Monday, January 31, 2005


Oliver Kamm deploys one of my personal heros, CLR James, against 'cultural materialist' academics. The post is very good and well worth reading. Kamm quotes from a book on James by Farrukh Dondy. Here is an extract:
One of the persistent myths thrown up by the Black Power movement and by a particularly pernicious and ignorant stream of 'black studies' was that Shakespeare, being one of the iconic white male figures of literature, was a racist, an anti-semite, and various other things. In Britain this reactionary ideology took the form of patois poetry in the sixties and seventies, offered nor simply as developments in pop but as political challenges to Shakespeare or Keats.
The idea of 'relevance' was taken up by a section of school teachers and editors who argued for the poets of the English canon to be replaced with the verse of Maya Angelou and with other poets who wrote in West Indian dialects, the Jamaican or Trinidadian patois.
This was a view from which CLR profoundly dissented. To him Shakespeare and Keats stood for the expression of civilising value, the centre of the cultural endeavour of humanity to which he belonged.
The dust jacket of the book says:
CLR James was a Marxist philosopher, intent on paper at least on world revolution. But later in life, he rejected the incendiary rhetoric of his youth. He was an unabashed elitist, but at the same time fought discrimination of any sort.
Kamm comments:
The invocation of 'elitism' refers, and can only refer, to James's belief in the civilising value of art. That is not elitism; it is a recognition of objective standards of aesthetic excellence. Elitism, on the contrary, is the denigration of art and its consequent maintenance as the preserve of an affluent and educated minority. Elitism is, in fact, the characteristic of those supposedly radical theorists who elevate 'cultural studies' over art, music and literature.
I agree that elitism is the wrong word for James and the right word for some of the radical academics. But I think Kamm is wrong to say that there are objective standards of aesthetic excellence, or that James thought there were. I think that a common consensus in a culture around the worth of a Shakespeare or a Keats does not amount to an objective standard. It is also worth stressing that James valued the poets of the vernacular too, such as the great calypsonian The Mighty Sparrow.

No comments: