"A good read, as can be expected from this author. The themes are pertinent, the treatments are well-researched, the judgment is balanced, the style is sober. While the essays are wide ranging, the contents cohere by virtue of Brantlinger’s moral passion." —Jan Nederveen Pieterse, author of Is There Hope for Uncle Sam? and Globalization and Culture
States of Emergency: Essays on Culture and Politicsby Patrick M. Brantlinger
In his latest book, Patrick Brantlinger probes the state of contemporary America. Brantlinger takes aim at neoliberal economists, the Tea Party movement, gun culture, immigration, waste value, surplus people, the war on terror, technological determinism, and globalization. An invigorating return to classic cultural studies with its concern for social justice and
In his latest book, Patrick Brantlinger probes the state of contemporary America. Brantlinger takes aim at neoliberal economists, the Tea Party movement, gun culture, immigration, waste value, surplus people, the war on terror, technological determinism, and globalization. An invigorating return to classic cultural studies with its concern for social justice and challenges to economic orthodoxy, States of Emergency is a delightful mix of journalism, satire, and theory that addresses many of the most pressing issues of our time.
"Patrick Brantlinger’s close reasoning and luminously beautiful prose unite in a brilliant book on the cutting edge of contemporary scholarship that blends cultural studies and social justice. Starting with a detailed and incisive account of the British cultural studies movement as a counter-discourse to conventional capitalist economics, and closing with a hopeful investigation of the alter-globalization movement, Brantlinger presents a rich, interdisciplinary blend of art, politics, history and economics that is a lively and engrossing read. States of Emergency is a stunning capstone achievement by one of our principal scholars in the fields of race and the British Empire." —Alan Wald, author of American Night: The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War
"This book is where a lifetime of liberal scholarly study leads one: to revolution. Using his perfect skills as historical archivist, cultural critic, and critical theorist, Brantlinger writes for those insulted and injured by neoliberal economic policies and capitalist modernity in language accessible for action." —Regenia Gagnier, author of Individualism, Decadence and Globalization: On the Relationship of Part to Whole
"A good read, as can be expected from this author. The themes are pertinent, the treatments are well-researched, the judgment is balanced, the style is sober. While the essays are wide ranging, the contents cohere by virtue of Brantlinger’s moral passion." Jan Nederveen Pieterse, author of Is There Hope for Uncle Sam? and Globalization and Culture
"Deeply researched (with full footnotes and bibliography), carefully thought out, and eloquently argued, [States of Emergency] offer[s] a refreshing relief from the babble of mainstream social and political commentary, and a source of hopeful vision against the varied voices of apocalypse." The Ryder
"Deeply researched (with full footnotes and bibliography), carefully thought out, and eloquently argued, [States of Emergency] offer[s] a refreshing relief from the babble of mainstream social and political commentary, and a source of hopeful vision against the varied voices of apocalypse." —The Ryder
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States of Emergency
Essays on Culture and Politics
By Patrick Brantlinger
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2013 Patrick M. Brantlinger
All rights reserved.
Class Warfare and Cultural Studies
Wherever you find injustice, the proper form of politeness is attack. —T. BONE SLIM OF THE IWW
Cultural studies examines how people are classified (or "classed") and how they classify the world around them. In its initial phase in Britain in the 1960s, it focused on the relations between social class and cultural value; its emphasis on justice was unmistakable and remained so as it added both race and gender to its New Left agenda. From the outset, moreover, cultural studies has served as a counterdiscourse to the modern "science of value"—that is, to economics in its dominant, capitalist mode.
The seminal texts of the cultural studies movement—Raymond Williams's Culture and Society, Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy, and E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class—all treat culture as classed and all stress the active role of workers in its production and consumption, even as they also stress the rise of industrialized mass culture. After the establishment of the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies in the early 1960s, these concerns remained central in, for example, the analysis of "subcultures." This was a variation on the themes of "class fractions" and mass culture, from which emerged the interminable debate over whether the mass media can be genuinely "popular" in the sense of democratic or are merely "mass"—conformist, ideological, and antidemocratic.
