John McGowan. Democracy's Children: Intellectuals and the Rise of Cultural Politics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002. xvi + 243 pp. $62.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8014-3973-5; $21.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8014-8766-8.
Reviewed by Frederick Luis Aldama (University of Colorado at Boulder)
Published on H-Amstdy (April, 2004)
Democracy, the Classroom, and Literary Interpretation: Some Necessary Clarifications
Democracy, the Classroom, and Literary Interpretation: Some Necessary Clarifications
There is much tectonic shifting taking place in the humanities today. Goods that once sold well seem to have a shorter shelf life; they are either being discarded altogether or they are being salvaged for scraps in the remainder bin. The high-priests of yesteryear's so-called "pomo" theory--aporia, slippage, diff=rence, textual intervention, and resistance--have flipped their cards and shown a losing hand. The conference on theory held at the University of Chicago on April 11, 2003, says it all. New York Times reporter Emily Eakin began her piece: "These are uncertain times for literary scholars. The era of big theory is over. The grand paradigms that swept through humanities departments in the twentieth century--psychoanalysis, structuralism, Marxism, deconstruction, post-colonialism--have lost favor or been abandoned. Money is tight. And the leftist politics with which literary theorists have traditionally been associated have taken a beating." That the question of theory's role in and outside humanities departments today did not get much air-time suggests that theorizing the slippage of signifier and signified has done little to make good on its promise: to resist, intervene, and transform a world increasingly marked by barbaric acts. Theorizing has done little to curtail the rapid rise of unemployment and homelessness, incarcerations without due process, the collapse of public schooling systems, and genocidal warfare worldwide. Perhaps it is time to take pause and really reflect on the role of theory, the teaching of literary interpretation, and the role of literature in the world more generally.
Literary scholars and critics today are reflecting more and more on the role of theory in and out of the classroom. Such scholars are skeptical of pomo's confusion of those facts that make up everyday reality (res) and the words (verba) and structures that make up literature. They question the "pomo" doxa: that verba magically suffices to radically change human res. Of course, there have been other, earlier scholars that have leveled critiques at "pomo" doxa such as Robert Alter, John Searle (linguist), John Ellis, and Frederick Crews, to name a few. Already a decade ago, for example, Crews expressed skepticism at the ability of the "discourse radicals" (his term) to resist, intervene, and transform real centers of power. Moreover, Crews identified pomo's allergic reaction to positivism as well as its aversion to clear thinking and writing, declaring it of little service to those oppressed groups with which it claimed an affiliation. And there have been other voices of dissent more squarely situated within the scholarly Left. I think here of the sharp bites and barks Terry Eagleton began making in his essays that began appearing regularly in the late 1990s. (Now collected and published by Verso as Figures of Dissent.) In these essays he holds little back, identifying pomo theory as an "offshoot of science fiction" (Figures of Dissent, p. 1) and its so-called "dialectical thinking" as an anything-goes-eclecticism that, in the name of social transformation, only ever served up a "restrained, reformist sort of politics." Eagleton and others identified the dangers of the apriorism that permeates pomo theory especially when tied to a political agenda. When such scholars expressed criticism, however, they were shrugged off as either a too old-school Left, reactionary, and/or apolitical. Today, those who question the pomo doxa seem to be received with less of a knee-jerk. I think here of Patrick Colm Hogan, Robert Storey, Nancy Easterlin, Porter Abbott, Paul Hernadi, and Lisa Zunshine, to name a few, who employ the tools learned from narratology and the knowledge gained from cognitive science and evolutionary biology, for example, to understand better how literature works for the reader, for the writer, and within the world at large. Others have approached pomo theory with the idea of sifting the fine from the coarse in an attempt to salvage what might be of use. (I think readily of Satya Mohanty's "postpositivist realism" and Gayatri Spivak's "strategic essentialism.") John McGowan is one such scholar who seeks to question, critique, then salvage anew pomo theory. In his book Democracy's Children: Intellectuals and the Rise of Cultural Politics, he continues work he first began over a decade ago in Postmodernism and Its Critics (1991). Long skeptical of pomo's formulations--in the latter book he identifies Derrida's diff=rence as a "tragic impasse"--McGowan explores problems pomo theory raised but did not answer. Several such questions include: what is the role of intellectual work in and outside the classroom? Can work in the classroom become a model of social democracy? What is the function of literary interpretation? Can it transform minds and therefore direct political action?
