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Cultural Marxism is Real

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, The Academy, Western Philosophy on March 27, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

Samuel Moyn, a Yale law professor, recently asked, “What is ‘cultural Marxism?’” His answer: “Nothing of the kind actually exists.” Moyn attributes the term cultural Marxism to the “runaway alt-right imagination,” claiming that it implicates zany conspiracy theories and has been “percolating for years through global sewers of hatred.”

Alexander Zubatov, an attorney writing in Tabletcountered that the “somewhat unclear and contested” term cultural Marxism “has been in circulation for over forty years.” It has, moreover, “perfectly respectable uses outside the dark, dank silos of the far right.” He concluded that cultural Marxism is neither a “conspiracy” nor a “mere right-wing ‘phantasmagoria,’” but a “coherent intellectual program, a constellation of dangerous ideas.”

In this debate, I side with Zubatov.  Here’s why.

Despite the bewildering range of controversies and meanings attributed to it, cultural Marxism (the term and the movement) has a deep, complex history in Theory. The word “Theory” (with a capital T) is the general heading for research within the interpretative branches of the humanities known as cultural and critical studies, literary criticism, and literary theory—each of which includes a variety of approaches from the phenomenological to the psychoanalytic. In the United States, Theory is commonly taught and applied in English departments, although its influence is discernable throughout the humanities.

A brief genealogy of different schools of Theory—which originated outside English departments, among philosophers and sociologists for example, but became part of English departments’ core curricula—shows not only that cultural Marxism is a nameable, describable phenomenon, but also that it proliferates beyond the academy.

Scholars versed in Theory are reasonably suspicious of crude, tendentious portrayals of their field. Nevertheless, these fields retain elements of Marxism that, in my view, require heightened and sustained scrutiny. Given estimates that communism killed over 100 million people, we must openly and honestly discuss those currents of Marxism that run through different modes of interpretation and schools of thought. To avoid complicity, moreover, we must ask whether and why Marxist ideas, however attenuated, still motivate leading scholars and spread into the broader culture.

English departments sprang up in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, ushering in increasingly professionalized studies of literature and other forms of aesthetic expression. As English became a distinct university discipline with its own curriculum, it moved away from the study of British literature and canonical works of the Western tradition in translation, and toward the philosophies that guide textual interpretation.

Although a short, sweeping survey of what followed may not satisfy those in the field, it provides others with the relevant background.

The New Criticism

The first major school to establish itself in English departments was the New Criticism. Its counterpart was Russian formalism, characterized by figures like Victor Shklovsky and Roman Jakobson, who attempted to distinguish literary texts from other texts, examining what qualities made written representations poetic, compelling, original, or moving rather than merely practical or utilitarian.

One such quality was defamiliarization. Literature, in other words, defamiliarizes language by using sound, syntax, metaphor, alliteration, assonance, and other rhetorical devices.

The New Criticism, which was chiefly pedagogical, emphasized close reading, maintaining that readers searching for meaning must isolate the text under consideration from externalities like authorial intent, biography, or historical context. This method is similar to legal textualism whereby judges look strictly at the language of a statute, not to legislative history or intent, to interpret the import or meaning of that statute. The New Critics coined the term “intentional fallacy” to refer to the search for the meaning of a text anywhere but in the text itself. The New Criticism is associated with John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, I. A. Richards, and T.S. Eliot. In a way, all subsequent schools of Theory are responses or reactions to the New Criticism.

Structuralism and Post-Structuralism

Structuralism permeated French intellectual circles in the 1960s. Through structuralism, thinkers like Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, and Louis Althusser imported leftist politics into the study of literary texts. Structuralism is rooted in the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist who observed how linguistic signs become differentiated within a system of language. When we say or write something, we do it according to rules and conventions in which our anticipated audience also operates. The implied order we use and communicate in is the “structure” referred to in structuralism.

The French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss extended Saussure’s ideas about the linguistic sign to culture, arguing that the beliefs, values, and characteristic features of a social group function according to a set of tacitly known rules. These structures are “discourse,” a term that encompasses cultural norms and not just language practices.

Out of structuralism and post-structuralism emerged Structural Marxism, a school of thought linked to Althusser that analyzes the role of the state in perpetuating the dominance of the ruling class, the capitalists.

Marxism and Neo-Marxism

In the 1930s and 1940s, the Frankfurt School popularized the type of work usually labeled as “cultural Marxism.” Figures involved or associated with this school include Erich Fromm, Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin. These men revised, repurposed, and extended classical Marxism by emphasizing culture and ideology, incorporating insights from emerging fields such as psychoanalysis, and researching the rise of mass media and mass culture.

Dissatisfied with economic determinism and the illusory coherence of historical materialism—and jaded by the failures of socialist and communist governments—these thinkers retooled Marxist tactics and premises in their own ways without entirely repudiating Marxist designs or ambitions.

Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, scholars like Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson were explicit in embracing Marxism. They rejected the New Critical approaches that divorced literature from culture, stressing that literature reflected class and economic interest, social and political structures, and power. Accordingly, they considered how literary texts reproduced (or undermined) cultural or economic structures and conditions.

Slavoj Žižek arguably has done more than any member of the Frankfurt School to integrate psychoanalysis into Marxist variants. “Žižek’s scholarship holds a particularly high place within cultural criticism that seeks to account for the intersections between psychoanalysis and Marxism,” wrote the scholar Erin Labbie.[1] She added, “Žižek’s prolific writings about ideology, revealing the relationships between psychoanalysis and Marxism, have altered the way in which literary and cultural criticism is approached and accomplished to the extent that most scholars can no longer hold tightly to the former notion that the two fields are at odds.”[2] Žižek is just one among many continental philosophers whose Marxist and Marxist-inflected prognostications command the attention of American academics. 

