Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

Personal tools

Navigation

Closed Encounters

Literary Politics and Public Culture

1998
Author:

Jeffrey Wallen

Closed Encounters

Challenges the practices of the academy and takes aim at the failings of both Left and Right.

In a provocative and fair-minded look at current critical practices and the future of the academy, Jeffrey Wallen draws a disturbing picture of public intellectuals in search of a public and cultural critics unable to enter a dialogue with others. Taking up several of the most influential critics of recent years-Edward Said, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Michael Bérubé, Gerald Graff, Richard Rorty, Stanley Fish, and many others-Wallen explores the intersections between literary and actual politics.

“In this historiographical account of recent conflicts in academic politics and discourse, Wallen argues for a renewed consideration of the questions of academic freedom and autonomy. . . . The essayistic construction of Wallen’s chapters makes a compelling case for a new standard of academic writing that could lead to a revival of the essay form itself: there is no mystification, no pontification, no secret language of apocalypse or liberation in these chapters, and yet Wallen manages to write persuasively and with urgency about the crisis in the conditions of thinking itself.” MLN

It’s committed. It’s political. It’s socially engaged. It’s academic criticism in the nineties. But what does it achieve? In a provocative and fair-minded look at current critical practices and the future of the academy, Jeffrey Wallen draws a disturbing picture of public intellectuals in search of a public and cultural critics unable to enter a dialogue with others.

Wallen argues that literary politics is no substitute for debate on genuine political issues. Taking up several of the most influential critics of recent years-Edward Said, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Michael Bérubé, Gerald Graff, Richard Rorty, Stanley Fish, and many others-Wallen asks: Can their desire to persuade an audience beyond the classroom be fulfilled? And can cultural critics realize their ambitious social and institutional goals for change? In a work that is neither of the Left nor of the Right, but likely to unsettle both, Wallen argues that literary criticism actually undermines the prospects for the dialogue it calls out for.

In addition, Wallen argues that the institutionalization of critiques of truth and difference-critiques that appear to liberate us by revealing that knowledge and values are constructed, and can therefore be transformed-often leads to a further constraining of thought and narrowing of outlooks. In his analysis of the administration of conflict, Wallen describes the troubled state of academic freedom and points to a shift from the institutional protection of dissenting views to the institutional protection from views one finds unpleasant.

Yet the prospects are not bleak: Wallen emphasizes that academic critics continue to play a crucial role in crafting what we expect from discussion. In this spirit, Closed Encounters lays the groundwork for fashioning a truly public, socially engaged criticism.

Jeffrey Wallen is associate professor of comparative literature at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.

ISBN 0-8166-3187-5 Cloth $47.95xx
ISBN 0-8166-3188-3 Paper $18.95x
224 pages 5 7/8 x 9 November
Translation inquiries: University of Minnesota Press

Closed Encounters

Jeffrey Wallen is a Professor of Comparative Literature at Hampshire College.

Closed Encounters

“In this historiographical account of recent conflicts in academic politics and discourse, Wallen argues for a renewed consideration of the questions of academic freedom and autonomy. . . . The essayistic construction of Wallen’s chapters makes a compelling case for a new standard of academic writing that could lead to a revival of the essay form itself: there is no mystification, no pontification, no secret language of apocalypse or liberation in these chapters, and yet Wallen manages to write persuasively and with urgency about the crisis in the conditions of thinking itself.” MLN

“The interest in academic disputes about theory and political correctness appears to show no signs of easing up. This look at the current swirl of controversy comes from an academic who has personally been affected by it. . . . His book seeks to examine what political correctness has done to academic freedom in the university, the relation of academic critics to the public at large, and whether or not genuine dialog can emerge from literary criticism. Wallen’s approach is sure to provoke more discussion about this controversial subject.” Library Journal

“Wallen takes leading critics to task for their relatively weak conceptions

Closed Encounters is a most important book which in fact may usher in a new stage in our understanding of what a 'committed' criticism can and should be. Wallen approaches a number of the most celebrated critics of recent years-Edward Said, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Michael Berube, Gerald Graff, Stanley Fish, and many others-and asks the most straightforward question: can they successfully practice 'advocacy' in and through their teaching and writing? Can their desire to escape from the narrow confines of academic writing-writing exclusively for other academics-and reach a larger, 'non-specialized' audience, be fulfilled? His answer is one that will be unavoidable in all future discussions: these and many of their epigones have failed to reach a larger audience precisely because they do not consider their 'opponents' worthy interlocutors. To reach others, there must be debate, dialogue, the open exchange and even acceptance of different positions. But academic criticism today, according to Wallen, insists on seeing possible interlocutors as mere victims of ideolog

as fundamentally insufficient.” Allan Stoekl, Penn State University

“This is the kind of triumphalism of the present that has distinguished so much of the work done in recent years, whose otherwise admirable political agendas are accompanied by a confidence in the superiority and a-historicality of the contemporary moment. A compelling case for a new standard of academic writing that could lead to a revival of the essay form itself: there is no mystification, no pontification, no condescension, no secret language of apocalypse or liberation in these chapters, and yet Wallen manages to write persuasively and with the urgency about the crisis in the conditions of thinking itself.” MLN

An outstanding book that is persuasive and written with admirable civility. His thesis, formulated before others but never worked out with such precision and passionate care, is that theorists on both right and left have stopped listening to each other.

College Literature

Closed Encounters

Contents

Introduction: Fellow Traveling in Academia

Part I

ADMINISTERING CONFLICT
1. Political Correctness: The Revenge of the Liberals
2. Is Academic Freedom in Trouble?

Part II

FACING THE PUBLIC
3. Forging a Public Voice for Academic Critics
4. Why I'd Rather Be Talking to a TV Camera
5. Crossing Over: The Academic as Porn Star

Part III

FAILED ENCOUNTERS: DIALOGUE OR CHATTER?
6. Criticism as Displacement
7. The Poverty of Conversation

Afterword: Fellow Traveling with the Right
Notes
Index