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e.e. in the U.S.S.R.

In America, Arts & Letters, Books, Emerson, Humanities, liberal arts, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Modernism, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics on August 25, 2022 at 6:00 am

This piece originally appeared here in Discourse Magazine.

Born in 1894, E.E. Cummings—poet, painter, playwright, novelist—is known for his innovative idioms, very unconventional punctuation and experimental forms. He is less remembered for his staunch commitment to philosophical and political individualism, in the tradition of 19th-century transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, which found its fullest expression in his opposition to the ascendent Marxism and communism of the early 20th century.

Cummings was raised by Unitarian parents around Harvard Yard (his father taught at the university) at a time when the chief modes of transportation were not yet by automobile. The ebullient young poet enjoyed his academic milieu with its residual transcendentalism. Even the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., an allegedly cold realist then serving on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, acknowledged Emerson as his inspiration and wrote about “an echo of the infinite” and “a hint of the universal law.”

An urban center for publishing and speaking and all varieties of expatiation, Cambridge, Massachusetts, was at the time home to American intellectuals such as William James, Josiah Royce and Charles Eliot Norton, as well as to the nascent pragmatism that would eclipse republicanism, Unitarianism and other New World paradigms in its importance to the identity of educated Bostonians and Harvard highbrows. Burgeoning industry generated prosperity and energetic commercialism in Boston and its surrounds. The Civil War had tempered the optimism of earlier generations, but vibrant efforts to fashion a uniquely American culture and to break free from the constraints of European customs and traditions continued to shape the growing market for newspapers and books.

In this stimulating climate, under his parents’ care, young Cummings cultivated his creative talents, especially for poetry. He entered Harvard University in 1911, published his first poem in 1912, graduated in 1915 and earned a master’s degree from Harvard in 1916. As a college student he became, according to biographer Susan Cheever, “a new man, an archetypal questioner, and with this newness would come a different kind of poetry.”

Originality was the hallmark of American writing long before Cummings. The national literature, such as it was, sought discontinuity and inventiveness. The crass humor of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), the gothic grotesqueness of Edgar Allan Poe, the bold activism of Margaret Fuller, the caustic realism of Edith Wharton, the performative independence of Henry David Thoreau, the shocking obscenity of Walt Whitman—each contributed to the paradox of the emergent American canon: its derivative novelty and mimetic resistance to outside influences.

Strictly rhyming meter and syntax in American poetry gave way to a rebellious free verse and democratic improvisation. The ostentatious vocabulary and syntactical pretensions of upper-class Europeans were not suited to rugged American prose, which—as in Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”—featured common speech, plain diction and vulgar colloquialisms. But how far could writers push boundaries? How could they transcend the inescapable past or reimagine inherited orthographies? Could language exist without recognizable precedents, rules or structures? What approaches had not been tried? What poems could satisfy the endless aspiration for American ingenuity?

Stretching the Limits

Cummings may have stretched the limits as far as they could go. His anarchic, avant-garde style signaled his rogue, rollicking individualism, which, in his view, defied the dehumanizing forces of collectivism. This is not the space to examine his extensive oeuvre or undertake close readings of his thousands of brilliant poems. Yet two acclaimed examples suffice to show the lyric distinctiveness of his curious method:

when my love comes to see me it’s

when my love comes to see me it’s
just a little like music,a
little more like curving colour(say
       against silence,or darkness….

the coming of my love emits
a wonderful smell in my mind,

you should see when i turn to find
her how my least heart-beat becomes less.
And then all her beauty is a vise

whose stilling lips murder suddenly me,

but of my corpose the tool her smile makes something
suddenly luminous and precise

—and then we are I and She….

what is that the hurdy-gurdy’s playing

[in Just-]

in Just-

spring          when the world is mud-

luscious the little

lame balloonman

whistles          far          and wee

and eddieandbill come

running from marbles and

piracies and it’s


when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer

old balloonman whistles

far          and             wee

and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and






balloonMan          whistles




In the first poem we experience a traditional theme: tender, romantic love. The second, with its evocative images, vague figures, fragmented lines and unusual, disruptive punctuation, is like the scene of an abstract painting or photograph, a rendered moment, the sounds purely imagined.

