Nothing sharpens memory quite like regret, so I cannot help noting the anniversary of a tossed-off phrase that has come back to haunt me many times over the past 10 years.
In early 2004, I began writing an occasional series of two- or three-paragraph squibs on the latest publications and doings of the Slovenian thinker Slavoj Žižek for The Chronicle of Higher Education, where it ran under the title "Žižek Watch." In the subhead for one such mini-article, I referred to him as "the Elvis of cultural theory." The expression took wings and has been repeated on more occasions than any sane person could track. (As of this writing, it gets 79,000 returns from Google.)
The phrase will outlive me. Last year it appeared in an article in the journal Critical Inquiry, as well as in a Canadian dissertation on the concept of totalitarian evil in the work Hannah Arendt. Someone will eventually write a book using it as a title. Remembering the line always make me cringe, as if from mild food poisoning. For the most salient quality of "the Elvis of cultural theory" -- judged, by any standard, as a characterization of Žižek's work or career -- is its near perfect meaninglessness, verging on hopeless and absolute stupidity.
Unless you know the inside joke, anyway. By my count, roughly two people in the world are in on it. So to mark the anniversary, it is time finally to put the backstory on the record.
The idea for "Žižek Watch" came from my editor at the time, Richard Byrne, an estimable playwright and cultural journalist with family roots in the Balkans. These days Rich is at the helm of the University of Maryland Baltimore County's UMBC Magazine, of which he is the founding editor. We shared a fascination with Žižek's close but complex relationship with the Slovenian post-punk band Laibach and the avant garde movement around it. Given the pace of his output (two or three books a year, just in English) and the growing frequency with which he had begun appearing in odd corners of the mass media, it felt like a matter of time before he graced The National Enquirer, or at least Weekly World News.
So it was that through a chain of associations that "Žižek Watch" alluded -- very much in passing -- to the definitive song about the improbable ubiquity of a tabloid phenomenon: "Elvis is Everywhere" by Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper.
And the rest is, if not history, at least a decade-long lesson in the sliding of the signifier across the greased skids of digital-age publicity.
A footnote in one article from 2005 did trace "the Elvis of cultural theory" back to its first appearance, albeit without identifying the origins of the phrase as such. But by now, context is irrelevant. The expression has long since escaped meaning. And even though nobody seems to get it, does not the very circulation of my remark participate in what Žižek identifies as the "mystery" of jokes -- that they seemingly appear "all of a sudden out of nowhere," produced by "the anonymous symbolic order" through "the very unfathomable contingent generative power of language"?
So writes Elvis, or somebody, in the introduction to Žižek's Jokes (Did you hear the one about Hegel and negation?), published by MIT Press. It is an anthology of the theorist's shtick, not an analysis of it. The cover describes it as "contain[ing] every joke cited, paraphrased, or narrated in Žižek's work in English (including some in unpublished manuscripts), including different versions of the same joke that make different points in different contexts." The sources of the collected passages are given in the book's endnotes, followed with a brief yet oddly repetitive afterword by a novelist and songwriter from Scotland who lives in Japan and writes under the pen name Momus.
The claim to be exhaustive is difficult to credit, and so is the rationale offered for its existence: "The larger point being that comedy is central to Žižek's seriousness." Along with his frequent digressions into popular culture, Žižek's use of jokes has lent his books an appearance of accessibility that accounts for his fame with a broad audience. But that quality is misleading. Žižek practices a form of what Freud called "wild psychoanalysis," with contemporary culture as the analysand. The remarks, quoted earlier, about the free-floating and anonymous nature of jokes are just Žižek's paraphrase of a point made in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, where Freud interpreted the erotic and aggressive drives manifested through manipulation of the funny bone.
By spelling that out, I've just told you more about why "comedy is central to Žižek's seriousness" than Žižek's Jokes ever does. In the afterword, Momus speculates that "the joke has become for Zizek what algebra is for his old ally and rival Badiou: the most concise way Žižek knows how to sum up a universal situational shape." The idea might well be developed further, preferably by someone who knows that Badiou's interest is in formalized set theory rather than algebra. But as formulated it is more a gesture than an insight
A gesture serving mainly to distract attention from two striking things about the book. The first is that Žižek's Jokes makes unavoidably obvious something that it was still possible to overlook 10 years ago: the dynamic role of cut-and-paste in Žižekian production.
Žižek once said that his completed theoretical edifice, spanning several volumes, would amount to a Summa Lacanica rivaling Aquinas's Summa for both scope and cohesion. But along the way, he has met the growing demand for his work from the editors of books, magazines, and newspapers by tearing off suitably sized chunks of whatever manuscript he had in progress. Sometimes he tweaked things to make it appear like freestanding essay or topical news commentary. And sometimes he did not, though publication was almost certain either way. (I know of one case where the author of a book tried, without success, to have the introduction commissioned from Žižek removed since it had nothing to do with the volume in question.)
Over time, reading Žižek became an experience in déjà vu, with passages from one volume reappearing in others or, in one case, twice in the same book. Žižek's Jokes takes this to a new level. He wrote nothing new for it. Even his two-page introduction consists of one long paragraph from an earlier book. It is a remarkable accomplishment and I do not imagine he will be able to surpass it.
The other striking feature of Žižek's Jokes is how grim the experience of reading it quickly proves to be. In accord with Freudian principles, they revolve almost entirely around sex and/or aggression, often involving racist or misogynist sentiments. All of which is fine when they appear as specimens in a cultural critique -- where they might even elicit a laugh, given the incongruity of seeing them in a context where Hegel or Heidegger have set the terms for analysis. But running through them one after another, in the service of no argument, is deadening. It ceases to be shocking. It just seems lame. Maybe he should be known as "the Jay Leno of cultural theory?" (If, you know, Leno had Tourettes.)
Of course it's also possible that Žižek has a hidden agenda -- that he's sick of being considered hilarious by people who aren't really interested in Hegel, et al., and so has decided to destroy that reputation in the most efficient way possible. And I'm not even joking about that. It makes a certain amount of sense.
