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Loose Canons: Notes
On the Culture Wars
by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Oxford University Press
"HE SIMPLY DOES NOT speak for the Black community at Harvard," I was told a couple weeks ago about DuBois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis Gates Jr. "He's just not integrated with what many young Blacks are feeling."
Really? Why not?
"I'm not sure he understands us."
Fair enough. Unfamiliar with most of Gates' work (and, aside from blockmates, unfamiliar with the Black community here), I couldn't really comment. So when I read Loose Canons recently, I watched for Gates' views on campus strife, Black students and the feelings of young Blacks in America. I found much more.
Gates, as he likes to tell the audiences so eager to hear from him these days, thinks of himself as a moderate. That was his problem with Duke University, he told a packed Junior Parents Weekend crowd last March. Folks at Duke, where he taught until coming to Harvard last year, thought he was a radical. No ordinary intellectual, but a deconstructing, canon-busting lefty. The charge, he told the group, was overstated. He was right.
GATES' NEW BOOK, LOOSE CANONS: Notes on the Culture Wars, is a collection of 10 essays, most of them previously published, many of them brilliant. Written mainly in 1990-91, they were printed in everything from Newsweek to PMLA.
Two are hit-and-miss, near-slapstick stories about one "Sam Slade," a private investigator who eventually sells out to the worldwide network of conspirators defending The Canon. (One of the conspirators is Porter University Professor Helen Vendler, who orders her bodyguard "Malloy" to throw an over-inquisitive Slade out of the New York Harvard Club.) Most, however, are serious essays--from the lucid "Integrating the American Mind" to the wandering "Trading on the Margin."
Basically, Gates' project is to offer a defense of multicultural curricula and Afro-American studies programs. But in broader, no-less-successful terms, he seeks to explore two questions: What is a national identity? How does cultural pluralism fit into such an identity?
The defense of multiculturalism frames Gates' on-target attack on the right. The second essay, "The Master's Pieces," opens with a scathing assault on former Secretary of Education William Bennett and cultural critic Allan Bloom '56, chargins that they "symbolize for us the nostalgic return to what I think of as the 'antebellum aesthetic position,' when men were men, and men were white, when scholar-critics were white men, and when women and persons of color were voiceless, faceless servants,...filling brandy snifters in the boardrooms of old boy's clubs."
The problem, however, is not just a couple of reactionary men; they "are really symptomatic of a larger political current." Indeed, Washington Post reporter Thomas B. Edsall has shown that in the electoral realm, conservatives in the 1980s successfully linked race with welfare dependency, crime and illegitimacy--a general decline of "American" values.
Similarly, we find in Gates' book that these conservatives feared that the women and people of color who were entering traditional literary institutions would disrupt the canon of literary values and force what they called "tribal" or "parochial" cultural traditions on Anglo-American culture.
Because the culture of the majority had "masked itself as universal," Gates says, its canonization was justified. "[T]he strong poet will abide," a character in one of stories says. "The weak will not. All else is commentary. Politics has nothing to do with it."
But Gates exposes the partisan nature of he canon defenders' supposedly apolitical agenda. "[C]onservative critics," he says in the Introduction, "have never hesitated to provide a political defense of what they consider the 'traditional' curriculum: The future of the republic, they argue, depends on the inculcation of proper civic virtues."
Gates actually agrees in a sense. In "Integrating the American Mind," he says "Allan Bloom is right to ask about effect of higher education on our kids' moral development, even though that's probably the only thing he is right about." In fact, this sentiment is at the core of the central programmatic tenet of Loose Canons--that we must create an educational system that fosters "a civic culture that respects both differences and commonalities." This will be a system "that seeks to comprehend the diversity of human culture" since (and this is the Gates mantra) "[t]here is no tolerance without respect--and no respect without knowledge."
Practically, this means "a required Humanities Course that's truly humanistic," Gates says, building on his belief that in the past "the humanities' has not meant the best that has been thought by all human beings"--just by white men.
At some baseline point for Gates, focusing on the hybrid and the multicultural is really just acknowledging reality. Drawing on postmodern views of culture as a variegated pastiche, he argues that today, "[m]ixing and hybridity are the rule, not the exception.
In this sense, then, "[v]ulgar cultural nationalists...like Allan Bloom or Leonard Jeffrey...are whistling in the wind." Whether they falsely assert Anglo-American culture as universal (a la Bloom) or "lay claim to the ideal of 'blackness' as an ideology or a quasi religion, totalized and essentialized into a protofascist battering ram supervised by official thought police" (a la Jeffries), they fail to ready the young for the world they will face.
Gates says in Chapter 2 that the goal must be "to prepare our students for their roles as citizens of a world culture." The ever-defended "West" of Bennett and Bloom is properly conceived as part of a "larger whole" without a gelatinized, fixed canon but with a "porous, dynamic, and interactive" culture.
