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Les États-Unis et leurs universités

Universal Reason, Aporias and the Future of Literature

La raison universelle, les apories et l'avenir de la littérature
Anthony Larson
p. 50-60


Cet article s’intéresse aux arguments qui ont cours depuis les années 1980-1990 dans les débats au sein les universités américaines à propos du « politiquement correct » et de la « guerre des cultures ». L’argument qui revient constamment dans ces débats s’inscrit dans la logique de circularité qui sous-tend la raison universelle telle qu’elle est conçue par les penseurs des Lumières, tel Kant. Cet article suggère que c’est précisément dans le domaine, ou la faculté de la littérature, que la circularité de cette légitimation et de la professionnalisation est mise à mal, dans la mesure où s’ouvrent de nouvelles voies pour une « profession » littéraire où le « déraisonnable » ou « l’imprévisible » sont valorisés.

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21st century, XXIe siècle
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  • 1  Ted Gordon and Wahneema Lubiano. “The Statement of the Black Faculty Caucus”, in Paul Berman (ed),(...)
  • 2  George Will, “Radical English”, in Paul Berman (ed), Debating P.C.: The Controversy over Political (...)

1If we were to follow popular conceptions of the conceptions of the American university and recent and sometimes continuing debates within the various disciplines of the humanities, we might rightly wonder if some American faculty colleagues had sometimes not lost all reason. Indeed, with the explosion of the debate over the literary canon in the 1980s and the ensuing battles surrounding the “culture wars” of the late 1980s and 1990s, the reassuring and almost quaintly staid landscape of the American university and, more particularly, of its sub-division of the humanities, was turned upside down by a rather troubling matter—that of literature. To take an example of one of the better-known occurrences of these debates, in reference to a proposal to modify and expand the required reading list of its freshman composition course in English, the authors of the Statement of the Black FacultyCaucus at the University of Texas in Austin declared in 1992, “What we are talking about here is no less than transforming the University into a center of multicultural learning: anything less continues a system of education that ultimately reproduces racism and racists1. In response, the nationally-syndicated columnist George Will wrote in Newsweek magazine, “So it goes on many campuses. The troubles at Texas are, as yet, mild. But the trajectory is visible: down. So is the destination: political indoctrination supplanting education2. What should be clear here is that this “conflict of the faculties” turns around a fault line that is at least as old as the modern university and the Enlightenment project that is at its heart. That is, on the one hand, the public use of reason (as it is defended by the Black Faculty caucus of the University of Texas and others in favor of a re-evaluation of the literary canon) must reach all possible publics or reason, the very raison d’être of the modern university, comes to be deployed against itself, serving not as the light of Enlightenment but as its censor. On the other hand, reason must be understood as a federator (following George Will’s argument), bringing together diverse perspectives in a trajectory of progress which overcomes the differences of multiple publics. These arguments are obviously closely related to one another and underline the ultimately ambiguous role given reason by its Enlightenment propagators.

2We might approach this debate from a different angle. As is well-known, the divisions mentioned above within the American academy may be traced back to changes that first swept through literature departments in the late-1960s and early-1970s. The division of literature by “theory” such as deconstruction, new historicism, and, more recently, cultural studies (to reduce the matter greatly, in a broad shorthand for a number of theoretical approaches) situates itself directly along the fault line of the university and the universal deployment of reason just sketched above. That is, one might broadly qualify these theoretical and critical movements as interested in questioning the grounds and contradictory and exclusionary nature of modern thought. It has, in addition, not passed unnoticed that this most recent division of literature occurred at precisely the moment that the American university was assimilating the effects brought on by dramatic changes in its public in the post-war years, opening its doors to a more class- and race-diversified public than its early to mid-century predecessor. The recent division of literary publics at the university was then effectively mirrored by a division in literary matters.

3This short evocation of the recent and current climate within the American academy serves to argue that the discipline of literature offers a privileged vantage point over the divisions in the contemporary American university. In what follows, I should like to return to the arguments that surround the proper use of reason and the “conflict of the faculties”, for, in spite of the differences in the positions of antagonists such as the Black Faculty Caucus or George Will, a similar logic or discourse of legitimation is deployed beneath these debates that is part of the larger “logic” of reason itself. This discourse or narrative of legitimation is indeed part and parcel of the modern heritage one which takes the universality of reason as both its starting point and ending point. (Kant constantly characterized the Enlightenment project as always underway and not yet complete). Furthermore, I should like to underline the complicity this heritage holds with another hallmark of Western modernity, that of capitalism, since, like reason itself, capital’s universality is to be found both at its origin and its ending point It is perhaps within this globalizing universality of reason and capital that we might be able to make some final remarks concerning literature and the manner in which it both takes part in and impedes the universality of reason and capital. To put it very clearly, the goal of this article is to approach the debates of the “culture wars” or “political correctness” without recourse to rhetoric or hyperbole, with a sympathetic eye towards some of the arguments that were made in favor of the expansion and diversification of the canon and the humanities, stressing that what is perhaps most important in this debate, what is the perhaps the most dangerous for the use of reason, is literature itself.