Two great models of eloquence in the English language are The Book of Common Prayer and the translation of the Bible usually called the King James Version. A memorable passage that appears in both volumes crossed my mind while thinking about a couple of recent works of social criticism. (It also happens that Princeton University Press recently brought out The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography by Alan Jacobs, a professor of humanities at Baylor University, which a couple of readers have highly recommended.)
The text in question appears a couple of times in the New Testament as part of what's usually called "the Lord's Prayer." The Book of Common Prayer, the older of the two volumes, renders one line of the prayer as "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." The KJV rendering says, "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."
To my ear, "trespasses" works better rhythmically, and it expresses the notion of "sin" or "offense" in a slightly more elegant manner. By contrast, "debt" or "debtor" expresses the same thought in a blunt and harsh way, and even conjures the old cartoon image of St. Peter recording good and evil deeds in a big ledger at the gates of heaven. Puzzled by the contrast, I consulted an extremely literal translation by J.N. Darby -- a Victorian Biblical scholar of uncompromising severity -- who suggests that "debt" is indeed what the original text says.
Around the time Darby was working on his translation, Friedrich Nietzsche fleshed out an argument about the interrelationship among guilt, debt, and memory. Bringing up an atheist philosopher pretty well guarantees someone is now offended. But The Genealogy of Morals spells out in bleak and somewhat lurid terms a point left implicit in the prayer: The debtor is at the mercy of the creditor, who has the right (or at least the power) to inflict suffering -- even bloody revenge -- when payment is not made.
Whatever else it may signify, the brutal connotations of "debt" make forgiveness sound much more demanding and consequential than "trespass" would imply. (Awkward recollection: Learning the prayer as a little kid, I pictured God being unhappy that people were ignoring a sign on His lawn.)
Homo economicus never spent all that much time on moral accounting. But at least the old bourgeois virtues included restraint and a residual belief that self-interest was justified insofar as it served a larger good. The issues that concern Andrew Ross in his new bookCreditocracy (discussed in last week's column) unfold in a world where debt itself is a kind of demigod, answerable to no higher power of any kind -- and certainly not to the state.
As the example of credit-default swaps on subprime mortgages in the go-go '00s made clear, the alchemists of finance are able to create profitable investment opportunities out of the risk (i.e., the degree of likelihood) of non-repayment -- making possible the creation of enormous fortunes from loans that cannot be repaid, at least not in full. That is but one link in a complex chain of debt-creation. Should the speculative bubble burst, the job of preventing economic meltdown falls to the government (which already has its own deficits, of course) at whatever risk to allocations for education, infrastructure, etc.
Add to it an average household debt that, Ross notes, grew from 43 percent of gross domestic product in 1980 to 97 percent in 2008 -- across three decades of stagnating wages. Throughout that period, 60 percent of income gains went to the country's wealthiest 1 percent -- a trend that changed dramatically when the economic crisis hit. Since then, 95 percent of income gains have gone to that debt-creating (if not job-creating) sliver.
David J. Blacker, a professor of philosophy of education and legal studies at the University of Delaware, characterizes the situation with a simple image in The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame (Zero Books):
"Imagine a casino in which you play with the house money and if you win you get to keep all the winnings to yourself, whereas if you lose, the house covers your bets. The literally astronomical public sums required to continue this arrangement for the minutest percentage of the population is the proximal cause of the squeeze on public resources. Schoolchildren, the poor, the sick, the disabled, the elderly etc., must all sacrifice so elites no longer have to undergo the risks that are officially supposed to be inherent in their role as fearless capitalist risk-takers. ..." But genuine competition and risk are reserved "for small businesses and other little people like private and public sector employees."
Ross responds to the debt-driven status quo by challenging a whole series of moral reflexes that have traditionally accompanied debt: the feelings of obligation and culpability, of shame and implied weakness, that the prayer rendered in the King James translation take as a given. When access to socially necessary goods (particularly higher education) is restricted or undermined by an economy making debt all but inescapable for countless people, someone ought to feel guilty when students default on their loans -- just not the students themselves. The next step is to call for large-scale fiscal disobedience: a social movement of millions of people pledging to default on their student loans. On the far side of that and other radical confrontations with the debt machine, Ross conceives the possibility of morally sound, humanely responsible systems of finance, based on communitarian social forms. Not utopia, perhaps, but a long way from here.
Massive default is a strategy I find it easier to admire, or at least to daydream about, than to recommend. It is not impossible that a million people might make such a pledge. Carrying out the action is another matter -- and if only a fraction see it through, the result is bound to be martyrdom of an uninspiring and ineffectual kind. In any case, I have no student debt to default on in solidarity, and calling for others to do so would be a case of telling them, "Let's you and him go fight."
Like Creditocracy, David Blacker's book was written in the wake of Occupy Wall Street. But where Ross occasionally sounds like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon -- with his vision of a mutualist society of small producers, exchanging goods and services with a new form of money that doesn't promote inequality -- Blacker thinks along much more classically Marxist lines. The predatory forms of financial speculation that led to the crisis five years ago will not be regulated out of existence, nor are they deviations or tumors growing on a fundamentally healthy economy. The casino will keep rewarding the high rollers when they win and shaking the rest of society down when they lose. Such investment in manufacture as continues to be made will need workers with skills and the capacity to adapt to technological developments -- but ever fewer of them.
Most of the population will be an object for social control, rather than Schooling proper. At some level most of us sense this already, making the whole notion of "education as investment in the future" an ever more problematic principle. Blacker has written probably the gloomiest book I have read in years, but in some ways it seems like a practical one. He is not a survivalist. He thinks pedagogy still has a role, provided it's geared to understanding the dire probabilities and finding ways to respond to them. It helps that Blacker is a sharp and forceful writer, giving his analysis something of the vividness and urgency of an Old Testament prophet delivering warnings that nobody really wants to hear.
About 600,000 books from the library of the University of Missouri at Columbia -- stored at an off-campus facilities -- have been damaged by mold, The Columbia Daily Tribune reported. The university plans to remove the mold from some of the books, but the high cost of that process (about $3 per book) probably means that all of the books can't be saved.
