Cultural Criticism and the Social Division of Labor

by Ralph Dumain

My initial reaction to this discussion, beginning with Cotkin’s position paper, was that it was as stuffy, pompous, and objectionably navel-gazing as anything criticized by any of the participants.  Can the democratization of criticism really be a serious topic for academic and other professional critics?  Would not the essential task be a characterization of what has been accomplished and what is lacking in cultural criticism, given prevailing trends in a variety of circles, as a prerequisite for any further discussion of how to best organize criticism institutionally? 

So what are the essential issues treated in this discussion, or underlying it though not explicitly engaged?

(1) Cultural decline.  Things can get worse, as long as we remember there were no good old days.  Criticisms of the puffed-up New York Intellectuals at least remind us of this.  We can entertain the notion of decline as long as we can face the fact that what we declined from was no good anyway.  And in any case, decline is a direct product of progress.  For the cultural revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s was progress, and it climaxed at the very moment that political and economic decline set in, setting up a paradox that accounts for all that has happened since.  Decadence and cynicism were already societal fixtures of the late ‘70s as the cultural counterpart to Jimmy Carter’s stagflation and malaise.  From that point on any advance could only be co-opted by the increasing social disintegration as the necessary mechanism of social control in a conservative age of declining popular expectations.  Indeed, we have been dumbed down to the point of mental retardation emblematized by our president, but we need to be so dumb, to numb ourselves into self-deception, because deep down, we know too much.  All this, and not the precious navel-gazing of culture-vulture coteries, is what matters.

(2) Loss of a common culture or the loss of stable cultural circuits?  Anxiety over how to network, how to find one’s niche or one’s public, seems to be at the root of the otherwise questionable nostalgia for a common culture.  The sense of incoherence is undoubtedly real, just as the pseudo-coherence of yesteryear is in some respects a fiction.  However, questionable the notion of “community” might be, there is a sense of structure in which one can place oneself and be socially efficacious, something that eludes most of us now.  But the loss of universally recognized nodes of cultural dissemination—big magazines, little magazines, etc.—is a relative triviality.  The big loss is the decline of the labor movement, the prerequisite to any democracy, no matter what the cultural tastes of workers might be.  We need not naďvely accept a direct pipeline between labor and culture to recognize the connection. (The radical labor movement once tried to negotiate the alternative pathways of “people’s culture” and mass culture, imperfectly, and the situation is more difficult now.  The Partisan Review crowd tried something else, but was limited also.)  The largest frame of analysis must take as its basis: (a) the relation of specialized cultural and intellectual activity to the social totality (the division of labor), (b) the dialectic of community and fragmentation.

(3) The question of social organization of cultural and intellectual production is distinct from the issue of quality, as a point of departure.  Quality may abound but is easily buried in the signal-to-noise ratio.  The problem of our time is not that there is too little talent, but too much.  It is much more difficult to stand out because of (a) the wealth of accumulated knowledge and technique, (b) the large number of people operating at a high skill level, (c) the high level of specialization, (d) social fragmentation and the lack of common circuits of communication by which interested parties can get a sense of the whole (with the caveat that commonalities of yore have been exaggerated).

(4) Diminishing returns of the hipbeoisie.  Genuinely sophisticated criticism, as well as numbskull pseudo-sophisticated cultural criticism (e.g., a postcolonial analysis of Buffy), is so commonplace, in the end, its consumers as well as producers easily get numbed by it.  Critique becomes yet one more consumer distraction.  From academic knowledge factories to freelance bloggers, the problem is essentially the same.  There’s really no way of marking off the territories of the most incisive talent and the theory-laden trivia regurgitators.  Paradoxically, the commodification of critique renders the challenging of the tacit assumptions of one’s clique more difficult.  The theory industry is incapable of addressing the problem except via displays of guilty self-consciousness.  This is where all discussions among the professionals of cultural criticism break down.  These people are all petty bourgeois specialists in the end, no more.

Originally posted on H-Ideas Forum, Sat Apr 30, 2005 4:28 am
Slightly edited & uploaded May 2, 2005

©2005 Ralph Dumain


The Traditional Canon vs. Multiculturalism in the Literary Profession: A Sterile Debate


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Uploaded 2 May 2005

©2005 Ralph Dumain