Politicizing Scholarship: The Iannone Affair

Originally published in the South Carolina Review 25 (Spring 1993): 74-82. © 1993. All rights reserved.

I had better explain at once what I hope to do in this essay. The last thing anyone wants to hear is another voice raised in dispute over the nomination of Carol Iannone to the National Council for the Humanities. Besides, it is too late for that. Iannone was nominated by President George Bush in March 1991 to serve on the panel that advises the National Endowment for the Humanities on the awarding of research grants. Almost immediately her nomination was denounced by executives of the Modern Language Association, the American Council of Learned Societies, and other scholarly organizations. In August of that year, Iannone was rejected by the U.S. Senate. I do not intend to gnash my teeth. Although I believe that Iannone was treated shamefully, I see little purpose in throwing off insults in l’esprit de l’escalier. In this essay I wish instead to reflect upon the ideas and commitments that motivated the opposition to Iannone. What I hope to show is that the campaign against her was an attempt to enforce norms of political correctness. In order to do so, I shall try to answer the usual two criticism directed at exposés of political correctness—that the examples they offer are extremist caricatures, and that they are not well documented. Since the opposition to Iannone was conducted in the name of national scholarly organizations, it can hardly be taken as the action of an extremist fringe. And since the opponents to Iannone made their reasons clear, the problem is one of credibility, not documentation. But I am going to start from the assumption that both sides to the dispute were telling the truth, at least as they saw it.

On one side, her defenders argued that the opposition to Iannone was politically motivated. And there are good prima facie reasons for thinking that this was the case. Iannone is publicly affiliated with the National Association of Scholars; she is the former managing editor of its journal Academic Questions. In a revealing slip on public television, the critic Stanley Fish acknowledged that while he himself wasn’t saying so, it was "widely known that the NAS is racist, sexist, and homophobic"—raising the accusation from the gutter of opinion to the respectability of established knowledge. This should be immediately recognized as the fallacy of special pleading, the desire to have it both ways. And such a mode of argument was characteristic of the opposition to Iannone. Joel Conarroe, formerly the executive director of the MLA and now president of the Guggenheim Foundation, said that because of an essay she had written for Commentary on Alice Walker, Iannone "could be described as a racist." Later Conarroe amended his remarks to read: "She has put herself in a position of being called a racist." This was a way of making the charge and disavowing it too. No one could demonstrate for a fact that Iannone was a racist merely because she had criticized Alice Walker’s latest novel or that she was a sexist merely because (in other essays) she had raised doubts about feminism. Racist and sexist were code words for the real (but unspoken) accusation—Iannone was politically unacceptable. Small wonder that her supporters considered the opposition to Iannone politically motivated, shrugging off protests to the contrary as disingenuous.

Meanwhile, her detractors insisted that their opposition was provoked by questions about Iannone’s scholarship. "In the ten years since she has earned the Ph.D.," said Phyllis Franklin, executive director of the MLA, Iannone "has done some teaching at the college level and written journalistic book reviews in Commentary that are not contributions to scholarship, a book chapter that relates personal experiences that is also not a contribution to scholarship, and three essays that are modest pieces of scholarship." This accusation itself provokes questions. Franklin speaks as if it should be self-evident what counts as scholarship and what does not, but what is the basis of this distinction? Instead of elaborating further, Franklin merely appeals to an understood agreement. After the fact, Professor Annette Kolodny of the University of Arizona tried to elaborate. Iannone "doesn’t have the scholarly credentials to receive tenure at a research institution or a major liberal-arts institution," she said. But are "scholarly credentials" an essential prerequisite for appointment to the NEH? Instead of arguing why, Iannone’s critics merely took for granted that it was so. Not everyone agreed. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D—Md.) told Iannone privately that she deplored such "academic snobbery," adding "this is not a tenure decision."

Even so, there is a genuine discrepancy between journalism and scholarship which Iannone’s defenders, many of them journalists themselves, failed to respect. Unfortuately, it’s not at all clear that Iannone’s detractors respected it any better. For them, scholarship is not (as defined by the great historian of the subject, Rudolf Pfeiffer) "the art of understanding, explaining, and restoring the literary tradition." It is not a mode of activity that is differentiated from journalism by its pursuit of truth rather than novelty. In fact many detractors of Iannone would scoff at the very mention of truth: it is a category manipulated by hegemonic elites, they might say, the ideological mystification of a particular social interest. (Of course, this claim itself is exempt from the general derision. It is true, even if there are no other truths.)

