The Liberal Imagination and the Four Dogmas of Multiculturalism
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The Liberal Imagination and the Four Dogmas of Multiculturalism 1

The emergence of “culture” as an arena of intense political contestation and controversy is certainly one of the most puzzling aspects of our current condition. We are daily confronted with various “culture wars” and skirmishes. From Supreme Court decisions concerning the right of performance artists to smear themselves with excrement-like substances to the rebuke of the so-called “cultural Left” by Richard Rorty and Todd Gitlin, from struggles over how to preserve historical memory through public art works to constitutional decisions, most recently by a Canadian court, that orally transmitted documents of Native American peoples could be treated as legitimate evidence in the eyes of the law, the politics of culture surrounds us.

This was not always so. In the premodern period, and even now in some societies, culture’s products and processes have often been part of the legitimizing world-views of dominant political structures. Culture, in this sense, has served the ruling elite’s exercise of power by offering the powerless schemes of symbolic justification for obeying and accepting the dominant form of authority. But, for much of the world, modernity has brought the decentering of such world-views, through the achievements of the mathematically based modern sciences of nature and the disenchantment of religion. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, struggles have been waged for the emancipation of science, jurisprudence, morality and aesthetics from the authority of all-encompassing religious world-views. Max Weber named this process “Wertausdifferenzierung,” value differentiation. He argued that culture, in the modern state and in a capitalist economy, increasingly becomes the arena of opposition, at times political, but also, very often, of the transcendence of everydayness.

Today the cultural sphere still performs the functions of political legitimation and everyday transfiguration; but new claims raised by various groups in the name of this or that aspect of cultural identity contest within the welfare state for redistribution and recognition. “The culture wars” are, in my view, unintelligible unless we understand more clearly how culture has become a ubiquitous synonym for identity, as well as an identity-marker and differentiator. In some respects, culture has always been that. What is novel is that social and political groups forming around such identity-markers plead for special recognition from the state and its agencies in the name of their cultural specificity. This is the distinctiveness of our current post-socialist condition.

Such claims certainly confound the meaning of culture invoked by Lionel [End Page 401] Trilling in his famous preface to The Liberal Imagination. Trilling, like Weber, saw in political liberalism a trend toward the “formal-rational organization” of politics, the law, economics and administration: “So far as liberalism is active and positive, so far, that is, as it moves toward organization, it tends to select the emotions and qualities that are most susceptible of organization. As it carries out its active and positive end it unconsciously limits its view of the world to what it can deal with, and it unconsciously tends to develop theories and principles, particularly in relation to the nature of the human mind, that justify its limitation.” 2 I want to suggest that today’s resort to “culture” as a group-identity marker and a justification for claims against or within the state constitutes a challenge, sometimes even an affront, both to the originary humanist liberalism whose passage into bureaucratic administration Weber and Trilling lamented, and to what is best in universalist liberalism that evolved from the original affirmations of autonomy and individual dignity. In a dense passage, Trilling attributes to liberalism a “great primal act of imagination by which it establishes its essence and existence.” Yet, forgetting this act, and in “the very interest of affirming its confidence in the power of mind, [liberalism] inclines to constrict and make mechanical its conception of the power of mind” (xi). Trilling does not develop further this paradox between the genesis and organization of liberalism: the act of imagination which founds liberalism is not spelled out more closely. Trilling is concerned rather with the way in which liberalism turns away from the breadth and depth of the imagination toward...