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Reviewed by:
  • The Task of Cultural Critique
  • Philip Goldstein
Teresa L. Ebert. The Task of Cultural Critique. Urbana: The U of Illinois P, 2009. 232 pp.

This book engages in an extended polemic against any and all cultural theories which deny the traditional Hegelian Marxism of Karl Marx, Georg Lukács, and V. I. Lenin. In other words, the book faults any theory that rejects the truth of the totality or of the determining economic base or that fails to engage in what she terms “transformative critique.” It is not that Ebert considers such cultural theories mistaken or confused; rather, she charges that such theories actively support multinational capitalism. As she says, “both the old and the new” kinds of cultural theory, “in the name of an epistemological critique, perform the task of ideology” (x). The many different versions of Marxism, including early Hegelian Marxism, structuralist or Althusserian Marxism, poststructuralist Marxism, Frankfurt School Marxism, analytic Marxism, feminist Marxism, and so on, have raised many questions about Marx’s or Lukács’ traditional Marxism, but Ebert assumes that they do not merit debate or evaluation even though Lukács, of course, consistently revised his views in the face of the successful Russian revolution as well as the triumph of Stalinism. The history of Western communist parties, the collapse of the former USSR, the revisionist practices of China and now Cuba, or the very marginal, isolated position of the American left all pose serious issues for traditional Marxism, yet Ebert simply accepts Leon Trotsky’s criticisms of Stalin as though it denies the left’s need to rethink or reevaluate traditional Marxism.

It is not that she is uninformed about contrary cultural theories. On the contrary, she provides substantial summaries of them. For example, the first chapter traces accounts of what Ebert terms the concrete from David Hume and Immanuel Kant through Friedrich Nietzsche and Jacques Derrida. [End Page 409] Despite the discontinuity of Hume’s empiricist critique of platonic abstractions and Derrida’s Heideggerian critique of the onto-theological tradition, Ebert argues that early accounts of the concrete, which include Hume’s and Kant’s accounts, opposed superstition, hierarchy, and privilege, whereas later accounts, including Nietzsche’s and Derrida’s accounts, promote individualism, distort cause and effect, deny the outside world, or implicitly, if not explicitly, accept the status quo: “The concrete, which had intervened in existing social relations, is now used in the contemporary as a justification for the ruling order” (24).

In an equally detailed and informed way, Ebert contrasts Paul de Man’s account of reading, in general, and of Proust’s Swan’s Way, in particular, with Marx and Lukács’ account of Balzac’s fiction. Her argument is that, while de Man’s reading illustrates the limits and failures of modern “cultural critique,” Marx’s and Lukács’ readings promote class consciousness and revolutionary transformation. It does not matter to her that, since the times of Marx and Lukács, who wrote mainly for working-class or left-wing radicals, modern literary critics work in universities, which developed specialized disciplines and professional standards and which educate over 50 percent of young people. It is hard for me to believe, in other words, that her extensive exposition and criticism of the theories not only of de Man but also of Derrida, Nietsche, Foucault, Butler, Hardt and Negri, and many others would interest anyone besides academic literary theorists. I grant, though, that, in a chapter on pedagogy and feminism, she acknowledges her academic contexts, for she argues that students should learn transformative critique. No doubt she expects that that would be sufficient to make them working-class revolutionaries and not just English, sociology, history, or cultural studies majors.

In addition to her critiques of such theories, she devotes several chapters to literature, including chick lit and other romances, as well as the proletarian fiction of the Russian author Alexandra Kollantai. I have space to discuss only the account of romances, which lists a number of its features but concludes that, like cultural theory, it supports multinational capitalism because the lover who wins the heroine is invariably a wealthy bourgeois or capitalist gentleman. “In other words, it is part...


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pp. 409-411
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