Campus Xenophobia and the Multicultural Project: Ethical Criticism and Ishmael Reed's 'Japanese by Spring'

By Womack, Kenneth | MELUS, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Campus Xenophobia and the Multicultural Project: Ethical Criticism and Ishmael Reed's 'Japanese by Spring'


Womack, Kenneth, MELUS


Expensively kept, economically unsound, a spurious and useless political asset in election campaigns, racism is as healthy today as it was during the Enlightenment. (63)

--Toni Morrison, playing in the dark

Although ethical criticism offers a valuable discourse for exploring concepts of community, goodness, and love and their centrality in the moral construction of literary works, it also provides us with a useful methodology for considering the function of these philosophical constructs in regard to the most fractious issues that confront the academy today, the especially divisive notions of culture and race. As Samuel Fleischacker perceptively observes in The Ethics of Culture (1994), "Writers on culture usually show little understanding of what makes an argument or decision ethical, while writers on ethics have rarely done much serious thinking about culture" (ix). Because issues associated with racial prejudice and cultural division continue to plague our post-secondary institutions, they merit particular attention in any study of contemporary academic fiction. The ethical interpretation of these enduring social dilemmas in novels about university life also underscores the tremendous ideological gulf that exists between monoculturalism and multiculturalism, the two disparate schools of thought that dominate the intellectual conversation regarding these subjects. The controversial emergence of the multicultural project in recent decades, as well as the ensuing "culture wars" that bifurcated the national debate over higher education during the late 1980s and early 1990s, demonstrates the incendiary nature of the scholarly and media response to the multiculturalist agenda for engendering an atmosphere of pluralism and racial and cultural inclusiveness in our institutions of higher education.

In Japanese by Spring (1993), Ishmael Reed satirically illustrates the social and intellectual rancor that accompanied the localization of the culture wars during the early 1990s. In addition to depicting the divergent nuances of the scholarly response to multiculturalism, Reed's novel offers a blistering attack upon the various cultural and racial factions of the academy and the bankrupt value systems that he critiques from within its hallowed corridors. Reed's academic satire intersects a number of significant intellectual issues, moreover, including the ethics of multiculturalism, the dangers inherent in the monoculturalist position, and finally, the fundamental notions of authorship and narrative authority. By approaching his text from so many disparate perspectives, Reed demonstrates the ways in which racism and cultural exclusion infect our institutions of higher learning from a wide range of often unexpected locales. In this manner, Reed consistently problematizes the ethical stances of his academic characters in Japanese by Spring, especially those figures who champion the tenets of monoculturalism. In his essay, "Soyinka among the Monoculturalists," for example, Reed reveals his particular antipathy for academics who deride the pluralistic intentions of the multicultural project: "I distrust the monoculturalists' point of view so much that when they praise something I become suspicious," he writes, "and when they condemn something, I feel that there must be something praiseworthy about it" (211). In his Introduction to Multi-Ethnic America: Essays on Cultural Wars and Cultural Peace (1997), Reed describes monoculturalism as an "anti-intellectual coalition" that frequently employs dubious phraseology about a "common culture" in order to resist the ethical mandates of multiculturalism (xvii).

Reed's efforts in support of the multicultural project manifest themselves in his satiric novels directed toward the American institutions that, at least in Reed's estimation, bear the responsibility for the nation's bankrupt cultural value systems. (1) Yet Reed's narratives frequently confound readers because of his intentional elevation of ideology over character in his fictions. …

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