The French theoretician Jean Baudrillard has vaulted into the lead in the unofficial competition for Most Despicable Quote in the Wake of September 11th. Baudrillard, a revered figure among American humanities professors over the last 25 years, recently asserted on the front page of the Paris newspaper Le Monde that the Judeo-Christian West, led by America, not only provoked the terrorist attacks, it actually desired them; his remarks have sailed beneath media radar in the United States only because they were written in French and come cloaked in the usual deconstructionist blather: “Because with its unbearable power, it has fomented this violence pervading the world, along with the terrorist imagination that inhabits all of us, without our knowing. That we dreamed of this event, that everyone without exception dreamed of it, because no one can fail to dream of the destruction of any power become so hegemonic — that is unacceptable for the Western moral conscience. And yet it’s a fact, which can be measured by the pathetic violence of all the discourses that want to cover it up. To put it in the most extreme terms, they did it, but we wanted it.”
Baudrillard, it should be noted, has long been an object of ridicule among trained philosophers — a fact that has in no way undermined his widespread influence within the cognitive Never-Never Land of literature, art history, and sociology departments, where facts are never objective (hence, Baudrillard’s quick insistence that his nonsensical judgment is “a fact”) and where demands for verifiable evidence and logical consistency are perceived as forms of intellectual oppression.
It’s tempting, of course, to dismiss Baudrillard’s statement as a moment of isolated idiocy, yet he is actually saying nothing out of step with his life’s work. His ruminations in this instance are part and parcel of the nihilistic celebration of paradox and fetish that rides under the banner of postmodernism. Five years ago, for example, he wrote a book called The Gulf War Did not Take Place, wherein he argued that the violent ousting of Iraqi troops from Kuwait was too one-sided to furnish images proper to warfare; the coalition took so few casualties that the outcome must have been certain in advance. Hence the entire conflict was “a shameful and pointless hoax, a programmed and melodramatic version of what was the drama of war.” And since images, in the through-the-looking-glass world of deconstructionist theory, determine reality, Baudrillard concluded that the war never happened.
Baudrillard, of course, goes right on being cited by humanities professors. His texts are regularly assigned in undergraduate and graduate courses. Panel discussions are held on his writings at the annual conventions of the Modern Language Association.
Indeed, if the last quarter-century has taught us nothing else, it’s that there is simply no way to discredit anyone in the current humanities climate. The fact that the deconstructionist critic Paul de Man turned out to be a Nazi sympathizer did nothing to deter his admirers — although the discovery of the dark side of his past made the front page of the New York Times. His fellow literary theorist Jacques Derrida even deconstructed de Man’s wartime writings. To wit, in 1940, de Man had written for the pro-Nazi newspaper Le Soir: “One can thus see that a solution to the Jewish problem that would lead to the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe would not have, for the literary life of the West, regrettable consequences.” But Derrida interpreted de Man’s words to show that he wasn’t really saying anything bad about Jews.
That little performance, of course, did nothing to deter Derrida’s own admirers.
Then, too, there is the more recent case of City University of New York professor Stanley Aronowitz. It was Aronowitz, you may remember, who was victimized by “Sokal’s Hoax” back in 1995, when the left-wing journal he’d founded, Social Text, published a paper by the physicist Alan Sokal called “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” The only problem was that the paper turned out to be a parody of deconstructionist double-speak. With mock-seriousness, Sokal claimed to show how “the space-time manifold ceases to exist as an objective physical reality.” In other words, he set out to prove that the world didn’t exist. Sokal’s methodology was simply to string together “the silliest quotes about mathematics and physics from the most prominent academics” — including citations of Aronowitz himself. Six editors at Social Text read the paper before it was accepted for publication. Then Sokal told his story to the journal Lingua Franca. When word of the hoax broke, it too made the front page of the New York Times. Aronowitz and his cronies were instantly transformed from obscure eggheads into tenured laughingstocks — at least in the eyes of the general public.
That should have ended the story. Except that three years later, and notwithstanding the whiff of national humiliation, Aronowitz was promoted by City University from plain old professor to distinguished professor of sociology.
Which raises the question: If being a front-page laughingstock cannot derail the career, or even dim the reputation, of an intellectual in the humanities, what can?
—Mark Goldblatt is a writer in New York. His novel, Africa Speaks, is due out in February.