by carl wilson

Clap Clap Culture

I'm always happy to be questioned and challenged by Clap Clap's Mike Barthel, an incisive and never-dogmatic thinker. But in his response to my Tom Frank/Obama/class-culture post, he misinterprets me, so I must have been unclear.

Mike says, "the only thing [Carl] reverses about [his past] position is that the people who like Celine have been duped - he still believes that their communities' cultures are being ['strip-malled and outsourced ... out of existence'] ." No. That was also a reference to a past set of beliefs - in this case, actually, further past than my feelings about Celine. I realize things might get confusing when I set myself up as my own foil, in the name of a reflexive, introspective approach to cultural conflict. But since Mike has read my book, I would have thought he could extrapolate this from the chapter on globalization.

Globalization has formidable problems - how trade deals are contracted and the way multinationals can grow to out-muscle the countries trying to regulate them, for starters - but I don't believe it or "corporate culture" simply homogenizes and eradicates, because for one thing there's no singular monolithic "corporate culture."

[... keep reading? ...]

To use an easy example, Brazilians in Rio's favelas are borrowing from American hip-hop and other foreign, commercial music when they make baile funk, but the result is still unquestionably local culture - which would be diminished if some cultural militants tried to push them to play sambas. Hip-hop and other music in Britain and the U.S. (such as M.I.A.'s) are in turn influenced by baile funk, and that's cultural process for you - and this kind of exchange, of course, goes pretty much all the way back in human history.

However, there are occasions when cultures need defense - in colonization, for example. Cultural preservation is urgent right now in New Orleans, for example, as Larry Blumenfeld illustrated in his moving and enraging talk at the EMP Pop Conference, reporting on cops cracking down on second-line parades and traditional jazz funerals, and musicians and other citizens passionately objecting.

Milder cases of gentrification, as with Mike's Disney Store, raise valid, though milder, concerns. There's a desirable midpoint between freezing things as they are (or seeking some fantasized "pure" past, as some cultural conservationists seem to desire) and just giving private capital a free (invisible) hand to decide on its own how a community or a city develops, no matter what the people without as much money need or want (the latter being what's often called "neo-liberalism").

But cultural influence runs in all directions: The world is not becoming flat and it's not becoming (white) American - it's a self-flattering assumption on the part of western critics to imagine that our cultures are so seductive and powerful that people are unable to resist succumbing. (Almost as self-flattering as it is among those crusaders and "freedom"-exporters who want that to be true.) Non-western and western cultures change each other, as do city and country, region and nation. Celine Dion's music implicitly recognizes such changes as both exciting and traumatic. People love her for her traditionalism and for her glitz, for her modernity and her anti-modernity.

On Friday, I was honoured to be part of a conversation on WNYC in New York's great Soundcheck program about the way music expresses and constructs personal (and group) identity, along with philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, whose work I admire. There's a great deal of overlap between my book and Appiah's Cosmopolitanism (so much so that it was often hard for me to add to what he had just said; understandably, he got the lion's share of the theoretical questions).

In retrospect I wish I had referred directly in the book to Appiah's praise of "contamination" - both our investigations have to do with letting yourself be contaminated while maintaining a sense of identity, how to assert strong values while being aware that they're deeply contingent on social context, and how to recognize commonalities while also respecting differences. That's what my post and my book were really about, though I don't know that even Appiah has reached a final synthesis. (Mike says "being curious and respectful of what other people like isn't the goal of criticism, but the base standard for responsible criticism," and of course I concur, but it's not nearly so widely practiced that way.)

Mike's other main objection to my post - part of a larger argument about how critics at places like the Pop Conference combine culture and politics - is that "to conflate 'adventurous art' and 'reproductive freedom' is ludicrous." He goes on to add, "You can never really 'win' an argument about the avant-garde. You can win an argument about abortion. And that's as it should be, because abortion policy has real, demonstrable consequences."

I can't fully answer here Mike's question about what the "consequences" of cultural actions are - as he says, it's "an entire field of study." But as I'm sure he knows, but doesn't say, a large part of that field no longer holds "that culture maintains the power relations in society by distributing the ruling class's dominant messages," because contamination occurs here too - culture also distributes resistant messages, audiences receive messages resistantly, and so forth. There are people who believe very strongly that the dominance outpowers the resistance, and other people who believe the reverse. As usual, I'm a both/and guy (though I have my more dour moments).