Deconstruction

Jacques Derrida is recognized as the founder of deconstruction. He borrowed from Saussure’s theory that the meaning of a linguistic sign depends on its relation to its opposite, or to things from which it differs. For instance, the meaning of male depends on the meaning of female; the meaning of happy depends on the meaning of sad; and so forth. Thus, the theoretical difference between two opposing terms, or binaries, unites them in our consciousness. And one binary is privileged while the other is devalued. For example, “beautiful” is privileged over “ugly,” and “good” over “bad.”

The result is a hierarchy of binaries that are contextually or arbitrarily dependent, according to Derrida, and cannot be fixed or definite across time and space. That is because meaning exists in a state of flux, never becoming part of an object or idea.

Derrida himself, having re-read The Communist Manifesto, recognized the “spectral” furtherance of a “spirit” of Marx and Marxism.[3] Although Derrida’s so-called “hauntology” precludes the messianic meta-narratives of unfulfilled Marxism, commentators have salvaged from Derrida a modified Marxism for the climate of today’s “late capitalism.”

Derrida used the term diffèrance to describe the elusive process humans use to attach meaning to arbitrary signs, even if signs—the codes and grammatical structures of communication—cannot adequately represent an actual object or idea in reality. Derrida’s theories had a broad impact that enabled him and his followers to consider linguistic signs and the concepts created by those signs, many of which were central to the Western tradition and Western culture. For example, Derrida’s critique of logocentrism contests nearly all philosophical foundations deriving from Athens and Jerusalem. 

New Historicism

New Historicism, a multifaceted enterprise, is associated with Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt. It looks at historical forces and conditions with a structuralist and post-structuralist eye, treating literary texts as both products of and contributors to discourse and discursive communities. It is founded on the idea that literature and art circulate through discourse and inform and destabilize cultural norms and institutions.

New historicists explore how literary representations reinforce power structures or work against entrenched privilege, extrapolating from Foucault’s paradox that power grows when it is subverted because it is able to reassert itself over the subversive person or act in a show of power. Marxism and materialism often surface when new historicists seek to highlight texts and authors (or literary scenes and characters) in terms of their effects on culture, class, and power. New historicists focus on low-class or marginalized figures, supplying them with a voice or agency and giving them overdue attention. This political reclamation, while purporting to provide context, nevertheless risks projecting contemporary concerns onto works that are situated in a particular culture and historical moment.

In the words of literary critic Paul Cantor, “There is a difference between political approaches to literature and politicized approaches, that is, between those that rightly take into account the centrality of political concerns in many literary classics and those that willfully seek to reinterpret and virtually recreate class works in light of contemporary political agendas.”[4]

Cultural Marxism Is Real

Much of the outcry about cultural Marxism is outrageous, uninformed, and conspiratorial. Some of it simplifies, ignores, or downplays the fissures and tensions among leftist groups and ideas. Cultural Marxism cannot be reduced, for instance, to “political correctness” or “identity politics.” (I recommend Andrew Lynn’s short piece “Cultural Marxism” in the Fall 2018 issue of The Hedgehog Review for a concise critique of sloppy and paranoid treatments of cultural Marxism.)

Nevertheless, Marxism pervades Theory, despite the competition among the several ideas under that broad label. Sometimes this Marxism is self-evident; at other times, it’s residual and implied. At any rate, it has attained a distinct but evolving character as literary scholars have reworked classical Marxism to account for the relation of literature and culture to class, power, and discourse.

Feminism, gender studies, critical race theory, post-colonialism, disability studies—these and other disciplines routinely get pulled through one or more of the theoretical paradigms I’ve outlined. The fact that they’re guided by Marxism or adopt Marxist terms and concepts, however, does not make them off-limits or unworthy of attention.

Which brings me to a warning: Condemning these ideas as forbidden, as dangers that corrupt young minds, might have unintended consequences. Marxist spinoffs must be studied to be comprehensively understood. Don’t remove them from the curriculum: contextualize them, challenge them, and question them. Don’t reify their power by ignoring or neglecting them.

Popular iterations of cultural Marxism reveal themselves in the casual use of terms like “privilege,” “alienation,” “commodification,” “fetishism,” “materialism,” “hegemony,” or “superstructure.” As Zubatov wrote for Tablet, “It is a short step from Gramsci’s ‘hegemony’ to the now-ubiquitous toxic memes of ‘patriarchy,’ ‘heteronormativity,’ ‘white supremacy,’ ‘white privilege,’ ‘white fragility,’ ‘and whiteness.’” He adds, “It is a short step from the Marxist and cultural Marxist premise that ideas are, at their core, expressions of power to rampant, divisive identity politics and the routine judging of people and their cultural contributions based on their race, gender, sexuality and religion.”

My brief summary is merely the simplified, approximate version of a much larger and more complex story, but it orients curious readers who wish to learn more about cultural Marxism in literary studies. Today, English departments suffer from the lack of a clearly defined mission, purpose, and identity. Having lost rigor in favor of leftist politics as their chief end of study, English departments at many universities are jeopardized by the renewed emphasis on practical skills and jobs training. Just as English departments replaced religion and classics departments as the principal places to study culture, so too could future departments or schools replace English departments.

And those places may not tolerate political agitations posturing as pedagogical technique.

