The Traditional Canon vs. Multiculturalism
in the Literary Profession:
A Sterile Debate

by Ralph Dumain

The reader and the corpus

While I am sympathetic to [isolated] aspects of what both [the traditionalist and the multiculturalist] have to say, and while other interlocuters have performed quite brilliantly in mediating between their positions, there are some hidden presuppositions which remain to be brought out into the open air.

I begin with a flaw in [the traditionalist's] argument. Whether one chooses to cram only top shelf literature or admit second-rate potboilers into the finite space-time of a college course, there is one common characteristic that teaching both levels of literature share: that universities perform an archival function, whether through the library itself or the medium of teachers, in providing the resources to a new generation of what would otherwise be a forgotten past, and as past, it is all alien (or not) to the present. To make any aspect of this past come alive to the present (and not merely be fodder for an ahistorical moralistic presentism) involves a match between the reader and the author, in this case guided by the pro-active intervention of a teacher. What are the rights (and responsibilities too, eventually) of the individual student in all this? And ultimately, how does one conceptualize the relationship between any free-lance reader and anything else that has come before?

The flaw of traditionalism and the flaw of multiculturalism is an identical one. No human being is born the bearer of an organic tradition, no matter if all the cultures of the world are organized to treat him as such. The problem of appropriating a viewpoint from someone who wrote 3000 years ago from a different culture in a different language, or from your mama, is essentially the same problem. The difference is that a whole lot more background information must be artificially supplied in the case of the former. In a phrase coined by a friend and colleague of mine, is it our fault that brains are given out one at a time?

Now the reader at large is not constrained to like what gets shoved down his throat in school. My aversion to much of what you call literature has to do with my experience of the horrid fascistic (in one case literally, not just metaphorically) old biddies that made literature such an unpleasant experience in grade school and high school in the old pre-multiculti days. I found literature elitist and authoritarian, while I found science and mathematics open and democratic--which may surprise you--but there are many people from the lower middle class and high achieving spawn of the working class who felt the same way. (That is, it's not about race, ethnicity, or gender.)

Now when readers who are not at the point of a gun enjoy something, they don't do it as you command. They may like junk; they may like well-written high-grade stuff no matter what the content or viewpoint; but there's nothing that turns a person on like something eloquently and brilliantly expressed that he/she has been waiting to hear all his/her life. Some people suffer a whole lifetime without having that one conversation they need to have: men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. One way to get that conversation is through literature. It could save your life, and certain suffering readers who later became writers can attest to that, say Richard Wright or James Baldwin.

Such an appropriation of literature cannot be divorced from content any more than it can be divorced from formal excellence. And the individual meeting of the minds between writer and reader is not dictated by commonality of origin, or by uncommonality. It takes serious social organization to brainwash children into believing that what is meaningful to them is defined by (1) a fixed set of classics, (2) people who share with them identical common background characteristics: race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc. There is usually a process of selectivity, but in the unsupervised reader it as often involves the individual value system and psychological and intellectual needs of the reader as much as any identifiable demographic characteristic.

Hence all this fuss about the "dead white males" is a non-issue, at least defined in that way. To determine where the problem lies, you have to look at what and how much any writer of any identifiable background puts into their works, and what is in there or not that you need.

Now stop grading your papers and fretting over your resumes for a minute to stretch your imagination. Imagine organizing an array of courses where each syllabus were organized not by the taxonomies and genealogies of your profession, but by the needs of different (non-demographic) types of students correlated with corresponding types of professors, where the literary selections were geared toward addressing both in form and content what each type (non-demographically defined) needs to know. How would you proceed? Of course, your profession as you know it would cease to exist, and in any event, organizing things in such a way may be beyond the capabilities of mortal man. But stretch your imagination. This is just what the problem is, and when you take a step back from the social organization in which you are embedded and consider the situation of the free-lance reader, you will see that this is the essence of what any reader, naked and alone in the world and not buttressed or confined by any formal institution, faces.

You need to hear this from me, because I don't think you are fully sensitized, as no person could be, as to what the inhuman bureaucracies in which you live, move, and have your being, have done to you.