The golden age of unsolicited credit-card applications ended about five years ago. It must have been a relief at the post office. At least ten envelopes came each week -- often with non-functioning replica cards enclosed, to elicit the anticipatory thrill of fresh plastic in the recipient’s hot little hand.
For a while, I would open each envelope and carefully shred anything with my name on it, lest an identity thief go on a shopping spree in my name. But at some point I gave up, because there were just too many of them. Besides, any identity thief worth worrying about enjoyed better options than trash-diving for unopened mail.
Something started happening circa 2006 or ’07. More and more often, the very envelopes carried wording to the effect that approval for a new card was a formality, so act now! With the benefit of hindsight, this reads as a last surge of economic acceleration before the crash just ahead. But at the time, I figured that credit-card companies were growing desperate to grab our attention, since many of us were throwing the offers away without a second glance.
The two alternatives -- turbocharged consumerism on the one hand, the depleted willingness (or capacity) of consumers to take on more debt, on the other -- are not mutually exclusive. It was subprime mortgages rather than overextended credit cards that brought the go-go ’00s to an early end, but each was a manifestation of the system Andrew Ross writes about in Creditocracy and the Case for Debt Refusal (OR Books).
Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, was active in Occupy Wall Street, and Creditocracy bears a few traces of the movement, both in its plainspoken and inclusive expressions of anger (this I like) and its redeployment of old anarco-syndicalist ideas (that, not so much).
One commonplace account of the near-collapse of the world financial system in 2008 is that it was the product of consumer hedonism at its most irresponsible. It was just deserts for people playing Xbox on jumbo flat-screen TVs in subprime-mortgaged houses they shouldn't be in. Whatever the limits of its explanatory power, this interpretation allows for a pleasing discharge of moralistic aggression. Hence its popularity. The most familiar argument opposing it places the blame, rather, on bankers, brokers, and other criminals “too big to jail.” It was they who were greedy and short-sighted, not average people.
Besides the more obvious similarities, what these explanations share is an implication that the disaster could have been avoided with some self-discipline and the understanding that hyperbolic discounting is a very bad habit.
Ross leans in the anti-plutocratic direction, but he proves ultimately less interested in the morality of anyone’s decisions than he is in the framework that permits, or demands, those decisions in the first place. The system he calls “creditocracy” turns out debt as fast and efficiently as Detroit once did automobiles, and just as profitably:
“Financiers seek to wrap debt around every possible asset and income stream,” he writes, “ensuring a flow of interest from each…. [T]he tipping point for a creditocracy occurs when ‘economic rents’ – from debt-leveraging, capital gains, manipulation of paper claims through derivatives and other forms of financial engineering – are no longer merely supplementary sources of income, but have become the most reliable and effective instrument for the amassing of wealth and influence.”
At that level of description, Ross has simply given a new name to what Rudolf Hilferding, writing a hundred years ago, called “finance capital.” But what Hilferding had in mind was the merger of banking and industrial capitalism – the marriage of big money and big factories, with monopoly presiding. Creditocracy, by contrast, “goes small,” insinuating itself into every nook and cranny of life. The relationship between creditor and debtor takes many different shapes, some more overt than others.
When you take out a student loan or a mortgage, your submission to the financial system is more or less deliberate, and in any event explicit. It runs deeper, and proves less purely voluntary, if you have to use credit cards in lieu of unemployment insurance. The credit relationship is much more efficiently disguised if it takes the form of an unpaid internship – the “exchange” of your time and skills for intangible and impossible-to-quantify credit” toward a future job, if you’re lucky.
And if that doesn’t pan out, you might end up working in one of the less desirable positions at Walmart or Taco Bell, among other corporations that banks have persuaded, Ross writes, “to pay their employees with prepaid debit cards that are only lightly regulated.” The banks then “charge the users fees to make ATM withdrawls and retail purchases, along with inactivity fees for using their cards. Almost all of these are minimum or subminimum wage employees, compelled to fork over a fee to enjoy their paycheck." (The practice was described in a New York Timesarticle a few months ago.)
In next week’s column, I’ll consider Ross’s analysis of how the impact of creditocracy on education amounts to a ruthless exploitation, not just of present-day society, but of the future. We’ll also take a look at the comparable argument in a new book called The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame (Zero Books) by David J. Blacker, a professor of philosophy of education and legal studies at the University of Delaware.
Until then, I’ll sign off by mentioning that someone has just sent me an application for a $40,000 line of credit. This must be evidence of that “recovery” one reads about. If so, we’re in real trouble.
Ties between libraries and their institutions' university presses are growing, according to a survey released Tuesday by the Association of American University Presses. A report issued with the survey results praises this collaboration, but urges both parties to work to avoid duplication of services and to coordinate their activities.
The nine muses are a motley bunch. We’ve boiled them down into a generic symbol for inspiration: a toga-clad young woman, possibly plucking a string instrument. But in mythology they oversaw an odd combination of arts and sciences. They were sisters, which allegorically implies a kinship among their fields of expertise. If so, the connections are hard to see.
Six of them divvied up the classical literary, dramatic, and musical genres – working multimedia in the cases of Erato (inventor of the lyre and of love poetry) and Euterpe (who played the flute and inspired elegaic songs and poems). The other three muses handled choreography, astronomy, and history. That leaves and awful lot of creative and intellectual endeavor completely unsupervised. Then again it’s possible that Calliope has become a sort of roaming interdisciplinary adjunct muse, since there are so few epic poets around for her to inspire these days.
An updated pantheon is certainly implied by Peter Charles Hoffer’s Clio Among the Muses: Essays on History and the Humanities (New York University Press). Clio, the demi-goddess in charge of history, is traditionally depicted with a scroll or a book. But as portrayed by Hoffer -- a professor of history at the University of Georgia – she is in regular communication with her peers in philosophy, law, the social sciences, and policy studies. I picture her juggling tablet, laptop and cellphone, in the contemporary manner.
