Wednesday, January 4, 2023

The Academic Star System Crumbles

One of the weird things that happened in America between about 1980 and 2010 was the rise of the Star Professor. These people, concentrated in literary studies, could pack lecture halls and sell piles of books with their stunning insights into novels, writers, and the world. I never got it; some of them did interesting work, but I always thought they were just the flashiest practitioners of a rather shallow kind of analysis. But anyway they existed, drawing grants and graduate students to their programs and adding a bit of glamour to the profession. 

Some of them had lots of affairs (notably with their graduate students), multiple marriages, and so on, which spawned a whole field of Star Professor Gossip. Now, it seems, this kind of gossip is dying out, presumably because there are no new Star Professors and the originals are too old for affairs. Katie Kadue in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Let me let you in on a little secret. More than one person I know pursued an advanced degree in literary studies out of a love of gossip — whether because literature offered a chance to eavesdrop on the lives of others and to bask in the glow of fictional celebrities, or because an interpretive community of gossips is not so different from an interpretive community of readers. Learning that a famous professor was once married to another famous professor (who was also once his graduate student) feels like an initiation into a secret history, a privileged story at once damning and celebratory of the main characters involved.

“The gossip asks another to imagine along, build a reality, make it true, if only for the duration of the communication,’’ the academic star Judith Butler asserts in a defense of the academic star José Esteban Muñoz’s famous love of gossip, quoted in an article by a third academic star, Lee Edelman, who in an endnote reminisces about reminiscing with Muñoz shortly before his death: “There was probably some gossip too.” Gossip, David Shumway argues in his 1997 PMLA article “The Star System in Literary Studies,” “has become as significant to academic stardom as it is to film stardom.” It’s in part our prurient interest in the private lives of academics that makes them, in a limited sense, public figures.

It is entirely typical of this kind of people, obsessed with discourse, that myriad papers were presented about them and their world and the gossip about their world; their goings on became another Text as suitable for analysis and comment as any other Text. A weird shadow of this kind of academic stardom was the counter-network of jilted lovers and ex-spouses who were sometimes able to bring down one of these stars:

At the same time, gossip has been key to some stars’ meteoric falls: The whisper network, or what the feminist media scholar Ned Schantz has called “an old girls’ network,” potentially has the power to take the “old boys” out.

Kadue's article is annoying but ultimately kind of sad. It offers us a bunch of people who want desperately to be in the hot intellectual center of the universe, to be the coolest scholars, the academic insiders, to be in the room where it happens. But what is the 'it'? What is happening? Very little, so far as I can tell. We are witnessing the slow deflation of a discourse about discourse, in which new ways of talking about books somehow felt vital and real, in which commentary on analysis of writing about life seemed to matter. But it never did. I well remember when, after years of wondering what this was all about, it finally hit me: it was about boredom and fear of insignificance. Literary scholars have always suffered from a constant, nagging sense that what they do is pointless, so they celebrate anything that makes their work feel relevant. They also suffer from a nagging fear that they are boring dweebs, so they celebrate anything that makes them seem interesting, especially sexually interesting. Hence, the gossip.

It might have gone on much longer, but the collapse of student numbers in English departments has savaged the hiring of new professors. This has broken the pipeline by which star professors used their status to place their students in jobs. Without that job-making power, it turns out, nothing they do matters very much. It's a case for Marxist analysis: as the economic substructure crumbles, the cultural superstructure inevitably collapses into the ruins of its foundation.

There is nothing new here. For a few thousand years the cutting edge of human thought was astronomy, using higher math developed specifically to track the stars, all lavishly funded because kings and emperors were obsessed with astrology. For centuries the brightest minds on Europe spent themselves wrestling with thorny problems in Christian theology or Judaic law, devoting decades to problems that outsiders could only roll their eyes at. A century ago many geniuses were taken up with abstruse debates in Marxist theory. String theory, some physicists think, is just the most recent version. 

Smart people love building intellectual castles out of words, notions, and arguments. These thought palaces can become fantastically large and complex, whole cities of logic, giant trees of classification. For a time, which may be a long time, these castles give meaning to intellectual lives and make stars out of those who best perform the verbal or mathematical gymnastics required. They fall apart when people decide that they just don't matter.

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