To answer these necessary and important questions, McGowan attempts to yoke together a humanist belief in universals--to know those facts that make our world unjust and that are necessary for us to fight for true democracy--with a belief that reality is indeterminate and socially constructed. As such, he considers the intellectual a "cultural worker" who has the power to transform the minds of students through literary analysis and, therefore, ultimately to transform the psyche of the body politic. Yet the cultural worker must also acknowledge history's reminder of a material reality of the "people on the bottom" who know that "they are being screwed" and that "the people on top know they are screwing them" (p. 90). According to McGowan, the cultural worker, then, must realize that "resistance to change isn't psychological, a matter of false consciousness or subject formation; it is simply the power of the powerful to maintain arrangements that suit them" (p. 90). It is clear that McGowan believes that to level the socioeconomic playing field by making education and freedom of expression an equal right for all (his primary goals) requires the locating of real sites of power to make visible real targets for social transformation. (At one point even, he is overtly critical of a Foucault's anarchistic model of power.) He is weary of pomo theorists who consider the subject and world to be discursive constructs and so claim that decoding texts and symbols will radically alter our world; rather than this leading to active shaping of society, he sees this as leading to a place of absolute political apathy. However, in spite of his pomo skepticism, McGowan believes that if humans work in and through language, then decoding how we work and think within language will lead to new ways of interpreting and understanding the world and will augment the type of social transformation that takes place by real people. Yes, he acknowledges that real people en masse are what bring about social change, mentioning, for example, the civil rights movement. However, because social injustices continue to exist, McGowan believes that a kind of intellectual cultural work is necessary for the realization of "full racial equality and harmony" (p. 24). As such, his criticism of the irrational aspects of pomo theory--the indeterminacy of the sign coupled with a belief in a folkish model of talk-therapy--and his grounding of his own political pursuits in the tangible facts that make up reality, slide into a theorizing of social change only realized in the decoding of cultural processes of representation. Namely, he still considers verba as being able to alter res.
In his attempt to straddle what is fundamentally a humanist and a pomo theory position, he locates his own intellectual work within a model of "pragmatic pluralism." (This is something akin to the "postliberal democracy" that he proposed in Postmodernism and its Critics.) Accordingly, as a pragmatic pluralist, what the intellectual/professor does in the classroom has consequences in the world beyond its walls precisely because such classroom discussions articulate, he writes, "concepts, commitments, and visions that legitimate and/or contest the way we live now" (p. 3). Intentionally interdisciplinary and eclectic, his pragmatic pluralism aims to show how "relationships are contingent and hence to be understood as the product of human sense-making" (p. 140) and to understand that all human activities make sense through "performative articulations" (p. 141). To enact this bi-modal process is to subvert interpretive paradigms dictated by "elite groups," university officials, and gate-keeping theorists. As such, he aims to extend "democratic practices into social sites (the classroom, the workplace) where they are often deemed inappropriate" (p. 6). The classroom becomes a space of "dearticulation" par excellence that enables "negotiations, compromises, arguments, and procedural steps [that will lead to] collective decisions" (p. 267). McGowan's classroom, then, serves as the egalitarian and collective space where "differences and interdependencies" (p. 6) are valued and that will help pave the way for the making of a democratic nation-state.
