Tuesday, September 16, 2008

What Was the Culture War, Anyway

Benjamin Schwartz has a chip on his shoulder, which he seems to have transferred to celebrated author of Christian Lander's Stuff White People Like. Schwartz is a hater of the old school, occasionally letting off riffs better suited to The New Criterion than the once Boston Brahmin Atlantic. If it weren't clear that his politics are similar to those of Thomas Frank, as the nostalgic "those who strive for truly radical -- that is, class-based -- political change," it would be easy to write off Schwartz completely off. His reviews can be interesting when he is on his own ground, but Schwartz' own predilections often peek through as in the case of this jumble of assertions, starting with his calling the Port Huron Statement a "gaseous manifesto." (Do I need to say he who smelt, dealt it?) In the case of his editing, the Atlantic often does feature well-considered reviews, but it also have provided a platform for two of the most intolerant and incoherent writers to appear regularly in general interest magazines: Caitlin Flanagan and B. R. Myers. Whatever else one might say, Schwartz likes a literary squabble as much as the next person.

One gets a sense of how hard it is for Schwartz to set aside his chip when you realize that SWPL is little more than an Official Preppy Handbook for the age of the blogosphere. Lander's work is sort of thing most folks who have gone to a liberal arts school or graduate school in the humanities have done at one time or another: devising a hot or not list based on what is likely to be labeled as politically correct. If it is sociology--at all--it is the quote unquote comic sociology of David Brooks, with more than a little tendency to bend the truth if its makes the joke funnier.

What goes unremarked by Schwartz (and Lander) is what is really interesting about this phenomenon: that the capacity to simultaneous embrace and disdain certain cultural artifacts indicates a high degree of bad faith or, to put it bluntly, self-hate. It goes unremarked because of course cultural artifacts are mere trivia compared to economic concerns. The good society will not depend on whether you can get a decent macchiato or that the latest best-seller is literate. I have spent enough evenings with people going over in loving detail about how things are done better in Europe not to have some sympathy with this view. But why the animus if the said artifacts are trivial, if the good life could be had whether Jacqueline Susanne or Toni Morrison or George Saunders is our a leading author? Could self-hate be a constitutive part of what white people like? I can't say for sure, but the success of American Idol, which must have as part of its audience numbers of ironic consumers, suggests that the secret to popularity now is finding that achy sweet spot between the entertaining and the mortifying. What this says about the future of the culture I am not sure, but it does not appear to lead to the good society.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Games That Academics Play

One of the U.'s psychology professor has parlayed tales of evolutionary psychology (the academic drinking game formerly known as sociobiology) in various editorial pages and elsewhere for some time now. He has even wrote a book of literary criticism, though admittedly the profession of critic has few standards for either plausibility of methodology or tenability of evidence: it's pretty much a game you can play if you show up. (This among other things explains Michael Medved.) I enjoy factoids about animal behavior as much as anyone, and learning about other species' naughty bits is indeed fun.

But tell me, is there anything illuminating about this smug analysis about Eliot Spitzer's downfall? What, precisely, does the professor add to the social truism that men with power are attracted to--and attract to them--temptations ranging from infidelity to exposing how much you "throw like a girl" in Fenway? Exactly how do the mating habits do swans help illuminate this particular politician's preference for high-priced call girls, rather than cigars and interns? Barash does nt say how non-monogamous swans are: could it be that a swans do swan around sometimes* but also experience the same rituals of shaming and repentance as humans? He mentions the contention that most cultures were polygamous before the rise of Western society. Never mind that this claim is anthropology, not biology; exactly how non-monogamous were these cultures? Was it something everyone did, or was it a sign of power restricted to the few? You can't exactly say, either, that the West has eradicated monogamy, because parts of it are always backsliding and/or making exceptions. (This is not even to start a discussion about, well, what is this thing you call the "west"?) A recent example of polygamy, conveniently located way out west in the US, is an exemplary instance of patriarchy, up to and including abuse of young women and the ostracizing of young men who question the leader. This is classic pack behavior, but it is also classic cult behavior, so to call it "natural" or in the language here, a matter of "evolutionary fitness" begs questions rather than explains anything.

(1) That "swan" can be used as a verb to mean "vainly strut around" suggests loyalty is not the only thing that is connoted by them.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Life and Death of Literary Criticism

a paroxysm as usual the antinomy of relativism and objective standards; criticism=crisis (find the DeMan quote); do the etats-unis have a literary culture per se; is the very idea of literary culture a conservative idea;