(10 May 2001)

Creativity in historical motion

I'm not in any department, so I don't care what shingle you hang outside your office, but the intrinsic philosophical issue is too compelling not to say something. Probably many people are too sophisticated to endorse either position in the dichotomy that is shaping up in this debate, but the fact that it is a live issue bespeaks a major crisis in bourgeois ideology. The degeneration of the bourgeois intellectual from the self-confident Platonic heights of fully autonomous self-authorizing reason to the sado-masochistic humiliation of the abstract intellect bowing and scraping to naked power has a lot to do with the dichotomy and ultimate futility at work in this dispute. The containment strategy that coopts the demand for the incorporation of everyone's experience into a new perspective on universality, produces, in neoconservative America, the cynical patronage system of multiculturalism, where individuals of diverse backgrounds represent not specific incarnations and refractions of universal human experience but only groups. From universality degraded to particularism, from expanding reason dumbed down to local knowledges, the inexhaustible reserves of barbarism latent within the middle class intellectual as the product of a dying civilization gush forth. The demands raised by the social movements of the '60s and '70s end up as commodified frozen categories to be traded on the academic stock market. In place of the questions, what can I strive to become, how do I imaginatively project myself beyond my particular finite origin; the new battle cry is "I am my context", like an alcoholic in a 12-step program, hanging his head, giving it up to God, and confessing "I am my disease." The repression of imagination, the swallowing up of ideality and potentiality reducing human beings to bare minimalist actuality, the Heidegger-Gadamer assault on abstract reason bludgeoning man that poor animal into grovelling before his finite closed cultural community, paving the way for Hitler, are all manifestations of the bourgeois intellectual losing his innocence, recognizing that reason doesn't rule the world, and then cynically abasing himself before the social determinations he belatedly discovers, as he has nowhere else to go.

And yet to defend a traditionalist conception of literature as if the past 150 years of the concept of ideology never existed, just because you can't swallow the new sad. Whereas the real question is: what is the relationship between the materiality of social circumstance and the ideality of imaginative constructs? What happens when you attempt to project yourself, your desires, your striving for something different from what you are stuck in, into a future you cannot concretely delineate? 

And suppose you were a creative artist yourself, if you can even imagine yourself such, and not just a custodian of someone else's museum pieces, how would you face the challenge of incorporating a larger world view than the silly and tedious Greek and Latin slaves of the sword could ever imagine into works of literature as formally polished and perfect as those of the aristocratic riffraff of the rotten past? How would you proceed? The tension between form and content, between the cultural capital of the past and the needs of the future, the conception of creativity as an ongoing self-perfecting process vs. static masterpieces that drop from the Platonic heavens--if you looked at literature as an ongoing and evolving process as opposed to the standpoint of bureaucratic stagnation that rules your loveless lives, you wouldn't be stuck in the sterile debate that you're in.

(8 May 2001)

The division of labor

Several of the responses in this debate for which I wrote this piece were very intelligent, and some of these folks would probably agree with me if I had expressed myself differently. But what was shocking about my intervention is not just the harangue itself, or the language that might be uncustomary to them ("ideality", etc., not to mention the sarcasm), but the fact that I posed the issue completely outside of the bounds of any professional discipline or concern with interdisciplinarity. Literary specialists (and professional historians, one could add, I presume) study writers who addressed themselves to an undefined general public and never belonged to any scholarly discipline; by what right do professors monopolize a vital interest in literature? And there is a polar difference between the perspective of a creator, who is always pro-active, and that of a museum curator who never undergoes the process of creating something new.

Anyway, for me the issue is not between professional historians and literary critics, which in the abstract is just a question of the practical division of labor, but rather the intrinsic dynamic tension as well as interrelationship between the material and ideal, the actual and potential, the concrete and the abstract, between social existence as concretely organized and the ideological forms of appearance by which people interpret what they are in and with luck even attempt to criticize and project themselves beyond. I cannot allow myself to be forced to choose between a literary quota system indifferent to quality, depth, imagination, or technique; and a fixed set of timeless masterpieces. I am interested in the future: the limitations of the past can be overcome, so that if attempts to put something new into literature fall short, someone else can study what they produced and try to carry it further. While process cannot substitute for product as the end all and be all, creativity in historical motion is what interests me, as a lay reader and an intellectual, such as that might be. 

I have more to say about this issue, however, that indicts the social forces that affect everyone, including audiences and students, not just professors, for the minimalism and literalism that reduces literature to reportage (or cliched posturing). Examples: Oprah's Book Club (and the female-oriented book club movement in general), the pervasive crappiness of popular poetry (open mike poetry readings, poetry slams, hiphop, etc.).

(9 May 2001)

I'm not assuming the innocence of students or of the general public. The reduction of aesthetics to history and sociology that distresses many of you is a malaise that permeates the general public, who can't distinguish literal facts from imaginative constructs. This disease is manifest in Oprah's book club, in poetry slams, in the behavior of students who have to assume literal real world references for fictional characters. It's a crisis of imagination that has crippled the entire society.

(11 May 2001)

Texts edited 7 & 10 January 2002

© 2001, 2002 Ralph Dumain

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Uploaded 7 January 2002
Rev. 10 January 2002

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