Friday, December 09, 2011

Japanese By Spring (1993)

Title: Japanese by Spring
Author: Ishmael Reed
Publisher: Penguin
LCC: PS3568.E365 J35 1993

Leslie Fiedler did not think much of the campus novel. In an essay titled "The War Against the Academy," Fiedler dismissed the genre as minor and wrote that such novels "tend to fall into self-pity or self-explication, since they are inevitably histories of defeat, a defeat which the institution the writer berates may consider his, but he asserts. . . is the institutions." Fiedler noted that the campus novel was a place for writers to vent their frustration at campus administration and interdepartmental politics while continuing to cash their checks. Also, he didn't think the books were funny enough. Neither Mary McCarthy's Groves of Academe, Randall Jarrell's Pictures of an Institution, nor John Barth's The End of the Road could make him laugh. These were just acts of catharsis for their authors. 

Luckily, Japanese by Spring breaks this mold and manages to deliver when it comes to comedy. Still, the question remains: what the hell happened to Ishmael Reed at Berkeley? One imagines quite a bit, considering he was denied tenure in 1977 and remained a lecturer at the university until he retired in 2005. Reed's focus in Japanese in Spring concerns not his individual professional advancement but the role of multiculturalism on college campus throughout the 1980s and 1990s. One would think, given his association with the Before Columbus Foundation, that Reed would support multiculturalism's celebration on college campuses. But Reed is suspicious of academic multiculturalism and writes about his experience with it in Japanese by Spring:  
Ishmael Reed attended a meeting of American Cultures Fellows at the University of California at Berkeley. After reading the Bernstein proposal, he thought that he'd find a room full of brothers and sisters. He and one other black men were the only "people of color" present. Those who were benefiting the most from multiculturalism, in this room, were white women. One white women asked another, who was addressing the group, her advice about what to do if a 'third world' student challenged her authority to teach multicultural course without her having experienced oppression in her background. She was advised to tell her students that multicultural people weren't the only people who were oppressed. She said that an unwanted sibling had it just as bad as a "person of color." Hmmmmmmm, Ishmael Reed thought. Gerald Ford was an unwanted sibling and he became president of the United States.
In other words, Reed sees multiculturalism as an academic hustle. 

With its focus on multiculturalism, the canon wars, and the culture wars, Japanese by Spring seems on its surface to be very 1992. Multiculturalism is taken for granted today, the culture wars have become election-year only skirmishes, and the competing sides of the canon debate declared a truce when they decided to teach the conflict rather than reenact it in the classroom. Even though Japanese by Spring may seem superficially to belong to another era, I would argue that it has much to teach us about the contemporary struggles facing the humanities, particularly departments that teach foreign languages.

Reed's campus novel centers on Benjamin "Chappie" Puttbutt, a black junior professor who teaches at the mostly white Jack London College. Unlike Reed, Chappie is an academic striver, a man on a mission to get tenure. As such, he spends his time accommodating anyone who can advance him in his career. For Chappie this means being the "intellectual houseboy" of white conservatives. In the media and in his books, Chappie blames white racism on the fact that African Americans are just too forceful in demanding their rights. Chappie also accommodates the racist sentiments of his neo-Nazi students, despite the fact that they have been linked to beating the college's few black students and have published a derogatory cartoon about him in their newspaper Kikes and Koons. Again, Chappie excuses their behavior and hopes that doing so will help his tenure decision. (Bass, Jr., Chappie's main antagonist,  is the son of Jack London College's primary financial backers).

Despite his appallingly reactionary views on race, Chappie also adopts an aggressive feminist stance in order to court the university's powerful feminist bloc. When one of them asks why he is learning Japanese in his spare time, he tells them it is because he wants to teach female court poets in one of his classes. However, Chappie, always planning for his academic future, is learning Japanese because he expects  the East to rise up and dominate the United States' economy and its academy. (Remember, this was 1992 and America was in thrall of Japan bashing and did not yet know about the "lost decade").

Chappie proves unsuccessful at divining the ideological currents of the campus and looses his bid for tenure. Despite the fact that he is black, conservative, and a New Critic too boot (a rare find indeed), he is simply not minority enough. Instead, his tenure track position goes to a black lesbian. However, taking Japanese lessons does prove to be a good investment. In a stunning reversal of fortune, the campus administration is thrown out of office and they are replaced by none other than Chappie's Japanese teacher, Mr. Yamato. Yamato immediately reverses Chappie's tenure decision and puts him in charge of reorganizing the campus curriculum and firing faculty reluctant to change their ways. Suddenly, the $245 he paid for Japanese lessons seems to be a very good investment.

