Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Revolutionary Multiculturalism: Review of Peter McLaren

Revolutionary Multiculturalism: Pedagogies of Dissent for the New Millennium Peter McLaren, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1997. pp. 306
Review by Azly Rahman, published in Educational Researcher June-July 1999

Reading Peter McLaren’s passionate and insightful analysis of the current state of educational praxis one cannot escape from images of postmodernity as a backdrop of anomalies in the world we are in as the new millenium approaches. The domino-like collapses of the financial markets of the world beginning in Thailand in July 1997, nuclear tests in India and Pakistan, the revolution which brought Indonesian President Suharto down after 32 years of rule, hunger and starvation in North Korea, and the continuing intensified debates on race matters in America--- all these represent the chaos in the global economic order McLaren’s critical pedagogy can be relevant to those wishing to contextualize their understanding of political economy of education. McLaren’s Revolutionary Multiculturalism: Pedagogies of Dissent for the New Millineum, albeit with its analytical flaws, is a passionate piece of work highly-charged with honesty in the manner McLaren positions his ideological standpoint throughout.

For a relatively slender volume of work on educational theorizing, Revolutionary Multiculturalism contains the essential ingredients of educational and social analysis which dissect capitalism from its transnational operating table right through the ideology of consumerism which pervades the hip hop culture and the issue of whiteness in American race relations. Including its introductory and epilogue sections, the book is divided into 10 chapters with several of them written in cooperation with critical theorist such as Henry Giroux , Zeus Leornado, and Kris Gutierrez.

In chapter 7, an interview with McLaren provides the reader with a valuable understanding of the ideological standpoint the author bases his work on; one in which McLaren narrates his development as a critical pedagogue and differentiates his commitment for struggle with those from the camp of postmodernism. If his passionate language ala’ Allen Ginsburg’s in the classic Sixties Beat-generation poems of “Howl” and “The Velocity of Money” and his unwavering rhetoric in the Freirian tradition throughout are not enough in demonstrating his honest alignment with Latin American Marxist discourse, McLaren laced his book with, among others a picture of him delivering a speech in honor of Che Guevara against a huge poster of the Cuban revolutionary leader as backdrop (p. 107).

McLaren’s Revolutionary Multiculturalism is a continuing legacy of the work of educators trained and committed to the cause of liberatory struggle against the dehumanizing tendencies of transcultural capitalism with its ideological state apparatuses such as the schooling system, the media and the politics of multiculturalism. McLaren’s is essentially a continuation of the dialogue of Paulo Freire, thrusted in its analytical context into the world of global capitalism and its interlocking web of domination the world over and within the United States. The critical educator’s ideological standpoint is made evident at the beginning part of the book in which McLaren situates his work within the larger framework of socialism and aligning it with theorists within that paradigm:

Critical pedagogy, in this sense, remains committed to the practical realization of self-determination and creativity on a collective social scale. When I think of critical pedagogy as a practice of liberation, I think not only of Paulo Freire, Augustus Boal, Rosa Luxemburg, Judi Borri, Che Guevara, and Malcolm X, for example, but also of Emilio Zapata… Like Zapata, critical educators need to wage nothing less than war in the interest of the sacredness of human life, collective dignity for the wretched of the earth, and the right to live in peace and harmony (p. 13).

It is within those standpoint and the honesty of linking his work with leaders and theorists of the Freirian tradition that McLaren’s work is worthy of attention. What is impressive about McLaren’s Revolutionary Multiculturalism is its fresh call for educators to redefine the term “multiculturalism.” It questions the fundamental pedagogical belief by educators, particularly those from North America, in looking at America as a “melting pot” unto which schooling and the curriculum must address and celebrate of its cultural differences without being aware of the political economic nature of schooling in America. McLaren believes that such multiculturalist thinking is not only reductionistic and avoids the issue of class struggle but also dangerous to the critical pedagogist’s struggle to dismantle political, economic, and social structures which are anathema to the true meaning of human liberation.

Only through the engaging in dialogue which demystify power and language of the power elite, deconstructing our understanding of race relations into one which includes class, race and gender, and reconstructing our hope and struggles for a transformation of the transnational and local capitalist order, can we realize the true meaning of praxis in the revolutionary sense of the word. McLaren attacks neo-liberalism of American democracy as “a hidden service of capital accumulation, often [reconfirming] the racist stereotypes already prescribed by Euro-American nationalist myths of supremacy … (p.8). Thus, chapter after chapter, McLaren provides the context of objectivity, which needed to be subjectivized and a newer understanding to emerge. Some highlights from McLaren’s work need to be mentioned.

