Monday, October 25, 2010

From The New Radicalism in America, by Christopher Lasch

I will discuss this passage (and the book's argument more generally) at a later date, but for now, I just want to put this interesting analysis of the geographic shape of American culture out here:
The convergence of the world of culture with the world of advertising and entertainment was only incidentally a function of the rise of mass communications. It was primarily a function of the concentration of cultural life in the city of New York, a development, in fact, which was indispensable to the creation of an intellectual class in the first place. In the nineteenth century the United States was a country without a cultural capital, the best example of such a country in the world. The years between the Civil War and the First World War, however, saw the steady dissolution of provincial culture and the concentration of intellectual life in Chicago and New York, and by the time of the Second World War the isolated preeminence of New York had long been assured. Neither the newspaper business nor the publishing of books and periodicals nor, indeed, any form of cultural activity escaped the centralizing pull that governed the economy as a whole. The economic advantages of large-scale production gave rise to the popular press and the national magazine, both of them geared to an urban readership. Publishing, accordingly, gravitated to the cities. In publishing as in every other industry, moreover, a fierce competition tended to eliminate the smaller producers and to concentrate the control of the market in the hands of a few firms strategically located at the financial heart of the nation. By the turn of the century most of the major magazines and all but a handful of the publishers of books had taken up residence in New York. Journalists, writers, artists, intellectuals of all kinds had no choice but to follow. The demands of this process again and again gave a new shape to men's [sic] careers. William Dean Howells moved from Ohio to Boston to New York. A whole group of intellectuals—Floyd Dell, Susan Glaspell, Carl Van Vechten, and others—migrated from Iowa to New York by way of Chicago. The 'renaissance' in Chicago at the turn of the century was short-lived because by the time of the First World War most of its leading figures had gone on to New York. From then on, New York was unmistakably the spiritual home of the American intellectual. The New York Times and The New Yorker became national institutions because they provided, for the exiled multitudes, a tenuous link to the Mecca of the East (319-320).
 I imagine few historians of ideas or of popular culture would give geography this kind of primacy; far more, I believe, accept the mass communications argument that Lasch immediately rejects. I am perhaps overly inclined to accept Lasch's geographic emphasis as it dovetails very nicely with a number of my interests and projects, but I also see some limitations to his understanding of what this "concentration" entailed, and certainly I think it can be noticed immediately that the chronology of this concentration business is unhelpfully loose, smearing a few different processes or fields, each with their own shape and dynamic, together to achieve a thick and bold effect. On the other hand, even among the examples given, Lasch clips off some details (for instance, he elides Howells's very important Italian residency from the itinerary given of his career) which would make this a less unified narrative (although in Howells's case, I think the addition of a transatlantic or, rather, a transcontinental dimension improves the argument rather than weakens it, but I'll return to that perhaps in the coming post about Lasch's book).

Yet, like the book as a whole, Lasch's argument brings to light some isolated (one of Lasch's favorite words) recognitions of particular cultural shifts and moments—for instance, it is quite interesting to note the geographical shift signaled by the difference between the nineteenth-century's leading intellectual periodicals, The Atlantic Monthly and The North American Review, and the twentieth-century's dominant publications, The New Yorker and The New York Times. I think a few different conclusions can be drawn (if, that is, any should be) from this shift, but it is plausible, at least, to read it in just these terms that Lasch is laying out here.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Franzen's Favorite Fiction

Via Mark Athitakis, I find that Oprah has induced Jonathan Franzen to list his favorite works of fiction. Some are a little surprising (though others aren't), so I thought I'd run the list (alpha by author) here for your comments:

  • Continental Drift, Russell Banks
  • Seize the Day, Saul Bellow
  • The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles
  • The Chaneysville Incident, David Bradley
  • Ms. Hempel Chronicles, by Sarah Shun Lien Bynum
  • Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge, Evan S. Connell
  • White Noise, Don DeLillo
  • The End of Vandalism, Tom Drury
  • The Hamlet, William Faulkner
  • Desperate Characters, Paula Fox
  • Something Happened, Joseph Heller
  • Jesus' Son and Angels, Denis Johnson
  • Corregidora, Gayl Jones
  • Independent People, Halldor Laxness
  • The Assistant, Bernard Malamud
  • A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore
  • Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
  • The Beggar Maid; Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage; Runaway, Alice Munro
  • A Personal Matter, Kenzaburo Oe
  • Eustace Chisholm and the Works, James Purdy
  • Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie
  • In Persuasion Nation, George Saunders
  • Enemies: A Love Story and The Family Moskat, Isaac Bashevis Singer
  • The Greenlanders; The Age of Grief; Ordinary Love and Good Will, Jane Smiley
  • Endless Love, Scott Spencer
  • The Man Who Loved Children, Christina Stead
  • Taking Care, Joy Williams

