[sixties-l] Where Will Critical Culture Come From?

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Tue Jan 23 2001 - 20:48:44 EST

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    Blue Jay Way

    Where Will Critical Culture Come From?


    by Marshall Berman

    Considering the mass murder and Nazi-style brutality that engulf so much of
    the world in the 1990s, it takes chutzpah for an American to say that our
    collective life contains any trouble at all. Our economy is thriving. It
    wasn't so long ago that there was nothing out there for kids coming out of
    school and college; today, kids are getting jobs. After years of rising
    homicide rates, people are killing each other less. People are still
    getting AIDS, but more of them are staying alive.
    American society is more open and inclusive than ever; it's not just what
    you see on the Madison Square Garden station or MTV-though that itself is
    something-it's all the interracial families and their marvelously colored
    children out shopping any Saturday afternoon at your local mall. So we
    should lighten up and enjoy the good news, right?
    We at Dissent crave joy as ardently as anybody. But it's not easy for us to
    lighten up. Most of us are in or near middle age, and we worry about what
    will be there for our children and their children. Here's something that
    troubles our minds:
    There seems to be no critical culture in America today. A critical culture
    is one that struggles actively over how human beings should live and what
    our life means. Most of us can remember living in the critical culture of
    the sixties-a few of us can even remember the critical culture of the
    thirties-and we can feel the difference. When a critical culture breaks
    down or wears out or fades away, sources of joy dry up. What makes this
    happen? Why has it happened now? Is the loss permanent? Or are there
    traces, fragments, intimations of a new critical culture just around the
    corner? Where might it
    come from? How can it come together? Is there anything people like us can
    do to help it come?
    One symptom of the lack of a critical culture today is our fetishism of
    "order." Giuliani-type politicians have convinced many people, including
    those who control the mass media, not only that they personally have made
    the homicide rate go down, but that they have done something even more
    profound: "restored order." New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani's idea of order
    seems to require freeing the streets not only from beggars and homeless
    people, but also from newsstands, food vendors, and wandering artists. His
    1997 re-election campaign featured born-again testimonies from people said to
    be lifelong Democrats and liberals who had come to love him, because, like
    Moses parting the waters, "The mayor has stopped the violence." During the
    campaign, he proclaimed that, now that he had ended the violence, the
    police were going to start arresting people for jaywalking. At that point,
    the great Jules Feiffer published a cartoon (on the New York Times op-ed
    page) depicting a man making nasty remarks about the mayor's priorities and
    his sense of civic life. In the last panel, a police officer arrests him.
    For what? he asks. For jaytalking. Feiffer's image gets it just right, not
    just about the mayor, but about the culture of the nineties, and its
    amazing lack of jaytalking. The most endearing quality of the sixties
    was the way it taught us to jaytalk: to talk back; to talk against the
    lights; to talk outside the designated lines; to talk like our great
    American blue jays (there they are in Audubon's Birds of America, Number
    282), small birds who emit loud and raucous cries that no one can ignore.
    How does a culture of jaytalking come into being? It requires three things:
    (1) powerful and provocative ideas; (2) smart and imaginative people
    working in various sectors of life, often wholly unaware of each other's
    existence; and (3) "experimental neighborhoods," places where people and
    ideas can bump into each other, and where young people, with little
    experience but boundless energy, along with middle-aged people longing to
    escape from "uptown" or "the boroughs" or "suburbia," can find or imagine
    new ways to put the ideas together, and to act out their new syntheses.
    The critical culture of the sixties came from very diverse sources. There
    were our universities, enlarged and intellectually enriched in the cold war
    boom. C. Wright Mills, Irving Howe, Herbert Marcuse, Noam Chomsky, David
    Riesman, Norman O. Brown, were all "tenured radicals" who developed their
    dangerous ideas within the classiest academic crosswalks. (Many of the
    creators of Students for a Democratic Society were their students.) Mike
    Harrington and Jane Jacobs worked as journalists and editors. Grace Paley
