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The Postmodernist as Academic Leftist; or, How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Being Politically Correct

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The Postmodernist as Academic Leftist; or, How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Being Politically Correct
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  Studies in 20th & 21st Century Literature  $* 17I66* 1 Special Issue on Contemporary Feminist Writing in French: A Multicultural Perspective  A* 115-29-2014 e Postmodernist as Academic Le!ist; or, How toStop Worrying and Learn to Love Being Politically Correct Eugene W. Holland F 6   6 :://***66./6>6  6 *6* * C** C6 A'-*- D** %64.0 L*6*. >6 ** E66< 6 '  < + +**  * *66 '< * J6  * !* !*66. I 6 '** ** + 6  #*6  20 &216 C*< L** '<  =* 6 + * !* !*66. F * +, *6* 6@-6*.*. *** C H, E** %. (1993) ">* !6*6 6 A* L*?6; , H  # %<  L*  L* B* !< C*," Studies in 20th & 21st Century Literature : $. 17: I66. 1, A* 11.://../10.4148/2334-4415.1317  e Postmodernist as Academic Le!ist; or, How to Stop Worrying andLearn to Love Being Politically Correct  Abstract >* !6*6 6 A* L*?6; , H  # %<  L*  L* B* !< C* >6 ** *66< 6 '*  #*6  20 & 216 C*< L**:://***66./6/17/661/11  Review Essay The Postmodernist as Academic Leftist; or, How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love being Politically Correct Eugene W. Holland Ohio State University Just after Left Politics and the Literary Profession (edited by Lennard J. Davis and M. Bella Mirabella [New York: Columbia U. Press, 19901 316pp.) appeared (and thus well after the essays and introduction compris- ing it were actually written), right-wing politicos mounted a feeble-minded but nonetheless effective media counter-attack on left politics in the academy, under the rubric of political correctness. After decades of excluding leftists from the academy in the name of anticommunism (among other things), the right decided to castigate the growing anti-racist, anti- sexist, anti-capitalist consensus in the academy as a form of left McCarthyism. In this new, noticeably defensive version of red-baiting specially revised for the 90s, being politically correct on the left had suddenly become a liability, whereas on the right, of course, it had always been as American as apple pie. Historically-that is to say, specifically during McCarthyism and up until the Vietnam War-politicians counted on the university to suppress anti-establishment perspectives and movements. What is distinctive about higher education in the 90s, it seems, is that the politicians sense they can no longer always count on university personnel to do so, and they therefore resort to media campaigns to denigrate higher education altogether. It is this historical shift of consensus (at least among younger scholars) to the left that has made it necessary for reactionaries to change stripes and suddenly start championing the liberal cause of respect for diversity of opinion in the academy-basically because they are losing ground there. It is easy to exaggerate this trend, and dangerously wrong to assume that the university has become politically correct in any true sense of the term. On the contrary: racism, sexism, homophobia, classism abound; learning opportunities as well as teaching and research positions still systematically accrue to those belonging to the standard race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, class, and political orientation. Nevertheless, the momentum of the civil rights, women's, and anti-war movements has indeed produced a shift to the left within the academy (if nowhere else). The aim of Left Politics and the Literary Profession is to assess the impact of this shift on literary studies: to address the concrete achievementsof the radical Left in academia (5). The editors take as a point of departure and comparison a similar anthology published in 1971 entitled The Politics of Literature 1Holland: The Postmodernist as Academic Leftist; or, How to Stop Worrying aPublished by New Prairie Press  144 STCL, Volume 17, No. 1 (Winter, 1993) (edited by Louis Kampf and Paul Lauter [New York: Random House]), and they set out to assess what is happening [today] in the practice, teaching, and study of literature by focus[ing] on the link between the radical politics of the 1960s and the intellectual activities of radicals who study literature in the 1990s and into the coming century (15). But understand- ing the politics of literature and the literary profession at the turn of the twenty-first century, it seems to me, requires situating recent developments within a set of historical contexts considerably broader than the twenty years that elapsed between The Politics of Literature and Left Politics and the Literary Profession. For reasons that will become evident, I find it conve- nient to use the notion of academic postmodernism to situate within a broader historical context the current conjuncture in which left politics appear to be prevailing in the academy, but at the same time face stiff opposition from hostile right-wing regimes determined to bend even literary studies to the service of hierarchical, authoritarian rule. Perhaps the first thing to note in response to those trying to enlist canonical western literature and culture in defense of the status quo is that western literary culture itself has been vehemently