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Previously in American Graffiti:

"The View from the Cheap Seats" (March, 1998), by Charles Hutchinson
Low-tech, hyper-personal, and fiercely independent, the zine subculture has a few lessons for the digital nation.

"Dr. Thompson and the Spirit of the Age" (August, 1997), by Sven Birkerts
Birkerts looks at Hunter S. Thompson's The Proud Highway and wonders whatever happened to sex, drugs, and the New Journalism. Plus, a multimedia interview with Hunter S. Thompson, scourge of Presidents, the press, and the politically correct.

"Thank You for Coming and La La La" (June, 1997), by James Surowiecki
For the band Pavement, it is love songs, not love, that are called into question.

More American Graffiti features in Atlantic Unbound.

Symptoms of the Culture Wars
The much-publicized intellectual conflicts of the past decade may have lost their intensity, but they haven't lost their importance. A book like Marjorie Garber's latest reminds us why

by Scott Stossel

September 2, 1998

When University of Chicago philosophy professor Allan Bloom fired a broadside across the bow of American culture in 1987, it caught everyone unawares. Reagan was President. Rambo had recently dominated the box office, and Iacocca was on the bestseller list. Conservatism was clearly ascendant. Yet here was Bloom, in his bestselling The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students, saying that the left hadn't lost, after all -- it had just retrenched to the university, where it had set up shop as the postmodern academic left. And there it sat, endangering not just student minds, not just American economic competitiveness, but the very souls of today's students.

The Closing of the American Mind touched a nerve. Conservative cultural commentators burst forth from all corners, rhetorical cudgels in hand. The list of enemies -- of cultural war criminals, as it were -- was long and varied: political correctness, multiculturalism, deconstruction, cultural and moral relativism, feminism, rock & roll, television, the legacy of the sixties, and the infamous "tenured radicals," to name just a few. The culture wars, smoldering quietly since the sixties, had flared up again.

The stakes of the battle this time around were high. The choices college educators made about shaping the curriculum -- which cultural works to teach, and in what way to teach them -- contained implicit judgments about the kind of society we live in; what we taught our liberal-arts students would inform the way they looked at the world. Would students inhabit a world in which truth and universal values must be sought and discovered through reading the best that has been thought and said? Or would they inhabit a world where "truth" and "universal values" were artifacts of our own construction?

From there, the battle spread to other fronts. The term "culture war" came over time to refer to any kind of dispute that was about cultural or social values but that wasn't explicitly political in the practical, electoral sense. By the mid-1990s pundits and op-ed columnists were grouping any dispute having anything to do with culture under the culture-wars heading: Dan Quayle's comments about Murphy Brown; Bob Dole's comments about Hollywood violence; Al Gore's comments about Ellen; the rantings of conservative film critic Michael Medved about the salacious content of modern movies; the fight over television ratings and the V-chip; the floor debates over the Communications Decency Act, censorship, and Internet pornography; and on and on.

Marjorie Garber is a popular professor of English at Harvard, and the director of Harvard's Center for Literary and Cultural Studies. She is also -- with books like Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (1991), Vice-Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life (1995), and Dog Love (1996) -- the sort of academic who helps the critics at The New Criterion and The Weekly Standard keep their claws and fangs sharpened: to them she is the living embodiment of What's Wrong With the University Today. Her latest book, Symptoms of Culture, will do nothing to change that.

garbbk picture What makes Symptoms of Culture a worthwhile read is that in it Garber exhibits the best and worst of the cultural left. Though Garber would surely disavow its being a salvo in any culture war -- she's too savvy for that and always puts "culture wars" between ironic quotation marks -- Symptoms goes off like a depth charge at the foundation of the Bloomian battlements: it aims to blow up the idea of a clearly demarcated "high culture."

The contemporary Bloomians (William Bennett, Lynne Cheney, George Will, Roger Kimball, Hilton Kramer, and a host of others) say that our culture is ill and -- extending the medical metaphor -- that it needs to be cured. American culture, therefore, must be bled, purged, drained, or otherwise denuded of the offending elements, the bits of vulgarity, crassness, poor taste, and lack of judgment that sicken it. We must put culture on the operating table and amputate the gangrenous parts.

Garber, in contrast, puts culture on the psychoanalytic couch: it is not ill, she says, but neurotic. "I do not propose to diagnose culture as if it were an illness of which we could be cured," she writes, "but to read culture as if it were structured like a dream, a network of representations that encodes wishes and fears, projections and identifications, all of whose elements are overdetermined and contingent." Using Sigmund Freud's analysis of dreams as her model, she draws seemingly unconnected things together in often illuminating ways.

