U.S. Intellectual History Blog

American Cultural Criticism

TABLOID_-_ErrolMorrisStillI teach a course in the spring entitled American Culture and Its Critics, which will bring together, I hope, the usual diversity of students from anthropology, journalism, English, and political science, in addition to the two sponsoring programs, history and American Studies.  My search for texts that will be mandatory for the class brought me to one of those classic teacher conundrums.  I can’t have the bookstore stock a dozen titles for the course (no, I can’t); but I also don’t want to spend a month scanning essays from critics.  I chose as the core texts Levine’s Highbrow/Lowbrow; Denning’s The Cultural Front, and Kammen’s Visual Shock.  I intend each book to do triple duty: to cover a chronological period of U.S. history; to introduce a different way of organizing cultural criticism (taste, politics, aesthetics); and to demonstrate how to write cultural criticism.  I also use primary texts from critics across the American landscape, from the Puritans to postmodernists–John Adams to Melville to Bourne to Sontag to Zizek.  And because I write about movie culture, I want to show a few films to suggest how criticism can move across mediums and can comment on the medium it uses (I like using Errol Morris’s more quirky films).

However…I am well aware how woefully inadequate this list is (even if you fill in the blanks) because it is based on particular people, most of whom wrote stuff down for publication.  I want to include more music, visual representations (posters, cartoons), and mass media (television, internet), in this course but don’t want to lose control of the basic focus which, it seems to me, is to demonstrate how to organize criticism of American culture in order to get a sense of particular themes and debates that can be followed throughout the history of the United States.  That is the reason I chose three books on the institutionalization of taste; the challenge to that organization of taste in the 1930s; and the implications of such challenges across cultural controversies in post-1945 America.  That is my overtly didactic way of setting up the course so students an argument to contest.

I also want to punctuate this course with examples that will surprise students and force them to consider how criticism can be something subtle, playful, colorful, jarring, etc.  I want them to get a clear idea of the difference between seeing music as a site (if you will) for understanding conflicts over taste and as a force that is challenge taste because artists simply disregarded assumed categories.  I don’t think I can pull off a course in which I string together examples of cultural rebellion but I would like to introduce the spectrum of criticism across media. The audience for this blog is filled with cultural critics and those who write about them.  What episodes should punctuate a course on American Culture and Its Critics?

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great question, Ray!

    I once started off an upper-level Modern America course “in the middle of things” with Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences. Not that I share Weaver’s critique, but I wanted to see what students would do with and after someone totally trashed even the notion of Modern America. Unfortunately, neither I nor the students then worked hard enough throughout the rest of the course to bring Weaver back in to our conversations.

    • Unfortunate. Modernity should at least have to justify itself before the Great Tradition, even as it proclaims itself the victor.

      And of course there’s


      who is often facilely dismissed for being so square as to punk the Stones [fortunately not by most of these authors]. He’s holding up pretty well, that we have elevated “low culture” to intellectual inquiry formerly reserved for the high [not as anthropology but as inherently weighty]–even as the Stones’ successors have lost the trace to the heritage of classical, folk, and the blues.

      And even as low culture–and of course critical theory–push out even the embers and traces of the high, both in the academy and in the real world.

      Colleges Substitute Western Greats With Gender Studies

      Parents pay a fortune to send their kids to big-name colleges, and they expect strong scholarship in return. More and more, what they’re getting ranges from drivel to leftist indoctrination.

      Manhattan Institute scholar Heather Mac Donald shocked a New York City audience at the 2013 Wriston Lecture this month with some examples of what leftist academics have done to the American college curriculum.

      “Until 2011,” she noted, “students majoring in English at UCLA had been required to take one course in Chaucer, two in Shakespeare, and one in Milton — the cornerstones of English literature.

      “Following a revolt of the junior faculty, however, during which it was announced that Shakespeare was part of the ‘Empire,’ UCLA junked these individual author requirements and replaced them with a mandate that all English majors take three courses in the following four areas: Gender, Race, Ethnicity, Disability, and Sexuality Studies; Imperial, Transnational, and Postcolonial Studies; genre studies, interdisciplinary studies, and critical theory; or creative writing.”

      As Mac Donald put it, “In other words, the UCLA faculty was now officially indifferent as to whether an English major had ever read a word of Milton, Chaucer or Shakespeare, but was determined to expose students, according to the course catalogue, to ‘alternative rubrics of gender, sexuality, race and class.’”

      UCLA is far from alone, “but the UCLA coup was particularly significant because the English Department there was one of the last champions of the historically informed study of great literature uncorrupted by ideological overlay,” Mac Donald noted.

      “Theory” is now the American high culture, the lingua franca of the elite, and as for the low, the Stones are as our Shakespeare and Mozart, and I imagine it’s becoming quite possible to become expert in the Stones without knowing a word or a measure of the latter two gentlepersons.

