Marxism, Semiotics and Feminism


David Stove

Quadrant, May 1986, reprinted in Cricket versus Republicanism (Quakers Hill Press, 1995).


THE FACULTY OF Arts at the University of Sydney is a disaster-area, and not of the merely passive kind, like a bombed building, or an area that has been flooded. It is the active kind, like a badly-leaking nuclear reactor, or an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in cattle.

Just as a few spots are often improbably spared even in the worst disaster-areas, there are still a few departments in our Faculty of Arts which are passable-to-good. And the disaster I am speaking of has not overtaken the Faculty of Science, or any of the science-based faculties, such as Engineering or Agriculture.

This disaster in Arts has all happened in the last twenty years. In 1965 the Faculty as a whole was undistinguished, as it has always been. But it was not, then or earlier, what it is now, an important source of intellectual and moral devastation. Of course the disaster is not confined to Sydney University. Far from that, it is common to the Arts faculties of most Western universities. So far as there still survives anything of value from the Western tradition of humanistic studies, it is in spite of most of the people in the universities who are the heirs of that tradition.

It is extremely difficult to convey to outsiders the scale of the Arts disaster, and I certainly have not the skill to do it. The quality of it, on the other hand, I can easily convey, by giving a few concrete and representative specimens of what it is that typical members of the Faculty of Arts at Sydney University now do and say.


Example (1)


Dasein's general structure as being-in-the-world doesn't determine its historically specific worldly existence. Rather Dasein always finds itself in some particular mode of being contained as a possibility within the general structure of its being-in-the-world. The traditional philosophical view of the cogito is seen as having emerged from the hypostatisation of one possible mode of Dasein's being from its general structure of being-in-the-world. This mode of being-in-the-world is that of modern scientific enquiry. Here, Dasein's comportment, its experience and its understanding are modified in particular ways. This hypostatisation involves a reciprocal hypostatisation of the categorical form belonging to the objects of Dasein's theoretically modified understanding.


Is this, perhaps, a tolerably-witty parody of German metaphysics written by some Logical Positivist in 1934? ("Dasein" is German for "existence.") No, it is quite serious, and quite up-to-date. It is a representative passage from an article published in Vol. 1 No. 2 (1984) of Critical Philosophy, a journal put out by the Department of General Philosophy. The man who wrote the article is a graduate of that Department, and now a temporary lecturer in it.


Example (2)


"The notion of text implies that the written message is articulated like the sign: on one side the signifier (the materiality of the letters and their connection into words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters), and on the other side the signified, a meaning which is at once original, univocal, and definite... The classical sign is a sealed unit, whose closure arrests meaning, prevents it from trembling or becoming double or wandering. The same goes for the classical text; it closes the work, chains it to its letter, rivets it to its signified." (Roland Barthes.)

Choose a passage of either poetry or prose from within the period covered by course D5 and discuss it in relation to the above quotation.


This example is from the Department of English. It is a question in an examination-paper, dated November 1983, set for "Course D5: Language and Literature in the Restoration and Augustan Periods." This course was compulsory for Honours students in seeond- or third-year English. The quotation from Barthes is a representative specimen of what is called "semiotics." Semiotics, though not mentioned in Eric Rolls' book on introduced pests, is a virulent French form of literary blowfly-strike which has gained a firm foothold in the English Department, and infests most of the other modern-language departments far more heavily still. Nor is it confined to them: the Department of General Philosophy also runs well-attended courses in semiotics.


Example (3)


In other words, feminist theory cannot be accurately regarded as a competing or rival account, diverging from patriarchal texts over what counts as true. It is not a true discourse, nor a more objective or scientific account. It could be appropriately seen, rather, as a strategy, a local, specific intervention with definite political, even if provisional, aims and goals. In the 1980s, feminist theory no longer seems to seek the status of unchangeable, trans-historical and trans-geographic truth in its hypotheses and propositions. Rather, it seeks effective forms of intervention into systems of power in order to subvert them and replace them with other more preferable. Strategy implies a recognition of the current situation, in both its general, structural features (macrolithic power alignments), and its specific, detailed, regionalised forms (microlithic power alignments)...

As a series of strategic interventions into patriarchal discourses, feminist theory doesn't simply aim to reveal what is "wrong" with, or false about patriarchal theories - i.e. at replacing one "truth" with another. It aims to render patriarchal system, methods and presumptions unable to function, unable to retain their dominance and power.