Nevertheless, Mike and I do disagree: Abortion beliefs, for example, are broadly culturally based, and much of the debate about them (like most values/ethics arguments, as Jonathan Haidt maintains) is backwards rationalization. A religious-versus-humanist dispute is seldom resolved by logical debate alone. "Winning" on abortion has more to do with how much social influence either side accumulates - not just political power but which one becomes more attractive and advantageous for people in various contexts to accept. Which isn't all that much unlike how social disputes over art - say, representation versus abstraction or swing jazz versus rock'n'roll - are "won."

Any "red/blue" map of political preference covers up more than it explains, but those patterns - the way social conservatism, religiosity and cultural conservatism tend to cluster, for example - do persist and have consequences. I use Pierre Bourdieu's work to discuss this in my book, but I like the way Appiah describes it - as "social scripts." Culture and politics are alike influenced by an implicit understanding of what "people like me" (or "people like what I want to be") are supposed to like and dislike, believe and disbelieve, not to mention what "people not like me" are figured to think and prefer. (Though the objects of approval or disapproval and the metrics that define social "likeness" are always reshuffling.)

To take another of Mike's examples, he says, "If a lot of people dislike gay marriage, that means a bunch of my friends can't get married. If a lot of people like Celine Dion, I occasionally get annoyed while in a department store. That's not just a difference of degree, but a difference of kind."

Sure, but it doesn't mean those forces are radically distinct from one another. Instead of Celine (who has gay-friendly associations, though you could argue that a lot of people see her in "family values" terms), let's talk about the effect of a lot of people liking, say, Ted Nugent - and another bunch of people having hostile notions about "people who like Ted Nugent." Let's say at a guess that the pro-Nugent crowd is more rural and the anti-Nugent crowd more "downtown." The pro-Nugent camp is not unaware of what the anti-Nugentites think of them. They're also aware that the folks downtown include a lot more gay people (at least openly) than they have in their neighbourhood. The Ted Nugent issue becomes a reason for them to think that homosexuals are not only weird but hostile to their own lifestyles, the ones echoed and expressed by Nugent's music.

The result? A lot of Mike's friends can't get married.

This is shorthand caricature, of course, but it's suggestive: Art matters politically in part because of its contribution to reinforcing and/or challenging social scripts - or enhancing social experiences in which those scripts are reinforced/challenged - in a way that debate can't. And politics affects art partly because it helps construct the social scripts that art draws upon and revises. Those scripts are collective creations, to which culture and politics both contribute, and they have collective impacts, of which culture and politics both partake.

(Of course art also matters in a lot of ways that are not political and have much less to do with identity, politics and social scripts. Likewise, little things like, say, money probably matter more than art to those processes. Mike is right to caution against "conflating" anything.)

Finally an aside to Frank Kogan, who says: " 'Everybody has false consciousness' and 'no one has false consciousness' are ridiculous statements, since there's nothing inherently false or inherently true about having a consciousness based on one's social experience and position."

Perhaps my tone wasn't sarcastic enough, but that's exactly what I meant by equating the two statements. I think "false consciousness" is in the same set of unhelpful, misdirecting concepts as "authenticity," which you could equally ascribe to everybody or to nobody.

(While I'm really happy to have Frank, a writer I greatly respect, participating in this argument, I wish he'd stop publicly characterizing my thinking as "terrible" without actually reading the work. It feels like turf defence.)

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, April 21 at 1:17 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)



PS - Re: The Nuge. A propos of my talk above about "patterns," of course if it weren't Ted Nugent it would be something else. But if you took Ted Nugent, country fairs, country music, Kid Rock, etc, all out of the picture, that would make something happen. Arguably it's the very "something" that makes people fearful - they envision all those things being "taken out." Cultural studies are good when they attend to the particular features of each of those aspects that contribute to the larger story and bad when, for rhetorical effectiveness, we make those subfeatures the whole story. But i do think it's ok to make the "for instance" implicit. That should be a given, no?

Posted by zoilus on April 24, 2008 3:25 AM



I'd just say that your divisions between "art," "culture," "ways of life," "ideas," "politics," "policy," and "making things happen" all seem to me to be somewhat arbitrary settings, Mike. Each of these categories interact and intersect.

The Hayes Code happened because mass media were changing mores - or rather communicating mores across borders they hadn't communicated across before. It was a policy response to a perceived threat.

