Reading: The Cultural Crash of '89 | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: The Cultural Crash of '89 

Have we reached the End of Civilization as We Know It? Or have we just hit a run of bad books by cranky conservatives who don't know anything about pop culture?

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We inhabit a culture that has been variously described over the last 20 years or so as postindustrial, postideological, post-Holocaust, postfeminist, postpunk, and, naturally, postmodern. Never mind that in actuality we remain surrounded by the signs and structures of industry, ideology, nuclear war, racism, sexism, and modernity. (Punk rock is the only category in which we are truly "post," despite the black, spiky remnants that display themselves on Belmont Avenue.) The notion that we come after something else (a social trend, an aesthetic, a theory, a bit of history) remains pervasive; it easily lends itself to a nostalgic and pessimistic reading of contemporary culture, and indeed, so numerous have such readings become of late, they seem to constitute a literary genre in themselves.

If "Masscult" is a fitting name for contemporary popular culture (the phrase was coined in 1960 by Dwight Macdonald) then the literature that catalogs its crimes is sufficiently popular on a mass scale to merit the moniker "Masscrit." Fueled in its most recent guise by the 1985 publication of Neil Postman's book Amusing Ourselves to Death (a book reprinted in paperback last year and still on bestseller lists across the nation), the latest round of Masscrit looks aghast at contemporary education and culture and predicts--once again--the end of civilization as we know it. This is a vision of the Cultural Crash of '89.

There's no question that Masscrit knows how to turn a fast apocalyptic buck. Take Allan Bloom's bookstall hit The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom's dense treatise on politics and social questions takes Platonic idealism as its founding premise--though Bloom doesn't actually tell you that until way past page 200. He contrives to get most of his tirades about sex, students, and rock 'n' roll into the first 70 pages, thus satisfying a readership that gets off on reading that "rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire. . . . With rock, illusions of shared feelings, bodily contact and grunted formulas, which are supposed to contain so much meaning beyond speech, are the basis of association." (Masscrit turns out snappy, sexy prose--even when it's being philosophical.)

But of course Allan Bloom isn't read for his philosophical insight or his detailed analysis of popular cultural forms; he's enjoyed for his hatchet job on popular education and culture. His readers want to cheer and jeer as Bloom tells us that rock music "has all the moral dignity of drug trafficking." Most of all, Bloom offers the perverse pleasure of reading about just how bad things are. No stereotype is too thin to establish this. When Bloom meets a taxi driver, he discovers that the taxi driver is chewing gum. Naturally. And to Bloom's evident consternation, the driver has undergone therapy (in prison) and engages the professor in a chat about gestalt. It turns out that the taxi driver is keen on therapy and credits it with the recovery of his self-respect. The professor is appalled. He writes: "What an extraordinary thing it is that the high-class talk from what was the peak of Western intellectual life, in Germany, has become as natural as chewing gum on American streets." Instead of finding pleasure in this, and in the prospects for the taxi driver (who by this time I was starting to feel really sorry for), Bloom concludes sadly that our sense of sin has been replaced with an obsession with the self: "It is nihilism with a happy ending." Cultural pessimism's mean-spirited disdain for the dissemination of high culture has rarely been so baldly stated.

E.D. Hirsch is a little more generous and a shade less hysterical in his book Cultural Literacy, but the groove is essentially the same. The huge popular success of this long-winded and rather dry analysis is explained by its subtitle: "What Every American Needs to Know." This upscale version of the old "This Book Changes Lives" promise is indeed made good. Cultural Literacy doesn't merely tell you what, in principle, you ought to know; it actually gives you a 60-page list (from "abbreviation" to "Zurich") that itemizes the elements of contemporary cultural literacy. Hirsch's one-riff book can be encapsulated in a sentence: "Americans need to learn not just the grammar of their language but also their national vocabulary." Cultural literacy isn't just the ability to read, it is the ability to understand the underlying meaning of words and images.

Most of Hirsch's book is an overextended effort to document this thesis, which is posed as an alternative to "progressivist" pedagogies founded on the educational philosophies of Dewey and Rousseau. Hirsch argues that education must always be about teaching content, since it is that body of the "national vocabulary" that forms the basis of our ability to progress intellectually. Without it, the effort involved in reading becomes too much, and we decline into the various forms of illiteracy and semiliteracy that today seem to characterize American society.

