The term “culture” denotes several meanings. As opposed to the more commonly held notions of culture—i.e., as reference to how a specific group lives, or as tastes, high or otherwise—I am interested in the concept of culture as a state of becoming. More specifically, I am curious about the intellectual history of culture as becoming.
My curiosity is piqued thanks to Allan Bloom. I am currently re-reading his bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, as I prepare for a paper I am giving at the upcoming OAH. (Aside: The paper is part of a session of potential interest to USIH readers. It is titled “Relativism and Its Discontents in Modern American Thought.” Casey Nelson Blake, who is on the plenary slate at our next USIH conference, is chair. Bruce Kuklick is commenting. I am joined on the panel by fellow USIH blogger Ben Alpers, and USIH conference regular Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen.)
In seeking to understand why all of his students were relativists, Bloom analyzed the distorted importation of Nietzsche into American thought. Bloom held that one of the key Nietzschean premises that gained traction in the United States is the belief that there is no text, only interpretation. “This observation is the foundation of the currently popular view,” Bloom wrote, “that there is no is but only perspectives on becoming, that the perception is as much reality as there is, that things are what they are perceived to be. This view, of course, allied with the notion that man is a value-creating, not a good-discovering, being” (CAM, 159-160). For Bloom, the idea that humans create their own values and that, as such, values are not natural, was how he defined culture. Conceptualized in such a way, culture ran opposite to nature. Furthermore, cultural theory, as such, ran opposite to Bloom’s epistemology, rooted in natural rights doctrine.
Bloom believed that Enlightenment thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke discovered that the surest path to social equilibrium was to harmonize nature’s laws with those of humankind—to ensure people the right to pursue happiness, or self-interest, by securing property. Such “rights are ours,” Bloom argued. “They are our common sense.” For Hobbes and Locke (read through Bloom), society functioned best when humans were reconciled to the truth that nature made them self-serving. This was a universal truth. “The spring that makes the social machinery tick is this recognition, which generates the calculation that, if he agrees to respect the life, liberty and property of others (for which he has no natural respect), they can be induced to reciprocate. This is the foundation of rights, a new kind of morality solidly grounded in self-interest” (CAM, 166). (To the degree that Bloom posited humans as naturally self-serving, he surely agreed with his University of Chicago colleagues across campus in the economics department.)
Americans, according to Bloom, internalized the rights doctrine like no other people, which explains the degree to which Americans of all classes seemed to lack a servile temperament, and which also explains why the importation of the Nietzschean concept of culture as becoming is experienced by Bloom as cognitive dissonance. It seemed out of place for Americans to believe that everything could be remade, nature be damned, and yet still hold onto their natural (some might say “God given”—not Bloom, he was an atheist) right to the pursuit of happiness.
Bloom believed culture—as becoming—rationalized human behavior in the wake of nature’s death. God is Dead, Culture is Your New Maker. Bloom posited that in a post-Robespierrean world, “changing human nature seems a brutal, nasty, tyrannical thing to do. So, instead, it began to be denied that there is such a thing as human nature. Rather, man grows and grows into culture; cultures are, as is obvious from the word, growths. Man is a culture being, not a natural being” (CAM, 190).
So my question to you, gentle reader: Is the intellectual history of culture as becoming worth thinking about? What are its parameters? Although Bloom dated this history as far back as the French Revolution—actually, further back, since he saw the nature/culture tension as internal to Western thought going all the way back to the Greeks—in an American context, surely pragmatism, which Bloom hardly mentions, is more formative to such cultural theorizing than the continental nihilism of Nietzsche. And according to John Dewey, the best method for understanding how humans behaved was to understand how they were conditioned or acculturated. What Dewey termed the social habitude—culture—was more important in forming the individual than was a hypothetically static “human nature.” “The meaning of native activity is not native, it is acquired,” Dewey wrote in Human Nature and Conduct. “It depends upon interaction with a matured social medium.” Culture was something we became for the pragmatists.
Whether or not you agree with Bloom that we should lament that culture conquered nature, or even that this victory was total—I don’t—it is worth pondering the degree to which the notion of culture as becoming shapes American scholarship, if not broader social sensibilities.
In the graduate seminar that I’m currently teaching—the topic, “Left and Right in U.S. History Since the 1930s”—I’m learning anew that many contemporary historians of the American left describe the legacy of the leftist movements they research as decidedly mixed. They all understand these movements, from the Popular Front, to the New Left, to Black Power, to have largely failed at the political level. How could one examine the current political terrain with eyes wide open and think otherwise? But they all, also, think these leftist movements attained cultural success, or left an indelible cultural mark. Americans became different, better, they argue.
For example, in his influential tome, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture, Michael Denning argues that the sprawling culture of the 1930s Popular Front, from the radical folk music of Woody Guthrie to the modernist-realist literature of John Dos Passos to the “ghetto pastorals” of Richard Wright and other plebian artists, inexorably reshaped American culture. From then on, American culture took on a working-class or “laboring” accent. Americans became something different.
Similarly, William Van Deburg, in his provocative New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965-1975, concedes political defeat. The hollowed-out landscape of the urban black ghetto is proof of such defeat. At the biographical level, the fact that some of the most militant Black Power leaders became shills for “whitey” (Black Panthers Bobby Seale and Eldridge Cleaver became, respectively, a barbeque sauce vendor and an anti-Communist Christian evangelical!) serves as similar such evidence of defeat. But at the cultural level, Van DeBurg maintains that Black Power achieved success, as seen in the irreversible attitudinal shifts of blacks. Counter-historically, rap music is made to seem impossible minus Black Power. For Van Deburg, such cultural promise was written into Black Power from its inception, resting as it did on the cultural power of becoming. “It was their hope and expectation that the revolutionary psychological process of becoming black would initiate a social revolution of great magnitude” (NDB, 55).
As culture increasingly came to be about becoming, its political significance was ratcheted up. This might help explain the culture wars. Bloom loathed this historical development, even though, somewhat ironically, The Closing of the American Mind is considered one of the primary culture war texts. Bloom wished to return to a time when politics was proper, when it was bracketed off from culture and other seemingly non-political realms. “The disappearance of politics is one of the most salient aspects of modern thought and has much to do with our political practice. Politics tends to disappear either into the subpolitical (economics) or what claims to be higher than politics (culture)—both of which escape the architectonic art, the statesman’s prudence” (188-189). A prudent statesman, presumably, would understand the lasting brilliance of the social contract and the universal truths upon which it rested. Prudence, in other words, was not becoming.