Culture Rover

#74 - Journal: On Political Hand Wringing and Cultural History

Just back from The State of Cultural History: A Conference in Honor of Lawrence Levine. Musings below, still half thought out. Responses are welcome, and with permission I will post and respond to them.

An academic gathering is not for everyone, of course, but I was deeply moved at this event by the spirit of Lawrence Levine (because of illness, Levine himself was not able to attend, but he did tune in through a live digital feed).

As many attendees pointed out, Levine continues to infuse his original thinking about the "unpredictable past" of the United States with an appreciation for the tough vernacular humor of all Americans. As one of the most crucial historians of the last forty years who broadened historical inquiries beyond studies of elites, Levine noticed that even those in the most difficult, tragic, catastrophic circumstances (such as the enslaved in Black Culture and Black Consciousness) exercised forms of power.

Often they did so through cultural and expressive means that were quite funny. But not funny-go-lightly. Rather, these means were often razor-sharp funny, with incisive points to make about the realities of injustice, and dreams to sculpt of a more equitable and ideal future. Always in lucid, approachable prose, Levine has recognized and written about the complicated but potentially libratory nature of Americans' uncivil civility, their "noble shit," as Norman Mailer called it (and as Leo Marx has marvelously elucidated). Appearing at the conference through excerpts from an interview videotaped for the Regional Oral History Office at the University of California, Levine also displayed how he has has incorporated his appreciation for humor into reflections on the history of his own life and career.

Levine also has focused on aesthetics and expressive culture as realms as important -- perhaps, in the long run, even more important -- than short-term political struggles. He has always concentrated on the questions: How does culture work, exactly? And how has culture worked in the past?

The wealth of intellectual ideas broached in the spirit of Levine were vitally apparent at the conference. Papers touched on the methodological issues of Levine's central questions: Nell Painter and Jean-Christophe Agnew traced the intellectual genealogy of Lawrence Levine in the American pragmatist tradition of William James; Michael Denning, Jay Cook, and Geoff Eley provided nuanced readings and reinterpretations of the practice of cultural history as grounded in various modes of cultural Marxism; and Nan Enstad provided a two-part history of recent cultural history itself, going on to propose that the topics of "grief" and "error" open up new, useful areas of study for current projects. All sorts of possibilities arose for thinking in fresh ways (and revisiting old ways) of studying how culture functions.

Other papers put into practice the Levinian touch by investigating particular topics: papers by Phil Deloria, Elaine Tyler May, and Kathy Peiss addressed matters of state-organized cultural policy, whether among Native Americans, in World War II as compared to the recent American invasion of Iraq, and during the Cold War and the post-9/11 era. Shane White once again shared marvelous discoveries from the archives, this time concerning the world of hustlers and con men in early twentieth-century Harlem. Mary Odem offered a glimpse of Mayan culture's rearticulation in the New South.

Still more. Eric Avila revealed one story in what he calls the "folklore of the freeway" by examining a confrontation between an economically poor (but culturally rich, as Avila demonstrated by showing mural images painted on highway support pillars) Chicano community in San Diego and the highway planners of postwar American, who were so guided by the principles of high modernism. Elliot Gorn warmly and humorously outlined his provocative precis about his upcoming project on the Depression Era outlaw John Dillinger. Waldo Martin examined the links, in the wake of the 1960s Black Nationalist movement, between freedom and love, public issues of authenticity and private matters of intimacy, in Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway's song, "Be Real Black For Me." Deborah Willis walked the audience through images from her careful research into the self-presentation of African-American women in photographs from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And John Kasson explored the surprisingly problematic riddle of Shirley Temple's smile and the child actress's role in the emotional labor of coping with the disjunctures of the Great Depression (full disclosure: Professor Kasson is my dissertation advisor).

Much to think about, indeed. At times, however, the conference seemed to reduce its scope to expressions of frustration and anxiety about the role of cultural historians in contemporary political struggles. Hand wringing threatened to derail the event's proceedings. This dimension of the conference deserves more reflection: Why did this public, professional gathering of cultural historians threaten to transform into an occasion for political bemoaning, especially of a particular left-of-center sort? And, more importantly, was this healthy for the collective intellectual inquiry of the conference?

