U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Channeling My Inner Warren Susman

Sometime after dinner on Sunday night I updated my Facebook status as follows: “Tim plans to avoid watching the Academy Awards. …Yawn.” I’m generally a once-per-day status updater, but the prominence of the program forced me to protest.

My goal was to make some headway in Arthur Schlesinger’s The Age of Roosevelt: The Politics of Upheaval (volume three of a three-part series). Like many historians and the general public recently, my interest in the Great Depression and the New Deal has been piqued by the bad economic news du jour. And the economic revisionism of a few politicians and pundits has made it an imperative to refresh my memory on the exact benefits of the New Deal. Finally, the weekends provide me with an opportunity, at least one day, to read on subjects unrelated to professional obligations. It’s a sanity measure.

Plans for the Oscar program were further informed by the fact that, even though I am a historian who studies culture and popular culture (in addition to intellectual history), I nevertheless harbor a love-hate relationship with popular culture. I suspect many academics feel this way. Like most historians who study the subject, my general professional goal with regard to popular culture is to deconstruct or break it down, to intellectualize rather than celebrate it. But a great many historians of popular culture do that. Differentiation occurs with regard to what kinds of popular culture one studies—meaning ephemera, events, mass-produced artifacts, or trends. Since I study more stable phenomena, I have taken a liking to saying that I study un-popular culture (i.e. great books, philosophy in culture, public intellectuals). It bothers me if too much is made of ephemera, and the Oscars generally strike me as falling into that puffy, fuzzy category.

I think also that most historians don’t want to be trendy. I mean, they generally celebrate what is retro or old school. The past is what’s hip to them; they’re only trendy when retro is cool. Of course my perceptions say as much about me as what other historians do or think. I simply appreciate those whose eyes look backward when seeking for inspiration about the present. Again, I love unpopular culture—at least in today’s eyes.

My engagement with past ceremonies has been spotty. For most of my teen years and twenties, I barely watched the Academy Awards. Viewings were primarily related to whether my peers were doing it—you know, the “Oscar Party” thing. I recall watching Clint Eastwood receive his just due for the 1992 film, Unforgiven. Since my wife is a film buff, my interactions with film—both casual and serious—have increased dramatically since about 2000. The more movies you see, the more interested you become in their quality, criticism, and recognition. The 2003 awards were a banner year because I had seen Mystic River, Lost in Translation, 21 Grams, and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Last year I saw only a few movies, mostly over the Christmas holidays, but got lucky in that three of them were best picture nominees (No Country for Old Men, Juno, and There Will Be Blood). But the inconsistent nature of my past Oscar viewings, and my lessened movie-going this past year, left me indifferent to this year’s event.

In the end, however, I actually watched the Oscars this past Sunday—leeringly over the top of my book. I saw the amusing Hugh Jackman bits, observed the red carpet dresses before the show, listened to the weird collage of musicals, attended to the acceptance speeches, and chuckled at the absurd costume of Ben Stiller. Since I had seen Slumdog Millionaire and Doubt, I understood the acclaim given to both films and their actors. Even though I wanted to see Milk (badly, in fact), I scoffed at Sean Penn’s gratuitous moralizing—even while grudgingly conceding his right to the soapbox. All in all, it struck me as kind of a typical Academy Awards ceremony.

Yet, even as I appreciated (and depreciated) these things, the meaning-seeking academic in me was active. As someone who has grown to understand “moments” in the present by having studied the momentousness of past events, it occurred to me that the whole of the 2009 Oscar ceremony was incredibly poignant. Some might argue that we look to the entertainment industry for escape from our problems. But I think we also try to make sense of our times through popular culture. If that was the unspoken goal of some—reflecting on the meaning of our times—while watching this year’s Oscars, what was conveyed by the program? History and tradition? Dignity? Humility? Change? Uncertainty? Cautious optimism?

Every movie seemed connected to something important from the past year. In Slumdog Millionaire I was reminded of the attacks on Mumbai and India’s growing importance on the world scene. With Doubt I was struck by the continued, low-level news of abuse settlements, and ongoing revelations about past clerical abuse problems, within the Catholic Church. Milk‘s relevance was underscored by Penn’s comment about California’s Proposition 8, but most viewers would have understood the relation without his prompting (I’m sure that’s what annoyed me). The awarding of the best supporting actor Oscar to Heath Ledger reminded me once again of the power of celebrity culture, of its pervasiveness. I haven’t seen Dark Knight and took no notice of Heath Ledger prior to his role in Brokeback Mountain, but I still recalled the details of his baby and personal life.

I thought the overall ceremony was subdued. Despite the low-level antics of Jackman and Stiller, the ceremony was not at all rambunctious. While humor made an occasional showing, the program wasn’t humorous. The set was intentionally reminiscent of the Swing Era, making the band part of the show. But the band and the music didn’t drive the ceremony; it was in the dark or concealed for large chunks of time. And of course I appreciated the nod toward history and tradition with the presentation of prominent wards (best actress and actor) by groups of prior recipients. While this was neither subdued nor glamorous, it was certainly not raucous. The dignity lent some gravity, or a sense of seriousness, to the awards.

To me, all of 2008 and this first quarter of 2009 have been about history, humility, and a vague sense of anticipation—or caution. In the United States at least, it seems our way of life is on the brink of serious, permanent change. While we might not feel this change on the ground level every day, it seems as if the compass of culture, politics, and economics has undergone one of those squirrely shifts of the needle. It’s as if a powerful magnetic is nearby, disrupting our sense of direction. When will the arrow point us toward a clear path?

I think the Oscars this year reflected our collective sense of change. Some of these changes are real and present, and others vague and distant. We are a chastened people in the United States. As such, even our ephemeral celebrations are subdued, tinged with doubt. For instance, I recall no coverage, at least by my local newspaper or television networks, of post-Oscar parties. Hasn’t this been a staple of recent years? Maybe this year we weren’t in the mood? I’m sure they happened, but even the next day’s news seem to suppress any prolonged sense of partying.

But maybe I’ve gone overboard in channeling my inner Warren Susman? Since, as I noted above, I am a historian of unpopular culture, maybe I missed some important factor? Maybe my recollections of recent ceremonies are flawed, and the 2009 program was as rambunctious and glitzy as the best of the rest? Or maybe we’re just too close to this past year for me or anyone to make any larger sense of things?

If I’m right about our chastened collective mood, I think studying history helps. Understanding what is known—and unknown—about past periods of change gives aid and comfort to us dealing with the present. If we are a confused and unsettled people, history tells us that we are not alone. The New Deal, for instance, only makes sense in retrospect. Roosevelt was fishing in a sea of uncertainty, working on a trial-and-error basis to firm up our economic foundations. It was a time of pragmatism, where some sureties appeared to be relics of the past. Roosevelt and his contemporaries did not have the luxury, as we do, of looking back on the mistakes and positive revelations of a prior New Deal. It’s reassuring to know that we’ve been through this before. While the Oscars serendipitously offered meaningful connections to the past year, history offers a more sure means to meaning making.

With that, here is how I commented on my own Facebook status later that Sunday evening: “My plan has been thwarted somewhat—although I am making progress on…Schlesinger’s account of FDR’s presidency.” Mixing the past with present gave the evening a little more meaning.

[Acknowledgments: Thanks to Ben Alpers and Brett Foster for reading an early draft of this piece. – TL]