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Homosexuality in Cold War America reveals that the ideological critique of the dominant culture made by gay male authors of the 1950s laid the foundation for the gay liberation movement of the following decade. It will be of interest to a wide range of readers, including students and scholars in the fields of American literature, film, and gay studies.
“Homosexuality in Cold War America is an important contribution to our understanding of postwar U. S. culture and a welcome step toward historicizing questions of male subjectivity.”—Jay Clayton, Vanderbilt University
Masculinizing the American Dream: Discourses of Resistance in the Cold War Era
The modern populace decides not by votes but by the tickets it buys and the money it pays.—C. L. R. James, American Civilization
The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. —Charley in Death of a Salesman
In 1950, the Marxist critic C. L. R. James distributed to a small group of trusted colleagues in the Trotskyist movement a lengthy description of a proposed study of American culture that he hoped the average American would be able to "read on a Sunday or on two evenings." James eventually broke with the Trotskyist movement in part because of its vanguardist politics, which he thought underestimated the American people's capacity for self-mobilization. But he detected in the popularity of gangster films and other forms of mass culture that glamorized crime and violence the potential for a progressive social movement, and he sought to intervene by making available to the American people a Marxist critique of existing social and economic arrangements written in accessible language. In the proposal, eventually published posthumously as American Civilization (1993), James claimed that "within the last dozen years, the always volatile, restless, aggressive American individual, has now reached a pitch of exasperation, suppressed aggressiveness, anger and fear which irresistibly explode in private life but represent a profoundly social situation. The signs of an accumulating social explosion are everywhere" (274). James realized that this explosion could be easily defused by the American government, but he predicted that the emerging crisis would eventually lead to the formation of a mass movement in which politics would finally become an expression of "a totally integrated human existence" (275).
Many readers will no doubt interpret James's belief in the potential for a progressive social movement as a sign that he seriously misunderstood the postwar political climate. In light of the wave of anti-Communist hysteria unleashed by the McCarthy hearings, James does seem to have underestimated the forces of reaction in postwar American society. Yet his optimism about the American people's capacity for self-mobilization needs to be understood in the context of his belief in the distinctiveness of American civilization. The American people, he explained, had created a truly democratic nation in which "the absence of sharp social differentiation and conflict" (42) was the defining characteristic. Thus the struggle for popular democracy was more advanced in America than elsewhere. Although James conceded that America's artistic and literary achievements were inferior to those of Europe, he nevertheless maintained that its creation of a democratic political culture represented "a landmark in the history of civilization" (33). James believed that the ideals and aspirations embodied by America's democratic traditions continued to influence the people's expectations, despite the increasing routinization of everyday life and the loss of personal freedom to which it had led. Unlike Europeans, James asserted, Americans had been "soaked to the marrow in a tradition of individual freedom, individual security, free association, a tradition which is constantly held before them as the basis of their civilization" (116). He saw the contradiction between this tradition and the social and economic realities of the postwar period as the primary source of the people's anger and frustration with the dominant order. The people had inherited an image of America as a nation of unlimited economic opportunity that was more appropriate to the days of the frontier and that was contradicted by their experience. James claimed that "upon this people more than all others has been imposed a mechanized way of life at work, mechanized forms of living, a mechanized totality which from morning till night, week after week, day after day" (116) reminded them of the emptiness of America's traditional significance.
James's emphasis on the distinctiveness of American civilization suggests that he sought to identify his project with that of the American studies movement, which had begun to solidify its legitimacy as an academic discipline in the late forties. According to Robert A. Hill, James's literary executor, James derived his understanding of American civilization largely from F. O. Matthiessen, whose study of classic nineteenth-century American writers, American Renaissance (1941), is generally considered the founding text of American studies. James followed Matthiessen's example in locating the distinctiveness of American civilization in its democratic political culture, which had supposedly led to the production of an art that expressed the people's needs and aspirations. Moreover, like Matthiessen, James believed that the classics of nineteenth-century American literature were key to understanding American civilization. His study would include detailed discussions of Whitman and Melville, he explained, because "we cannot begin to grapple with the basic realities of modern America without as serious an analysis as possible of what they saw and wrote" (31). At the same time, however, James also sought to distinguish his project from that of the American studies movement. As Jonathan Arac has shown, American studies secured its hegemonic position in the university by appropriating Matthiessen's work nationalistically. The consolidation of American studies as an academic discipline must be understood in the context of the Cold War and the cultural nationalism to which it gave rise. Scholars in American studies helped to solidify America's position as the leader of the so-called free world by increasing the symbolic capital of its literature and culture.