The point, however, is that cultural Marxism exists. It has a history, followers, adherents, and left a perceptible mark on academic subjects and lines of inquiry. Moyn may wish it out of existence, or dismiss it as a bogeyman, but it is real. We must know its effects on society, and in what forms it materializes in our culture. Moyn’s intemperate polemic demonstrates, in fact, the urgency and importance of examining cultural Marxism, rather than closing our eyes to its meaning, properties, and significance.

 

[1] Erin F. Labbie, “Žižek Avec Lacan: Splitting the Dialectics of Desire,” Slovene Studies, Vol. 25 (2003), p. 23.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx (Peggy Kamuf, trans.) (New York and London: Routledge, 1994), p. 3-4.

[4] Paul Cantor, “Shakespeare—‘For all time’?” The Public Interest, Issue 110 (1993), p. 35.

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Students, Keep an Open Mind and Humble Heart in College

In Academia, Communication, Humanities, Pedagogy, Teaching on January 2, 2019 at 6:45 am

What the new Carnegie classifications mean for Alabama universities

In Academia, Scholarship, The Academy on December 19, 2018 at 6:45 am

This article originally appeared here in the Alabama Political Reporter.

The new Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education is out. Once operated by the Carnegie Foundation, the so-called “Carnegie classifications” are now run by the School of Education at Indiana University.

The classifications are by university type or category: doctoral universities, master’s colleges and universities, baccalaureate colleges, baccalaureate / associate colleges, associate’s colleges, special focus institutions, and tribal universities. When you hear people refer to the coveted R-1 status, they’re referring to a sub-classification within the “doctoral universities” category, which until this year trifurcated into “highest research activity” (R-1), “higher research activity” (R-2), and “moderate research activity” (R-3).

Under this taxonomy, Auburn, Alabama, UAB, and UAH were classified as “Doctoral Universities,” whereas Troy, Samford, Faulkner, Montevallo, and Alabama State were classified as “Master’s Colleges & Universities.” Huntingdon, Stillman, Tuskegee, and Talladega were designated “Baccalaureate Colleges.”

The many universities in Alabama fall into different classifications.  I have mentioned only a few universities not to suggest favor or quality, but to illustrate the spectrum of classification possibilities.

Not long ago, I wrote that “Carnegie should drop the phrases ‘highest research activity,’ higher research activity,’ and ‘moderate research activity’ that accompany the R-1, R-2, and R-3 label because they are misleading: the Carnegie rankings do not measure research activity but research expenditure.” Carnegie has corrected this flaw to some extent, relabeling its R-1 and R-2 categories as “Very high research activity” and “High research activity,” respectively—thereby eliminating the “er” and “est” suffixes (in “higher” and “highest”) that indicated the comparative and superlative degree (i.e., that made certain universities sound better than others).

So where do Alabama universities fall in the new 2018 classifications?  

Auburn, Alabama, and UAB are the only Alabama universities in the R-1 category. UAH is an R-2. Troy, Faulkner, Montevallo, and Alabama State remain “Master’s Colleges & Universities.” Tuskegee entered that category. Samford is now classified under the heading “Doctoral / Professional Universities” that did not exist in earlier classifications. This category accounts for professional-practice degrees like juris doctorates or medical degrees.

Huntington, Stillman, and Talladega remain “Baccalaureate Colleges.”

If you’re curious about the classification of your alma mater or favorite Alabama university, you can search the listings here.

It would be a mistake to treat these classifications as a hierarchal ranking of quality.  They are, rather, descriptive differentiations that inform the public about the size and spending of universities. The only category in which universities receive something like a vertical ranking is “Doctoral Universities,” which tier universities according to their alleged “research activity.”

Eric Kelderman points out that “critics wonder whether going for more research money and a higher Carnegie classification really has more to do with elevating institutional image, and comes at the expense of academic quality—particularly for undergraduates.” This is a profound concern.

The Carnegie classifications could incentivize malinvestment in doctoral degrees and number of faculty members. The job market for humanities faculty is shrinking while the number of humanities doctorates is rising, but to achieve their desired Carnegie classifications, universities continue to churn out humanities Ph.Ds. who have diminishing chances of landing tenure-track positions.

The Carnegie classifications don’t measure research quality, either. One university could spend millions on research with negligible outcomes while another could spend little on research yet yield high-quality, groundbreaking scholarship.

The Carnegie classifications are not perfect, but they command attention among administrators in higher education and can involve public funds. For that reason alone, anyone who has a stake or interest in a university in Alabama should pay attention too.

John William Corrington on Gnosticism and Modern Thought

In Academia, American History, Arts & Letters, Books, Christianity, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literature, Philosophy, Religion, Scholarship, Southern History, The Academy, The South, Western Philosophy on December 12, 2018 at 6:45 am

Corrington delivered “Gnosticism and Modern Thought” as a lecture at a conference on Gnosticism (“Gnosticism and Modernity”) held at Vanderbilt University on April 27-29, 1978. The original version of this essay, located in the archives at Centenary College, consists of a typed document with handwritten pages at the end. An edited version of this essay appears in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the book-cover image below.

Corrington opens the essay with a reference to Nick Adams, a character from a short story by Ernest Hemingway who has established for himself an alternate, deformed sense of reality—a Second Reality—whereby he orders his experience. Corrington likens this Second Reality to the structure of consciousness accepted and propagated by Gnosticism. Corrington argues that the Gnostic acceptance of a false reality brought about an embrace of magic and fantasy, both of which the Gnostics used to order their social and political experience.

This perceived form of order is, in fact, disorder. Gnosticism is manifest in modern political movements, Corrington suggests, and it renews and reuses certain symbols to describe the nature of the world. It premises itself, moreover, on assumptions about the divine ability of man to achieve a unified, monistic, salvational telos on earth.

