Steve Vivian - The Per Contra Interview with Bill Turner
BT - Does political correctness lead to problems with drawing conclusions about morality or ethics in literature?
SV - Literature has always been a lightning rod for morality, broadly speaking; Plato suggested banning poetry, for instance, and down through the centuries, literature has drawn attacks from all sides. Now, in the context of contemporary academic criticism, PC tends to reduce literature to “morality” and “ethics” in an especially narrow way. As we’ve noted earlier in our discussion, present day PC’s obsession is race/class/gender; PC shrivels the diversity of human experience (and the diversity of literature) into a pre-fab boilerplate of grievance.
PC is typically hostile to what it would consider a traditional ethical interpretation of literature--say, one based on Christianity or upon the humanist philosophy of the Enlightenment. Therefore, the PC critic would complain (rightfully so) that routinely attacking literature as “unchristian” greatly diminishes literature. Of course, the PC approach also reduces literature. At the same time, given the PC tendency to patronize non-Western culture, an overtly Islamic critique of literature would get a more respectful reading. This more respectful reading would, at its core, simply be an expression of bad faith, but PC critics often turn “respect for other cultures” into a very silly fetish. That’s why, by the way, PC has such a difficult time talking directly about the often appalling treatment of women and minorities in the Third Word. In the West, bad treatment of women and minorities is rightfully excoriated; in the Third World, the bad treatment is respected as a diverse culture practice.
So, to return to your question about drawing conclusions about ethics and morality: the answer depends entirely upon the ethic we’re discussing. If the particular ethic is Western (save Marxism, of course), then yes, PC will reject the approach as parochial and naive; if the particular ethic is Marxist or non-Western, then PC will fall all over itself in a fit of bad faith genuflection.
By the way, PC logic, if we can use the term “logic” for a train of thought so incoherent, is based upon two contradictory arguments. On the one hand, PC critics often claim that all truth claims are radically contingent. Therefore, the argument that no universal truths exist is self-refuting (the argument itself claims to be universal). PC critics trot out the contingency argument to shoot down what they think are “universal” claims of Western culture. So for instance, this argument is used to knock Shakespeare off his pedestal; more generally, its used to shoot holes in the idea that Western ideals of the Enlightenment are anything more than one “narrative” among many others and has no special intrinsic value. Some take this to especially asinine extremes, such as claims that Western science is simply another narrative among many others. (Right wing primitivists have made amusing use of this argument by attacking natural selection and evolution as just another theory among competing choices, such as intelligent design).
On the other hand: the PC critics abandon the contingency argument whenever they interrogate a text to reveal its race/class/gender biases or complicities. Suddenly, the relativists are absolutists, holding up a text against an absolutely rigid standard of ethics. This logical incoherence, relativists one day, absolutists the next day shows that the PC critics simply grab whatever club happens to suit their interests of the moment.
BT - While popular fiction may be more immune to political analysis, does political correctness damage its intellectual value by inhibiting potential exploration of certain themes or ideas? If so, what example would best summarize that conclusion? If not, do you think popular fiction is completely unaffected by political correctness?
SV - That’s a really interesting question. I suspect that we’ll never quite know the answer, however, as PC can act as a gate-keeper in publishing houses, to various degrees. As I noted in earlier in our discussion of the novelist whose work featured a Chinese protagonist, many manuscripts no doubt never see the light of day. Thankfully, there are some publishing houses that recognize this insidious suppression. For instance, a press in New Jersey, The Emperor’s New Clothes, is explicitly anti-PC and publishes novels with specifically non-PC themes and approaches. Mean Martin Manning, which Per Contra recently reviewed, is one such example. However, such willingness to take on the PC status quo is rare, and I’d quickly add that the willingness to take it on should be applauded and supported by readers and critics who are sick of PC conformity and outright servility.
Additionally, there are of course many novels out there that have survived the “praise” of narrow criticism. Just as one quick example: Kelly Cherry’s very fine Sick and Full of Burning has been called “feminist” literature, and in an important sense that’s certainly true. But the novel is so much more than that: it bristles with humor and emotion and writerly craft. I mention this simply as one novel that careful readers would never reduce to boilerplate grievance.