Cummings famously embraced lowercase font (or, if you prefer, infamously avoided capitalization). The spatial arrangement of this poem—large gaps between words, for instance, or the swaying effect of differing line lengths—lends the impression that the wind has blown the letters and words back and forth, together and apart, and that the ominous perspective is that of a child who is unable to articulate clearly or cogently the evanescent flurry of activity he beholds.

Emerson coined “individualism” for the American lexicon to capture the “individualisme” that Alexis de Tocqueville recorded in the early 1830s in his observations while touring the United States. The individualism that Cummings developed was more than merely a youthful sense of bravado and self-importance that would moderate as his testosterone receded with age. It was deep-seated, rational and enduring—in a word, Emersonian.

Mentor. Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1857. Image Credit: Josiah Johnson Hawes/Wikimedia Commons

Lasting beliefs earn staying power through lived experience; trying circumstances force people to validate or renounce their convictions. Two pressing events reinforced Cummings’ individualism, which he exposited with an ever-maturing understanding of the dangers of totalitarianism.

One was his detainment during World War I, right out of college. He and novelist William Slater Brown had volunteered for the Norton-Harjes Ambulance service in France. Charged with espionage because of cryptic comments in their letters home, they were imprisoned for three months in holding cells at a military detention camp in the French town of La Ferté-Macé. Meanwhile the U.S. Department of State erroneously notified Cummings’ parents that he had been aboard the SS Antilles, which a German U-boat had torpedoed and sunk.

Cummings was released from confinement without commotion or fanfare shortly before Christmas 1917 and was stateside again by January. He would later portray this period in his autobiographical novel “The Enormous Room,” which biographer Richard S. Kennedy describes as a “symbolic attack upon all governmental structures whatsoever.”

Lenin’s Tomb

The other belief-affirming event was Cummings’ five-week trip to the Soviet Union in 1931, which hardened him against communism and its American supporters. During this trip Cummings kept a diary that became his second prose book, “Eimi.” The title is Greek for “I am.” In his 1958 preface, Cummings wrote, “To devotees of the Old Testament, this may suggest Exodus III, 14—‘I AM THAT I AM.’” Cummings’ signature “i,” rendered in lowercase throughout his poetry, lacks the grandeur and majesty of the Hebrew God. Yet, paradoxically, it seems mighty in its diminutive size: a sign of individuality that draws attention to itself, its power made perfect in weakness.

First published in 1933, “Eimi” abounds with bitter, biting critiques of collectivism and of its corollary, a planned economy. This diary-invective can be obscure, its plot sequencing at times difficult to follow. Guided by a derisory version of Virgil, Cummings—the mocking and mythical narrator, a 20th-century Dante—undertakes a depressing, disturbing passage through the “unworld,” Stalinist Russia: a nightmarish hell of senseless bureaucracy, unimaginative ideology and brutalizing oppression.

His first stop on this journey: “A singularly unbanklike bank:outside,mildly imposing mansion; inside,hugely promiscuous hideousness—not the impeccable sanitary ordered and efficient hideousness of American or imitation-American banks,but a strictly ubiquitous whenwhere of casual filth and aimless commotion and profound hoping inefficiency.” Such bleak, odd imagery and frank disgust anticipate the surreal, satirical episodes he later sees and records: propaganda plays, indoctrination speeches, a plethora of comrades, secret police, a socialist jail. The neologism “whenwhere” emphasizes the managerial pointlessness of Soviet administration, which homogenizes society into a monotonous, mechanistic mass of inept, brainwashed automatons.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “Harry” Dana (grandson of the renowned poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who had died in 1882), a union-loving advocate of labor causes, a Harvard habitué and a lively expert on Russian drama, happened to be in Russia when Cummings arrived there. With entrée into Russian cognoscenti society, Dana was Cummings’ Virgil, introducing him to the glitterati, the literati and local theater. Anti-authoritarian to his core, Cummings was unimpressed. He “went to the Soviet Union with his eyes open and without an agenda,” explains biographer Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno, but “his experiences there, in which he witnessed first-hand the privation and sadness of the Stalinist state, certainly helped him develop an agenda.”

In “Eimi,” Cummings allegorizes his haunting visit to Lenin’s mausoleum, calling it the “Vision of Satan.” The revulsion with which Cummings illustrates the procession of bodies to the grave is palpable. Too lengthy to quote here, these lines scramble with intensity in the manner of the mourning throng—a “number of numberlessness”—which mobilizes toward “the Tomb of Tombs,” toward “Lenin our life!” and “Lenin our hope!” The tomb, discussed much earlier in the narrative, is “a rigid pyramidal composition of blocks; an impurely mathematical game of edges.”