    taught, did secretarial work, brought up kids, and organized demos (at
    first quite small) as she wrote. William H. Whyte, Norman Mailer, James
    Baldwin, Susan Sontag, Walt Kelly, Dr. Seuss, all got rich from their
    books, and used their money to say things that would have got them in
    trouble (or gone unheard) if they were poor. Paul Goodman, like many great
    artists of the "New York School" generation, was supported by his wife;
    Dwight Macdonald, one of very few radicals from the echt ruling class, by
    his trust fund. Harold Rosenberg taught us to see through the mass media,
    to which he made one spectacular contribution: he was the man who created
    Smokey the Bear. The 1950s theatre produced Death of a Salesman, one of the
    permanently great radical plays, but also the avant-garde experiments of
    the Living Theatre, and Joseph Papp's Public Theatre, which synthesized
    dramaturgy with popular front marketing.
    What about experimental neighborhoods? The 1950s offered plenty of these.
    As an ironic result of the flight of capital from American cities after
    World War II, every city gained grungy low-rent neighborhoods that could
    incubate bookstores and art studios and modern dance groups, experimental
    theatres, venues for jazz and folk music and performance, and the sort of
    shabby clubs and coffee houses and music stores and cabarets that nourished
    Lenny Bruce and Nichols and May and Woody Allen and Bob Dylan. New York's
    Village (first West, then East) is what I knew, but there were
    neighborhoods like this all over America. Late in the 1950s, they started
    to fill up with kids from all over metropolitan areas who could read the
    little magazines and the Grove Press paperbacks in the bookstores, hang out in
    streets and play their guitars in parks, hear sounds of music that carried
    from clubs they couldn't afford to go to, find intense people like
    themselves to walk and talk with through the night, and maybe to grope and
    love. These people transformed old and often sleepy streets into vibrant
    public spaces that never seemed to sleep at all. New kinds of public spaces
    were embodied in two important new mass media: alternate weekly newspapers
    and listener-supported radio. Once more, it happened all over. New York's
    version features the Village Voice and WBAI.
    Both rallied superb arrays of jaytalkers (including Feiffer), and formed
    intense bonds with their audiences. America turned out to be full of people
    who were ready to listen to every minute and read every line in media that
    they felt were their own. These media taught their readers and listeners
    not only how to grow up, but how to act like citizens, to go into the
    streets and make trouble. The earliest struggles were to protect their own
    neighborhoods (in New York, Washington Square). But as the sixties
    unfolded, the new media made spiritual leaps, expanded their horizons, and
    developed into
    genuine moral educators. They taught their readers and listeners to think
    of black people, poor people, Vietnamese people, and victimized people
    everywhere as part of their neighborhoods.
    Where will our culture find resources like these again? Maybe it won't, and
    crews of Bounderbys and Panglosses and mixed megapirates will rule the
    world forever. Or maybe only violent economic collapse will shake Americans
    out of their narcolepsy. This would put the left in the creepy position
    (where it has been before) of longing for horrible catastrophe.
    On the other hand, it may be, as it was forty years ago, that the country's
    very prosperity will give us slack, that it will create imaginative space
    where people can begin to think about a better life than this.
    What forms will critical thought take? Some people think there are no
    critical ideas left. My own feeling is that there is a superabundance of
    critical ideas in the air, if we can learn to inhale. Marxian and Freudian
    thought are both immensely provocative, capable of endlessly new syntheses,
    spin-offs, and hybridizations. No one has the authority to say definitively
    what these ideas mean. Not even the founders could close the floodgates
    they had opened. (They tried, in vain.) Maybe tomorrow's incarnations will
    be deepened by feminism, or by environmentalism, or biology, or
    cybernetics, or by any number of things that blacks and other "people of
    color" will have to say, or by other forms of thought I know nothing of.
    Regardless, we should recognize that, with Marx and Freud, we are all
    living on top of radical gold mines.
    I confess (and it isn't hard to detect), I am guilty of nostalgia for the
    sixties, days of my youth. But I can see at least two big ways in which the
    horizon for radicalism is clearer today. Many leftists of my generation
    disdained the USSR, but still had a deep (sometimes desperate) need to
    identify with some idealized Other as a focus for their longings. Since