Like Bloom's tirades against TV (chewing gum for the eyes), Hirsch hits on something in our experience that seems instinctively to be true. When I walk into a lecture theater filled with 60 undergraduates not one of whom can explain to me the difference between an electoral caucus and a primary, I know that Hirsch and the cultural pessimists do have a point. It is difficult to engage in the business of electing a president if one doesn't understand the overall process. Hirsch has hit upon one of Masscrit's enduring strengths--its ability to play back to us facets of everyday life that we recognize, while fusing this recognition with a variety of deeply conservative and elitist diagnoses and prognoses.

Take Neil Postman's case against television, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. He argues that television has taken over our culture, imposing its values on all significant forms of public discourse: politics (elections as a bow-tie contest); religion (preaching as a televisual activity); newspapers (the colorized simplicities of USA Today); education (Sesame Street and the expectation among students that they should be entertained in the classroom and lecture theater), and, of course, the dominance of TV itself in our use of leisure time. The result of all this is intellectual degeneration, because TV is, according to Postman, an inherently irrational medium.

When culture was dominated by the printing press, the typographical mind lived in an Age of Exposition. Print, for Postman, is inherently rational. TV isn't. It heralds the Age of Show Business.

Most of us will recognize some truth in this and perhaps even agree with it. But along with his critique of TV, Postman has implemented one of Masscrit's favorite ploys--"technological determinism," the practice of blaming media technologies for the uses to which they are put. What Postman is really writing about are the social relations of capitalism, but he can't bring himself to acknowledge it. This is a sleight of hand as old as mass culture itself, the process by which liberal and conservative cultural pessimists look on in horror at the technology of media (the means of production) while quietly avoiding the issue of the capitalist organization of mass culture (the relations of production). Thus, the social institutions that actually generate the results the pessimists bemoan walk free, while poor old "technology" takes the rap. Indeed, while the analyses of Bloom and Hirsch have the imposing figures of Plato, Nietzsche, et al standing tall behind them, Postman is unfortunately accompanied only by Marshall McLuhan.

McLuhan was famous for saying two things, both of them wrong. The first was, of course, "The medium is the message." Sounds like an advertising slogan, doesn't it? What McLuhan could have said, and might even have meant, was that the technological vehicle (a TV set, a newspaper, a record) of any given message sets pressures and limits on what can and cannot be said within it. But he didn't say, "the medium contributes to the message." If he had, he wouldn't be a guru. It just doesn't roll off the tongue with the same ease.

McLuhan's second famous set of buzzwords was built on this observation; he stated that some media are "hot," while others (including TV) are "cold." This evidently caught on for a while in the 60s--partly perhaps because it reinforced our assumption that there is something magical about "the media," something inherent in the machines themselves that dictates to us, and enslaves us.

Nell Postman's analysis is founded on a trick he plays with these arguments. He suggests that everyone who opposes technological determinism believes that technology is neutral, as if it were not possible to understand media in terms of an interplay of technological and social factors. "There are many places in the world where television, though the same technology as it is in America, is an entirely different medium from that which we know," Postman admits, but adds, "It is possible for a technology to be so used that its potentialities are prevented from developing and its social consequences kept to a minimum."

Postman has to say this, because the technology that he writes about as if it controlled human affairs can be used in many different ways. Not only is it true, for instance, that TV doesn't have to be available to family units for use in the home, seven days a week (as it is in the West), it is also true that even where it is present in the home, different societies use TV technology in very different ways. It just isn't the case that what is TV news in North America is also TV news in Nicaragua or South Africa or the Soviet Union. In fact, TV news isn't even the same throughout North America. The TV set (the medium) can look exactly the same, but its representations (the message) can be extraordinarily divergent, in both what is said and how it is communicated.

So Postman maintains his technological determinism by suggesting that only in the organization of TV in the USA is the technology's true potential revealed. Alternative ways of using TV aren't just different, they're inhibited versions of the real thing. This is a feeble argument. And a shame, because the force of the political argument Postman makes about TV news and advertising is often impressive and revealing.

It's strange to find McLuhan revered today, when his impact on contemporary media theory is so slight. But then Masscrit never was big on theory. The cultural pessimists have rarely taken the time to understand left ideas sufficiently to be capable of an adequate critique. What Allan Bloom doesn't know about contemporary Marxist thought, for instance, is definitely worth checking out. His chapters on culture, and on Marxism and ideology, are full of classic conservative rhetoric, unhindered by any serious engagement with post-Leninist thought. For Bloom, Marxism is "Vulgar Marxism." He's obviously proud of this gratuitous insult. The important and difficult Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci, for instance, appears nowhere. To Bloom, Marxism implies a totally determined world, bereft of "free will." Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of philosophy can drive a coach and horses through that one.

