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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.

Review of James Seaton’s “Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism”

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Essays, Fiction, Historicism, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Postmodernism, Rhetoric, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 31, 2014 at 8:45 am

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This review first appeared here in The University Bookman.

Back when I was a pimple-faced graduate student in English and law, I ordered a book from Amazon titled Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism: From Criticism to Cultural Studies. The book had been out awhile, but I had only recently come across an intriguing piece by its author, James Seaton, a professor of English at Michigan State University. I read my purchase in earnest and then dashed off a complimentary email to Seaton days later. He responded, and we struck up a dialogue that continued for several years. I once visited him at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, where he spoke to a small crowd about George Santayana. He had just edited two of Santayana’s seminal essays for Yale University Press and had recruited Wilfred M. McClay, John Lachs, and Roger Kimball to contribute to the edition. We got along swimmingly, and Annette Kirk ensured that he and I had time alone to discuss whether I should apply to a doctoral program in English or continue down the path of the law.

Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism has all the themes and qualities that first drew me to Seaton. It is a collection of Seaton’s latest essays and reviews revised and synthesized into a comprehensive case for humanistic inquiry. Amplifying his arguments from Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism and reformulating his principles about the value of literature to society, Seaton continues to undercut the discipline of cultural studies, which he decries for its “obligatory leftism.” His leading contribution—the subject about which he stands to forge new directions in the field of literary criticism—is to revitalize old contributions, namely, the humanistic tradition as defined by Irving Babbitt and as represented by Aristotle, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, Matthew Arnold, Henry James, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, and Ralph Ellison. Chapters Two and Four are profitable beginnings of this project because they explain which critics (William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge) and which schools of criticism (Romanticism, Marxism, and the New Criticism) fall outside the humanistic tradition. These chapters, Four especially, are exciting, provocative, and significant. They supply the basis and much of the substance for the rest of the book and suggest that literature is not an agent of ideology, nor literary theory a master key that unlocks the door to grand solutions for political, scientific, and economic problems.

For those who are uninterested or unversed in literary criticism, however, reading Seaton will be like watching strategic athletic maneuvers—swing! parry! dive!—without a sense of what’s at stake in a sporting match whose tactics and rules are unknown. From the start he frames his argument with Plato and Aristotle, but today’s graduate students in English will be unclear what these men mean for the larger project of humanism or why they matter to contemporary audiences. With the exception of the Norton anthologies, most accounts of literary criticism in popular anthologies begin with Nietzsche in the late nineteenth century or with the New Critics in the early twentieth. The pinnacle of influence for these late critics roughly coincides with the development of English departments as institutions. To begin at the beginning—with the Greeks—will disorient those trained to look back at the literary canon through the prism of “contemporary” theories.

This remark is not a reproach of Seaton but of current literary studies; the chief merit of Seaton’s methodology is to demystify literary studies and to affirm there’s nothing new under the sun: the latest theories have definite antecedents (not necessarily good ones) and can be mapped by their continuity with other methodologies. Marxists of the Frankfurt School such as Herbert Marcuse, for example, follow in the wake of Plato: “Just as Plato had insisted on the necessity of censorship in his ideal Republic, Marcuse argued that suppression of free speech was required in the twentieth century for the establishment of what he considered true freedom.”

Seaton’s knack for classification emerges forcefully in the opening chapter. Here he arranges under three heads the whole history of literary criticism: the Platonic, the Neoplatonic, and the Aristotelian. He defines literary criticism as “a continuing conversation” among these three traditions inspired by just two Greek men. Adhering to the third category, the Aristotelian, which he calls humanistic, Seaton rejects the first because it questions the aesthetic value of literature, distrusts the sensory effects of literature, and treats great works as mere symptoms of ideological structures or institutions. “The philosophy of the Republic,” Seaton explains, “leaves no room for judging poetry according to literary excellence; all that counts is its political and social impact.” Seaton rejects the second, the Neoplatonic, for defending literature and poetry on the narrow and quixotic “basis of the moral and spiritual elevation it made possible.”

