Rallying Around Che at a ‘Literary’ Conference

che-guevara-shirt.jpgWhen charges of doctrinaire Marxism are leveled against professors, the standard procedure is to charge the accusers with misinterpretation—they just can’t understand the subtleties of the literary and philosophical profundities being dispensed. In English departments these theories have touched deconstruction, new historicism, post-colonialism, gender studies, disability studies, etc. Most in the field–promoters and detractors alike–know that these theories have roots in Marxism. For those of us alarmed by the politicization of literary studies, it’s a difficult message to get out to the world because the cloud of academic verbiage obscures the real sources and aims of such theories.

But when announcements for a world literature conference begin with a long quotation from The Communist Manifesto and a co-director approvingly quotes the left’s most popular dead Stalinist, Che Guevara, the aim became clear: the conference wasn’t really going to be about literature. The first International World Literature Conference at Kennesaw State University in suburban Cobb County, Georgia, on March 16, announced the purpose of the conference in the call for papers and on the English Department’s website with the quotation that reads in part, “The bourgeoisie has, through its exploitation of the world market, given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. . . .The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.”

The conference promised to address “the role of World Literature in reflecting, mediating, and transforming the concepts of empathy, democracy, forgiveness, cosmopolitanism, and the status of the nation state.” This apparently was understood to mean: “We do not intend to let a neutral and purely literary conference topic stand in the way of our political harangues.” While some of the papers recycled theories from the 1970s, all landed decidedly on the conclusion that with the Arab “Spring” and its presumed offshoot, the Occupy Wall Street movement, a bold new political day is dawning. All eight of the panelists I heard promoted in some way a new, non-Western form of “democracy.”

Co-director Khalil Elayan in his paper, “Occupation as Mimetic Reversal: Imperialism in The Thousand and One Nights,” boldly referred to Che Guevara’s decidedly non-literary 1960 speech, “On Revolutionary Medicine,” as an example of such transformation. He quoted from this passage:

“We must review again each of our lives, what we did and thought as doctors, or in any function of public health before the revolution. We must do this with profound critical zeal and arrive finally at the conclusion that almost everything we thought and felt in that past period ought to be deposited in an archive, and a new type of human being created.”

Of course, for Guevara, creating “a new type of human being” entailed a good deal of torture and executions of those who were reluctant to be transformed. Guevara’s vision for the near future also included his plan for an attack on New York City that would have killed more than 9/11 and wiped out a hundred or more naive people wearing his image on their T-shirts…

Elayan did not note Guevara’s real legacy, but described the “current situation” as made up of “corporate imperialists,” an apathetic majority, with a few revolutionaries. For him, the Eastern notion of democracy is superior to the Western because it acknowledges Marx’s “discovery” that the source of all wars and world problems is “class struggle.”

The literary analysis of the One Thousand and One Nights was thin and clumsily used to invoke Guevara’s theory of the “bestiality of imperialism–whether militaristic or emotional.” It consisted of noting the king’s intense jealousy after discovering his wife’s “orgiastic infidelity” (and thus her execution and subsequent wives’ executions until Scheherazade discovers how to delay through the “discourse” of her never-ending stories). It is “discourse” that brings about real change; Scheherazade’s stories force King Shahryar to experience shame and empathy. What is standing in the way of such discourse today are the teargas and bombs thrown at the Occupiers, the “true representatives of civilization,” by today’s “god-kings,” the “corporate imperialists.” (For Elayan, this includes the Israeli “occupation” of Palestine.) Elayan posed the question, “Do we return to barbarism or a new type of human as Guevara states we should?”

That politics was the driving force at this conference is also evidenced by the choice of keynote speaker, Dr. Fouad Moughrabi, who teaches political science and specializes in Palestinian causes.

Co-director Larrie Dudenhoeffer, too, after dutifully referencing the mainstays of literary criticism today, Friedrich Nietzsche, Gilles Deleuze, and Edward Said, used his paper analyzing four drawings, “Visions of the Hereafter: A Tetraptych of Sociopolitical (Ins)urgencies in French Art,” to advance the agenda against the West, specifically, one of its institution, the Church. Dudenhoeffer would not confirm for me the names of these artists, but his presentation focused on their mockery of the Church, with scenes of “parabolic insurgencies” in the form of naked, demonic worshippers, upsetting the Western “absence-presence duality.” His slide of a “semiotic square” showed “state ideology” and “state formation” as representative of the uneven distribution of wealth and status. He engaged in the common practice of using the “text,” now visual, to mock and describe an institution upholding the hierarchy of the West.