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Going Everywhere

The school term means I've been reading less fiction (and what I've read recently hasn't quite provoked a blog-worthy response, unfortunately, but blame me, not the books), and so to feed the blog, have some links:
  • To begin, I'd like to point you to (you may have already seen it) an essay which, by internet standards, is no longer contemporary, but Chris Fujiwara's "To Have Done with the Contemporary Cinema," in the first issue of the n+1 Film Review, will probably be worth visiting long after it's no longer contemporary by journalistic or even academic standards. Less polemical than that title sounds, Fujiwara brilliantly questions not only what is usually meant by the term "contemporary cinema," but also the limits of who is able to be "contemporary."
  • Borrowing the New Yorker's 20 under 40 schtick, The New Haven Review lauds a different 20 under 40, and, although many of the laureates have published novels or poetry, they're being recognized for their non-fiction writing. A number of names I'm glad to see, a few I'm not familiar with, and at least one provoked a snort. I find the idea of listing 20 Non-Fiction Writers Under 40 list a much more interesting proposition than a 20 Fiction Writers Under 40; there is, I think, much more variety possible: feature writers, film, music, and lit critics, tech columnists, environmental writers, humorists, food writers, sports writers, political reporters are all kind of represented here. Any suggestions for who was left off?
  • To mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, the book's three authors, David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, and Janet Steiger, look back over the book in a long but very rich post here. A shorter introduction providing some background for what the book was trying to accomplish in 1985, and what previous efforts to understand Hollywood as a specific mode of production the book was responding to.
  • Saul Bellow's letters, or rather a selection of them, are coming out November 4th, and The Guardian has published a fairly intimate piece about his widow. The article has a number of interesting anecdotes (Janis Bellow is, as the writer notes, surprisingly unguarded for someone married to such a gossip-magnet), and appended are a few of Bellow's letters, also containing some curiosities.
  • Also, check out the newest project from Ted Gioia, who has previously created The New Canon, Conceptual Fiction, and The Great Books Guide. The new site is Postmodern Mystery, covering "experimental, unconventional and postmodern approaches to stories of mystery and suspense." Some of the first essays discuss Paul Auster, Witold Gombrowicz, Borges, Robbe-Grillet, Perec, and Jonathan Lethem.

From Raymond Williams, "Culture Is Ordinary"

Culture is ordinary: that is the first fact. Every human society expresses its own shape, its own purposes, its own meanings. Every human society expresses these, in institutions, and in arts and learning. The making of a society is the finding of common meanings and directions, and its growth is an active debate and amendment under the pressures of experience, contact, and discovery, writing themselves into the land. The growing society is there, yet it is also made and remade in every individual mind. The making of a mind is, first, the slow learning of shapes, purposes, and meanings, so that work, observation and communication are possible. Then, second, but equal in importance, is the testing of these in experience, the making of new observations, comparisons, and meanings. A culture has two aspects: the known meanings and directions, which its members are trained to; the new observations and meanings, which are offered and tested. These are the ordinary processes of human societies and human minds, and we see through them the nature of a culture: that is always both traditional and creative: that is both the most ordinary common meanings and the finest individual meanings. We use the word culture in these two senses: to mean a whole way of life—the common meanings; to mean the arts and learning—the special processes of discovery and creative effort. Some writers reserve the word for one or the other of these senses; I insist on both, and on the significance of their conjunction. The questions I ask about our culture are questions about our general and common purposes, yet also questions about deep personal meanings. Culture is ordinary, in every society and in every mind…

The Marxists [that Williams met at Cambridge] said many things, but those that mattered were three… [the first two being] a relationship between culture and production and the observation that education was restricted. The other things I rejected, as I rejected also their third point, that since culture and production are related, the advocacy of a different system of production is in some way a cultural directive, indicating not only a way of life but new arts and learning. I did some writing while I was, for eighteen months, a member of the Communist party, and I found out in trivial ways what other writers, here and in Europe have found out more gravely: the practical consequences of this kind of theoretical error. In this respect, I saw the future, and it didn't work. The Marxist interpretation of culture can never be accepted while it retains, as it need not retain, this directive element, this insistence that if you honestly want socialism you must write, think, learn in certain prescribed ways. A culture is common meanings, the product of a man's [sic] whole people, and offered individual meanings, the product of a man's [sic] whole committed personal and social experience. It is stupid and arrogant to suppose that any of these meanings can in any way be prescribed; they are made by living, made and remade, in ways we cannot know in advance. To try to jump the future, to pretend that in some way you are the future, is strictly insane. Prediction is another matter, an offered meaning, but the only thing we can say about culture in an England that has socialized its means of production is that all the channels of expression and communication should be cleared and open, so that the whole actual life, that we cannot know in advance, that we we can know only in part even while it is being lived, may be brought to consciousness and meaning. (11, 14, 15)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Highbrow/Lowbrow, by Lawrence Levine

It is worth reading this book for the anecdotes about Shakespearean performance alone, but it should also be pointed out that the book's argument has aged much better than have those of its disputants. Those who wish still to defend the exclusive or near-exclusive teaching and appreciation of a Western Canon now have to find ways of side-stepping the intensely pessimistic and vituperative late-80s Culture Wars polemics, while any writer or speaker wishing to defend a pluralist approach to pedagogy or even mere appreciation can quite unashamedly return to any of Levine's books not only for their language and phrasing but also for many of their facts. (I read Levine's Opening of the American Mind a few years ago and also found it highly valuable as a polemic and, to a slightly lesser extent, as history.) And, even despite the extent to which it has become the dominant historicist interpretation of the "emergence of cultural hierarchy in America," Levine's twenty-two-year-old project still transmits the excitement, boldness, and freshness with which Levine framed his arguments in 1988.