Hoggart's and Thompson's books belong to a lengthy tradition of labor history in Britain; they are both versions of "history from below." Williams's Culture and Society takes a different tack; it is a literary study dealing mainly with canonical nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers, and to that extent it pursues a top-down approach. But Williams stresses the many ways in which the writers he examines turned "culture" into a critical tool for analyzing and challenging social-class inequality and economic orthodoxy, as in Charles Dickens's Hard Times and Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton. In the tradition Williams surveys—itself a principal source of cultural studies—culture was typically viewed as transcendent, rising above what Matthew Arnold saw as the "anarchy" of material competition and class conflict. For Arnold, high culture—at once aesthetic and ethical—was to be the modern substitute for religion and the arbiter of all values, including economic ones.
Needless to say, Arnold's faith in high culture seems naïve today. Nevertheless, from our postmodern standpoint, seemingly characterized by what Fredric Jameson calls "the disappearance of class," it is possible to look back with an ironic nostalgia to nineteenth-century Britain or France, when social-class boundaries were clear and when all cultural values were arranged in hierarchies marked by class—aristocratic, bourgeois, proletarian. In The Origins of Postmodernity, Perry Anderson notes that, starting in the nineteenth century, cultural modernism in its confrontation with capitalism and economics "could appeal to two alternative value-worlds, both hostile to the commercial logic of the market and the bourgeois cult of the family." An aristocratic perspective "offered one set of ideals against which to measure the dictates of profit and prudery." In contrast, the "emergent labour movement" also opposed bourgeois hegemony and unregulated capitalism, seeking "its solution in an egalitarian future rather than hierarchical past" (103). Both Anderson and Jameson are well aware that class has not really disappeared in postmodern societies. Nevertheless, the hereditary aristocracy is nonexistent in the United States and has almost disappeared in Europe. Much of the American working class, from the 1950s into the 1980s, saw itself as middle class. And especially since the economic collapse of 2007–8, sizable portions of both the middle and the working classes have fallen into poverty. Moreover, the postmodern condition involves a significant degree of "social homogenization" which, Jameson notes, has often been explained in terms of "the embourgeoisement of the worker, or better still, the transformation of both bourgeois and worker into that new grey organization person known as the consumer" (Signatures, 36). After the 2007–8 economic crisis, however, instead of upward mobility, the middle and working classes are experiencing an accelerating "race to the bottom." Meanwhile, what has become of that very Victorian and Marxist notion of class conflict?
POSTMODERNISM AS A DECLASSED AND DECONSTRUCTED CONDITION
Jameson's homogenized, "new grey organization person" is not so new. He or she was as much a modern or even a Victorian person as a postmodern one. Between the 1870s and World War I, the old Marxist threat of the revolutionary "masses" acquired a very different meaning. No longer threatening revolution or even economic redistribution, the new idea of the "masses" referred to petit-bourgeois or even classless conformists, the empty-headed individuals who were steered into lives of mediocrity and acquiescence in their lot partly by prosperity (consumption) and partly by ideology (advertising, religion, education—Louis Althusser's ISAs). Instead of revolutionary values, the new masses were the bearers of no values whatsoever—José Ortega y Gassett's mindless millions in Revolt of the Masses, T. S. Eliot's "hollow men," Karl Capek's "robots." These valueless (in two senses) "masses" are no different from Herbert Marcuse's "one-dimensional men" of the 1960s or Jean Baudrillard's postmodern "silent majorities." While the earlier discourse about the robot-like masses points ahead to theories of the postmodern, both versions either implicitly or explicitly blame large-scale economic factors on producing nonindividuals who are all "mass" or mass produced because they cannot think for themselves. It hardly matters, moreover, whether the economic factors involve communism, socialism, or capitalism. In all three versions of modernization, patterns of intellectual and cultural "distinction" or "values" are eviscerated or disappear altogether through the collapse of older structuring principles—or at least through the new "mass" inability to recognize the operation of those structuring principles. From a Marxist perspective, for the mindlessness of the new gray masses you can substitute the view that they have no class consciousness, which is close to Thomas Frank's conclusion in What's The Matter with Kansas? Conservative Kansans, Frank writes, even bluecollar, low-income ones, believe that you choose what class you belong to just as you choose "hairstyles or TV shows" (26). So what if you're broke or homeless? Seven years later, in Pity the Billionaire, Frank finds his diagnosis confirmed by the Tea Party movement and the ability of billionaires such as the Koch brothers to influence both politicians and the general public (partly by funding the Tea Party movement).
