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?