Ten years ago Hoffer published Past Imperfect, a volume assessing professional misconduct by American historians. The book was all too timely, appearing as it did in the wake of some highly publicized cases of plagiarism and fraud. But Hoffer went beyond expose and denunciation. He discussed the biases and sometimes shady practices of several well-respected American historians over the previous 200 years. By putting the recent cases of malfeasance into a broader context, Hoffer was not excusing them; on the contrary, he was clearly frustrated with colleagues who minimized the importance of dealing with the case of someone like Michael Bellesiles, a historian who fabricated evidence. But he also recognized that history itself, as a discipline, had a history. Even work that seemed perfectly sound might be shot through with problems only visible with the passing of time.
While by no means a sequel, Clio Among the Muses continues the earlier book’s effort to explain that revisionism is not a challenge to historical knowledge, but rather intrinsic to the whole effort to establish that knowledge in the first place. “If historians are fallible,” Hoffer writes, “there is no dogma in history itself, no hidden agenda, no sacred forms – not any that really matter – that are proof against revision… Worthwhile historical scholarship is based on a gentle gradualism, a piling up of factual knowledge, a sifting and reframing of analytical models, an ongoing collective enterprise that unites generation after generation of scholars to their readers and listeners.”
Hoffer’s strategy is to improve the public’s appreciation of history by introducing it to the elements of historiography. (That being the all-too-technical term for the history of what historians do, in all its methodological knottiness.) One way to do so would be through a comprehensive narrative, such as Harry Elmer Barnes offered in A History of Historical Writing (1937), a work of terrific erudition and no little tedium. Fortunately Hoffer took a different route.
Clio Among the Muses instead sketches the back-and-forth exchanges between history and other institutions and fields of study: religion, philosophy, law, literature, and public policy, among others. Historians explore the topics, and use the tools, created in these other domains. At the same time, historical research can exert pressure on, say, how a religious scripture is interpreted or a law is applied.
Clio’s dealings with her sisters are not always happy. One clear example is a passage Hoffer quotes from Charles Beard, addressing his colleagues at a meeting of the American Historical Association in 1933: “The philosopher, possessing little or no acquaintance with history, sometimes pretends to expound the inner secret of history, but the historian turns upon him and expounds the secret of the philosopher, as far as it may be expounded at all, by placing him in relation to the movement of ideas and interests in which he stands or floats, by giving to his scheme of thought its appropriate relativity.”
Sibling rivalry? The relationships are complicated, anyway, and Hoffer has his hands full trying to portray them. The essays are learned but fairly genial, and somehow not bogged down by the fundamental impossibility of what the author is trying to do. He covers the relationship between history and the social sciences – all of them -- in just under two dozen pages. Like Evel Knievel jumping a canyon, you have to respect the fact that, knowing the odds, he just went ahead with it.
But then, one of Hoffer’s remarks suggests that keeping one’s nerve is what his profession ultimately requires:
“Historical writing is not an exercise in logical argument so much as an exercise in creative imagination. Historians try to do the impossible: retrieve an ever-receding and thus never reachable past. Given that the task is impossible, one cannot be surprised that historians must occasionally use fallacy – hasty generalization, weak analogy, counterfactual hypotheticals, incomplete comparisons, and even jumping around in past time and space to glimpse the otherwise invisible yesteryear.”
And if they did not do so, we’d see very little of it at all.
Originally published by Encyclopedia Britannica in 1952, Great Books of the Western World offered a selection of core texts representing the highest achievements of European and North American culture. That was the ambition. But today the set is perhaps best remembered as a peculiar episode in the history of furniture.
Many an American living room displayed its 54 volumes -- “monuments of unageing intellect,” to borrow a phrase from Yeats. (The poet himself, alas, did not make the grade as Great.) When it first appeared, the set cost $249.50, the equivalent of about $2,200 today. It was a shrewd investment in cultural capital, or at it least it could be, since the dividends came only from reading the books. Mortimer Adler – the philosopher and cultural impresario who envisioned the series in the early 1940s and led it through publication and beyond, into a host of spinoff projects – saw the Great Books authors as engaged in a Great Conversation across the centuries, enriching the meaning of each work and making it “endlessly rereadable.”
Adler's vision must have sounded enticing when explained by the Britannica salesman during a house call. Also enticing: the package deal, with Bible and specially designed bookcase, all for $10 down and $10 per month. But with some texts the accent was on endless more than rereadable (the fruits of ancient biological and medical research, for example, are dry and stony) and it is a good bet that many Great Books remained all but untouched by human hands.
Well, that’s one way to tell the Great Books story: High culture meets commodity fetishism amidst Cold War anxiety over the state of American education. But Tim Lacy gives a far more generous and considerably more complex analysis of the phenomenon in The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea, just published by Palgrave Macmillan. The book provides many unflattering details about how Adler’s pedagogical ambitions were packaged and marketed, including practices shady enough to have drawn Federal Trade Commission censure in the 1970s. (These included bogus contests, luring people into "advertising research analysis surveys" that turned into sales presentations, and misleading "bundling" of additional Great Books-related products without making clear the additional expense.) At the same time, it makes clear that Adler had more in mind than providing a codified and “branded” set of masterpieces that the reader should passively absorb (or trudge through, as the case may be).
The Dream of a Democratic Culture started life as a dissertation at Loyola University in Chicago, where Lacy is currently an academic adviser at the university’s Stritch School of Medicine. In its final pages, he describes the life-changing impact on him, some 20 years ago, of studying Adler’s How to Read a Book (1940), a longtime bestseller. He owns and is reading his way through the Great Books set, and his study reflects close attention to Adler’s own writings and the various supplementary Great Books projects. But in analyzing the life and work of “the Great Bookie,” as one of Adler’s friends dubbed him, Lacy is never merely celebratory. In the final dozen years or so before his death in 2001, Adler became one of the more splenetic culture warriors – saying, for example, that the reason no black authors appeared in the expanded 1990 edition of the Great Books was because they “didn’t write any good books.”
