U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What would an intellectual history of the 70s look like?

Building off of Ben’s post earlier this week, my Friday post is premised on a question: what would an intellectual history of the 70s look like? In relating Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s excellent paper that she gave at the recent U.S. Intellectual History Conference—“Philosophy Out of Doors: Thinking as Handicraft and Spiritual Practice in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”—Ben nodded in the direction of an intellectual history of the New Age “as an important part of the broader intellectual history of a crucial era of which we’re only now beginning to take historical stock.”

In a nice review essay at The Nation, Rick Perlstein, author of Before the Storm and Nixonland, also seeks to take historical stock of the 1970s. In the article, he mentions 15 books on the 1970s! Add to that the book Perlstein’s currently writing on the “me decade” and it becomes obvious that the 1970s are a hot era of study. More than an era of study, the 70s have become a topic in their own right, much like the fabled 60s, even though we as historians should know better—we should know that history does not align with the decimal system.

Perlstein’s analysis of 70s historiography pauses to focus on two books: Judith Stein’s Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the Seventies and Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. His review leads me to believe both books are extremely important, even though he faults Stein for “excoriat[ing] historians’ tendencies to ‘psychologize the decade’s conflicts.’” Whereas Perlstein likes the cultural history of the decade, history that gives account to “the world-making cultural traumas that were precisely what made the period feel so distinct,” Stein wants a more laser-like focus on jobs, jobs, and jobs. Given this, it is hardly surprising that Stein has an essay in the Adolph Reed, Jr., and Kenneth Warren volume, Renewing Black Intellectual History, since they accentuate historical materialist approaches.

Although Perlstein concedes that Stein’s book is “a highly original illumination of how the American century collapsed,” he much prefers Cowie’s cultural history of the working class. As Perlstein pithily writes: “The continuous readjustment of expectations—downward: that was a key experience of the 1970s. An expectation can be wrenchingly hard to readjust because there is an awful existential lag involved. As historians go, Jefferson Cowie is that awful existential lag’s bard.” Touted by The New Press as documenting “the tortuous path from Nixon to Reagan—think Archie Bunker, Dog Day Afternoon, and Merle Haggard,” Cowie’s book sounds like great cultural history. But his, and none of the other books on the 70s mentioned by Perlstein, seem like intellectual history, neither in the old-fashioned sense—the study of intellectuals writ large—nor in a more updated sense, which allows for analysis of a “culture-bearing book,” as Robert Pirsig retrospectively described Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This leads me to my question: what would an intellectual history of the 70s look like?

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andrew,

    Your new book on the Culture Wars will, I’m sure, dig deep into this. But I don’t see how an intellectual historian will be able to avoid dealing with the consequences of multiculturalism (or intensive pluralism) as they began to play out in the Seventies. Of the many things that happened in the decade, that one seems to have the greatest effects on U.S. intellectual life.

    The rise of a renewed, pan-Protestant Evangelical movement—inclusive of apocalyptic Christianity and biblical fundamentalism, and fed by new kinds of media forays—caused a reaction among intellectuals. You could say that intellectuals are reacting to many things consequent of this: new forms of faith-based anti-intellectualism, the rejection of the idea of progress as inevitable (by both back-to-the-land New Agers and new Evangelicals), renewed calls for morality-based public life (evident in Carter, reacting to Nixon legacy).

    Of course there is the problem of dealing with fallout from the fragmentation of liberalism. What would be the new public philosophy? Until Reagan is elected, that endeavor is still uncertain—though forms of the new conservatism are evident in Carter.

    Anyway, the “look like” aspect of your question is broad, but the themes I list will have to a part of any intellectual accounting of the Seventies.

    – TL

  2. Excellent question (and post) Andrew!

    When I think “intellectual history of the Seventies,” among the names (and schools of thought) that immediately come to mind (in addition to the aforementioned New Agers) are (in no particular order)…

    John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Richard Rorty, (the late) Hannah Arendt, Christopher Lasch, the first blossoming of French ’68 thought on these shores (esp. Foucault and Lacan), high analytic philosophy (e.g. W.V.O. Quine), the rise of Chicago-school economics (and the appearance of the supply-siders), the intellectually serious first flush of neoconservatism (James Q. Wilson, e.g.), the flowering of various radical feminisms (especially cultural feminism), E.O. Wilson’s “sociobiology,” the growing importance of Gramsci and Western Marxism.

