The ComPosition-ing of Culture and Anarchy
Recovering a Cultural Conflict in Arnold's Serene Text
My complaint is not that the postmodernists have “abandoned reason” nor that they are staining the purity of hitherto innocent academic disciplines and thereby destroying the universities. It is that they have given up on the idea of democratic politics, of mobilizing moral outrage in defense of the weak, of drawing upon a moral vocabulary common to the well-educated and the badly educated, to those who get paid for analyzing symbols and those who get paid for pouring concrete.
—Richard Rorty in Dissent1
“Matthew Arnold—friend to the workingman!” is an unlikely rallying cry. Unlikely though it might be, I have found in Arnold a friend in helping working-class and other marginalized students find a place in his hitherto exclusionary culture. Arnold, if he is discussed at all in academic circles these days, is usually treated as something akin to “the dean” of culture—the nineteenth-century thinker most responsible for our modern sense of culture. His academic responsibilities in this metaphorical post have included defense of a serene, remote, almost indefinable culture consisting of, among other intangibles, “the best that is known and thought” and “sweetness and light.” Understandably, undergraduates often feel excluded from this variety of culture. And for many conservative admirers of Arnold, exclusion was precisely the point. 2 Arnold had fenced in culture, made it appropriately remote to those on the right of the political spectrum and largely irrelevant to those on the left. His reputation as the defender of culture comes in large part from his magisterial