McGowan's "pragmatic pluralism" appears to be a relativism in another guise. Namely, it is another way of stating that what we know of the world and ourselves is contingent on theories that are themselves contingent on other theories. This becomes especially apparent when he identifies "the principle of democratic egalitarianism" (p. 264) as culturally and historically constituted and not a transcendent truth. Here, for example, he states, that a "humanist society can make decisions in the absence of truth" (p. 264). His formulation is tautological. It suggest that we can transform an empirically verifiable reality with tools and information that are not verifiable and whose meaning is relational and contingent. In Politics of Interpretation, Patrick Colm Hogan clarifies, "if I see something as an orange, this has nothing to do with essences, but means only that I construe certain experiences in relation to a schematic hierarchy and in the context of present interests and practices." What Hogan exemplifies is that there is no question of the presence or absence of the orange--in the sense of essential presence or absence--but only one of interest, in this case, in that the orange is perceived as a result of verifiable biological and cognitive mechanisms. Our perception of things is, as Hogan nicely clarifies, "partially accurate and partially inaccurate understandings of the world. They are based upon our previous understandings, including those codified in our linguistic competence, but they are not confined to these. And their accuracy is a matter of the way relevant intentionally discriminated things happen to be, and not the way supposedly essentially discriminated things are (or are necessarily)." Namely, the orange, like all things that make up reality, provides that object that can generate common grounds of interest and information based on empirically verifiable evidence.
To put it more plainly, for McGowan to even be able to state that truth/fact is socially constituted relies on the rules of language that are based on shared understanding of grammar, syntax, and semantics. Stated otherwise, if there was an absence of truth and empirically verifiable reality, real social change could never happen; it would mean that because I was born in Mexico and raised Chicano my brain works differently from those of Anglos born and raised in the United States and therefore my reason--thought, language, algorithmic process--operates differently from others' in the United States. In other words, if we were all social constructs, then no communication could take place between intellectual and worker and thus no collectivities formed for political activism. In such a relationally contingent world, no action would be possible to realize a shared goal of making a truly democratic nation-state. To return to the point made above about the orange, it is good enough that we perceive and verify things and their effects in the world. Claiming that knowledge is relative and that objects and subjects are socially constituted only muddies our path toward realizing the true ideals of democracy.
To summarize thus far, in his formulation of a "pragmatic pluralism, McGowan puts forward arguments that favor the empirical verification of facts--the pragmatic/humanist element--and simultaneously argues that "we should consider the symbolics of power" (p. 98)--the pomo/pluralism element. This pragmatic pluralism, then, seems only to entangle him even more in a sticky tautological web.
What can we untangle and salvage, however, from McGowan's formulation? First, as long as we try to hold together contradictory positions (empirical and social constructivist), we will always find ourselves straddling an unbridgable gap--and moving toward a dead end. Second, it leads us to ask if we might be able to answer more satisfyingly questions posed about the role of the critic and theory generally. We know from our experiences that reading and interpreting literature can open eyes to different ways of existing in the world; we know that we can gain something in the process of reading and interpreting a novel--our experience of an other--even when we are fully aware of its fictionality. However, we must ask, is it really possible for our work as scholars and teachers of literature to influence and single-handedly transform the values and attitudes of the many millions of people required for real social transformation? Can we tell our students that the work done in the classroom in analyzing, say, Ana Castillo's So Far from God, is a form of political activism? And, can we really liken the place of the classroom to a democratic space where legislation and policy take place?
First, I ask the question, what is our function as teachers of literature? Should we shun method, as McGowan suggests in his formulation of a pragmatic pluralism, to enact egalitarian ideals? Does method in the classroom lead us, as McGowan suggests, to a state of "rigor mortis" (p. 95)? Just as there is more to the formation of subjectivity than discourse (power, culture, and otherwise) and more to social transformation than talk-therapy, there is more to method than meets the eye.
Method is in the air we breathe. Every part of our everyday survival as homo sapiens sapiens requires the teaching, learning, and practicing of method. We go to school where methods are employed to teach reading, writing, and algorithmic skills: we need to learn rules in and out of the classroom--words in a certain order and hierarchy within this order--to communicate; carpenters learn which tools to use and in a particular order to build houses for shelter; architects and engineers follow methods to design such structures; pilots learn which instruments to use and in what order to fly us safely through skies. Even the most randomly conceived of cultural forms require method. I think of avant-garde art. Here, the artist must choose from a limited number of colors that the eye can perceive (determined by cognitive and biological constraints) and the order by which he or she applies the pigments; with music, there is the order and constraint of time. Our ear and brain cannot absorb Hayden's symphony in one glance, like in visual arts where one can perceive the whole in an instant, and so notes unfold as a sequence within time. And the list could go on ad infinitum. This is to say, that creation that involves any kind of conception or innovation has to follow a method. If we take pause to think about this, we realize that it is precisely the learning of method, with its respectively defined perimeters, that advances our knowledge about the things and activities that fill our world. (To learn to frame a wall does not require the learning of the method for flying an airplane, for example.) Indeed, all the minutiae of our everyday existence entails the teaching, learning, and practicing of method.