However, twenty-two years is not all that brief, and particularly not for a field of inquiry which has, in that almost-quarter-century, proliferated and subdivided so much as has popular culture studies. The basic type of narrative that Levine constructs is, I think, a little dubious at this point, and some of the assumptions he makes regarding the motivations of both his individual actors and the classes in his account are perhaps a little less complex than they ought to be. Of course, one needs to remember that the basic shape of Levine's account was created to answer a very different set of questions and anticipate a very different set of responses than a historian of popular culture might face today, and that not having to make the case that "high culture" has a more egalitarian and a shorter history than its guardians would like to acknowledge is directly due to Levine's work here. It should also be mentioned that the material of Highbrow/Lowbrow was mostly drawn from a series of lectures—an origin which is not a disadvantage so much as it is a different genre from the monograph.

Highbrow/Lowbrow works with a few different examples—Shakespearean performance, opera, symphonic music, and public exhibition of painting and sculpture—but its argument is virtually identical across each: in the early through the mid nineteenth century, American public culture was shared across classes, but over the latter half of the nineteenth century, the ruling or upper classes began designating certain cultural practices or elements as proper to themselves, and they began building—architecturally as well as ideologically—defenses against the indiscriminate mixing of both content and consumers. Shakespeare would no longer be performed with vaudevillean antics intruding between (and sometimes into) the acts of the play; symphonic music and opera would no longer be leavened with Stephen Foster songs or light dance music; opera singers and illustrious actors would no longer re-shape their performances or their lines to meet the crowd's approval; great paintings would no longer hang between cabinets of curiosities. What had been an integrated culture of all manner of cultural performances and artifacts became dissociated into new categories and newly formed practices, and this dissociation took place on multiple levels, no less profound for their subtlety:
The changes were not cataclysmic; they were gradual and took place in rough stages: physical or spatial bifurcation, with different socioeconomic groups becoming associated with different theaters in large urban centers, was followed inevitably by the stylistic bifurcation described by George William Curtis, and ultimately culminated in a bifurcation of content, which saw a growing chasm between "serious" and "popular" culture. (68)
Levine is masterful at turning up the most apposite examples of how this transformation was effected: how posters advertising performances of Shakespeare were re-formatted and re-phrased over the years to shift audiences' expectations for the kind of show they were going to see, moving from a diverse bill-of-fare with lots of different acts and entertainments to a single pièce-de-resistance which should only stand on its own; how applause between movements was discouraged in the performance of a symphony; how museum hours were set up to draw certain audiences and deter others.

But the story is largely—and I think wrongly—one-sided. Here is Levine on the central problem of his study:
The problem that requires thoughtful attention is not why Shakespeare disappeared from American culture at the turn of the century, since he did not; but rather why he was transformed from a playwright for the general public into one for a specific audience.This metamorphosis of Shakespearean drama from popular culture to polite culture, from entertainment to erudition, from the property of "Everyman" to the possession of a more elite circle, needs to be seen within the perspective of other transformations that took place in nineteenth-century America. (56)
Levine's narrative is one of simple expropriation: Shakespeare originally belonged to everybody, and then a few decided that he belonged only to the educated and the rich, and that was that. And within the terms of what the upper class meant to do, it is a fairly convincing story, with one fairly large exception I'll get to later. But as a narrative of expropriation, it needs to be more interested in the responses of the people who were being excluded from all this Shakespeare-enjoying and Don Giovanni-listening. The "other transformations" which Levine acknowledges as the context of this specific transformation of Shakespeare are depicted as going on entirely within the (urban) bourgeoisie—professionalization, incorporation, the absorption of the nouveaux riches. No transformations originating in and primarily affecting the working class are considered; all we see is the new labels "popular culture" and "lowbrow" being applied to them by the elites. Are we, then, to presume that the working class was static through this period, that their tastes—if left alone—would have remained within the same field of cultural practices and values, that new technologies as well as new living and working environments might have had only negligible effect? I don't think Levine asks us to presume this, but he spends no time considering whether or not there might have been independent forces pulling the working class away from this "shared public culture" and into its own forms of consumption—dime novels, newspapers, amusement parks, dance halls, sporting events*, etc. Levine doesn't prove—and doesn't attempt to prove—that "popular" culture ever missed the things that the urban elites supposedly took away from them unilaterally.

