Left Conservatism: A Workshop

Return to Conference Archive


Left Conservatism:
A Workshop

January 31, 1998
College Eight Room 240
1:00-5:30 pm

A specter is haunting U.S. intellectual life: the specter of Left Conservatism. 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, Alan Sokal and Barbara Ehrenreich, there is evidence of a phenomenon that might be properly labeled Left Conservatism: that is, an attack by “real” leftists on those portrayed as theory-mongering, hyper-professional, obscurantist pseudo-leftists. Left Conservatism’s hostility to the anti-foundationalist theorectical work of the 1980s and 1990s shares features with left opposition to the radical anti-rationalist politics of the 1960s. The current polemics bring to the fore long unresolved questions about how the left conceives the nature and stakes of critical work, over the past fifty years and into the future.

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 works, claims for a certain kind of empiricism, for common sense, for linguistic transparency. Post-structuralist thought, often lumped together in all its varieties, is in the Left Conservative view guilty not only of its own intellectual failings, but of taking a wrong turn for left analysis in general. Left Conservativism challenges post-structuralist’ left credentials on a variety of fronts, but a recurrent position is the claim for the incompatability between anti-foundationalism and a political agenda predicated on real claims for social justice. If everything – class, race, gender, poverty, alienation – is “constructed,” what is the real basis for political activism? This attack on anti-foundationalism and what is perceived as a disabling relativism, however, often brings Left Conservatism toward an uneasy convergence with anti-relativists on the right. What does it mean, then, when Barbara Ehrenreich and Roger Kimball (author of Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Higher Education) make similar critiques? What doe sit mean when Alan Sokal, an avowed leftist, finds inspiration in Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s Higher Superstitions: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science, an openly anti-left polemic?
A discussion of the stakes in this division is important and timely. U.S. university humanities departments are among the few locations in the country where critical analysis of society, culture, thought, and ideology takes place, and the attacks on critical theory are not without effort. Identifying Left Conservativism, and discussing its historical, political, ideological, and theoretical character, is the focus of this one-day workshop.

The workshop is structured to encourage discussion and debate. There will be considerable time for discussion following the particpants’ presentations.


Jonathan Arac is professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, and writes on problems in the historical and comparative study of culture, literature, and criticism. He has edited or co-edited several books, including Postmodernism and Politics and Consequences of Theory. He is author of Critical Geneologies: Historical Situations for Postmodern Literary Studiesand the recently published Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target: The Functions of Criticism in Our Time.

Paul A. Bove is Professor of English and the University of Pittsburgh, and editor of boundary 2, an international journal of literature and culture. The author of several books on culture, modernity, poetry, and the intellectual, including Destructive Poetics: Heidegger and Modern American Poetry; Intellectuals in Power; A Geneology of Critical Humanism; and Mastering Discourse: The Politics of Intellectual Culture. Professor Bove is now completing a book on Henry Adams, as well as a collection of essayes called The End of Thinking.

Wendy Brown is Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Visiting Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. She has published widely on feminist political theory, masculinity, identity politics, and power. Her publications include States of Injury; Power and Freedom in Late Modernity and Manhood and Politics: A Feminist Reading in Political Theory.

Judith Butler is Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and is a theorist of power, gender, sexuality, and identity. He books include Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”; Excitable Speech: A Politcs of Performative; Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity; and The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection.

Joseph Buttigeig is Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, and writes on the intersections of culture and politics in Europe from the late nineteenth century to the present. His books include A Portrait of the Artist in Different Perspective, on James Joyce, and Criticism Without Boundaries: Directions and Crosscurrents in Postmodern Critical Theory. A prominent Gramsci scholar, he has edited and translated the first complete critical edition of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks.