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November 1988

Marx & English

by D.G. Myers

A review of Politics of Letters by Richard Ohmann.

Richard Obmann Politics of Letters.
Wesleyan University Press, 319 pages, $25.95

Richard Ohmann is, by his own accounting, one of the celebrity Marxists who are being paid rather handsomely these days to subvert the university from within. Although he admits that he waited to become a radical until after securing tenure at Wesleyan University, Ohmann has atoned for his early timidity. In the past two decades he has been a leading figure in the campaign to radicalize literary studies in America. In 1968 he joined in the Putsch on the Modern Language Association. At the MLA convention that year, anti-war radicals were arrested in a scuffle in the lobby of a New York hotel, one of those arrested was subsequently elected second vice-president, and the national guild of literary scholars adopted resolutions pledging to resist the government’s efforts to conscript students and demanding an immediate end to the war in Vietnam. It was Ohmann who nominated Marxist scholar Louis Kampf for the vice-presidency and Ohmann in his capacity as editor of College English who served as chief apologist for the events at the MLA. Others as well as he have dated the escalating politicization of English studies from this first radical coup.

Since that time Ohmann has published English in America (1976), an examination of the various ways in which English departments contribute to the military-industrial complex; and now he has come forth with Politics of Letters, a miscellany of essays, lectures, scholarly papers, and talks to teachers. The present volume is the fruit of more than a decade’s toil.

Like the earlier book, Politics of Letters is distinguished by passionate intensity, unswerving analysis, and the refusal to take anything in the academic study of literature for granted. Its prescriptions are those of someone familiar with (and weary of) the traditions of literary scholarship and the habits of literary scholars. But the new book is doctrinally sounder than its predecessor. As Ohmann says in a note, English in America “would have had more coherence if [it had been] firmly rooted in marxism [sic]. At the time,” he says, “I knew too little of that tradition to make it my own, or write under its banner.” In this new book, Ohmann has corrected the deficiency. Each of the twenty chapters of Politics of Letters is an exercise in the Marxist analysis of a different subject. Among other things Ohmann examines the function of English as an academic discipline (it conceals the way society really works), the process by which The Catcher in the Rye became a classroom text (its anti-capitalist message was blunted by critics), the need to revise the study of prose style (it must be made to reveal the inadequacy of men’s adjustment to capitalist society), the rise of advertising (it created a climate of opinion congenial to monopoly capital), and oral history as a literary genre (it is devoted to making the privileged classes uneasy with their privilege). In short, Oh-mann’s latest book is a bravura performance in the application of Marxist doctrine to nearly any scholarly puzzle.

Though its analyses may (like its prose) be grinding, charmless, and predictable, Politics of Letters is invaluable in two respects. First, it serves as a useful anthology of the radical ideas in vogue in literary studies at the present moment. And second, it spoons out a generous, representative sampling of the sort of thinking now being offered in the name of radicalism in the university.

As a professor of English, Ohmann is principally concerned with two facets of the Western “system founded on exploitation"— literature and education. As a Marxist, he sees his part as that of “demystifying” this system—that is, of unmasking the true power structure behind it and the “rationalizations,” the involved lies, used to prop it up. The ideas which Ohmann puts into play are not original; but if their widespread acceptance in the university is any indication, they are no less powerful for that. They are the accepted doctrines of literary study at the present time. Thus literature by definition is a commodity, the product of a social process (the writer who thinks he is the producer of his own work has only mystified his role); literary standards, the principles which govern the production of literature, are not really literary at all—in truth, there is no such quality as “literary"—but are rather a stratagem of the ruling class to extend its moral and political values into another domain; taste, traditionally described as the faculty of aesthetic judgment, “amounts to either class hatred or the snobbishness of the intellectual,” and therefore can be more accurately understood as one of the powers of the elite; and, finally, literary language is an assertion of exclusiveness and superiority. By contrast, literature under the new dispensation will “create a new consciousness.” It is the job of the Marxist critic, then, to clear away the remnants of the old consciousness.

The philosophy of university education which accompanies these ideas is no less political and deterministic. According to Ohmann, “what universities pay [professors] to do—teach—is our main political praxis.” Teaching, in other words, is the whole focus of a radical professor’s political activities. And the “praxis” of teaching goes hand in hand with a revised theory of instruction. To Ohmann’s way of thinking, the traditional school exists only to reinforce divisions within society, to curb the aspirations of the lower classes—in a word, to serve the hegemony of the oligarchs. When a teacher corrects a student, he is not urging him to make a mental effort under criticism; he is assigning him a place forever in the class system.

