Harvard Educational Review
  1. Spring 1995 Issue »

    Critical Pedagogy and Predatory Culture: Oppositional Politics in a Postmodern Era

    By Peter McLaren; Preface by Paulo Freire.
    New York: Routledge, 1995. 285 pp. $16.00 (paper).

    Driving home from a research site where violence is a harsh everyday reality for kids, I was appalled, but not the least bit surprised, to hear on the radio that two of last year's most popular Halloween costumes were a bloody football jersey and masks of Nicole and O. J. Simpson. When I finally made my way through the traffic and arrived home, I flipped on the news, only to find that the first "human interest" story was on the making and marketing of "Drive By Fashions" — popular clothing such as jeans, baseball caps, and t-shirts that are riddled with live ammunition before they hit the store shelves. Experiencing a deep sense of frustration, I wondered what could possibly be in the mind, body, and spirit of a society that finds a spectacle, an aesthetic, and a market niche in the tragedy of lives lost through acts of violence?

    The commodification of violence and fabrication of fun that obfuscate the realities behind these featured stories embody the exact kinds of symptoms that Peter McLaren diagnoses as emanating from a "predatory culture" in his new and timely book, Critical Pedagogy and Predatory Culture: Oppositional Politics in a Postmodern Era. In the book's introduction, under the subheading "Are We Having Fun Yet?" McLaren ominously warns:

    Predatory culture is a field of invisibility — of stalkers and victims — precisely because it is so obvious. Its obviousness immunizes its victims against a full disclosure of its menacing capabilities. In predatory culture identity is fashioned mainly and often violently around the excesses of marketing and consumption and the natural social relations of post-industrial capitalism. (p. 2)

    Presently an Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, McLaren is the author of numerous books, including Schooling as a Ritual Performance: Towards a Political Economy of Educational Symbols and Gestures and Life in Schools: An Introduction to Critical Pedagogy in the Social Foundations of Education. He has worked tirelessly to lay bare publicly the malignant realities of capitalist structures and to contest the central theories, categories, and systems of Western thought, which, in his estimation, regardless of their multiple facets and shifting locations, are steeped in a totalizing logic that is informed by a patriarchal and White supremacist ideology. Rejecting these modernist notions and traditions that conflate reason, progress, and emancipation, and which attempt, through objectivity, truth, and certainty, to formulate and defend a scientific basis for the study of culture, McLaren's postmodern lens focuses on and embraces the idea that lifestyles, knowledge, meaning, identity, and social relations are always produced within particular socio-historical conditions, and that any critical understanding of their production, reproduction, representation, and dissemination is inextricable from an investigation of their relations to power.

    Appropriating critical theories from across the social sciences, McLaren's interdisciplinary approach to understanding and engaging the interpretive nature of social reality contends that the modernist foundations of science, capitalism, and universal truth have historically been injected into public schools and frequently operate in oppressive ways to shape the manner in which people interact and relate to each other with a paradoxically blatant but often subliminal agenda of constructing forms of cultural, gender, sexual, linguistic, racial, and socioeconomic domination. Radically opposed to this homogenizing and constricting social paradigm, the central importance of his ever-evolving theoretical framework is three-fold: first and foremost, it discloses the inherent but often carefully ignored role of ideology, power relations, history, discourse, social institutions, economics, technology, and politics in the formative nature of culture, knowledge, identity, and social relations. Secondly, it brings to light how conservative efforts to enforce a foundation for interpreting reality and to entrench unnegotiated values, ethics, and meaning in a kind of structural determinism — a "common culture/sense" — can be understood as contingent socio-historical constructs of power and domination that grossly limit the possibility for a critical multicultural democracy. And thirdly, McLaren's books call for new languages of critique capable of engaging the dialectic of domination and liberation. Such languages of possibility urge the development of critical pedagogies capable of subverting standard academic boundaries and practices, providing the necessary stepping-stones for dismantling oppression.

    An extension of his previous efforts, Critical Pedagogy and Predatory Culture explores in greater detail how identity formation, subjectivities, oppositional resistance to domination, and social relations in popular and mass culture in the United States often fall prey to the social ethics and material interests of a controlled media and marketplace. For the more seasoned reader, McLaren appropriates insights of postmodern, poststructuralist, and postcolonial theory and resituates them within a Marxist materialist critique that relocates the struggle over the sign in relation to class struggle and the antagonism between capital and labor.