This is from a paper entitled "What is Feminist Theory?," written by a Dr Elizabeth Gross, and delivered publicly by her on several occasions. Dr Gross is a very fervent and influential feminist. She is a graduate of the Department of General Philosophy and was, at the time she wrote this paper, a temporary lecturer in that Department. Of course, this example is of a very different kind from examples (1) and (2). It is intelligible, for one thing. It also has the merit of being candid. Its value, for my purpose, lies in proving that nowadays the Faculty of Arts has philosophy lecturers who frankly avow that their "philosophy" has nothing to do with an interest in truth and everything to do with an interest in power. Since Dr Gross herself could hardly be mistaken on such a point, her avowal is no doubt true. Nor does the Faculty, on the whole, think any the less of Dr Gross on this account. Far from that - but see below for an edifying tale.

A thousand examples could be given as easily as these three, but of course I will spare the reader that. What the reader owes me, in return is that he or she should make the effort of mentally multiplying these examples by a factor of at least some hundreds. Examples (1) - (3) are representative specimens of what the Faculty of Arts now does and is. Most people outside the Faculty find this hard to believe. Most people inside the Faculty, by contrast, even if they would not themselves perpetrate things like (1) - (3), find nothing in the least surprising about them. Such things pass for quite ordinary Faculty work; as indeed they now are.

What brought about this catastrophe? Well, the Vietnam War was of course crucial. No Faculty member of (say) twenty-five years' standing could possibly be in doubt as to that. But if we aim to be a bit more analytical, then we need to distinguish three major contributors to the present terminal illness of the Faculty of Arts: Marxism, semiotics, and feminism.

As an item of the intellectual agenda, Marxism is scarcely even a joke. "Is the 'superstructure' just a 'reflection of the economic base'?" "You must always distinguish, comrade, between mechanical materialism and dialectical materialism ... between Aristotelian logic and dialectical logic... between utopian socialism and scientific socialism." "Are the Theses on Feuerbach `progressive,' or a departure from the standpoint of scientific socialism?" Etc., etc.

Having afterwards found out what serious intellectual work is, I am mortified to recollect that all this seemed to me to be hot stuff when I was nineteen. (Though even then, I can say in self-defence, certain things, such as Engels on "contradictions in nature" - remember the grain of wheat? - were painfully embarrassing.) No: Marxism is a fearful social - and police - problem, but so is the drug trade. It is a fearful political problem, but so is Islamic fundamentalism. But an intellectual problem Marxism is not, any more than the drug trade is, or, Islamic fundamentalism.

Marx himself, unlike his millions of devotees, knew perfectly well what his rubbishy improvisations about "dialectic" etc. are worth. In 1857 he had made certain statements in print about the course of the Indian Mutiny, then going on, and he writes to Engels about these as follows: "It's possible that I shall make an ass of myself. But in that case one can always get out of it with a little dialectic. I have, of course, so worded my proposition as to be right either way." This quotation is from p. 152, Vol. 40 (!), of the Collected Works, (Lawrence and Wishart). It should be pasted over every door in every Arts faculty in the Western World. (Except that it is, alas, a little late for that.)

I use the word "semiotics" here in a sense a little wider than is usual. It is usually confined to a stream of pretentious incomprehensibility, such as example (2) above, which issues from Paris. But example (1) is obviously enough just another case of the same sort of terminal disorder of language, even though its ultimate provenance is German. So, I count (1) as well as (2) as an instance of semiotics. It is entirely out of the question, of course, for me or for anyone else to criticise such stuff: it is altogether below the threshold of criticisability. You might as well hope to detect typographical errors in Finnegans Wake, as hope to detect factual or logical errors in Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Heidegger, etc. It is a perfect waste of time to read authors, and wonder whether they have got things right, when there is no possible way one could tell if they had gone wrong.

Then there is feminism. If one looked just at "the women's movement" itself, who could possible resist the conclusion that women are intellectually inferior to men? The feminists have yet to produce a single piece of writing, devoted to their cause, which any rational creature could attach importance to. Their writings only serve to show that the authors, after having enjoyed for most of a century advantages which no women ever enjoyed before, and which few or no men have ever enjoyed in any greater degree advantages of freedom, education, wealth, and health - still have nothing more to draw upon than a boundless conviction of their own brilliant merits, merits which the world, by some equally boundless wickedness, has failed to appreciate. Their only theme is still the old everlasting one: we was robbed! One is apt to think, "Jesus, why don't they do something that would command intellectual respect, instead of forever whining about how they are prevented from doing it?" But this is a foolish thought, as my candid colleague who furnished example (3) implies: to look to feminism to bear intellectual fruit is looking for figs from thistles.