Bloom's ignorance of contemporary Marxist theory is complemented by a similarly anachronistic understanding of feminist and antiracist theory and practice. For Bloom, the root thesis of feminism is that women must gain control over male sexuality, even though this is at best a minority opinion, and in the view of many women and men not a feminist argument at all. He misreads antiracist thinking as multiculturalism, the hope of blending all ethnicity into a single melting pot.

When it isn't being deterministic, elitist, or just plain ignorant, Masscrit aspires to empiricism employing the assumption that all there is to know about the world is out there just waiting to be measured, weighed, and labeled, right now. Hirsch bases his whole thesis on this mistake, implying that all you have to do to understand the world is learn the labels. But there is also a political literacy that involves challenging the relationship between language and the world it describes. Without this questioning the teacher becomes an ideologue--and this, despite his reluctance to acknowledge it, is what Hirsch promotes in his book. (One of the aims of his project is, after all, "making our country more competitive in international markets.") Ideology is the suppressed core of Hirsch's book; becoming literate is for him an essentially transparent process in which we absorb What Every American Needs to Know. The weakness at the heart of Cultural Literacy is this grotesque empiricism. Hirsch's inherent conservatism is apparent in the fact that it never occurs to him that we should teach students to question the myths that underwrite our cultural literacy. Thinking critically involves more than simply gaining access to "facts" stored and sampled in our long-term memory; it means learning how to challenge the way language and literacy divide and label the world. Hirsch writes of the illiterate and semiliterate: "Knowing that they do not understand the issues, and feeling prey to manipulative oversimplifications, they do not trust the system of which they are supposed to be the masters." When Cultural Literacy heralds education as the key to gaining that trust, Hirsch says more about the ideological nature of his book than he means to.

Still, if the cultural pessimists' theoretical naivete renders them fairly easy targets in the academy, their populism clearly outstrips the left in the arena of show business. The problem for the left, ironically enough, lies in the popularity of a conservative cultural pessimism that spends most of its time denigrating the popular. Another difficulty lies in maintaining a critical attitude without adopting the pose of an elderly English lit professor who, perhaps, thinks that Thomas Dolby invented noise reduction. Or, worse still, the hectoring stance of the political activist who reduces every TV show, every movie, every pop record to its "progressive" qualities. Donald Lazere's collection American Media and Mass Culture: Left Perspectives joins with Ann Kaplan's book Rocking Around the Clock: Music Television, Post Modernism and Consumer Culture in confronting the problem of formulating a left response to a cultural debate in which the conservatives seem to have stolen all the most popular tunes: concern over the perceived decline in educational standards, fear of the breakup of the family, moral outrage at media depictions of sexuality and violence. Kaplan and Lazere thus step into this debate with their work cut out for them. They wish to tread a path that revokes the conservative politics of much of cultural pessimism, but without losing critical perspective; they seek to redefine socialist and feminist approaches, without lapsing into dogma.

These interventions occur in the context of a growing movement in leftist-feminist academic work to rethink the meaning of mass culture. In the rethought version of leftist cultural analysis, assumptions about the "brainwashing" function of the media and its contribution to "false consciousness" are less easily made. The argument that once reduced mass culture to mere bread and circuses is abandoned and the real pleasures obtained from mass cultural forms are acknowledged. The often unconsciously oppositional or progressive elements of popular culture are stressed. Crude old Marxist economism is abandoned, and new concepts, derived from psychoanalysis and feminism, take their place. (This is the work that Allan Bloom can see only as post-Marxist, when in fact it is very clearly integrated within the philosophical framework of Marxism by virtue of its historical materialist epistemology and its central engagement with class, power, and ideology.)

The superiority of the "new" leftist analysis is evident now, I think, to everyone but the Old (Leninist) Left--and the New (Conservative) Cultural Pessimists. (Indeed it's the shared need for a vulgar reading of Marxism that unites them.) But representing this work without being too narrow, or so broad that the rethinking appears incoherent, is no easy task.