From Atlantic Unbound:

"Punt, Pass, Dance, and Pray," by Marshall Jon Fisher (January 14, 1998)
It's Super Bowl Sunday and the NFL's finest are rejoicing in the fields of the Lord.
Quoting Freud to the effect that "team spirit" is "the desexualized, sublimated homosexual love for other men," for example, Garber explains that America's passion for football is a cultural symptom of homosexuality: with its bottom-patting men in huddles and tight pants, and its language of "tight ends" and running backs "penetrating deep into the hole," football suggests a kind of safely macho, ritual enactment of homosexuality. She then connects football to religion, noting the number of players who thank God for victories and touchdowns, not to mention the proliferation of pre- and postgame prayer huddles. (Is it any accident that the Super Bowl is played on Sunday?) Finally, she points out that the Promise Keepers, founded by a college-football coach, holds its religious rallies in football stadiums. "This fellowship of men, who often embrace one another and speak in a rhetoric of love, is part of a movement that is, officially, anti-gay. Any gay men who show up are candidates for double-conversion -- to born-again Christianity and to heterosexuality." A two-point conversion, in other words, as Garber wryly notes. Bringing this all together, Garber wonders if the eros of physical sexuality (as sublimated by football) and the eros of religious faith (as represented by groups like the Promise Keepers) might be related.

This is the sort of thing that gets conservatives like Bennett and Cheney -- and not a few liberals -- frothing at the mouth. Is this what college professors are teaching kids today?

Consider the following dreamlike sequence of linkages, occurring over the course of a mere two pages in the chapter titled "Greatness." Garber moves from The Wizard of Oz ("I am Oz, great and terrible" and "There's no place like home") to Field of Dreams (in which "'greatness' is figured as the capacity to control the return home, through the agency of the 'home run'") to Homer (the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, which feature Odysseus' journey from and return to home) to Steven Spielberg's Hook (in which Captain Hook stages a baseball game in Neverland, where his pirate minions screw up the placards they're holding in the stands so that instead of saying "Home Run, Jack" they say "Run Home, Jack") back to Field of Dreams ("I'm melting, I'm melting," Shoeless Joe Jackson jokes, à la the Wicked Witch, as he fades away) to the real-life conflict between the All-Star Cincinnati Red Pete Rose and A. Bartlett Giamatti (who banned him from baseball for gambling in the same way that Shoeless Joe had been banned for his part in game-throwing as part of the 1919 Black Sox), and -- finally! -- back to The Wizard of Oz ("Ding, dong, the witch is dead, the wicked, wicked, witch is dead," was reportedly the spontaneous chant of the denizens of a Cincinnati bar when it was announced that Giamatti had died).

This is brilliant stuff -- but how elucidating is it? Garber's intellectual project here, while unique in some ways, is broadly emblematic of the cultural left in several others. By the traditionalist's standards, Garber's mode of criticism is deeply flawed on at least two counts. First, there is the characteristic flattening of any kind of cultural hierarchy, the typical postmodern effacement of any distinction between high and low culture. Homer (the epic poet) and homer (the base-clearing hit) are rendered equivalent. Second, and related, is the fact that all of her connections are textual; they all come at the level of puns and linguistic associations without ever descending to the level of what a Marxist would call material reality.

There is some value (and much fun) in following these ideas along their zigzaggy linguistic paths -- it helps to "recontextualize" things, as Garber would say -- but in the end this critical approach, while intellectually dazzling, fails the famous Samuel Johnson kick test: as Boswell reports, Johnson once rebutted a complicated proof of the nonexistence of physical reality by kicking a large stone and saying, "I refute it thus." In other words, it is simply common sense (though Garber would put that term in apologetic quotes) that the only connection between Homer and a homer is an accidental pun.

Yet Garber's approach to cultural criticism cannot be easily shunted aside. Her series of jumps from idea to idea -- exemplary of what is rapidly becoming the paradigmatic mode of discourse today, the "hypertextual" -- is similar to the series of jumps a Web-surfer might make as she clicks from link to link. Garber connects things by historical association, by cultural association, and sometimes only through linguistic association -- all ways in which one thing is linked to another on the World Wide Web. Though Garber never explicitly mentions the Internet or hypertextuality in her book, the Web is the place where the once way-out theoretical approaches of the postmodern cultural left have begun to achieve a certain realization. By my unscientific reckoning, the two words that appear with the greatest frequency in Symptoms of Culture are "link" (as in "a move that links Dorothy's adventures in Oz to Genet's theatrical brothel") and "overdetermined," by which she means a cultural meaning can be arrived at by multiple routes, the way lexia or nodes on the Web can be reached via multiple links. Garber's use of the hypertextual mode may in fact represent the early stages of not just a paradigmatic shift in our prevailing methods of cultural criticism but in our very way of understanding the world.