Intellectually, then, the sum of Marxism, semiotics and feminism is 0 + 0 + 0 = 0. Morally and institutionally, however, their joint effect on university work was bound to be, and is, simply lethal. Take the assessment of students. How could examination marking be anything but a joke or a racket, where the questions in an exam-paper are things like example (2) above? Take teaching: it must be a surrealist farce, where the teacher's notions of intellectual work are such as are represented by example (1). Take university appointments. Here the impact of feminism is notorious, and the racket has the support or connivance of almost everyone in the Faculty of Arts. As to the moral and institutional impact of Marxism, I need not say anything here, since it is not basically any different in universities from what it is in many other well-known cases, such as the Builders' Labourers' Federation.

Of all the departments in the Faculty, the one which best exemplifies the three influences I have spoken of is the Department of General Philosophy. The Department of English may have more feminists, French may have semioticians still more impenetrable, Anthropology or Fine Arts may have even stupider Marxists, but you cannot go past General Philosophy for solid all-round disaster. Among the Faculty membership at large, accordingly, no department enjoys a wider circle of friends and admirers than General Philosophy.

In 1976, three permanent members ofthis Department fled from it, and received asylum in the other department within the School of Philosophy. In 1984 three more fled. Have these waves of "boat people" created in the Faculty any indignation against those from whom they fled? On the contrary, as in the Vietnamese case, they have only raised still higher the general esteem in which the persecutors are held. At the same time, they have left General Philosophy a little short ~on quantity of philosophy, even apart from its deficiency in quality. Never mind, the courses on Marxism, feminism, and semiotics are as numerous as ever. There are no examinations. For these two reasons, General Philosophy is a very popular department with students; almost as popular as it is with staff. (As a student-refugee once said: in General Philosophy, the challenge is to fail.) A department which could not, under these conditions, turn out a-Marxist-a-minute, would obviously be not even trying.

What now remains of General Philosophy is not so much a philosophy department as a place of retreat, where the devotions prescribed by feminist or Marxist piety can be performed in peace, and under the direction, of qualified priests. Around 985 AD, the pious or guilty rich would often richly endow monks or nuns for the recital, in perpetuity, of prayers for the dead or for the singing of psalms. In 1985 the taxpayer richly endows the religious in General Philosophy for the daily recital of ritual curses on men, capitalism, "analytic philosophy", etc., etc.

I do not mean to suggest that there is no one of ability in General Philosophy. In fact two members of the Department, Dr George Markus and Dr John Burnheim, possess marked intellectual ability. But of course as much depends on interests as on ability, and purely intellectual interests, as distinct from political ones, are not proportioned to intellectual ability in either of these men. Dr Markus is a refugee from Hungary, and, like many such, is extremely intelligent and well-read. But, as is also common enough in such cases, he has remained firmly wedded to the possibility of squaring the circle: of devising, that is, some form of socialism which will not maximise terror and poverty. He cannot get out of the dreary cycle of "A's critique of B's distortions of C's revisions of Marxism" - you know the kind of thing. In more ways than one, Dr Markus is lucky to be here, because in the European Communist countries, of course, no one any longer pretends that this kind of thing is matter for serious thought. The very Party intellectuals themselves join unfeignedly in the laughter at it. In free countries, by contrast, it earns you golden opinions, and large books full of it enjoy steady sales.

The career of Dr Burnheim. has been, superficially at least, more varied. He used to be a Roman Catholic priest, and presided over St John's, the Catholic college attached to the University. But a day came, (during the Vietnam War of course), when he had to give all that away, because he had got real religion: the Arts religion, of Marxism, feminism, and the rest. It is this interesting religion over which he now locally presides. No doubt it is only some recherché and even more interesting sub-variety of it to which Dr Burnheim himself fully subscribes. But then, some such interval must always be allowed for, between a learned clergy and the mere mass of the faithful.