    1989, the need for an ideal Other has abated, or at least radically
    slackened. It's a great leap forward that people today can criticize and
    denounce life in the West without having to genuflect toward a mythical East.
    The other big problem about sixties radicalism was its lack of connection
    to a labor movement. The New Left is usually blamed for this. But in fact,
    the AFL-CIO of those days, dominated by George Meany and his crew, was not
    only aggressive in its chauvinist patriotism, but strident in its
    particularism and anti-intellectuality. Obsessed with smashing the commies,
    it was as rigid and dictatorial as any Communist Party. It fired its old,
    politically incorrect organizers, and made
    no moves to hire new ones: it was totally uninterested in organizing the
    unorganized. The weakness of today's labor movement follows directly from
    the stupidity of yesterday's strong one. But John Sweeney's AFL-CIO has
    looked beyond its own apparat, opened up its horizons, and started to
    imagine how big and powerful the working class might be. The unions have
    opened up an Organizing Institute, and a new generation of brilliant
    organizers has come up. Labor has started winning big strikes, not only in
    New York and Los Angeles, where you might expect it, but in Las Vegas and
    North Carolina. The labor movement's Union Summers have not only trained
    several thousand young adults in organizing skills-many are working as
    organizers now, many more are fellow-travelers-but generated a vision, a
    sense of mission, a human solidarity, as the civil rights movement did in
    its Freedom Summer days. We should listen for jaytalk here.
    One big problem for any critical culture to come is, how will its concerns
    and its ideas be transmitted and shared? There is no way to reach
    multitudes of people except through media of mass communication. Many
    people think our mass media inevitably turn all ideas into banal slogans.
    My own feeling is that, although most of the contents of our mass media are
    banal (like most of the contents of our most esoteric refereed journals),
    the biggest problem may be the exact opposite: too many ideas, coming
    through too many channels. New media played crucial roles creating and
    the critical culture of the sixties. In the nineties, along with books,
    newspapers, magazines, movies, theater, recorded music, broadcasting, and
    the new media of yesterday, there are so many new "new media," from the
    many forms of cable television, desktop publishing, video, 'zines, to
    e-mail and all the metamorphoses of the Net, that it is harder than ever
    not to be flooded out. As communications technologies metastasize, it will
    be even harder not to be flooded out tomorrow.
    Some people aren't worried about this because they don't think our new
    media have much to say. An epigram of the early computer culture was
    "Garbage in, garbage out." A decade ago, Bruce Springsteen had a hit, "57
    Channels And Nothing On." But anyone today who tries to listen and look
    around is bound to find that there's more "on" in American popular culture
    than most of us have thought. In the summer, when I'm freer to sample, my
    last week's collection included Daria, on cable television, an animated
    intellectual nonconformist teenage girl's so-called life-Salinger's Franny,
    into Orange County; Psychoanalysis (What Is It?) and Prince of Thieves,
    albums by the rapper and producer Prince Paul; the 'zine Processed World, a
    cyberpunk incarnation of Dissent. All this material shows impressive brains
    and sensitivity and critical awareness. If only there were ways for these
    people and people like them-including people like us-to connect and interact!
    How can the people and the ideas come together? How can they crystallize
    into something? In the cyberworld, ideas are channeled into "chat rooms," a
    multitude of demographically small, segmented spaces, and focused on
    limited but intense "niche" audiences. Most of their chats seem to be
    pretty dull, as most chats are; still it could be that some small rooms
    have nourished ideas and perspectives that might make big differences. If
    only we knew how to break open those rooms, we could build Greenwich
    Villages in cyberspace. In these new experimental neighborhoods, the
    critical culture of
    tomorrow could be born.
    Or maybe not. Maybe it all will happen on paper in "old" media, or in "old"
    Greenwich Villages, in old streets and restaurants and cafes and parks,
    through old-fashioned face-to-face encounters, among people who have lived
    through everything new that the eighties and nineties offered, and who feel
    a need for more: for insight beyond any Web site, for a promised land
    beyond the Net, where blue jays sing.

    Marshall Berman's latest book is Adventures in Marxism.

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