Again, Iannone’s accusers would defend their own work in terms of its novelty: it deconstructs the literary tradition (or "canon," as they’d prefer to say) in light of the most recent theoretical developments. Scholarship on this exhibition includes new readings of old texts, novel arrangements of the facts to illustrate novel theses. And this notion would seem to find support in the second half of Howard Mumford Jones’s explanation that "humanistic scholarship aims to increase and refine humane learning by adding new facts to what is known, or enriching our understanding of old knowledge by putting it in a new light."

Yet no such definition can be cited to exclude Iannone’s work from the category of scholarship. As a literary critic, Iannone belongs to the long and honorable tradition of Sidney, Dryden, Johnson, Arnold, Babbit, Leavis, and Orwell among others—she is a moral critic. She understands and explains contemporary literature (and not only contemporary literature) by putting it in light of its moral consequences. Over and over, in essays on Mary Gordon, Grace Paley, Norman Mailer, William Gaddis, E. L. Doctorow, Toni Morrison, Harold Brodkey, and others, she exhibits the manner in which a writer’s moral imagination is cramped and impoverished by his or her political and aesthetic convictions. In a typical remark, Iannone says the young novelist David Leavitt feels that he "need not bother to create a functional moral framework according to which the actions of his characters will be more than momentarily meaningful, or their miseries more than spasmodically painful, or human suffering in general more than a compelling curiosity." And as might be expected, her moral interpretation of literature also entails the correction of what Iannone believes are mistaken scholarly views. Discussing the first volume of the projected three-volume study of women’s writing by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Iannone observes that

In their reading of Jane Austen’s Emma, Professors Gilbert and Gubar see the steps that the heroine must undergo before she can befriend the less fortunate Jane Fairfax as lessons in a shared "vulnerability as a female." What really happens in the novel, however, is that Emma learns humility, a necessary conclusion before she can feel an affinity with a person more poorly situated than herself. The one interpretation is political, the other personal and moral. The one unfolds a supposedly liberating insight that actually leads to being trapped in grievance; the other is grounded in a self-perception that leads ultimately to freedom from self and genuine attachment to others.So it is not easy to see how Iannone’s "journalism" differs from her detractors’ "scholarship," except in its conclusions. In the end, those who objected to Iannone were reduced to complaints about where she publishes—in Commentary and the New Criterion, politically neoconservative journals. Scholarship, by contrast, is distinguished by being printed in "refereed journals." But this is a distinction that is impossible to sustain, because it suggests that there is no substantive difference between journalism and scholarship. There is only the formal difference of institutional procedure and control.

Still, I propose to take seriously the concept of scholarship that was implicit in the arguments against Iannone. Her detractors meant for it to be taken seriously, after all. And in accord with my initial assumption, I should like to observe that each side in the dispute over Iannone’s appointment scored a point against the other: the opposition was not politically disinterested, and Iannone herself was not a scholar (formally understood). Neither side, however, was in possession of the whole story. It must be reconstructed out of scraps, like a syllogism. If political considerations were at least partly behind the movement against Iannone, and if she was also being judged on the basis of her scholarship, it follows that at the very least political considerations operated alongside scholarly judgment. But I would go one step further. What the campaign against Carol Iannone signifies, I believe, is the surrender of scholarly judgment to politics.

Because politics is a paper-towel word, grabbed for almost any chore in an argument, I should clarify what I mean. In my view, the American university is increasingly being thought of as if it were a polis or city-state. What is going on here, I want to argue, is a shift away from the original meaning of universitas as it was defined in Roman private law—an association of human beings in terms of a substantive common purpose—and toward a conception of the university as a social and political entity, in which those who belong are associated to one another in the merely formal terms of ethical respect and the observance of common rules. In a recent issue of Change magazine, Dean Catherine R. Stimpson of Rutgers University uses somewhat different terms to describe the same thing, speaking of the new university as being characterized by an "ethos of community." She explains: "The prevailing ethos of the good campus, no matter how large and impersonal, can reflect an assumption that most of us want to get along with each other. . . . We simply need a commitment to a degree of justice and tranquility." In her tendency to conceive of a university as a physical site—a campus—Stimpson represents what I am describing as the shift to a political conception of the university.

