Monday, May 17, 2010

Shards of Culture

If for no other reason, I enjoy checking in at the Ochlophobist because it keeps me abreast of all those books that I should have already read. One case in point is Faded Mosaic: The Emergence of Post-Cultural America, referenced by Owen a few posts back. This volume was published by Christopher Clausen back in 2000. The only thing that dates the book is the author's persistent capitalization of "Internet." It's funny to think back to what a relatively new thing that was at that time.

I certainly know better than to do so, but I waste considerable time fretting about the sorry state of American culture. I would recommend the book to those similarly afflicted. But the first thing the author teaches is that the usage of the term "American culture" has no real meaning. I am guiltier than most in the sloppy usage of the phrase (but no longer.) Clausen contends not just that we are past all that, but rather we never really had it to begin with. We have always been a place that shredded cultures, seeking a "mass individualism," that he describes as being "an individualism without much individuality."

Nor are we in any way "multicultural," that is, if one defines multiculturalism as a society where differing cultures flourish and coexist with one another. The peculiarly American take on the concept is that the sharp edges of cultures get worn down, and then bits and pieces of varying cultures are cherry-picked as an individual's choice. In so doing, the true culture which once was determinative, loses all real meaning. In a telling example, he chronicles the Schandler-Wong family of Hawaii. The Jewish-American Schandler bride marries the Chinese-American Wong groom. The newlyweds construct a life with carefully selected bits of each heritage. When the Chinese groom eventually converted to Judaism, his mother was ecstatic, concluding that now he was truly American. The couple had woven Jewish, Chinese and Hawaiian cultures into their home like a bird building a nest from twigs, mud and foil....Any influence that Jewish, Chinese or Hawaiian cultures have on this family is purely residual, a matter of individual preference, and individual preference is the opposite of culture as traditionally understood. [As an aside, one wonders how Clausen would analyze a similar Hawaiian family of the same era, combining the heritage of Kansas with Kenya.]

Clausen posits that multiculturalism is, and has always been, an agenda or a program, and never a condition or state of affairs. He labels our real condition as "post-cultural." The best line in the book, in my opinion is this: Post-culturalism turns everything, whether sacred or profane, into twigs and foil from which any breed of bird can try to build a nest. The real meat of our cultures has been ground down to mush, from which emerges not a "multicultural" society, but one in which for all our vaunted "diversity," we are all very much the same. No other country has so undermined through its founding ideals and actual ways of life, the identities of those who lived there. By gradually turning more and more categories of outsiders into insiders, a process without logical limit, America began to solve some of the oldest problems of humanity while systematically dismantling the whole basis of traditional cultures.

Clausen finds similarities between the diversity Leftists and Right-wing groups. In the contest suburbs of social ideology, multiculturalism on the left and monoculturalism on the right flourish deceptively as expressions of longing for a past--differently interpreted, of course-- that has drifted beyond recovery. At bottom they both mean living in a museum.

In conclusion, Clausen asks:
Now that most of the old guide posts have rotted away, will individuals who have been emancipated from every authority but their own personalities start to rediscover some stronger basis for harmony and mutual respect than a bland refusal to judge.?"


...the negative qualities of the post-cultural condition are a deformed version of the good ones--the sentimental narcissism of those who recognize no demand but self-satisfaction, emotional exhibitionism, a substitute religion of products and celebrities, a smug indifference to the cause of conflict in the world.

In his concluding paragraph, Clausen tacks-on a hopeful note--something of a well, this is just who we are, and as shallow as it is, it sure beats the alternative rationalization. Personally, I find this to be unconvincing--he did too good a job convincing me otherwise.


Milton T. Burton said...

He is wrong at least in respect to literature. Between the 1830s when Hawthorne first published "The Scarlet Letter" and the 1960s when Hemingway, Faulkner, O'Connor and Steinbeck died, this country produced more first class literature than any other culture in history in a comparable time period. And most of it---all, I think, with the exception of Henry James---was distinctly American. Can one imagine a European writing "Huckleberry Finn" or "Sartoris" or "Grapes of Wrath" or "To Kill A Mockingbird?" And the list could go on and on. Compare British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes' work to the "Spoon River Anthology" and you get some idea of the vigor of American literature in this period.

Milton T. Burton said...

Basically, though, I agree with his thesis. Especially that multiculturalism is an agenda and not a state of affairs.

David B said...

Re: Mr. Burton's comments: Would it be plausible to assert that the possibility of such great literature during these previous generations was due to the still-existing regional American cultures? I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment that, on the whole, any distinctly American literature ended with the likes of Hemmingway, Faulkner, etc, and it is interesting that this ended when mass communication really took off, specifically television.

Now, however, we are post-cultural indeed, with mass media having eroded the aspects of regional cultures that had before remained distinct. Could anyone be pointed to today as an "American" author?

Milton T. Burton said...

David B --- I think that is right. Except for Hemingway, our greatest writers drew on subjects that were distinctly regional. If you want my take on why American literature is virtually in the dustbin, go here:

Milton T. Burton said...

Sure there are "American authors." I am one. But they are to be found in genre literature, which all the vigor of our writing is to be found. Try one of James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux series.

Milton T. Burton said...

By the way: those of you who have not read Willa Cather need to do so. She is one of our greatest writers. Simply magnificent. "A Lost Lady" is as good as anything in American (or world) literature.

Milton T. Burton said...

From Wikipedia:

"Cather was celebrated by critics like H.L. Mencken for writing in plainspoken language about ordinary people. When novelist Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel Prize in Literature, he paid homage to her by saying that Cather should have won the honor. However, later critics tended to favor more experimental authors. Condecended to in the ’20s, Cather was openly attacked in the ’30s for her lack of interest in economics and her conservative politics. Discouraged by negative criticism of her work, Cather became reclusive, burned letters, and forbade anyone publishing her letters."

Note that by "conservative" the writer means true conservative and not the sort of right wingism we have today.