I received an…

I received an e-mail from a friend of mine last week. He was reading a book of Naipaul criticism; he's a big fan of the writer's work. He complained that the book was painfully political -- that all the academics seemed to care about was whether or not Naipaul was a racist, that there was no discussion of style or form, nothing 'literary'.

I wrote back to him, something about current trends in academia, the wave of interest in post-colonialism and post-structuralism, etc. and so on. I told him I was sure that there were still some English professors interested in Naipaul's stylistic effects, and that they were probably just less published at the moment due to the aforementioned current trends. But it started me wondering about why we are doing this -- why English literature professors are feeling the need to argue politics.

Then I read Abdul JanMohamed and David Lloyd's "Toward a Theory of Minority Discourse", which directly addressed many of the same questions.

They start by discussing minority discourse, and how it brings together various subsets of academic study. "In the past two decades, intellectuals involved in ethnic and feminist studies have enabled fresh examinations of a variety of minority voices engaged in retrieving texts repressed or marginalized by a society that espouses universalistic, univocal, and monologic humanism." So, that feels worthwhile to me, and appropriate. If an English professor's job is to examine literature in English, then it seems clear that they need access to all of that literature, and that if some of it has been historically unavailable (repressed, marginalized), they have been denied access to all of the material they need for their job, and denied it for political reasons, in the end.

That denial would be comparable to when Galileo was told that he couldn't use his astronomical data proving that the Earth rotates around the sun, because the Church's official position was that the Earth was the center of the universe. Galileo was forced to recant his claim of a heliocentric system, but later astronomers retrieved that data and incorporated it into their own theories, seeking a truth unfettered by Church politics. So clearly, part of an academic's job is to try to retrieve data (literature) that has been repressed/erased by cultural/political forces.

Another important part of the quoted statement seems to be where they refer to "a society that espouses universalistic...humanism". Their implicit argument is that relying on the traditional Western canon (the Greeks, the Romans, Shakespeare, etc.) is insufficient for discussion of human society and values. Part of literary discussion has always been the question of how literature relates to life -- we do not simply admire Shakespeare's technique, but ask how Hamlet's action (or inaction) reflects youth, his culture, society, humanity.

It is tempting to think that we can take Hamlet (a character I love) as a speaker for humanity, but I must agree with Lloyd and JanMohamed (and the feminists, and the multiculturalists) that that is an insufficient response. There may well be some aspects of literature that are universal -- love of a mother for her child, perhaps -- but there are certainly many aspects that are non-universal, culturally and gender-specific. Is the experience of a childless woman facing menopause universal across countries, across historical eras, across gender? I don't think that could be convincingly argued. So if part of a lit. professor's job is to connect literature to life, then it seems that the widest possible accumulation/understanding of literature is necessary in order to address as much of human life as possible. Otherwise, they are doing an inadequate job. (Of course, no individual professor would be responsible for knowing everything -- but the Academy as a whole should be striving towards that goal).

But it doesn't seem enough to simply try to be as inclusive as possible. They state, "It is crucial, especially in the context of a volume that seeks in a sense to celebrate the positive achievements and potential of minority discourse, to stress the real and continuing damage inflected on minorities." I am at first resistant to this claim; I generally prefer not to dwell on suffering, since doing so tends to create a victim mentality/culture. But I would agree that it would be disingenuous to ignore that suffering/damage entirely, especially if it is continuing. If my job is to collect and analyze literature from a culture, then my job is hampered when that literature is manipulated, damaged, destroyed, lost. It would be like trying to build a sand castle too near to the ocean, so that every time you tried to collect the sand to build a turret, a wave would come in and wash some of it away -- so that even if you worked fast and hard enough to build a castle, some portion of the initial sand would be irretrievably lost. So as an academic I need to at least be aware of what is being damaged and lost -- and perhaps I need to act, if I can, to try to counteract that loss.

So, we have already gotten rather political here, it seems. And there is more to come.

JanMohamed and Lloyd warn us of another danger. If we have managed to avoid simply trusting in the Western canon as a representative sample, if we have worked to include other voices and texts, is that sufficient? They argue that "[m]inority discourse must similarly be wary of 'pluralism,' which, along with assimilation, continues to be the Great White Hope of conservatives and liberals alike." Oh no. I must admit that I had been hoping that pluralism would solve the problem -- that if we managed to accumulate a sufficiency of voices/texts, that we would have represented enough, and that we could then get on with our job of analyzing, discussing, connecting literature to life.

But they go on to explain that for pluralism, "ethnic or cultural difference is merely an exoticism, an indulgence that can be relished without significantly modifying the individual who is securely embedded in the protective body of the dominant ideology." So we can't simply be pluralistic -- they are warning us that if we just include the other voices without really examining what they have to say, then those voices will remain marginalized -- nominally heard by the Academy, but not really, since their perspectives won't be allowed to have any real effect. Fair enough; that sounds like something worth watching out for.

This is especially true considering the function the Academy has traditionally had in society. Not to dive too far into a Marxist analysis, they remind us that "[t]he systemic function of the traditional humanist intellectual has always ultimately been the legitimation of the sets of discriminations required for economic and social domination." That systemic function describes what we do, despite our noble ambitions -- the Academy legitimizes discrimination (and a prime example of how this happens is Said's Orientalism, which shows how the academic discourse on Orientalism reaffirmed European ideas of Oriental primitivism, among other unpleasant ideas).

And it is the attempt at universality (that attempt which I value, that tries to take a specific book or character and say something worthwhile and insightful about humanity) that is the prime culprit. "The very claim to universality that humanism makes, while utopian in itself, is annulled by the developmental schema of world history through which it is to be achieved. Accordingly, actual exploitation is legitimated from the perspective of a perpetually deferred universality." Ouch.

They have convinced me at this point of the following:

  • a) that while it is tempting to believe in universality, it is clearly insufficient,
  • b) that the Academy must access as broad a range of voices/texts as possible if we are to be honest and thorough in our analyses,
  • c) that it is easy for pluralism to be mere tokenism; that the Academy must remain open to being changed by the new texts/voices it accumulates,
  • d) that the attempt at universality acts to support the dominant discourse (and therefore to legitimate exploitation), despite its utopian intentions
  • e) that in the end, what the Academy does has always had political consequences, and that it would be disingenous to claim otherwise, and dangerous/unethical to do so.
They make one final point that I continue to resist, though. They first state that "[b]ecause relations of domination permeate every facet of our personal and social lives as well as of our literature and culture, a critique of culture [and literature] that ignores such relations can be, at best, a distorted one." Agreed -- this connects to point 'e' above, that to be honest academics, we must be aware of the political effects of our scholarship, and those effects have historically had strong connections to exploitation and domination. But they go on to say that "[f]rom a minority viewpoint, a viable humanism must be centered on a critique of domination." And here I think we must part ways, because while I most certainly accept that necessity of examining the discourse of domination, I strongly resist the notion that minority discourse must be (and remain) centered on domination. That surely invites a victim mentality, and in the end, I believe that minimizes and cheapens the potential value of what the minority literature can add to the Academy.

"The concerns of the victims of domination must be at the center not only of a minority discourse but also of non-Eurocentric, non-aestheticizing 'humanism' -- that is, of a Utopian exploration of human potentiality." They go too far. Those concerns must certainly be considered; they are a significant part of the discussion. But they need not be the center, and they certainly are not all there is worth saying. I am afraid that Lloyd and JanMohamed have made the mistake of believing that their area of concern is the most important area for discussion. Their politics may well have overcome their intellectual honesty.

Frankly, I am not convinced.

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