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Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars

Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars

by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Multiculturalism. It has been the subject of cover stories in Time and Newsweek, as well as numerous articles in newspapers and magazines around America. It has sparked heated jeremiads by George Will, Dinesh D'Sousa, and Roger Kimball. It moved William F. Buckley to rail against Stanley Fish and Catherine Stimpson on "Firing Line." It is arguably


Multiculturalism. It has been the subject of cover stories in Time and Newsweek, as well as numerous articles in newspapers and magazines around America. It has sparked heated jeremiads by George Will, Dinesh D'Sousa, and Roger Kimball. It moved William F. Buckley to rail against Stanley Fish and Catherine Stimpson on "Firing Line." It is arguably the most hotly debated topic in America today--and justly so. For whether one speaks of tensions between Hasidim and African-Americans in Crown Heights, or violent mass protests against Moscow in ethnic republics such as Armenia, or outright war between Serbs and Bosnians in the former Yugoslavia, it is clear that the clash of cultures is a worldwide problem, deeply felt, passionately expressed, always on the verge of violent explosion. Problems of this magnitude inevitably frame the discussion of "multiculturalism" and "cultural diversity" in the American classroom as well. In Loose Canons, one of America's leading literary and cultural critics, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., offers a broad, illuminating look at this highly contentious issue. Gates agrees that our world is deeply divided by nationalism, racism, and sexism, and argues that the only way to transcend these divisions--to forge a civic culture that respects both differences and similarities--is through education that respects both the diversity and commonalities of human culture. His is a plea for cultural and intercultural understanding. (You can't understand the world, he observes, if you exclude 90 percent of the world's cultural heritage.) We feel his ideas most strongly voiced in the concluding essay in the volume, "Trading on the Margin." Avoiding the stridency of both the Right and the Left, Gates concludes that the society we have made simply won't survive without the values of tolerance, and cultural tolerance comes to nothing without cultural understanding. Henry Louis Gates is one of the most visible and outspoken figures on the academic scene, the subject of a cover story in The New York Times Sunday Magazine and a major profile in The Boston Globe, and a much sought-after commentator. And as one of America's foremost advocates of African-American Studies (he is head of the department at Harvard), he has reflected upon the varied meanings of multiculturalism throughout his professional career, long before it became a national controversy. What we find in these pages, then, is the fruit of years of reflection on culture, racism, and the "American identity," and a deep commitment to broadening the literary and cultural horizons of all Americans.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Fish, the author of numerous books on Milton, literary theory, and the politics of teaching, has become in recent years famous for defending the contemporary academy in a series of debates held at various colleges and universities with the neo-conservative pundit Dinesh D'Souza. In anticipation of these debates, he prepared five remarkable essays, which constitute the core of this learned and wide-ranging collection. Other essays concern the political and historical context of controversies over the notion of ``free speech,'' as well as the enduring legacy of Milton and the masochism of Volvo-driving academics. Despite his public reputation, Fish's views cannot be easily subsumed under such labels as ``deconstructionist,'' ``post-structuralist,'' or even ``leftist.'' The provocative title simply refers to the fact that, as Fish avers, ``the act of speaking would make no sense . . . absent some already-in-place and (for the time being) unquestioned ideological vision.'' Many readers will find pleasure in Fish's simultaneously literate but blunt prose style. Recommended for informed readers.-- Kent Worcester, Social Science Research Council, New York
Kirkus Reviews
Splendid essays by Milton scholar and literary theorist Fish (Doing What Comes Naturally, 1990, etc.; English/Duke) that express his centrist, mediating, pragmatic position in the recent cultural wars over theory, politics, and the place of literature in society. The first ten essays here derive from debates that Fish participated in with Dinesh D'Souza during a tour of college campuses in which Fish assumed the liberal position defending tolerance, equality, and nondiscrimination against D'Souza's conservative appeal to transcendent values. In a clear, eloquent, personable—if relentlessly logical—style, Fish reveals the hidden and self-defeating agendas of both sides, the self-deluding coercions of liberalism especially. Essentially, he argues that liberals create what they set out to avoid: tyranny, discrimination, censorship. Fish concludes that free speech can't be legislated; instead, it's "what is left over when a community has determined in advance what it does not want to hear." The rest of the text consists of the author's take on various academic issues—the impossibility of interdisciplinary studies; the ineffectualness of literary theory, especially neo-historicism, which, Fish says, is simply out of touch with the literature it's studying and the world it's trying to relate to. In a gracious lecture delivered on the occasion of an award from the Milton Society, Fish reveals his admiration for the great writers; in a cynical one, he warns of the self-defeating character of academics who are so uncomfortable with pleasure that they create the conditions for the contempt in which society sometimes holds them. The text concludes with an interview conducted byGary Olson, in which Fish restates his pedagogical and critical principles. Fish offers here exactly what he argues for: clarity, integrity, conviction, the common place of common sense. (First serial to Harper's and the Atlantic Monthly)

From the Publisher
"In clear language and well thought out examples Gates brings us all closer to a needed dialog."—Jean Bissonnette, Texas State Network

"In the 10 pieces collected in Loose Canons, Gates, writing for the most part in a genial, conversational style, endorses multicultural education as a way of expanding social tolerance....A reformer, not a revolutionary, he wants to use the institutions that are in place, the university in particular, to further his plans for social progress....Gates the academic is more accessible than Morrison the popular novelist."—The Washington Post Book World

"Should prove especially illuminating and reassuring to nonacademics."—The New York Times book Review

"A good source of clear thinking and sensible reasoning on [multiculturalism]."—The Boston Globe

"Gates, probably the best known and most controversial proponent of African American studies, has gathered here a group of his essays on the timely topic of multiculturalism....An excellent addition to all academic libraries and a necessary purchase for any library interested in a serious discussion of multiculturalism."—Library Journal

"Lucid, stimulating, and often entertaining. Gates is one of the very few contemporary critics whose work is actually fun to absorb."—Newsday

"In these incisive and readable essays, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is at once sympathetic, funny, and cautionary in making the case for cultural pluralism and the revision of the literary canon."—Gerald Graff, University of Chicago

"Loose Canons is an inside job, the work of a man who has mastered the arcane politics and encoded language of the canon makers; it's an arsenal of ideas in the cultural wars. But it is also the outpouring of a humane, witty, and truly civilized mind—and that's exactly why Loose Canons strikes so hard and true."—Los Angeles Times

"Witty and laced with anecdotes...these readable essays serve well as an introduction to an often daunting field."—Voice Literary Supplement"

"Gates...has brio, deep learning, and wit....He is also a gift to his readers and a rarity in contemporary critical circles."—Commonweal

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Oxford University Press
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Meet the Author

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is Chairman of the Afro-American Studies Department and W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. He is the author of The Signifying Monkey, Figures in Black, and Colored People; general editor of The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth Century Black Women Writers; and general editor of The W.E.B. Du Bois Institute series.

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