- Defending Pluralism: The Chicago School and the Case of Tom Jones
Over the past two decades, walter benn michaels has established himself as a strident critic of diversity.1 His target is a broad one, encompassing everything from multiculturalism to “diversity of thought,” but his attack is elegantly focused.2 The academic Left, he argues, has betrayed its progressive politics by claiming an intrinsic value for diversity. Encouraging the poor and disenfranchised to believe that equality lies not in struggling for material redress, but in embracing their alienation, the Left has masked the need for social struggle, encouraging the status quo. Though celebrated as a progressive value, diversity is actually conservative. Michaels’s argument has been dismissed by many academics, and even those who profess sympathy for his position have accused him of a “zero-sum logic” that forces a false choice between promoting diversity and alleviating poverty.3 As Michael Rothberg declares: “Why do we need to turn an analytic distinction between class and, say, race and gender into a normative valuation of one over the other?” (308). While acknowledging Michaels’s emphasis on class, such responses sidestep his fundamental objection to diversity. Indeed, by suggesting that his call for a class-based politics can find a place alongside other progressive voices, they try to incorporate him into the very pluralism he rejects. Whatever the virtues of Michaels’s argument, his challenge to diversity is not regarded as being one of them.
This article will offer a different response to Michaels, one that does not dismiss his criticism of diversity outright, but uses it to generate a different account of the value of pluralism. As Michaels notes, literary claims for the intrinsic worth of diversity originate in New Criticism (SS 109). Against historically minded scholars who tried to fix the meaning of literature by determining its cultural and psychological origins, the New Critics set out to free meaning by celebrating the inherent richness of poetic language. Many New Critics, moreover, justified this approach by connecting it to a progressive politics, arguing that the richness of poetry was an ideal introduction to democratic pluralism. In the words of John Crowe Ransom’s The New Criticism (1941): [End Page 653]
A poem is a democratic state, hoping not to be completely ineffective, not to fail ingloriously in the business of a state, by reason of the constitutional scruple through which it retains itself faithfully from a really imperious degree of organization. It wants its citizens to retain their personalities and enjoy their natural interests.4
Written against the backdrop of the Second World War, The New Criticism stakes poetry as an alternative to the “imperious . . . organization” of fascism. A poem, like “a democratic state,” is full of distinct “personalities” that are each accorded the liberty to express themselves. And while this structure would seem to be “completely ineffective,” the fact that a poem retains its aesthetic unity demonstrates that pluralism is not an invitation to chaos, but to a freer, more densely meaningful way of life.5
Although New Criticism was attacked in the 1970s and 1980s for its insistence on unity, its emphasis on the progressive value of diversity was amplified in the work of its critics. Many of these critics had themselves received their early training from New Critics, and while they replaced the vaguely transcendental metaphysics of New Criticism with deconstruction, poststructuralism, and other postmodern antimetaphysics, they retained its formalist strategies for pluralizing meaning. These formalist strategies, as Michaels points out, were then appropriated by critics who argued that culture could be viewed through the same hermeneutic lens that had pluralized literature (SS 13–14, 110–13). Reversing Ransom’s equation of the poem with the state, these cultural critics turned the state into a poem. Ransom’s delight in the individual “personalities” of a poem became a celebration of the personalities of readers. It is here, Michaels points out, that the cracks begin to show in the contemporary justification for diversity. To begin with, this justification depends upon an entirely self-contained logic. A theory of politics is justified by a theory of poetry that was itself justified by a...