Even if we were to take McGowan's method-as-mortis model as a critique of scholarly work that fears the interdisciplinary, we run into problems. While I am all for learning what we can from other disciplines--recent advances in cognitive science, linguistics, and evolutionary biology certainly shed new light on our understanding of how literature works--the knowledge in each discipline is produced precisely because of the use of method. Each field of inquiry is productive and even predictive precisely because it limits the number of directions it pursues. For example, the physicist follows a certain method when formulating a hypothesis knowing that for the hypothesis to lead to any tangible results, it must have limits. Certainly, these limits are not fixed for all eternity. However, whether in the field of science or in the study of literature, we need to impose limits to what we intend to investigate or argue and we need method to explore this "what." In literature there is no limit to what can be imagined by a writer, and thus we could discuss and imagine an infinite number of elements that make up fiction. Literature--like all phenomena that make up our culture--is the product of complex human beings and therefore is as limitless as we are. This does not mean, however, that when writing, interpreting, and/or teaching literature that we should follow no method with no limits. Just as we do need to employ method, we also need to reduce the number of elements and questions to formulate a hypothesis that might potentially lead to an explanation of the text at hand. If done well, bounded inquiry based on rational method (what Hogan identifies as an "empirical poetics") can have great predictive power. More precisely, it is the reduction of the number of concepts explored in, say, narratology that can explain an unlimited number of literary phenomena: concept of voice, point of view, etc. Of course, narratology is not the only method, but it does have, as we have with Gerard Genette's work, great explanatory power.
Of course, we should not impose limits that stifle scholarly and creative exploration. Rather, we impose limits in order to build on and revise what we know of literature--and the world generally. If there is no method and no limit, then anything goes and whatever we say or argue has no particular importance. For example, sociolinguistics (or "pragmatic linguistics") eventually ran into a dead end because its field of inquiry had no boundaries. Though systematized in the eighteenth century in the work of Fontanelle, the taxonomy itself as a way to understand language had no limits. Language is a very complex phenomenon and immediately associated with millions of human activities and behavior that are difficult to systematize. Because the terrain was too large, the predictive capacity of sociolinguistics turned out to be worthless. (Chomsky realized that for linguistics to have any predictive power, it must follow the scientific principle of reduction and abstraction. Hence, his formulation of a "universal grammar" is his reducing the number of linguistic features that appear in all languages.) This is to say, if everything goes in the large field of culture (all that is the product of man's activity) then culture is everything and therefore as a field of study, it is nothing. Just as we must have method (argue, test, and refute) to survive, we must also set limits to our field of inquiry or else we simply produce flatus voci. As scholars of literature we can use method to understand better what the critics make. What we make are hypotheses based on theories, analysis, and arguments that can be furthered by reaching out to other fields that use the same empirical method to arrive at their own conclusions. As teachers of literature, we need to provide students with the methods for them to sort seed from the pulp. Teaching students that eclecticism is better than rigorous method, or that reduction is to destructively essentialize, or that subjects and the world are discursively constructed, move us away from the means by which we can build, verify, refute, and revise our understanding of how literature works.
Method is hardly that path, then, that leads to rigor mortis. Indeed, method (with its disciplinary limits and tools to test hypotheses) allows us to formulate within specified boundaries and limits a number of elements that make up a teachable system that can be passed on as a tool for a next generation of scholars to learn, revise, and build upon anew. Without limits to literary exploration, we can conjecture limitlessly because all is contingent and arbitrary. As literary scholars we should be affirming the place of method in opening up the possibility for exploratory advancement. Without method we have limitlessness and thus ultimately, as Porter Abbott clearly states, "a limitation caused by limitlessness."
