happy new year...
Thomas Price Caldwell, Jr.
tpc1 at RA.MSSTATE.EDU
Fri Jan 5 06:08:52 UTC 1996
The letter from Pesetsky, et al, made me laugh.
I think they are barking up the wrong tree for all the wrong reasons, but I
hope they prevail.
My guess is that the ideology of the curriculum reform, despite the talk
about "phonological and grammatical units," comes not functionalists or
any other kind of linguists, but rather from literature professors from,
say, UMass/Amhurst and Williams and Brandeis.
On the face of it, the argument that readers "construct" the contexts
within which sentences make sense is a very benign argument. There is no
doubt that every text is to some extent contingent on, and an expression
of, the time and place and means of its production. This is little more
than arguing that meaning depends on context, and that contexts are social
and economic as well as linguistic, personal, or psychological. The
"deconstructionist" techniques derived by Derrida and other
"post-structuralists" are interpretive methods intended to show, largely by
noticing what is NOT said, how arguments made by individuals also reveal
the social and political and economic interests informing those arguments,
even on an unconscious level.
The only trouble with it is that over 20 years this very powerful and
insightful critical method has become an institutionalized political
weapon of leftist academics.
The feminists and radical democrats among them have interpreted Derrida to
mean that what Pesetsky calls the "common-sense view of reading" is really
the oppression of children by meanings which have been insidiously
"constructed" by rich white males. In short, what we used to call western
civilization, as communicated by the great books, is really the result of
centuries of concerted effort to inculcate racist, sexist, and capitalist
assumptions as fundamental. And since that is the case, leftist
literature departments have for a long time now felt that it was far more
important to sponsor a social revolution against racism, sexism and
capitalism than to teach literature "for its own sake." (Indeed, they
have attributed insidious RIGHT wing political motivations, with some
justice, to the older "new critical" curriculum.) They have felt that they
must "deconstruct" those abusive meanings and replace them with more
If those educators wish, by emphasizing the constructedness of discourse,
to "correct" the anti-democratic past by imposing politically correct
readings on all texts, then they certainly ought to be discouraged. I am
not anti-democratic, but to see everything in Western culture as having
been tainted by their favorite three evils (sexism, racism, and capitalism)
is reductivist and purely political. There are enormous resources in
literature which are not political, and inspire students in innumerable
ways, but they are going unnoticed. Meanwhile the leftist ideology is
seeking to establish itself at the level of institutional policy in many
So if they are up to what I suspect, I agree with the move to oppose them.
But I'd bet it has nothing at all to do with "functionalist bias" or
Halliday. Those linguists ought to get their heads out of their modules
and see what their colleagues are doing.
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