I suspect many attendees share roughly the same political position on matters contemporary (I do). Moreover, they rightfully locate their political beliefs about our current world in their dedicated professional pursuit of historical truths (even the Jamesian pragmatic "partial truths," which are far from pure relativism). The issue here is most decidedly not that we needed "fair and balanced" representation of narrow-minded political views. I'm not reiterating the current reactionary screed against "bias" in the academy (see David Horowitz, if you must, though, to quote Bartleby, I would prefer not). Horowitz's angry threats strike me as a form of hand wringing on the right, a hand wringing far more dangerous to the public good than hand wringing on the left in that they conceal within their palms closed fists -- attacks that perversely damage the very academic freedom they seek to protect and expand.

But the conference's shift toward what cultural historians might do about the wreck that the current political rulers in the country have created nonetheless felt like a dangerous abandonment of deep engagement (deep play, deep work) with matters of cultural history in the name of a more narrow political focus. The buzz among graduate students attending the conference was a sense of frustration with the turn away from the state of cultural history to the cultural history of our current state. Was this a kind of "error" -- the sort that Nan Enstad suggested might provide useful for closer analysis by cultural historians? How might we probe this "error" more fully?

At its best, the conference provided a realm of broad, far-reaching discussion and deliberation rather than a narrow field or sphere for raising political anxieties and frustrations. When it did so, participants made connections between the practice of cultural history and the kinds of knowingness or knowledge that cultural history can register in contemporary and future public life. The collective "we" of the conference raised a host of questions that I will continue to ponder for many years, such as the following:

How do aesthetics and expressive culture link to politics, broadly conceived? What is the opposite of culture, exactly (I think Michael Denning or Geoff Eley raised this intriguing question)? If the opposite of culture is politics, for example, that positions culture quite differently than if the opposite is commerce or the social.

Is culture itself to be a public good, a refuge from the travails of the marketplace, or a thoroughly commodified part of mass consumer capitalism? How, if we track it carefully, can we rethink assumed binaries of culture and commerce, or vernacular culture and official culture (as Jay Cook began to do in his paper on the theories of Theodore Adorno)?

How do we engage the emotional dimensions of the past and present (such as experiences of "grief," so passionately and powerfully raised as a topic of study by Nan Enstad)? Are there links to be made between the new sensory histories emerging in the field, histories of the emotions, and histories of the body (a question David Suisman raised, which was never really addressed in the rush toward emotive political posturing)? What might these be?

By what methods can historians search for and discover the embedded life theories of historical participants? In his video-taped interview, Lawrence Levine raised (and indicated an answer to) this question by insisting that he reads widely in what has come to be known as "theory" (Freud, Marx, Foucault), but also engages at great length with his source materials in an effort to detect the theories people in the past applied to their lives and surroundings.

These and other questions pushed toward a newfound (or renewed and refreshed) awareness of how much we can do as cultural historians if we enter into a deep listening to the song (really the songs) of the past. The conference, at its best, made me able to hear this song in far greater clarity. In place of hand wringing (to press my metaphor into labor perhaps beyond its meager means), I heard hand clapping.

That is, I heard a collective affirmation of the sound produced from the dialectic of, on the one hand, materials of all sorts (written, visual, musical, sensory, spoken, living, archival, primary, secondary), and, on the other hand, the consciousness expressed by the historian herself or himself. Nan Enstad raised the profound nature of this dialectical interaction in her remarks on the "visionary" mode of cultural history practiced by Lawrence Levine.

There is, to build on Enstad's comments, an important kind of self-communication taking place in the clapping of these two hands: on the one side, the historical materials and, on the other, the consciousness of the historian. The historian does not simply make the history out of the subject; the subject itself can produce the subjectivity of the historian, can alter and transform the historian if he or she listens and learns with open senses.