As I have already suggested, without a clear understanding of how knowledge is arrived at, any type of statement can be made: there is no hors text, or that there is only the color red. With a similar declarative bravado, McGowan proposes that the classroom is or should be a democratic space; teaching in the classroom should foster democratic ideals of equality, freedom of speech, press, and tolerance for all taste and opinion. For McGowan, the classroom is that last frontier where tolerance for "differences and interdependencies (of various kinds)" (p. 6) can flourish in an otherwise totalitarian-like university setting and society generally. In this schema, to teach without method and to diffuse authority is to further the goals of democracy. The goal becomes not to teach methods for analyzing literature, but for the teacher to awaken "new identities" in the "joining of desire to ideals, of identities with public, cultural form" (pp. 72-73). If authority is everywhere, then it is nowhere. There must be an identifiable center of authority in the classroom that provides useful limits and rules as required by its respective disciplinary methodological contours in order for students to learn and become independent thinkers. The teacher has trained for a certain amount of time (sometimes years and years) and has acquired a knowledge of things that the students cannot and do not have simply because they have not been able to devote as much time and energy as the teacher.
What does this mean? It means that the teacher has a series of tasks and has to be qualified to introduce concepts and categories and tools to deal with the verifiable elements that constitute his or her particular discipline. And to suggest that power in the classroom is everywhere follows a belief that power is everywhere. This is necessary, of course, if one believes that we can enact resistance and political intervention through language and cultural phenomena. However, not only does it participate in a formulation of power that dislocates and permanently erases it from real sites--the State apparatus of the real ruling class and the owners of the means of production that assert "real" power through executive, legislative, and judicial institutions--but it dangerously leads to the type of complacency that McGowan himself objects to: academics comfortably situated in their corner of the world destabilizing the symbolic while real oppression and exploitation of real people continues. So it is not in the teaching of non-method, but the teaching of method that provides the clear-sighted thinking necessary to see things as they are outside the classroom where real political activism takes place. If we define democracy as the way English is taught in the classroom, as McGowan proposes, we are making nonsense of the very concept. As he correctly observes, the classroom can be a vital place for learning and sharing of ideas. However, democracy remains that which the people wish to turn into law and policy, and not that of studying literature in the classroom. Democracy, in the strict sense of the term, is that stated in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights: the establishment by the people of the general rules that will apply to all the people. In point of fact, the classroom should not be a democracy. Just as a pilot does not submit to his or her passengers a vote as to how to land an airplane, nor should the teacher submit to his or her students a vote as to what will be taught and how. Both spaces are absolutely totalitarian in this sense: neither teacher nor pilot should submit to vote any decision he or she makes. Indeed, applying McGowan's so-identified democratic approach to teaching--submitting to vote whether students read the Yellow Pages instead of Julio Cort=zar's Hopscotch, for example, or to study narratology instead of a book on how to improve your tennis swing--would never lead to our further understanding of how literature works. This still leaves us the question that McGowan aptly poses: "how do texts shape or influence the values, attitudes, and actions of the selves who read them?" (p. 67). When we pick up, say, John Rechy's City of Night, and have stepped into the shoes of his bi-racial, queer protagonist's experiences of U.S. demimondes, has anything more than our imagination been transformed? When we step back into our reality, has the experience of this fictional world transformed us or even transformed our reality? Common sense already suggests that reality will not have been transformed. But, if literature has the power to open our eyes to other ways of being, does it not then have the power to change the way we think and therefore act in the world? As such, does it not indirectly have the power to transform reality? Certainly, literature can be a resource for us to better understand the world. (Of course it is more than this--otherwise we could read essays or other more straightforward forms of communicating ideas.) And like any field of knowledge that sheds light on human activity and the world we inhabit (physics, for example, helps us understand how gravity works), it has the potential to change our attitudes toward this world. However, to transform our reality requires human action--and this in the hundreds of millions. Likewise, when we study or teach literature, this does not change the development or non-development of, say, capitalism. As history proves, regardless of whether or not we study and teach literature, capitalism developed; the merchants that transformed society into a capitalist marketplace did not do so by knowing literature any better.
