- Thinking Across the American Grain
Giles Gunn has emerged as a major voice in that cacophonous semi-discipline known as American Studies. Every time the American Studies Association meets, it seems to be seized by a new collective enthusiasm. One year it might be Victor Turner, the next it’s Annette Kolodny, or John Stilgoe, or Henry Louis Gates, Jr., or Nina Baym. Such commotions are in part symptomatic of the Association’s puppy-like eagerness to be identified with changing intellectual fashions. But they also represent a remarkable record of committed intellectual openness and daring. I anticipate that everyone will be discussing Giles Gunn this year.
Thinking that is “aslant” or “cross-hatched,” or that runs “across the grain” or “on the bias” is Gunn’s preferred mode of critical practice. He sees it as a means, if not of escape, then at least of fragmentary and fitful release from the worst constraints of that prison house of language and culture that an assortment of poststructuralists, ideology critics, new historicists, deconstructionists, and neopragmatists from Michel Foucault to Richard Rorty have contended is all that is left of what used to be called the human condition.
Postmodernism’s antifoundationalism has rendered an independent critical perspective unattainable and thrown into question the very possibility of a critique of culture that is not implicated in that culture’s own repressive practices. By thinking across postmodernism, what Gunn seeks to achieve is not a new “grounding,” but something more akin to a fingernail-hold somewhere in the rough, uneven, scratchy grain of cultural experience. For he argues that, contrary to the impression, and often the explicit arguments, made by many of our most compelling contemporary critics, the web of culture, of ideology, of power, is not seamless or monolithic; that “The grain of cultural experience is . . . interwoven and cross-hatched in ways that make it possible for the predications of which it is composed not only to confront but also, as it were, to address one another” (38).
Gunn’s aim, then, is to “complement” rather than to “contest” the recent tide of thought from the Continent (3). And his instrument for doing so is Pragmatism, a method of approaching problems whose formulation at the hands of William James and John Dewey not only anticipates, but, he argues, also addresses directly, precisely those predicaments raised by the postmodern thinkers. Gunn misses no opportunity to reveal the “convertibility . . . of pragmatist motifs into postmodernist preoccupations” (7). Accordingly, he divides his book into two parts, the first concerned with rethinking the pragmatist heritage in light of contemporary cultural critiques, and the second with shedding a pragmatist light on certain vexing, contemporary critical problems.
Quite literally occupying the center of the book is the formidable figure of Richard Rorty. The last chapter of Part One and the first chapter of Part Two can be seen as an extended critique by which Gunn seeks first to challenge, and then perhaps even to some degree to displace, Rorty as the leading contemporary pragmatist theorist of liberal society.
The central issue, for American as for Continental critics, is the Enlightenment and its heritage of liberalism. But for Americans the problem has a somewhat different resonance than it would have for, say, Bataille, Foucault, or Habermas. Gunn thus characterizes Rorty’s project as “the most important political attempt since John Dewey to resituate the tradition of American pragmatism within the broader framework of modern Western liberalism” (96). This effort is noteworthy because
pragmatism, or neopragmatism as it is now called, has come to be associated with cultural currents that are thought to be postliberal, if not antiliberal, in some very specific ways. It aligns itself . . . with the postmodernist and poststructuralist repudiation of culture as an expression of individual consciousness woven into patterns of consensus and dissent, of conformity and conflict, and it prefers to view culture as an intertextual system of signs that can be infinitely redescribed.(96)
In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge UP, 1989), Rorty’s elucidation of the role of contingency in the formation...