BT - Perhaps the most insidious charge that could be leveled at political correctness is that it stifles innovation and new ideas. Ideas are a threat to the status quo and can challenge accepted dogma. Do you think that a paucity of new ideas exists in modern literary fiction as a result of political correctness, or that new ideas are severely muted by it? If so, how is it possible to overcome this problem?
SV - Again, PC can act as a gatekeeper within publishing, especially the larger publishing houses that pay far too much attention to what the literati think. Therefore, we can reasonably assume that some worthy manuscripts never see the light of day. On occasion, however, a big title can break through. One that comes to mind is Jonathan Franzens’ The Corrections. As many of your readers know, it’s a big, sprawling book that, whatever one may finally think of it, is unlike a lot of other contemporary fiction written by a prestige author; typically, today’s highly respected prestige authors produce postmodern novels (that is, fiction that’s highly self-conscious in its manipulation of narrative conventions). I recall reading a remark by Franzen--I’m paraphrasing, but this captures the essence--that before writing The Corrections, Franzen concluded that, as a white male novelist, he’d concluded that his niche was to write postmodern fiction. In other words, to maintain respectability among the literati, he’d have to produce narratives somewhat along the lines of DeLilo or David Foster Wallace. That’s a revealing statement, one that really captures today’s identity politics--that is, the PC obsession with race/class/gender. To be respectable--that is, to score points with the academics and intellectuals--white males are consigned to postmodern fiction.
BT - Per Contra is proud to present writers from around the world. These writers present a view of life from a variety of new and exciting perspectives. Soviet dissidents caused great harm to utopian views of communism in the west. Iranian poets are shedding light on the excesses of the repressive regime in their country, showing that authoritarian rule is brutal, even if it is cloaked in religious and multi-cultural disguises. Is it possible that a powerful tool to combat political correctness is to place life and issues in new contexts?
SV - Is it possible? Absolutely. And its one of the most exciting developments that one could hope for. The work of dissidents from repressive regimes poses a powerful challenge to PC. As we’ve noted, PC is abjectly patronizing to non-Western culture. Therefore, in years past, the PC critics breezily dismissed attacks upon the Soviet Union as merely reactionary. The Soviet Union, remember, was praised by many Western intellectuals as the last best hope of humanity. History has been very unkind to this view, obviously, but the apologists for Soviet authoritarianism weren’t interested in the mere facts of the USSR; they were interested in scoring points against the U.S. and Western Europe. Fortunately, on occasion, a writer of sufficient talent broke through and shed real light upon the USSR’s repressions and cruelties. Solzhenitsyn is the obvious example here. Besides knowing first-hand the brutalities of the Soviet regime, he was also a writer of unusual talent, therefore, his indictments of the USSR weren’t merely polemics, but genuine literature. He still had his critics, of course…those squeaking little apologists who protested that Solzhenitsyn was motivated by politics. (Suddenly, politics are a suspect basis for a novel!). But the power of Solzhenitsyn’s work Cancer Ward, for example, won the day. After Solzhenitsyn, no thoughtful critic no matter how PC, could happily swallow Soviet propaganda about the triumph of the proletariat.
More recently, we’ve had Salman Rushdie. I recognize his work quite sharply divides readers; some find his prose self-indulgent and his plots shaky and erratic, like a dog chasing its own tail. Others, and I count myself in this camp, find his work to be usually wonderful. He’s famous, of course, for being the target of the much-missed Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa and death threat for The Satanic Verses. The entire Verses episode showed the West, or should have shown the West, just how precious free speech is, and just how reactionary and brutal so-called “diverse” cultures can be. We tend to forget today that Verses provoked book burnings not only where we’d expect it, Pakistan, for example, but also in England! The Verses matter put the PC crowd in a very awkward position: a highly respected author was enduring some truly savage “repression.” Even more interestingly, Rushdie is an author “of color”: a non-white male, in other words. Given the power of identity politics, Rushdie’s ethnicity was very important and would have been, in most cases, the trump card for the PC crowd to rally around him.