In many dystopian visions of modern and now postmodern society, people herd together in gray gulags where they rot until, perhaps, slaughtered in future wars. This dismal picture of what the lives of ordinary (mass) individuals are like in modern or postmodern society perhaps expresses little more than intellectual disdain and stereotyping. Yet it was also a picture that helped Hannah Arendt, Theodor Adorno, and many others understand how emergent democracies gave way to totalitarianism, as in the case of the Weimar Republic. That recent theories of the postmodern often echo this dystopian view is an indication of the power of the mass media to overwhelm processes of cultural "distinction," dumbing down the masses; but it is perhaps also due to the willingness of many intellectuals to abandon questions of social justice in favor of the very discourse about "the masses" that allows them seemingly to transcend (or escape) the cultures they purport to analyze (see Niethammer). In short, while "the masses"—in the United States, at least—may be both anti-intellectual and lacking in intellectual sophistication, postmodern theorists are often equally and perversely anti-intellectual, in part because they fail to grapple with the problem of how cultural "distinction" is organized and operative in today's societies, in part because they underestimate their fellow citizens including workers, and in part because they do not believe that class warfare is happening.
Capitalist economics helped produce Jameson's "new grey organization person known as the consumer." Social-class categories are based on production, not consumption. This is historically the case, although Pierre Bourdieu has demonstrated how patterns of consumption are closely related to class and even class fractions. But starting in the 1870s, with the economists' turn away from labor theories of value and to the theory of marginal utility (or price theory emphasizing consumption rather than production), economics has promoted the notion that all actors in the marketplace operate on equal terms. This is perhaps the key version of the illusion of classlessness under capitalism, which has its echoes in several prominent theories of postmodernism, including Baudrillard's. Yet given this apparently hegemonic view, how can anyone explain the now widespread notion that, as media pundit Lou Dobbs claims, there is "a war on the middle class"? If there is only one happy class of united, prosperous, middle-class consumers, who or what could possibly be waging class war? There is no aristocracy, and it surely cannot be the working class, which seems to have nearly disappeared from the myriad flat screens of postmodern American culture. When was the class war that eliminated the working class? But the main threat of the war against the middle class is that it will drive its bourgeois members straight into the working class or worse—into a "jobless future" when work itself disappears, as has been happening at a great rate since 2007. Given the subprime mortgage crisis, people's homes are also disappearing. Presto-change-o, the alleged classless condition in which we all belong to the middle class has devolved into a condition of classlessness in which increasingly large numbers of people, except CEOs and hedge-fund managers, are jobless and homeless.
Besides the modernist and now postmodern theme of the mindless masses and besides the shift in orthodox economics from production to price theory and consumption, a third source of the illusion that class has vanished from postmodern culture is postmodern culture itself. The pop art of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein presented us with images of commodified images, including movie stars and soup cans, cartoons and ads. Once again, what is stressed is consumption, available for everybody. Further, various theories of the postmodern condition celebrate or at least announce the downfall of cultural hierarchies, the complete relativization of values, and the vanishing of class conflict into Baudrillard's "silent majorities"—that is to say, into the indiscriminate and apolitical masses. According to Baudrillard, there is no longer any "reality," only "hyperreality" consisting of "simulacra," or image-copies without originals (Simulations). His postmodern conception of value as sheer contingency mirrors, perhaps intentionally, what neoliberal economics has to say: "The entire strategy of the system lies in this hyperreality of floating values," writes Baudrillard; "It is the same for money and theory as for the unconscious. Value rules according to an ungraspable order: the generation of models, the indefinite chaining of simulation." This is similar to what Gianni Vattimo, in The End of Modernity, calls the postmodern "dissolution of truth into value": "Truth ... reveals itself to be 'a value which dissolves into itself,' or, in other words, no more and no less than a belief without foundation."