In Chapter 1 entitled “Writing from the Margins: Geographies of Identity, Pedagogy, and Power,” written with critical theorist Henry Giroux, the authors draw attention to the kind of language needed for educator-activists to analyze power and domination in order that existing realities be understood and transformed. They claimed that “most educational theorists have been so caught up in describing the reality of existing schools that they have failed to take up the question of what it is that schools should be.” (p.19). Not only educators, they write, need to be equipped with the language of critical pedagogy which contains moral, ethical, and visioning frame of reference in their struggle for liberation but students need also be provided with such linguistic tools to “assume a critical distance from their more familiar subject distance.” (p.37). Only through the grasping of such analytical skills can both educators and students in the Freirian tradition, understand what oppression means and how they can work collectively across cultures towards a just and equitable educational, political, economic, and cultural transformation.

In Chapter 2, “Liberatory Politics and Higher Education: A Freirian Perspective,” which read like an essay in honor of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, McLaren provides a postmodern analysis of capitalism as it relates to the need for educators in higher education to pay attention to the Freirian perspective of critical pedagogy. McLaren notes that in the Freirian sense, “the university is invited to become truly plural and dialogical, a place where students are not only taught not only to read texts but to understand contexts.” (p.69). It is through the Freirian approach, McLaren asserts that the meaning of individuals as makers of history can be realized to counter the dehumanizing effect of capitalism in its attempt to relegate individuals as objects of history, particularly in “U.S. culture in which history has been effectively expelled from the formation of meaning and hope.” (p.73)

In Chapter 3, “The Ethnographer as Postmodern Flaneur: Critical Reflexivity and Posthybridity as Narrative Engagement,” McLaren described the difficulty of the urban ethnographer’s situating of his/her existence; as one attempting to critically analyze society in a postmodern setting he/she is also inescapably in. The postmodern flaneur as one whom has to mediate the tension between being a detached observer and one drowned in the sea of images, signs, and symbols within what is to be observed, must become a critical theorist in order to effectively do reflective sociology. Drawing heavily upon Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of reflective sociology and illustrating the chapter with excerpts from his flaneuriel notes, McLaren called upon the need for the urban ethnographer to recognize the importance of emancipatory possibilities in one’s nature of work. “Ethnography as postmodern flanerie need to be conjugated with the contingency of historical struggle in terms of establishing a posthybrid dialogism.” (p.94).

Throughout other chapters in Revolutionary Multiculturalism, the reader can expect McLaren and his co-authors’ analysis of language, power, and pedagogy in issues such as media control over the postmodern mind, hip-hop music and global politics. In each, the ideology to be scrutinized is described in language of postmodernity, as though McLaren is illustrating that the illusionary world of postmodernism must be demystified via explanations of its inner linguistic logic, using its own language---all these done in order for the claim for the superiority of Freirian critical pedagogy be made loud and clear. Thus, when talking about gangsta pedagogy in “Gangsta Pedagogy and Ghettocentricity: The Hip Hop Nation as Counter Public Sphere,” for example, McLaren writes like an insider well-versed in the development of this brand of popular culture, only in the end, to demystify its creativeness as another attempt by capitalism to capitalize on the expression of oppression among the African-American and Latino community.

Illustrative of McLaren’s consistency in providing a final analysis, he writes of the emerging and proliferating genre of music:

Gangsta rap’s relation to the corporate marketplace, its potential for expropriation, and its reproduction of ideologies historically necessary to commodity exchange – such as patriarchal ones – is an important issue that needs to be addressed. In other words, gangsta rap needs to be viewed not only as an ideological formation, cultural signifier, or performative spectacle, but also as a product of historical and social relations. (p.179)

Within such a framework of critical analysis, the author skillfully uses language of sophistication characteristic of many writing in the postmodern genre only to eventually return to a call far action insistently based upon the neo-Marxist framework. The power and the vigor of his oftentimes-long sentences are interspersed with first person narratives of his experiences, which he relates to the subject matter analyzed. It is within this stream of consciousness point of view and the chanting effect of his expose that Peter McLaren’s perspective is made constantly fresh in the reader’s mind and his arguments difficult to counter. One can almost see Freire alive in these powerful chapters and given doses of vitality by this popular Canadian-born, Los Angeles-based professor of Education and Information Studies at University of California, Los Angeles. But it is an irony that one needs to read McLaren back to back, dialogue with him in-between the pages, and let the images of dissent and call to a revolution be skillfully made alive through the written word, in order to locate counter-arguments to his claims.

To the critical reader, McLaren’s Revolutionary Multiculturalism’s strength can also be its weakness. Particularly significant is his overstated ideological standpoint, which sees the sorry state of society and education purely within his neo-Marxist bird’s-eye view. He attempts to mesmerize readers into believing that there are no significant effort made by grassroot movements, social activist groups, educators for social consciousness or even the struggling day to day teachers who are making significant changes, albeit incremental perhaps, to make the lives of citizens and school children alike happier, more creative, and critical. McLaren’s analysis is purely sociological hovering within the realm of theory attempting to grab the attention of policy makers in the social, educational and political spheres. He locates himself from the beginning, strategically from a new-Marxist paradigm, analyzes society and policies within this narrow perspectives and offer solutions which are ideologically apt to the framework he uses. McLaren, towards the end of the book, advocates “for the development of the ethical self as a way of living within and challenging the historical capitalism” (p. 284)