The picture here is religious, or irreligious—the hallowed Lenin in his sacred space, wholly consecrated, absolutely revered. If Lenin is God, then his state—his government—is holy. Nothing could have been more frightening or distressing to Cummings.

Kennedy asserts that the concluding lines of “Eimi” attempt to “express something similar to an Emersonian transcendental experience, a mystical union with the creative force”:

silence is made of

(behind perfectly or

final rising


more dark

most luminous

whereless fragrant whenlessly erect

a sudden the!entirelyblossoming)







Notice the emergence of sound from silence: the voice a mode of agency, a source, a genesis, a conception. The result is as if to say, “You, reader, are now released from Soviet censorship, restraint and restriction; you have ended that chapter and may close this book; the future is yours to make.”

Standing Alone

Kennedy explains that the self-celebrating and increasingly embittered Cummings sometimes “felt isolated from other literary contemporaries, mostly leftists who shunned him because of his strong anticommunist views.” True Emersonian self-reliance means standing alone, if necessary, in the face of hostility and to the chagrin or ire of the naysaying multitudes. Cummings, “no base imitator of another,” struck out on his own, taking great risks with his poetry despite harsh charges that his writing was indecipherable, esoteric or impenetrable.

His acrobatic, often puzzling techniques represent aesthetically the prevailing motifs of his romantic, nonconformist individualism: imagination, life, emotion, instinct, spontaneity and love. His liberating eccentricity contrasts with the crushing, repressive and absurd Soviet system. “Eimi,” a sustained indictment of Marxism and communism, depicts the all-encompassing despotism of mobs as well as a cruel and implacable government run by myriad comrades who lack character or personality because they are subservient sycophants: dispensable units within an indiscriminate superstate of interchangeable agents and functionaries.

When the idiosyncratic Cummings died of a stroke in 1962, he was a household name, his stature secured by the blooming hippie, hipster subculture that, dissatisfied with current affairs, followed his lead in rejecting establishment standards and submission to authority. His obituary in The New York Times, published the day after his death, commences on the front page and, because of its length, extends to another section. He was a force, a giant of his time, a modernist trendsetter whose trends were insuperable, a transparent eyeball, the “i” and the person he decided to be, the Whitmanesque “me myself” who would not capitulate to badges, names, large societies or dead institutions. He was e.e. and E.E., living truly, seeing truly, acting singly. There can never be another.


Is Intellectualism Gone?

In Academia, American History, Arts & Letters, Books, higher education, Humanities, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Philosophy, Western Philosophy on May 5, 2021 at 6:45 am

A Discussion of English Departments, Higher Education, and Ordered Liberty

In Academia, higher education, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism on November 27, 2019 at 6:45 am

El marxismo cultural es real

In Academia, Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Pedagogy, Philosophy, The Academy, Western Philosophy on May 1, 2019 at 6:45 am

This piece originally appeared here at the Mises Institute. 

Samuel Moyn, un profesor de derecho de Yale, preguntórecientemente: “¿Qué es el “marxismo cultural?””. Su respuesta: “Nada de eso existe en realidad”. Moyn atribuye el término marxismo cultural a la “imaginación desenfrenada de la derecha”, afirmando que implica locas teorías de conspiración y se ha estado “filtrando durante años a través de las alcantarillas globales del odio”.

Alexander Zubatov, un abogado que escribió en Tabletrespondió que el marxismo cultural, “algo confuso y controvertido”, “ha estado en circulación durante más de cuarenta años”. Tiene, además, “usos perfectamente respetables fuera de la oscuridad, silos húmedos de la lejana derecha”. Concluyó que el marxismo cultural no es ni una “conspiración” ni una “fantasmagoría” de la mera derecha, sino un “programa intelectual coherente, una constelación de ideas peligrosas”.

En este debate, me pongo del lado de Zubatov. Este es el por qué.