Other such late pronouncements have been all too memorable -- but Lacy, without excusing them, makes a case that they ought not to be treated as Adler’s definitive statements. On the contrary, they seem to betray principles expressed earlier in his career. Lacy stops short of diagnosing the aging philosopher’s bigoted remarks as evidence of declining mental powers, though it is surely a tempting explanation. Then again, working at a medical school would probably leave a non-doctor chary about that sort of thing.
I found The Dream of a Democratic Culture absorbing and was glad to be able to interview the author about it by email; the transcript follows. Between questions, I looked around a used-books website to check out the market in secondhand copies of Great Books of the Western World is like. One listing for the original 1952 edition is especially appealing, and not just because of its price (under $250, in today’s currency). “The whole set is in very good condition,” the bookseller writes, “i.e., not read at all.”
Q: How did your personal encounter with the Great Books turn into a scholarly project?
A: I started my graduate studies in history, at Loyola University Chicago, during the 1997-98 academic year. My initial plan was to work on U.S. cultural history, with a plan to zoom in on either urban environmental history or intellectual history in an urban context. I was going to earn an M.A. and then see about my possibilities for a Ph.D. program.
By the end of 1998 the only thing that had become clear to me was that I was confused. I had accumulated some debt and a little bit of coursework, but I needed a break rethink my options. I took a leave of absence for the 1999 calendar year. During that period I decided three things: (1) I wanted to stay at Loyola for my Ph.D. work; (2) Environmental history was not going to work for me there; (3) Cultural and intellectual history would work for me, but I would need to choose my M.A. thesis carefully to make it work for doctoral studies.
Alongside this intense re-education in the discipline of history I had maintained, all through the 1997 to 1999 period, my reading of the Britannica's Great Books set. I had also accumulated more books on Adler, including his two autobiographies, during stress-relief forays into Chicago's most excellent used bookstore scene. Given Adler's Chicago connections, one almost always saw his two or three of his works in the philosophy sections of these stores.
During a cold December day in 1999, while sitting in a Rogers Park coffee shop near Loyola, this all came together in a sudden caffeine-laced epiphany: Why not propose the Great Books themselves as the big project for my graduate study? I sat on the idea for a few days, both thinking about all the directions I could take for research and pounding myself on the head for not having thought of the project sooner. I knew at this point that Adler hadn't been studied much, and I had a sense that this could be a career's worth of work.
The project was going to bring together professional and personal interests in a way that I had not imagined possible when thinking about graduate school.
Q: Did you meet any resistance to working on Adler and the Great Books? They aren’t exactly held in the highest academic esteem.
A: The first resistance came late in graduate school, and after, when I began sending papers, based on my work, out to journals for potential publication. There I ran into some surprising resistance, in two ways. First, I noticed a strong reluctance toward acknowledging Adler's contributions to American intellectual life. As is evident in my work and in the writings of others (notably Joan Shelley Rubin and Lawrence Levine, but more recently in Alex Beam), Adler had made a number of enemies in the academy, especially in philosophy. But I had expected some resistance there. I know Adler was brusque, and had written negatively about the increasing specialization of the academy (especially in philosophy but also in the social sciences) over the course of the 20th century.
The second line of resistance, which was somewhat more surprising, came because I took a revisionist, positive outlook on the real and potential contributions of the great books idea. Of course this resistance linked back to Adler, who late in his life — in concert with conservative culture warriors --- declared that the canon was set and not revisable. Some of the biggest promoters of the great books idea had, ironically, made it unpalatable to a great number of intellectuals. I hadn't anticipated the fact that Adler and the Great Books were so tightly intertwined, synonymous even, in the minds of many academics.
Q: Selecting a core set of texts was only part of Adler's pedagogical program. Your account shows that it encompassed a range of forms of instruction, in various venues (on television and in newspapers as well as in classrooms and people’s homes). The teaching was, or is, pitched at people of diverse age groups, social backgrounds, and so on -- with an understanding that there are numerous ways of engaging with the material. Would you say something about that?
A: The great books idea in education --- whether higher, secondary, or even primary --- was seen by its promoters as intellectually romantic, adventurous even. It involved adults and younger students tackling primary texts instead of textbooks. As conceived by Adler and Hutchins, the great books idea focused people on lively discussion rather than boring Ben Stein-style droning lectures, or PowerPoints, or uninspiring, lowest-common-denominator student-led group work.
One can of course pick up bits of E.D. Hirsch-style "cultural literacy" (e.g., important places, names, dates, references, and trivia) through reading great books, or even acquire deeper notes of cultural capital as described in John Guillory's excellent but complex work, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (1993). But the deepest goal of Adler's model of close reading was to lead everyday people into the high stakes world of ideas. This was no mere transaction in a "marketplace of ideas," but a full-fledged dialogue wherein one brought all her or his intellectual tools to the workbench.
Adler, Hutchins, John Erskine, Jacques Barzun, and Clifton Fadiman prided themselves being good discussion leaders, but most promoters also believed that this kind of leadership could be passed to others. Indeed, the Great Books Foundation trained (and still trains) people to lead seminars in a way that would've pleased Erskine and Adler. Education credentials matter to institutions, but the Foundation was willing train people off the street to lead great books reading groups.
This points to the fact that the excellent books by famous authors promoted by the great books movement, and the romance inherent in the world of ideas, mattered more than the personality or skill of any one discussion moderator. All could access an engagement with excellence, and that excellence could manifest in texts from a diverse array of authors.
Q: It seems like the tragedy of Adler is that he had this generous, capacious notion that could be called the Great Books as a sort of shorthand – but what he's remembered for is just the most tangible and commodified element of it. A victim of his own commercial success?
A: Your take on the tragedy of Adler is pretty much mine. Given his lifelong association with the great books project, his late-life failings almost guaranteed that the larger great books idea would be lost in the mess of both his temporary racism and promotion of Britannica's cultural commodity. The idea came to be seen as a mere byproduct of his promotional ability. The more admirable, important, and flexible project of close readings, critical thinking, and good citizenship devolved into a sad Culture Wars spectacle of sniping about race, class, and gender. This is why I tried, in my "Coda and Conclusion" to end on a more upbeat note by discussing the excellent work of Earl Shorris and my own positive adventures with great books and Adler's work.
