Inadvertent Comedy from the ASA, or, an Ecofeminist Does Milk

The American Studies Association has been much in the news lately for backing an “academic boycott” of Israel.  That disgusting display of politically correct, anti-Semitic grandstanding has garnered the ASA some small portion of the obloquy it deserves.  As my PJM colleague Ronald Radosh pointed out here, the ASA picked on “the Middle East’s only existing democracy to protest.” The ASA’s obtuse and juvenile leftism has even embarrassed other elements of the academy: MIT recently joined Yale, Harvard, Brown, Brandeis, and other elite institutions in condemning the boycott, which, as MIT President L. Rafael Reif noted, “fundamentally violates the principles of academic freedom that are central to the excellence of MIT and American higher education.”

You may not know much about the American Studies Association. The small (5000-member) organization is known to many outside the academy as the "Anti-American Studies Association” because of its reliably backwater, reflexive leftism. In that, it hardly differs from many, perhaps most, other academic organizations in the humanities (or perhaps I should say the “humanities,” since such organizations are antithetic to the spirit of humanism in any normal sense). The Modern Language Association, to take one obvious example, has long been a virulent redoubt of politically correct, leftwing attitudinizing.

I have to admit that is has beem quite a while since I have given such rancid, misbegotten products of wayward affluence much thought. Having labored in that repellent vineyard long enough to write Tenured Radicals and The Rape of the Masters, I have “supped full with horrors” and figure I have done my bit for the cause of academic forensic pathology.

Every now and then, however, something truly egregious bubbles up from the dismal pit of pseudo-intellectual academic lucubration, some special gem of fatuous, wood-pulp darkening nonsense that even now, at the fag-end of Anno Domini  2013, has the capacity to spark a little frisson of nauseated wonderment in this jaded breast. As it happens, the latest such production comes to us courtesy of our friends at the American Studies Association, that’s to say it comes from its official literary organ, the American Quarterly. Perhaps your subscription to this pointless agglomeration of polysyllabic, reader-proof grievance-mongering has lapsed.  Mine has, too. But my fellow connoisseurs of repellent academic nonentity will not want to miss “Toward a Feminist Postcolonial Milk Studies,” by one Greta Gaard, “an ecofeminist writer, scholar, activist, and documentary filmmaker.” (According to an opus called Ecocomposition: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches, she is “one of the most influential ecofeminist scholars.” Ponder that.)

You might think I am making all of this up, that I somehow confused The Onion with the official publication of the American Studies Association.

No such luck. Despite the inadvertent comedy of its title, “Toward a Feminist Postcolonial Milk Studies” really exists, and my is it in earnest. How many things had to go wrong — intellectually, socially, morally — to account for prose like this:

Because milk is produced by female mammals, a feminist perspective seems to offer a logical foundation for such inquiry. From the start, feminism has been a movement for justice: at its heart is the centrality of praxis, the necessary linkage of intellectual, political, and activist work. Feminist methodology puts the lives of the oppressed at the center of the research question and undertakes studies, gathers data, and interrogates material contexts with the primary aim of improving the lives and the material conditions of the oppressed. Using standard feminist methodology [standard feminist methodology?], twentieth-century vegan feminists and animal ecofeminists challenged animal suffering in its many manifestations (in scientific research, and specifically in the feminized beauty and cleaning products industries; in dairy, egg, and animal food production; in “pet” [note the scare quotes] keeping and breeding, zoos, rodeos, hunting, fur, and clothing) by developing a feminist theoretical perspective on the intersections of species, gender, race, class, sexuality, and nature. Motivated by an intellectual and experiential understanding of the mutually reinforcing interconnections among diverse forms of oppression, vegan feminists and ecofeminists positioned their own liberation and well-being as variously raced, classed, gendered, and sexual humans to be fundamentally interconnected to the well-being of other nondominant human and animal species, augmenting Patricia Hill Collins’s definition of intersectionality to include species as well.

Charity prevents me from offering an analysis of this vaguely minatory tripe. Considered as a rhetorical product, it is pitch perfect in its bristling opacity, touching gently on a vast host of political and intellectual clichés while maintaining a semantic content of nearly zero.  The amazing thing is that Ms. Gaard keeps it up for nearly 25 pages. “Toward a Feminist Postcolonial Milk Studies” is a seamless production, as wondrous in its way as anything by the doyenne of angry, reader-proof “feminist” verbiage, Judith Butler, an early, and eminently qualified, winner of the storied “Bad Writing Contest.”

There’s lots of talk these days about the “higher education bubble.” Glenn Reynolds’s forthcoming book The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself vividly details the train wreck that is the institution of higher education in this country. “What can’t go on forever, won’t.” Reynolds makes the economist Herb Stein’s observation a centerpiece of his book.  Repellent pseudo-intellectual horrors like “Toward a Feminist Postcolonial Milk Studies” cannot go on forever; therefore, they won’t. This ruin of taxpayer money, to say nothing of the intellectual sanity of students and teachers, is too egregious to continue.  It will not continue. “Toward a Feminist Postcolonial Milk Studies” is just one of many, many signs that the house of intellect in this country has become a sort of Augean Stables, full of malodorous waste and bovine mooing.  It awaits its Hercules to perform a much needed lustration. The assembled cattle may not know it, but Glenn Reynolds shows that his advent is nigh.

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