Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Bell - The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism

Bell, Daniel. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. New York: Basic Books, 1976.

The post-industrial society is suffering from a crisis of hedonism (unlike Lasch, Bell does not use Freud/narcissism). The shift of employment to the service industry, and other post-WW II socio-economic trends have led Americans (though at times Bell talks about all post-industrial societies) into a sense of entitlement of a certain level of quality of life. Although he doesn't say it, Bell is sensing the end/failure of the New Deal state.

Most interesting, at least for me, is the evidence of hedonism Bell uses from culture. Abstract-expressionism and pop art, theatrical productions that break the separation between audience and performers, modern musical trends, pop music, and modern poetry are all signs of shifting sensibilities that Bell doesn't like. In deliberately undermining the critic's ability to differentiate between good and bad art, these developments have made it harder to have an intelligent conversation about art at all.

The second part of the book moves away from culture almost entirely to discuss government's role in modern capitalism and, more broadly, the perceived role of the state. The government is expected to help provide what the people believe they are entitled to, but the recent failures have left Americans disillusioned with their state. Ultimately, (ch.6) Bell argues (p.281-2) America needs "the reaffirmation of our past [meaning traditional and/or religious values]...recognition of the limits of resources and the priority of needs, individual and social, over unlimited appetite and wants; and agreement upon a conception of equity which gives all persons a sense of fairness and inclusion in the society and which promotes a situation where, within the relevant spheres, people become more equal so that they can be treated equally. [Bell is opposed to affirmative action quotas, arguing they are as arbitrary as the racism they seek to amend.]

Great Quote
p. 142 "Traditionally, violence has been repugnant to the intellectual as a confession of failure. In discourse, individuals resorted to force only when they had lost the power of persuasion by means of reason. So, too, in art the resort to force - in the sense of a literal reenactment of violence on the canvas, on the stage, or on the written page - signified that the artist, lacking the artistic power to suggest the emotion, was reduced to invoking the shock of it directly. But in the 1960s violence was justified not only as therapy but as a necessary accompaniment to social change."

The best critique of this period's [1960s] radical (and, indeed, popular) art I have ever read. I'm not totally convinced violence is all there is to it, but Bell makes a great point.

The Morgan Memorial "Deja Vu - You've Seen this Before"
Lasch - The Culture of Narcissism: These books are quite similar in their high intellectual style and substance, their ambivalence towards the New Left, and their critique of narcissism/hedonism. They are both, in some ways, dated; Bell, in particular, goes so far as to spend most of chapter 5 imagining the direction of America in the next 25 years (intriguing yet largely useless to read 35 years after it was written). The tone of both reflects the moment in time in which they were written - post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, during the 70s economic struggles. In a way, this is a cautionary tale for me, as I attempt to write recent history.

Putnam - Bowling Alone: Bell would be disappointed with the trends Putnam sees since Bell wrote this book, but Bell believes strong leadership is the key to American success whereas Putnam calls for a more grassroots solution.

Bell calls his chapters essays, which is apt because the book jumps around from culture to politics to economics. It is difficult, until the final pages, to cull a clear argument, although this is no small part due to the depth of intellectual thought the reader must wade through - not my strong point. As much as I liked his chapters on culture (particularly ch. 2), I prefer Lasch's similar book. Chapter 5 could've been skimmed, as it dealt mostly with musings about America's future.

For Follow-up Reading...
Bensman, Joseph, and Arthur J. Vidich. 2000. "The Cultural Contradictions of Daniel Bell". International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society. 12, no. 3: 503-514.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Gerstle - American Crucible

Gerstle, Gary. American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Argument & Key Terms
(p.4-5) Gerstle argues America pursued both civic and racial nationalism throughout the 20th century. Civic nationalism (from Michael Ignatieff and others) is the idealized perception of America as an ethnic and cultural melting pot which, resting on the values of equality and liberty inscribed in the founding documents, could accept waves of new immigrants and deal with a variety of ethnicities while still growing stronger and stronger as a nation of people.