      • The Manhattan Institute, of course, is place w a distinct agenda, and while I have no reason to doubt that that happened at UCLA (though the four rubrics, standing alone, don’t indicate exactly what authors are taught within them), it’ll be a fairly cold day in hell before I take the word of someone at the Manhattan Institute when it comes to vague generalizations about curricular trends.

      • http://www.english.ucla.edu/programs-a-courses/english-major-

        Do you ever get tired of repeating these hack would-be culture warrior’s misleading claims? What the UCLA revision in 2011 does, as far as I can tell, is expand breadth requirements that keep the major current with expansions within the discipline, while retaining the classic historical focus, including 4 required courses in the history of English literature from Medieval to Modern. It’s a classic balance between existing practices and new approaches, not a replacement of Shakespeare and Chaucer with postmodern theory. If you look at the offerings for the required period 1500-1700, you will see that Shakespeare is front and central. I don’t see any courses in the English department devoted to the Rolling Stones. I do see courses in the genre requirement devoted to the study of the Bible. I guess it’s been all downhill since Eliot introduced the elective system at Harvard way back when.

  2. Hi Ray,

    Many, perhaps endless possibilities here, of course. Quick thoughts:

    On jazz/blues, Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, Amiri Baraka, paired with something from John Gennari’s Blowin Hot and Cool?

    On pop/rock music, Ellen Willis, Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Richard Goldstein, paired with Devon Powers’ new history of music writing at the Village Voice?

    Jill Johnston’s writing on contemporary dance could be paired with something from Sally Banes’s Greenwich Village 1963.

    Fun reading for students that approaches historical themes might be the recent work of Sarah Vowell.

    Our much discussed Christopher Lasch for the line bt social criticism and cultural criticism (and what is that line anyway?).

    I’ll keep thinking here about this question, something I ponder a lot for my introduction to cultural analysis course.

    All best,

    • One of the interesting opportunities of a class like this is working through events that might be over-familiar to us: for example, Bob Dylan going electric at Newport and being called “Judas” on his British tour in ’65. You could cover a huge amount of ground trying to unpack why these two events happened, and why they registered as events in the first place. Don’t Look Back and Todd Haynes’s Dylan film then suggest themselves as excellent course texts.

      Speaking pragmatically, I think the documentary A Great Day In Harlem is really excellent for jazz, and Style Wars is truly amazing on the early years of hip-hop.

      For dance, I recommend highly the sections on Judson Church in Jose Esteban Munoz’s Cruising Utopia. Wouldn’t work, probably, with undergrads. Worth reading, though, for many reasons, including some strong critiques of Banes. Really, the best thing for teaching any of that stuff is showing, say, film of an Yvonne Rainer or Merce Cunningham piece and get everyone to try to pay attention for the duration of the whole thing.

      I have found Kenneth Silverman’s John Cage biography to be excellent, especially on the 1950s and 1960s. I might be tempted to recommend it, even, as a course text. Or pair it with sections of Brick’s book on the 1960s (but you did say you don’t want to do a bunch of scanning)…

      And Michael Kramer’s book! Of course.

  3. Ray: I’m struck by how the primary responses to the publication of Britannica’s Great Books set track with your categories. In the 1950s, the most prominent form of criticism was exemplified by Dwight Macdonald and was about taste, or perhaps aesthetics. In 1990 it was about politics, particularly identity politics and the question of representation. And it’s also interesting that, by 1990, buying packaged culture—culture was commodity—was a form of criticism that intellectuals didn’t really bother making about the set. I don’t know if it because that line of questioning no longer resonated, or was assumed, or was simply overshadowed by Culture Wars questions of race, class, and gender (with none of those three categories connected to aesthetic theory or questions of cultural taste). Or maybe those 1990 reactions were about aesthetics—the optics of representation (e.g. Benetton-style) in the set versus any clear connection to politics? Or maybe aesthetics and politics had more intersections in 1990 than I have previously thought? – TL

  4. Thanks for the comments thus far from you all! One of the issues with this class that I’d also like your views on is the distinction or collision between cultural and intellectual history. It seems to me that using Levine, Kammen, and Denning presents an opportunity to discuss the development of intellectual history into something else. Is that about right?

  5. Ray–
    One book I like a great deal is Richard Handler, _Critics Against Culture: Anthropological Observers of Mass Society_ (Wisconsin, 2005), which is really a series of essays on various figures from Tocqueville through Sapir, Benedict, Margaret Mead, Jules Henry, and Raymond Williams. Your course, from what you say, seems to lean more toward notions of culture involving aesthetics and cultural forms of expression, and less toward the broader anthropological form of cultural criticism represented by figures like Ruth Benedict, or the sociological version represented by Daniel Bell’s Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Is that right?

    • Generally that is correct. However, I do leave room for these moments that exist outside my discrete line of inquiry and the good you suggest has the kind of essays that I could use to punctuate different parts of the course. My hope is that while the students follow a certain path I lay out, that I can also offer other directions from which to consider culture and doing so through a specific person would work well. Thanks Dan.

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