Conservative (and some liberal) critics, not to mention parents and teachers, have long complained that poor historical education coupled with cultural products like MTV and movies like Oliver Stone's JFK and Natural Born Killers -- which either bowdlerize history or bastardize culture -- has cut off young people from any sense of tradition or historical context. They float, decontextualized (as Garber would say), piecing their identities together from free-floating bits of culture. The Web, with its hypertext, is nothing if not a constant contextualization and recontextualization of meaning; one's apprehension of meaning on the Internet is in large part dictated by the links one follows.

But for Garber, that's just the point: nothing is meaningful unless its context makes it so. In this view, Shakespeare is "literature" because academic dons say it is. John Grisham is not, because those same dons say he is not. Shakespeare's oeuvre represents timeless, universal values: it is high art. Grisham's represents the mass market: it is low art, or popular culture. But this, Garber says, is determined by context. Those who would have us keep these realms distinct and separate, Garber writes, "would do well to remember that Shakespeare himself began as popular culture, not as the icon of high art he has become today.... It was only in the 18th century that the myth of 'Shakespeare,' and of the Shakespeare text, began to be invented."

Does it matter how cultural meanings are determined? Is it important whether cultural significance is determined by an artwork's essence or by its context? Yes. Because (and here's where Garber and Bill Bennett or Allan Bloom would on some level agree), for better or for worse, the cultural realm -- not the political one -- is where American social and moral values get hashed out. (Edmund Morris has written tellingly that "there is as much polite aggression in 'book chat' as you will hear in, say, bipartisan meetings at the White House.") The cultural positions and poses we adopt are potent symbolic representations of the way we think the world is -- and the way we think it ought to be. Thus the culture we take in as consumers, and the judgments we make about it, can say a lot more about what we think and believe than the politicians or referendums we vote for -- and far fewer of us vote than consume culture anyway.

This is why the culture wars have become so fraught with political resonance. It makes little difference to GDP or wage inequality or race relations or the price of wheat on Tuesdays whether Brown sophomores are studying Sophocles or Seinfeld. Yet just because disputes over culture are not political in the practical, electoral sense does not mean they are not important. "In today's 'culture wars,'" Garber writes,
whole categories of analysis crucial to cultural studies, from race to identity politics to queer theory, are often described as intrinsically inimical to aesthetic judgment and literary merit. But this is so only if merit and value are tied to decontextualization, historical forgetting, and the erasure of the conflicting forces that go into the production and reception of literary and cultural works.
In accusing cultural conservatives of "historical forgetting," Garber tars them with the very brush they use to tar today's youth and the cultural products they consume. And it's a fair accusation she makes: nine years after the publication of Bloom's Closing of the American Mind, for example, Lawrence Levine finally published The Opening of the American Mind (someone had to), demonstrating -- in addition to the numerous factual inaccuracies in Bloom's book -- the contingent historical circumstances that gave rise to many of the "absolute" values the ideal Bloomian university was supposed to espouse. The proper historical grounding puts the arguments of Bloom -- and those of his many acolytes -- in a different light. Yet in her urge to firmly recontextualize Bloom, Garber betrays her own longing for a fixed, historical context that would anchor Bloom in his place. Elsewhere in Symptoms Garber seems to conclude that a work's cultural meaning is completely contingent, fully dependent for its significance -- like a link on the Web -- on its surrounding context rather than on any kind of intrinsic or "essential" value. Here, however, she demonstrates a longing for fixity, for an anchor that would give her aesthetic and cultural judgments some grounding.

I take this as evidence that we cannot long tolerate ambiguity. In the end we need fixed cultural hierarchies to establish who and where we are. "Finally, Keats is a better poet than Bob Dylan," wrote the English playwright David Hare, a onetime sixties radical responding in exasperation to the obliteration of all cultural and aesthetic distinctions. Whether or not Hare is right about Keats, his will to place cultural works in hierarchical order is a function of being human in society. E. D. Hirsch's Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Harold Bloom's The Western Canon, the Modern Library's list of the 100 greatest twentieth-century novels in the English language, even the American Top 40 -- all of these are attempts to rank and fix culture. And whether one prefers Keats or Bob Dylan, Shakespeare or Alice Walker, Allan or Harold Bloom, the very fact of having a preference makes one a stakeholder in the myriad critical clashes we call the culture wars. It's as though there is a Platonic Top 100 out there -- if only we could figure out the proper means of getting at it.

Scott Stossel is the executive editor of
The American Prospect. His article on television violence, "The Man Who Counts the Killings," appeared in the May, 1997, issue of The Atlantic.

More American Graffiti features in Atlantic Unbound

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