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  • Pain-in-the-ass Democracy
  • Jeffrey T. Nealon
Review of: John McGowan, Democracy’s Children: Intellectuals and the Rise of Cultural Politics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2002.

Are we so confident in our current formulations that we would not value the person who comes along to challenge them? More likely than not, that person is a pain in the ass.

(McGowan 224)

In Democracy’s Children, John McGowan goes out of his way to be a pain in the ass—as long as we understand that term in the very circumscribed manner he outlines in our epigraph: a person who ceaselessly examines, challenges, and unsettles many of our longstanding beliefs and assumptions. McGowan’s project, he admits, is “to provoke as much as convince” (95), and there is much both convincing and provocative to recommend Democracy’s Children.

Like McGowan’s earlier books, Postmodernism and Its Critics and Hannah Arendt: An Introduction, Democracy’s Children is an exceedingly smart and deft surgical strike to the heart of contemporary debates about intellectuals and politics. Among the dozens of books published on this topic, I know of none that will so quickly and persuasively orient the reader within these crucial debates. McGowan cuts decisively to the crux of critical arguments, and more importantly, he offers a series of paths away from the stale platitudes that too often adhere to cultural criticism. “I am an intellectual,” McGowan insists, “not a scholar” (1)—and in a personal style that quickly gains the reader’s attention and trust, he takes us on a guided critical tour of the fraught relations among contemporary intellectual production, academic work, and politics.

McGowan’s most sustained engagement here is with critical in-fighting among academic intellectuals themselves, the tendency of many intellectual debates to become intramural wars of position, rather than useful critical interventions. “What I am trying to combat,” he writes in the book’s introduction, “is the narcissism of intellectuals, their tendency to find their own ambiguous position in modern societies endlessly fascinating. ‘This is not about us,’ I want to scream” (5). Later he expands on this claim, in another of the book’s many spot-on, “pain in the ass” critical moments: “manifestos with footnotes capture the laughable plight of today’s would-be intellectual, a careerist in the university who believes himself to be a threat to the status quo. Luckily, he has Roger Kimball to bolster his self-esteem” (79). Not the sort of thing academic intellectuals like to hear, but increasingly the sort of problem that intellectuals need to confront. What might “resistance” or “critique” mean in a climate where the dominant mode of power shares intellectuals’ suspicion of something called “the status quo”? And how might intellectual work be rethought or reoriented to give it some traction in public debates? These are the questions that fuel McGowan’s inquiry into intellectual work.

Democracy’s Children also constitutes a thoroughgoing interrogation of the roots of contemporary cultural studies in North America: “the very enterprise of cultural studies,” McGowan argues, “marks our Victorianism” (141). As he expands on this claim, McGowan insists that “loyalty to culture is almost always reactionary in every sense of that term. Such loyalty tends to be negative, to exist as a defensive resistance to change, without any positive plan of action” (182). Culture, then, is the abstract, oddly contentless Victorian moniker for all those things that might have saved Victorians from complete adherence to instrumental rationality, the market, and the commonplace.

But culture is our code word for such hopes, as well—the hopes of a critical practice that would subvert or overturn the economic leveling effects of late capitalism. On McGowan’s view, such faith in culture is either hopelessly abstract, or much too particularist. “With dreams of revolution lost,” he writes, “local resistance to capitalism often seems the best hope available” (182). At the vanguard of the contemporary fight against capitalism, McGowan argues, the enemy to be overcome is both “their” vision of the future and “our” nostalgia for the subversive past, when the realm of culture challenged the repressive forces of capitalism. We, the other Arnoldians: contemporary radicals fighting from tenured pulpits, just as the...

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