U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reversing the Vector of Intellectual History

One of the many memorable moments of our second conference was the first: James Livingston’s plenary address, “Seeing, Hearing, and Writing the End of Modernity: From Reading Pragmatism to Watching Movies.” I found intriguing the way he used Warren Susman’s theory about “reversing the vector of intellectual history” to frame the discussion. Livingston explicitly referenced Susman’s framework in his introduction, stating: “Ideas cannot be ahead of their time.” In other words, intellectuals merely express preexisting modes of understanding already out there in the ethos. In his conclusion, although he did not reference Susman by name, he rephrased this “bottom up” theory of intellectual history, arguing that the end of modernity was already deeply felt, exemplified by the turn in film history that began in the 1970s—a turn to more graphically apocalyptic visions that accompanied the implosion of modern narratives, such as patriarchy and nationalism. Postmodern theorists merely put such popular sentiments into word.

Had Livingston stuck to a historical narrative that began in the 1970s, his talk would have been pretty conventional, at least from a film studies perspective. But Livingston extended his historical analysis back, in ways both provocative and confusing. For he also argues that pragmatism, which predates the 1970s transformation in film by almost a century—and is the topic of his last two books—is the most eloquent expression of the postmodern normalization of nihilism. For, according to Livingston, James and Dewey’s anti-subjectivity were more radical than any of the more recent postmodern theorists, including Deleuze and Guattari, who are often considered at the extreme end of postmodernism.

The question I posed Livingston at the conference, and that I now pose to you, the reader: How does this make sense, at least chronologically, if we are to hue to the Susman theory that reverses the trajectory of intellectual history from the bottom to the top? In other words, if the turn in film history is the major piece of evidence that the end of modernity was already felt prior to the explosion of postmodern theorizing in the 1980s, then where does pragmatism fit in this order of things? Livingston responded that cultural forms predated pragmatism, in the form of money, which was conceptualized as “a sign of a sign,” and that Dewey and James put such seemingly banal market relations into a philosophical framework.

I am very familiar with Livingston’s argument about the relationship between the “Money Question” and pragmatism from his 1994 book, Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850-1940. In fact, I find this argument extremely convincing in that specific historical context, as I make clear in the first chapter of my book, Education and the Cold War, where I frame Dewey’s pragmatic theories of education as transformational, and in opposition to otherwise astute critics, such as Randolph Bourne and Christopher Lasch.

But, to me, Livingston’s recourse to the money example is not an answer to my question, because I find the turn in film history gives expression to a much more radical break with subjectivity, or at least a much more widely felt break. So, if pragmatism was the extremity of end-of-modernity nihilism, as Livingston maintains, then it predates the turn of film history by many decades, thus rendering the Susman thesis less plausible. What I was looking for is more specificity with regards to historical context. My thinking is that pragmatism does not decenter subjectivity to the degree Livingston maintains.

This is hopefully the first of several posts I plan to write on the conference, which was a resounding success from my vantage point. I will be taking a much more active role in organizing next year’s conference. I only hope we can duplicate some of the energy we created this year.


7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Well, no, not exactly. But as it existed within the bounds of the modern family, yes. That the modern family and that form of patriarchy collapsed is very important to Livingston’s narrative, which I am pretty sure he expands upon in his new book due out soon on Rowman and Littlefield–“The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the 20th Century.” Livingston argues, plausibly or not, that men in post-1970s film express their feminine side through masochistic violence, a la “Fight Club.” These men wear their post-feminist emotions on their sleeves, unlike the stoic John Wayne of Hollywood past. Masochism is how men negotiate their gender worlds being turned upside down. I don’t think I buy it, but that’s Livinston’s argument, which is why it is important to emphasize a changed form of a male-dominated world and family.

  2. I arrived at CUNY about half an hour into Livingston’s talk, so I missed the set up, but I was left wondering a bit how he framed his analysis of film. At least from the part of his talk I saw, I was a bit concerned that film narratives were being read as a simple reflection of some sort of mass consciousness, rather than as representing a particular set of narratives produced (and reproduced) by a culture industry that is driven by often quite rigid genre conventions (when something sells, Hollywood tends to reproduce it until it stops selling).

    Or to put this observation in the context of Andrew’s comment: the trigger event in unleashing Hollywood’s new treatment of the family and the male body in the 1970s might not have been a fundamental change from below, but rather something more contingent and internal to the film industry (though perhaps we can say that the popular success of these narratives, once they are unleashed, indicates that they appeal to popular conceptions about masculinity and the family).

  3. I caught Livingston’s talk and wanted to ask if the specific history of motion pictures during the late 1960s and early 1970s mattered to his interpretation of mass culture. If mass culture absorbed or projected the male world being turned inside out, the industry itself went through some dramatic changes as well that might suggest that the filmmakers were aware of this.

    First, the censorship regimes that had controlled the content and distribution of films for most of movie history collapsed by the late 1960s. The movies that Livingston pointed to could not have been made without this development. The internal industry agency, the MPAA, gave up its production code in 1966 for the ratings system of 1968. This is how Midnight Cowboy–technically rated X–could win best picture in 1969. An apt example of a movie that played with traditional gender roles. Moreover, the Catholic watchdog group the Legion of Decency basically disappeared by 1966 as well.