By contrast, Seaton submits, the “humanistic view of literature” might be “a middle way between the Platonic condemnation of art and literature and the Neoplatonic elevation.” The humanistic view “remains Aristotelian” because it considers “literature as a source of insight about human life” and is willing “to judge grand theory by the norms of common sense.” While Plato would expel poetry and theater from his ideal Republic, segregate poetry from philosophy, and train his Guardians to submit their virtues to the service of the State, Aristotle calls for “individual judgment about the literary merit and relevance to human life of particular works from audiences and certainly from would-be critics.” Neoplatonist overstatement about the manner in which “poetry brings us closer to the divine” also finds no place in Aristotelian humanism, which modestly maintains that literature “can tell us important things about human life but little about the universe.” Humanists write of the person as the person: they turn to literature to learn and to teach how to live well and wisely without fancying transcendental essences or utopian abstraction. The very crux of Aristotelian humanism is that “the importance of literature is linked to the significance of human life itself,” not to the political, ideological, or religious convictions that a work of literature implicates.

The triadic paradigm (Aristotelian, Platonist, Neoplatonist) may seem reductive, and indeed it is, but such reduction establishes recognizable classifications that encompass a diversity of interests and approaches while shaping a vocabulary for arranging distinctive properties into taxonomies to set apart certain authors and texts. Despite his skill for categorizing and simplifying schools of literary criticism, Seaton is steadfast that literary criticism is distinct in function and form from science: the former is as much an art as the art it explicates, whereas the latter is an empirical discipline that ascertains the natural rules of the phenomenal world by gathering and testing concrete data, building consensus among experts, and denominating general propositions to describe observable events. The contrast is not as sharp or essentialist as I have portrayed it—the pragmatic tradition of Peirce, James, and Santayana falls somewhere between art and science—but the fact that literary criticism has splintered into innumerable, contradictory schools suggests that the disparate methods and judgments of literary critics are not derived from shared conditions or by recourse to the same techniques.

Criticism of the humanistic variety championed by Seaton is found today not in academic journals but in popular literary reviews and journals such as this one. It has the important civic function of educating and inspiring mass audiences. Humanism rejects the “implicit promise” of cultural studies “that adepts gain the ability to make authoritative pronouncements about all aspects of human life without going to the trouble of learning the rudiments of any particular discipline.” Humanism, instead, engages in public debate without resorting to naked polemics; its practitioners understand or at least appreciate the complexity of the cultural norms and standards of readers outside the ivory tower. Professors in the academy, on the other hand, disconnected from the lifestyles and manners and conventions of the general public, tend to write themselves into little corners, retreating from the potential scrutiny of educated laypeople and insisting that true scholarship “requires specialization on topics specific enough to allow for the production of new knowledge, not open-ended conversation about questions to which no definitive answer is possible.” Seaton’s model of humanism advocates a different errand: “to make available to the larger culture the testimony of literature on human life … by accurately assessing the literary merit of the witness.”

They waste it that do state it with no style. Seaton, accordingly, makes short work of the “dominant theorizing” that lacks “literary distinction,” and he does so with his own unique style that remains as accessible to the educated layperson as it is to professional scholars of literature. His is not the delightfully repetitious, grandstanding prose of a Harold Bloom or Richard Poirier—the type of prose that, in its very makeup, shouts down the technical writing of hyper-professionalized humanities scholarship. Yet Seaton can turn a phrase with the best of them. Although it is a subsidiary point, the notion that a critic should write in a mode many people will enjoy is the literary equivalent to popular sovereignty: the common reader, not the expert, ought to determine which works continue to be read and therefore which become canonized. Like his guides Ralph Ellison and Dwight Macdonald, Seaton, mindful of his audience, takes pains to avoid jargon even as he discusses such theorists as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno whose writing is riddled with esoterica.

Seaton ends with a hopeful note: “Although the task of addressing the arguments of the dominant contemporary theories is important, the decisive answer [to the question what to do now that the dominant theories dismiss the importance of literature to life and thought] will come from the literary criticism of the twenty-first century that conveys to the general public the pleasures and insights that poems, plays, and fiction continue to make available to all those willing to attend.” Let’s hope the coming decades yield critics like Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling, who were “members of a humanistic tradition capacious enough to study the connections between literature and society while also insisting that poems, plays, and novels should be judged on their own merits as works of art.”

It isn’t that the political and social sphere should be off-limits to critics, only that critics should, as Seaton does, subordinate their political and social presuppositions to aesthetic judgments, the most discerning of which account for the value of imaginative literature to plain living and high thinking. The best criticism helps us to understand how literature makes life better, more meaningful, and more fulfilling. Simple as it sounds, this proposition is tremendously complex because of the tremendous complexity of life itself. Held to his own high standards, Seaton succeeds: his chapters force you to consider what role literature has played in your own development, and how that role might play out in the lives of others. Good literature is more than a material object; it’s a way of living, a crucial check on those who purport to know it all with utter certainty.

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