    I’m sure I’m leaving some very important things out…

  3. There is an intellectual history of the 1970s: J. David Hoeveler, The Postmodernist Turn: American Thought and Culture in the 1970s (Rowman and Littlefield, 2004)!

  4. Shame on us, indeed.

    Nonetheless, I think the intellectual history of the ’70s would make for a great panel…or a great conference.

    I almost said “conference theme” except….

    1) USIH really needs to focus on getting more non-20th century panels, and this is obviously not the way to do that.

    2) A really thorough intellectual history of the Seventies would need to be international in focus, I think. So many of the most important trends in American thought in that decade reflect things happening overseas.

    So maybe when we all have more free time (ha!) we could organize a conference on the International Intellectual History of the Seventies. In honor of the New Age, we could have it at Esalen 😉

  5. Inspired by the picture of Carroll O’Connor, I’ll make my normal pitch for popular culture as part of any intellectual history: Star Wars (“Of course,” Andrew is muttering), punk, The Godfather, Jaws, All in the Family, disco, video games (hugely important but underrated). Those are a few examples. I’m leaving out a ton of movies, and didn’t say anything about literature, which is not my strong suit; Gravity’s Rainbow springs to mind. I’m sure there’s a lot more.

  6. I’ll make a pitch for film critics, a group of under-rated public intellectuals that I have argued on behalf elsewhere. The 70s for someone like Pauline Kael was the apex of her career and a really interesting time for facing changes in themes that she had promoted–from sex and violence to actors like Cline Eastwood and directors such as Robert Altman. That was THE era of American film–everything from the esoteric to porn to the blockbuster. I just re-read Kael’s Trash, Art, and the Movies (1969) with a class I am teaching and was reminded how great that period was for film criticism. The last decade when film criticism mattered. See her review of A Clockwork Orange.

  7. Just now returning… thanks for all the comments. Hoeveler’s book is on my short list to read, but I feel bad for forgetting about it in this post. A description: “During the 1970s, the United States became the world’s preeminent postindustrial society. The new conditions changed the way Americans lived and worked and even their perceptions of reality. In this reassesment of a little studied decade, J. David Hoeveler, Jr., finds that the sense of detachment and dislocation that characterizes the postindustrial society serves as a paradigm for American thought and culture in the 1970s. The book examines major developments in literary theory, philosophy, architecture, and painting as expressions of a 1970’s consciousness.” Sounds great. Paul, is your new book on 1920s intellectual/cultural history part of the same series?

    Tim, yes, I’ll be dealing with a lot of the intellectual history you mention in my book on the culture wars… pluralism, fundamentalism, and a bunch of stuff in between, including (ahem, Varad) some films (not Star Wars, more on the order of The Last Temptation of Christ–80s, I know.)

    Ben–forget about the 19th century. I think we should be the Society for US Intellectual History Since 1968. Ha, just kidding…

  8. Andrew, you mean it’s not the Society for US Intellectual History Since 1968? I keed, I keed. But yes, more pre-20th-century stuff would be nice. If I hadn’t put together my own panel, I’d have had to talk to myself. I’d offer some advice on how to reach the pre-20th century crowd, but since I work on the other side of the Atlantic, I really can’t. More will show up, though, as word spreads. This year was an improvement on last year, which was better than the year before. It’ll happen, it just takes time.

    Too bad that conference in Germany took the Enlightenment and America theme. That would be a good one for USIH.

  9. Ray,I’d add rock critics to the film critics. The seventies were a crucial decade in the (re)develoment of music criticism in this country. It was the heyday of Rolling Stone and of Lester Bangs and Creem magazine, and also of the great underground fanzines like Legs McNeil’s PUNK, which was so crucial to the creation of the genre that shared its name.

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