I am the new regularly scheduled Friday blogger, but since I’ll be on a plane to Boston tomorrow for the annual History of Education Society meeting, I’m going to jump the gun by a day. My post relates, I think, to the excellent ongoing discussion between Paul Murphy and Michael Kramer in the comments section of my earlier post on the “Intellectual History for What?” plenary from our recent conference. How can we speak to a public when no such public, singular, exists? I think it also relates to Ray Haberski’s intriguing post yesterday about how war seems to be the only thing to draw Americans together anymore, the only thing around which a civil religion still exists.
At the risk of beating a dead horse, I want to briefly answer the following two questions, or at least, get a discussion going: What is postmodernity? And how does it relate to the culture wars? These are really important questions that pertain to my thinking about the culture wars.
I define postmodernism as the fragmentation of what was once understood to be a singular public culture. Prior to the 1960s, which I consider the watershed years in U.S. history between modernity and postmodernity, it was possible for politicians, intellectuals, filmmakers, writers, etc., to address a single, common, if imagined public. The imagined part of this equation should not be forgotten, since people were always marginalized from the common American culture. But this speaks to my point. Once more people were brought into the common public—racial and ethnic minorities, women, gays and lesbians— by the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, it became more difficult to sustain a single, if flawed public or political culture. Fragmentation reigned supreme. The culture wars are best understood in terms of this fragmentation, and in terms of failed attempts to reestablish a common culture. This was a truly distressing turn of events for a public intellectual like Christopher Lasch. His biographer Eric Miller writes that “the crisis that so stirred Lasch is bound up in what we call ‘postmodernity,’ the vacuity of the name itself an indicator of the nature of the crisis.” “Lasch spent his life,” Miller believes, “slowly hammering out a way of seeing and living that could sustain hope amidst the grand fracturing of the age.” Such a temperament is so obviously imprinted upon Lasch’s students.
I also think postmodernism, and thus, the culture wars, relate to large social and economic shifts. This is not the same as saying the culture wars were epiphenomenal, which is to say that culture wars were unimportant relative to the economy. The writings of Fredric Jameson help me make sense of this vexing issue. In his famous 1984 New Left Review article, titled, “Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” Jameson attached the cultural particulars of postmodernity, especially fragmentation, to the postindustrial transformations of capitalism. The displacement of industry from the nation’s urban centers, accompanied by the new technologies of imagery that allowed capital to invade the human psyche beneath consciousness, spelled this out. “In psychological terms,” Jameson observed, “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.” Such a dream-like existence helped explain the prevalence of fragmented or postmodern thinking: “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.” In a nation like the United States, premised on great metaphysical preoccupations—where God and the Constitution both made the nation a City on the Hill—fragmentation proved especially difficult to accept. The culture wars were how people responded to this.
After I presented some of this at USIH, I was asked by one astute audience member why other nations going through the shift from modernity to postmodernity, such as in Western Europe, did not also experience culture wars, at least nowhere near as intensely. This was a great question. And this is where history matters. The changes to American society in terms of race and sex relations were much more profound, akin to throwing gasoline (altered racial and sexual landscapes) on a fire (postmodernity).