Lazere's American Media and Mass Culture tackles this is problem so thoroughly and intelligently that one is left at the end of it (on page 618) almost open-mouthed that the conservative pessimists dare pontificate on popular cultural forms at all--their knowledge is breathtakingly slight when compared to the radical critics contained here. Lazere tackles the conservatives directly in a careful, critical appraisal entitled "Conservative Media Criticism: Heads I Win, Tails You Lose," and the book is packed with implied rebuttals of Masscrit. Kate Ellis offers an account of women's popular fiction that grounds the conservative panic about the breakup of the family in a far more convincing reading of gender relations. Where the right habitually serves up reheated research on media "violence," Peter Biskind and Barbara Ehrenreich analyze The Godfather in terms of the meaning of violence in relation to masculinity, and offer one of the best single-sentence summaries of a classic film I've read in quite some while: "In Don Corleone's three sons, patriarchy has deteriorated into three alternative male styles, and none of them will do."

The collection encompasses work from leading U.S. cultural critics (Gaye Tuchman, Stanley Aronowitz, Todd Gitlin, Douglas Kellner, George Gerbner, Tom Engelhardt, as well as Neil Postman) along with some familiar foreign names (Simon Frith, Jeremy Tunstall, Armand Matterlart). Its range of theory includes a variety of Marxist interpretations, a good body of feminist work, some use of psychoanalytic categories, and some non-Marxist, liberal perspectives. Its analysis of popular cultural forms ranges right across the mass media and includes such products as rock music, soap operas, westerns, Donald Duck, sports, news, Shirley Temple, and Superman. If you are intrigued (as opposed to appalled) by an essay entitled "Daffy Duck and Bertolt Brecht," this is the book for you.

What is especially impressive about this collection is the careful authority of its theoretical choices. Yank pragmatism, embodied in one wing of the academy, has generally been very hostile to European critical theory, generating a hugely dangerous backlash from left academics. This counterimpulse tends to embrace everything difficult and European with juvenile zeal. Hence the enormous popularity of postmodernism in American academia, where a generation of cultural analysts has tried to atone for the sins of empiricism by conducting a series of love affairs with the latest and most exotic Continental theory. Often their haste has been so indecent that the new concepts have barely made it beyond the Parisian city limits before they are surrounded by hordes of jet-lagged American graduate students. Lazere is wise to avoid this tendency in favor of a more skeptical view, which remains nonetheless theoretically astute and up-to-date.

It would be nice to think that Donald Lazere's book will go some way toward puncturing the image of Marxist critics as boneheaded reductionists. It covers its field comprehensively and in depth, without ever sacrificing either sophistication or accessibility. That is no small achievement in the Age of Masscrit.

Academic anthologies haven't yet caught up with postmodernism, a word that most accurately signifies a debate (rather than a network of theory, or even an aesthetic). But Ann Kaplan's book Rocking Around the Clock takes postmodern theory into what would at first seem an unlikely realm: the music videos of MTV.

On the other hand, maybe it is quite appropriate that a confused, incoherent body of theory should be applied to the confused incoherence of MTV. Indeed, Neil Postman could as easily have been describing either postmodern theory or music television when he wrote about TV news: "Embedded in the surrealistic frame of a television news show is a theory of anticommunication, featuring a type of discourse that abandons logic, reason, sequence, and rules of contradiction. In aesthetics, I believe the name given to this theory is Dadaism; in philosophy, nihilism; in psychiatry, schizophrenia."

Interestingly enough, schizophrenia is a central motif in Ann Kaplan's book. But she goes the Masscrit pessimists one better, arguing that cultural confusion, dispersion, and schizophrenia may in fact be grounds for optimism.

To Kaplan, MTV is a new postmodern cultural form that transcends the old division between classic realist and (subversive) modernist texts. She sees the techniques of modernism in evidence on MTV--the antinarratives, the jump cuts, the subversions of the frame, and so on--but points out that they aren't used for any apparently coherent purpose. We aren't estranged from MTV's filmic text in order to gain a new perspective. We are simply refused a position altogether. With great skill, Kaplan uses concepts derived from postmodern theory to examine music videos. She uses the concept of "pastiche" to show how postmodern forms like music videos quote from other texts without either celebrating or parodying them. Pastiche, in the famous phrase of cultural theorist Fredric Jameson, is blank parody. Reference without judgment.

Kaplan's conclusions are fundamentally optimistic because she sees this refusal to pin down meanings--to inhabit a stable, coherent world of the symbolic--as a form (at least potentially) of cultural resistance. Where E.D. Hirsch implores us to teach cultural literacy as though that were a politically neutral task, Kaplan sees a refusal to use cultural symbols conventionally as an attempt to oppose the dominant ideology.

