Bias: Or, Reading the Same Book

A friend and I were discussing a recent book on sexuality. We share many things color (if not race), sexual politics (if not sexual practices), belief in the importance of cultural politics (he produces, I criticize). We could not agree on the content of the book. He was seduced by its porno-politics and I was turned off by its racialization of sexuality. I hoped that a book set outside the west would pay attention to local populations. Instead, this particular gem tells an all-too-familiar story of white men having sex in exotic locations (the staple of many James Bond films).

As an aside, another friend and I have been bouncing around the idea of collaborating on the importance of Bond abroad—in the post-colonies. The all-seeing, cosmopolitan, globetrotting, virile agent of a flaccid empire broadcast throughout former colonies deserves further scrutiny.

The disagreement between us might be described in several ways: content (his) over ideology (mine); postcolonial critique (mine) over queer pleasure (his); diasporic African (mine) over cosmopolitan African American (his). History had produced different positions from which to read.

Of course, the point is deceptively simple: history teaches us to read in different ways. And the greater the variety of different bodies engaged in the reading of history, the greater the number of possible readings and misreadings.

In principle, I am not opposed to strategic misreadings; indeed, I use them all the time to find a new way of seeing old texts, what Adrienne Rich terms re-visioning. I do have many problems with sloppy readings. And here the issue gets a little tricky. It might be possible to argue for the significance of metonymy in, say, twentieth-century literature. Here, the claim might be proved by looking at the “spread” of modern and modernist aesthetics (McKay writing the sonnet; Wole Soyinka’s “postmodern” novels). A “non-political” reading might term this “influence.”

Now, what if metonymy becomes important precisely because of colonialism and imperialism? (Metonymy is not Jameson’s privileged term, but he links modernist aesthetics to the spread of empire. The great virtue of Jameson’s argument is that he binds aesthetic strategy to history, asking us to look for the non-obvious, much to the chagrin of historians who may have grown tired of literary critics’ claims that empire “was everywhere” in the metropole.)

All of the above may be considered a long prelude to the ongoing discussion of bias in the classroom, especially in college teaching. (A very brief summary may be found in this exchange between David Horowitz and Cary Nelson.) In its least complex form, the discussion tends to be that liberal (“left wing”) professors attempt to indoctrinate their students and, in the process, denigrate the great traditions and foundations of western education.

My take is that education, especially in the humanities, imposes difficult emotional and social demands. Politics in the classroom (as it’s called) pulls and pushes, provokes and bullies, refuses to allow disengagement. It is profoundly unsettling for those who may have been trained that education lacks an affective component. It is even more unsettling for those of us who believe that being smart is enough, that good grades say something about our moral character. Here, the phrase “good student” resonates powerfully.

In the humanities classroom (it’s the only generalization that makes sense), we are faced with the complex blend of intellect and affect that does not allow indifference or disinterestedness. Even when, to cite Marianne Moore, we approach certain kinds of humanities classrooms with “perfect contempt,” we cannot ignore their demands—nor can we avoid the mirrors they hold up to us, much as we try to shatter them.

What remains most useful is not necessarily some political consensus, but the intellectual and affective frottage made possible by an interested pedagogy.