Secondly, while Levine acknowledges that Shakespeare never really disappeared from popular culture, he plays down too much the ways he has persisted. For instance, Levine quotes Richard Burton as saying that in Hollywood, Shakespeare was box office poison, but that certainly seems at odds with the huge number of attempts Hollywood has made (and continues to make) to break that supposed curse. Nor does Levine adequately consider Shakespeare's presence on radio or in schools. Well, in fact Levine considers the latter, but he assumes that the association of Shakespeare with rote memorization and declamation exercises was part of his dissociation from "the broader world of everyday culture" (33), a conclusion which I find questionable; instead, I think it would be more likely that the memorization of Shakespeare would make him available for the type of parodies and re-codings that enrich an experience of, say, Kiss Me Kate or West Side Story or Loony Tunes which Levine acknowledges have always been an integral part of Shakespeare's place in that broader world (14-15). And while, as Levine argues, references to Shakespeare "have become increasingly limited to the handful of Shakespearean scenes and characters that remained well known in the society" (55), I question to what extent this constriction is really an index for or a product of Shakespeare's dissociation from "everyday culture," or if it isn't rather a sign that everyday culture has been increasingly filled up with other things, competitors for the cultural space that Shakespeare occupied. There is a very implicit assumption running through Levine's book that Shakespeare is fundamental to all people (or at least all Americans), and that his dominant place in this "shared public culture" is almost natural—and therefore that this dominance could only have ended through some form of expropriation. The idea that Frank Merriwell or Nick Carter (no, not that Nick Carter) might have shoved aside Prince Hal and Falstaff seems to be something Levine didn't consider.

To return to that "fairly large exception" which I referred to above, I think the premise of a "shared public culture" as the original condition of American culture deserves a little more scrutiny and the word "shared" needs more than a little bit of examination for the assumptions it's hiding under its egalitarian conviviality. This is a very similar problem to what I have said earlier about Leo Marx's use of the word and its inflections—and it is entirely possible, I think, to see Levine as still writing vaguely under the shadow of consensus history and particularly under the older American Studies. There is a moment of real conflict narrated in the book—the Astor Place Riot—but for the most part the gradual nature of the changes he outlines tends to minimize the disturbances or disequilibria of the transformations in late nineteenth-century popular culture.

Part of the problem, I think, is what Levine presumes is actually being "shared" in this antebellum public culture. Levine assumes that because people of all classes and tastes were going to the see the same performances of Shakespeare in the same place and at the same time, we can safely bracket the separateness of their reasons for doing so; the important thing was that they went, and we can read their choice as an affirmative one for the event, if not for all parts of the event (i.e., some may have gone for the poetry but resented the bawdiness, others for the inverse). Regardless, Levine sees the "shared public culture" as the product of a nearly ideally free market:
When Shakespeare, opera, art, and music were subject to free exchange, as they had been for much of the nineteenth century, they became the property of many groups, the companion of a wide spectrum of other cultural genres, and thus their power to bestow distinction was diminished, as was their power to please those who insisted on enjoying them in privileged circumstances, free from the interference of other cultural groups and the dilution of other cultural forms. As long as they remained shared culture, the manner of their presentation and reception was determined in part by the market, that is, by the demands of the heterogeneous audience. They were in effect "rescued" from the market place, and therefore from the mixed audience and from the presence of other cultural genres; they were removed from the pressures of everyday economic and social life, and placed, significantly, in concert halls, opera houses, and museums that often resembled temples, to be perused, enjoyed and protected by the initiated—those who had the inclination, the leisure, and the knowledge to appreciate them. (230)
I am not convinced that many of the situations Levine describes as locations for a "shared public culture" really count as sites of free exchange. Many of his antebellum anecdotes are urban, and we can assume that many of these people had some variety to choose from, although I think this variety should not in most cases be overstated. But a number of his anecdotes concern frontier, rural, or basically non-urban performances of Shakespeare, and there I feel we are much closer to something like a monopoly than we are with the custodial culture of the urban elite "rescuing" art from the marketplace. When you're in a town with only one movie theater, sometimes you see what's on simply because you want to see a movie, and anybody else who wants to go out that night has to see it too. I wonder how often this enforced "sharing" underwrote the more egalitarian "sharing" Levine envisions: how many times did classes mingle for the simple reason than that it was better than staying at home? More pertinent to the elites who would go on to cordon Shakespeare off into the "serious" sphere: how many of these elites went to see Shakespeare performed in the old manner simply because there wasn't yet the (local) surplus capital to put into taking the necessary steps (building theaters, hiring directors, actors, support staff, forming boards of directors, etc.) for seeing him in their own way? It would of course be a very different story if Levine simply argued that, as soon they had that capital, they did just that, but how right might it be? Obviously, I would need to do quite a bit of research to back it up, but it seems intuitively right.