Gnosticism, which is part of an irrepressible drive for the divine that is common to each psyche, has a coherent ideational, narrative structure that makes its symbology appealing and plausible. Gnosticism is a symptom of the desire to achieve the symbolic return to the womb, a representation of paradise in which unity and perfection and order are attained. The Gnostic thus seeks to realize in the concrete world, by way of magic and other breaks from reality, the supposedly ultimate and eternal state in which pure, transcendent unity and monism are instantiated.

Corrington sees Gnosticism in the scientism of the modern era. If metaxy represents the proper understanding of the place of man and the divine on earth, the Second Reality, which the Gnostic chooses over metaxy, is a distorted teleological worldview. Corrington submits that more would be known about modern Gnostic tendencies in the form of ideology if there were not a breakdown of the disciplines into such compartments as history, science, political science, theology, psychology, and so on.

John William Corrington on the Structure of Gnostic Consciousness

In Academia, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Christianity, Essays, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Scholarship, Southern History, The Academy, The South, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 5, 2018 at 6:45 am

John William Corrington wrote the essay “The Structure of Gnostic Consciousness” around the time he delivered his paper “Gnosticism and Modern Thought: A Way You’ll Never Be” at a conference titled “Gnosticism and Modernity,” held at Vanderbilt University on April 27-29, 1978.

“The Structure of Gnostic Consciousness” developed out “Gnosticism and Modern Thought” as a contribution that Corrington prepared for an edition that he and Richard Bishirjian were planning to publish after the Vanderbilt conference. The edition was never published because, according to Bishirjian, some of the contributors did not want to be associated with Mel Bradford, who was contributing a chapter to the book.

Corrington was involved in organizing the 1978 conference with Bishirjian and Eric Voegelin. Bishirjian would later relate that Voegelin considered Corrington’s paper to be the best that weekend. Among those participating in the conference was the literary critic Cleanth Brooks. Ellis Sandoz and Mel Bradford were also in attendance; Bradford delivered a paper and Sandoz moderated a panel.

“The Structure of  Gnostic Consciousness” in some ways summarizes Corrington’s philosophical interpretations of Gnosticism, political order, consciousness, myth, symbolism, the psyche, and knowledge. Corrington criticizes Gnosticism for failing to deal with reality as it is constituted in consciousness. The collapse of the Gnostic understanding of reality leads to disorder and confusion and the embrace of such things as magic that are at odds with a symbolic order emanating from a sound understanding of reality apprehended through consciousness. The Gnostic failure to comprehend reality generates delusional, ahistorical assumptions about the divinity of man and the ability of man to bring about a heaven on earth within history. Marxism is an example of a type of modern thinking that displays Gnostic elements.

The Gnostics felt alienated by and disenchanted with the cosmos as it exists in reality; they hated the real cosmos and remade it in the image of distorted, mythopoetic concepts whose symbology of disorder is mistaken for order. To achieve gnosis, or knowledge, is actually to accept a wrong and archaic mode of mythopoetic thought whereby magic is possible rather than beyond the realm of reality. This form of gnosis is attributable to Simon the Sorcerer or Simon the Magician, the Gnostic leader who is recounted briefly in the canonical Book of Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament.

Corrington discusses the work of the twelfth century mystic Joachim of Fiore, who exposited a millenarian view of history that influenced modern symbolic systems and consciousness which, according to Corrington, represent a divorce from earlier types of mythopoetic thinking. Joachim of Fiore rearticulated a Gnostic vision of earth and the cosmos, projecting eschatological salvation onto the concrete activities in which we are immersed and seeking to realize a heaven on earth within history. His notion of consciousness rendered a conceptual end to history, a fantasy in which the real is lost to a deformed system of symbolism whereby the natural desires of the psyche are satisfied by a false eschatology.

“The Structure of Gnostic Consciousness” has been printed in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the image below:

Focus on Reining in the American Bar Association

In Academia, higher education, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, Politics, university on December 3, 2018 at 9:25 am

This post originally appeared here at the blog of the National Association of Scholars.

What the 2018 Election Means for Higher Education

When the 116th Congress is seated in January, political control will be divided, with Democrats holding a majority in the House and Republicans in the Senate. What does this mean for higher education? We asked a few NAS members to weigh in.

What does the 2018 election portend for higher education?  The question might be reframed this way: having lost their majority in the House of Representatives, what can Republican lawmakers expect to accomplish in the field of higher education between 2018 and 2020? The answer, in short, is “not much.”  So long, for now, to the PROSPER Act and the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Perhaps with some experience in Congress, however, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will learn what makes up our three branches of government—a minor gain for education in this country, but a gain nonetheless.

One promising development involves the Department of Education’s proposed Title IX guidelines that would amend rules regarding sexual-assault adjudications on college campuses to restore certain due-process rights of the accused. These guidelines have now entered a 60-day period of public comment; if they are adopted, they will go into effect in 2020.

Will Betsy DeVos remain the Secretary of the Department of Education through 2020?  Given the number of dismissals and resignations among President Donald Trump’s political appointees, the question is worth asking.  And if DeVos is out, who is in?  President Trump reportedly offered the job to Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, before approaching DeVos.  Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College, was allegedly in the running as well.  But would leaders of this stature and reputation give up the success they enjoy at their present institutions to take a position they might hold for no more than a year?  Not likely.

