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Reviewed by:
Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, eds. Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1988. 738 pp. pb. $18.95.
Michael Scriven. Paul Nizan: Communist Novelist. New York: St. Martin's, 1988. 200 pp. $35.00.

Already featured on the reading lists of cultural studies seminars across the country, Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture was first published with all the signs of being a major event. It had a right to be. Five years in the making, the book grew out of several summer-long seminars held at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana in 1983 as led by many of the best known scholars in the fields of sociology, feminism, film criticism, literary theory, and history. The seminars were capped by an international conference, whose papers are collected here as essays later revised by the authors over a two-year period and improved by the comments of hundreds of unnamed participants. Ranging widely across the disciplines, with original contributions in six languages, the book successfully captures the cross-disciplinary study of culture and claims it for Marxism. As the editors point out in their introduction, that is where cultural studies originated and where they have flourished for four decades.

Nevertheless, the volume finally has a very narrow view of what intellectual work is. It heavily slants "interpretation" in one of three directions: discourse analysis of the French strain, continental philosophy of the German inclination, and British culturalism. In that sense, a much better anthology of cultural interpretation at the street level can be found elsewhere—for example in Douglas Kahn's and Diane Neumaier's Cultures in Contention (1985) whose essays come directly from working-class intellectuals: the leaders of trade unions, members of Chicana feminist organizations, and exposé journalists, among others. Marxism, whatever else one says about it, is about classes at war. Why, then, this bias in favor of the oppressively "schooled" formulation, pitched to only one class? Why is there no attention given to the work of people like Etel Adnan, Ernesto Cardenal, Eduardo Galeano, Rigoberta Menchu, Margaret Randall, and others whose sites of intervention are the novel, the broadsheet, the literary essay, the town hall podium, and the proverbial street where the concern is not only "interpreting the world" but "changing it"? Without wanting to, the volume thus embodies a symptomatic problem of Marxist intellectual isolation and exacerbates it.

In other areas the volume manages to preempt complaints about its own selection. The global totality traditionally addressed by Marxism has rightly put the editors on guard against the implied centrality of the West when it comes to the critical subject. That particular problem is dealt with brilliantly in the essays of Gayatri Spivak and Jean Franco, for example. And yet, apart from a few token essays from Latin America, one from Yugoslavia, and one from China, there is very little original theory from outside Western Europe and the United States. The volume could easily have been dominated by the work of intellectuals from Latin American or the Arab world alone: Samir Amin, Eqbal Ahmad, Abdel-Malek, Elias Khoury; or Angel Rama, Roberto Fernandez Retamar, Luisa Valenzuela. Why wasn't it? A good deal of what goes on in the cultural criticism of [End Page 367] these writers not only is more interesting but also is more likely to extend and develop Marxism as it actually exists today. On a similar note, how can one put a volume like this together without looking at a single Soviet scholar or some other representative of actually existing socialism? How long are we going to continue pretending that all criticism in these countries is arrested within the non-category we call "Zhdanovism"?

As the introduction explains, the book is conceived in terms of a perceived rupture in Marxism after the war brought about by the rise of mass culture, the publication of Gramsci's writings, the women's movement, the New Left, and so on. We have heard this story many times. The rupture is said to give birth to what the editors call "a more sophisticated Marxism"; in volumes like this, then, it is a...

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