Of course, none of this answers the "why Shakespeare?" question which, after all, undergirds or buttresses (I'm not sure which) Levine's project more generally: Shakespeare is possibly the one figure whom we can believe would draw a truly motley crowd anywhere. Even if we've been taught, as Levine's elites tried to instill, that Shakespeare is only truly appreciated by the educated, we've also all been taught that he is the most universal dramatist, the artist with the clearest insights into human nature, perhaps the only genuinely transhistorical figure of modernity. I don't mean to knock Shakespeare at all, but I feel that Levine's answer to the "why Shakespeare?" question—why was he the one who consistently drew such diverse crowds in antebellum America?—is a rather hopeful, Because he's Shakespeare: anyone who is allowed really to feel him will respond, and, unfortunately, I find that a little insufficient.**

Levine's trust in the market and his trust in Shakespeare are essentially the same, and while I very much admire the product of that trust—a call for a renewal of a shared public culture—I think they, or at least the market, are not very stable pillars on which to build such a renewed culture. Our notion of "sharing" also must have more meat on it than co-presence and the possibility of conviviality, which I think even Levine acknowledges was the extent of those motley Shakespearean performances. Levine's book, however, is irreplaceable as a step in that direction; it is certainly great enough to present clearly the problems which it doesn't resolve and to point the way to the tools which will improve it.

* Levine actually argues that sporting events and the movies were—and are—the only forms of a "shared public culture" still surviving. However, sporting events arguably don't feature the key element of this "shared public culture"—the diversity of types or levels of entertainment which one found in mid nineteenth-century Shakespearean performances or operas. While a lot more than the game is going on during a sporting event, rarely is there the kind of mixture of poetry and pratfalls (except, I suppose, metaphorically) that Levine has in mind.

** So does Levine, briefly: he allows for some structural reasons why Shakespeare was the most popular playwright of antebellum America on page 45: he could more easily be presented as a moral playwright; he aided the development of the star system, whereby a star and not an entire company could travel more easily and, because the local company knew their Shakespeare, could perform with him or her; Shakespeare's plays similarly had one large role, also nurturing the star system; American dramatists had not developed sufficiently.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Theodore Dreiser's Library of American Realism

While doing his research on an excellent article on David Markson's "lost" personal library, my friend Craig Fehrman sent me a copy of a 2002 essay on Theodore Dreiser's own private library, or rather, on one special part of his personal book collection which he curated as a "Library of American Realism." The article is by Roark Mulligan and is in fact available [yay, open source!] here.

There is an appendix to the article which itemizes all the known inclusions in Dreiser's "Library of American Realism." It's a fascinating document not only for what it tells us about Dreiser's reading (I'm noticing a heavy Midwestern contingent in here, although perhaps that's just because I'm looking for it) but also for what it tells us about a sort of culture of naturalism: the division between fiction and non-fiction is very fluid here, and one can see much further down into the second and third tiers of naturalist or realist authors, producing a better understanding that these aesthetics were built much more on quantity of than on the quality of a few exceptional novelists (Norris, Crane, Dreiser himself, et al.).

I've made a quick pass over it to mark it up with some of the easier links to Wikipedia and such; I'll update it over time to include more links to other resources as I find them.

Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams. (1907)
Adams, Samuel H[opkins]. Revelry. (1926)
Ade, George. Fables in Slang. (1899)
Anderson, Sherwood. Dark Laughter. (1925)
Anonymous. My Actor-Husband. (1912)
Bercovici, Konrad. Crimes of Charity. (1917)
Black, Jack. You Can’t Win. (1926)
Bronson-Howard, George. Selected stories. [no specific title listed]
Boyce, Neith. The Eternal Spring. (1906)
Boyd, Thomas. Through the Wheat. (1923)
Bullen, Frank. Cruise of the Cachalot. (1899)
Bullitt, William. It’s Not Done. (1928)
Canfield, C. L. The Diary of a Forty-Niner. (1920)
Carlisle, Helen Grace. Mother’s Cry. (1930)
Cather, Willa. My Antonia. (1919)
Cahan, Abraham. The Rise of David Levinsky. (1917)
Chambers, Robert W. The King in Yellow. (1895)
Cohen, Lester. Sweepings. (1926)
Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage. (1895)
Croy, Homer. West of the Water Tower. (1923)
Dahlberg, Edward. Bottom Dogs. (1930)
Davenport, Homer. [no specific title listed]
Dell, Floyd. Moon-Calf. (1920)
Dos Passos, John. Manhattan Transfer. (1925)
Edwards, Albert. A Man’s World. (1912)
Faulkner, William. Sanctuary. (1932)
Ferber, Edna. Girls. (1921)
Fergusson, Harvey. Capitol Hill. (1923)
Fitzgerald, Francis Scott Key. The Beautiful and Damned. (1922)
Flagg, Jared. The Crimes of Jared Flagg. (1920)
Ford, Paul Leicester. The Honorable Peter Sterling. (1894)
Fort, Charles. The Outcast Manufacturers. (1909)
Frederic, Harold. The Damnation of Theron Ware. (1896)
Frederick, John T. Druida. (1923)
Friedman, Isaac Kahn. By Bread Alone, A Novel. (1901)
Fuller, Henry B[lake]. With the Procession. (1895)
Gale, Zona. Miss Lulu Bett. (1920)
Garland, Hamlin. Main-Travelled Roads. (1916)
Glasgow, Ellen. Barren Ground. (1925)
———. The Romantic Comedians. (1926)
Goodman, Daniel Carson. Hagar Revelly. (1913)
Graham, Carroll, and Garret Graham. Queer People. (1930)
Granberry, Edwin. Strangers and Lovers. (1928)
Grant, Robert. Unleavened Bread. (1900)
Green, Helen. At the Actors’ Boarding House and Other Stories. (1906)
Hapgood, Hutchins. The Autobiography of a Thief. (1903)
———. The Story of a Lover. (1919)
Hecht, Ben. Erik Dorn. Introduction by Burton Rascoe. (1924)
Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. (1929)
Henry, O. The Best of O. Henry. (1929)
Hergesheimer, Joseph. The Lay Anthony. (1919)
Herrick, Robert. Together. (1908)
Heyward, Du Bose. Porgy. (1925)
Hobart, Alice Tisdale. Oil for the Lamps of China. (1933)
Holding, Elisabeth. Invincible Minnie. (1920)
Howe, Edgar Watson. The Story of a Country Town. Introduction by Carl Van Doren. (1926)
Howells, W. D. Their Wedding Journey. (1894)
Hughes, Langston. Not without Laughter. (1930)
Hull, Helen Rose. Islanders. (1927)
Huntington, Elizabeth. Son of Dr. Tradusac. (1929)
Ireland, Alleyne. Joseph Pulitzer. (1914)
James, Henry. The American. (1879)
———. Roderick Hudson. (1875)
Jewett, Sarah Orne. The Country of the Pointed Firs. (1896)
Johnson, Josephine. Now in November. (1934)
Kantor, MacKinlay. Diversey. (1928)
Kelley, Edith. Weeds. (1923)
Kelley, Ethel. Heart’s Blood. (1923)
Kelly, Myra. Little Citizens. (1904)
Kemp, Harry. Tramping on Life. (1922)
Lewis, Sinclair. Main Street. (1920)
Lewisohn, Ludwig. The Island Within. (1928)
Loos, Anita. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. (1925)
Lowrie, Donald. My Life in Prison. (1912)
Lyon, Harris Merton. Sardonics: Sixteen Sketches. (1908)
Marks, Henry K. Undertow. (1923)
Masters, Edgar Lee. Mirage. (1924)
Matson, Norman H. Day of Fortune. (1928)
Melville, Herman. Typee, A Real Romance of the South Sea. (1892)
Munger, Dell H. The Wind Before Dawn. (1912)
Neumann, Robert. Flood. Trans. William A. Drake. (1930)
Norris, Frank. McTeague. (1899)
Oliver, John Rathbone. Victim and Victor. (1928)
Ornitz, Samuel Badisch. Haunch, Paunch, and Jowl: An Anonymous Autobiography. (1923)
Ostenso, Martha. Wild Geese. (1925)
Payne, Will. The Story of Eva. (1901)
Peterkin, Julia. Black April. (1927)
Phillips, David G[raham]. Susan Lenox, Her Fall and Rise. (1920)
Post, Melville D. The Man of Last Resort. (1892)
Rumsey, Frances. Mr. Cushing and Mlle. De Chastel. (1917)
Sachs, Ermanie. Red Damask. (1927)
Sandburg, Carl. Smoke and Steel. (1920)
Scott, Evelyn. The Narrow House. (1921)
Sinclair, Upton. Oil! (1927)
Smits, Lee. Spring Flight. (1925)
Steele, Robert. One Man. (1915)
Stein, Gertrude. Three Lives. (1915)
Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. (1937)
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Dred. (1856)
Stribling, Thomas S. The Forge. (1933)
Suckow, Ruth. Farm stories. [no specific title listed]
Sullivan, Edward. Rattling the Cup on Chicago Crime. (1929)
Sweeney, Ed. Poorhouse Sweeney. Foreword by Theodore Dreiser. (1927)
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In the Tracks of Historical Materialism, by Perry Anderson

What exactly is Jacques Lacan [bottom left] doing in the photo on this book's cover? My copy from the library doesn't have the dust-cover, so all I can see are the product pictures from Amazon and the like, but wtf, Verso? It looks rather like, to use a lovely euphemistic phrase from Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford, Monsieur Lacan is partaking in "a ceremony frequently gone through by little babies," but I imagine Freud, if not so much Lacan, might have a great deal to say about my interest in making that association.

At any rate, this is a great little book: one of the better transformations of a series of lectures into a book that I have read (although I hope to be blogging about another fine example in a few days). Delivered in 1982 as the second installment of the yearly Wellek Library Lectures, Anderson(not this Perry Anderson)'s subject is a sort of continuation (though "not exactly a sequel") of his 1976 Considerations on Western Marxism: "As I had already attempted a sketch in the mid seventies of the evolution of Marxism in Western Europe since the First World War, offering some predictions as to its likely future directions, it seemed opportune to review intellectual developments since then and to look at how my earlier conjectures had fared" (7). However, he notes, particularly within the period in question, "a survey of recent developments within Marxism was not practicable without some consideration of concurrent philosophical developments outside it, as they affected, or appeared to affect, its fortunes" (ibid.) and for that reason he devotes the second lecture to structuralism and poststructuralism, focusing on Lacan, Derrida, Saussure, Foucault, and Lévi-Strauss, and considers Habermas in the third lecture.

