Monday, May 25, 2009

Walter Kirn: Between Two Elitisms

Walter Kirn's reviews tend to rub me the wrong way anyway (I haven't read any of his novels, which seem like Sam Lipsyte straining and slumming for laughs), but from the two NYT reviews (1, 2) and the excerpt he's published in The Atlantic, his new memoir seems like a perfect storm of all I detest about that "wised-up" attitude toward success and intellect, the graceless mien of those who have sucked from and sucked up to privilege and now want to complain about the taste.

However, I found Laura Miller's review (the second NYT link above) even more irritating: she seems to want to go Kirn one better and posture as one who knew from the start that there was nothing in this whole elitism clap-trap: "Like many memoirs, 'Lost in the Meritocracy' combines penetrating shrewdness with remarkable blind spots. Take the book’s central question: How did anyone as smart as Kirn get into such a fix?" If that's the book's central question, how is it a blind spot?

Miller is generally daft in her attempt to appear amused by Kirn and simultaneously hold him at arms-length. Consider this paragraph:
At Princeton, however, he discovered the limits of his facility. He could beguile a professor into thinking he understood such concepts as “liminal” and “valuational,” but his peers unerringly recognized his scholarship-boy status. The heiress girlfriend of one of his freshman roommates offered him some Champagne her father had sent her, then tried to charge him for his portion of the bottle. His roommates replaced their suite’s shabby furniture, then banned Kirn from the common room when he refused to pony up $600 as his share. In no time, the suite became “a concentrated version of what the whole campus would come to represent for me: a private association of the powerful which I’d been invited to visit on a day pass that, I sensed, might be revoked at any time as arbitrarily as it had been issued.”
I don't understand the transition of the second sentence—Miller acts as if it's surprising that he can't pull money out of thin air with the same ease as he can bullshit. Aren't these two very different things? Miller wants to see a parity between the supposed fraudulence of capital-T Theory and actual class elitism which seems to me like a complete non-sequitur. Of course, she is digging this right out of Kirn:
The need to finesse my ignorance through such stunts left me feeling hollow and vaguely hunted. I sought solace in the company of other frauds (we seemed to recognize one another instantly), and together we refined our acts. We toted around books by Jacques Derrida, and spoke of "playfulness" and "textuality." We laughed at the notion of "authorial intention" and concluded, before reading even a hundredth of it, that the Western canon was illegitimate, an expression of powerful group interests that it was our sacred duty to transcend—or, failing that, to systematically subvert. In this rush to adopt the latest attitudes and please the younger and hipper of our instructors—the ones who drank with us in the Nassau Street bars and played the Clash on the tape decks of their Toyotas as their hands crept up pants and skirts—we skipped straight from ignorance to revisionism, deconstructing a body of literary knowledge that we'd never constructed in the first place.
I came to suspect that certain professors were on to us, and I wondered if they, too, were actors. In classroom discussions, and even when grading essays, they seemed to favor us over the hard workers, whose patient, sedimentary study habits were ill adapted, I concluded, to the new world of antic postmodernism that I had mastered almost without effort. To thinkers of this school, great literature was a con, and I—a born con man who hadn't read any great literature and was looking for any excuse not to—was eager to agree with them. This lucky convergence of intellectual fashion and my illiteracy restored my pride and emboldened me socially. Maybe I belonged at Princeton after all. [emphasis mine]
I suppose this is a fairly common trope, and I think Miller (and maybe Kirn) is just writing to expectations. But I am frankly confused by the ease with which basic class resentment (or self-resentment—I'm not exactly buying the sob stories of second-generation Princetonian Kirn) is transmuted into glib assertions of Theory's vacuousness ("Since hardly anybody understood the deconstructionists to begin with, it was that much easier for Kirn to bluff his way through, powered by bravado alone"). I get that Miller and Kirn believe that elite higher ed is generally hypocritical about equality, but I don't get what they think the specific mechanism is that converts class-based elitism and intellectual snobbery into one another in this environment (or in any other). But I'm not just irritated because I like Theory and wish people would stop picking on it; more importantly, I think that assuming that all elitisms are united under some general order of hypocrisy and pretension is, strangely enough, the best way to let everyone involved off the hook.

I concede that I was/am "lost in the meritocracy" at a very different historical moment from Kirn's, and that the way that Theory infuses the social life of college students may be considerably different now. Yet this basic assumption of a symmetry between class affectations and intellectual posturing seems to me very unconvincing, constituting an entirely notional homology, a connection devoutly wished but rarely consummated.

It's not that I can't see the roots of this imagined alliance: the feeling that Kirn expresses of being at best suffered to play in the rich kids' house is not dissimilar from the feelings that I felt as an undergraduate trying to play with concepts that I knew deep down were much too big for me to handle dextrously. In many ways, the undergraduate student is trespassing on the domain of Theory with inevitably mixed emotions: there is a sense in which the famous Emerson quote "What Plato has thought, he may think…" when updated to Derrida becomes a more perilous boast, and for that peril, more exhilarating, but also "hollow and vaguely hunted." And perhaps the fear that one can get the Theoretical code-words wrong is similar to the fear of being suddenly asked to leave an opulent party for not being properly dressed.