On the other hand: the PC crowd is abjectly respectful of “diverse” cultures. The question became: how to respond? Stand up for a beleaguered author who faces extrajudicial execution; or contrive to find “respect” for a non-Western culture that demands blood? Talk about “new contexts”! The response was interesting: many alleged champions of free speech grew silent in the face of the fatwa; other intellectuals feigned great respect for Islam, for non-Western culture, for the “hurt feelings” of devout Muslims (many of whom, of course, hadn’t read the book and, like the clerics of PC, were eager to believe the worst). Fortunately, there were notable exceptions to the frequent cave-ins: Norman Mailer, bless his soul, rose to the occasion and loudly supported Rushdie. However, many who should have defended Rushdie did not. Why? It’s difficult to say; I believe that in some cases, the PC crowd simply could not bring itself to criticize a non-Western “cultural practice”, even if that practice boiled down to putting a price on a writer’s head. In other cases, I believe that simple cowardice was at work. It’s very easy for intellectuals to heap abuse on Christianity…for one thing, nobody believes that a cardinal or bishop is going to order your execution. But criticize Islam? There’s a bit of risk in that. Best to just shut up about it, but explain your response as the refusal to impose Western imperialist constructs of justice upon other cultures.
I’ve dwelled upon Solzhenitsyn and Rushdie at some length because they have both pointed up the hypocrisies and liabilities of PC. They are two examples of the phenomenon discussed in your question: fighting PC by shedding light on repressive non-Western cultures. In the case of Per Contra: there’s no question that publishing the work of writers from around the world is a blow; a most welcome and overdue blow against PC.
BT - How would you propose to alter the effects of political correctness on literature?
SV - Harold Bloom once remarked that the best hope to undo the damage is that the sheer love of reading literature become a kind of underground activity, free from the meddling of the faculty lounge leftists and tenure-track poststructuralists. In other words: we need to reclaim literature--the reading of it, the discussion of it--from the clerics and careerists.
Doing so won’t be easy. For starters, PC criticism is self-perpetuating. For instance, aspiring literature professors must satisfy their dissertation committee. If that committee is committed to PC criticism, that is, boiling down the diversity of literature to a list of complaints--then the aspiring professor instantly knows the game to play: produce yet another dissertation that interrogates the Western literary canon or, on the other hand, champions an unknown Third World author. I hasten to add there’s nothing wrong with championing an unknown Third World author. It’s often a good thing. We could find a lot of authors who really do merit our thoughtful attention. My point here is that PC’s praise is as narrow as its complaints. The Third World author’s work will go through the same meat-grinder and come out to be an indictment of Western imperialism.
PC’s reductionism is, to say the least, a problem for those students of literature who actually like to read. The students who actually like to read literature--who enjoy its diversity of language, of creating human experience, of trying to say something true by creating stories--are far better readers of literature than their professors. But to play the careerist game of advancement, these students will become clones of their superiors. They’ll conform to the demands of their enlightened professors and dissertation committee members--or else find something else to study. Perhaps they’ll become part of the underground of readers of which Harold Bloom dreams.
By the way, the literary establishment recognizes very well just how conformist the study of literature has become. For instance, Harvard professor of English Louis Menand (LINK) wrote in Profession 2005 (a publication of the Modern Language Association) that literary studies “could use some younger people who really think that grownups got it all wrong.” That said, professor Menand himself will not identify what is that the grownups got wrong; he merely observes the professional conformity, and claims to regret it. He himself will not, he makes clear, assist any of the younger people--that is, the graduate students and newly hired junior professors--take a hard critical look at today’s state of affairs. Finally, one can only wonder why a professor of Menand’s stature would acknowledge professional conformity, then blithely reject any suggestion that he or others of his stature might combat that conformity. Perhaps Menand wished only to rib those who find the current state of affairs to be a problem; perhaps he is simply daring the younger generation to take on the establishment. At any rate, we can conclude that Menand and other elite professors are very comfortable as Establishment figures; so much for independence of thought.
As a practical matter, one the best ways to proceed is to do what Per Contra does: publish the work of writers from around the world. These authors know first-hand the experience of race/class/gender oppression, because such oppressions are typically far more powerful outside Western civilization. An Indian author born into the wrong caste could tell a thing or two to Fredric Jameson about oppression; women who’ve suffered under “culturally diverse” cruelties could tell the PC crowd (LINK) a thing or two about patriarchy. The PC critics have made a career of finding race/class/gender oppression in everything they read; those same critics could demonstrate their real interest in such oppression by listening to people who’ve suffered such oppression on a whole new scale.
Finally, all of us who love literature can simply continue to insist that the PC diversity celebrants have reduced literature’s diversity to a cliché. The time is long overdue to reclaim literature’s diversity from those who have made a career of reducing it.