Field Notes

"A specter is haunting U.S. intellectual life," announced an academic workshop flyer that circulated at the University of California at Santa Cruz this winter. "The specter of Left Conservatism." Drawn by these forbidding words and a growing sense of unease about what they might mean, more than one hundred people gathered in a windowless auditorium on campus in late January for a four-and-a-half-hour workshop featuring Judith Butler, Paul Bové, and other well-known academics associated with various strands of radical post-structuralist thought.

But what was Left Conservatism? Although the flyer failed to define either leftism or conservatism, it seemed to define Left Conservatism as a kind of political betrayal. "Within academia and without, in events such as the Sokal affair, in the anti-theory polemics in The Nation and the Socialist Review, in work by authors such as Katha Pollit [sic], Alan Sokal, and Barbara Ehrenreich, there is evidence of a phenomenon that could properly be labeled Left Conservatism: that is, an attack by `real' leftists on those portrayed as theory-mongering, hyper-professional, obscurantist pseudo-leftists."

Assessing this phenomenon darkly, the flyer added: "There seems to be at present an attempt at consensus building among Left Conservatives that is founded on notions of the real, and of the appropriate language with which to analyze it. We can see, in the work of some of the writers listed above and in other work, claims for a certain kind of empiricism, for common sense, for linguistic transparency." Finally, the flyer noted, "This attack on anti-foundationalism...often brings Left Conservatism toward an uneasy convergence with anti-relativists on the right."

Of course, quarrels on the intellectual left are nothing new. For years, writers like Todd Gitlin have lambasted academic radicals for elevating a divisive politics of cultural identity over a unifying politics of economic justice. Other critics, like Noam Chomsky and Jürgen Habermas, have attacked postmodern theory for its refusal to give rational thought and communication their due. In response, poststructuralists have typically insisted that culture and economics--as well as universalism and particularism--are not so easily disentangled and that appeals to "truth" and "reality" are often appeals to whichever unexamined biases are held by whoever is in charge.

With their often opaque prose and difficult philosophies, poststructuralists have often proved difficult to understand--and their work, therefore, has been vulnerable to being defined on their critics' terms. The Santa Cruz conference offered a novel opportunity to turn the tables and characterize some of those opponents' views. And what better way to challenge one's fellow leftists than to accuse them of being, well, conservatives?

Or so it seemed. In fact, as the conference proceeded, the new terminology seemed to collapse of its own accord. What happens when skeptics of categorical thinking attempt to invent a category of their own? The result was something like chaos.

Chris Connery, co-director of the UC-Santa Cruz Center for Cultural Studies, which sponsored the workshop, began the day's discussion by backpedaling. He explained that the workshop was meant only as an investigation of the usefulness of the term "Left Conservatism" and that the term was probably most useful in defining "an act, not an identity." By the end of the workshop, Connery had volunteered to dump "Left Conservatism" altogether. He was not alone. By that time, Berkeley professor of rhetoric Judith Butler had regretted that the putative Left Conservatives had not been invited to participate in the workshop and expressed fear that Left Conservatism was a flattening, reductive term. Panelist Joseph Buttigieg, professor of English at Notre Dame, had declared his discomfort with the term "Left Conservatism" and his worry that it would be applied indiscriminately. And after a lengthy presentation critical of Left Conservatives, Santa Cruz's Wendy Brown joked during the discussion period that "we are all trying to dissociate ourselves" from the workshop's original premises. By the end of the workshop, only University of Pittsburgh English professor Paul Bové, whom Connery credited with coining the phrase, was still using it. "I really like the term `Left Conservatism,'" he said, "and I think it should apply to some people whether they like it or not."

As for the so-called Left Conservatives themselves, they were unanimously aghast at the label--and angry not to have been invited to present their views. Author and journalist Barbara Ehrenreich dubbed the term "a ridiculous oxymoron," insisting she is no conservative. Nation columnist Katha Pollitt said she was "very angry and really kind of shocked by [the] flyer" and that any description of her or her views as Left Conservative is "the draining from this nonsensical term of any kind of content." She added: "The only position I have that could possibly be described as Left Conservative is that I don't admire some postmodern Leftists' political pretensions or their prose style."

Although the brand-name Left Conservatives were not there to defend themselves, the workshop did not proceed without protest. In the days before it began, a number of UC-Santa Cruz graduate students had been busy drafting what they called "counter-propaganda." On the day of the workshop, some of these students stood at each auditorium entrance, disbursing bright red flyers that asked in part, "What does it mean when scholars who claim (in their published works) to embrace `difference' and radical democracy resort to name-calling as a form of discourse? When scholars who reputedly oppose `binary' and dualistic thinking feel the need to frame their opponents as a despised `other' (conservatives)? When anti-essentialists invoke a purely essentialist and fictive category--`left conservatism'--to tar their critics?"

Despite all the propaganda and counter-propaganda, however, the panelists and their critics in the audience may have agreed on nearly as much as they disagreed. ("Who would argue for transparent meaning?" scoffed one of the graduate students who had signed the red flyer.) When a man who introduced himself as an attorney unversed in academic culture announced he believed "in the Real and the True not only with capital letters but with neon lights," he initially was met with chuckles. Undaunted, however, he continued. "The times when I have experienced this," he said, visibly moved, "have been the times of the most intense and immediate political struggle. For example, in the South, at the height of the civil rights movement, when people stand up against police dogs and go to jail. At that moment, it seems to me, there is a vision of something real and something true." His comments were greeted with applause.

Then Judith Butler took the microphone. "`True,' `untrue,'" she said in her response. "I want to use those words, too. And there are moments of great struggle, moments of extraordinary historical happenings, where I want to say, `This is real, this is true,' and I will say it. And I will not be censored! No one's going to stop me from saying it, and I'm not going to ridicule anybody for saying it."

Was Butler reneging on relativism? Not exactly. Instead, she went on to argue that the struggle for social justice does not need to rely on a quest for certainty. "What I'm most worried about," she said, "is the way in which the truth and the way in which reality get circumscribed prematurely by people who think they know what is and is not finally true. Those are powerful terms, and if people think...they know in advance what will qualify as true...or as real, those people scare me more than anything." She concluded: "For political reasons, it's extremely important to use those terms and not to know what their future and final form will take."

Of course, there's no telling what the final form of the term "Left Conservatism" will be. But by the end of the day, the poststructuralists had largely retreated from their newly coined term; their critics had angrily pointed a few fingers of their own; and the rifts among the assembled leftists were no narrower, and no wider, than they had been before the workshop began.


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