There are deep problems with such a theory of the school. Ohmann is contemptuous of the mental skills and habits traditionally associated with a humanistic education— “punctuality, good verbal manners, submission to authority, attention to problem-solving assignments set by someone else, long hours spent in one place . . . .” He sees them as a function of class without recognizing in them the very disciplines of scholarship and the life of the mind. It is difficult, though, to imagine how a child is to overcome his class origins without these skills and habits. Ohmann describes the school as yet another illustration of Antonio Gram-sci’s doctrine of hegemony; throughout the book Gramsci’s name is a touchstone for him. But Ohmann’s theories would have been repudiated by Gramsci himself. For Gramsci, who overcame his own squalid origins by dint of study, the traditional humanistic school was “oligarchic” not because of what it taught but because it was restricted to the children of the upper class. The skills and habits taught in school were not, however, a subterfuge for hegemony. “In education,” Gramsci wrote, “one is dealing with children in whom one has to inculcate certain habits of diligence, precision, poise (even physical poise), ability to concentrate on specific subjects, which cannot be acquired without the mechanical repetition of disciplined and mechanical acts.”

For Ohmann, by contrast, formal schooling must “empower” the student, even if it robs him of the power to cultivate himself; and it must liberate him, even from the preconditions of learning. The final purpose of education in this view is not to initiate the young into their culture; it is to deny them their culture in the fond hope that, without resources, they will somehow build culture anew. Given the cynicism of this view, one can’t help thinking that the true objects of Ohmann’s contempt are not the “disciplined and mechanical acts” performed in school but the students themselves.

By his own admission, Ohmann’s ideas are not exactly original—"familiar truths,” he calls them, the watchwords of “the 1960s reform movements, now much condemned” (though not by Ohmann). In fact, one way to characterize Politics of Letters is as an attempt to rehabilitate the ideas of the Sixties, to give them a sophisticated theoretical basis in Marxism. Ohmann describes the academic movement to which he belongs as a renewal of Marxism. In actuality it is the formalization, the Henry Higginsing, of the counterculture.

What is less familiar than Ohmann’s “truths,” and perhaps more striking, is the style of rhetoric which Ohmann enlists on their behalf. It’s been said that a writer’s rhetoric is a surer index of his true character than are the opinions he professes. By this measure, Richard Ohmann is a centrist, a standpatter. If he is at all representative of the academic Left as it exhibits itself today, it may be said that the Left has become the party of fonctinnaires within the university— the salaried experts and technicians dedicated only to preserving their power. For Ohmann’s style is principally that of a man who is carrying out a mandate, who is implementing a policy, who has reduced Marxist analysis to a routine. He feels no need to argue his case. It seems glaringly obvious to him. “I can’t prove any of this,” he says at one point, “but I ask you to entertain it as at least a plausible explanation, one rooted in class.” The style is chronic: “I may now air my prejudices with only slight interference from the facts"; “I can’t prove it here"; “I cannot elaborate on or prove my case . . . .” Or again: after delivering a highly tendentious account of the way that television news suppresses class conflict in America, Ohmann maintains that what he has given is “only a description—not controversial, I think—of the class relations that surround television news.” His expectation that such a radical analysis will not be viewed as controversial—only a neutral description— reveals much about his perception of his audience.

Again and again in Politics of Letters, Ohmann airs his prejudices with only slight interference from the facts. What is the reason for such an unconvincing mode of thought? It isn’t that Ohmann fails to recognize that certain of his positions are currently under fire. He feels he must attack E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and former Secretary of Education William Bennett for defending the principles of excellence and traditionality in education. At the same time, however, Ohmann does not attempt to refute either man. For him it is enough to say that he personally dislikes Bennett and that he hopes Bennett’s approving citation of Cultural Literacy has caused Hirsch “therapeutic discomfort.” Ohmann knows, in advance, that his audience will not object to the way he handles his opposition; nor will it demand that he resolve the dispute between him and his opponents. For Ohmann’s audience—for the present university community—there is no dispute. This is why Ohmann can, as he does in one essay, ridicule the phrase “freedom fighters” as “political legerdemain” and go on to describe President Reagan as the “Emperor of the Free World”—or why he is able to dismiss the “free market” as a meaningless abstraction and continue to speak of “popular revolution.” He can rely upon his audience not to object to, or even to notice, his own abstractions and legerdemain.

The one purpose of such a rhetorical style is to reaffirm a sense of common cause among a party of the faithful. Ohmann would like the members of this party to be known as “critical intellectuals,” but they lack the ironic self-reflexivity of true critics and intellectuals. In reality they are members of a party in power. What Ohmann’s style of argument in Politics of Letters reveals is the high degree of consensus to be found today among the cadres of this party. The mere fact that radical ideology can now be taken for granted as the common opinion of readers of literary scholarship suggests that the Left has become the “center,” the normative position, in the university.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 7 November 1988, on page 72

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