Yet affect is not reality—though the emotions may be similar, the upshot is not: there seems to me to be very little overlap between the academic effects of one's bluff being called on Theory and the social effects of having one's class inferiority reinforced, and not even that much overlap between the social uses of Theory and the social uses of class. I haven't been involved in too many social interactions where getting Theory wrong or not getting it at all has truly detrimental consequences, most often only causing passing anxiety or frustration, whereas the effects of class distinctions are less likely to be merely ephemeral, or to derive from such immediate origins.

The indiscriminate grouping of elitisms has, I think, profound consequences in talking about higher education, among other things. The ready association of intellectual pretension with class privilege makes it far too inviting to take the former as a valid substitute when it comes to the resentment and, more seriously, when it comes to critique. Reverse snobbery toward theory, in other words, becomes a sort of fillip of objection to other, more pervasive and more detrimental structures of inequality. Kirn's self-recriminations about not having the backbone to learn and do his homework are excruciatingly indirect ways of criticizing the more fundamental socioeconomic inequalities of a system that protects its own fiercely and unstintingly: once you're in, you almost can't screw up, a truth driven home by the rogues' gallery of oddballs and incompetents he depicts.

But such a system actually has little to do with the academic uses (much less the academic validity) of capital-T Theory, although some might argue that it works in precisely the same way. I tend to think that those scoffers tend to be quite unfamiliar with any specific work of Theory, but hey, that's another discussion. At any rate, Kirn's depictions of this system aren't only ineffective as critique, they seem to justify its logic; by convincing himself (and attempting to convince himself) that the only path to redemption is rejection of this cancer of elitisms (going back to Minnesota, reading the classics, "reconnecting certain wires," stop being phony or whatever), one can simply start by rejecting any of the above—it's a package deal.

According to Kirn, the system's intense nepotism means that getting outside of it is the only way to triumph over it, and that's just flat wrong—both because Kirn's memoir seems to be rather the opposite of a triumph over anything other than his publisher and because one can actually do Theory and do it for real; one can use privilege and use it for good; one can find ways of being something better than phony even while lost in the meritocracy.

One final note: this sentence from Kirn's narrative really piqued me: "Even when a poem or a story fundamentally puzzled me, I found that I could save face through terminology, as when I referred to T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land as 'semiotically unstable.'" Who the hell remembers what they called anything they read in college, or if they do, who admits to such bogus narcissism?

Update (6/4): For a much better organized and much better articulated examination of Kirn's book, read this by Christian Lorentzen in this month's n+1 Book Review (or n+1BR). I particularly liked Lorentzen's comment that
High test scores are not the same thing as intelligence; getting good grades is not the same as learning; and the American system of higher education is far from egalitarian, despite its reigning pretense of diversity. I don't know of an educated person who would disagree with these statements. But nor at this point in time is academic achievement entirely divorced from intellectual merit. From what I have observed, academic opportunism, the ability to con the system and the openness of the system to cons, has never outgunned a passion for, say, literature, history, mathematics, science, or complexity itself.
I completely agree.


Stacey said...

I read that paragraph (and not having read the Kirn book, I can't speak to its accuracy) as saying something different. At Princeton, Kirn discovered that he could go on faking it in the classroom, but that his fellow students could still tell that he didn't belong there and let him know as much. Seems pretty accurate from what I've heard from my friends who went to Ivy League schools. I don't get the impression Kirn is saying theory is elitist, just that it's a lot easier to fake than membership in the upper classes.

Andrew Seal said...

I think it's pretty clear from the passage from The Atlantic excerpt that Kirn felt that Theory was a sort of compensating snobbery, and that it was able to function as compensation for not being of the right class because it was particularly--even uniquely--well-suited to the general culture of pretension and hypocrisy of the supposed sham meritocracy. (That would be Kirn's attitude, not mine.)

Miller seems to agree--she thinks the elitism of purposely obscure, name-ridden capital-T Theory fits in so well with class elitism that it is surprising that anyone begrudges him his class inferiority that much--he's such a star elitist in other ways, why don't they see his Theoretical "aptitude" as sufficient compensation for class? That's what it seems to me she's saying--the pretensions of Theory fit in so well with the broader pretensions of the Ivy League that it is surprising that anyone who was so good at one form of pretension was punished for not being able to participate in (not to fake, just to participate in) another.

I think your skepticism of this assumption is right--that was what I was trying to argue for here, that we should be skeptical of treating one kind of elitism or pretension as if being resentful or critical of or rejecting that one covered or touched the rest too--that showing how "hollow" Theory is (an argument I'd contest anyway) is also a way of making known how awful class entitlement in higher education is. I think this is very much what goes on in Kirn's excerpt from The Atlantic, and it sounds like that excerpt is highly representative of the book. I also encounter this kind of attitude frequently--mostly, I have to admit, within the Ivy League. Ivy Leaguers (like Kirn) seem to hold to this idea tenaciously--expressing their anxieties about Theory's pretensions becomes a sublimated form of expressing anxieties about class, among other things, just as engaging in the game of Theoretical oneupmanship that Kirn played so well is used as a compensation for not being allowed to participate in other forms of elitism.

maitresse said...

"But I am frankly confused by the ease with which basic class resentment (or self-resentment—I'm not exactly buying the sob stories of second-generation Princetonian Kirn) is transmuted into glib assertions of Theory's vacuousness"

Amen, brother!