Schwartz, Howard S.
The Revolt of the Primitive: An Inquiry into the Roots of Political Correctness
Review by James Glass
Department of Political Science
Psychoanalysis, Culture, and Society
December, 2006, pp. 331-335
The Revolt of the Primitive: an Inquiry into the Roots of Political Correctness examines contradictions and injustices in the exercise of political correctness, primarily in educational institutions. Schwartz's dissent from political correctness derives from a psychoanalytic reading of what the demands for political correctness represent: the giving over of the self and group to the primordial or primitive maternal. What results is the emasculation of the Father, the appearance of social policies and groups dominated by the maternal ego ideal, and the disappearance of respect generated by the imagery and practices of authority. This is particularly the case in Universities where traditional authority has been supplanted by the values of political correctness, and a set of public assumptions about behavior that psychoanalytically 'expresses the premise of the primordial mother whose children have no need, and certainly no right, to have their own minds' (p 155). In this view, political correctness is an assault on paternal law, on rationality, and on balance in the institution. Further, it is an attack on moderation and fairness; it replaces guilt with shame, and demonstrates extreme impatience with the ambivalence and doubt associated with the superego.
In this meticulously argued, lucid and well written book, Schwartz does present some interesting theoretical ideas and questions: I found his use of the concept of projective identification as a way of describing group reactions to abhorrent values to be useful. We often hate others to avoid hating ourselves; and there is no reason to think such a mechanism does not condition strident ideological attacks coming from both left and right on University campuses. The notion that the world holds us like the primordial mother (p 132)--'our desire to deny the world outside ourselves and what that world tells us about our own limitations' (p 111)--give us fascinating insight into the sense of entitlement, narcissism, and the range of feeling behind entitlement demands.. For Schwartz this sense of being contained and held by righteousness leads often to intolerance and an unwillingness to subordinate individual feeling to a rational construct that seeks fairness.
Schwartz contends that as political
correctness gained ground in the university the maternal totally eclipsed the paternal, and thereby elevated feeling and emotion over
reason and prudence. The result, he
argues, is a culture of the oppressed, including women and ethnic groups,
blaming white males for their victimhood and
suffering. Schwartz categorizes this in
the following way: 'The university turns into a setting for a Manichean battle
between the forces of goodness, as personified by the victims and their
righteous allies, and the force of evil, personified by the oppressors,' or the
white power structure (p 145).
Schwartz argues that political correctness has totally altered the
teaching and learning environments of the universities to the point that
specialized, social/cultural courses trump the great books. 'Knowledge becomes advocacy
research.whatever ideas express hatred of the
oppressors and love of the victims' (p 147). Schwartz exaggerates to push a polemical
point; and the value of his book does not lie in the notion that somehow the
traditional university has disappeared, but in what he makes us think about,
and in our reactions to his extreme positions.
Many of the examples provided are fascinating: they show egregious violations of the rights of the dissenter from political correctness. Nevertheless, to argue that political correctness has turned the university into an ideologically driven knowledge machine, biased against white males and the history of the great books tradition, is just simply wrong--or I should say wrong in terms of the universities of which I have knowledge. Further, although the 1980's and 1990's produced instances of excessive manifestations of political correctness, whether the intensity of those positions still dominates individual departments within universities is questionable.
Schwartz gives this abstraction--the
'university'--too much power. I'm not sure the university mandates 'one's
feelings and even makes one responsible for the feelings that others may have
about one's feeling' (p 134). In fact,
I'm not so sure the university cares much for feeling at all. Maybe it should--indeed, maybe it should pay
more attention to the teaching of ways we can understand feeling. Instead, universities primarily care about
production of books and articles, promotion, and the generation of grants; that
is often as close as 'higher' university administrators get to their local
colleges, schools and centers. Let's not
sell the father short; he may be alive and well in university administrations
that rely primarily on bureaucracy and local decision-making to further the
interests of promotion, tenure, hiring and salary, and course proposals. PC as an ideology driving the university
appears not to be as powerful a force as Schwartz suggests. I did find it
enjoyable to ponder some of Schwartz's examples of PC transgressions, both
because they are presented well and because I've never seen anything quite like
the PC grotesqueries Schwartz locates in
the 80's and 90's. I remember at
Where I would respectfully disagree
with Schwartz is on how to evaluate and position what he calls the 'sexual holy
war': He argues that '[w]hat underlies
the sexual holy war is something far more dangerous than even a war between the
sexes. It is nothing less than a revolt
of the primitive and the emotional against the mature and the rational. It is driven by the most powerful forces
within the psyche' (p 117). The feminine mystique, the sins of the father, the Lacanian notion of law and word, the rationalized
bureaucracy versus the primordial mother introject,
the postmodern university, the alienated student and the rejection of paternal
authority: all of these are useful and important concepts to think about, but
the way in which Schwartz asks us to consider them may not be the most
productive. And while the revolt of the
primitive is a critical idea in these times, its most frightening dimension is
not, in my view, to be found in the struggles between men and women, in the
departmental faculties, and on the last-stand measures of the white male. It seems to me that the revolt of the
primitive may appear in our public life:in
the political institutions of war and violence, in the arrogant exercise of
sovereign power, and in the indifference of the public space to human
suffering. Thus the best model may not
be, as it is for Schwartz, Chasseguet-Smirgel's
notion of the primitive maternal ego ideal. It may appear in the more ominous
preverbal universe of dread, anxiety, and terror: the inability of the maternal
to contain disintegration anxiety; the dangers of the paranoid/schizoid
position, the falling into what Michael Eigen calls the 'black hole' of
psychosis (Eigen, 1986). Finally, it may
be seen in how the abject world of violence and pain, Kristeva's
'abominable' (Kristeva, 1982), finds itself
manipulated and used by Law and Authority to keep the boundaries firm and
rigid. Indeed, maybe it is the 'good'
mother who is under assault by Law and Authority. It is certainly the case that the Lacanian Father had utterly no sound for those suffering in
To conclude, Schwartz has much to say both about psychoanalytic interpretation and the history of political correctness. He provokes the reader, argues a consistent position, and uses a massive amount of sound social science evidence to present his psychoanalytic position. While many may object to his hypotheses, The Revolt of the Primitive is a good, thoughtful read that raises serious and important questions.
(1982). Powers of Horror: An Essay on
Eigen, M. (1986).
The Psychotic Core.