An ethos of community, a commitment to justice and tranquility, explains much of what is happening in American universities, such as minority recruitment, the drafting of speech codes, efforts to recognize and punish sexual harassment, "date rape," etc. I do not mean to belittle these efforts, but only to draw attention to the underlying assumption that the university is the proper authority for dealing with social problems. Increasingly, rules violations on college campuses are seen as forms of incivility, in both senses of that word. They are acts of rudeness and discourtesy, but they are also antisocial—they are attacks upon the very principle of community, the principle that one belongs to a group of people only by virtue of one’s relationship to the other members. As the critic David Bromwich wrote in Dissent, "A single article of faith from the sixties has passed unchallenged into the eighties—namely, the idea that the university is a microcosm of society." But this is merely the formal cause of the shift to a new conception of university life. The final cause is the transformation of universities into societies that are no longer subordinate to the social whole but complete in themselves. Here problems that are intractable in society at large may be redressed. And for those who find places in it, as did Ellison’s invisible man, a good university campus is "the spot of earth which [is] identified with the best of all possible worlds."

The shift to a political conception of the university has not been without its effect upon scholarly behavior as well. When a university is thought of not as a social organism but as a substantive undertaking—the special activity of promoting human learning—then the scholar is distinguished by his devotion to the task, by flesh-and-blood commitments. According to E. K. Rand, who is quoted by Curtius in European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, the devoted scholar is a humanist:

one who has a love of things human . . . who cares more for art and letters, particularly the art and letters of Greece and Rome, than for the dry light of reason or the mystic’s flight into the unknown; one who distrusts allegory; one who adores critical editions with variants and variorum notes; one who has a passion for manuscripts, which he would like to discover, beg, borrow, or steal; one who has an eloquent tongue which he frequently exercises; one who has a sharp tongue, which on occasion can let free a flood of good billingsgate or sting an opponent with an epigram.But this desciption is out of step with the times. The modern scholar, who is as likely to be a woman as a man, is more concerned with her humanity than with humanism. And increasingly she is troubled by the academic experience as it is traditionally understood, which combines (as Jane Tompkins says in West of Everything), "the elements of admiration, bloodlust, and moral self-congratulation." Traditional humanistic scholarship, with its polemical scorn for the work of other scholars, is not very nice. "In veiled language," Tompkins says,we accuse one another of stupidity, ignorance, fear, envy, pride, malice, and hypocrisy; we picture those with whom we disagree as monsters of inhumanity and manage to insinuate that they lack social graces as well as social conscience and moral virtue; we hint that they are insensitive, pompous, narrow, affected, shrill, exhibitionistic, and boring. . . . We feel justified in this because we are right, so right, and they, like the villains in the Western, are wrong, so wrong.Can’t we try to get along with one another? Here, in veiled language, is a proposal for setting aside the substantive task of correcting error for the sake of an ethical commitment to fellow denizens of the scholarly community.

If the gain has been a degree of justice and tranquility, the loss has been a sense of common purpose. The university was once an association of persons who were related to one another by virtue of their common pursuit of truth. But no longer. The contemporary university is a community, a self-contained and self-governing little society, in which one behaves oneself in accord with common rules so as not to interfere with the pursuits of others. To suggest that everyone within a university shares (or ought to share) a common objective is to betray a profound lack of respect for the diversity of interests within the community.

Again, humanistic scholarship used to be spoken of as a "corporate endeavor." Many hands were devoted to the substantive enterprise of producing knowledge. Not any longer. Scholarship is now defined as a method or set of methods. According to the authors of Speaking for the Humanities, a 1989 report from the American Council of Learned Societies, "The humanities are better conceived as fields of exploration and critique rather than materials for transmission." The skills of exploration and critique are not implicity contained within the materials; they are separate. And to be a scholar, then, is not to know a certain body of materials, but to subscribe to the communal standards, the agreed-upon conditions of exploration and critique.