A pesar de la desconcertante gama de controversias y significados que se le atribuyen, el marxismo cultural (el término y el movimiento) tiene una historia profunda y compleja en la teoría. La palabra “Teoría” (con una T mayúscula) es el encabezado general de la investigación dentro de las ramas interpretativas de las humanidades conocidas como estudios culturales y críticos, crítica literaria y teoría literaria, cada una de las cuales incluye una variedad de enfoques desde lo fenomenológico hasta el psicoanalítico. En los Estados Unidos, la Teoría se enseña y aplica comúnmente en los departamentos de inglés, aunque su influencia es perceptible en todas las humanidades.

Una breve genealogía de diferentes escuelas de Teoría, que se originó fuera de los departamentos de inglés, entre filósofos y sociólogos, por ejemplo, pero que se convirtió en parte del plan de estudios básico de los departamentos de inglés, muestra no solo que el marxismo cultural es un fenómeno identificable, sino que prolifera más allá de la academia.

Los estudiosos versados ​​en Teoría son razonablemente desconfiados de las representaciones crudas y tendenciosas de su campo. Sin embargo, estos campos conservan elementos del marxismo que, en mi opinión, requieren un mayor y sostenido escrutinio. Dadas las estimaciones de que el comunismo mató a más de 100 millones de personas, debemos discutir abierta y honestamente las corrientes del marxismo que atraviesan diferentes modos de interpretación y escuelas de pensamiento. Además, para evitar la complicidad, debemos preguntarnos si y por qué las ideas marxistas, aunque sean atenuadas, siguen motivando a los principales académicos y difundiéndose en la cultura más amplia.

Los departamentos ingleses surgieron en los Estados Unidos a fines del siglo XIX y principios del XX, lo que dio paso a estudios cada vez más profesionalizados de literatura y otras formas de expresión estética. A medida que el inglés se convirtió en una disciplina universitaria distinta con su propio plan de estudios, se alejó del estudio de la literatura británica y de las obras canónicas de la tradición occidental en la traducción, y hacia las filosofías que guían la interpretación textual.

Aunque una breve encuesta general de lo que se sigue puede no satisfacer a los que están en el campo, proporciona a los demás los antecedentes pertinentes.

La nueva crítica

La primera escuela importante que se estableció en los departamentos ingleses fue la Nueva Crítica. Su contraparte fue el formalismo ruso, caracterizado por figuras como Victor Shklovsky y Roman Jakobson, que intentaron distinguir los textos literarios de otros textos, examinando qué cualidades hacían que las representaciones escritas fueran poéticas, convincentes, originales o conmovedoras en lugar de meramente prácticas o utilitarias.

Una de esas cualidades fue la familiarización. La literatura, en otras palabras, desfamiliariza el lenguaje mediante el uso de sonido, sintaxis, metáfora, aliteración, asonancia y otros dispositivos retóricos.

La Nueva Crítica, que era principalmente pedagógica, enfatizaba la lectura atenta, manteniendo que los lectores que buscan un significado deben aislar el texto que se está considerando de las externalidades como la intención del autor, la biografía o el contexto histórico. Este método es similar al textualismo legal mediante el cual los jueces examinan estrictamente el lenguaje de un estatuto, no el historial o la intención legislativa, para interpretar la importancia o el significado de ese estatuto. Los “Nuevos Críticos” acuñaron el término “falacia intencional” para referirse a la búsqueda del significado de un texto en cualquier parte, excepto en el texto mismo. La Nueva Crítica está asociada con John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, I. A. Richards y T. S. Eliot. En cierto modo, todas las escuelas de teoría posteriores son respuestas o reacciones a la Nueva Crítica.

Estructuralismo y postestructuralismo

El estructuralismo impregnó los círculos intelectuales franceses en los años sesenta. A través del estructuralismo, pensadores como Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva y Louis Althusser importaron la política izquierdista en el estudio de los textos literarios. El estructuralismo está arraigado en la lingüística de Ferdinand de Saussure, un lingüista suizo que observó cómo los signos lingüísticos se diferencian dentro de un sistema de lenguaje. Cuando decimos o escribimos algo, lo hacemos de acuerdo con las reglas y convenciones en las que también opera nuestra audiencia anticipada. El orden implícito que utilizamos y comunicamos es la “estructura” a la que se hace referencia en el estructuralismo.

El antropólogo francés Claude Levi-Strauss extendió las ideas de Saussure sobre el signo lingüístico a la cultura, argumentando que las creencias, los valores y los rasgos característicos de un grupo social funcionan de acuerdo con un conjunto de reglas tácitamente conocidas. Estas estructuras son el “discurso”, un término que abarca las normas culturales y no solo las prácticas lingüísticas.

