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Wednesday, November 18, 2015


Many of us will recall the moment in J. M. Barrie's classic play, Peter Pan, when the little fairy, Tinker Bell, is dying from the poison she has drunk to save Peter.  Tink is represented not by an actress but by a bright spot of light reflected from an off-stage mirror.  As the light begins to fade, Peter breaks the fourth wall and turns to the children in the audience,  "Do you believe in fairies?  Say quick that you believe.  If you believe, clap your hands."  The children always clap, the light brightens, and the play can go on.

Last week, the children did not clap, and Tinker Bell died.  The play has been cancelled.

Permit me to explain.

After teaching a graduate/advanced undergraduate course last  semester in the UNC Philosophy Department on "Karl Marx's Critique of Capitalism," I talked with the Chair of the Department about teaching a quite different course next semester at the same level on the theme "Ideological Critique."  I conceived this course as a more sophisticated and demanding version of a course I taught at UMass twenty-five years ago.  It was agreed that I would teach the course, and I began to prepare.  I am going to describe the course in some detail, for a reason that will become clear  presently.

The course is organized into three 3-4 week segments followed by a two week coda.  In the first segment, I carefully take the students through Karl Mannheim's great classic work, Ideology and Utopia.  This introduces them to the concept of ideological critique and provides the frame for what follows.  In the next segment, we read a work devoted to the study of a San-speaking people who live in the Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa.  These people, the Zhu, were the object of an elaborate ethnographical study carried out by a famous anthropologist, Richard Lee, and a large team of associates.  Lee et al. construe the Zhu as a pre-historical holdover from a time when human beings lived by hunting and gathering and foraging.  Edwin Wilmsen's book Land Filled With Flies, which is the major text for this segment of my course, is a theoretically complex, highly detailed, scathing ideological critique not only of the work of Lee but beyond that of the field of Ethnography itself.  Inasmuch as Wilmsen draws brilliantly on categories of analysis developed by Marx, the book actually constitutes a fascinating continuation of my course of Marx.

The third major segment of the course switches fields and topics abruptly and turns to African-American literature.  Henry Louis Gates' most important book, The Signifying Monkey, develops a literary critical theory of African-American literature rooted in the religious and oral traditions of West Africa.  The book is also, in my judgment, a brilliant and very angry ideological critique of Literary Criticism as practiced by the icons of that field -- Jacques Derrida, Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman, Paul de Man, and others.

The coda is devoted to an essay by Edward Said, whose work virtually created the field of Post-Colonial Studies.  The essay is a very surprising reading of one of Jane Austen's novels, Mansfield Park.  With the novel and the essay, I have the students watch a film of the novel made by the Canadian director Patricia Rozema, who was clearly influenced by Said's essay.

And that is the course.  During my "vacation" from this blog, I spent endless hours in Paris very carefully re-reading the Gates and the Wilmsen, taking more than twenty-five pages of detailed notes.  I had forgotten how much there was to talk about in each book, and I wondered whether one semester would be enough time for everything I want to say.

UNC, as a result of a miscalculation of their admissions "yield," admitted twice as many graduate students as usual this year -- twelve instead of six.  I thought therefore that there might be a good turnout for the course -- more even than the six Philosophy grad students who signed up for the Marx course.  Last week, from Paris, I sent an e-mail to the departmental secretary to find out about enrolment.  Not a single graduate student enrolled in the course.

The children did not clap.  I cancelled the course.

I spent a bad twenty-four hours after that, I freely confess, but then my natural good spirits returned.  I finished working through the last sixty pages of the Wilmsen, even though it was for naught.  But then I began to think.  I honestly believe that this is a truly great course, and I am loathe to let it simply die, clapping or no.  Could I perhaps teach it -- in some sense of "teach" -- on my blog.

Here is what I am thinking.  Perhaps some of you will write comments and tell me whether what I am proposing makes any sense.  Next semester, starting some time in January, I will post a series of extended essays, two or three a week, in the form of lectures.  I will invite interested parties to buy and read the books and follow along.  If there are five or eight folks who are enthusiastic enough to "take" the course, I will invite them to write essays on the different segments and send them to me.  I will read the essays and comment on them, just as if they were in my class. The only thing I will not do is append grades.

Well, there it is.  What do you think?  Is anyone clapping?


Gene said...

I'm certainly interested. Although, I have two jobs and a young kid, so I'm a little wary of the time commitment. It sounds like a fascinating course.

Jerome Doolittle said...

I'm clapping. Like Gene, I'm not sure how faithful a student I would be. But why not give it a shot? Anything that deconstructs Derrida is worth a shot.

Jim said...

Professor Wolff --

I would love it. Like other respondents, my chief concern is time, but I will try. I suspect that you yourself would enjoy doing it, which might make it all the more worthwhile. I have recently been reading some ethnographic studies so I would like to read a critique of ethnography in general. It also never hurts to revisit Mannheim.

-- Jim

Michael Rader said...

I am interested, too. What you have proposed is worthwhile!


Michael said...

Another clapper, here.
You might also be interested in what Eric Schliesser calls "Analytical Ideology Studies" (see here:

C Rossi said...

Sign me up. I'm already signed up for the class Dissent in America beginning in January at my undergraduate alma mater Temple University taught by historian Ralph Young who recently published a book by the same name. I look forward to it.

Chris said...

Just a curious question if you don't mind. Do you keep up with the recent trends in ideology theory, e.g., Althusser, Zizek, Eagleton, etc.? Or do you consider them to be off the deep end?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I have read books by Eagleton and Althusser, but the simple truth is I do not keep up with anything.

Chris said...

Haha! No worries, perhaps it's not worth keeping up with :)

Ted Talbot said...

I'm also interested. A very good analysis of Ideologiekritik is also Raymond Geuss's The Idea of Critical Theory.

Sean said...

I'm very interested! I left academia a few years ago, so I will be interested to see how much stretching those muscles will stand.

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

I too am interested, in principle, but I wonder whether I can make the time. Back when I was a graduate student, I thought I was very busy, but I had no idea.

Gargi said...

I'm interested too. I live on another continent but that should hardly be a problem.