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  • Multiculturalism and Cultural Warfare
  • Wendell V. Harris
Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities, by John M. Ellis; vii & 262 pp. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997, $25.00.


It is easy for an American with even a rudimentary social conscience to find multiple evils in American economic, cultural, and social systems and in Western culture generally. Only willful blindness can fail to recognize continuing racial inequality and sexual discrimination, the increasing gulf between the rich and the poor, the existence of millions who lack access to adequate medical care, and a court system that has less to do with justice than with the cleverness of the lawyers one can afford. That the shrill chorus of condemnation flowing from the cultural critics currently dominating university humanities programs can point to such real evils makes it difficult to challenge these critics’ equally real confusions and excesses. Effective response is made doubly difficult by the multitude of political and religious conservatives whose response to all attempts to achieve equality is the cry “freedom is being trampled by political correctness”—one does not care to be mistaken for one of their number.

Of those who have chosen to take a stand against the present dominance (within academic and fashionable intellectual circles) of what he calls the race, gender, class (hereafter RGC) critics, John Ellis is one of the most cogent and levelheaded. The title of Ellis’s Literature [End Page 497] Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities states his central target clearly: since university literature departments have furnished the shock troops of the kind of multiculturalism Ellis deplores, literature is indeed losing its place both as a source of pleasure and as a means of broadening human understanding. The present essay is intended as a commentary on Ellis’s salient analysis of what is being lost through the political use of literary study and associated perversions of the ideal of multicultural understanding.

In expressing himself as straight-forwardly and avoiding theoretical constructs as consistently as he does, Ellis runs some risk of being taken as superficial, a possible impression that ought to be corrected at the outset. It has somehow become an article of faith among many that whatever is clear on first reading must be shallow while what is hard, or impossible, to interpret is necessarily of great import. The pleasure of reading Ellis is in fact enhanced by contrast with the ill-written prose many RGC critics produce, an exemplary reminder of which I take from the introduction to a collection of essays on multiculturalism.

I think it necessary to rupture more completely the connection insinuated by monoculturalist proponents between the epistemology of universalism and relativism on the one hand, and the politics of universality and particularity on the other. It seems more accurate to reconceive the monoculturally-construed antithetical opposition between universality and particularity at the center of political epistemology as the contrastive relations between generality and specificity. 1

Similarly, although Ellis makes a number of strong assertions, one encounters nothing as sweepingly hyperbolic as the Jameson/Greenblatt-flavored prose of the opening paragraph of “White Terror and Oppositional Agency: Towards a Critical Multiculturalism,” taken from the same anthology.

As we approach the year 2000, we increasingly are living simulated identities that help us adjust our dreams and desires according to the terms of our imprisonment as schizo-subjects in an artificially-generated world. These facsimile or imitative identities are negotiated for us by financial planners, corporate sponsors, and marketing strategists through the initiatives of transnational corporations, enabling a privileged elite of white Euro-Americans to control the information banks and terrorize the majority of the population into a state of intellectual and material impoverishment. 2 [End Page 498]

Believing in the importance of informing “the literate public” (p. 226), Ellis has directed his book at that audience: his writing is blessedly free of special argots, involuted logic, and dreary strings of abstractions. While I must demur from some of his positions (of which more later), his major arguments deserve much more serious consideration than they presently receive in most college and university classrooms. As Ellis’s own discussion makes evident, while the...

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