The simplest example of culture change via art that I can think of is in the changes in the acceptance of gay people in the past twenty years, which I would argue happened as much on TV as it happened anywhere, and included the way that AIDS activists used art, imagery, media as a tool of anti-intolerance. But it also happened on Ellen and Will & Grace. These were reflections but also propagations of a set of notions. If the right wing succeeded in passing FCC legislation to stamp out Will & Grace, as I'm sure some of it would love to have done, that would be politics - but Will & Grace isn't politics? I can't separate the two sides of that see-saw so easily.

But you can use the counterexample of how radio, Hollywood and TV in the '50s propagated imagery that created the myth of the American nuclear suburban family as the universal norm, something that people might not have bought at the time if their lives told them otherwise, but that people now understand as an almost-accurate version of "the past." So art, for example, makes history "happen," in the sense of making histories that never happened happen. (See also Shakespeare as propagandist for one side of the War of the Roses.)

One could go on and on, but the point is that you're creating a tautology when you boil politics down to policy - yes, culture doesn't operate like policy. But that doesn't make it nonpolitical. I think it's extremely useful to point out that we shouldn't talk about works of art as if they were policy and have the same sort of instrumentality. The examples I use above aren't just "easy" but in a sense misleading because mostly I think art's relationships to society and thus to politics are more subtle and pattern-based. (There are very few Uncle Tom's Cabins and, really, that's a lucky thing.)

But for all the missteps and overstatements that happen in a place like the Pop Conference - including my very tenuous claims for the "voice of disaster songs" and their relationship to the social contract in my own paper, for example - the conversation, the inquiry, the ability to talk about the crosscurrents between these categories, remains valuable. I hear it in your own writing; your scrupulousness about not overstating it is great, but one of the nice things about cultural politics not being policy politics is that exaggerated leaps of imagination and synthesis are more likely in the long run to produce more nuanced understandings (through a critical dialogue) than they are to cause, y'know, war and famine.

Posted by zoilus on April 24, 2008 3:20 AM



mike -

i agree to some extent with your point about interracial marriage and movies, though i think your conclusion that art is not "something that causes things to happen" might be a bit too strict. yeah, a law makes something enforceable, makes something happen immediately and in a way art cannot. we must acknowledge that, though we must also recognize the cylcical, give-and-take nature of the subjects at hand here. so a law passes prohibiting interracial relationships in film. this means a generation of thinkers (and future lawmakers) grows up without seeing films with interracial relations in them (ignoring of course the possibility that they could have sought out some underground or illegal films, but we're being theoretical). also, we must assume that the people who made this law grew up watching films without racial interaction as well. the culture here is both influencing politics and being influenced by politics. a pretty basic point but one i'm not seeing acknowledged anywhere in this discussion (perhaps because it's so basic?). and of course i'm not just talking about films, but culture in general, including art, family life, etc. etc. i don't think anyone's trying to say that laws don't come from somewhere, just that maybe things are getting a little too cut-and-dried here.

(great to see two of my favorite thinkers engaging with each other like this though. blogs! who would've thought? keep it up both of you.)

Posted by drew on April 24, 2008 3:14 AM



Nick--ah, but the Hayes Code isn't art, is it? It's a regulation, and making things happen is the whole point of regulations. The text of laws and regulations are like The Word in the Biblical sense: when they speak, things happen.

This is not the case with art, generally speaking. (I'd be willing to make an exception, maybe, for Uncle Tom's Cabin.) To use your example, if we are going to say that not having interracial marriages in movies caused people to continue to reject the idea of interracial marraiges, we'd have to say that if movies had included interracial marriages in that period, people would have come to accept those marriages more quickly. That seems doubtful to me, and for one specific reason: the movies probably wouldn't have been shown. If they're unacceptable enough to write into a code, then theater owners in the areas where these attitudes are most prevalent would have simply refused to show the films, and the net effect would have been the same. This is exactly what happened with African-Americans on television in the 1950s. Southern affiliates simply refused to run any show with a black person in the lead, including the entirely innocuous Nat King Cole Show. Art runs up against broadcast regulation and the market. And so what we have, the Hayes Code, tells us something about the mores of the time. Those may have been the mores of the lowest common demonimator, but they're there nevertheless.