Racial nationalism was a contradictory, conflicting ideal that emphasized America as the pinnacle of global civilization as the home of the greatest race in the world, the Anglo-Saxon. "Lesser" peoples, Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, and (before the 1930s) southern and eastern Europeans could never fully assimilate and thus never truly be members. They had to be prevented from entering, and expelled, segregated or subordinated.

Theodore Roosevelt looms as the catalyst for the book's trends. Gerstle is constantly noting what Roosevelt would have thought about a certain development. Roosevelt as President and as leader of the Progressive Party attempted to balance civic and racial nationalism. He believed firmly in the supremacy of the white Anglo-Saxon race, but also valued civic ideals and believed America could absorb new immigrants provided they assimilate through rugged individualism. His alliance with Progressives grew out of his recognition of the terrible poverty new immigrants faced. He borrowed Herbert Croly's idea of "New Nationalism," which said that the poverty created by industrialization had to be addressed by a strong state that could provide regulation and relief without turning to socialism. (p.67)

Trends, by Chapter
Ch. 3 Hardening the Boundaries of the Nation, 1917-1929: Immigration restriction intensifies along with racial nationalism. RN ASCENDENT

Ch. 4 The Rooseveltian Nation Ascendent, 1930-1940: FDR, who admired his older cousin greatly, finally got the chance to put TR's visions into place. Without bending to civil rights issues, FDR implemented a massive federal program of regulation, relief, and reform. TR would have particularly loved the uniformed, masculine CCC. RN STEADY WITH HOPE OF DECLINE

Ch. 5 Good War, Race War, 1941-1945: WWII, with the army still segregated, was fought most brutally in the Pacific amidst inherent racism against the Japanese. While blacks began to vocalize the inherent contradiction of fighting for a country in which they were deemed second class citizens, other previously lesser groups gained prestige: Jews, Catholics, southerners, etc. RN STEADY FOR BLACKS, DECLINE FOR OTHERS

Ch. 6, The Cold War, Anticommunism, and a Nation in Flux, 1946-1960: McCarthyism, unlike the first Red Scare, was directed not at new immigrants but at the liberal elite. Meanwhile, America began to face the contradiction of Jim Crow as it claimed the moral upperhand in the Cold War. RN DECLINE

Ch. 7 Civil Rights, White Resistance, and Black Nationalism, 1960-1968: MLK et al appealed to civic nationalism, but black nationalism emerged as a replacement for the civic nationalist ideal, which was called a lie. CN DECLINE

Ch. 8 Vietnam, Cultural Revolt and the Collapse of the Rooseveltian Nation, 1968-1975: Amidst the cultural upheaval and LBJ's calamity in Vietnam, the Rooseveltian Nation imagined by TR and built by FDR collapsed. CN DECLINE, FIRST PANGS OF MULTICULTURALISM

Epilogue Beyond the Rooseveltian Nation, 1975-2000: Gerstle argues Reagan returned to racial nationalism, but in a subtle, acceptable (in terms of political correctness) way. White and black communities remained separate in the 80s, and income gaps increased. Multiculturalism was offered as an alternative to Reagan's model. "Hard" multiculturalists argue that America's civic values cannot be salvaged. Some hard multiculturalists argue minority cultures poses the civic values mainstream America needs. Others dispute the idea that any particular culture has the necessary values. They celebrate cultural hybridity. (350-351) "Soft" multiculturalists believe in a blend between old American ideas and new diverse ideals from America's many cultures.

Use of Culture
The films of Frank Capra emphasize the Anglo-Saxon average American as its hero. (ch. 4)
Francis Ford Coppola, on the other hand, emphasized the Italian Family unit as being corrupted by capitalist America, rather than the other way around.

The Morgan Memorial "Deja Vu - You've Seen this Before"
Benedict Anderson - Imagined Communities: Gerstle is heavily influenced by Anderson's concept of nationalism as an imagined sense of belonging to a created community. The broad trends Gerstle discuss thus affect the self-identity held by all Americans throughout the century.

This synthesis also uses Denning's Cultural Front to describe the 30s.