The great virtue of Kaplan's book is that it is an explicitly political project. Conservatives typically pretend to be apolitical, beyond ideology, etc, even as they smuggle in their "value-free" program for a nationalist, multiculturalist meritocracy. But Kaplan is a feminist and a progressive who wants to argue, contrary to received left wisdom, that new cultural forms like music television are not cause for more pessimism.

Unfortunately, she knows next to nothing about pop music--a weakness she compounds by bragging about her ignorance in some ill-advised opening comments on the irrelevance of rock criticism to an understanding of music television. Consequently, she does some odd things. Her effort to place pop music outside conventional cultural genres doesn't work because it negates the context that pop fans who watch MTV bring to bear on the music. She also misses the numerous levels at which MTV video images offer expressive readings of the music track--which is usually highly conventional, if not brazenly realist.

Kaplan's film-school emphasis on the formal aspects of text analysis also leads her into a strange feminism that celebrates Tina Turner while trashing Madonna, Pat Benatar, and Cyndi Lauper. This occurs in part because she doesn't understand how important pop-music culture is in fashioning an audience's interpretation of videos.

What remains interesting about Kaplan's concept, however, is its connection with cultural relativism. In his contribution to American Media and Mass Culture, Neil Postman argues that television cripples critical thought by offering images that don't need interpretation--they are simply blank, taken for granted, just there. He is wrong. Television doesn't present blank images, it offers representations for debate by habitually teaching that there are two sides to every story. Television buttresses cultural relativism by its refusal to take sides. Allan Bloom's observations on this matter are the most acute in his book. Students in American schools today aren't stupid or blank or incapable of critical thought (even if they aren't all that good at reading and writing). They are full of ideas and (sometimes liberal and radical) viewpoints. What they are not so good at is evaluating which points of view are the most truthful--just like television, and just like the rhetoric of pop musicians ("we just ask questions, we don't try to provide answers," etc). Indeed, it would not be surprising if many Americans took this notion one step further, concluding that such judgments are impossible and perhaps even illegitimate.

Television's relativism is deeply political, deriving not from the video technology but from the legislation that underwrites its supposed neutrality. Like so many of today's students, like MTV's blank video regenerations, TV thinks that all socially legitimate views are equal, even if they contradict one another.

In describing this, Ann Kaplan's infatuated postmodernism has a great deal in common with Masscrit's atheoretical empiricism. Both see evidence for pop culture's schizophrenia, its negation of history, its blurring of mediated and unmediated experience, and its tendency to alienate consumers from meaningful public and social discourse. But it's hard to see how Kaplan can be optimistic about these trends--if they are true. The joke here, I suppose, is that postmodernism is itself a symptom of the cultural malaise it pretends to analyze. If MTV exists beyond representation, then I guess it just "means what it means, man."

Fortunately for all of us, the rhetoric of both cultural pessimism and postmodernism contains more than its fair share of exaggeration and overgeneralization. While there might be some latent masochistic pleasure to be found in the insistence that the cup of culture is half empty, we know in our more rational moments that it is also half full, and that sometimes it's the cream, and not the dregs, that floats to the top.

Indeed the final irony behind the current rerun of cultural debates (they stretch back at least as far as Matthew Arnold and perhaps even to that well-known TV and rock critic Plato) is that while Lazere's book will probably remain a talking point among a few left academics and Kaplan's a source of confusion to a generation of film-school undergraduates, it is the cultural pessimists, in their deep despair about the reading public, who have the mass audience.

How on earth do the cultural pessimists explain this? Do they lie awake at night, balancing the relative merits of their new fame and considerable fortune with the bleak knowledge that their very success belies their analysis? Have they perhaps considered the possibility that the popularity of their books rests in part on the fact that their analysis, for all its erudition and academic name-dropping, is often as flip and superficial as any TV game show? Bloom's readers will salivate over his tirade against pop and sexuality. Postman's will probably decide not to watch TV for a day or two, while they congratulate themselves on the stupidity of the masses. Meanwhile the Hirsch readership is feverishly boning up on the dreaded list at the back of his book. This is Academic Discourse in the Age of Show Business.

American Media and Mass Culture: Left Perspectives edited by Donald Lazere, UC Berkeley Press, $48 cloth, $15.95 paper.

Rocking Around the Clock: Music Television, Post Modernism and Consumer Culture by E. Ann Kaplan, Methuen, $11.95.

The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom, Simon & Schuster, $18.95.

Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know by E. D. Hirsch, Houghton Mifflin, $16.95.

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman, Penguin, $6.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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