Q: Was it obvious to you from the start that writing about Adler would entail a sort of prehistory of the culture wars, or did that realization come later?
A: At first I thought I would be exploring Adler's early work on the great books during my graduate studies. I saw myself intensely studying the 1920s-1950s period. Indeed, that's all I covered for my master's project which was completed in 2002.
However, I began to see the Culture Wars more clearly as I began to think in more detail about the dissertation. It was right around this time that I wrote a short, exploratory paper on Adler's 1980s-era Paideia Project. When I mapped Paideia in relation to "A Nation at Risk" and William Bennett, I began to see that my project would have to cover Bloom, the Stanford Affair, and the 1990 release of the second edition of Britannica's set. Around the same time I also wrote a paper on Adler's late 1960s books. When I noticed the correlation between his reactions to "The Sixties" and those of conservative culture warriors, it was plain to me that I would have to explore Adler as the culture warrior.
So even though I never set out to write about the Culture Wars, I got excited when I realized how little had been done on the topic, and that the historiography was thin. My focus would limit my exploration (unlike Andrew Hartman's forthcoming study), but I was pleased to know that I might be hanging around with a vanguard of scholars doing recent history on the Culture Wars.
Q: While Adler’s response to the upheaval of the 1960s was not enthusiastic, he was also quite contemptuous of Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. How aware of Bloom's book and its aftermath were you when you bought and started reading the Great Books?
A: Honestly, I had little knowledge of Allan Bloom nor his ubiquitous The Closing of the American Mind until the mid-1990s. This requires a little background explanation. I started college in 1989 and finished in 1994. As a small-town Midwestern teenager and late-1980s high schooler, I was something of a rube when I started college. I was only vaguely aware, in 1989, that there was even a culture war ongoing out there (except in relation to HIV and AIDS).
I'm ashamed to admit, now, how unaware I was of the cultural scene generally. Moreover, I was insulated from some of it, and its intensity, during my early college years when it was at its height because I began college as an engineering student. Not only was my area of study far outside the humanities, the intensity of coursework in engineering sheltered me from all news beyond sports (my news reading outlet at the time). Even when I began to see that engineering wasn't for me, around 1992, my (then) vocational view of college caused me to move to chemistry rather than a humanities subject.
My own rudimentary philosophy of education kept me from thinking more about the Culture Wars until my last few years as a college student. It was then that I first heard about Bloom and his book. Even so, I only read passages in it, through the work of others, until I bought a copy of the book around 2000. I didn't read The Closing of the American Mind, word-for-word, until around 2003-04 while dissertating.
Q: There was no love lost between Adler and Bloom – you make that clear!
A: In my book you can see that Adler really wanted it known that he believed Leo Strauss and all his disciples, especially Bloom, were elitists. Adler believed that the knowledge (philosophy, history, theology, psychology, etc.) contained in great books were accessible to all. While scholarship and the knowledge of elites could add to what one gained from reading great books, there was a great deal in those works that was accessible to the common man and hence available to make better citizens.
So while Adler was sort of a comic-book character, you might say he was a clown for democratic citizenship -- a deceptively smart clown champion for democratizing knowledge and for raising the bar on intelligent discourse. This analogy is faulty, however, because of the intensity and seriousness with which he approached his intellectual endeavors. He loved debate with those who were sincerely engaged in his favorite topics (political philosophy, education, common sense philosophy, etc.).
I see only advantages in the fact that I was not personally or consistently engaged in the culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It has given me an objective distance, emotionally and intellectually, that I never believed possible for someone working on a topic that had occurred in her/his lifetime. Even though I started graduate school as something of a cultural and religious conservative (this is another story), I never felt invested in making my developing story into something that affirmed my beliefs about religious, culture, and America in general.
A belief that tradition and history had something to offer people today led me to the great books, but that did not confine me into a specific belief about what great books could, or should, offer people today. I was into great books for the intellectual challenge and personal development as a thinker, not for what great books could tell me about today's political, social, cultural, and intellectual scene.
Q: You defend Adler and the Great Books without being defensive, and I take it that you hope your book might help undo some of the damage to the reputation of each -- damage done by Adler himself, arguably, as much as by those who denounced him. But is that really possible, at this late a date? Won’t it take a generation or two? Or is there something about Adler's work that can be revived sooner, or even now?
A: Thank you very much for the compliment in your distinction about defending and being defensive. I did indeed seek to revise the way in which Adler is covered in the historiography. Because most other accounts about him have been, in the main, mocking and condescending, any revisionary project like mine would necessarily have to be more positive -- to inhabit his projects and work, which could result in something that might appear defensive. I think my mentor, Lewis Erenberg, and others will confirm that I did not always strike the right tone in my early work. It was a phase I had to work through to arrive at a mature, professional take on the whole of Adler's life and the Great Books Movement.
As for salvaging Adler's work as a whole, I don't know if that's possible. Some of it is dated and highly contextual. But there is much worth reviewing and studying in his corpus. My historical biography, focused on the great books in the United States, makes some headway in that area.
Some of Adler's other thinking about great books on the international scene will make it into a manuscript, on which I'm currently working, about the transnational history of the great books idea. If all goes well (fingers crossed), that piece will be paired with another by a philosopher and published as "The Great Books Controversy" in a series edited by Jonathan Zimmerman and Randall Curren.
I think a larger book on Adler's work in philosophy is needed, especially his work in his own Institute for Philosophical Research. I don't know if my current professional situation will give me the time and resources to accomplish much more on Adler. And even if my work situation evolves, I do have interests in other historical areas (anti-intellectualism, Chicago's intellectual history, a Jacques Maritain-in-America project). Finally, I also need keep up my hobby of reading more great books!
This year is the 50th anniversary of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter, whose greatest achievement, someone once said, was keeping it to just the one volume.