This book has similar strengths and weaknesses to any synthesis. Gerstle paints in broadstrokes. He also writes in an easy-to-read style that would be accessible for an advanced undergraduate. His ideas are not earth shattering, but as a synthesis of the contradictions between racism and civic values in 20th century America, this book is outstanding. The emphasis on Theodore Roosevelt feels a little forced at times, and fresh at other times.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Levine - Highbrow/Lowbrow

Levine, Lawrence W. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Levine demonstrates the emergence of a schism in American culture towards the end of the 19th century as conductors, directors, curators, and critics began to elevate certain art. They did this by suppressing audience "participation" in performances (teaching theater audiences to quietly, politely watch a performance) and by selectively separating certain art (through both presentation and description) into a hierarchy. The result of this was to create an upper level of art that became less accessible to the majority of Americans.

Prior to these developments soon-to-be-"highbrow" art including Shakespeare, opera, and fine art in museums had been presented as part of a hodge podge of culture. Shakespeare performances were mixed with shorter musical numbers, farcical pieces, etc. Museums were less sharply organized, and might alternate between a show of ancient artifacts one week and a spectacle of twin dwarves the next. The audience at live performances was democratic; all classes were represented and the audience participated as they would at a sporting event, hissing or cheering, stomping their feet or clapping their hands depending on their mood. Indeed, Shakespeare came to be seen in the early 1800s as a quintessentially American cultural product; most Americans were familiar enough with his work for their to be an endless variety of parodies. At the same time, it was expected that his plays be delivered in a way that minimized the aristocratic and English values inherent in some of the stories. Otherwise, the crowd could turn ugly.

Levine sees these trends mirroring the social stratification of American society at the end of the 19th century. He also argues that they peaked in the early 20th century, and finds evidence of people such as Harvard President Charles W. Eliot saying in 1903 that the "cultivated man" should not be exclusive. One of the main projects of modern art, as Levine notes, was to undermine cultural hierarchy. Warhol took this to an extreme. Other 20th century artists and critics have attempted to do the same, as Levine discusses in the Epilogue.

Key Concepts
The sacralization of culture - (ch. 2) The trend in the nineteenth century of certain kinds of culture becoming revered. These changes were caused by symphony conductors, museum directors, theater directors, and critics calling for greater reverence of art by the audience. For example, it became much less acceptable to alter the art from the original writer or composer's text.

Key Figures
Theodore Thomas - Conductor/director of the New York Philharmonic and, eventually, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Early in his career (beginning in 1864), in his summer concerts with the NY Phil, Thomas attempted to introduce what he felt were the greatest symphonic pieces to the masses by mixing them with more popularly appealing music (and, indeed, performance gimicks, such as planting flutes in the trees). This was similar to the way Shakespeare had been blended with "lighter" fare throughout the century. By the time he moved to Chicago at the end of his career, he had grown disillusioned with this approach. Like other symphony directors, he began to insist on only playing only the best music. This meant that his orchestras relied on sponsorship from societies elites, rather than mass ticket sales.

John Philip Sousa - A massive figure in late 19th century music who achieved broad popularity and was somewhat criticized for his brand of music, but nonetheless carried the "sacralization" torch, even becoming increasingly apologetic for his broadly appealing style.

Matthew Arnold - p.223 An English writer who wrote Culture and Anarchy in 1867-68 and later visited the U.S. in the 1880s. He defined culture as, "the best that has been thought and known in the world...the study and pursuit of perfection." According to Levine, "Arnold was perhaps the single most significant disseminator of such attitudes [of high culture] and had an enormous influence on the United States."

The Morgan Memorial "Deja Vu - You've Seen this Before"
Lears - No Place of Grace: Like Lears, Levine sees the turn of the century as a time of splintering social order in the U.S. Levine discusses Henry Adams (a huge figure for Lears), and Adams's nostalgia for old (read: "high") culture. While Lears sees Adams' nostalgia as a typical anti-modernist stance, Levine fits this into the trend of cultural stratification. More similar to Lears, Levine in turn describes this cultural stratification as related (and this is vaguely described) to the larger trends of societal stratification in the period.