The section detailing Chappie's revenge is perhaps the funnest part of the novel, but it is also the most instructive given the current funding crisis in the humanities. Yamato has Chappie reorganize the campus in such a way to satisfy the new president's Japanese ethnocentrism. Thus, Yamato wants all the ethnic studies programs, the history department, and the English department all folded up into something he calls "European Studies," a move that refuses to see the differences between peoples or even disciplines. Western philosophy, Yamato tells him, could be covered in a week. If Jack London College was previously a bastion of ethnic-feel goodism for whites, Reed shows what it would be like if Jack London's fears of Asia came true. Essentially, the college trades one form of race supremacy for the other; the department titles shift, some faculty get fired, but the underlying structure of power remains the same.

Things eventually go too far on campus, and Chappie eventually changes his mind about Yamato when he discovers that the new president is part of a right wing paramilitary outfit. Yamato's brief reign, nonetheless, shows the relationship between what Pierre Bourdieu calls the field of power and cultural capital, or what we might otherwise call "the curriculum." As Bourdieu argues in The Field of Cultural Production, the art that we consider valuable is always tacitly approved by those who govern society. Certain art works achieve high status because they are liked by the right people and because they may espouse values convenient for those with economic or political power. What we see in Yamato's tenure as president of Jack London College is the purposeful rearrangement of the curriculum to fit the values of Yamato's nationalist organization.

Although it does not do so directly, Reed's satire of campus multiculturalism speaks directly to the current state of foreign language and literature programs in the United States. Much was made last year of the proposed plan by the University of Albany to close down its foreign language departments. Such plans have become increasingly common on American campuses, but Albany proved to be especially alarming because it was a Ph.D.-granting institution that had global ambitions. Many schools have phased out their foreign-language majors and have done away with teaching foreign literature. What remains at many colleges and universities are introductory language instruction. At risk, of course, is the ability to perpetuate advanced knowledge of these languages given that there will be few instructors in America with the skills to actually teach someone else the language. While there has been an upsurge in students taking Chinese and Arabic, European languages have seen their funding sources dry up as Europe, along with the Cold War, seems to fade in the popular memory. All of this should seem short sighted, of course. The current debt crisis will have an enormous impact on the American economy and it might be a good idea to have a few Americans around who can read and speak fluent German (the language of the creditors) and Greek (the language of the debtors). Achtung αγόρια και κορίτσια!

Why are languages so vulnerable to being eliminated? It is not because they are too expensive. Although language departments produce few majors, they bring in money through tuition and they have relatively low overhead. As Christopher Newfield discusses in Unmaking of the Public University it costs a lot to operate a biology laboratory, but it costs very little to run a Spanish classroom. Language programs are vulnerable for two reasons. The first, surprisingly, comes down to questions of multiculturalism. In the United States you can cut a program that teaches German language and culture or a Classics Department, because there is not a sizable German or Greek population that will treat such cuts as an affront to their culture. You lose no political points outside the profession for cutting these programs. The second reason, and by far the more important, is that the humanities in general, and foreign language departments in particular, have difficulty in translating themselves into the only type of value currently recognized by the powers that be: market value. As universities lose public funding and are increasingly subsidized by corporations, they have increasingly took on the qualities of a for-profit private institution. The invisible hand of the market is God and it guides curriculum decisions. Business schools are praised as income generators for the school and job creators for the community and free copies of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged are handed out to young, impressionable MBAs. Medical schools are useful. Again, they make money and doctors tend to be rich so we want more of them. But why do you need someone to read Goethe in the original when everyone speaks English? Why read Borges when you learned how to order off the menu and ask for directions to the bathroom in Spanish 1A? How can I turn an understanding of The Iliad if not into cold hard cash, at least into finance capital? Of course, as Newfield makes clear such a view is incredibly shallow; even in capitalist terms its incredibly short-sighted. Teaching students to interpret texts, and I would add here foreign language texts in particular, is an investment in human capital. Students who know how to communicate in multiple languages are an asset, particularly as the economy goes global and  financial power becomes decentered. Even the best English ain't gonna cut it.

However, it's also the case that every language contains within it a certain way of looking at the world. It's no mistake that the French only have a masculine word for "nurse." That says something about the French, non? It is ultimately through language that Reed builds an argument for multiculturalism. At the height of the Yamato regime, Chappie exerts his revenge on Prof. Crabtree. Under the old administration, Crabtree had voted against Chappie's tenure case. Being a part of the English Department's Milton-fraction, Crabtree had opposed Chappie's early, black nationalist work on Shakespeare's Othello. In retribution, Chappie does not fire Crabtree, but he makes him teach Yoruba. Learning Yoruba and learning more about the culture transforms Crabtree's understanding of his own culture and leaves him to moderate his previous stances on the superiority of European literature. In a sense, and a doubt Reed would agree with me, multiculturalism reproduces the best impulses of Matthew Arnold's educational project. Multiculturalism exposes Crabtree to the "sweetness and light" of other cultures and makes him more accepting of others. By learning the language and cultures  of supposedly "savage" peoples, Crabtree is finally civilized.

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