Finally, at one time a university was an idea. It was not an ethos, a way of behaving in human society; it was a distinct form of work, the activity of preserving, adding to, and handing on the traditions of human knowledge. It did not require a campus or a central administration or a speech code to regulate the fellows’ incivilities to one another. In England—if the Open University is any indication—its existence is still more ideal than material. But not in America. Here a university is merely a certain kind of public space, a small city, the best of all possible worlds; and to remain there a person has to make a commitment to get along with others—in the word professors use to enforce conformity to their social code, she has to be collegial. She must demonstrate her loyalty to her fellow scholars, agree to observe the decencies, and play by the rules.

This, I believe, and only this, is the regard in which Carol Iannone could be described as not a scholar. Despite the fact that she is head of freshman studies at the Gallatin Division of New York University—or perhaps because of that fact—Iannone was treated as if she simply did not belong in the community of scholars. Something like this, I suspect, was what Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan had in mind when he argued that "Professor Iannone’s troubles arouse not from the quality of her work, but from her genes, social and otherwise. She is an Italian, Catholic ethnic with a working-class background." It would be well to recall Peter Viereck’s maxim that anti-Catholicism is the antisemitism of the intelligentsia, and then substitute "commitments" for Moynihan’s word "genes." Iannone had simply made the wrong commitments, social and otherwise. Thus when ACLS president Stanley N. Katz sought in anger to refute Moynihan’s charges, he merely confirmed and refined them by huffing that "Something like three hundred thousand post-doctoral students belong to the fifty-one organizations we represent, and you [Moynihan] have attacked the integrity of each and every one of them." Moynihan replied that he himself belonged to some of those organizations and could hardly be attacking his own integrity. "There is a whiff of the totalitarian mode in all this," he concluded sadly. And indeed there is. But something more. Katz was also whispering to Moynihan: she is not one of us.

In short, the case against Iannone was an institutional one. Significantly, it was mounted by organizations, not individuals; and when individuals did speak out against her, they were careful to do so in their official capacities. There are two ways to interpret this. The first is that the campaign against Iannone was the assertion of a claim to jurisdiction over the NEH. By arguing in effect that nominees to the National Council for the Humanities must submit to the standards and conditions of the MLA, the ACLS, et al., these organizations were seeking to extend their influence over a grant-making agency of the federal government, transforming it into a satellite of the scholarly community. This is a persuasive interpretation, and in fact it is Iannone’s own view. "It should not be forgotten," she says, "that the [National] Endowment was not created to serve the academy but the general public. A lot of the opposing groups seemed to lose sight of this fact and see the Endowment as their own academic cash cow, therefore justifying their right to assert veto power over nominees."

But I wish to offer a second interpretation. In my view, the jurisdictional claim is subsidiary to a broader effort to redefine scholarship and the university as political institutions. On this view, it was irrelevant for Phyllis Franklin to disclaim the role of politics in the opposition to Iannone, saying the MLA would gladly have supported someone such as Gertrude Himmelfarb, "whose ‘ideology’ is probably similar" to Iannone’s. (That is, Himmelfarb and Iannone publish in the same magazines.) If scholarly credentials are established by the fact of inclusion within the institutions of scholarship—such as membership in learned societies and publication in refereed journals—it is possible to imagine an academic situation in which scholars who publish in the wrong magazines never rise to prominence, because they are excluded from the institutions. This is not a question of ideology but authority. Whoever controls the institutions controls the definition of scholarship.

This possibility will become a reality, however, only if more substantive conceptions of scholarship are abandoned. Unfortunately, the signs of abandonment are all around. And the worst sign is that institutional formalism has begun to usurp the function of individual scholarly judgment. Actually, this is nothing new. Jacques Barzun first spotted the drift to formalism over thirty years ago. In The House of Intellect, he pointed out that the idea of scholarship has become so blurred that letters of recommendation are demanded to supplement an advanced degree. Since then the reliance upon formal devices to relieve scholars of the burden of judgment has become routine. To see that this article was published in Representations and that one in Commentary, or this one in American Literary History and that one in the New Criterion, is to decide in advance which is the more scholarly. Part of the very meaning of scholarship is to publish in Representations and American Literary History rather than Commentary and the New Criterion. In this light it no longer appears particularly odd that critics of her nomination said almost nothing about Iannone’s writing, neither correcting its misinterpretations nor attempting to refute it. They didn’t even need to read it to know that it wasn’t scholarship. If it failed to observe scholarly form, if it had not been included in a scholarly publication nor endorsed by a scholarly organization, it did not belong to the community of scholarship anyway. The critics excused themselves from further judgment.