Del estructuralismo y el postestructuralismo surgió el marxismo estructural, una escuela de pensamiento vinculada a Althusser que analiza el papel del estado para perpetuar el dominio de la clase dominante, los capitalistas.

El marxismo y el neomarxismo

En las décadas de 1930 y 1940, la Escuela de Frankfurt popularizó el tipo de trabajo generalmente etiquetado como “marxismo cultural”. Las figuras involucradas o asociadas con esta escuela incluyen a Erich Fromm, Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse y Walter Benjamin. Estos hombres revisaron, replantearon y extendieron el marxismo clásico al enfatizar la cultura y la ideología, incorporando ideas de campos emergentes como el psicoanálisis e investigando el auge de los medios de comunicación y la cultura de masas.

Insatisfechos con el determinismo económico y la coherencia ilusoria del materialismo histórico, y hartados por los fracasos de los gobiernos socialistas y comunistas, estos pensadores reformularon las tácticas y las premisas marxistas a su manera, sin repudiar por completo los diseños o ambiciones marxistas.

A partir de los años sesenta y setenta, académicos como Terry Eagleton y Fredric Jameson fueron explícitos al abrazar el marxismo. Rechazaron los enfoques de la Nueva Crítica que separaban la literatura de la cultura, enfatizando que la literatura reflejaba los intereses económicos y de clase, las estructuras políticas y sociales y el poder. En consecuencia, consideraron cómo los textos literarios reproducían (o socavaban) las estructuras y condiciones culturales o económicas.

Slavoj Žižek podría decirse que ha hecho más que cualquier miembro de la Escuela de Frankfurt para integrar el psicoanálisis en las variantes marxistas. “La erudición de Žižek ocupa un lugar particularmente alto dentro de la crítica cultural que busca explicar las intersecciones entre el psicoanálisis y el marxismo”, escribió la erudita Erin Labbie.1 Agregó que “los escritos prolíficos de Žižek sobre ideología, que revelan las relaciones entre psicoanálisis y marxismo, han modificó la forma en que se aborda y se logra la crítica literaria y cultural en la medida en que la mayoría de los estudiosos ya no pueden mantener firmemente la idea anterior de que los dos campos están en desacuerdo”.2 Žižek es solo uno entre muchos filósofos continentales cuyos pronósticos de marxistas y marxistas flexionados llaman la atención de los académicos estadounidenses.


Jacques Derrida es reconocido como el fundador de la deconstrucción. Tomó prestado de la teoría de Saussure que el significado de un signo lingüístico depende de su relación con su opuesto, o de las cosas de las que se diferencia. Por ejemplo, el significado de hombre depende del significado de mujer; el significado de feliz depende del significado de triste; etcétera. Así, la diferencia teórica entre dos términos opuestos, o binarios, los une en nuestra conciencia. Y un binario es privilegiado mientras que el otro es devaluado. Por ejemplo, “hermoso” es privilegiado sobre “feo” y “bueno” sobre “malo”.

El resultado es una jerarquía de binarios que son dependientes del contexto o arbitrariamente, según Derrida, y no pueden ser fijos o definidos en el tiempo y el espacio. Esto se debe a que el significado existe en un estado de flujo, y nunca se convierte en parte de un objeto o idea.

El mismo Derrida, habiendo releído el Manifiesto comunista, reconoció el avance “espectral” de un “espíritu” de Marx y el marxismo.3 Aunque la llamada “hauntología” de Derrida excluye las meta-narrativas mesiánicas del marxismo no cumplido, los comentaristas han salvado Derrida es un marxismo modificado para el clima del “capitalismo tardío” actual.

Derrida usó el término diffèrance para describir el proceso difícil de alcanzar que usan los humanos para asignar significado a signos arbitrarios, incluso si los signos (los códigos y las estructuras gramaticales de la comunicación) no pueden representar adecuadamente un objeto o idea real en la realidad. Las teorías de Derrida tuvieron un amplio impacto que le permitió a él y sus seguidores considerar los signos lingüísticos y los conceptos creados por esos signos, muchos de los cuales eran fundamentales para la tradición occidental y la cultura occidental. Por ejemplo, la crítica de Derrida al logocentrismo cuestiona casi todos los fundamentos filosóficos que se derivan de Atenas y Jerusalén.