In proposing to undertake a Marxist study of American civilization, James seems in part to have wanted to rectify the nationalistic appropriation of Matthiessen's work. He intended to elaborate aspects of Matthiessen's critical practice in American Renaissance that American studies had failed to incorporate because they reflected Matthiessen's desire to achieve a synthesis of the populist aesthetic of the Popular Front and the formalism of the New Criticism. Whereas American studies scholars influenced by Matthiessen's work tended to seek the distinctiveness of American civilization in the classics of American literature, particularly those of the nineteenth century, James argued for the importance of mass culture. He conceived of mass culture as "one of the most powerful social and psychological manifestations of the American life and character" (37). Thus its products could provide more insight into the character of the American people, their needs and desires, than could the classics of American literature. James held the view, highly unorthodox in the Cold War era, that a careful examination of mass culture would reveal why "to this day the distinctive literary talents, Hemingway, Wolfe, Faulkner, Wright, to the extent that they continue in the traditions of Hawthorne, Melville and Poe, remain, as does all American art from the beginning to the present day, divorced from any significant current in modern life" (37). Unlike American studies scholars who tended to see mass culture as a debased form of art that manipulated the American people, James stressed its emancipatory potential.
In focusing on the heterogeneity of its products and their potentially contradictory effects, James's theory of mass culture was similar to that of Walter Benjamin, although it is unlikely that he was familiar with Benjamin's work. Like Benjamin, James believed that the mechanical reproduction of art enabled collective forms of reception that had the potential to mobilize the masses. He argued that mass cultural products such as Hollywood film constituted a counter public sphere in which the American people could register their opposition to existing social and economic arrangements and express their desire for ones that were more responsive to their needs and aspirations: "The modern populace decides not by votes but by the tickets it buys and the money it pays" (36). He realized that mass cultural products often functioned as vehicles of ideology, but, unlike more orthodox Marxist critics, he refused to believe that the rise of mass culture marked the final triumph of capitalism and the reification of experience. For him, such a view was reminiscent of the economic determinism of vulgar forms of Marxist thought. The capitalists who financed the production of mass culture, he claimed, were "as dependent upon the mass audience for their success as were Euripides and Sophocles for their prizes" (36), and thus they had no alternative but to give expression to the American people's fantasies and aspirations, regardless of how much they conflicted with their own needs and interests. Given this understanding of mass culture, it is hardly surprising that James thought it was possible for critics to deduce from its products "the social and political needs, sufferings, aspirations and rejections of modern civilization" (37) to which the reorganization of the economy along Fordist lines had led.
For James, the mass cultural product that most accurately reflected the aspirations and fantasies of the American people was a type of film that was particularly popular in the postwar period. Inspired by the hard-boiled detective novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Cornell Woolrich, this type of film would eventually become known as film noir, for its pessimistic view of American society. James saw the popularity of film noir as the most obvious sign that America was about to experience a "social explosion." According to him, film noir had replaced the gangster films of the thirties, which had legitimated popular resistance to Prohibition by glamorizing the gangster. He conceived of the hard-boiled detective of film noir as a direct descendant of the gangster, despite the fact that he was aligned with the law and often functioned as its instrument. Like the gangster, he asserted, the hard-boiled detective "lives in a world of his own according to ethics of his own.... He, Philip Marlowe, the detective creation of Raymond Chandler, Perry Mason, and others, are in constant warfare with the police, sometimes in danger of arrest, imprisonment and the chair" (125). For James, film noir's reincarnation of the gangster was a clear indication that the American people's disillusionment and resentment had the potential to lead to a social explosion. James described the gangster as "the persistent symbol of the national past which now has no meaning—the past in which energy, determination, bravery were certain to get a man somewhere in the line of opportunity" (127). The American people identified with the gangster, despite his violence and brutality, because he displayed "all the old heroic qualities in the only way he can display them" (127). They understood that the only avenue of upward mobility open to the gangster was through the criminal underworld.
Hollywood's reincarnation of the gangster as the hard-boiled detective of film noir showed that it understood the American people's needs and desires. It realized that because of their dissatisfaction with the dominant order, they would be unable to identify with a hero who was too closely aligned with the law: "He had to be an ordinary guy—one who went out and did the job himself (121). Film noir brought into focus the conflict between the hopes and dreams inspired by America's democratic traditions and the social and economic realities of the postwar period. In film noir, the hard-boiled detective is unable to reconcile America's role as the leader of the free world with the bureaucratized society he encounters in his fight against crime. The American people identified with the hard-boiled detective, despite his involvement in the criminal underworld, because his defiant behavior expressed their own anger and frustration. In the hard-boiled detective, the American people saw reflected their own needs and aspirations. For them, he represented "the individual seeking individuality in a mechanized, socialized society, where his life is ordered and restricted at every turn, where there is no certainty of employment, far less of being able to rise by energy and ability or going West as in the old days" (127). In giving expression to the American people's hopes and dreams, film noir functioned therapeutically, enabling them to experience vicariously the freedom and independence that they had been taught was their birthright but that they had been denied. According to James, the American people derived from films noirs "a sense of active living, and in the bloodshed, the violence, the freedom from restraint to allow pent-up feelings free play, they have released the bitterness, hate, fear and sadism which simmer just below the surface" (127).