If I had one suggestion for the Department of Education going forward, it would be to strip the American Bar Association of its accreditation authority over law schools, leaving state supreme courts and state bar associations to determine whether graduates of any given law school may sit for the bar examination in their state. This move would require pressure from law schools, state legislators, and state supreme courts. It could unite conservatives and progressives in common cause. As I have stated elsewhere, “In this period of political rancor, reining in the ABA should appeal to both the Left and the Right, the former on grounds of racial diversity and fundamental fairness and the latter on grounds of decentralization and economic freedom.” There’s much more to say about this issue (see, e.g., here). My hope is that it becomes part of the national conversation.

John William Corrington on a Rebirth of Philosophical Thought

In Academia, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Essays, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Religion, Southern History, Writing on November 21, 2018 at 6:45 am

“A Rebirth of Philosophical Thought” is an essay by John William Corrington that appeared in The Southern Review in 1984. It opens by discussing the connection between Louisiana State University and Eric Voegelin and addresses the efforts of Voegelin and Ellis Sandoz to bring about a “rebirth” in philosophical thought, namely in premodern, mythopoetic forms of philosophizing.

Corrington calls Voegelin’s thought “an argument directed to the reader as spoudaios, the mature human being who, if he is capable of theoria, self-reflection, will be able to reconstitute in his own psyche the substance of what Voegelin has experienced in recollection from a past rendered opaque for most of us by some five hundred years of cultural destruction.”

For both Voegelin and Corrington, Nazism, Marxism, fascism, communism, and other totalizing ideologies of the twentieth century were the result of disordered philosophy and the divorce of modern thinking from its premodern antecedents for which humans had an innate longing, but from which they were alienated by modernity.

“A Rebirth of Philosophical Thought” provides helpful summaries of Voegelin’s most definitive theories, including his belief that modern disorder reveals symptoms of latent Gnosticism that has undergone dramatic but gradual change in light of the rise of Pauline Christianity with its various Greek influences.

“A Rebirth of Philosophical Thought” has been printed in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the image below:

Review of Amy Chua’s Political Tribes

In Academia, America, American History, Arts & Letters, Books, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Politics, Scholarship on November 14, 2018 at 6:45 am

This review originally appeared in Academic Questions. 

Amy Chua, known both affectionately and derogatively as “Tiger Mom” after her highly acclaimed Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011), is a law professor at Yale Law School and an expert on globalization and international business transactions. She has the impeccable credentials of the typical law professor: Harvard University, Harvard Law School, clerkship with a federal appellate judge, and private practice experience at a Wall Street law firm. Her first book, World On Fire, coined the term “market-dominant minorities” to refer to “ethnic minorities who, for widely varying reasons, tend under market conditions to dominate economically, often to a startling extent, the ‘indigenous’ majorities around them.”[1] Certain minority populations, this theory runs, exert disproportionate control over their regional economy, fomenting in the process group backlash, resentment, and tribalism among those impoverished majorities who feel disenfranchised or marginalized.

The theme of market-dominant minorities underlies Chua’s latest book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, which examines domestic identity politics and the effects of foreign identity politics on U.S. foreign policy. Chua’s focus on tribalism, that instinctual tendency of humans to associate around shared norms, values, histories, customs, and traditions, holds together what feels like two different arguments: the one about culture at home and the other about foreign policy.

The less original of the two involves foreign policy. Five of Chua’s eight chapters can be reasonably reduced to a simple conclusion: American military intervention and capitalism did not succeed in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela, and elsewhere because they were predicated on ideals that did not square with local, on-the-ground realities. In short, American values could not be universalized; presuming their viability in complex ethnic or tribal conflicts abroad led to disastrous consequences. Although she doesn’t cite him, her theme seems Hayekian: faraway experts cannot rationally design workable systems for the particular circumstances that are intelligible only to those with native knowledge.

Chua’s account of domestic tribalism and identity politics, on the other hand, is premised on the claim that America, historically, has been a “super-group.” A super-group is characterized by membership that “is open to individuals from all different backgrounds—ethnic, religious, racial, cultural.” Moreover, “a super-group does not require its members to shed or suppress their subgroup identities.” Rather, “it allows those subgroup identities to thrive, even as individuals are bound together by a strong, overarching collective identity” (12).

Tribalism, Chua submits, is spreading throughout the United States, dividing people by racial and class identities. When people identify with and as groups, she argues, they see themselves as victims and respond to perceived threats by retreating into insularity, defensiveness, and punitiveness. Elites, as a tribe, disdain “the provincial, the plebian, [and] the patriotic.” By contrast, “many ordinary Americans have come to view the elite as a distant minority controlling the levers of power from afar, ignorant about and uninterested in ‘real’ Americans” (6-7).

Chua alleges that the United States has split into the “haves” and “have-nots,” recognizable categories that are nevertheless crude. Although she describes several examples of groups that fall within these categories, her central concern is the difference between the progressive, elite, activist haves and the populist, patriotic have nots. The former purport to speak for marginalized, underclass groups without actually including those groups as members. The latter embraces the prosperity gospel and watches NASCAR and WWE. The haves and have nots, in this cartoonish illustration, represent “America’s two white tribes,” which have, she believes, turned against each other.

Chua seems correct about the alienation of white America in light of rapidly changing demographics and cultural norms. “For tens of millions of white Americans today,” she says, “mainstream popular culture displays an un-Christian, minority-glorifying, LGBTQ America they can’t and don’t want to recognize as their country—an America that seems to exclude them, to treat them as the enemy” (173). Yet Chua is off-base in assuming that the United States is or ever was a super-group, let alone “the only [super-group] among the major powers of the world.” She states: “We have forged a national identity that transcends tribal politics—an identity that does not belong to any subgroup, that is strong and capacious enough to hold together an incredibly diverse population, making us all American” (166). Her fear is that tribalism will cause America to lose “who we are.”

