Monday, August 30, 2010

Susman - Culture as History

Susman, Warren. Culture As History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984

Note: I decided only parts III and IV of this book of essays were applicable to my comp studies. Since it is a book of essays, I'll discuss them individually...

Ch. 7 - Culture and Civilization: The 1920s
Civilization is a keyword for Susman, particularly in this chapter. Culture in the 20s was an attempt by America to react and "repair" civilization following WWII. Technology and communications made Americans aware of standing in a new era. [Me: who doesn't think they're in a "new era?"] Self-knowledge increased self-awareness. Essentially, the chapter is a laundry list of examples.

p107-111 - mini essay argues "new world of new knowledge heighten the very contradictions the new knowledge itself was uncovering." (107) Ex. 1. Specialization of new knowledge made it difficult to share (107). 2. Culture contradicted itself: Chaplin's The Kid opposed to J.B. Watson's ideas on how to raise a child. Chaplin has a warm and fuzzy relationship with the kid. Wartson says "Never hug and kiss them." Traditional & common sense versus new scientific(108). 3. In era of increased communications, there was an often noted lack of things worth communicating about - sports, jazz, bedtime stories. (109) 4. Interest in gap between language and reality (110-111).

Ch. 8 - Culture Heroes: Ford, Barton, Ruth
Three key heroes of the 20s and 30s, barely tied together...

Bruce Barton - famous, supposedly "self-made," advertising baron who penned The Man Nobody Knows. Masculinity and business tied to Christ.

Henry Ford - Fordism

Babe Ruth - Out of poverty, messy off-field issuels, alcohol, sex, still loved even before he cleaned up his act.

Ch. 9 - The Culture of the Thirties
Begins with execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927 - crushing the exuberance of their supporters, symbol of anti-immigration in 20s. 30s sense of collective "American" culture. Civilization increasingly the enemy. (156-7). Sports and games as escape but Susman tries to explain the kind of escape... rules are important. (162) Rise of the "how to" book, particularly to get rich...tended to essential argue conformity, such as Carnegie's How to Win Friends... (165). Argument: decade remembered as filled with committment to "ideologies" but in fact little evidence that such committment existed among most Americans. Instead, replaced by "innocence."

Ch. 10 - Culture and Committment
I - 185 - " this period (depression and WWII) the people under study are trying to make their own world comprehensible by their self-conscious awareness of the importance of the idea of culture and the idea of commitment, their self-conscious search for a cultrue that will enable them to deal with the world of experience, and a commitment to forms, patters, symbols that will make their life meaningful"
II - In culture of crisis, sensed need of commitment. (191)
III - Still a largely middle-class culture during this time, despite tendency to focus on new poor. Felt fears, shame.
IV - Political historians think of it as age of FDR, cultural historians see it as age of Mickey Mouse. Disney turned dreams and nightmares into pallatable cartoons - Fantasia, Night on Bald Mountain
V - Heroes, symbol, myths rituals: Jungian Age - search for these things.
VI - Age of shame and fear passes away with construction of the Pentagon - into Age of Anxiety

Ch. 11 - World's Fair of 1939-40.

Ch. 12 - The City in American Culture
City as simultaneously a place of promise and potential as well as place of evil and sin.

Ch. 13 - Culture and Communications
Argues for "ecological model" of analyzing mass communications - relationship between the media and the environment within which it was created. Analysis of Capra's It Happened One Night - movie displays virtually every form of communication/transportation of the time. It was about journalism.

Ch. 14 - "Personality" and the Making of 20th Century Culture
Development in this period of a consciousness of self leads to interest in developing ones own personality. From this, celebrity culture - developing a personality as a product.

Overall Critique
Susman's arguments rarely blow the mind. The chapters are extremely useful as overviews of their topics, but rarely hold together towards a coherent main point. The concepts he builds around are fairly obvious. Also, they may be forced. For instance, in proving the 20s had an interest in the concept of civilization, he merely lists examples of works that mention "civilization.

Recommend for...
An undergraduate class. Different essays work well as overviews of culture in different decades.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Lasch - The Culture of Narcissism

Lasch, Christopher. The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. New York: Norton, 1978.