I have dwelt at such length on James's theory of mass culture because in this part of Homosexuality in Cold War America I want to follow his example and deduce from the contents of film noir the political needs and aspirations that the transition to a Fordist regime of capital accumulation inspired in the American people. Although James was overly optimistic about the potential for a social explosion in postwar America, he was right to detect in film noir an undercurrent of resentment and frustration with the dominant order. Film noir, we recall, differed from other forms of cinematic discourse in that it bore the marks of the influence of the Popular Front on Hollywood's left-wing community. Until the late 1940s, when the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee into alleged Communist infiltration of the film industry devastated Hollywood's left-wing community, film noir enabled left-wing directors and screenwriters to focus on a neglected stratum of postwar American society while escaping censorship. Despite its political genealogy, however, we should be careful not to exaggerate film noir's emancipatory potential. Film noir's reincarnation of the gangster is perhaps best understood as an example of what Fredric Jameson has called mass culture's fantasy bribe. Despite the intentions of left-wing directors and screenwriters, film noir contained the American people's fantasies and desires even as it gave expression to them. Film noir tended to undercut its oppositional content by expressing a desire to recover a form of male identity that had become residual in the face of the rise of the "organization man." Many men experienced the postwar shift from production to consumption as a threat to their masculinity. In depicting a hero who embodied an entrepreneurial spirit that could no longer find expression in American society, film noir enabled these men to experience a temporary reassertion of that masculinity. In other words, film noir acknowledged many men's anxiety and frustration with the Fordist organization of production and consumption, only to diffuse it by refracting it through the lens of gender. The creation of a self-reliant, independent hero who did not hesitate to show contempt for the domestic sphere reinforced the male spectator's tendency to express his antagonism toward the dominant order as a desire to return to an earlier stage of capitalism in which the entrepreneurial spirit flourished.
I will return to this aspect of film noir in following chapters. For now I want to concentrate on reconstructing film noir's political preconscious. By political preconscious I mean the fantasies and desires that were not explicitly present in film noir but that it nevertheless sought to tap through its reincarnation of the gangster. I will show that film noir's tendency to undercut its oppositional content by expressing a desire to return to an earlier stage of capitalism was typical of left-wing critiques of the Cold War consensus. In each of the texts examined below, chosen because of their influence on the New Left and the counterculture of the sixties, the critique of postwar structures of oppression is grounded in a masculinist understanding of the needs and desires inspired by the American dream. Like C. L. R. James, the authors of these texts foregrounded the contradiction between the ideals and values embodied by America's democratic traditions and the social and economic realities of the postwar period. But unlike James, they tended to equate the decline of the entrepreneurial spirit, of which the rise of the "organization man" was symptomatic, with a feminization of male subjectivity. Despite their oppositional content, these texts reduced the fantasies and aspirations inspired by the American dream to the exclusive property of white heterosexual men, thereby bequeathing to the New Left a masculinist understanding of America's symbolic significance. The masculinism of these texts explains in part why their critique of postwar structures of oppression failed to mobilize more Americans. Their focus on the needs and aspirations of white heterosexual men failed to address the concerns of women, African Americans, gays, and other groups disenfranchised by the postwar settlement. Having identified the limitations and omissions of left-wing critiques of the Cold War consensus, we will be better able in the chapters that follow to situate film noir in relation to the postwar crisis of masculinity.
Excerpted from Homosexuality in Cold War America by Robert J. Corber. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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|Introduction: I'm Really a Queen Myself||1|
|Pt. 1||Film Noir and the Political Economy of Cold War Masculinity||21|
|1||Masculinizing the American Dream: Discourses of Resistance in the Cold War Era||23|
|2||Resisting the Lure of the Commodity: Laura and the Spectacle of the Gay Male Body||55|
|3||"Real American History": Crossfire and the Increasing Invisibility of Gay Men in the Cold War Era||79|
|Pt. 2||Gay Male Cultural Production in the Cold War Era||105|
|4||Tennessee Williams and the Politics of the Closet||107|
|5||Gore Vidal and the Erotics of Masculinity||135|
|6||A Negative Relation to One's Culture: James Baldwin and the Homophobic Politics of Form||160|
|Conclusion: The Work of Transformation||191|