Nuevo historicismo

El Nuevo historicismo, una empresa multifacética, está asociado con el erudito de Shakespeare Stephen Greenblatt. Observa las fuerzas y condiciones históricas con un ojo estructuralista y postestructuralista, y trata los textos literarios como productos y contribuyentes al discurso y las comunidades discursivas. Se basa en la idea de que la literatura y el arte circulan a través del discurso e informan y desestabilizan las normas e instituciones culturales.

Los nuevos historicistas exploran cómo las representaciones literarias refuerzan las estructuras de poder o trabajan contra el privilegio arraigado, extrapolando la paradoja de Foucault de que el poder crece cuando se subvierte porque es capaz de reafirmarse sobre la persona subversiva o actuar en una demostración de poder. El marxismo y el materialismo a menudo surgen cuando los nuevos historicistas buscan resaltar textos y autores (o escenas y personajes literarios) en términos de sus efectos sobre la cultura, la clase y el poder. Los nuevos historicistas se centran en figuras de clase baja o marginadas, dándoles voz o agencia y prestándoles atención atrasada. Este reclamo político, aunque pretende proporcionar un contexto, sin embargo, se arriesga a proyectar inquietudes contemporáneas en obras situadas en una cultura y momento histórico particulares.

En palabras del crítico literario Paul Cantor, “existe una diferencia entre los enfoques políticos de la literatura y los enfoques politizados, es decir, entre los que tienen en cuenta la centralidad de las preocupaciones políticas en muchos clásicos literarios y los que intentan intencionalmente reinterpretar y recrear virtualmente las obras de clase a la luz de las agendas políticas contemporáneas.”4

El marxismo cultural es real

Gran parte de la protesta sobre el marxismo cultural es indignante, desinformada y conspirativa. Parte de esto simplifica, ignora o minimiza las fisuras y tensiones entre los grupos e ideas de izquierda. El marxismo cultural no se puede reducir, por ejemplo, a “corrección política” o “política identitaria”. (Recomiendo el breve artículo de Andrew Lynn “Marxismo cultural” en la edición de otoño de 2018 de The Hedgehog Review para una crítica concisa de los tratamientos descuidados y paranoicos de marxismo cultural)

Sin embargo, el marxismo impregna la Teoría, a pesar de la competencia entre las varias ideas bajo esa etiqueta amplia. A veces este marxismo es evidente por sí mismo; en otras ocasiones, es residual e implícito. En cualquier caso, ha alcanzado un carácter distinto pero en evolución, ya que los estudiosos literarios han reelaborado el marxismo clásico para dar cuenta de la relación de la literatura y la cultura con la clase, el poder y el discurso.

El feminismo, los estudios de género, la teoría crítica de la raza, el poscolonialismo, los estudios sobre la discapacidad, estas y otras disciplinas se pasan por alto uno o más de los paradigmas teóricos que he descrito. Sin embargo, el hecho de que se guíen por el marxismo o adopte términos y conceptos marxistas no los hace prohibidos o indignos de atención.

Lo que me lleva a una advertencia: condenar estas ideas como prohibidas, ya que los peligros que corrompen a las mentes jóvenes pueden tener consecuencias imprevistas. Las derivaciones marxistas deben estudiarse para ser comprendidas de manera integral. No los elimines del currículum: contextualízalos, desafíalos y pregúntalos. No reifiques su poder ignorándolos o descuidándolos.

Las iteraciones populares del marxismo cultural se revelan en el uso casual de términos como “privilegio”, “alienación”, “mercantilización”, “fetichismo”, “materialismo”, “hegemonía” o “superestructura”. Como escribió Zubatov para Tablet, “Es un paso corto desde la “hegemonía” de Gramsci hasta los memes tóxicos ahora ubicuos de “patriarcado”, “heteronormatividad”, “supremacía blanca”, “privilegio blanco”, “fragilidad blanca” y “blancura”“. Añade “Es un paso corto de la premisa marxista y marxista cultural de que las ideas son, en su esencia, expresiones de poder para una política de identidad desenfrenada y divisoria y el juicio rutinario de las personas y sus contribuciones culturales basadas en su raza, género, sexualidad y religión.”

