Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

From New Criticism to Cultural Pluralism: The Southern Legacy of Marshall McLuhan

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

From New Criticism to Cultural Pluralism: The Southern Legacy of Marshall McLuhan

Article excerpt

In contrast to those theorists who imagine nations as "melting pots" -- cauldrons of diversity in which cultural and personal differences assimilate and fuse into stable, unified national identities -- multiculturalists seek to recover and represent the myriad contingencies that destabilize all master narratives of identity and nationality in an increasingly postmodern, postnational world. In the academy, multiculturalists and cultural pluralists are frequently associated with such rhetorical liberation movements as postcolonial criticism, movements whose practitioners tend to blur the distinctions between pedagogy and activism. Homi Bhabha, for example, one of the most influential of these activist-critics, has written that postcoloniality "bears witness to the unequal and uneven forces of cultural representation involved in the contest for political and social authority within the modern world order" (437).

As Bhabha's statements suggest, postcolonialists who work in the academy almost inevitably find themselves struggling against the legacy of their institutional precursors, the New Critics, and the estheticism that remains a dominant disciplinary paradigm for literary study even today. Since their first awakening as a recognizable movement in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the New Critics have been called politically and socially irresponsible, and accused of evading the nightmare of history and elevating the cool stasis of the well-wrought urn into an unhealthy fetish. All of these flaws, their opponents complain - -with some justification -- have helped to maintain a corrupt and unjust status quo, inside as well as outside the academy. Even worse, it would seem, the New Critics have been universally identified with the most unfashionable and easily demonized demographic group of all: dead, white, Eurocentric males.

If we look more closely at the New Critics, however, we discover that they resemble cultural pluralists in more ways than one might expect and that actually the projects of New Criticism and multiculturalism intersect on several practical and theoretical planes. Critically as well as institutionally, I wish to argue, the New Critics did much to prepare the way for the multicultural climate of today's academy and deserve to be recognized for anticipating certain "postcolonial" issues in contemporary theory and practice. Within this context, and with a view to shedding a provocative light on the question of the "Canadianness" of multiculturalism, my main strategy will be to demonstrate how Canada's most famous advocate of the incipient multicultural, multi-media "global village," Marshall McLuhan, took his bearings from his institutional mentors, the Southern New Critics, and how, in turn, McLuhan came to be regarded by John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Cleanth Brooks as one of their own, an honorary Southerner.

The first generation of Southern New Critics were "postcolonial" to the extent that they wrestled with the competing claims of indigenous and non-native cultures, with the pervasive sense of exile at home, and with the utopian temptations of a "new class" of intellectual workers. Of course I do not mean to equate the Southern literary protest against colonialism with the ideology of postcolonial critics like C. L. R. James, Frantz Fanon, and Homi Bhabha. After all, the Southern protest was generated, at least in some cases, by the cousins and collateral descendants of slave-masters who, in their hatred of modernization and its effects, did sometimes turn away from social problems; their protest was "reactionary" in the most pejorative sense, aligned with the worst political impulses of the New South, such as the organized opposition to civil rights. Even so, these sometimes backward-looking thinkers managed to transform their shared experience of colonization into bureaucratic sovereignty, a democratizing transformation which pried open the doors of an older, more class-bound academy. …

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