The Chronicle Review

The Discipline of English

Chronicle illustration by Scott Seymour

October 24, 2010

Lisa Chavez, the dominatrix of the University of New Mexico, has actually done all those in English a favor, whether they realize it or not. Chavez has simply made public what anyone who has spent time in an English department already knew: These departments, modeled on medieval institutions and traditions, are inherently sadomasochistic.

Lisa Chavez's adventures in human bondage should surprise no one. It's time to stop cringing like an embarrassed but titillated submissive and fess up to the truth, unpleasant and leather-clad though it may be: English as a discipline (and I chose that word, oh, so carefully) should go stand in the corner and take to heart the lessons taught by Mistress Lisa.

Lesson No.  1: Foucault is our master.  For the last 25 years, English—like most of the disciplines in the humanities—has been in the thrall of the French theorist Michel Foucault. If you think I'm wrong, try writing a seminar paper or, God help you, an article for publication, without mentioning the author of The History of Sexuality. It matters not a whit what the subject of your article is: It could be anything from Jane Austen to the Marquis de Sade to Gilligan's Island. Just imagine your readers removing their glasses, taking a sip of tea, rubbing their noses, and muttering, "Yes, but where is Foucault?"

That question, or a version of it, was most famously uttered by the Marxist and wife killer Louis Althusser, about Foucault's participation in a portion of the French student uprisings in 1968. So, where is Foucault? Well, he's dead now, but before he cashed in his chips, he contracted AIDS-related diseases, probably during experimentation in S&M clubs in San Francisco. To sing the body maimed for a moment, Foucault's most influential work, Discipline and Punish, reads as a horror show of executions, dismemberment, imprisonment, spying, and a spider's web of power relations.

Just a typical night of fun at your local bondage club!

Think for a moment: Every English professor and graduate student in the United States kneels before the theoretical throne of someone whose most famous work is shot through with bondage and sadomasochism. If the scandal of the late 1980s was that the discipline of English worshiped the deconstructionist Paul de Man, who was a Nazi sympathizer and argued (quite conveniently for someone trying to escape a past that included writing pro-Nazi propaganda) that nothing meant much of anything, then the scandal of the 21st century is that de Man was trumped by Foucault, whose personal life and sexual shenanigans led thousands of academics to see whips and chains everywhere.

Chavez, like Foucault, simply did what most people don't have the guts to do. She lived the dream. And now we're all angry at her for it. Shame on us!

Lesson No. 2: English is a bondage discipline. For years now, scholarly works whose titles and content play on the edges of bondage have been appearing throughout the discipline. Think of Anne McClintock's Imperial Leather, Ellen Messer-Davidow's Disciplining Feminism, and Peter Stallybrass and Allon White's The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, which contains a discussion of an English gentleman who played bondage games with his maid. Clearly, English academics, whether or not they own a St. Andrew's cross and a good set of thumbscrews, have bondage on the brain.

Lesson No. 3: English, being inherently sadomasochistic, is a discipline—like bondage—full of masters and disciples.  People are afraid to contradict what some presumably all-powerful master has said. In BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism), dominants often play with speech restrictions. Metaphorical gags, those of power and authority, stifle speech constantly in English. Why not move from metaphor to the real thing?

Lesson No. 4: English as a discipline is probably in its death throes.  It had a good run, especially midcentury, when American books, like American aircraft carriers, dominated the world. Although such a topic is outside the purview of this essay, there certainly exists a deep link between U.S. cultural imperialism and military dominance. But that run is pretty much over. As the YouTube video "Ha Ha Ha, America" hilariously reminds us, the 21st century belongs to the Chinese, not to the Americans. We had our moment in the sun. It's the same thing with English. The 21st century belongs to electronic culture and graphic novels, not musty old books. When cultures end, their demise usually is accompanied by decadence. What better way for English to go out with a bang than to embrace the sexual subculture that reeks of decadence? English professors always talk about style. BDSM is style incarnate, baby!

Lesson No. 5: Terry Eagleton doesn't have a problem with S&M.  That in itself must make my argument OK. In his new book, On Evil, Eagleton discusses sadism and asks us to "think, for example, of the difference between someone who practices sadism for erotic pleasure in a consensual sexual relationship, and someone who forces excruciating pain on another person in order to assuage his own nauseous sense of nonbeing." Hey, if we mix this up a bit—and I don't think it's too much of a stretch—we can say that anyone working on a humanities dissertation has questioned his or her own nonbeing. And everybody in English over the age of 18 is an adult and has consented to be there. Finally, we always talk about the pleasures of reading. So let's just be adults about this and codify what already exists.

Now that we know, thanks to Professor Chavez, what's really going on in English, and, thanks to Professor Eagleton, that it's all right—as long as everybody freely participates—I'd like to propose some steps that the discipline can take to come out of the closet (in this age when people and institutions are moving from perversity to diversity), lay claim to its true identity, and go out with a stylish shout.

Dress code. Require all tenured professors, male and female, to dress in black-leather cat suits and thigh-high boots. If someone is concerned that such dress might not be flattering, allow said professor to wear a long leather coat.

Public whippings. Tenure meetings and dissertation defenses would be prime occasions for the administering of corporal punishment. Paddles, whips, and cat-o'-nine-tails could be stored like umbrellas in containers near room entrances. Offenders would be ordered to kneel and take their beatings.

Speech restrictions in seminars. All students would be required to address professors—in gender-appropriate language, of course—as "Master" or "Mistress." Hand raising would be abolished in favor of requests to speak such as, "Master, may I have permission to address you?" Those speaking without permission would be caned.

Teaching and research assistants in chains. At orientation for new graduate students, the director of graduate studies would place leg irons on all teaching assistants and research assistants. Steel collars could be ordered by departments with higher budgets; leather ones might be purchased by more financially challenged institutions. Facilities Management could probably supply the required chains at minimal cost. Hegel's master-slave dialectic (also translated as "lordship and bondage"), in his Phenomenology of Spirit, argues that one enslaves people by giving them work to do. While Hegel is certainly right, a good steel collar helps to enforce the relationship.

Iron maidens and stocks. Borrowed or rented from local bondage clubs and BDSM-support groups like the Eulenspiegel Society and stored in departmental meeting rooms, the devices would be liberally used on offenders with bad teaching evaluations or terrible publication records.

While these suggestions may seem radical, they only recognize conditions currently existing in English departments across the country. Yes, bondage and discipline are a little on the scary side for most folks, but they're all just fun and games. Let's put them to good use.

Where is Foucault?

Probably at the great bondage club in the sky, laughing like crazy.

Douglas W. Texter teaches English as an adjunct instructor at the University of St. Thomas, Normandale Community College, and Minneapolis Community and Technical College. He admits absolutely nothing about his extracurricular activities.