Melissa Keith, also of KSU, continued the anti-West, anti-imperialist theme by recycling 1970s feminist theory in her paper titled, “Defining the Erotic Mystical Global Paradigm: From Inanna to the Bhagavad-Gita to Audre Lorde.” The feminist discovery of the “wild” (thanks to Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and Judy Grahn) dismantled the archetypical story of the West, that of the hero, with God as the patriarch. Lorde’s rescuing of the “erotic” from its association with the “pornographic” and overturning–again–the old “dualities” of spirit over nature, was enthusiastically hailed. “Reclaiming” and “renaming” private body parts (this was soon after the Vagina Monologues season, after all) leads to staking out “intellectual space.” As for implementation, Keith said teaching the explicit poetry of Judy Grahn in a small class of “mature” students provides “quite an amazing experience.”

Every other of the papers I listened to supported writers or interpretations of literature that called into question the legitimacy of the West. Gordon McNeer, of the Spanish department at North Georgia College and State University, in his presentation, “In Defense of Poetry,” discussed the younger poets he has been translating. All they seemed to have in common was uncertainty and communicating about their confrontations against “political power.”

“‘Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Western Civ Has Got to Go!’: T.E. Hulme, Wyndham Lewis, and Modernist Multiculturalism,” by Kevin Rulo of Catholic University of America, did not invoke Jesse Jackson, as I expected. But there was the obligatory reference to Marx and Engels before Rulo’s attack on the West via a reinterpretation of Hulme and Lewis that rejected the conventional one of them as “reactionaries.” According to Rulo, Hulme and Lewis are really arguing for multiculturalism, understood as anti-Western. To understand all this, you had to be there.

The paper–get ready for this title–“Thomas De Quincey’s Retreat into the ‘Nilotic Mud’: Orientalism as a Response to Social Strain,” linked De Quincey’s alienation from the British culture of “hegemonic masculinity,” to the symbol of the crocodile, to his drug use. The attack on “hegemonic masculinity” complements the feminist celebration of victory over body-spirit duality (and hence traditional religion).

Jennifer Randall of Dalton State College too promoted global citizenship in her paper, “The Complexity of Global Citizenship: The Search for Cosmopolitanism in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.” Kant’s solution of “world citizens” who display “hospitality” leads to the conclusion that “no one has more right [than anyone else] to occupy a part of the world,” as she put it.

Dalton State College’s Lorena Sins’ paper, “The Global Village Flies Home to Roost: Pretty Birds,” about a novel by NPR correspondent Scott Simon, based on the siege of Sarajevo, too pushed the anti-West agenda. Sins, with somewhat of an air of schadenfreude, said that until 9/11 Americans were sheltered from violence and knowledge of the imperialistic influence of our culture. (“We are like a hawk blocking out glory by silhouette of the sun.”) The title and the bird symbolism come from the protagonist in the story, a seventeen-year-old nominally Muslim Bosnian female resistance fighter.

By 3 p.m. I had been thrown back to my confusing days of graduate school in the 1990s, before 9/11 and the Occupy movement. As a master’s level student at Georgia State University and Ph.D. student at the University of Georgia, I sought shelter with the older professors, and believed that maybe on a far-flung campus like Dalton, an English department would not be as politicized. But even in the solidly Republican country of Cobb County, where Kennesaw is located, professors openly advertise conferences by favorably quoting The Communist Manifesto, and in Tea Party country, North Georgia, where Dalton is located, professors use “texts” in English classes to advance the idea of dismantling the West to build the new “global citizen.”

While most of the public might believe that courses in world literature advance the Western Enlightenment ideas of cosmopolitanism and openness to learning about other cultures, they would be shocked at learning how boldly these professors used the pretext of teaching world literature to advance a political agenda explicitly Marxist and aligned with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

But could there be a bright note? At one time I despaired about explaining to the average person the cultural rot that passes as scholarship in English departments today. The more they invoke Che Guevaras their hero, the easier it is to show people what’s going on.

Mary Grabar

Mary Grabar is a visiting fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization.

18 thoughts on “Rallying Around Che at a ‘Literary’ Conference

  1. I posted a comment last night, has it been received. It seems that my comments sometimes take a while, or that they are not received.

  2. “As to the students of Kennesaw, it appears that they have not been exposed to opposing views, so see slight alterations in essentially Marxist theory as a “diversity” of opinions.”
    Oh, sure. I was there, and you did not enlighten anybody with your “diversity of opinions.” You sat there waiting for your chance to write an inflammatory article against a completely legitimate world literature conference to advance your right-wing agenda. I’m sure if somebody collected all your articles with the intent of writing one specific article about your pre-occupations, they wouldn’t be too hard pressed to find a frightening pattern. This is just neo-McCarthysim at its sloppiest. Only, its weirder since KSU doesn’t have any communists I’ve ever met. And if you think that conference was actually teaching Marxist theory, then I’ll have to ask what sort of beverage you had beforehand. Do you also think world-peace is communist? Just because Marx is cited, doesn’t make the writing communist. He is almost unavoidable in analytic theory. Ultimately, you offered nothing at the conference. You are complicit in your own charge of a lack of diversity of opinion.
    What did you think? If you spoke up we’d a pelt you with tomatoes? We’d chase you out of the classroom? Do you know how ridiculous that is? As students, all we do is debate and write a whole variety of opinions. Listening to other opinions is part of the learning process. What would’ve happened is that you would have had to defend your opinion. Scary for someone who has nothing to say. This is different from spouting nonsense in an article where most of your readers were not even there. This is something I doubt you’re capable of doing in an academic setting.

  3. The supporters of the conference are engaging in revisionist history. It was clear by the one-sided nature of the presentations, as well as the way the call for papers was worded, that only one view was acceptable.
    As to the veracity of my observations, in another case, a videotape has confirmed my testimony before a committee of the Georgia House of Representatives. (In that case I was publicly called a liar.) See the videos on my website http://www.dissidentprof.com, this site, and http://www.nas.org.
    I asked both co-directors for copies of their papers. They refused and ignored my request. I took careful notes.
    As to the students of Kennesaw, it appears that they have not been exposed to opposing views, so see slight alterations in essentially Marxist theory as a “diversity” of opinions.

  4. Another thing I find interesting is that in her description of Dr. Larrie Dudenhoeffer’s presentation, she does not mention what time period the art he discussed was from. This was art that was created around 50 years after the French revolution, and the church that art was against was the the Catholic Church (before/during the First Vatican Council). I think this information needed to be shared in order to honestly report what his presentation was about. I am sure (hopeful?) that we can all agree that art opposing such corrupt, tyrannical forces like the church and being just after the French monarchy and Empire is a completely different idea than if that same art was created now.
    Plus he was using theory to discuss a visual text, this is not uncommon. The drawings were political, but just because something of the world is political does not mean that it does not deserve critical attention.
    From these two descriptions, which do leave out many details, downward, there is even less information about the presentations. All presenters spoke for around thirty minutes, so I am perplexed as to why Mary Grabar invests much more time into certain presentations while also making absolute, blanket statements about the conference as a whole. This is even more perplexing considering that the conference took place in two rooms, and, as far I as I can tell, she never left one room. I can understand that she seems to not be a big fan of higher education (which also confuses me because she has worked at three universities in Georgia in the past three years according to multiple rate-your-professor sort of websites), and when you do not like something, it can easily come out in your writing. However, I think it is irresponsible to make, again, such broad claims with very little or no evidence to support them. If I had not attended the conference, I would probably take her at her word on these claims, but because I was there, much of what she is saying seems to be slanted and/or taken out context. Again, it happens, but to make claims about the entire conference, half of which she did not attend, is unfair to those reading who were not fortunate enough to attend.
    I would like to say two more small things, and then I’ll stop typing. She points out that Kennesaw and Dalton State are in predominantly republican or conservative (tea party) counties- these are political terms, as we all know. She points this out to support her claim that she did not expect such institutions to be politicized. Is she saying that only institutions in dominantly conservative or republican areas are able to be apolitical? I mean, she’s politicizing the areas just to assert that point, and her surprise is linked to there being a range of mindsets in that one area. It seems to baffle her that there can be more than one political idea in an area where the majority idea is something else. This is the best definition of anti-multiculturalism that I have ever heard. I also take slight offense to this because I attended Dalton State College my senior year of high school and did not feel like I was “far-flung” from civilization or anything else. It’s an hour drive north of Atlanta, GA.
    Again, I am very glad Mary Grabar called attention to my school. I am also thankful that this article is open to comments and discussion that are printed whether they are in agreement or not with the original post. I understand that what I have written has been done in support of my university, the conference it supported, and those who presented their work at that conference.