4While it would be possible to turn to a number of positions advanced during the 1980s and 1990s in America concerning political correctness on American campuses or the varying degrees of difference expressed in literary canons, the examples noted above concerning the University of Texas have the merit of brevity and straightforward argumentative styles for the purposes of this study. In their responses to the debate over the freshman composition syllabus (and implicitly to the larger debates surrounding the literary canon), both George Will and the Black Faculty Caucus of the University of Texas have recourse to what one might call a “legitimation argument”. For the sake of our study, we recall that the conclusion of the Black Faculty Caucus’ statement reads: “What we are talking about here is no less than transforming the University into a center of multicultural learning: anything less continues a system of education that ultimately reproduces racism and racists”. In this argument, the very concept of the university or reason is inseparable from its destination or end: the proper use of reason is defined by its ends. George Will concludes as much when he writes: “So it goes on many campuses. The troubles at Texas are, as yet, mild.  But the trajectory is visible: down. So is the destination: political indoctrination supplanting education”. Here the argument is clear: the use (or misuse) of reason may be found in its ends or destination. While the dispute in these cases is between an accent placed on reason’s expansion or growth (the educational argument of the Black Faculty Caucus) or on reason’s federating role (the education versus indoctrination argument of George Will), what is more interesting is the manner in which each argument attempts to justify itself. That is, the legitimation form of the argument is a circular one: the ends or destination of the argument are used to justify the argument itself. In other words, the notion of the university as that place in which reason is properly deployed is used to justify the arguments used for its existence (in the form advanced by the argument in question).

5This type of argument appears to the careful reader as circular, and it is just that. It is, nonetheless, a manner of reasoning that has some august ancestors, finding its modern home most famously in Kant’s first critique when confronted with a problem:

  • 3  Immanuel Kant, Translated by J. M. D. Meiklejohn, Critique of Pure Reason, London, Everyman’s Libr (...)

If cinnabar were one moment red, the next moment black, one moment light, the next moment heavy, if human beings one moment changed into one animal shape, the next moment into a different animal shape, if on the longest day the country were one moment covered with fruit, the next moment with ice and snow, then my empirical imagination would not even be able to think of the heavy cinnabar in connection with the representation of the colour red3.

6The response to this problem may be found in the recognition of a concept in a unified consciousness:

  • 4  Immanuel Kant, op.cit., 126-127.

It is precisely the transcendental unity of apperception that produces, out of all the appearances capable of co-existing in a unitary experience, a connection of all representations according to rules. For this unity of consciousness would be impossible if the mind, in coming to know the manifold, could not become conscious of the identity of the function by means of which it synthetically connects the manifold into knowledge […] the mind could not possibly a priori think to itself the identity of oneself in the multiplicity of its representations if it did not fix its attention on the identity of its act, an act that subjects all synthesis of apprehension (which is empirical) to a transcendental unity and only by doing so makes possible the interconnectedness of representations according to a priori rules4.

7The proper use of reason, its end or destination, is then to be found in the circular movement of recognition.

8Now, Kant’s reflections on reason are interesting from another angle within the current debate studied here. At several points in his works Kant reflected on the role of reason as it is deployed within the university and they are worth briefly exploring in relation to the contemporary situation. In The Conflict of the Faculties, Kant comments at one point on “popular enlightenment” and the public instruction of the people. Regarding the relation between the state and the people’s instructors, Kant underlines its complicated nature:

  • 5  Immanuel Kant, Translated by Mary J. Gregor, The Conflict of the Faculties, Lincoln, Nebraska, Uni (...)

Enlightenment of the masses is the public instruction of the people in its duties and rights vis-à-vis the state to which they belong. Since only natural rights and rights arising out of the common human understanding are concerned here, then the natural heralds and expositors of these among the people are not officially appointed by the state but are free professors of law, that is philosophers who, precisely because this freedom is allowed to them, are objectionable to the state, which always desires to rule alone; and they are decried, under the name of enlighteners, as persons dangerous to the state, although their voice is not addressed confidentially to the people (as the people scarcely take any or no notice of it and of their writings) but is addressed respectfully to the state; and they implore the state to take to heart that need which is felt to be legitimate. This can happen by no other means than that of publicity in the event that an entire people cares to bring forward its grievances. Thus the prohibition of publicity impedes the progress of a people toward improvement, even in that which applies to the least of its claims, namely its mere natural right5.