McGerr - A Fierce Discontent: McGerr's thesis is that the Progressive Movement was a movement of middle class control - an attempt to shape the lower classes in their image. Levine sees the sacralization of culture as an expression by the upper class/education of their superiority over the lower classes, particularly immigrants.

Christopher Lasch - The Culture of Narcissism: p.211 "Christopher Lasch has argued that the new professions, which another historian has called the 'consensus of the competent,' came into being 'by reducing the layman to incompetence.' A similar development occurred in the realm of high culture, which paralleled the formation of the professions in the late nineteenth century and which, like the new professions, was involved in a quest for cultural authority."

Really nicely written. Easy and enjoyable to read, although at merely three long chapters its a bit...chunky. (Chapter 1, dealing entirely with Shakespeare as a case study, was adapted from a paper, and sort of feels like it.) Levine's ideas are convincing. However, he mainly deals with "highbrow" art, referring to "lowbrow" art only as a foil for his examples. As noted above, he observes a peak of "sacralization" around the turn of the century, and notes countless attempts to question cultural hierarchy. What this book fails to explain (in fairness, because it is not its project, though the title and even intro suggest it is) is why hierarchies continue to frame American culture, despite the trends of the 20th century.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Putnam - Bowling Alone

Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Related Simpsons Quote
"I haven't felt this energized since my!" - Mr. Burns in the Pin Pals episode

Section II: Trends in Civic Engagement and Social Capital
Since the 70s, American participation in politics, civics, religion, community, and other social activities has decreased drastically, to the detriment of the society. Americans trust their neighbors less than they used to, engage beyond the nuclear family less than they used to, and give their time to society less than they used to.

Section III: Why?
The key factors are
pressures of time and money - only 10%, because while two-career families certainly was an important development in the period, in fact heavy time demands do not correlate to limited engagement in society - ie unemployed participate LESS than employed
suburbanization, commuting and sprawl - 10%, because disengagement is still seen in areas untouched by sprawl
electronic entertainment particularly television - 25%, because television sucks time and keeps people indoors
generational change - 50% (with overlap with TV). The generation that was born before the Depression were and continue to be more engaged.

Surveys, group membership data, and other relevant quantitative data. The evidence is presented in countless charts and graphs that perfectly illustrate Putnam's argument.

Key Terms
Social Capital - (p. 19) the value society gets from connections among individuals
specific reciprocity - (20) "I'll do this if you do that for me (in short term)"
generalized reciprocity - (21) "I'll do this without expecting anything specific back from you, in the confident expectation that someone else will do something for me down the road." (Golden Rule)
bridging social capital - (22) inclusive. outward looking and encompass diverse social groups. ie Civil Rights movement, ecumenical religious orgs
bonding social capital - (22) exclusive. inward looking, reinforce exclusive identities and homogeniety. ie church based reading groups, restricted country clubs.
Long Civic Generation - (chapter 14) - the generation born before the Depression. More likely to have served in military. Lived through the depression.

This is sociology at its best. Putnam takes a commonly held perception or sense - that America is less-community oriented and less active in the community than it had been - and applies a thorough quantitative analysis to it. He offers explanations, but only as his "best guess," giving each a percentage of how much he thinks they are a factor. This is a tremendously useful book for historians and thoroughly convincing. Plus, he's a good writer.

The latter chapters are interesting, but less useful to historians, as Putnam offers thoughts on how to improve civic engagement, and argues that civic engagement has come in waves throughout American history. (The Progressive Era ended a long period of disengagement throughout the Gilded Age).

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Denning - The Cultural Front

Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. The Haymarket series. London: Verso, 1996.