  5. I am also surprised that she states, “…all [papers] landed decidedly on the conclusion that with the Arab ‘Spring’ and its presumed offshoot, the Occupy Wall Street movement, a bold new political day is dawning.” For one, many of the speakers did not say anything about the Arab Spring. One of the last speakers of the day discussed an American writer’s work in fiction that takes place in Tibet, for example. Secondly, I have yet to find any support for this statement throughout the rest of her post. In fact, she only mentions it, the Arab Spring, once in this entire piece, so I am not sure what exactly she is basing this conclusion on. That is a very strong, absolute statement which requires a writer to back up her claim. This is not only a mark of good journalism, but of good writing in general.

  6. I am also a student at Kennesaw State University who attended the World Literature conference. First, I would like to thank Mary Grabar for calling attention to Kennesaw in such a large online community. I am very proud to be a part of this university and do not think its name comes up enough.
    I must say that I am surprised by much of what is written in this piece. Like David, I attended the same section as the writer and did not hear her ask any questions or make any comments. This is especially strange considering that after each section ended there was time for questions; these questions were encouraged and were generally well-answered.

  7. Re Dr. Torch:”So how many differing opinions were heard at the conference, David?”
    Well, I wasn’t taking notes so I cannot remember the number of people who spoke, but I assure you that no one repeated themselves and the opinions were over a number of different things. I must remind you, also, that it was an open forum for anybody who cared to comment, and the writer of this article said nothing of the issues she had here. She waited until she was able to author this blog article designed for people who were not there to actually hear the conference.
    Re B. Moe:
    I’m glad you’re fond of citizens and globes, but a Global citizen is more than the sum of those two splendid things. A global citizen is one who thinks of himself not merely as a member of one nation, but a brother of the human race across the Globe. The idea is for people to attempt to understand other cultures and ways instead of resting in our pre-concieved notions about the rest of the world. A global citizen is one who is devoted to the human race, not just his country or group.
    As for what you said about Progressive…I know exactly how you feel. I feel that way every time I hear the phrase “traditional American Values.” Sounds nice, but sometimes it involves racism, tyranny and tired notions in desperate need of revision. Anyway, I will clear up what I meant by progressive. I meant an ever-evolving nation. One that is not afraid of self-improvement and self-interrogation. One that is humble and thoughtful.
    As for what you said about Graduate School, I’m sorry, but do you think that grad school is NOT an intellectual endeavor? I assure you that it is. I assure you that most liberal education courses are intellectual endeavors. As for your “unproven” statement. Okay. That’s alright with me, I don’t think we’re on trial here. It is a comments section. What is UNPROVEN are most of the article’s allegations. why not take issue with that? Why not read the author’s student reviews at rate my professor about her inability to keep politics and religion out of the classroom? So much for her comments about “doctrinaire.”
    “Denied as pleaded”…I did not make a pleading. If this were a courtroom, it would be of the Kangaroo variety.

  8. >>> The conference was actually rooting for America in a progressive sense.
    Is this the same as rooting against America?
    I’ll bet they don’t teach Orwell anymore, do they?