But who are “we”? Citizens of the United States? People who live within the territorial boundaries of the United States? People whose ancestors came from—where? She never clarifies. Are “we” unifying or coming apart the more diverse we become in terms of culture, religion, race, national origin, and so forth? Is it really an identity that holds us together? What about our Constitution, which, in the words of Albert Jay Nock, “recognizes no political boundaries, no distinctions of race or nation” in that “our allegiance to it takes precedence over every local or personal interest.”[2]

The fact is that America—both the idea and the geographical territory—has never truly been open to the kind of all-inclusive, harmonious diversity that Chua celebrates. The growing cultural chasm between New England and the South during the eighteenth century does not seem to have transcended tribal politics. The economy of the yeoman farmer and eventually the plantation system with its chattel slavery in the nineteenth-century agricultural south stood in stark contrast to the busy industry of New England. During the Civil War, southerners in the Confederate States of America would not have identified as American while retaining a “sub-group” identity.

There are many Americas. The history of the United States consists of numerous conflicts over which and whose version of America should prevail. It’s true, of course, that the United States has enjoyed, to some extent, an “ethnicity-transcending national identity and . . . unusual success in assimilating people from diverse origins,” at least if the total number of immigrants and the fact that many of them do feel part of a larger America are any indication. But the existence of the National Origins Formula, in effect from 1921 to 1965, and the immigrant exclusion laws (e.g., the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882) suggest that the United States has, at times, been at least equally committed to keeping certain immigrants out of the country.

Treatment of immigrants in the United States has differed in kind and degree from region to region, city to city, and decade to decade. Thus, to purport that America has maintained some uniform and constant attitude towards immigrants, immigration, cultural multiplicity, ethnic minorities, and religious variety is mistaken. The United States may have been comparatively better than other nations at instituting welcoming, tolerant laws and policies regarding immigrants, but it has, for better or worse, always been tribal. In other words, tribalism in this country is not a new problem necessitating sudden panic.

Chua seems to recognize this weakness in her case, acknowledging that “American politics have always been identity politics.” She adds: “If we define ‘identity politics broadly, to include cultural and social movements based on group identities, then slavery and Jim Crow were forms of identity politics for white Americans, just as the suffragette movement at the turn of the twentieth century was for women.” If that’s true, then what’s so dangerously different now? How could she imply that things have gotten worse than they were during the Jim Crow Era? Her response: “[A]t different times in the past, both the American Left and the American Right have stood for group-transcending values. Neither does today” (22).

One problem with this blanket assertion is what it doesn’t say, namely that those group-transcending values that have existed in certain periods were never identical or homogenous across the United States, never part of a consistent narrative with which large swaths of the American population would agree. The imaginary utopian super-group America that Chua promotes and envisions is the product of myth. She recalls the airy, exhilarating rhetoric of the honorable St. Jean de Crèvecœur, a French liberal aristocrat enthused by the democratic possibility inspired by the New World. Yet Crèvecœur’s sentimentality was time bound, reflecting the Enlightenment excitement and optimistic mood out of which sprang the myth of the American Dream. The United States, however, has never been “a group in which membership is open to individuals of any background but that at the same time binds its members together with a strong, overarching, group-transcending collective identity.”

Myths express narrative truths about ourselves that we tell ourselves and others. The population of the United States has grown steadily and rapidly since the Founding era due to immigration, among other factors. Chua asserts that, “[o]ver the centuries, through the alchemy of markets, democracy, intermarriage, and individualism, America has been uniquely successful in attracting and assimilating diverse populations,” and that “the United States has always been one of the most ethnically and religiously open countries in the world.” She’s accurate by the measure of overall immigrant population and by the nature of our immigration laws in some respects during some periods. To be uniquely successful, however, is not to be fully or even consistently successful.

Perhaps the most unifying idea behind America, the sentiment that more than others achieved national solidarity, involved antimonarchy; for to become American has not required proof of bloodline, feudal hierarchy, or title. Still, for most of our nation’s history, immigration has originated from European nations, where monarchy was slow to dissolve and still exists in residual forms. And if you wanted to climb the social ladder, it didn’t hurt to belong to certain families: the Adamses, the Quincys, the Appletons, the Harrisons, the Cabots, the Lodges, the Roosevelts, the Holmeses, the Thayers, the Coolidges, the Rockefellers, the Peabodys, the Kennedys, the Bushes. America has lacked kings and queens, but it has erected de facto aristocracies.

The linguistic history of the United States might lend substance to Chua’s thesis about anti-tribalism and the possibility of immigrant incorporation into American civic life. Early America was a polyglot society, but the United States did not become a polylingual nation. In the contest for primacy among native dialects—Spanish in Florida and the southwest, French in Louisiana, Dutch in New York, German in Pennsylvania, and the multiple languages of immigrants from China or Japan, Italy or South America—English won out as the common tongue. Yet Chua isn’t talking about language when she extols America the super-group; she ignores arguably the most important corroborating evidence that supports her premise.