    Hurling the reader through a gauntlet of brazenly descriptive prose that divulges the malicious and perverse realities of "predatory culture," the theoretical point of departure for McLaren's new book is once again a deconstruction of the ideological forces that engender the de facto social code in the United States, which works to reproduce identities and systems of domination that embrace, in the name of power and profit, the thriving harsh realities of apathy, poverty, discrimination, violence, and over-consumption. Probing the organizing principles of the psyche and society, McLaren dissects the multiple ways in which "predatory culture" functions pedagogically through the manipulation of semiotics — language, signs, visual representations, codes, and other signifying systems — as he exposes the dominant agenda and strategy of colonizing public consciousness and everyday life. McLaren confronts educational institutions and the media for what he describes as their bombardment of society with a complexity of distorted images, stereotypes, and mis/disinformation that work to commodify culture and shape identities, subjectivities, and social relations that reinforce capitalist ideals and other forms of social control. Making this link between pedagogy — that is, how we learn what we learn in the particular conditions within which we learn — and material struggle — such as homelessness and racism — McLaren insists that the key to insuring the central position of such an oppressive ideological foundation is its ability to influence and mobilize desire, to deskill and stupidify youth, and to neutralize any form of human agency, thus manufacturing public indifference and consent towards the present social structures and practices. As readers trying to relate this point to everyday life, we simply have to ask ourselves how many privileged, suburban White kids, who listen to and economically support the enormous industry of Hip Hop or Reggae, identify with the often explicit political statements and acts of resistance within such expressive forms,and consequently question the realities of discrimination and domination from which they benefit as members of a particular race and social class.

    Critical Pedagogy and Predatory Culture brilliantly depicts how the formative rather than the simply expressive nature of representations kindled by the dominant ideology can work to subsume resistance, the social, the cultural, and the human within capital and, simultaneously, to maintain sharp borders of segregation in society by provoking racial and ethnic tensions. McLaren affirms that the messages buried in such ideologically charged symbols and representations function to justify acts of violence and international aggression by instilling fear in the White community that it is culturally and physically in constant danger because of the actions, "advances," and what is portrayed as the "natural" predisposition of the designated "Other." This victim as villain tactic is evident in the media's barrage of negative images that work to socially construct Blackness as being synonymous with violence, thus perpetuating and legitimating in the minds of many the social injustices and inequalities that a great many African Americans, and other oppressed groups for that matter, face on a daily basis. It is also apparent in the media's frequent efforts to demonize and dehumanize people from around the world in order to strategically mobilize the U.S. population in support of what are really foreign economic adventures shrouded in the idealistic rhetoric of defending democracy. One need simply take a look at the Persian Gulf War.

    In other words, masquerading behind the supposedly innocuous and virtuous representations of individualism, autonomy, free markets, amusement, liberty, choice, and equality that saturate popular and mass culture in the United States lies an assimilationist ideology. This ideology functions to consume both the consciousness and subconsciousness of public and private life in an effort to reproduce oppressive cultural sign posts and myths of nationalism and democratic citizenship that in reality privilege only a prosperous few who own and manage the country. At the same time, these manipulative and exploitative social practices relegate a society driven by the institutionalized world of the mainstream — that is, those members who don't or are unable to resist — back in the same direction of the daily and seemingly acceptable quagmire of violence (as exemplified in the Halloween costumes and "Drive By Fashions"), international aggression, poverty, racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, homophobia, and the destructive over-consumption of nature, to name a few.

    It is through intense examination of the strategic invisibility of history and ideology in predatory culture, an invisibility concocted out of the intoxicating myths of objectivity and neutrality — dogma that protects such a culture from transformative critique — that McLaren is able to link the conservative agenda of fabricating a "common culture" to what he refers to as "dead pluralism":

    When culture is despairingly viewed as a storehouse of dead facts, a time capsule of frozen memories detached from historical context, then the concept of difference, when applied to issues of race, class, gender, age, sexual preference, or disability, can be absorbed into what I call "dead pluralism." Dead pluralism is what keeps at bay the need to historicize difference, to recognize the hierarchical production of systems of difference, whose interests such hierarchies serve, and to acknowledge difference as a social construction forged within asymmetrical relations of power, conflicting interests, and a climate of dissent and opposition. (p. 13)

    Such insight in my estimation accurately predicts that until this society is able to admit to and work against the negative history and ideological, economic, and sociopolitical constraints that work to shape our volatile contemporary interactions, we will never move in the direction of worthwhile democratic change.