So why do we teach literature if it is not, as McGowan proposes, to further our aims of creating a true democracy? We study literature to discover, for example, how authors like Ana Castillo, John Rechy, or Arturo Islas (some of my favorites) use specific narrative tools to engage their readers' imagination. We study literature to know better how those black marks on the page can create images and sounds in the mind of the reader. We study how literature's formal features and organization become meaningful in a serious, playful, ironic, or tense manner. We study literature to understand better how the reader suspends disbelief. We study literature to understand better why we feel the pleasure and pain of a character while simultaneously aware of its ontological status as fiction. We study literature to explore how a novel like One Hundred Years of Solitude uses point of view and temporal disjunction to engage in new and novel ways how we remember. We study literature to understand better how the universal human capacity of storytelling might shed light on our capacity to tell the difference between deception and truth, hostility and love, in our everyday social encounters. We study the verifiable elements (point of view, style, temporality, genre, mood, for example) of literature to understand better how writers use such tools to engage their readers.
The study of literature also requires the sharing and explaining of our discoveries. To explain something is to understand how it works, its existence. And all explanation, of course, implies interpretation. I cannot explain how to use a hammer if I cannot communicate what the hammer is and does. Understanding is interpreting; they are complementary. So, we interpret to understand and to pass along a verifiable method that can be built upon and revised to further the knowledge of our discipline. As scholars and teachers of literature, then, our business is the business of literature. This does not mean that we should be ignorant of politics. However, our job in the classroom is not that of political activism--building the party and so on--but to attend to our business as scholars of literature. Neither are we in the business of psychology, sociology, cognitive science, linguistics, and so on. So, while it is important for us to know the research in the field of cognitive psychology or, say, linguistics, it is with the aim of better understanding how literature works. For example, we can posit the not completely unfounded hypothesis that poetry manifested itself before the novel because, as deduced by cognitive research on brain development, rhythm has a mnemonic function. Such research from psychology labs and or neuroscience research gives us useful information in that it allows us, in this case, to better understand our different engagement with prose and poetry. And, if we can understand better how language functions by turning to recent research in linguistics--proving that there is no direct link between language and thought--then we can understand how art might stimulate those thought processes that take place pre-linguistically. This might lead to a further understanding of how images form in our mind that are non-linguistic after reading words on a page. And recent advances in evolutionary psychology can shed light on whether the concept of the "implied author" is valid or not. If it is valid (empirically verifiable), it will help us understand how it is produced in the mind of the reader and the writer. It might also help us understand better how a few descriptive details in a given passage can produce a full holographic image in my mind, and how the holographic effect is achieved differently in realism and the fantastic, magical realism and minimalism.
At the end, I return to the point made at the beginning of this essay: to formulate a theory whereby verba magically transforms res is to replace "real" social and political programs based on empirical fact and the universal need for civil rights in this world with esoteric speculation. Therefore it is also our job as teachers not to regard the classroom and/or the interpretation of literature as the ersatz means of "empowerment" and "liberation" in lieu of the actual mobilization of an autonomously organized youth and labor force. Perhaps the best way to further the goal of realizing a true democracy is not to confuse the classroom with the democratic politics that is shaped through the work of millions of people. Perhaps the best way for us to further democratic goals is to encourage the learning of methods that can verify facts to build our understanding not just of literature but of the world we inhabit. In this spirit, perhaps our role is to encourage our students to turn to other fields of inquiry, not to become specialists in those fields, but to see how such research might help us better understand how homo sapiens sapiens functions universally. This is the method that promises to shed light on one of our many activities--our making of and engagement with literature.
. Emily Eakin, "The Latest Theory Is That Theory Doesn't Matter," New York Times (April 19, 2003): p. =9.
. Frederick Crews, After Poststructuralism: Interdisciplinarity and Literary Theory, eds. Nancy Easterlin and Barbar Riebling (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1993), pp. vii-x.
. Terry Eagleton, Figures of Dissent: Critical Essays on Fish, Spivak, Zizek and Others (New York: Verso, 2003), pp. 1, 160, 165.
. Patrick Colm Hogan, The Politics of Intepretation: Ideology, Professionalism, and the Study of Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 61.
. Porter H. Abbott, "Humanists, Scientists, and the Cultural Surplus," SubStance 30, nos. 1 & 2 (2001): p. 204.
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Frederick Luis Aldama. Review of McGowan, John, Democracy's Children: Intellectuals and the Rise of Cultural Politics.
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