Methodology and Scope
Blends Freudian psychology and Marxism. The culture of narcissism is a 20th century development.


A culture of narcissism has developed in America. Loathing their perceived personal defects and hoping to control and display a positive image of themselves to the world, Americans are heading in troubling directions in several ways. Advertising is key because it encourages people to believe satisfying their wants will lead to happiness.

Key Trends Discussed
The Therapeutic Sensibility has replaced religion as the preferred source for personal salvation. (7) (see the massive self-help sections in bookstores, although I wonder if religion has fought back a bit - it too has a big section. So does new age metaphysics, which Lasch observed growing in the 70s.)

Shift from a society valuing Super Ego values (self-restraint) to values of id (self-indulgence). (177-179).

Chapter IV, "The Banality of Pseudo-Self-Awareness: Theatrics of Politics and Everyday Existence," argues politics has used propaganda-methods (inspired by advertising) to sugesst to the public a perpetual state of crisis. Ideal leadership, (particularly for the President, particularly JFK and Nixon) then, is one that has the ability to rise to the moment of crisis. (78-79)

The chapter goes on to suggest that, having been bombarded in culture with images of spectacle, individuals are beginning to adapt an ironic detachment and distancing, both on the part of the creators/artists and on the part of the audience. Example: attacks on theatrical illusion.
**** This is REALLY interesting, because of its anticipation of post-modern hyper-consciousness in media, about to go mainstream in quality television shows... St. Elsewhere, Moonlighting, Simpsons, etc.

Chapter V, "The Degradation of Sport," (one particularly interesting and enjoyable for me) argues NOT that sports are being taken too seriously but rather that they are being overly-trivialized and thus minimizing their positive social effect as an illusion of reality that offers a healthy outlet for emotions in a controlled (through the rules and ettiquette, both for players and the crowd) setting. Sports, at their best, are kind of like art; thus it's good for the audience to take them seriously. Lasch partly blames liberal criticism of sport, but mostly attacks the professionalization of sports that leads to athletes treating their game as a business rather than pleasure, destroying the magic.

Chapter VI, "Schooling and the New Illiteracy," critiques the education system. Education is encouraged as a means to economic benefits rather than self-improvement.

Chapter VIII, "The Flight fom Feeling: Sociopsychology of the Sex War," discusses the tension between the sexes, partly blaming the feminist movement and the sexual revolution. Sex is encouraged as a selfish (narcissistic) pursuit for pleasure without emotional attachment.

Chapter IX, "The Shattered Faith in the Regeneration of Life," discusses the "campaign against old age." This stems from the narcissistic fears of declining beauty, healthy, and usefullness. It leads to cries for enforced retirement and encouragement of the elderly to find other outputs for their mind and body - hobbies, solitary occupations - that merely get them out of the way.

Chapter X, "Paternalism without Father," discusses the decline of the family/parents role in parenting children. The government, through the education bureaucracy, thinks it can do a better job of raising children then parents. This stems from the shift caused by Industrialization to an occupation that takes fathers (and increasingly mothers) out of the home.

Random Thoughts
The preface of the book would be great to use with my 102 sections in the spring. So much of Lasch's description of the setting within which this was written (late seventies) sounds like America circa 2010. The basics: failed wars, economic stagnation, sense of decline. Deeper: mood of pessimism (xiii) (although Lasch describes that mood flowing from higher circles of leadership down to the people, and I'm not convinced that's what's going on in U.S.-2010), anger towards the government and its bureaucracy (xiv-xv), and a sense that the past is unimportant (xvii).

Critique (Thoughts that are totally useless for comp-purposes)
The less-traditional the style the more I struggle to stay engrossed. This is more towards the theoretical, and it was challenging, but it was pretty brilliant. Overall, I didn't like the cynicism of the book, which says more about the worldview of the book rather than the argument. At the same time, I agreed with a lot of the arguments and disagreed with only a few.

