Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics

Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics

Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics

Public Access: Literary Theory and American Cultural Politics


In the years of the Reagan-Bush era, the controversy over "political correctness" erupted on American campuses, spreading to the mainstream media as right-wing pundits like Dinesh D'Souza and Roger Kimball prosecuted their publicity campaign against progressive academics. Michael Bérubé's brilliant new book explains how and why the political correctness furore emerged, and how the right's apparent stranglehold on popular opinion about the academy can be loosened.

Traversing the terrain of contemporary cultural criticism, Bérubé examines the state of cultural studies, the significance of postmodernism, the continuing debate over multicultural curricula, and the recent revisions of literary history in American studies. Also included is Bérubé's witty and self-deprecating autobiographical reflection on why interpretive theory has emerged as an indispensable part of education in the humanities over the past decade.

Public Access insists that academics must exercise more responsibility towards the publics who underwrite but often misunderstand their work and its significance. Taken seriously as a potential audience, Bérubé argues, such publics can be weaned from their present inclination to believe the distortions and half-truths peddled by the right's ideologues. The goal of such "public access" criticism is not just a better environment for teachers and scholars, but a world in which education itself achieves its proper place in a society committed to equality of opportunity and true critical thinking.


As its subtitle suggests, this book attempts to describe the relations between literary theory and American cultural politics in the 1990s. For reasons I explore in the first third of the book, these relations have lately been understood under the capacious sign of 'political correctness': a new breed of academics, we are told, has provided the intellectual foundation for campus speech codes, anti-harassment guidelines, racial polarization, grade inflation, America-bashing, and most of all, chants of 'hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Culture's got to go.' I write to contest this account, and I write not to deny that literary theory has had important social effects on and off campus, but to assess its effects in more reliable and serious a fashion than your average well-funded right-wing demagogue has done to date.

Because most of the public press, too, has indiscriminately tarred literary theory with the PC brush, this book starts by scouring off the tar before moving on to provide alternative descriptions of contemporary scholarship in the humanities. The PC wars, however, are important in their own right, both for themselves and for what they tell us about the difficulty of sustaining legitimate intellectual exchange in a culture more accustomed to waging mass-media smear campaigns than to fostering substantive debates on historicism or the Voting Rights Act. The smear campaign against contemporary scholarship in the humanities has successfully set the terms for further public discussion on the subject; and as I argue in my introduction, such campaigns, however dishonest, can be devastatingly effective whether they focus on deconstruction or the writings of Lani Guinier.

Yet the phrase 'political correctness' was indeterminate from the start; in its current usage, it refers variously to liberal hypersensitivity, leftist dogmatism, or ludicrous euphemisms (such as 'vertically challenged'). You can be labelled PC for worrying about the rainforest, reading Jacques Derrida . . .

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