we get together I'll give it to you.

It was good to see you today! Thanks!

Heather said...

It was just like that when I was at art school in the late 80's. There was a little gang of zealous post-modernists/deconstructionists who had everyone terrorized. Not surprisingly, I notice that none of them made a career as an artist.

medimom said...

OOOH, write some more like this! You are on a roll.
The "it's more complicated than that" is one of my husband's favorite discussion-stoppers, especially when we're talking about our so called president. But then hubby happened to hear a Bush speech on the radio. He realized that Bush really ISN'T more complicated than that! Now he sputters even more than I do about politics.

Jane said...

I loved this post - it made me laugh and remember the reasons why I dropped out of my PhD last year (that and the lack of fresh air (and fun) in libraries). My supervisor is Professor of Nineteenth Century English Lit but also runs an MA in Postmodernism AND is a well-known sci-fi writer. He knows every single piece of literary and psychological jargon. Better still, he knows exactly when to use it.

This was so well-written - and anything with a mention of Foucault makes me laugh.

normanack said...

The library I used (the Rock at Brown) had its literature section in the basement. It was well enough ventilated not to be dank, but there was no mistaking that it was a basement. Yuck.