The second lecture is, I think the most interesting. Anderson begins by noting a "Latin [i.e., French, Spanish, and Italian] recession within the international map of contemporary Marxism" (32): where France and Italy were "the two leading homelands of a living historical materialism in the fifties and sixties" (30), they had become, by 1982, sites of "a precipitous descent" and a "massacre of the ancestors" (ibid.), with the new generation not only rejecting but anathematizing their elders and a consequent "demoralization and retreat" of any still-living Marxists. Anderson lays out a surprising hypothesis for this turn of events: "after French Marxism had enjoyed a lengthy period of largely uncontested cultural dominance, basking in the remote, reflected prestige of the Liberation, it finally encountered an intellectual adversary that was capable of doing battle with it, and prevailing. Its victorious opponent was the broad theoretical front of structuralism, and then its post-structuralist successors" (33).

Anderson next goes on to note that, rather unusually, "the passage from Marxist to structuralist and then post-structuralist dominants [sic—probably a transcription error for "dominance"] in post-war French culture has not involved a complete discontinuity of issues or questions. On the contrary, it is clear that there has been one master-problem around which all contenders have revolved; and it would look as if it was precisely the superiority of—in the first instance—structuralism on the very terrain of Marxism itself that assured it of decisive victory over the latter. What was this problem? Essentially, the nature of the relationships between structure and subject in human history and society" (ibid.).

Following some very lucid intellectual history regarding the debates between Sartre and Lévi-Strauss and the entrance of Althusser into the fray as well as a consideration of the impact of the events of May 68, Anderson lays out a "demarcation of a basic space in which structuralist and post-structuralist theories can be unified, as a series of possible moves or logical operations within a common field" (40). Anderson allows that this demarcation does not emphasize the internal differences of the thinkers commonly classed together by these terms, and that none of them makes all the moves he will describe. "Yet all their major themes and claims fall within the boundaries of this shared purlieu" (ibid.).

First is what Anderson calls "the exorbitation of language." It's a shame that term hasn't caught on, because what it names is brilliant: identifying the decisive origin of structuralism in Saussure's linguistics and more specifically in the langue-parole distinction (not in itself an original move on Anderson's part), Anderson then analyzes how Lévi-Strauss's "intrepid generalization of [this distinction] to his own anthropological domain" and specifically to kinship systems: "Once this equation was made, it was a short step to extend it to all the major structures of society, as Lévi-Strauss saw them: the economy itself was now added, under the rubric of an exchange of goods forming a symbolic system comparable to the exchange of women in kin networks and the exchange of words in language" (41). Then, Lacan joined the party, announcing that the unconscious was also "structured like a language."

Again, none of this is particularly original, and neither exactly is the following, although the clarity of its extension all the way to Derrida is tremendously helpful:
After such fundamental expansions of the jurisdiction of language, there inevitably followed a host of lesser adventures and annexations: clothes, cars, cooking, and other items of fashion or consumption were subjected to diligent semiological scrutiny, derived from structural linguistics. The final step along this path was to be taken by Derrida, who—marking the post-structuralist break—rejected the notion of language as a stable system of objectification, but radicalized its pretensions as a universal suzerain of the modern world, with the truly imperial decree, 'there is nothing outside of the text', 'nothing before the text, no pretext that is not already a text' (42).
"Fundamental expansions of the jurisdiction of language" is, I think, tremendously apt, an excellent definition or re-articulation of the "exorbitation of language" which isolates precisely how and where to put our finger on what, exactly, was the import of structuralism and post-structuralism and how we might, if we wish, shrug off its grip—simply rein in its "exorbitation," acknowledge that there are domains of human existence which are not best analogized to or analyzed by structural linguistics.

Anderson also gives us an excellent reason why we might be justified in doing so:
It was Saussure himself, ironically, who warned against exactly the abusive analogies and extrapolations from his own domain that have been so unstoppable in past decades. Language, he wrote, is 'a human institution of such a kind that all the other human institutions, with the exception of writing, can only deceive us as to its real essence if we trust in their analogy'. [Wow!] Indeed, he singled out kinship and economy—precisely the two systems with whose assimilation to language Lévi-Strauss inaugurated structuralism as a general theory—as incommensurable with it… Saussure's whole effort, ignored by his borrowers, was to emphasize the singularity of language, everything that separated it from other social practices or forms… In fact, the analogies that were to be promptly discovered by Lévi-Strauss or Lacan, in their extension of linguistic categories to anthropology or psychoanalysis, give way on the smallest critical inspection. Kinship cannot be compared to language as a system of symbolic communication in which women and words are respectively 'exchanged', as Lévi-Strauss would have it, since no speaker alienates vocabulary to any interlocutor, but can freely reutilize every word 'given' as many times as is wished thereafter, whereas marriages—unlike consversations—are usually binding: wives are not recuperable by their fathers after their weddings. Still less does the terminology of 'exchange' warrant an elision [sic?] to the economy… No economy… can be primarily defined in terms of exchange at all: production and property are always prior… Far from the unconscious being structured like a language, or coinciding with it, Freud's construction of it as the object of psychoanalytic enquiry precisely defines it as incapable of the generative grammar which, for a post-Saussurian linguistics, comprises the deep structures of language: that is, the competence to form sentences and carry out correctly the rules of their transformations. The Freudian unconscious, innocent even of negation, is a stranger to all syntax (43).