At one point he notes that we are all ethnics of one sort or another. The goal, then, is to destroy all forms of "ethnic chauvinism." The right must recognize, he says late in the book, that multiculturalism resulted from the fragmentation of American society, not vice versa.
Oddly enough, at some points Gates offers his own "traditional" justification for all this--from the writings of Cardinal Newman to the "age-old ideal" of mathesis universalis to simple "common sense" (which is used by the right to defend the Anglo-American canon "common sense," for example, might say that Shakespeare is "better" than Zora Neale Hurston).But in this case, Gates says, "[c]ommon sense says that you don't bracket 90 percent of the world's cultural heritage if you really want to learn about the world." Good point.
GATES SKEWERS THE LEFT as well, although here we can find more to complain about. Much of his critique centers around carving out a role for the evaluation of texts by literary critics like himself--as opposed to trashing all evaluation as a tool of capitalist, white male oppression.
But Gates says while "[p]eople often like to represent the high canonical texts as the reading matter of the power elite," it's not that simple. Can you imagine Vice President Dan Quayle 'leafing through the Princess Cassimassima"? Gates can't either.
No, canonization itself is not the problem, Gates believes. He says that "The mindless celebration of difference for its own sake" is no better than "the nostalgic return to some monochrome homogeneity."
And anyway, we each have a canon--a place where "we have written down the texts and tiles that we want to remember." For society to do so is inevitable and desirable. Gates speaks several times of personally helping to edit a new canon, in fact--the Norton Anthology of African American Literature. But doesn't all of this mean he's just selling out like Slade?
Perhaps. It seems to me that his defense of canonization makes the debate simply an academic one among scholars who will use their own subjective criteria to determine what is "better." Bloom and his cronies will always decide Shakespeare and Austen are "better" than Kerouac and Toni Morrison.
How can Gates say that his criteria are somehow more justifiable? Clearly the blind acceptance of all texts of difference would be a syllabus writer's nightmare, but don't the very structures an institutions of acceptance and denial ensure that some people will remain voiceless?
Gates' answer would be something like: Only if they are very bad writers. His ideal for a canon formation committee would include "a diverse array of ideological, methodological, and theoretical perspectives." In this manner, he hopes to achieve a larger conversation among many voices about what we should teach.
Ultimately, that teaching is paramount. Gates tosses out the relativism that would refuse to teach anything to our children and appears willing to accept--or, more precisely, unwilling to acknowledge--that any standards will leave some people out, even if those standards are drawn up by the most diverse bunch available.
Instead, Gates says "we've got to borrow a leaf from the right, which is exemplarily aware of the role of education in the reproduction of values." Gates just wants to reproduce the "correct" values. And why not? The alternative is the teaching of the present "aesthetic and political order," composed of the subjective experiences of white men, reconstituted in the texts of the canon.
Institutions will always exist, Gates tells us. It must be our task to change them and shape them to include the reconstituted subjective experiences of a broader range of people. "The choice is not between institutions and no institutions," he says. "The choice is always: What kind of institutions will there be?"
Denying women an people of color the ability to evaluate their voices and shape their own canon "leaves us nowhere, invisible and voiceless," Gates believes. Thus, Afro-American studies. Practically, multicultural programs can decrease some of the alienation found on college campuses among minority students. But this cannot be the only goal. Ultimately, our incomplete canon leaves academics with an incomplete view of the world. Ultimately, to reject multiculturalism is to reject intellectualism.
Finally, Gates' request is a limited one, and it's a dismal comment on the state of academia that he has to pose it. "Equal access to the arts and the humanities, broadly reconceived, is the most important cultural project upon which we can embark." Gates simply wants equal access to the institutions which perpetuate human culture. there's no call for separatism in his writing. He doesn't give an inch to Jeffriesism, which can only "drown out critical inquiry."
There are two major problems here. First, the pace. According to Gates, we have no choice but to work for the opening of literary (and political) institutions to people of color and women. We have no choice but to attempt to change them. While some college curricula are becoming more inclusive, how long will this take? Gates has no answer.
Second, because of the time, people will grow impatient. While Gates insists that Blacks should study their heritage only as part of the larger whole, the urge to separate and essentialize may well dominate.
Gates' only remedy for alienated Black youth is expanded federal aid for minorities to attend college, new job training programs and renewed attention to America's cities. Exactly right. But how, in the meantime, do we deal with the pain of once-silenced voices struggling to speak? He isn't sure, which may explain why that student told me that Gates was not in touch with Black youth.
In the end, Loose Canons is required reading for anyone who seeks to understand the politics of identity in America. This book doesn't provide all the right answers, but it raises all the right questions. And in the end, Gates' is a moderate voice, and one that must be heard by both right and left. As he says, the goal has to be exploration of "the hyphen in African-American," not simply one side or the other.
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