    Like so many of the critical educators and theorists who are passionate about openly politicizing the world of the social and extending the possibilities of democratic public life, McLaren pinpoints the urgent need within our schools for the development of a "critical multicultural pedagogy," a pedagogy that creates the self-empowering conditions through which a critically reflective and media-literate citizenry can come to fruition. Reflecting and extending the insights of cultural studies and most critical and postmodern educational theories, McLaren firmly defends the investigation and pedagogical consideration of everyday popular culture, which inevitably plays a serious role in the shaping of identity and subjectivity but is nevertheless frequently dismissed in the name of high culture. As he states:

    It only makes sense that a curriculum should have as its focus of investigation the study of everyday, informal, and popular culture and how the historical patterns of power that inform such cultures are implicated in the formation of individual subjectivity and identity. (p. 22)

    Moreover, by casting light on and expanding some new trends in social theory, his work moves critical pedagogy beyond simply a terrain of critique and into the realm of rebuilding. Significantly influenced by the invaluable contributions of Paulo Freire and Henry Giroux, the radical hope that binds McLaren's new book breathes life into postcolonial narratives of liberation that rupture and move beyond the confines of a marketplace identity, where freedom and social investment are no longer equated with reaping the benefits of self-interest, image, narcissistic pleasure, the accumulation of material wealth, and achieving a higher position on the jungle-gym pyramid of power. It's a process that reinvigorates critical discussion about the effects of power and ideology in shaping culture, difference, meaning, and knowledge, and realizes the possibilities of ceasing the production of a passive, apathetic, fearful, paranoid, and apolitical mainstream citizenry. Critical pedagogy becomes a strategy for recognizing, engaging, and transforming present oppressive conditions, critically examining in the classroom relationships such as those that exist between knowledge and power, ethics and authority, language and experience, student agency and social transformation, and teachers and students.

    Unlike today's extremely limited work in multicultural education, rather than reducing his critique to a mere discussion of the politics of identity, a politics that often serves to essentialize and romanticize a particular experience or quality, McLaren's major focus is on the formation of identity and the relational nature of defining difference. As such, his vision of liberation provides the first steps to creating a pedagogy for identifying one's own location (especially important for mainstream middle-class Whites whose cultural milieu is often not clearly defined), while critically engaging the socio-historical construction of such a position and its relationship to, or complicity in, unequal power relations and oppressive social and cultural practices. Such a critical multicultural pedagogy embraces creativity and resistance to domination as positive cultural acts, and engenders social transformation through hope, human agency, praxis, and an undying belief, regardless of the complexities and contradictions inherent in a politics of difference, in achieving justice through democratic struggle.

    This reconstructive pedagogical process is at the heart of the three major sections in Critical Pedagogy and Predatory Culture: "Pedagogy, Culture, and the Body," which includes a chapter, cowritten with Henry Giroux, that discusses radical pedagogy as cultural politics; "Critical Agency, Border Narratives, and Resistance," which provides a compelling dialogue with Kris Gutierrez about pedagogies of dissent and transformation; and "Postcolonial Pedagogies and the Politics of Difference."

    As the ongoing heated national debates over education in the United States have at the forefront issues concerning standardization, individualism, privatization, and global economic competition, it is refreshing to find a critical educator such as Peter McLaren who doesn't choose to hide behind language, but rather uses it with cutting political clarity to debunk the myths perpetuated about democratic practices in the United States. It is a language that disrobes the fashionable euphemistic terms such as "jobs" and "at risk," and replaces them with what they actually signify: profit for very few and business as usual for the oppressed. McLaren's insights carve painstakingly through the hypocrisy inherent in the existing celebration of "diversity for inequality" — that is, diversity that maintains the status quo — as he exposes today's conservative endorsement of what he considers to be the commodification of knowledge, the body, identity, culture, schools, and democracy, mainly through the deceptively despotic mechanisms of technocapitalism.

    One of this book's most important contributions is its clear depiction of how capitalism and democracy, which are so often erroneously conceptualized in the United States as being one and the same, are in fact in direct contradiction with each other: the former inherently structured for inequality and domination, and the latter for justice and liberation. Engaging this paradoxical coexistence of liberty, social justice, and citizenship with structured domination, McLaren confirms the impossibility of resolving social problems and inequalities through the market. How is the market to solve what it in fact creates?

    As a critical educator, it is my hope that books such as Critical Pedagogy and Predatory Culture will not get dismissed simply because of the terms "critical pedagogy" and "postmodern" found in the title. While critical and postmodern theories are read across the social sciences, it has been my experience that their intense complexity has been neglected, superficially dismissed, and even ridiculed in schools of education in this country. For example, one of my students in a graduate course on anti-racist multicultural education commented sarcastically after glancing at one of the course readings based on a critique of popular culture, "Is this going to be another look at the symbolism of Madonna videos?" And a professor teaching a graduate course concerned with the issues of race and education told me, "I included one reading of that postmodern stuff, but it was getting close to the end of the semester and the students didn't really have time for it."