9The arguments here are tangled but deserve teasing out. Like the positions of the antagonists in the University of Texas debate, the legitimate use of reason is in question in Kant’s essay. The designation of teachers or philosophers as “free” and as “not officially appointed by the state” may be misleading since professors are indeed appointed at the university by the state. Kant is arguing that in spite of their appointment to the university and their assumed debt to this institution, the “natural heralds and expositors” of universal rights must be free. Indeed, this freedom is the condition of their appointment as philosophers. The mistake would be to undermine this freedom through an overly-intrusive state which would wish to control them. The “danger” posed then by such “heralds and expositors” is the limit they place on the state’s desire to control or rule absolutely. Indeed, it is not to the people that philosophers address their lessons but to the state, the misconception here being that in speaking to the people of their “rights and duties vis-à-vis the state” the philosophers are addressing the people. For Kant, philosophers are actually addressing the state in its rights and duties vis-à-vis the people. To resist these lessons the state erects a number of fictions concerning philosophers (censorship preserves the people’s respect for the state, for example) in order to limit or control them.

10Once again, we are faced with a question of the end of reason, this time in terms of reason or enlightenment for the masses. The end of enlightenment is not the people, who “scarcely take any or no notice of it and of [philosophers’] writings”, but rather the state, whose gradual instruction is to be assured by the philosopher. Kant here understands the voice of reason to be heard in an age of enlightenment and not an enlightened age, thus, reason and enlightenment are part of a passage from childhood to adulthood: enlightenment is a process that has yet to reach its end. He then understands reason’s end as the gradual instruction of the state on its rights and duties. However, again like the circular logic of the faculties examined a moment ago, the faculties of the university depend on the state for their existence. The philosopher, as “natural herald and expositor”, is subject only to the laws of reason whose end is nevertheless the state.

11This has been a rather long detour through the modern origins of the current “conflict of the faculties” in order to underline several things. First, the method of legitimation deployed by the antagonists in the contemporary example is the same, ultimately, as that originally deployed by Kant. Second, the arguments of the Black Faculty Caucus and George Will follow the modern fault lines initially opened up by the Enlightenment. That is, once a universal and humanist model of reason is set into place by Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers, it is rapidly replaced by a second, more speculative model or argument of legitimation that takes all of humanity for its subject, supplanting the place reserved by Kant for reason. This second narrative of legitimation is one in which reason is made to serve an end in the form of knowledge and was quite succinctly described over twenty years ago by Jean-François Lyotard in his Condition postmoderne:

  • 6  Jean-François Lyotard, La Condition postmoderne, Paris, Minuit, 1979, 60.

Le savoir n’y trouve pas sa validité en lui-même, dans un sujet qui se développe en actualisant ses possibilités de connaissance, mais dans un sujet pratique qui est l’humanité […] Dans cette perspective, le savoir positif n’a pas d’autre rôle que d’informer le sujet pratique de la réalité dans laquelle l’exécution de la prescription doit s’inscrire […] Ainsi s’introduit une relation du savoir à la société et à son État qui est en principe celle de moyen à fin6.
[Knowledge is not validated in and of itself, in a subject which develops by actualizing its means of knowledge, but in a practical subject which is humanity […] In this perspective, positive knowledge has no other role than to inform the practical subject of the reality in which the prescription must inscribe itself […] A relation between knowledge and society and the State is thus introduced which is in principle one of a means to an end].

12The positions outlined by the Black Faculty Caucus and George Will mirror these competing narratives from the Enlightenment in that each argument attempts to claim the high ground of the original humanist Enlightenment project as embodied in Kant’s argument but is nonetheless contaminated by references to the various “skills” or “knowledge” their position would give students in an increasingly global and multicultural world. For example, the authors of the Black Faculty Caucus statement repeatedly underline the various fields of “knowledge” that a multicultural syllabus will “produce”. Indeed, upon close examination, this statement as well as many other statements concerning the diversification of the canon or higher education often rely explicitly on a rhetoric of “knowledge production” in an age of multicultural and diverse publics. Similarly and predictably, George Will pits political correctness against a series of traditional reading and writing “skills” a university should offer its students.  

  • 7  Jean-François Lyotard, op.cit., 79.

