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Multiculturalism and Criticism

 Originally Appeared in: English Inside and Out: The Places of Literary Criticism | Published: 1993

Critics, educators, and editorialists have become increasingly embroiled in the debate over multiculturalism. The debate too often misses the essential issues by presuming that multiculturalism is something to be for or against. But whether you look at the United States or Latin America or Africa or most of the countries in Europe and Asia, modern societies are multicultural. There are many multiculturalisms. Nigeria, South Africa, India, Brazil, and Yugoslavia do not reduce to a single model. In each case, the peoples who today find their fates linked together within a particular political community have unique histories as well as a specific shared history with each other; they have particular habits and rituals of interaction, and possess evolved, usually conflicting representations of one another—all within a particular set of political institutions and traditions and in the context of particular distributions of power and wealth.

A double task is taking shape for cultural criticism. On the one hand, the multiculturalism of American society has thrown into doubt any appeal to a putatively unified cultural tradition, whether for the purposes of affirmation or critique. A plurality of cultural traditions are active within American society. None of the available constructions of a Western or Anglo-American or American tradition can encompass or sufficiently contextualize the cultural creativity within the United States today. No single stream of tradition furnishes the emergent practices and forms with their shared background. By the same token, then, no individual or social group can legitimately claim to occupy a standpoint from which the whole cultural context can be grasped or, to switch metaphors, to possess as their own the traditions relevant to contemporary cultural production. What then should be the stance and project of a new cultural criticism?

A second task has fallen to those critics committed to, broadly speaking, more egalitarian, libertarian, and pluralistic institutions and practices. For we find ourselves increasingly searching anew the resources of the Western political tradition. There is a need to enrich the idiom of social critique and the vocabulary of democratic commitment. The Marxist tradition has reached an impasse. I do not refer simply to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Western Marxism has always distanced itself, even actively disavowed the regimes that used Marxism as a discourse for legitimating power in one-party socialist states. No, the failure of Western Marxism in the revolutions of 1989 and since lay, rather, in the fact that it did not provide—and does not now provide—the social movements in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, or China with the intellectual tools for their commitments to more egalitarian, more libertarian, more pluralistic social relations and political institutions. Meanwhile, the forcefulness of Marxist cultural critique in the West has become depleted. The critique of possessive individualism, so consistently the hinge of Marxist interpretations of modern literature and culture (my own included), has not proved capable of generating an alternative conception of individual right and of individual fulfillment. Moreover, the Jacobin and Leninist conception of revolutionary politics has given way to important but still groping experiments with alternative visions of activism and social change.

The two tasks—of taking stock of the multiculturalism of contemporary society and of reviving traditions of radical democracy—are ultimately linked. The multiculturalism of American society is indeed challenging American conceptions of democracy and of the place of diversity in the body politic. As multiculturalism has begun to impinge on education and on contemporary cultural and literary criticism, neoconservative commentators like to blame an imaginary cabal of leftists who have surreptiously (and unbeknownst to ourselves) taken over academia, hellbent on stirring racial and ethnic animosities. The neoconservatives, ever mindful of tradition and neglectful of history, will not own up to the real reasons multiculturalism has entered the scene so forcefully, namely, because the United States is rife with unsolved social and political problems whose history reaches all the way back to Columbus.

The legacy of conquest, slavery, and racism has yet to become a remote past toward which all Americans might hold a shared perspective. Native American, African American, and Hispanic citizens continue to be denied full participation in the body politic, even as male dominance excluded women from the polity and today threatens their rights anew. Never have our educational institutions made a sustained and concerted effort to ensure that black Americans could retrieve, document, preserve, revive, interpret, and adopt their own history. As new waves of immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and Africa are entering the U.S., legally and illegally, it is crucial to recognize that at many moments in our history, as in the 1920s, citizenship has been impoverished and political participation eroded by racial and ethnic barriers, by the social controls imposed on new immigrants and by the discourses fashioned to justify those barriers and controls. The history of citizenship is also the history of the denial of citizenship.

The multiculturalism controversy includes a dispute over whether this history, part and parcel of American history, should even be taught in the schools. Shall we tell the children about genocide, slavery, racism, xenophobia, imperialism? Neoconservatives don’t want the children to know of these evils any more than about the body and sexuality. In the struggle over education the real stakes are the learning processes that will shape citizenship in an increasingly diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-racial society. What is required for young people or immigrants to become not only good dtizens, but indeed active citizens? What are the knowledges, the values, the capacities of discussion, organization, deliberation needed for democratic citizenship today? How will we guarantee that all citizens get equal access to the acquiring of these capacities?… 

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