Chua sounds, in her anti-tribalism, more like a sanctimonious Barack Obama than our Founding Fathers. Obama’s 2016 speech to the Democratic National convention cast then-candidate Donald Trump, and by implication his supporters, as un-American. “[T]hat is not the America I know,” Obama said of Trump’s speech to the Republican National Convention the week before.[3] He continued:

 

The America I know is decent and generous . . . I see Americans of every party, every background, every faith who believe that we are stronger together—black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American; young, old; gay, straight; men, women, folks with disabilities, all pledging allegiance, under the same proud flag, to this big, bold country that we love. That’s the America I know![4]

 

This America that Obama knows was not known by George Washington, John Adams, or Thomas Jefferson. But what of Hamilton, the musical-inspiring “immigrant” from the British West Indies, who rose through the military ranks in service to Washington, eventually becoming a prominent Founding Father? He asserted that

 

foreigners will generally be apt to bring with them attachments to the persons they have left behind; to the country of their nativity, and to its particular customs and manners . . . The influx of foreigners must, therefore, tend to produce a heterogeneous compound; to change and corrupt the national spirit; to complicate and confound public opinion; to introduce foreign propensities.[5]

 

Hamilton’s conclusion? “The United States has already felt the evils of incorporating a large number of foreigners into their national mass; it has served very much to divide the community and to distract our councils, by promoting in different classes different predilections in favor of particular foreign nations, and antipathies against others.”[6] So Hamilton was a tribalist and nativist, after all.

What of the enlightened, homespun, and cosmopolitan Benjamin Franklin? He declared that

 

the number of white people in the world is proportionably [sic] very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians, and Swedes are generally of what we call a swarthy complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English make the principal boy of white people on the face of the earth. I could wish their numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, scouring our planet, by clearing America of woods, and so making this side of our globe reflect a brighter light to the eyes of inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the sight of superior beings, darken its people? why increase the sons of Africa, by planting them in America, where we have so fair an opportunity, by excluding all blacks and tawneys, of increasing the lovely white and red? But perhaps I am partial to the complexion of my Country, for such kind of partiality is natural to Mankind.[7]

 

Turns out Franklin was tribalist and nativist as well.

The super-group representation of America proclaimed by Obama and Chua is attributable to only a sliver of American history in the late twentieth century. It was after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in Chua’s view, when “America underwent [a] profound transformation: from a multiethnic nation into something even more unusual: a super-group” (27). But is it proper and anthropologically sound to define America by what amounts to around 22 percent of its history since 1776?  Doing so could be a reason why some white Americans have, in Chua’s words, asserted “ownership of the country’s past” with a tribal attitude: “We built this land of opportunity and invited you in, and now we’re being demonized for its imperfections.

Myths idealize and romanticize truth, blurring the lines between fiction and reality. As a scholar, Chua ought to be in the business of ferreting out the truth rather than distorting or glossing over it through mythmaking. She applauds the inclusiveness of America as a super-group without acknowledging the ironic implication that, a fortiori, those who disagree with her are wrong about their definition of America. Of valid conceptions of America that might seem tribal, or at least out of key with her postwar liberal revivalism, she has nothing favorable to say. She therefore opens herself up to criticism that will only compound rather than mitigate the tribalism she seeks to abate.

Chua betrays her own thesis: From a position of supposed authority, she presumes knowledge about the way ordinary people in the United States think about their country. She thereby reveals her own tribalism, to which she seems blind, and unwittingly presents herself as a member of the elite tribe that she so decries. With the wave of a hand, she lumps Americans into two undesirable categories, the haves and have nots, never taking the time to explain whether and how these categories are permeable or inadequately representative of a diverse population with distinct experiences.

Despite her intended message of peaceable inclusivism, Chua might be  misinterpreted as  insisting that newcomers, local communities, and regional cultures give up their customs and traditions and embrace the assimilationist experiment that she portrays  as essential to American identity. She says, for instance, “we need to collectively find a national identity capacious enough to resonate with, and hold together as one people, Americans of all sorts—old and young, immigrant and native born, urban and rural, descendants of slaves as well as descendants of slave owners” (203).  This is a beautiful but quixotic proposal, one that could require groups to abandon positions that are integral to their identity and Weltanschauung.

Chua’s proposal also  raises questions about how much coercion she believes to be justified to stamp out opposition or dissent in the name of absolute inclusion. What reasonable thinker would in good faith disagree that  “what is needed is one-on-one human engagement” (201), or that “[w]hen people from different tribes see one another as human beings who at the end of the day want the same things—kindness, dignity, security for loved ones—hearts can change” (202)? The problem, of course, is translating that compassionate sentiment into official policy through government or institutions. People cannot be forced to love each other.

Anti-tribalism is tribal, i.e., a view embraced by certain elite groups in America without regard to the perspective of many ordinary Americans. Political Tribes suggests, therefore, that Chua is part of the problem: her type of tribalism is acceptable, others are not. A more convincing plea would acknowledge that the breezy cosmopolitanism Chua prefers is not accessible to all, and offer a more nuanced depiction of “Americanness” and its multiplicities.

 

[1] Amy Chua, World On Fire (First Anchor Books, 2014), p. 6.

[2] Albert Jay Nock, The Theory of Education in the United States (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1932), 1.

[3] Full text of Barack Obama’s speech available in the Los Angeles Times: http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-obama-2016-convention-speech-transcript-20160727-snap-story.html.

[4] “Read: President Obama’s Speech at the Democratic Convention,” NPR, July 28, 2016. https://www.npr.org/2016/07/28/487722643/read-president-obamas-speech-at-the-democratic-convention.

[5] The Papers of Alexander Hamilton: Vol. XXV July 1800 – April 1802, edited by Harold C. Syrett (Columbia University Press, 1977), 496.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Benjamin Franklin, Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, Etc. (New York Reprint: W. Abbatt, 1918), 224.

John William Corrington on the Recovery of the Humanities

In Academia, America, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Essays, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Scholarship, Southern History, Southern Literature, Western Philosophy, Writing on November 7, 2018 at 6:45 am

John William Corrington wrote two essays on the recovery of the humanities, both of which are collected in my edition of his work, The Southern Philosopher. 