As discussed here a short while ago, the revisionist interpretation of American populism appearing in Hofstadter’s book The Age of Reform (1955) has taken a lot of positivistic hits by subsequent historians. He over-generalized on the basis of a (very) narrowly selected pool of primary sources -- and in the final analysis, he wasn’t really writing about the 1890s at all, but rather his own times, equating the mood and worldview of McCarthyism with the agrarian radicals of the People’s Party. Hofstadter was more conscious of the pressure of contemporary affairs in Anti-Intellectualism, which he wrote was “conceived in response to the political and intellectual conditions of the 1950s.”
It was “by no means a formal history,” Hofstadter wrote, “but largely a personal book, whose factual details are organized and dominated by my views.” I take that to be a concession, of sorts, to historians who were finding The Age of Reform problematic. His strength was the essay more than the monograph. A passage such as the following is remarkable for – among other things -- how its urbane diction just barely subdues the remembered experience of dread:
“Of course, intellectuals were not the only targets of McCarthy’s constant detonations -- he was after bigger game -- but intellectuals were in the line of fire, and it seemed to give special rejoicing to his followers when they were hit. His sorties against intellectuals and universities were emulated throughout the country by a host of less exalted inquisitors.”
It is also remarkable for needing only the slightest change of wording to sound uncomfortably applicable to more recent events. The problem lies not with this or that demagogue but with something deeper. Hofstadter spent 400 pages sounding it out. But the American science and science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov condensed it into one sentence of a column for Newsweek in 1980: “The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’ ”
Neither as broad in historical scope as Anti-Intellectualism in American Life nor as trenchant as Asimov’s zinger, Aaron Lecklider’s Inventing the Egghead: The Battle Over Brainpower in American Culture (University of Pennsylvania Press) is explicitly framed as a response to another decade – the ‘00s. While challenging Hofstadter’s ideas, Lecklider, an assistant professor of American studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, follows his lead in responding to a past that, while recent, somehow already seems distinctly periodized.
It was the worst of time, full stop. Figures in the Bush administration were openly contemptuous of “experts,” with all their “knowledge” about “reality.” The Bush-bashers called the president stupid, and his supporters called the Bush-bashers stupid, and there was a TV game show called “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” which hinted that the whole country was stupid, and that’s O.K. (It did well in the ratings.) The culture war was fought with the bluntest of weapons -- not between the intelligentsia and the ignorati, but between anti-intellectuals and anti-anti-intellectuals. The latter expression, while clumsy at best, acknowledges something important: anti-anti-intellectual ≠ intellectual. Laughing at a satirical interview with a creationist on “The Daily Show” entails no substantial engagement with the life of the mind.
Much of the edifying conflict was fought out in popular culture and the mass media – terrain that, Lecklider argues, historians and social critics of Hofstadter’s era either neglected, at best, or regarded as stupefying and regressive. Hence their interpretations of American cultural history tended to be narratives of decline.
In reply, Inventing the Egghead presents a series of case studies from the first six decades of the 20th century in which conflicts over the power and the possession of intellectual capital were fought out in a wide range of popular venues: cartoons, movies, jokes, Tin Pan Alley songs, newsmagazines, posters, popular science journals, handbooks on efficient housekeeping, etc.
The chapters proceed chronologically, from the rechristening of a Coney Island park in 1909 as an institute of science (to skirt blue laws) to Einstein as cult figure, to aspects of the Harlem Renaissance and the New Deal “brain trust,” and on up to the stress-inducing utopia of Oak Ridge and the coining of “egghead” as pejorative. The effect is one of cultural history as collage. Running through all these topics and cultural forms is an uneasy and constantly shifting set of attitudes towards what Lecklider calls “brainpower.”
In the author’s usage “brainpower” means the power to acquire or to stake a claim to knowledge and expertise, whether respected and professionally credentialed or not. Conflicts over who possesses brainpower (and who doesn’t) are continuous. So are disputes over its value and limitations. And that flux comes, in part, from the frequently changing needs of an economy that requires technological advances as well as a steady supply of human brains, serviceable as a factor of production.
In short, there were grounds for ambivalence about brainpower -- for reasons more various and complex than some notion of an unchanging American cultural disposition toward anti-intellectualism. “Competing representations of intelligence” in popular culture, Lecklider writes, “could alternately smash the pretensions of an intellectual elite, position ordinary men and women as smarter than experts, appeal to intellectual culture to validate working-class positions, and dismantle intellectual hierarchies. These representations were often uncomfortable and contradictory, sometimes even self-defeating, particularly when the value of intelligence was diminished in order to level the intellectual playing field.”
But other strains of popular culture – a number of distinctively WPA-era posters promoting libraries, for example -- served to recognize and foster peoples’ self-respect regarding their own mental capacities.
Earlier I suggested that “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” implied the viewer probably wasn’t. On reflection, that may have been too dour a view. Perhaps the title gives the viewer something to which to aspire. Be that as it may, in the representations of brainpower that Lecklider inspects, the expressions of ambivalence tend more often to have more hostility or disparagement in the mix than respect for self or others. While written, and blurbed, as an alternative to Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, the book ends up seeming like the extensive elaboration and updating of a point Hofstadter made there in passing: "As the demand for the rights of the common man took form in 19th-century America, it included a program for free elementary education, but it also carried with it a dark and sullen suspicion of high culture, as a creation of the enemy."
Some people will bristle at the expression "high culture." They always do. (I'm not overly fond of it.) But that response misses the point, which, again, was put quite plainly by Isaac Asimov a while back. "I believe that every human being with a physically normal brain can learn a great deal and can be surprisingly intellectual," he wrote. "I believe that what we badly need is social approval of learning and social rewards for learning." That is as cheerful a face as can be put on our situation.
The Chinese word for “crisis,” as generations of commencement speakers have reminded us, is written using the same character as “opportunity.” Whatever inspirational quality this chestnut may possess does not grow with repetition – and it is a curmudgeonly pleasure to learn that it’s wrong, or at best only fractionally true.
In fact both “crisis” and “opportunity” are written with two characters. The one they share can mean “quick-witted” or “device,” depending on context, and can be combined with another glyph to write “airplane.” (An airplane is uplifting, albeit not motivationally.) And Victor H. Mair, the professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania who debunked this hardy linguistic urban legend, points out that apart from the Sinological blunder, it’s terrible advice: “Any would-be guru who advocates opportunism in the face of crisis should be run out of town on a rail, for his/her advice will only compound the danger of the crisis.”