To be clear, I do think art is important; I've dedicated too much of my life to writing about art not to think it's important. But I think trying to make art into something that causes things to happen does it an injustice. Art isn't laws or regulations or the market. It's something else. It's a place where ideas have far more freedom than in any of those arenas, and it's in the realm of ideas that art's importance comes through.

Posted by Mike B. on April 23, 2008 6:43 PM




My plate's sort of full at the moment too, so I'll keep it brief. How can you say that art "primarily reflects things" and not much else? The Hollywood Production Code, for instance, which governed the content of movies roughly from the 1930s through 1950s, was instrumental in shaping movies (all sorts of movies, ranging from "art" movies to B-movies, which of course were sometimes the same thing) in ways that went far beyond merely reflecting social norms.

For instance, under the heading "SEX", the Codes states: "Miscegenation (sex relationship between white and black races) is forbidden." For millions of teenagers going to movies in the 1940s and 50s, this rule (which was largely invisible to them; the Code was not widely publicized) not only reflected things, it actively shaped them. The prospect of interracial romance was hardly conceivable, in part, because it was not conceived on the screen.

It hardly seems arguing that "art" does more than simply reflect things, and that art (and mass culture and everything else that we produce) is as much a part of our reality as political platforms and laws and guns. Even abstract art is not abstract. It is embodied in some medium.

And it most certainly "does things."

Posted by Nick R. on April 23, 2008 9:45 AM



American foreign policy exists in order to enforce its economic positions (and the US is the global enforcer of capital). Neo-liberalism, all rhetorical nonsense about "freedom" aside, is the aggressive re-assertion of control by capital, involving the huge redistribution of wealth from the bottom up. It many ways it's simply the return of 19th c. capitalism (hence the "neo"). But it's this re-assertion that denotes "neo-liberalism"; it dates from the early-70s (the energy crisis was a major early weapon), so, no it could not be said that Truman, or really any president before Carter, were neo-liberal, even if many of the policies might have looked similar. What this re-assertion meant was that the post-war compromise with labor that lasted through the 60s, was over. Part of this entails the freeing up of finance (to basically do what it wants, wherever it wants), the export of manufacturing, the rise of the service economy; it entails the massive buildup of the military (one of the main purposes of which was to enrich military contractors, another part of the re-distribution I'm talking about).

"There seems to be a real and significant difference between the goals and methods of Cold War presidents and the goals and methods of post-Cold War presidents."

There is actually a real continuity. The goals are basically the same--the key difference is the lack of a Soviet Union to prevent the US from throwing its weight around as much as it wanted to (the Soviet bloc states were an obstacle to the global system as preferred by capitalists; this is the main reason behind anti-communism). There's a lot of literature about how, when the Cold War "ended", the political leaders had to cast about for something to replace the Soviets as bogeymen to inspire fear in the populace.

Help me with this passage from your comment:
"More importantly, though, to use "neoliberal" in this way seems like a deliberate confusion of terms. And again, I can see why you might want to do that. But it makes it much harder for people coming from other perspectives--like, say, politics--to talk about."

What do you mean? That is, how is a "politics" perspective outside of a discussion of "neoliberalism"? My guess is that this is an example of the separation of the economic and the political, which I am arguing is a massive obstruction to understanding either. Economics is substantially politics (and vice versa). Capitalism has us trained to think of the spheres as separate, but they are not. (But maybe I misunderstood your sentence?)

Anyway, to wrap up. Reagan's policies might not have been called "neoliberal" at the time (I don't actually know the history of the use of the term), but that his foreign policy was in large part an arm of the financial liberalization that was going on is clear. It's true that, with or without any neo-liberalization going on, Reagan would have been just as anti-Soviet, but if you look at our activities around the world, and the results of our interventions, you'll see it had less to do with the Soviets than with either opening up other countries, or punishing those who refused to play along. Neo-liberalism was not necessary for this kind of thing, as a type of activity the US takes on (after all, the Vietnam War was very much about destroying a recalcitrant population), but with the neoliberal "reforms" the activities were intensified.

Sorry if I've rambled on a bit much...

Posted by Richard on April 23, 2008 9:40 AM



Carl, I'll reply when my plate is a little clearer, though I do apologize for the misinterpretation.

Richard, though, I'd like to poke at one point if you don't mind: the idea of Reagan as a neoliberal. This genuinely does seem inconceivable to me, but I've thought about it and I think I see the logic. Tell me if I'm right, or if I'm still missing something.

