Studying Only Ourselves

British historian Tony Judt is said to have remarked that what with Jewish Studies, African-American Studies and Lesbian and Gay Studies, “we are all studying ourselves”. Why the remark omitted the grandmother of them all, Women’s Studies, is unclear.

The baleful potential of this situation is not, of course, the mere fact that these things are studied. All knowledge is desirable. Firstly, however, it is potentially damaging that the various identities are studied primarily by their personal bearers, with the consequent danger that their studies will produce only what they might wish to hear, namely a narrative in which their own identity is identified with the good guys and everyone else with the bad guys. (With more than two group identities, however, the mathematics of virtue and vice become rather difficult, what with a nod to astrophysics we might call the “three-oppressor problem”.) It might be more fruitful, instead, for more Gentiles to study Jewish history, for men to study female history, for white people to study black history and for heterosexuals to study the history of homophobia; and contrariwise in all four cases. For example, in each case the non-minority studying the minority might discover ways in which the latter is a lot more powerful than it has wanted the world to think; we might even get a new kind of women’s history that describes how women use men to fight lineage wars against other women and their progeny. The horror with which some people will undoubtedly greet such a proposal tells us precisely what they think of new ideas.

Secondly, it seems to be often assumed that black people will or should take African-American Studies or their European equivalents and likewise that women will or should audit Women’s Studies rather than anything else. (The equivalent assumption is probably far weaker for Jews and gays.) Should blacks or female students select a different course of education, it is likely that at least some of their friends will upbraid them; perhaps even in terms of “betrayal” of the imperative to “study” only oneself and one’s oppressions. Now, such social pressure clearly does not work on everyone, or else there would be no black accountants or female astronomers. Insofar as such exist, as they undoubtedly do, however, we need not thank the enthusiasts for Own Identity Studies, who are probably even now complaining that he is not practising black accountancy and she is not watching female quasars.

Indeed, what is remarkable is how few voices have ever pointed out how channelling black people into racial studies and women into gender studies might possibly be a convenient way of keeping them out of other professions, and particularly those in which money is made. It is also contradictory to complain how the sciences are full of white males, and then deliberately to enter a ghetto far separated from the sciences; unless, of course, the whole object of the exercise is to create a platform from which to destroy those very sciences.

Thirdly, there is something unhealthy, even unheimlich, about a person whose interests are confined to his or her own person and to the doings of similar individuals; and something very dangerous about a person whose life is devoted to the injustices done to his or her particular group. Should we not be concerned about all human wickedness? Should not the Armenian be interested in the Shoah and the Jew in the fate of the Christian Armenians?

In my youth I knew two lesbians: one was interested in literature, drama, art and all sorts of things. She might have said, with Terence, that she was human and all human things concerned her. The other, however, had only one topic of conversation, namely her own sexuality and its exigencies; and so by the Terentian standard I suppose she was scarcely human at all. There was certainly no reason for any non-lesbian to spend more than a minute in her company, and she might have been equally tedious to another lesbian as well, unless the latter shared her conviction that the sole business of a human being was to mediate upon the iniquity of everyone else.

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