But you don’t uproot a cultural weed all that easily -- especially not when crisis-mindedness has become totally normal. That’s a paradox but it’s also indisputable. A quick search of Google News finds 89.5 million articles with the word “crisis” in them as of this writing. Rhetorical inflation has a lot to do with it, of course. But it’s also the long-term effect of a state of mind that Susan Sontag characterized so well in an essay from 1988: “A permanent modern scenario: apocalypse looms … and it doesn’t occur. And it still looms. […] Modern life accustoms us to live with the intermittent awareness of monstrous, unthinkable – but, we are told, quite probable – disasters.”
The instances she had in mind were the threat of nuclear war and the AIDS epidemic. In 25 years, neither has disappeared, though other catastrophes (actual and potential) have moved to the fore. The crises change, but not the structure of feeling.
Anti-Crisis by Janet Roitman, published by Duke University Press, digs deeper than Sontag’s comments on apocalypse fatigue. Roitman, an associate professor of anthropology at the New School, approaches the ongoing discussion of subprime mortgage "crisis" (as it’s hard not to think of it) with questions about the assumptions and implicit limitations of a word so ubiquitous that it is normally taken for granted.
She does so by way of the late Reinhart Koselleck’s approach to intellectual history, known by a term even some of his English-language commentators have preferred to leave untranslated: Begriffsgeschichte. No way am I going to try to type that again, so let’s just refer to it as “conceptual history.” But arguably use of the full Teutonic monty is justified in order to distinguish Koselleck’s work from what, in the Anglo-American tradition, is called the history of ideas.
As Koselleck writes in an entry for a major conceptual-history handbook on social and political ideas, the term “crisis” played an important role in the work of the Young Hegelians, who took their master’s thinking about the philosophy of history as a starting point for the critique of existing institutions. Given that a key term in Hegel’s system is Begriff (the Concept) and that one of the Young Hegelians was Karl Marx, who maintained that recurrent crisis was an inescapable part of the history of capitalism itself – well, given all that, it’s possible to see how the word Begriffsgeschichte might carry layers of implication soon lost in translation.
The argument of Anti-Crisis is nothing if not oblique, and self-reflexive to boot, and paraphrasing it seems a fool’s errand. It is a good idea to grapple with Koselleck’s essay on crisis before reading Roitman’s book (so I learned the hard way) and no hard feelings on my part if you did so before finishing this column.
So now to run that errand. For Roitman, "crisis" is not simply a clichéd label for -- among other things -- recent economic developments, but a fraught and dubious concept. The word itself has roots in an ancient Greek medical term referring to the phase of an illness which will either kill the patient or end in recovery. It came into frequent use to describe social, political, and cultural phenomena beginning late in the 18th century -- one element in a very complex series of shifts of meaning between religious concepts of social and cosmic order and a (seemingly?) secular pattern of life.
The French Revolution, with the spectacle of comprehensive upheaval, doubtless made the word especially vivid. But Koselleck also cites Thomas Paine’s The Crisis, from 1776. “To Paine, the War of Independence was no mere political or military event,” he writes; “rather it was the completion of a universal world historical process, the final Day of Judgment that would entail the end of all tyranny and the ultimate victory over hell... .”
In sum, then, “crisis” came to possess small range of theological, political, and other connotations. Calling something a crisis implies its urgency or consequentiality. But it also posits that elements of the crisis are intelligible. They are the effects of departures from a norm, or aspects in the unfolding of some grand narrative. The crisis has causes, which we can discover. It has effects, which we begin to interpret even while enduring them.
“Crisis is a blind spot that enables the production of knowledge,” writes Roitman. “… More precisely, it is a distinction that secures ‘a world’ for observation.” The process rests upon “a distinction that generates and refers to an ‘inviolate level’ of order (not crisis)” that “is seen to be contingent (historical crises) and yet is likewise posited as beyond the play of contingency, being a logical necessity that is affirmed in paradox (the formal possibility of crisis).”
Now, assuming I understand her argument correctly, Roitman regards calling the great vertigo of financial free-fall a few years ago as something we can label a crisis -- at the risk of assuming we understand what it was, how it happened, and why.
That, in turn, posits that our ideas and information are adequate to the tasks: that government regulation distorts the healthy functioning of the marketplace (if you’re a neoclassicist) or that insufficient government regulation tips the market advantage to the unscrupulous (if you’re Keynes-minded) or that crisis is built into capitalism because of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (as Marx believed, or didn’t believe, depending on which Marxist you ask).
The problem in any case being that the causal explanations now available rest on understandings of the economy that don’t take into account how crises (or, rather, judgments about the risk of crisis) are not only a factor in how decisions are made in financial markets but operate in instruments involved in the functioning of those markets.
Derivatives and credit default swaps are the examples that everyone has now of, at least. More have been invented, and still more will be. Risk management is a thriving field. So can we judge something to be in a crisis when expectations of crisis (and of profit from crisis) are operational – and bound to become more so? That isn’t a rhetorical question. I have no idea one way or the other, and if Anti-Crisis answers it, I did not mark the page.
“We persevere,” the author says, “in the hope that we can perceive the moments when history is alienated in terms of its philosophy – that is, that we can perceive a dissonance between historical events and representations…. We are left in a chasm: perplexed and immobilized by the supposed radical dissonance between the value of houses and the value of derivatives of houses.”
Perplexed? Yes. Immobilized? Not necessarily. (Epistemologically induced paralysis is only one of the possible responses to a foreclosured mortgage.) I respect Anti-Crisis for making me think hard, even if it occasionally felt like thinking in circles. Meanwhile, it turns out that that Simon & Schuster will be publishing something now listed simply as Untitled Financial Crisis Book, appearing under the company’s Books for Young Readers imprint in early 2015. Whatever baggage its conceptual history has laden it with, the notion of crisis seems to be making itself very much at home.