Re: elite/elitism (fwd)

Michael S. Allen (allen.181@OSU.EDU)
Mon, 14 Oct 1996 14:12:56 -0400

O.K., so I disappeared for a few days: my son's birthday party was a bit
more important than Rhetnt-L (sorry!;)

Marcy had a couple of objections to what I wrote, on pomo theory and on
"elites". I really see the two problems as interconnected: how modernist
versions of pomo make it elite, and how the whole academic enterprise
privileges the secret, sacred text, making communication into "the best
word"--a clear elitist, modernist phrase if ever there was one. But to
Marcy's points:

>I want to be clear that I'm not taking issue with Mike; I want to
>question the (true, to my mind) description of pomo theory here. How can
>anyone really be aware of the foundational ground upon which their
>assertions rest? I keep asking this, over and over. My way of stating
>the case is that it's a bit like expecting people to see their
>backsides. It _can't be done_. If I configure that line right, I can
>always get a laugh at a party, but I never seem to get an answer. How
>can we know our own assumptions? We never see them unless they're played
>out against some set of competing assumptions, which means we never see
>_all_ of them, anyway; and lots of them are perfectly functional and
>don't give anybody any problems whatsoever. It may be useful and
>necessary to examine assumptions in certain circumstances where the clash
>of assumptions is causing problems, but how on _earth_ can that
>examination be useful as the Highest Good (which is what pomo theory
>makes it)? This argument will deconstruct in five seconds . . .

A bit ironic to see such a point here, on a listserv: I see
listserv discussions as *the* pomo proving ground, the place where
knowledge is created, re-created, where everyone's assumptions always get a
kick in the pants, where as soon as someone sounds too serious (moi?)
someone else finds the rug to pull. But that's my point,Marcy: the
individual can never see his/her backside--but in a collective.
collaborative "space", that backside can become visible. Modernism is the
last gasp, IMHO, of the authoritative, sacred individual--the individual
"great mind" ("Big Hitters" as Tom said) whom literary (and modern pomo
folks) are taught to worship. In classrooms all across America English
faculty are re-fi0guring this worship as they stand in front of the class
(hiding their own backsides!), declaiming, proclaiming and otherwise doling
out "the Truth" about whatever: great minds, literature, "the best word".
My point is that such elitism is hard-wired into the culture: we get it at
church and school and on the baseball diamond and the dance studio qwhen
we're young--we get it at home. But pomo says "Ain't nobody got the whole
truth," and the priesthood starts to fade away.

>-- but maybe what's "elite" isn't specific viewpoints or people who hold
>them or even contexts of authority. Maybe what's "elite" are certain
>conversations which take place at certain moments in time . . . and
>they're "elite" because they're perceptive and they push the envelope and
>they're ephemeral. (I'm sure Eric has said that already.) Maybe by the
>time ideas get "canonized" into English department debates, the horses
>have already left the barn . . .
I have no problem with "certain conversations" *(already you're
into sharing the work and wealth, moving away from the "great mind")*--but
I have a big problem with the power of "the elite" and how that
elite--wherever and whatever it is--treats those who aren't part of the
secret club they have formed. English studies has yet to deal with its
elitism, and I see *no* evidence that it ever will--and I don't mean
monetary elitism, being well off. I mean the elitism that should count,
that professedly "liberal" English faculty should be aware of: intellectual
elitism, the idea that some in English studies are "more equal than
others." The day that writing courses are valued **as highly as**
Shakespeare--and all English faculty realize that they share a common
enterprise and *want* to talk with each other, create knowledge
together--that's the day modernism and all its priestly robes will fade