Who should I give this book to
Conservative Dan. Lasch is equally critical of radicals on the left and conservatives to the right, but spends much more time criticizing the radical assault on Liberalism of the past two decades before the book was written. My edition has a new afterword written around 1990, but he doesn't mention Reagan. This book would challenge Dan but I think he'd find enough to like about it to keep him wrestling with it.

Away we go - a disclaimer

I'm sitting in Starbucks right now. There is a car pulling up to the light outside with only its parking lights on, not its headlights. That is the fourth car I have seen tonight, starting when I left my house at dusk for Starbucks, that was improperly lighted. I wonder if that is a sign of some sort?

But enough about the external world. This blog is designed to be more internally focused then anything I have ever put on the Internet. Normally when I publish a blog or podcast on the Internet I expect, at the very least, a couple friends to check it out. Odds are the consumer of my creation is named "Chris." If Chris ever becomes the most popular name in the United States I will lead off my book proposal with that fact.

This blog is not designed for Chris, Chris, or any of my other friends. It is designed for...
  • Me, when it comes time to study
  • Maybe Adam and Alex, my classmates who happen to be studying for similar comps this year. They are at least as brilliant as I am, so it might only be worth a skim for them.
  • Maybe my advisor, Prof. LQ, if I feel like giving her this link. I haven't decided if I will yet. Probably.
Of course, other people might stumble onto this blog. I can imagine...
  • My dad checking on it regularly. Maybe my mom if she bookmarks it. I live in my parents basement, and I can already tell they'll keep me on track merely by inquiring how I'm doing.
  • Chris, Chris, or any of my other friends checking it out once in a while if they're super-bored and wondering how far I've gotten in my odyssey.
  • Some historian (Professor, student, or amateur) somewhere hitting on this site while googling one of the books I've read. They're welcome to take as little or as much as they want from this blog. Students can even plagiarize, if they like, although if they do, I hope they're racked with guilty and consumed by shame at their own cowardice. I have never cheated at school, although I have cheated at lower tier card games like a-hole, BS, and war. Don't cheat at school.
I have to read 120 books. Fifty for my major field - Modern American Cultural History, advised by Prof LQ. Thirty-five each for my two minor fields - TBD, but I'm planning for Modern American "Political" (traditional?) History advised by Prof DB and Media Studies (outside of the history department) advised by Prof BT.

Right now, my deadline is May. I want to have my comps done before summer 2011. I am supposed to have my comps done by the end of my third year. We shall see.

I think there is a word for writing that means something like vomiting onto the page, or something. I can't think of the word I am thinking of. Irregardless... (And yes, I know irregardless means the same thing as regardless and shouldn't even be a word. Like Kent Brockman says "tax avoision" instead of "tax evasion" I say "irregardless" instead of "regardless." It's one of my schticks.) Irregardless, my writing style in this blog is going to be one of vomiting my thoughts about each book into each post. It's not going to be pretty, but hopefully it will serve my purposes. If you want a proper review, go to JSTOR. I'm not even going to spell and grammar check!

As you can tell, this isn't a blog where I'm going to bare my soul, unless a book reaches me that deeply. But since I'm laying out all my cards, I should admit to one of my deepest, darkest secrets... I don't love to read. At least, I don't love to read as much as I probably should love to read as a history PhD. Really good writing, really good stories, and, to a lesser extent, really brilliant stuff expressed in writing, can get me excited, but reading a full academic-style book tends to be a slog for me. If this were a comprehensive examination of how much I learned from 100 lectures, or even 100 courses, I'd be fine. But academia works through writing, and while I love to write, I don't love to read.

After listening to several audiobooks this summer, I think I might absorb material better if I'm listening rather than reading. It would be really nice to break up this odyssey with a smattering of books in recorded audio form. Alas, few of my books are available on audiobook, and if they are they tend to be only available to blind and dyslexic. (If anyone can get me access to these books, let me know. I'm serious. I'd be willing to pay, or donate a fair amount to Reading for the Blind and Dyslexic to balance ethical issues of a non-blind, non-dyslexic person using them. I'm TOTALLY serious.) Bottom line, this is going to be a long and difficult road for me. Like a marathon. Harder than a marathon.

I don't even know who I'm talking to. Whoever has read this far, consider yourself disclaimed.