Two recent appointments in General Philosophy were characteristic both of that Department and of the Faculty generally. One of the vacant positions was a tenurable lectureship in feminism. Here the Department wanted to appoint a certain internal candidate, namely the Dr Gross whom I have mentioned earlier. There was, however, strong competition from external candidates, and, at least in respect of philosophy published, Dr Gross's qualifications were hardly encouraging by comparison. Several of the external candidates had published, (and not just on feminism) in first-rate international journals of philosophy. Dr Gross has not. Indeed, fully half of her list of publications have been instead in Intervention, Gay Information, Scarlet Woman, Filmnews, On the Beach, etc.: worthy-enough periodicals perhaps, but not ones which publish very much, or very good philosophy.

No one, of course, regards publications as the only thing to go on in making university appointments, but in this case there was, as well as the matter of what Dr Gross has not published, a matter of something she had published: namely the article from which example (3) is taken. This article, as I have said, was candid and in one way it was prudent too. For what better way could there be, of disarming in advance any possible intellectual objection to what you say, than to announce - especially when it is true - that you are not in the intellect business at all, just in the power business? Still, you would have thought that this announcement might be held very seriously against a candidate for a university lectureship in philosophy. Which only shows how much you know about the present Sydney Faculty of Arts!

Of the seventeen permanent members of the School of Philosophy, eleven did take the deepest exception to this article of Dr Gross. On this ground, as well as on certain others, they were of the opinion that her appointment would be "unacceptable in any circumstances." Their opinion, in those very words, was conveyed to the selection-committee. Even on the committee itself the majority of philosophers were of this opinion, and expressed it with all possible clearness. Never mind: it takes more than trifles like these to turn the feminist juggernaut aside. The committee recommended Dr Gross's appointment by a majority of two to one. And I cannot emphasise too strongly that there was nothing in the least unrepresentative about this selection -committee. On the contrary, all the interested parties agree that one would have got the same result from just about any committee of the Faculty of Arts.

The second vacancy was also a tenurable lectureship. Here again the Department wished to appoint a certain internal candidate. Nor was this the first attempt to do so: an attempt in 1984 to appoint this same candidate to a tenurable position was in fact one of the things that led to the exodus of permanent staff in that year. In this case the competition from external candidates was stronger still, and indeed, in the opinion of the majority of philosophers both in the School and on the committee, it was so strong as to be irresistible. Nevertheless, - but it cannot really be necessary for me to complete this story, any more than it can be necessary to mention the sex of the Department's candidate. True stories about recent appointments in Arts at Sydney quickly become very monotonous.

Popular religions are always divided into warring sects, and it should go without saying that there is no love lost among the various sects in General Philosophy. Between the Marxists and the feminists, and between the semioticians and the Marxists, relations are bad. Each group has formed a just estimate of the intellectual quality and conduct of the others. Liberals often take comfort from such divisions as these. They should not, at least in this case, because the ranks close quickly enough whenever it is important for them to do so.

There was a striking instance of this recently, when an attempt was made to compel General Philosophy to amalgamate with the Department of Traditional and Modern Philosophy. Faced with this threat Dr W. Suchting, who is one of General Philosophy's Marxists, supported on the selection-committee the two women whose appointments I have just recounted, even though he had been, until the threat of amalgamation arose, among their severer critics. And when a former colleague twitted him with this aboutface, Dr Suchting was candid enough to reply: "Your trouble, X, is that you have never been a Party man." He was probably not referring to any specific political party, and if he was, it does not matter exactly which one. More likely he had in mind just the general Marxist-Leninist injunction, to keep the organisation in being at all costs. Whichever it was, Dr Suchting's implied explanation of his own behaviour was no doubt the true one; which will illustrate not only the ability to close ranks, but also the general ethos, of the Department of General Philosophy.

Radiation-leaks and outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease can be stopped. The disaster in Arts is far more important than those things, but it is not obvious that it can be stopped at all. If there is any politically-possible way of stopping it, it would probably begin with the re-introduction (imperative anyway) of fees, for Arts students at least. This would greatly improve the quality of students, and at the same time greatly reduce their numbers. The way would then be open for similarly reducing the numbers, and improving the quality of Arts staff.

On its own, of course, this would only serve to cut our losses.

But if even a quarter of the money which is at present wasted on Arts were to be diverted to scientific faculties, there would be great positive gains as well: gains to the nation, as well as to knowledge.



Afterword: Professor Elizabeth Grosz (formerly Gross) now (2005) is Professor in the Department of Women's and Gender Studies, Rutgers University.

Update: Miranda Devine's column 29 Jan 2005.