One of my summer tasks was to write a proposal for the book I’ve been researching on the culture wars. In this process, I’ve been thinking a lot about the broader historical logic of the culture wars. Why was culture in the specific sense of the word—literature, film, curriculum, museums, art, etc.—at the heart of a political firestorm? From there, several related questions arose. Had culture shifted as a concept? If so, could we tie such a shift to what theorists have conceptualized as the displacement of modernity? Is the culture of postmodernity the historical logic of the culture wars?
As part of the paper I will be giving at the upcoming annual U.S. Intellectual History Conference—a paper I title “Moderns Versus Postmoderns: The Culture Wars and the Future of the Left”—I’ve been reading several of the philosophical interventions into the debates about postmodernism made by Marxists such as Fredric Jameson, David Harvey, Nancy Fraser, Terry Eagleton, and Perry Anderson. It is my contention that they offer the intellectual historian a better understanding of the culture wars. By attaching the intellectual and cultural particulars of postmodernity to the political and economic transformations of what they wishfully termed “late capitalism,” these Marxist critics anticipate my contention that the culture wars allowed Americans space to articulate and contest the discombobulating effects of postindustrial capitalism and postmodern epistemologies.
What is meant by postmodern epistemologies—or more specifically, “postmodernism,” which Jameson sub-titles “the cultural logic of late capitalism” in his famous 1984 New Left Review article? Jameson contends that “postmodernism is what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good,” or when “‘culture’ has become a veritable ‘second nature.’” In short, in postmodernity, culture takes precedent. Culture is everywhere. Culture is not something we become—as I wrote about in an earlier blog post on the “Intellectual History of Culture as Becoming”—culture is what we are. We are shot through with culture.
In thinking about the etymology of culture, Terry Eagleton’s works are extremely helpful, especially his 2000 book, The Idea of Culture. (I came to this book after reading, on the advice of Scott McLemee, The Task of the Critic, a lengthy interview with Eagleton about his intellectual biography.) For Eagleton, culture first became a political project when the state began to sponsor it. This was a thoroughly modern project: the state sought to cultivate its subjects, to give them culture. Such acculturation was necessary for citizenship. Subjects needed culture before they could be political. The state wanted to form individuals, as Eagleton argues, “into suitably well-tempered, responsible citizens. This is the rhetoric of the civics class, if a little more highly pitched.”
But such a notion of culture no longer seems viable given the postmodern scattering of grand narratives, including the grandest of them all, nationalism. I quote Jameson at length: “If the ideas of a ruling class were once the dominant (or hegemonic) ideology of bourgeois society, the advanced capitalist countries today are now a field of stylistic and discursive heterogeneity without a norm. Faceless masters continue to inflect the economic strategies which constrain our existences, but they no longer need to impose their speech (or are henceforth unable to); and the postliteracy of the late capitalist world reflects not only the absence of any great collective project but also the unavailability of the older national language itself.”
In the words of Perry Anderson, whose 1998 book The Origins of Postmodernity serves as an extended review of Jameson’s writings, the postmodern unavailability of grand narratives, especially the Marxist narrative of class struggle, resulted from the following: “The receding of class conflict within the metropolis, while violence was projected without; the enormous weight of advertising and media fantasy in suppressing the realities of division and exploitation; the disconnection of private and public existence…” Getting to the heart of postmodern epistemologies, Jameson writes: “In psychological terms, we may say that as a service economy we are henceforth so far removed from the realities of production and work that we inhabit a dream world of artificial stimuli and televised experience: never in any previous civilization have the great metaphysical preoccupations, the fundamental questions of being and of the meaning of life, seemed so utterly remote and pointless.”
Then how does the implosion of grand narratives—or the explosion of heterogeneity and hybridity—lead to the culture wars? In spite of the postmodern notion of culture as everywhere and yet nowhere, older, modern notions of culture persistently creep back into the collective consciousness, as the return of the repressed. Culture in this modern sense is a normative way of imagining society. The problem, though, is that normative ways of imagining American society have multiplied. The national narrative, always contested, has given way to various ethnic, racial, religious, and other identity-based narratives, which often lay claim to the national narrative in new and innovative ways. This is the breeding ground of cultural conflict. So, perhaps postmodernity is not the death of the grand narrative, but the multiplication of mini-grand narratives?