opposed to modern (i.e. liberal-democratic capitalist) society since its very inception. The first and more generous mode of opposition was romanticism. Itself a product of the great revolutions and their promise of free and equal self-development for all, romanticism was a constant reminder to modern democracies of all the promises they had failed to keep. Like postmodern criticism today (though perhaps more naively), romanticism sympathetically glorified, and often championed the causes of the oppressed and powerless, those left out of the modern social compact: women, children, the poor, even minorities (including Native Americans Indians). It is precisely because academic literary scholars understand and take western literature and culture seri- ously, in other words, that they now stand up for the rights of groups still disenfranchised and marginalized after two centuries of capitalist, liberal- democratic rule. Yet taking such a stand implies a certain understanding of the second, less generous mode of cultural opposition, which is modernism itself (including the avant-garde). Unlike romanticism, though equally critical of modern bourgeois society, modernism was founded upon a serene indiffer- ence to (if not outright contempt for) democracy, the people, and any hopes for the development of enlightened, egalitarian social relations. The distinc- tive feature of academic postmodernism (in the specific sense I am using the term) is its repudiation of the cynical disdain typical of modernism and a return (albeit in ways yet to be fully realized or adequately defined) to some kind of neo- romantic engagement with popular struggles for freedom and self-determination on the part of women, minorities, Third World peoples, and so forth. The postmodern critique of modernism, I want to suggest, is a crucial feature of contemporary literary politics, for it underscores the ultimate complicity between modernism, initially an oppositional movement, and the 2 Studies in 20th & 21st Century Literature, Vol. 17, Iss. 1 [1993], Art. 11 http://newprairiepress.org/sttcl/vol17/iss1/11DOI: 10.4148/2334-4415.1317  Holland 145 modern research university as a distinctly capitalist institution. Identifying the research university as such for one thing refutes the ludicrous idea that the left is somehow twinging politics into an institution devoted to objective inquiry where it doesn't belong. On the contrary: the university, though far from being either truly politically correct or entirely devoted to exclusion, oppression, and exploitation, is political terrain where differing forces vie for dominance, and indeed struggle to define the university's role in perpetuating or transforming social relations within and without its walls. More important, pinpointing the relations between the modern university and capitalist social relations helps us understand how it was that modern- ism prevailed over romanticism in academic literary and cultural studies. There are (at least) four senses in which the modern university must be considered a specifically capitalist institution, four ways it functions politi- cally to maintain and enforce capitalist social relations (not to mention patriarchy and other forms of domination). First and perhaps most obviously, the modern research university that displaced the older elite colleges was founded and organized to provide new technologies to fuel the advanced stages of the industrial revolution, initially in the areas of electricity and chemistry, then electronics and pharmaceuti- cals, more recently with computers, bio-engineering, and so forth. One crucial aspect of this market-driven university structure was departmental and disciplinary specialization: such an arrangement suited the relations among hard science, technology, and industry very well, but was also applied indiscriminately to the soft sciences, transforming them utterly beyond recognition. The humanities and social sciences have in a sense never recovered from this transformation, which segregated literature, philosophy, and the arts from the study of history and society (itself sundered into the fields of sociology, anthropology, political science, and economics), and turned each into an autonomous specialization. One result of disciplinary specialization becomes apparent in connec- tion with the second way the modern university functions politically to maintain and enforce capitalist social relations: its primary purpose is to train various segments of the work-force for increasingly complicated, narrowly specialized jobs-and not to educate competent citizens for active participation in democratic decision-making (nor prepare them for ethically and aesthetically richer social lives, for that matter). As Richard Ohmann points out in his essay on The Function of English at the Present Time, even : English teachers ... help train the kind of work force capitalists need in a productive system that relies less and less on purely manual labor. [They help] to inculcate the discipline-punctuality, good verbal man- ners, submission to authority, attention to problem-solving assign- ments set by someone else, long hours spent in one place-that is necessary to perform the alienated labor that will be the lot of most. (42) 3Holland: The Postmodernist as Academic Leftist; or, How to Stop Worrying aPublished by New Prairie Press
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