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The first of these originated as a lecture for the Southern Humanities Conference in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1984. Corrington sets out in that piece to define the “humanities” and to explain why he believes they need recovering. He argues that symbolism is essential to the humanities and that symbolism has been under assault since the Enlightenment.

Corrington believes that the Enlightenment ushered in an era of scientism and materialism that led to the rise of Nazism, Marxist-Leninism, secular humanism, and logical positivism, all of which contributed to the “decerebration” of the humanities. The task of recovering the humanities, according to Corrington, involves “the need to re­examine the fundamental experiences and symbols upon which any serious notion of the Humanities must be grounded, and to question our present understanding and application of those symbols.”

Corrington undertakes this task through the paradigms of Eric Voegelin, who frames his analysis in terms of the mythopoetic thought of certain peoples and places, the role of the human psyche, and the nature of divinity and the infinite. Corrington examines the difference between psyche and physis; the former formulates mythopoetic meaning out of the data of the phenomenal world and provides the basis for our understanding of political order. By way of consciousness, the psyche comprehends and organizes logos and thereby structures our understanding of reality, including what it means to be human.

The second essay concerning the recovery of the humanities originated as a lecture at Kansas State University in 1986. It builds on the ideas in the previous essay / lecture regarding the derailment of the humanities in light of the gradual loss of noetic homonoia or sense of like-mindedness among disparate cultures with similar understandings of symbolic order.

Corrington seeks to substantiate the arguments from the previous essay / lecture by consulting T. S. Eliot’s notion of order as experienced through literary texts. Corrington suggests that Eliot’s notion of order “exists initially in the psyche of the poet-critic who represents his experience of truth by way of the symbolism of simultaneous order; it exists secondarily in the collective psyches of those who are capable of reenacting Eliot’s experience theoretically, and who find themselves, as if in Platonic dialogue with the poet, bound to admit the truth of what he says about the order—even as his work continues and extends the order.” Applying Eliot’s notion of order to classical texts, Corrington demonstrates that symbolized experience has a temporal element whereas the psyche, existing independently of any one person, is timeless.

Corrington references the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (otherwise known as the Nazi Party), various Marxist-Leninist operations, the French Academy, and the Index Libororum of the Holy Office as examples of practices and institutions that attempted to break down the ideal order that is represented in the continuity of certain canonical texts. Corrington challenges Eliot’s apparent assumption that art and literature are the proper lenses for examining symbolic order. He considers what qualities of a work make it literary as opposed to philosophical—or something else entirely. His point is not to discredit Eliot but to suggest that Eliot’s notion of order in literature is nuanced and complex.

Corrington argues that what drives human culture is “the human psyche in search of itself in the multiplicity of its forms, dimensions, and possibilities—and the loving and fearing tension within that psyche toward the divine ground.” Corrington returns to the idea that studying symbolic orders in different times and places reveals the commonalities between disparate peoples and cultures: “Whether we probe the roots of high civilizations or purportedly ‘primitive’ cultures, the result is the same: the foundations of human order are invariant: The society in question either represents itself as mirroring the order of the cosmos, the society of the gods, or expresses itself as that existential ground upon which gods and men interact with one another, the business of men and gods inextricably fused.” Understood this way, the political order of any given society can be explained as a reflection of metaxy, that state between the human and the divine whereby humans attempt to organize themselves in keeping with their beliefs about the nature of the divine and its order.

The understanding of human place in the world in relation to the divine is, according to Corrington, the humanities. Corrington critiques Eliot’s notion of an ideal order, but credits Eliot for what Eliot’s theory discloses, to wit, the organizing possibility of symbols to convey experiential realities: “Eliot’s earlier critical expression of an ideal order is thus discovered to be an inadequate but evocative symbolism which has, even as a poem might, invited us to probe the experience symbolized and rectify, through analysis of the symbolisms, the precise character of the experience.” Corrington again calls for the recovery of the humanities, not for the sake of any divisive telos or ideological goal, but instead for the unifying potential of an experiential and symbolic understanding of human purpose over time and in disparate places.

John William Corrington on the Mystery of Writing

In Academia, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, Conservatism, Creative Writing, Creativity, Essays, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Scholarship, Southern History, Southern Literature, The South, Writing on September 19, 2018 at 6:45 am

In 1985, John William Corrington delivered a lecture (“The Mystery of Writing”) at the Northwest Louisiana Writer’s Conference in Shreveport, Louisiana, his hometown. The lecture is part memoir, part commentary on writing as a craft.

Corrington explained in his lecture that he wanted to be a musician before he wanted to be a writer. He discusses his education at Centenary College and the state of popular literature at the time. He explains that he left academia because he felt disenfranchised politically in the academy, thus causing him to enter law school.

The lecture demonstrates that Corrington saw himself as a Southern author who bemoaned the state of current popular writing. He notes how his popular writing for film and television earned him money though his literary writing—novels and poetry—was not profitable.

Although he wrote for film and television, Corrington disdained those media forms and felt they did not challenge viewers intellectually, at least not in the way that literature challenged readers.

Corrington’s conservatism is evident in his emphasis on a discernible literary tradition and his disgust for the technologies that made possible his own career. His advice for his audience is that they write about what they know, just as he writes about the South; therefore, he advises his audience not to become professional writers, but to find other employment as a source for writing. His discussion of good writing as an ongoing investigation of perennial themes calls to mind the controversial notion of the literary canon as developed by Harold Bloom, Allan Bloom, John Ellis, and E. D. Hirsch.

“The Mystery of Writing” has been printed in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on the image below:

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