Sunday, February 28, 2010

"Quite Obviously a Man of the Academy"

Joshua Clover's 1989 has finally been given some well-deserved ink in the New York Times, where it gets about a 300-word treatment from Marc Tracy in an omnibus review of books on music. Tracy is insightful and sympathetic, but he doesn't have enough space to do more than give the book a nod, note that it explains the popular music of 1989 in terms of material and economic conditions, and mention a few examples in passing. He does manage to wedge in a brief mention of Clover's prose style, though, saying Clover is "quite obviously a man of the academy — those allergic to jargon should stay away."

Clover is, of course, a man of the academy — in fact, like the present humble blogger he is a second-generation academic, a faculty brat who never got away (he nailed the nature of the experience, too, when he said in an interview with Ray Bianchi that he'd spent much of his life "with access to the the splendors of the cultural elite, but not the money that so often comes with it"). But for all of Clover's bred-in-the-bone academicism, something about Tracy's observation bothered me just a little. It wasn't that Tracy was wrong to put his caveat in the review: there are, after all, plenty of music fans who'd be put off by Clover's style, and Tracy's right to let them know what they're in for if they dial up a copy from What got to me, I suppose, was that Tracy treated academe as a single, undifferentiated bolus, and that's not quite right (though understandable, given the limits of the format). Prose style in the academy varies across disciplines, but even in the cultural studies and English department world there are significant variations. I think it would be more fair to say that Clover's prose style marks him not simply as a man of the academy, but a man of his particular academic generation.

Clover was born in Berkeley in 1962, got his B.A. from Boston in 1987, and his Iowa M.F.A. four years later. He doesn't have a doctorate, but I'm awarding him one right now, from The Autonomous University of Archambeau—Chicago, since it's pretty clear that his hanging around in coffee joints talking and reading has given him more than the equivalent of the standard humanities doctorate. But it's not the degrees that matter so much as the dates: Clover had his foundational academic experiences at exactly the moment when a half-dozen or so theoretical trends in academe (deconstruction, feminism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, postmodernism, social constructionism) were either radically on the rise or actually peaking.

We do have something approaching actual, legitimate data on this. Consider the following charts, from the Gene Expression blog. They show the use of certain keywords over time in articles indexed by the academic research search engine JSTOR. The Gene Expression site gives you a note on the methodology, which is admittedly a bit rough-and-ready, but valid enough to be revealing. The site also has a definite slant on the rise and fall of certain theoretical trends — the entry in question is called "Graphs on the death of Marxism, postmodernism, and other stupid academic fads." It's not the slant I'd take, but I don't think the glee the writer feels has an effect on the data, which shows a pretty clear trend about the rise and fall of some kinds of cultural theory.

Here, for starters, is a graph showing the use of the keywords "Marxist" and "Marxism" in journals indexed by JSTOR from the 1880s to the early 21st century:

No surprises, really: the collapse of the Berlin Wall and other events of 1989 — events that fascinate Clover — seem to have led to a precipitous drop in interest in Marxism, which peaked as an academic interest at exactly the moment Clover was in graduate school.

Here's another graph, this one indicating the use of the term "hegemony" in academic articles:

The term, associated with Gramscian Marxism, peaks at about the same time as the term "Marxism" peaks, corroborating the hypothesis that Marxian thinking in the academy peaked (in terms of quantity, if nothing else) during Clover's grad-school years.

Turning to a different brand of theory often associated with jargony prose, here's a graph indicating the rise and fall of the use of the term "postmodernism" in academic articles:

There's no big event like the fall of the Berlin Wall to explain the decline of the term, and the peak here comes later than the peak for interest in Marxism and hegemony — "postmodernism" peaks around 1999, when Clover held the post of Holloway poet-in-residence at the University of California—Berkeley. But there's a clear drop in the new millennium.

Perhaps it's not surprising to find the term "social construction" — a mainstay of both Marxian and postmodernist thinking — plateauing somewhere between the peak of Marxism and the peak of postmodernism, as it clearly does:

Other theoretical trends also peaked in popularity the early and mid-nineties, as these graphs on the use of the terms "feminism," "psychoanalysis/psychoanalytic" and "deconstruction" indicate:

There's more of this sort of thing over at the Gene Expression site, but I think the trend clear enough: Clover came of age as an academic at a point in time when there was a perfect storm of theory in academe: several kinds of theory were flourishing at once, and (with the partial exception of feminism) these were the kinds of theory we most closely associate with a difficult or jargon-laden kind of prose.

Why these forms of theory are associated with jargon is an interesting question, which would take me way, way beyond the scope of a blog entry I'm trying to finish before my Sunday morning coffee buzz comes to an end. The usual explanations — a post-New Critical anxiety about professional status, an urge to justify cultural and literary studies as legitimate academic disciplines, the need in a tight job market to seem cutting edge, and the sheer excitement of new ideas pouring into the American academy — all have some validity, but many of those conditions still pertain, so I don't know that they give a sufficient explanation for what happened to academic prose in the 1980s and early 1990s. In the case of Marxism, the lack of an American mass movement didn't do much to encourage a plain language — Marxism in America almost never makes an appearance on the street. It's more of a seminar-room thing. And the converse might be said of feminism: I don't think it is a coincidence that feminism both connected theory with a mass movement and always had a plain style (Kate Millet/Sandra Gilbert) to go along with its more technical style (Julia Kristeva/Helene Cixous).

Since some embers of the old Theory Wars still burn, I feel I should pause here and say that I, unlike the compilers of the data, am interested in and sympathetic to much of the theory in question, though I try in my fumbling way to write in a manner that can carry the insights of this kind of theory into a less jargon-ridden prose. This may be connected to the fact that I'm from a slightly later academic generation than Clover, and came of age as the trends mentioned above began to decline. But there's probably more to it than that. I should probably also be clear about the fact that I find much to admire in Clover's work, though I'm sure neither of us wants to write in the other's preferred prose style.

Anyway. Tracy is right to say Clover is "quite obviously a man of the academy," but it would be more accurate to say that he is "quite obviously a man formed by the academy circa 1991." As to why the language of the academy began to shift, and where it is likely to go in the dawning Age of the Adjunct — well, those are bigger questions. And, like Marxism, postmodernism, and social construction, my caffeine buzz is starting to fade.