Literature Lost, by John Ellis
Island of Sanity
Mises Review 3, No. 4 (Winter 1997)
John M. Ellis
Yale University Press, 1997, x + 262 pgs.
Like Martha Nussbaum, whose Cultivating Humanity is addressed above, John M. Ellis is concerned with multiculturalism. His excellent book, taken together with her less than excellent one, enables readers to gain a firm grasp on the new style of education.
A common argument for multiculturalism proceeds in this way. The humanities have been for too long cramped by a narrow canon of acceptable works. Multiculturalism does not debase education; it expands the humanities by exposing students to new perspectives.
Ellis, a distinguished scholar of German literature and the author of the best analysis of deconstruction, quickly locates the flaw in this argument. (His earlier volume is called Against Deconstruction see whether you can guess his view of that movement.) Race-gender-class scholars do indeed consider works not previously studied in humanities departments. But they do not analyze these works in order to extend their knowledge. Quite the contrary, they impose on all works a distinctive set of political concerns. All literary works wind up conveying the same banal message, and students' literary sensibilities become coarsened.
The context of race-gender-class critics "is merely a different context, wider, to be sure, in the sense that it encompasses more phenomena than literature, but also narrower, in that it addresses nothing but a single strand that runs intermittently through that widened body of phenomena. In the relevant sense, then, this context is narrower, not wider" (p. 43).
And not only is the context narrower, literary works that fall within its purview are analyzed according to a bizarre system that our author amusingly terms PC logic. This sophistical system has two main components. Following Michael Foucault, PC theorists hold that "covert relations of power are the driving force in human situations" (p. 161). Nothing else matters. Against this, Ellis makes a commonsense point that unfortunately seems far beyond our "advanced thinkers"; power is of value not for itself, but for what its wielders accomplish with it. "Power is a means, not an end, and it should have no independent context as an idea" (p. 163).
How can the race-gender-class brigade avoid recognition of so obvious a truth? They do so, Ellis maintains, by a peculiar mode of "reasoning." This breaks down distinctions by denying that pure categories exist. No one, let us suppose, is completely unbiased. Then, everyone is biased, and partisan posturing is held to be just as good as, if not better than, allegedly disinterested study.
Ellis locates an especially bizarre example of this "logic." "The arguments of Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin begin by focusing on the apparent difference between consensual sexual activity and rape.... Is there any sexual activity that is absolutely and completely free of the slightest hint of coercion or persuasion? Possibly not.... Then the distinction between rape and consensual activity breaks down; hence all sexual activity is coerced and as such there is no difference between rape and any other sexual activity" (p. 170). And MacKinnon is taken to be a serious thinker by many of the high and mighty of academia.
Ideas, if they can be called that, of this caliber of course cannot withstand critical examination. What then are multiculturalists to do? The answer may readily be guessed; critical analysis of PC ideas is forbidden. Ellis reports an instance in which a women's studies professor required students in her class to sign a set of "Ground Rules" that mandated acceptance of her views without question (p. 149).
So far my remarks have been entirely favorable to Ellis's book, but of course in The Mises Review this cannot be allowed to continue unchecked. I shall therefore venture one mild criticism. Ellis suggests here, and much more fully in Against Deconstruction, that our categories never fully grasp reality. They impose distinctions, not perfectly true of the "booming, buzzing confusion" of the world. Precisely the failing of deconstructivists, Ellis thinks, is to take this fact too far: they wrongly think it denies us knowledge of the world altogether. In my view, Ellis has too quickly dismissed a more robustly realistic position.
That said, I can return to praising the book. Literature Lost is an indispensable guide to current literary studies; if its message is heeded, it has the potential to achieve great good.
Cite This Article
Gordon, David. "Island of Sanity," Review of Literature Lost, by John Ellis. The Mises Review 3, No. 4 (1997).