    So, I think such developments might have helped provide Livingston’s argument with context, by suggesting the authoritarian regimes of old were fading out and a period of deregulation and cultural ambivalence had taken hold.

    But I am also a bit tired of movies being appropriated as if they are accurate depictions of almost anything other than, as Ben suggested, products made by an industry for consumption by an enormous and diverse public. How we read films should have some basis in the history of that industry itself–shouldn’t it?

    One final point: Livingston’s selection of movies was all over the place. He chose examples that were decidedly B movies and paired them with blockbusters, hip popular movies, and modest mainstream hits. Could we get away with such comparisons in almost any other category? Think of using this same kind of selection process for intellectuals, policy makers, or novels.

  4. I always wonder whether too much is made of film history simply becaue there’s so little of it, compared to, say, the history of novels – or intellectuals. Having not been there I can’t comment specifically about Livingston’s argument, but my default position is best expressed by Andrew’s skepticism. (Andrew won’t be surprised by that!) That said, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him being eclectic in the movies he picked. If his point was to demonstrate how widespread such changes were, then you’d want a large, diverse sample. Besides, I imagine a postmodernist approach isn’t going to respect genre distinctions anyway; a movie’s a movie for all that. Lastly, how modernity can end I have no idea, so how one can write, hear, or see this end I have no idea either. But that’s a discussion for another day.

  5. I have been meaning to offer my two cents on James Livingston’s keynote talk:

    All follows in Livingston from his definition of postmodernism. He see it as a historical age: In the postmodern age, things shifted, reality changed. We live differently in this age, or at least, we formulate how we see the world differently than Americans did previously. Thus, we moved from the age of the ego, of unchallenged subjectivity, into an age in which the self is the self-evident creation of society – the “social self,” formed in communication and interaction with others. This follows from the general postmodern eschewal of “foundations” or absolute grounds for belief. Thus, pragmatism, to Livingston, is radically nihilistic – James is more edgy than Heidegger ever was. National identity if fragmented; metanarratives have decayed; we all see that signs are simply the signs of others signs and no more; subjectivity is divided; and so on.

    A couple of points: Livingston seems to talk as if these theoretical formulations reflect historical reality: In 1850, my ancestors had a solidified, grounded ego; now I cannot. First, how can we know? Second, what does this even mean?

    More than this, Livingston wants to change the vectors of historical argument, he claims (citing Warren Susman): Such theoretical fabulations as I just stated are not the products of intellectuals, which may filter down broadly in the public and affect history (change decisions, re-shape attitudes), but rather they are the reflections of reality as it changes. They are the articulations of reality already present in the broader culture in some inchoate form before particular intellectuals managed to articulate them as ideas. This leads Livingston to an analysis of movies (already discussed here), as the embodiments of postmodernity. There is more rigorous reasoning on postmodernity in movies, he declares, than in theoretical works.

    The nagging question is, where is the evidence? Livingston’s analysis of various themes in 1980s and 1990s horror and slasher films is bravura: He went on about references to Baudrillard in Nightmare on Elm Street, the clouded boundary between the human and the mechanical, the self at risk in a world of simulacra, the crisis of masculinity embodied in the masochistic male heroes of so many recent films. His analysis is slippery (sometimes we are considering Nightmare on Elm Street and the slasher genre, sometimes gangster films, sometimes a war movie, sometimes Fight Club—which is what—a pretentious art-film/sci-fi parody?), devoid of evidence (little actual analysis of plot or scenario, no close analysis) and unsupported (where is the evidence of audience? of critical reception? of context?).

    More coming….

  6. (OK, I have more than two cents…)

    I was inclined to agree with many of the skeptical questions from the audience: For example, from Andrew: if the vector is reversed and intellectuals simply develop ideas from culture, than what is the relation between the pop culture postmodernism of slasher films in the 1980s and the high intellectualism of early twentieth-century pragmatists? Vectors reversed – or not? And, if Nightmare cites Baudrillard, who exactly is influencing whom? And did the teen audience care? Was horror really ascendant (I do seem to remember a lot of it)? As an audience member asked, what of the Cosby show, also quite popular and pervasive in the 1980s? There was a lot else generated in these years. Is it sufficient to prove postmodernism simply to assert that we live with a variegated culture (I wonder how many complex societies have been similarly variegated in cultural cultural production?)?

    Where is the evidence of lost ego? What does it mean to say we live in an era when subjectivity has ended? Is Livingston postulating an actual felt change in human consciousness – the punctual “self” that Charles Taylor suggested long ago evolved historically has suddenly passed from the scene somewhere in the last 100 years? Or, has the way that intellectuals talk about the self evolved (either reflecting cultural shift or contributing to a future change in broader attitudes)? There is a lack of clarity here, but also an essential lack of evidence to prove such a claim, whether strong or weak, for the Progressive Era or the recent past. At times, Livingston seems intent on reference real things – crime rates, movies, audience levels, etc. – but more often, there is swinging willingness to deploy the “grand generalization” – to say that Pragmatists saw that the “sign is a sign of a sign” and all has changed after that. Count me as a persisting member of the reality-based community. I am willing to adopt a pragmatic test of truth, but I thought the point was not to discard the concept of truth but adapt it to modern standards of verification. By that standard: the jury is out on Livingston’s version of our modern postmodernity. We are still awaiting the evidence.

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