Argument/Key terms
The period from the Sacco-Venzetti execution (1927) and the Crash of 1929 to the Cold War blacklisting and McCarthyism is best described as the Age of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) because for the first time the left had a significant effect on American culture and society as a whole. The Cultural Front describes Denning's argument: that intellectuals, artists, and lower class workers were united - or at least connected - in a conscious efforts to shape society through mass culture. This period thus saw a "laboring" of American culture, as not only did culture begin to reflect lower class interests, but the lower classes themselves became active participants in the creation, performance, and consumption of culture. (xvi-xvii)

Historiographic Importance
Denning refutes the common-held belief that the Popular Front was made up of the Communist Party at its core with other sympathetic participants on the periphery ("fellow travelers"). Instead, he argues party membership was much more fluid and the specific ideologies of the Popular Front were much more varied than the core-periphery model might suggest. He thus proposes that the Popular Front be viewed as a historical bloc, with a base in industrial unions.

Taking issue with the New York school's claim that the Popular Front was an utter failure because of its central Communism, he also attempts to demonstrate both the contribution to American culture made during the period and the lasting influence of these works after 1948 (eventually inspiring the New Left of the 60s).

Key Examples

Ch. 4 Dos Passos's USA - Didn't have the lasting influence of contemporary works of fiction because it was so rooted in the time. Triology tells of the decline of the Lincoln Republic. Unites history, fiction, and memoir through four types of writing - Newsreels (unauthored accounts of historical events), Camera Eyes (autobiographical accounts of Dos Passos own experiences), biographical portraits (of real figures, and fictional narratives about 12 disconnected characters.

Ch. 6 Ghetto Pastorals - Importance of ghetto as setting for immigrant lower class tales.

Ch.7 Grapes of Wrath - Most successful of numerous migrant worker texts. Elevated the Okie migration despite the existence of other examples of migrant workers at that moment, primarily because Okies were white. Denning discusses other less well-known migrant worker stories about non-whites (Mexicans, Chinese, blacks)

Ch. 8 Popular Front Musical Theater - Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock is an allegory of the middle class eforts to usurp the power of labor unions. Harold Rome's Pins and Needles was a musical revue which had a success that has confounded Broadway historians. Most write it off as appealing through its political consciousness, but Denning argues that the songs about working-class romance are what made it successful. The cast was made up of New York laborers - amateur performers (until the show became increasingly popular). Anti-fascist sketches.

Ch. 9 Caberet Blues - Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington (discussed in Ch. 8) were thought in retrospect to not be particularly politically conscious (and often claimed as such after 1948), but Denning shows they are underestimated.

Ch. 10 Orson Welles - Denning argues Anti-Fascism was the core ideology of Welles' work from Julius Caesar to War of the Worlds to Citizen Kane.

Ch. 11 The Disney strike of 1941 - breaking Disney's paternalism

I'm not quite sure how I feel about this book. On one hand, the case studies are interesting, in-depth, and often engrossing. The overall conclusions seem, historiographically, significant. However, great portions of the book were a real slog. Denning often repeats himself. I had a strong sense that the text could have been at least 100 pages smaller to the same effect. He often quoted secondary sources that agreed with his points. He also freqently uses long lists of names. Whole paragraphs are dedicated to listing examples. Those kinds of things, it seems to me, could either be edited out or stuck in a footnote. (This uses endnotes.)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Lears - No Place of Grace

Lears, T. J. Jackson. No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920. New York: Pantheon Books, 1981.

Methodology and Scope
As the title suggests, Lears discusses Antimodernism set against the modernizing events around the turn of the 20th century. He uses a lot of Freud to get at the psychology of the people he discusses, probing the anxieties that drove them to antimodernism. He also uses Gramsci to elevate the importance of his topic; "The shift from a Protestant to a therapeutic world view, which antimodern sentiments reinforced, marked a key transformation in the cultural hegemony of the dominant classes in America." (xv) Freud is mentioned often, Gramsci less so, while Weber is almost never mentioned but serves an equal importance conceptually for Lears. His "concept of the rationalization of Western culture - the drive for efficient control of outer and inner life" (xv) explains the system the antimodernists resisted and hoped to escape from.

