Ohmann, Richard M. English in America. 1976. New York: Oxford Univ.
Ohmann offers a cross-section of the discipline writ large, the profession,
and institutional pressures bearing on English Studies in 1976. English in
America might be read as a series of standalone essays; their integration is
loose and casual. Ohmann’s primary ambition with the series of essays is
to articulate a politically-inflected variety of English Studies as an afront to
formalist, structuralist and New Critical trends in the field. Throughout
the book and more pointedly at the very end, Ohmann expresses his strong
preference for the political dimensions of English Studies.
EIA was reprinted in 1995. This turn alone raises questions about the
ways projects get recycled or revisited for something like a twenty-year
anniversary. Ohmann adds a new preface and conclusion, but the bulk of the
project matches its former version from 1976. The "radical view" mentioned
in the subtitle, "A Radical View of the Profession," is probably a whole lot
less radical in 2006 (even 1995) than it was taken to be in 1976. In the
intro to the 1995 edition, Ohmann lists a few of the events since the first
edition that have transformed (or influenced, at the least) English studies:
vocational education, literacy crisis (1975), back to basics, excellence (1983),
and cultural conservatism.
Ohmann, in accounting for the state of working in English, ca. 1965, leads
with distinctions between the humanities and the sciences. He also
emphasizes teaching, noting that the cultural aspirations and professional
aspirations are "somewhat at odds" (17).
Because Ohmann contends that "English classrooms are the front line of
culture," he urges a politically infused curriculum the leads to "unmasking,"
empowerment, and a service to society. After his introduction, he gives readings
of the constraining force of MLA (re: Vietnam and radicalism in leadership), AP
English testing ("Be docile" (56).), and the ideology-free myth of New Critical
or related objective approaches to close reading (to what degree is English
studies a cultural engine (status quo) rather than a countercultural engine?).
The latter sections include a chapter by Wallace Douglas in which he gives a
reading of Edward Tyrell Channing as a way to make sense of the emergence of
modern composition studies (as Channing’s lectures signal "a nearly final stage
in the long devolution of classical rhetoric" (99). Chapter six covers
"Freshman Composition and Administered Thought." It’s basically a reading
of the role of textbooks in promulgating what Sirc would call "bread only"
In chapter ten, "Culture, Knowledge, and Machines," Ohmann presents a history
of Taylorism and related forces of cultural mechanization that rival the mission
and aims of English studies.
Keywords: "parlor socialism" (xv), "unmasking" (xvi), "legitimacy crisis"
(xx), "Fordism" (xxxviii), "hegemonic confrontation" (xlviii), comp as
"notoriously ineffective"(94), "technostructure" (272), "vanity of educators"
Technology defined (ref. John McDermott): "systems of rationalized
control over large groups of men, events, and machines by small groups of
technically skilled men operating through organizational hierarchy" (49).
Technology, or "technostructure" (the range of technological knowledge
implicated in a complex process) is again addressed in chapter ten (272).
"The paradox resolves itself around the machine, of course: metaphorically
speaking, the machine feeds on knowledge and puts out consumer goods. That is
what technology means" (274).
"In spite of my appropriately skeptical unpacking of the social relations
mystified by such terms as ‘technology,’ ‘knowledge,’ ‘need,’ and ‘problem,’ I
sometimes reverted, myself, to the old mystifications" (xxv). Reflecting on the
earlier edition, Ohmann acknowledges the problem of the life of terms.
"Within a profession, rituals and assumptions like those I examined in
English in America reproduce its own hierarchies and proclaim the
legitimacy–the objectivity–of its ranking and sifting" (xxvii).
"I imagine that composition will continue to grow in relation to literature,
as a portion of our work, a process aided by the professionalization of comp
during the past two decades. But not just comp in a general way: I would
expect our concrete labor to slide toward recognizably practical, vocational
kinds of writing instruction, as it has been doing: witness the sharp increase
of courses and programs in technical, business, and professional writing"
"What an unsatisfactory state we have achieved, from the point of view I am
urging upon you, when most of what we write drops quickly into a permanent
non-circulating file, unassimilated, and even unread except by a corps of
specialist colleagues and by unusually diligent committees on promotion and
"What I wish to note here is simply how comfortable this ideology is for the
professors who have risen to the height of their careers and who, therefore,
occupy ideal positions for inculcating ideology in younger aspirants to these
same heights; and how comfortable it is to maintain the reputations of their
universities; and so confirm their own wealth and power" (37).
"In America we use technology and production to shut out social ills, and so
to evade politics at whatever the cost" (80). Here, Ohmann offers one of
his overtly divisive stances toward what he calls technology and production.
^What is the legacy or lifespan of this attitude?