  9. Re David’s post above:
    “What more could one expect from a writer who presents the idea of a global citizen as a negative aspiration?”
    Depends on what you mean by “global citizen”. It’s front-loaded with a positives; who doesn’t like citizens or — globes? But it is actually a vague and ill-defined descriptive that could mean anything, including the negative. Sounds nice. But what does it mean? You take for granted it is a good thing without showing why.
    “The conference was actually rooting for America in a progressive sense.”
    I think you must mean, “in a [P]rogressive sense”. Progress, and the large-P “Progressive” (and the contemporary politics it implies)are not necessarily the same thing. Again, sounds nice, say like “social justice”. Could be quite bad. Depends on what whoever’s claiming the word has in mind.
    “This needs to be achieved in order for the country to flourish in the world. Anything less than global progress is individual atrophy.”
    Denied as pleaded. Sounds like dogma, a catechism.
    “Also worth noting is the writer’s negative stance toward graduate school. Pretty anti-intellectual stuff.”
    Presumes that graduate school invariably presents the “intellectual”, and that to criticize it is to be against the intellect. Unproven.
    “Anyway, just thought I’d offer an second opinion from somebody at the conference. A multitude of opinion is important in a discourse after all, isn’t it?”
    I’m glad you did, and you’re right, it is important to do so.

  10. ” A multitude of opinion is important in a discourse after all, isn’t it?”
    So how many differing opinions were heard at the conference, David?

  11. Most of these people are from public universities. They don’t seem to mind the freedom, comfort and luxury that “corporate imperialists” and Western Democracy have provided for them.

  12. I am a student at Kennesaw State University, and I was at this conference. I would like to note that the writer of this article has an agenda as well. The conference, by it’s very nature involved several peoples opinions and writings, while this article represents one opinion filtered through a conservative, right wing opinion. What more could one expect from a writer who presents the idea of a global citizen as a negative aspiration? The conference was actually rooting for America in a progressive sense. This needs to be achieved in order for the country to flourish in the world. Anything less than global progress is individual atrophy. This was a fine conference and I am proud of the University. Also worth noting is the writer’s negative stance toward graduate school. Pretty anti-intellectual stuff. Anyway, just thought I’d offer an second opinion from somebody at the conference. A multitude of opinion is important in a discourse after all, isn’t it? Oh, and I would also like to point out that nobody at the conference suggested “going postal” or putting anybody to death like some of the supporters of this article have done.

  13. I am a student at Kennesaw State University, and I was at this conference. I would like to note that the writer of this article has an agenda as well. The conference, by it’s very nature involved several peoples opinions and writings, while this article represents one opinion filtered through a conservative, right wing opinion. What more could one expect from a writer who presents the idea of a global citizen as a negative aspiration? The conference was actually rooting for America in a progressive sense. This needs to be achieved in order for the country to flourish in the world. Anything less than global progress is individual atrophy. This was a fine conference and I am proud of the University. Also worth noting is the writer’s negative stance toward graduate school. Pretty anti-intellectual stuff. Anyway, just thought I’d offer an second opinion from somebody at the conference. A multitude of opinion is important in a discourse after all, isn’t it? Oh, and I would also like to point out that nobody at the conference suggested “going postal” or putting anybody to death like some of the supporters of this article have done.

  14. It is easy to forget one thing which makes Marxism so attractive: It’s simple! Social science for the unthinking.

  15. I am amazed that you are still sane. Perhaps you are immune due to your past experiences.
    I think that I would have “gone postal” to show the real Che – I am sure that none of these people really believe that he killed all the people that is documented.
    Thank you for enduring this and educating people (like me).

  16. Well, as a layman, I for one appreciate that you make the effort. It is interesting that no matter what the field – science, entertainment, sociology, and now we find literature, that not only does it have to be politicized these days, it has to descend into the gutter, into hatred. Where is the artistry, the professionalism, the craft, the….purpose, in throwing into a pot a bunch of ‘multiculturalisms-ideologies-drug-addled ravings, seasoned with erotica as an emblem of bravery or something, and trying to call it ‘enlightenment’? The title of this mix can only be something akin to “The Joyful, Evil Anticipation of World Domination And/Or World Chaos.”

  17. The one thing that shook me out of my leftist idiocy in the 70s was learning what Pol Pot had done in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge took over (I and others had fervently hoped for that day). He and his compadres murdered 10% of the Cambodian people. However, reading Ms Grabar’s column about what passes for intellectuals these days I remembered Pol Pot’s instruction that all intellectuals were to be either killed or put in slave labor camps. And you know what? I began to think that Pol Pot might have had something there.

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