The danger I felt looming at the conference was that too much hand wringing can get in the way of this hand clapping. We tie our own hands up in knots. But the promise I felt at the conference was that if we join in the process of producing knowledge through honest, dialectical encounters with the past -- or to continue the metaphor (at my own peril), if cultural historians all struggle to clap our hands in our scholarship -- then we have the capacity to engage in the politics of the present. Moving away from constant wringing, our historical hands become free to move, create, work, play, pray, raise questions, make objections, and, in the end, applaud. We can be changed by our engagements with history, and possibly change the future in turn.

A final thought on the conference: There needs to be recognition when invoking the collective "we" of cultural historians that there are a multiplicity of professional identities in the room. Perhaps acknowledgement of the hierarchies and inequalities within the profession, within the room, within the mini-public assembled to investigate the state of cultural history, can help establish a more intellectually vibrant, participatory, and democratic sphere of engagement.

As Michael Denning brilliantly analyzed, part of the larger social anger toward academics is a tremendous class hostility because academics are the gatekeepers (the "cultural bureaucrats," as Denning named them) in part controlling access to the college undergraduate degree, which is increasingly the passageway into secure middle class stability in the United States. This is why continual attacks on professors made by the likes of Horowitz, Lynn Cheney, and Allan Bloom, Lawrence Levine's own nemesis when writing The Opening of the American Mind, find such traction in the U.S.

In the more immediate sphere of the history profession, senior scholars might remember that they are also the gatekeepers of entry into the more stable, successful positions for graduate students and junior faculty. They should be. The system, when it works right, pushes many toward innovative insights in research and teaching (it also, of course, shuts certain people out of the process in unhealthy and disappointing ways that require remedy, or at least inquiry).

It seems important to recognize how professional tensions lurk below the surface of conferences: senior historians might keep in mind that they have a more secure hold on membership in the profession and its larger fraction of upper middle class identity than their students and younger colleagues. Is there power, real political power, when they take up the responsibilities of this position? Does this question relate to an engagement not only with Walmart's labor practices or the Bush administration's labor practices, but with certain ongoing labor practices and questions within academia (adjuncts, health care, TAs, etc.)? More thinking is needed on these matters.

Crucially and thankfully, the conference also revealed that this is not the only level of interaction historical inquiry involves. The meeting suggested that we have something of a chance at conferences to interact outside of (or better said, in addition to) necessarily unequal professional roles. Historians and academics are "cultural bureaucrats," yes; but we are also all citizens. A space appears at conferences to participate as equal intellectual citizens belonging to the nation and the imagined community (if not the state) of cultural history. But only if "we" remember who might feel empowered and who might feel intimated to speak and participate in that space for professional reasons.

While recognizing and celebrating the acquisition of expertise and wisdom by those who advance in the field (rather than an anything goes approach), it is also important to take steps so that those who feel tenuously part of the historical profession, or who feel vulnerable as equal citizens in the life of the mind, feel part of our collective "we." When we meet, there is a politics -- a very immediate politics -- to attend to as well as the grander projects of exerting power and efficacy in current electoral politics.

This immediate politics involves thinking carefully about how to sustain and enrich the civil and civic nature of our collective participation in matters intellectual, not through despair (though expressions of and engagements with "grief" of all sorts are important to include, not to deny, as Nan Enstad so powerfully argued in her paper) but rather through empathy and engagement across positions of difference. I think the conference accomplished this immediate politics most successfully, so far as I could tell, in the informal space of the reception. How do we promote it in the more formal moments of the meeting?

I would add that last question to the many that the conference raised. The answer I am pondering, for now, is that spreading and sharing the sounds of all those hands clapping at the conference matters -- and so too does listening to, learning from, and responding carefully and judiciously to their rich, multidimensional polyphony. Perhaps then, in the long-run, we can have more hands ringing than hand wringing.

19 September 2005

For another report on the conference, see Victor Greene, Reporter's Notebook: The State of Cultural History: A Conference in Honor of Lawrence Levine, History News Network.

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