13When Jean-François Lyotard underlined the appearance of a second narrative of legitimation within the Enlightenment project, he termed it a narrative of de-legitimation in the sense that the original goal of emancipation or freedom through reason is supplanted by a logic of the means to an end. The resulting focus on the performativity of the university, in the sense that it “produces” certain skills or knowledge in relation to the needs of a society, obviously shares close ties with a capitalist model of production. Lyotard explains as much when he notes, “Dans le contexte de la délégitimation, les universités et les institutions d’enseignement supérieur sont désormais sollicités de former des compétences, et non plus des idéaux : tant de médecins, tant de professeurs de telle et telle discipline, tant d’ingénieurs, tant d’administrateurs, etc.7. [In the context of de-legitimation, universities and institutions of higher learning are henceforth solicited to form skills and no longer ideals: so many doctors, so many professors in such and such disciplines, so many engineers, so many bureaucrats, etc.]. The point here is to underscore the complicity that exists between the modern arguments of legitimation (which are ceaselessly deployed in contemporary debates surrounding the American university) and the means/ends logic of capitalism—a complicity which often goes unrecognized by both sides in the debates surrounding diversification, the canon, multiculturalism, and political correctness in American higher education. While it has often been remarked that the diversification of the canon, with its focus on the margins of various literary and cultural discourses corresponded to a historical and social shift in the student populations of American universities, it has been less often the case that the connection between these very material shifts and their underlying socio-economic causes has been made. It is precisely because of the unceasing diversification and rationalization of the contemporary capitalist moment (call it what one may—late capitalism, globalization, consumer society, multiculturalism) that these diverse populations come to be targeted within specific markets. The problem or matter of the conflict of the faculties in American higher education, with its conflicting arguments of legitimation and de-legitimation is simply one more instance of that complex, on-going struggle over the progressive alignment of America with the transnational capitalist order of the contemporary moment, which has been the principal force shaping American and Western society for several decades.

14But what of literature in all of this? At the beginning of this article, I announced that my study of the contemporary conflict of the faculties would eventually deal with literature. I believe it is not by chance that this final element of the conflict of the faculties—literature—should have served as the flash-point around which this debate and numerous others exploded. Indeed, it is perhaps the very structure of literature itself which scrambles the circular logic of legitimation arguments or narratives just as it traditionally scrambles the means/end logic of non-legitimation arguments or narratives. We are, for example, quite vividly aware of the difficulty we have in pinning down the “true” destination, end, or meaning of a text, and this for a number of theoretical as well as socio-historical reasons. This difficulty is one every reader runs up against each time he/she deploys those meticulous close reading approaches with which we are so familiar. I would hold that the merit of several innovative critical approaches to literature from the late-1960s and 1970s was to make these implicit difficulties explicit. Thus the famously aggravating approach of Jacques Derrida and deconstruction ceaselessly displace the ends or destination of reading. One might object, however that a curious complicity links the contemporary debates of the American academy and literary theories such as deconstruction, a complicity not unlike that explored above between modern capitalism and arguments or narratives of legitimation. That is, it would certainly be possible to show to what extent literary theories such as deconstruction and others that followed in its wake (new historicism, cultural studies, etc.) are caught up in the arguments of legitimation and de-legitimation so that the margins or voices they uncover in the text serve as the means or ends justifying the creation of ever more culturally diverse courses.

15This argument, however, would require some care since what is in question in this objection is the reception and deployment of many mainly French theories within the American academy. What I said above is that the very structure of literature itself scrambles the circular logic of legitimation arguments, and I wish to go so far here as to argue that it is this structure itself and not the reception/deployment of various reading strategies or theories that is really at question in deconstruction and other similar literary theories. It is precisely because the end or destination of literature can never be selected beforehand that legitimation or de-legitimation narratives have such a difficult time with literature. Just when we believe we have literature pinned down in a tidy and neat little definition (even a deconstructionist definition), it manages to surprise the reader and escape all definition. Like Kant’s crafty cinnabar, literature appears one moment red, the next moment black, one moment heavy, the next moment light, and so on. True, it is in this changing destination or end that literature might appear to act like the legitimation and de-legitimation narratives that continually place one end or destination after another in an attempt to finally get things right. In other words, we might say, like George Will, that literature, like reason, serves to educate the future citizen of the state, or, like the Black Faculty Caucus, that literature, like reason, serves to produce certain skills or knowledge for a globalized society. It is indeed in this sense that the matter of literature might share in the matter of legitimation, de-legitimation and capital. Yet I would argue it is precisely in its capacity to always go one step beyond this logic that literature both attracts and foils these arguments or narratives of legitimation and de-legitimation. This is what Derrida would call the “quasi-condition” of literature—its structural deployment as a quasi-universal concept which nonetheless confounds universality. Numerous terms have been used to describe this “condition”: “writing in general”, “différance”, or “a justice-to-come” and in one instance Derrida calls this “quasi-condition” literature’s “secret” or “passion”:

  • 8  Jacques Derrida, Passions, Paris, Galilée, 1993, 67-68.