From what spiritual-metaphysical or ethical platform which can unite multiculturalists is not exactly clear in McLaren’s advocacy. McLaren repeatedly made the call as such in calling upon us to “unthink whiteness.” His call is even louder when his advocacy is laced with language of postmodernism epitomized perhaps in a passage as such:

What I am advocating, dear sisters and brothers in struggle, is a postcolonial multiculturalism that moves beyond the ludic, metrocentric focus on identities as hybrid and hypernated assemblages of subjectivity that exist alongside or outside of the larger social totality (p. 287

What these terms mean, seemingly circular in their usage, and how one can comprehend a situation wherein society can levitate beyond such a condition are not entirely clear. Perhaps this can be possible in a scenario wherein society can be freeze-framed and the ethical segment of it extracted out of the ludic-metrocentric identitied habitat. Clear to McLaren’s understanding as a sociologist presumably, this is not entirely probable given the fact that society is a complex, intriguing and ever-changing amalgam of peoples with values shifting, pragmatism and relativism reigning, and feeling and emotions dictating. As such, the only permanent thing is change and the most applicable theory thusfar to analyze society is perhaps via Complexity or Chaos theory!

Thus, McLaren’s writing, as well as those who he collaborated with is somewhat weakened by the very framework he hoped to strengthen his sweeping analysis with; a framework weaved out of the fragile, ideologically-laden, and textualized semantic glitters of postmodern language. Though the author’s critical analysis is brilliant throughout, his is short of providing a scenario wherein a society of revolutionary multiculturalist has triumphed in destroying the old republic and what emerged out of the despotic is, one ethical and moral and constantly aware of another wave of transnational capitalistic world order. What would a society of the next millenium look like? The providing of such a scenario is what makes Revolutionary Multiculturalism yet another well-trumpeted rhetoric of post-Marxism attempting to subvert post-modernism.

Another fundamental anti-climax of McLaren’s grandiose staging up of such a frame of social analysis is perhaps, the absence of political dimension in his writing. Though his calls for action are indeed political as it relates to the subverting of grand narrative such as neo-liberal whiteness in social psyche and the use of multiculturalists-of-the-world-unite-and-revolt slogan, he failed to link his advocacy to political or non-governmental organizations progressive enough to carry the banner of revolution to its final victory in Washington. One may ask of the value of such revolutionary trumpeting without a concerted effort to harness the voices of the revolutionary multiculturalists into political grandiose carries forth by political parties. Virtually non-existent is this aspect of McLaren’s campaign.

To rally against an elusive oppressor such as transnational capitalism and to create a new order in America is virtually problematic, unlike perhaps in the case of revolutionary multiculturalist rallying against the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somozo in the late 1970s. In the former, the enemy is invisible yet pervasive, whereas in the latter, it is visible and exclusive! Perhaps McLaren conveniently applied the scenario of Latin American politics to that in North America, paradigmed his revolutionary analysis as such, and ended up making an overglossing of solutions to the problems he found. Herein Complexity theory can be of value in framing the issue of multiculturalism in the manner McLaren sees it. Aside from the contradictions in the analytical framework presented in McLaren’s work, Revolutionary Multiculturalism must still be read in its entirety and the powerful strands of the author’s argument to be put to use. Although the idea of multiculturalism’s revolutionary streaks is not revolutionary at all as they are inherent in each culture and need not necessarily be yanked out of the masses, the freshness of the Freirian tradition McLaren attempt to maintain must be applauded. What is novel and of commendable sociological analytical value is the postmodernist aspect of McLaren’s neo-Marxism.

Like many philosophical, metaphysical, and ethical systems in every culture which has responded to changes brought about by maturing of the capitalist ethos, the neo-Marxism according to Peter McLaren and his band of critical pedagogues has also responded brilliantly to such maturity. It is a jazz ensemble in a orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein, an Indonesian gamelan troupe playing in a Viennese concert hall, and a hip hop group performing at the steps of the Lincoln Performing Arts Center in New York. And in these, the voices of the subaltern growing louder, with spectators and onlookers beginning to appreciate the beauty of the message conveyed. In corporate transnational America, the tune played by Freire and his band continue to become more refined, sophisticated and gradually permeated into the system of thoughts of multiculturalists; and Peter McLaren’s Revolutionary Multiculturalism, in the next millenium, may become a magnum opus for critical pedagogists all the more ready to sing tunes of dissent.

As the author writes in the epilogue:

… there is a spirit in the making that refuses to succumb to the lure of nationalism, a spirit that is rising up like a serpent of fire. It is a spirit that refuses to die. The world has seen this spirit before. And capitalism’s pinstripe gangsters would do well to tremble before its humble grander… (p. 301)

And it is that spirit Peter McLaren believes the next millenium will dwell in!

1 comment:


Salam Dr Azly. I'm used to be one of your student in UUM in the 90s, if am not mistaken subject related to creative thinking. Your blog manage to open up my thinking especially when reading a book ..that's not only coming from one angle but also the other angle.


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