[Marxism] on critical literacy

Gary MacLennan gary.maclennan1 at gmail.com
Mon Apr 13 17:52:24 MDT 2009

I have a lecture coming up on critical reading - a preoccupation of mine off
and on for most of my teaching life. I am continually beset by the feeling
that no one reads critically (this noble list excepted of course). I do not
want to filter that feeling thu the narrative of how bad the young are.  The
truth is that critical reading has always been a minority act - else we
would not have gotten into the terible mess we are in now. But I am going to
post part of my lecture - some may find it of interest.

*An approach to critical reading: Part One- the Aesthetic Dimension*

Introduction: To begin with one has to acknowledge that few people if any
like criticism, especially those in power.  Yet without criticism systems
stagnate, so critical thinkers are absolutely essential to a vibrant healthy
dynamic system.  But one should not expect applauses for being the critical
thinker that advances the system.

How to approach the task of criticism?  A possible way is to take the
Kantian categories – The good (ethical), the true (cognitive) and the
beautiful (aesthetic) and to approach the text from these three different
standpoints.  A word of caution is needed here.  As with all approaches that
break the task down into various components the problem then arises of how
to re-unify the task.  For the moment we will content ourselves with saying
that some texts suggest an emphasis on one of the categories more than
another.  Thus within the scholarly work that students at QIBT are
undertaking the category of the true is probably the most significant.
ethical matters are of great significance and surprisingly enough the
aesthetic category also surfaces from time to time.

So let us begin with what would on first blush appear the least relevant –
the beautiful or the aesthetic category.  How can this help us with a
critical approach to reading?  Well for a start the aesthetic can be thought
of in terms of ‘well written’.  We look at a piece and we can appreciate
that the paragraph is composed carefully around a topic sentence.  We can
register that linking words are used to suggest the relationship between the
sentences, and we can also note how the paragraphs are arranged to make up a
coherent whole. The vocabulary too can draw our attention.  The writer can
display mastery or control of the disciplinary terminology.

Perhaps more importantly we can note that the essay has a clear argument and
that this is presented in a persuasive manner.  The word persuasive now cues
us into another level of the aesthetic.  Writers can strive for an effect
and employ a range of rhetorical devices which because we are concentrating
on another level can carry us the readers along.  I think of this as being
caught up in the rhetorical flow and the danger is that as we are swept
along we can forget to actually monitor the process and we lose

My first example is from literature and indeed poetry.  There is a poem by
W. B. Yeats about the Irish radical sisters Eva and Constance Gore-Booth
(Countess Markiewicz). The sisters were aristocrats and lived in a great
mansion at Lissadell.  Yeats as a conservative and even a sometimes active
supporter of fascism did not like their politics.  One was an committed
trade unionist (Eva) and the other an armed revolutionary (Constance).  Both
agitated for the vote for women. Here is part of what Yeats wrote about them

The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.
But a raving autumn shears
Blossom from the summer's wreath;
The older is condemned to death,
Pardoned, drags out lonely years
Conspiring among the ignorant.
I know not what the younger dreams —
Some vague Utopia — and she seems,
When withered old and skeleton-gaunt,
An image of such politics.
Many a time I think to seek
One or the other out and speak
Of that old Georgian mansion,
mix pictures of the mind, recall
That table and the talk of youth,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.

Dear shadows, now you know it all,
All the folly of a fight
With a common wrong or right.
The innocent and the beautiful.
Have no enemy but time; ...

The poems begins with what we should think off as a series of snap shots –
to set the scene.   Then we have the attack on the politics of the women.   We
will leave that aside.  This is followed by an assertion that the poet would
love to sit down and talk to them about the old times. Now what I want to
draw particular to are the next lines.  He addresses “shadows” – these are
the spirits (ghosts?) that Yeats believed in.  He says “The innocent and the
beautiful have no enemy but time”.  This sounds wonderful and it is a
classic example of the rhetorical flow.  We are caught up in it and forget
to notice that there is a truth claim embedded here.  We need to ask “Is it
true that the only enemy of the innocent and beautiful is time?”  Of course
once we ask that question we can see that the truth claim is nonsense.  What
about hunger?  What about injustice? Etc… We could also ask “What about the
ugly?”  but again we will not go there.

So what does this example teach us?  Well we need to be alert to truth
claims, especially when they are embedded in beautiful language.

Let us move now to a second example  Barack Obama’s Acceptance Speech in
Chicago November 4th 2008: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3K8GWCl7P7U. Here
is the part of the speech that I want to concentrate on:

“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where
all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is
alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight
is your answer.

It’s the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in
numbers this nation has never seen; by people who waited three hours and
four hours, many for the very first time in their lives, because they
believed that this time must be different; that their voice could be that

It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and
Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight,
disabled and not disabled – Americans who sent a message to the world that
we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and
always will be, the United States of America.

It’s the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to
be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their
hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a
better day.

It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this
day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.”

Now I want us to put aside our feelings about Obama and his politics and
what his election meant.  I want us in other words to step out of the
rhetorical flow.  I want us to acknowledge first that this is a great speech
and it is very easy to bob along in the flow and to agree with
everything.  Again
the trick here is recognize that the speech contains a number of truth
claims and what we have to do is to identify these and ask ourselves :”Are
they true?”

Let us deal with the central truth claims

1.      The election of Obama proves that all things are possible in

2.      The dream of the founders is alive.

3.      American democracy is still powerful.

Once more the very process of stepping outside of the rhetorical flow and
isolating the truth claims is close to sufficient for a critical response.
Asking whether they are true and applying the standards of proof is however
the step that ensures a critical response.

We could also note the logical contradictions that are covered over by the
rhetoric.  If Obama’s election was so remarkable, does that not suggest that
there was something of a problem with American democracy?  If we have to be
reassured that the “dream” is still alive and that Americaqn democracy is
powerful, does that not infer that there were doubts about this and that
perhaps there were good grounds for these doubts? Similarly if America has
always been “the United States” does that mean it has always been united and
always will be united?  Did someone mention the American Civil War????

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