Il y a dans la littérature, dans le secret exemplaire de la littérature, une chance de tout dire sans toucher au secret. Quand toutes les hypothèses sont permises, sans fond et à l’infini, sur le sens d’un texte ou les intentions finales d’un auteur dont la personne n’est pas plus représentée que non représentée par un personnage ou par un narrateur, par une phrase poétique ou fictionnelle qui se détachent de leur source présumée et restent ainsi au secret, quand il n’y a même plus de sens à décider d’un secret derrière la surface d’une manifestation textuelle […] quand c’est l’appel de ce secret qui pourtant renvoie à l’autre ou à autre chose, quand c’est cela même qui tient notre passion en haleine et nous tient à l’autre, alors le secret nous passionne8.
[There is, in literature, in the exemplary secret of literature, a chance to say everything without touching on the secret. When all hypotheses are infinitely and without end permitted concerning the sense of a text and the final intentions of an author who is neither more nor less represented by a character or a narrator, by a poetic or fictional phrase which is taken from its presumed source and thus remains secret, when there is no longer any sense in deciding a secret behind the surface of a textual manifestation, […] when it is nonetheless the call of the secret which refers to the other or something else, when it is that which holds our passionate breath and holds us to the other, then the secret (im)passions us].

16For Derrida (and deconstruction), literature’s end (in both senses of this word) remains constantly open, and it is because this opening is rendered visible, particularly within such critical methods as deconstruction or “theory” that literature poses such a problem for legitimation narratives based on universal reason or on the universalizing process of globalization at work within the university itself.

  • 9  See Jacques Derrida, L’Université sans condition, Paris, Galilée, 2001.

17And this leads me to a final point, one that will not answer any of our questions or solve any of our problems, but which places the contexts in discussion here in relation not only with that of America but also within the context of the French system of higher education. Derrida’s description of the quasi-concept of literature as a “secret” or a “passion” has certain echoes with what we might call a “profession of faith”. Literature’s secret power is always to point us toward that which is to come, that which will disturb a careful, closed and universally legitimizing reason. In other words, literature places its faith in a(n) (unreasonable) future yet-to-come. When we deploy literature’s destabilizing universality against legitimizing and de-legitimizing uses of reason, we profess our faith in a future to-come, in a literature to-come. Those who take part in the university community are professors of literature and language, and as Derrida notes in a recent text on the university and literature, the origins of the verb “profess” are religious9. It is only once into the high Middle Ages that the discourse of the professions attaches itself to this verb, secularizing it to a certain extent. To be professors of language or literature is then to engage in the quasi-conceptual structure of literature itself, to first profess one’s faith in a future to-come that calls into question the legitimation narrative of universal reason or of what is becoming an increasingly professional university.

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1  Ted Gordon and Wahneema Lubiano. “The Statement of the Black Faculty Caucus”, in Paul Berman (ed), Debating P.C.: The Controversy over Political Correctness on College Campuses, New York, Dell Publishing, 1992, 257.

2  George Will, “Radical English”, in Paul Berman (ed), Debating P.C.: The Controversy over Political Correctness on College Campuses, New York, Dell Publishing, 1992, 261.

3  Immanuel Kant, Translated by J. M. D. Meiklejohn, Critique of Pure Reason, London, Everyman’s Library, 1993, 123.

4  Immanuel Kant, op.cit., 126-127.

5  Immanuel Kant, Translated by Mary J. Gregor, The Conflict of the Faculties, Lincoln, Nebraska, University of Nebraska Press, 1992, 161.

6  Jean-François Lyotard, La Condition postmoderne, Paris, Minuit, 1979, 60.

7  Jean-François Lyotard, op.cit., 79.

8  Jacques Derrida, Passions, Paris, Galilée, 1993, 67-68.

9  See Jacques Derrida, L’Université sans condition, Paris, Galilée, 2001.

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Anthony Larson

Dr., (Le Mans, France)
Anthony Larson is Maître de Conférences at the Université du Maine, Le Mans where he teaches American literature and literary criticism/theory. He is the author of articles on literature and philosophy and has focused particularly on the work of Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida and their intersection with literature. He is currently working on a project that would explain the merits of studying literature through philosophy.

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