Mi breve resumen es simplemente la versión simplificada y aproximada de una historia mucho más grande y compleja, pero orienta a los lectores curiosos que desean aprender más sobre el marxismo cultural en los estudios literarios. Hoy en día, los departamentos de inglés sufren la falta de una misión, propósito e identidad claramente definidos. Al haber perdido el rigor en favor de la política de izquierda como su principal objetivo de estudio, los departamentos de inglés en muchas universidades están en peligro por el énfasis renovado en las habilidades prácticas y la capacitación laboral. Así como los departamentos de inglés reemplazaron a los departamentos de religión y clásicos como los principales lugares para estudiar cultura, también los departamentos o escuelas del futuro podrían reemplazar a los departamentos de inglés.

Y esos lugares pueden no tolerar las agitaciones políticas que se plantean como técnica pedagógica.

El punto, sin embargo, es que el marxismo cultural existe. Tiene una historia, seguidores, adeptos y dejó una marca perceptible en temas académicos y líneas de investigación. Moyn puede desear que desaparezca, o descartarlo como un fantasma, pero es real. Debemos conocer sus efectos en la sociedad, y en qué formas se materializa en nuestra cultura. La polémica intemperada de Moyn demuestra, de hecho, la urgencia y la importancia de examinar el marxismo cultural, en lugar de cerrar los ojos a su significado, propiedades y significado.

Nota del editor: la reciente entrevista en video de Allen Mendenhall con el Centro Martin incluye temas de este artículo.

Este artículo fue publicado originalmente por el Centro Martin.

What Can Libertarians Contribute to the Study of Literature?

In Arts & Letters, higher education, Humane Economy, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on April 10, 2019 at 6:45 am

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. 


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.

Interview with the James G. Martin Center regarding English Departments, Higher Education, Marxism, and Legal Education

In Arts & Letters, Economics, higher education, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law, Law School, Legal Education & Pedagogy, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Scholarship, Western Philosophy on March 13, 2019 at 6:45 am

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:

John William Corrington on Science, Symbol, and Meaning

In American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Essays, History, Humanities, John William Corrington, liberal arts, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on November 28, 2018 at 6:45 am

John William Corrington’s essay “Science, Symbol, and Meaning” (1983) is archived at Centenary College as “Houston Talk.” It was the opening address at the Second Annual Space Industrialization Conference of the National Space Society in Houston, Texas. It has been included in my recent edition of Corrington’s work, which is available for purchase by clicking on this image:

The subject of “Science, Symbol, and Meaning” is man’s exploration of outer space and the potential physical instantiation of certain theories about the structure of the cosmos. Corrington sets out to “reconstruct” Western culture, first by defining and describing it and then by diagnosing what he calls its “deformity,” which involves confusion regarding the differences between mythical and scientic modes of knowing.

This essay uses the subject of space exploration as a starting point for recommending remedies to this so-called deformity. Corrington purports to derive his thesis about time and cosmic order from Eric Voegelin, Martin Heidegger, and Giorgio de Santillana. He critiques the “illusion” that scientific thinking displaced mythopoetic thinking in the West because, he says, theological and symbolic thinking has been used to make sense of the data that has been objectively arrived at and disinterestedly gathered. This illusion will no longer stand, Corrington suggests, as the expanse of space becomes more intimately known to us and we begin to acknowledge the role that myth plays in ordering our experience within the observable cosmos.

Rationalism and empiricism are, Corrington suggests, themselves forms of myth about our ability to know the cosmos that we occupy.

Corrington emphasizes the limits of human knowledge and submits that modern science is, however useful, myth; science, he says, is not “co-extensive with the manifold of reality.” Science equips us with symbols that can be manipulated to structure and explain our thinking about the phenomenal universe.

The drive for the enterprise of space exploration, in his view, represents a repressed desire to know and order our experience; it is in this sense a structural element of our psyche, something that is not new to modernity but long felt and expressed. For this reason Corrington believes the “leap into space is the heritage and destiny of Western Man.” Corrington’s prescription, in light of his comments on space exploration, for  the “deformity” in Western thinking is as follows:

We must re-learn and carry to the heart the old verities that existed before the rise of metaphysics and science, the truths that were carried on and carried down through the mythological structure of the psyche: the unity of humanity and the cosmos, the illusory and ephemeral quality of the ego, the one law common to all that penetrates and encompasses the fine structure and the gross structure of reality.

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:

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