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.

No comments:

Post a Comment