    Acknowledging the multiple versions of what constitutes postmodern thought and critical pedagogy, McLaren not only successfully ruptures any generic definitions in his book, but also attempts to find some shared ground upon which critical and postmodern theoretical insights and agendas can be understood, and thus further built upon to address the ubiquity of social dilemmas, inequities, and fabricated tensions in our society. On the other hand, McLaren also recognizes the need to constantly question the plethora of theories, including his own, that are subsumed under the term "postmodern," to ensure that they do not simply become a new totalizing narrative, a new colonial model. He provides a caveat about the dangers of postmodern relativism in which efforts to eliminate the marginalization of difference can be paralyzed by such questions as, "What is difference?" The basic tenets of such a theoretical framework call into question and demand transformation of the reproduction of cultural identities that reinforce oppressive and exploitative modes of production, along with other abusive positions and systems of authority and power that exist at the expense of others, and therefore should be of interest to anyone concerned with the possibilities of democracy and the politics of difference.

    This of course does not imply that positions like McLaren's are bereft of problems, contradictions, and unanswered questions. At times, issues addressed are inadequately problematized and insufficiently researched in terms of how particular theories actually play out in a classroom setting. Readers may also find that the derivative theoretical and intertextual nature of such books renders the language and description extremely complex. While the derivative nature of this kind of work certainly needs to be problematized, all things considered, Critical Pedagogy and Predatory Culture nevertheless offers the reader a counter-discourse with which to begin to contest and possibly transform present dominant modes of operation, a position and language that in my estimation are certainly worth struggling over and through in an effort to get to the core of the social strife, injustices, deep-seated malaise, and indifference so prevalent, not only in this society, but globally.

    As reflective readers and educators, we are compelled to question why such critical social and cultural theories, rooted in centuries of thought, have had such a marginal role in contemporary schooling, research, and practice. We must also problematize the issue of the conceptual complexity of such books, not in terms of how the authors write, but, rather, why it is that schools stupidify us in the process of our literacy development to the extent that we become semi-literate and can only deal with simple discourse that whitewashes the complexity of the reality that is being examined. It is thus the reading, engaging, and subsequent reinvention of such books as McLaren's that have enormous implications for educational theory and practice. Curriculum theorist Bill Pinar goes so far as to state that "McLaren's unerring sense of what is important as well as the remarkable range of his scholarship establish him as perhaps the central political theorist in the field today."

    Unfortunately, the devaluation of theory is far too common in schools of education in the United States. This is reflected in a system of public primary and secondary schooling that continues to be inundated with what Lilia Bartolomé so brilliantly describes as "a methods fetish" — prepackaged methods, teacher-proof materials, and "magical" strategies.1 Instead of creating the self-empowering pedagogical conditions within which both teachers and students can develop political awareness and embrace theory as a place to make sense of the world and their interactions therein — to engage and thus interact as subjects rather than objects of history — theory is frequently removed from everyday practice and left in the hands of those academics in the ivory tower deemed experts. Unfortunately, even at this level, theory, for the most part, is relegated to the realm of cognition, abstracted from the inherently socio-historical and political nature of learning and teaching, and is often uncritically passed on to future teachers to inform the more "efficient" ways that students can assimilate basic skills.

    In a conversation with Paulo Freire, who wrote the preface to Critical Pedagogy and Predatory Culture, I asked him what people in the United States generally inquire about. He responded, "There are always the mechanistic questions, how to's, how to's with no theory behind them. They want to know the facts. I like facts too, but I like to know where they came from." In the spirit of Freire's wisdom, critical work such as McLaren's illustrates the enormous importance of first and foremost developing a theoretical framework that historically and socially situates the deeply embedded roots of violence, discrimination, and consumer ethos in this country, offering a looking-glass understanding into a conscious and practical effort to eradicate the historical amnesia, the denial, the complicity, and the suffering that infect and seriously endanger any possibility of a democratic future for this country. Instead of perpetuating the erroneous assumption that such realities are inevitable, part of human nature, that free will and autonomy exist somewhere outside of the socializing constraints of power and ideology, students should be invited to explore why they identify with O. J. and the bullet-ridden clothes and begin to historicize such an identification in the context of the larger political and social issues facing the country.

    Critical Pedagogy and Predatory Culture is an important contribution to the radical literature on culture, difference, and the politics of education, and certainly merits considerable attention by anyone interested in reinventing rather than merely reforming the structured insanity that has historically dictated the fate of this planet. We as educators and citizens need to challenge ourselves, our colleagues, and our students to think beyond the confines of what we've been taught.

    PEPI LEISTYNA

    Notes

    1 See Lilia Bartolomé, "The Methods Fetish," Harvard Educational Review, 64 (1994), 173–194.
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    Spring 1995 Issue

    Abstracts

    Change without Difference
    School Restructuring in Historical Perspective
    By Jesse Goodman
    Reading the World of School Literacy
    Contextualizing the Experience of a Young African American Male
    By Arlette Ingram Willis
    Why the "Monkeys Passage" Bombed
    Tests, Genres, and Teaching
    By Bonny Norton Peirce and Pippa Stein
    The Reading Campaign Experience within Palestinian Society
    Innovative Strategies for Learning and Building Community
    By Munir Jamil Fasheh
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