Anderson drives the point home further: the langue-parole relation is a "peculiarly aberrant compass for plotting the diverse positions of structure and subject in the world outside language" (44) for three reasons:
  1. because the rates of change are so different as to be fatally incommensurate—language alters itself far more slowly than do the economic, political, or religious structures which are supposedly so assimilable to linguistic models;
  2. language as a structure is fairly rigid relative to the "inventivity" of the subject—that is, "utterance has no material constraint whatever: words are free, in the double sense of the term. They cost nothing to produce, and can be multiplied and manipulated at will, within the laws of meaning. All other major social practices are subject to the laws of natural scarcity: persons, goods or powers cannot be generated ad libitum and ad infinitum. Yet the very freedom of the speaking subject is curiously inconsequential: that is, its effects on the structure in return are in normal circumstances virtually nil. Even the greatest writers, whose genius has influenced whole cultures, have typically altered the language relatively little" (44).
  3. Speech is "axiomatically" understood to be produced, when intelligible, by a single subject: some individual speaks for a collective (or individuals speak sequentially on behalf of the same collective); when collectives actually speak collectively, it is generally considered a din or a cacophony or something similar which indicates, as Anderson, that "plural speech is non-speech" (ibid.). This is in great contrast to "economic, cultural, political or military structures which are first and foremost collective: nations, classes, castes, groups, generations. Precisely because this is so, the agency of these subjects is capable of effecting profound transformations of these structures" (44-45).
Anderson concludes, "This fundamental distinction is an insurmountable barrier to any transposition of linguistic models to historical processes of a wider sort. The opening move of structuralism, in other words, is a speculative aggrandizement of language that lacks any comparative credentials" (45).

Anderson traces this initial illegitimacy to two consequences: what he calls "the attenuation of truth" (ibid.) and "the randomization of history" (48). These deserve their own expositions (which will have to be shorter and held for a subsequent post), but the "exorbitation of language" is, I think, the crucial leg of Anderson's answer to the hypothesis he poses. The form of that answer, if I may anticipate my next post, is a little questionable, though. The hypothesis that Anderson presents—that structuralism/post-structuralism drove historical materialism out of business because it had more satisfactory resolutions to the structure-vs.-subject problems—is disproved by a demonstration of its insufficiency (and even superficiality) in dealing with that problem at all, much less resolving it. Yet Anderson takes this as a dead end for what he calls "intrinsic" answers "from within the logic of the ideas of the time" (56) to the question of why historical materialism declined in France so rapidly and so thoroughly and so, he argues, we must turn to "extrinsic,"i.e., geopolitical answers—roughly, "the fate of the international communist movement" (68). One of the extrinsic factors that Anderson barely considers, however, is the surprising eagerness of American academics to take up French structuralism/post-structuralism, a factor which arguably has less to do with the fate of the international communist movement and more to do with issues and conflicts internal to U.S. academia; it is notable (and come to think of it, surprising) that one of the primary vectors of "French theory" was Fredric Jameson's The Prisonhouse of Language. The impact of American popularity on these thinkers' prestige within France, however, is rather difficult to assess—I started reading François Cusset's French Theory—which purports to explain this—awhile ago and just got bogged down in its small-bore trivialities—viewed as gossip, I'm sure it's fascinating to anyone who was involved or on the outskirts, but to someone whose introduction to Theory actually was Derrida's death, it seems pretty turgid intellectual history.

Returning to Anderson for one last point, however: I am not sure that Anderson's dismissal of "intrinsic" reasons for the triumph of structuralism/post-structuralism is completely warranted. It is not that I disagree with his conclusion that structuralism/post-structuralism failed to engage with (and a fortiori to resolve) the structure-subject problem in a superior or even equivalent manner compared to Marxism's own efforts. It is not that I am not convinced that successful engagement or successful resolution is the only "intrinsic" factor that counts when accounting for the triumph of one idea or one system over another. Could we not see structuralism/post-structuralism's victory over historical materialism as the result of an exhaustion of a writing style as much as or more than of a set of answers, that writing in the structuralist (or even more, in the post-structuralist) fashion became "intrinsically" more pleasurable, not to mention more capable of commanding attention? This is also not a particularly original insight (post-structuralism is all about style, who knew?) but it is an angle that Anderson neglects, and I think his oversight is fairly serious.