In The Postmodern Condition, Jean-François Lyotard famously argued that today all metanarratives of emancipation, including both liberalism and the Marxist metanarrative of emancipation from social-class exploitation and inequality, are no longer credible; postmodern culture instead consists of micronarratives and a global swirl of incommensurate language games. No doubt poststructuralist theory helped give birth to Lyotard's version of the postmodern condition. On the one hand, there is Lyotard's metanarrative about the untenability of all metanarratives; on the other, there is Foucault's poststructuralist metanarrative about the modern, disciplinary diffusion of power—it is everywhere, it apparently needs no ruling class or headquarters or economic base, and it both creates and distributes value and serves as its own tautological explanation.
For Jacques Derrida, too, the question of value is indeterminable. In The Politics of Friendship, Derrida writes: "darkness is falling on the value of value" (81). Derrida's analyses of value are, he would have been the first to admit, "spectral," because all values are "spectral." This point of view is rendered all the more spectral because, in Specters of Marx, Derrida quite implausibly claims that "deconstruction" is an "attempted radicalization of Marxism" (92). Derrida, nevertheless, insists that, even though Francis Fukuyama might in the 1990s declare "the end of history" via the triumph of capitalism and liberal democracy, neither the need for social critique nor the goal of social justice has disappeared. Derrida echoes the Frankfurt theorists when he asserts that, like Marxism, deconstruction is "heir to a spirit of the Enlightenment which must not be renounced" (ibid., 88). His deconstructive understanding of the "spectral" rootlessness or indeterminacy of value is, however, little different from that of neoliberal economics, and therefore from Baudrillard's and Fukuyama's ends-of-history notions.
Like neoliberal economics, by downplaying or ignoring actual social classes and class conflict, poststructuralism and some versions of postmodernism leave the question of value up to market forces. This mirroring of the neoliberal embrace of global capitalism renders it difficult if not impossible for poststructuralism to be the "radicalization of Marxism" that Derrida hoped for, and both Lyotard and Baudrillard abandoned Marxism long ago for "the ecstasy of communication." Nevertheless, some other theorists of postmodernism have not abandoned Marx and his central problematic of social class and class conflict. I have in mind Jameson, Perry Anderson, David Harvey, Ellen Meiskins Wood, Terry Eagleton, Nancy Fraser, and Slavoj Zizek, among others. Jameson's analyses of postmodernity view it as "the logic of late capitalism"; Harvey is in agreement when he relates postmodernism to the transition from the Fordist mode of production and the Keynesian welfare state to the mode of "flexible accumulation" or transnational corporate capitalism and neoliberal, "free market" economics.
Neither Jameson nor Harvey is under any illusion that workers today form a potentially revolutionary class. For a Marxist, Jameson has little to say about social class, although that is in part a reflection of the postmodern condition. When Jameson does address social class as a category, it is to indicate how "groups" like ethnic minorities or even the homeless have replaced class in others' social analyses and, more importantly, to indicate how postmodern culture occludes class divisions and class conflict. Postmodern culture typically flattens cultural values into a faux-populist mishmash—a version of what Jameson refers to as deliberate depthlessness—a commodified, mass-mediated grab bag with something for everyone (if you can pay for it). For Jameson, moreover, if postmodern culture expresses class interests, it is as "the 'consciousness' of a whole new class fraction," one "variously labeled as a new petit bourgeoisie, a professional-managerial class, or more succinctly as 'the yuppies.'" Anderson similarly argues that the historical bourgeoisie, just like the historical proletariat, has now been complicated, fragmented, and decentered nearly out of existence, so that there is nothing any longer for an antibourgeois aesthetic or political avant-garde to target. And, arming himself with thorough analyses of both capitalism and traditional Marxism, David Harvey writes about the downsizing and deskilling of the labor force, along with the weakening of trade unionism from the recession of 1973 forward.
Excerpted from States of Emergency by Patrick Brantlinger. Copyright © 2013 Patrick M. Brantlinger. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Meet the Author
Patrick Brantlinger is James Rudy Professor of English (Emeritus) at Indiana University Bloomington. His books include The Reading Lesson: The Threat of Mass Literacy in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction (IUP, 1998); Bread and Circuses: Theories of Mass Culture as Social Decay; Crusoe’s Footprints: Cultural Studies in Britain and America; Who Killed Shakespeare? What’s Happened to English since the Radical Sixties; and Taming Cannibals: Race and the Victorians.
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