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Politics of Letters by Richard Ohmann (Wesleyan University: $25.95; 314 pp., illustrated)

June 28, 1987|James W. Carey | Carey has written widely on technology and culture and is dean of the College of Communications, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The first canon I learned was the canon of the Mass: the undeviating sequence of prayers from the Sanctus to the Pater Noster. The second canon I learned was the canon of English literature: the orderly sequence of books, from Shakespeare to Dickens that formed the center of literary education. I learned the first canon in order to become a good Catholic. Why did I learn the second? We posed the question, in the rebelliously vulgar way children do, to our teachers in a working class high school in Providence, R.I. Those English plays and novels hardly connected in language or experience with the scene about us in the industrial section of the city. The answer from our teachers, dressed up, was that we were reading the best that had been read and thought: those works whose intrinsic wisdom and beauty, moral uprightness and social purpose, had withstood the test of time. We were being taught to appreciate culture and through it to become respectable citizens and members of the middle class. The canon of English literature had become our canon, a canon for the children of immigrants and workers, a canon that embodied, as our teachers hoped we would embody, truth, beauty and goodness. We didn't always believe the priests; we believed the teachers less.

Richard Ohmann's book, centrally, is an attack on the notion of a literary canon: a prescribed sequence of texts taken to represent the best a civilization has to offer its young. Ohmann is a professor of literature at Wesleyan who has turned from literature to politics, specifically, to the politics of canon formation. How is it that certain texts are selected as fit to be read while others are suppressed? How is it that certain interpretations of texts dominate a curriculum: secular prayers to be learned by students. The answers he offers are Marxist ones: Literary texts are selected and interpreted, however unconsciously, to justify and mystify the major patterns of domination and exploitation typical of industrial capitalism. He assumes that a class and a culture is needed to conceal and render natural the real workings of society. The culture is the "high culture" texts acquired in the very process of becoming literate and beyond that the "mass culture" that pours out of the newspaper and publishing houses, television networks and film studios. The mystifying class is composed of writers, teachers, critics, journalists--all those who manipulate images for a living--who stand between the "big bourgeoise" and the oppressed and disadvantaged and make the domination of the former over the latter merely natural, part of the unchanging order of things. We are all co-conspirators.

The spectacle of Marxism running loose in literature departments is a common one these days--but why? Up until the 1930s, Marxism was pretty much the doctrine that economics determined everything. In the Depression of that decade, when capitalism failed and the bell of revolution sounded, the workers stayed away from the celebration. In 1932, for example, the Communist Party received but one-quarter of 1% the votes in the presidential election. Marxism failed as a predictive science and transformed itself into a literary one. Perhaps the key to capitalist domination is not to be found in the economy but in the culture: in the way families are organized, children socialized and educated and, above all, in the fiction, films, newspapers and later television that leaves everyone narcotized and accepting of things as they are. Marxists are now more likely to be found pouring over "Catcher in the Rye" and the news columns of the Los Angeles Times than examining the falling rate of profit or the surplus value extracted from labor. It is rare to find a Marxist economist anymore; the left has taken residence in the humanities where they agonize more over the cultural dispossession of middle-class youth than the financial dispossession of workers.

There is much to be said for this literary turn in Marxism and much to be said for Ohmann's book. It deserves a wide, though critical, audience. At the least, in these ideologically placid times, an age of the business school and the balance sheet, any hint of opposition is to be treasured. And, in truth, the classrooms of our youth were less often places of enlightenment and more often places where, in the words of an honest 18th-Century schoolmaster, students were rendered "obedient, industrious, submissive and orderly." The fault, however, was less in the classics than in a presentation that drained them of vitality and pertinence.

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