Historiographical Aims (xvi-xvii)
1. Dispute the common argument that antimodernism was merely the final gasps of old-stock Northeastern elites, trying to hold back the tide of the new industrial society. On the contrary, this group maintained its wealth and prestige. The people discussed by the book were the children of NE elites. Their struggle, in fact, helped maintain and renew bourgeois values and ease the transition for old school peeps. Almost all of Lears' examples end with a demonstration of how the antimodernism of a certain individual was not destroyed but ultimately subsumed into the dominant cultural hegemony.
2. Lears argues that the therapeutic orientation (away from Christian protestantism) was not merely an affect of post-WWI disillusionment but rather had its roots in the antimodernists reaching back into the 1800s.

Antimodernism sprang from a psychic crisis in the period. The emerging bureaucratic systems of big business as well as the changing nature of labor and success led to a crisis of self for many individuals, feeling an existential "weightlessness" (a term often used by Lears) about their lives. The main figures Lears discusses were prominent enough to have a small yet significant effect on culture in their reactions to their own psychic crisis.

neurasthenia - A vague, all-encompassing diagnosis of the era steming from the anxieties related to societal changes. (47)
weightlessness - According to Nietzsche, the "weightless" period occurred as secularization leads to the loss of distinctive moral boundries, weakening emotional ties, and the undercutting of formerly certain principles and conduct. Humanity felt "weightless" because it lost its perception of the supernatural framework of meaning. (41)

Key antimodernist groups
Chapter 2 - Artisans, including Gustav Stickley, argued for an "arts and crafts" ideology, that the best way to make a living was a craft lifestyle. This was hypocritical because craft business owners participated in the modern capitalist economy to survive. It was impossible for craftsman to compete with factory-made goods. Such ideologues argued for the societal and aesthetic value of paying a higher price for a craft-made good, but to no avail. Lears notes the religious undertones, suggesting Arts and Crafts movement as a way to spiritual salvation.

Chapter 3 - Antimodernism also has an important connection to the martial ideal, typified by Teddy Roosevelt. The ultimate example of this can be found in Nazi Germany, and indeed, the American martial ideal also contained a strong racial strain. For examples, Lears offers NOT stories of men wandering off to fight in foreign wars, but rather cultural examples of literature that celebrated the martial ideal. Arthurian legends and medieval tales became popular.

Chapter 4 - Medievalism took things farther for antimodernists. They began to celebrate the childishness of the Medieval human. Japan was, until its own agressive modernization, seen as a "childlike" place where Medieval values remained.

Chapter 5 - Similarly, Catholic architecture was elevated as beautiful by many antimodernists. Also, a turn towards Anglo-Catholocism represented a similar search for and clinging to values perceived as old.

Key Antimodernists (Chapter 6 and 7)
William Sturgis Bigelow (1850-1926) - Son of a successful surgeon (brusque father) who felt the burden f parental and familial accomplishments. Eventually embraced Buddhism, but still maintained a restless spirit, wandering in Europe and Japan.
Van Wyck Brooks - Son of a failed speculator, semi-invalid, who worked as a clerk on Wall Street. Mother took him on tours of Europe. Yearned to be a successful writer, but couldn't put it all together. Early on sought aestheticism and withdrawal. Later attacked antimodernism out of a search for a stable adult life.
Henry Adams - Affected by successful family, death of his wife. Dove into his History and novels. Writing simultaneous expressed doubt in Christianity and attacked secularism.

Lears is a really good writer, and an insightful historian. Like Rebirth of a Nation, I found this one to be a slog. I think the way he organizes his paragraphs does not lend itself to quick reading. Still, it was worth the effort.

Must-read for Jason, and probably Adam. Lots of masculinity issues, tied to Freud. Not exactly religious history, but there is a lot of religion in this book.

Final Thought
Lears: Henry Adams and T.S. Eliot were both antimodern modernists - "resolving to search for faith even while accepting the knowledge which erodes it, resigning himself to the insoluble contradictions in his own psyche. This attitude, in its aversion to static systems, is a thoroughly "modern" one. But in a more profound sense, it is as old as the Biblical cry: "Lord I believe; help thou my unbelief." p.312 (End of the book)