I understand that there's a definition of neoliberalism as valuing economic freedom above all else. This seems to have other names to me, though--supply-side economics, libertarianism, or even just "capitalism" in a certain sense. Personally, I associate it with globalization, which I think is how it came to prominence. Where globalization is the thing that happens, neoliberalism is the economic theory international bodies have followed in attempting to shape globalization: economic austerity programs, cutting state services, etc. This seems like a useful definition to me because it's different than other things. (Though arguably it's still just neoclassical economics.)

On the first definition, Reagan's foreign policy was neoliberal because his rhetoric stressed economic freedom as the ultimate goal for involving the U.S. in these other countries. And I understand why people have tried to draw a line between American policy pre-globalization and economic policy during globalization. Lord knows it's there. But I have a hard time seeing how Reagan's foreign policy was anything except anti-Soviet. He was engaging in these foreign adventures, per the Reagan Doctrine, to choke off the USSR. That may have involved opposing socialist governments, but I don't remember him imposing economic structures on a whole lot of countries (aside from ours, and I think you'd have a hard time finding anyone applying the term "neoliberal" to those policies while he was still in office). You can say that Reagan's philosophy was neoliberal, but I don't think you can say his foreign policy was neoliberal. If it was, then every anti-Soviet U.S. President, which is all of them post-FDR, was a neoliberal, and again, that does not seem very useful to me. (Truman, for instance, banned unions in post-war Japan. Is that neoliberal? Or just anti-communist?) There seems to be a real and significant difference between the goals and methods of Cold War presidents and the goals and methods of post-Cold War presidents.

More importantly, though, to use "neoliberal" in this way seems like a deliberate confusion of terms. And again, I can see why you might want to do that. But it makes it much harder for people coming from other perspectives--like, say, politics--to talk about. And though I probably didn't make it clear enough in my post, that was one of my primary concerns. I do love cultural criticism--obviously--and I think people doing it have a lot of important things to say. But when you talk about politics like this, people coming from a politics background will immediately discount anything you have to say, because it seems so divorced from reality.

Which is not at all to say I'm on the politics people's side. They think I'm super-weird for caring about art so much. And so I have to kind of convince them, too. I'm glad I make you feel antsy about politics, and I'd like to make politics people feel antsy when I talk about culture.

I guess my ultimate disagreement--and this does get into Carl's post a bit--is that art actually does things. Again, here, there's a confusion of terms--"culture" can mean "way of life," but I'm really talking about art, which we sometimes call culture. Culture-the-way-of-life does lots of things, and politics is often very stupid in how it tries to understand that. Art, however, primarily reflects things, to my way of thinking. Which makes it no less valuable, since we can learn and understand things from art that we can't get from anywhere else. Its particular qualities make it an ideal place to look when we want to make sense of our world, including the political part. But I don't think that changing art--that removing, say, Ted Nugent songs--would make anything happen. As Carl says, it's kind of a backwards rationalization. The gut feeling is there in the first place, and art may reinforce or justify it, but it doesn't create it or make it go away. Sans Nugent, people would rally around or shy away from something else.

And to make it clear where I'm coming from--and to say something I probably shouldn't--while I think that the police should not be harassing parades and funeral processions, that's not an issue of cultural preservation, but of civil rights. If the culture itself went away, I think that's OK. Cultures change and disappear all the time. That's the difference to me.

Posted by Mike B. on April 22, 2008 4:31 PM



I'm going to have to think about this some more in order to say anything substantive, but...

I think Mike Barthel is an often fantastic writer, but whenever he veers into politics I get a little antsy. For example, Reagan's foreign policy had everything to do with neoliberalism! (not that I know what the person actually said that he's referring to there....)

In his post, I think he makes a lot of good observations, but there's an overall sense of point-missing I get from it (that I'm having a hard time articulating). I will say that I've read your book, Carl, and I thought it was great. I've been meaning to write about it at my own blog, but I haven't been able to find enough time (sorry!). But anyway, I think Mike's notion that taste matters are entirely separate from other matters is wishful thinking. He's not wrong to point out the ethical difference, I think, but misses how it is that culture plays a part in those ethical positions. (I'm aware that I could be clearer; let me just say that I think you made a good counter-argument and example.)

(By the way, Frank Kogan's comments about you were entirely gratuitous, and were immediately undermined by his admitting that not only had he not read your book, he doesn't read your blog much!)

Posted by Richard on April 21, 2008 8:20 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson