I've been reading outside my comps list this week, because I finished two things on it and thought I deserved a break. I'm not sure Russell Jacoby's The End of Utopia constitutes a "break," since it is about utopianism, specifically the lack of it in late-20th-century liberal discourse. Jacoby is righteously angry at the slow transition from utopianism to acquiescence: we (meaning primarily American intellectuals and/or academics) no longer take the time to imagine the truly different, and the energy we used to devote to that imagining has been given over to surface-level differences. In his second chapter, Jacoby takes on multiculturalism, which he sees as problematic because it replaces thought on economic and social alternatives with a nebulously defined sense of "culture":
If the economic skeleton of culture were put on the table, patter about diversity might cease; it would be clear that the diverse cultures rest on the same infrastructures . . . . The economic structure of society—call it advanced industrial society or capitalism or the market economy—stands as the invariant; few can imagine a different economic project . . . . The future looks like the present with more options. Multiculturalism spells the demise of utopia. (39-40)One should note, however, that Jacoby is not against the idea of diversity, that is, of hearing more voices from the historically oppressed. His concern is that these historically oppressed groups, once existing on the margins of society, used to represent groups that could actually challenge the status quo. Now, however, such groups seek inclusion in the hierarchy, becoming "Women's Studies" or "African-American Studies" programs that seek to promote their "culture" while losing their status as ideological enclaves able to question the dominant ideology.
Louis Althusser writes that Ideological State Apparatuses (the tools through which ideology upholds and creates the state) are not only the "stake, but also the site of class struggle, and often of bitter forms of class struggle," in part because the ruling class cannot completely control ideological discourse, allowing the exploited classes "to find means and occasions to express itself there [in ISAs], either by the utilization of their contradictions, or by conquering combat positions in them in struggle" (147). I would say that Jacoby's concern is that multiculturalism is too much of the latter and very little of the former: once the positions within dominant ideology have been established (Women's studies, gender studies, Latin American studies, etc.), those who occupy those positions are more concerned with showing that we are all the same, deep down.
I'm not entirely sure I agree with his argument, though I find parts of it very convincing. After all, it seems that we do offer up a "choice" between identities that changes our basic relationship to economic society very little—I can be "masculine" or "feminine"; "white," "black," "brown," or "red"; "German," "English," "!Xhosan," "Maya," or "Cantonese"; and still participate in consumer society. However, there is a difference in the way that each of these identities participates in consumer society, although Jacoby is right that such differences are fading as Globalization proceeds.
Because we (again, Jacoby seems to mean "American" when he says "we") all really participate in the same basic economic culture—late capitalism—we end up seeking some form of individuation, some bulwark of difference against the large, totalizing force of consumer culture. As Jacoby puts it, "it is the rootless, not the rooted, who fetishize their roots" (48). The problem, then, is that we stop at the surface-level: if we just put on a different hat or a new sarong, it will all be fine. Again, it is good to have multiple voices in the great social conversation, but those voices need to be saying something other than "we belong to the dominant ideology;" they need to be saying "we will change that ideology." Although Jacoby does not suggest (or has not yet suggested) this, we need to look deeper, and remember that the experience of being e.g. a woman in consumer society is different than being a man in said society, and that that difference can critique not only male consumerism but the notion of consumerism itself. We academics are, to turn to Althusser once more, the higher orders of the ideological apparatus; if we cannot engage that apparatus dialectically, if we cannot put our hands to the machine while we are this close to it, when will we? Part of our job as educators should be to open up even further those spaces in discourse where critiques of that discourse can be made; is this not what we mean by "getting our students to think?"
This is why the European (and in my case, English) middle ages are important to us. They are one of the many places in present-day discourse that represent alternatives. Something to take away from Jacoby is the need to be careful about the "utopianism" one creates: is it providing actual alternatives, or is it just a new hat for the same old social body? I don't want to create the scholarly equivalent of a capitalist at a Renfair. As much as I fetishize the middle ages—and I know I do, with my classics-driven education and my deliberately Anglo-Saxon clerical shorthand, and so on—it does not help to see the Middle Ages as the root of modernity. Instead, we should look at it as a dialectical position with the notion of modernity. As John Ganim and others have argued, the medieval (along with the orient) exists as the primo Western Other, the space in which the modern West can define what it is not. The medieval can provide the seeds for real alternative social orders, not just the wan hope of the pluralism Jacoby describes (pardon the pun on wanhope/despair), but a springboard into new ideas. I do not yet know what those ideas will be (that is part of the dissertating process, after all), but I do know that "the medieval," as a dialectical partner for "the modern," can produce those ideas.
The essential thing is to keep grounded: how does the reading I (or you, or anyone) provide speak to the conditions "on the ground" in the world? This ties, of course, with those notions of presentism that I ran across first in Eileen Joy's post (see here, and here for my response): our work should always exist as if it were important, because it may yet be.
Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)." Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Tr. Ben Brewester. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971. 127-183.
Jacoby, Russell. The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy. New York: Basic Books, 1999.