Cultural Impasse & the Changing Forms of Ideality:
Notes Toward a Research Program

by Ralph Dumain

"Why the popularity of the Western? Because young people who sit cramped in buses and tied to assembly lines terribly wish they could be elsewhere.... Like all art, but more than most, the movies are not merely a reflection, but an extension of the actual—an extension along the lines which people feel are lacking and possible in the actual. That, my dear, is the complete secret of Hegelian dialectic. The two, the actual and the potential, are always inseparably linked; one is always giving way to the other. At a certain stage a crisis takes place and a complete change is the result."

[from letter to Constance Webb, September 1, 1943, in: The C.L.R. James Reader, edited by Anna Grimshaw; Oxford: Blackwell, 1992; p. 129]

There are a few themes that have been vaguely circulating in my head lately. One has to do with cultural form as ideality and its relation to the actual materiality of social living. Another has to do with C.L.R. James: that one has to exercise one's imagination to appreciate that James was the product of a generation radically different from our own time and that this explains both him and the differences in the applicability of his ideas then and now. A third has to do with my total disgust at contemporary culture and the fact that all of my cultural reference points come from a reality that has ceased to be, and hence I've got to think my way through this without succumbing to decadence or becoming nostalgic about the rotten past.

James is only one example out of multitudes, but he lived in a very different time from our own, a time much more backward and less self-aware, and therefore the expectations one had and the judgments one could make about human actuality and possibility took place in a different mental universe from the one we now inhabit. (This is comparable to a colleague's statement that James lived in a world radically different from that of the New Left and hence should not be viewed as a New Leftist who just happened to be active in the 1940s.) And of course in those days the realization among the progressive intelligentsia across the board that the future of humanity lay in the masses and so their lives and aspirations should be give attention at long last, accompanied by the research and documentation on folk culture, working class life, etc. Without getting to details, the point being that one's basic approach to actuality and ideality is of a certain character, and then is not now.

I also reflect from my own experience on how different society and culture are now than they were 30 years ago. By the commonplaces of today's cynical sophistication, the likes of Lenny Bruce and Allen Ginsberg seem awfully quaint and even antiquarian. You couldn't pay me enough to relive my childhood, but I am fascinated by the culture I grew up on, and I think of the meaning of TV shows such as The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and The Fugitive, their conceptual universe and their relation as cultural ideality to the social reality that generated them.

My one theme I find it difficult to clarify is this relationship between materiality and ideality as it affects the conception of the masses, as that requires a great effort to formulate in detail. Probably people were a lot worse 50 years ago even than they are now (heaven help us!), but circumstances have evolved to the point where all the flaws from the both the material and ideal angles become revealed in a way that requires our analysis be moved up several notches. One would think that all the new scholarship that has come out in the past 20 years would have solved this problem, but I contend that the very division of labor has dissipated much of this energy in a great deal of dishonesty and confusion. It takes little no effort or risk now to analyze the naive past in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.—i.e. considerations that are commonplace now and are used half-consciously by academics who never lifted a finger to change the realities that have made the consciousness of these matters a social commonplace. In other words, superficially we are conscious of so much more and can apply this knowledge to the past, but I believe the overwhelming quantity of this kind of analysis is smug and shallow, and the postmodern diversion of intellectual energy represents both a world-historical impasse and the extreme alienation instigated by the division of labor.

I'm throwing around terms like materiality and ideality: what do I mean? Well, I have pilfered the concept of the ideal from the Soviet philosophical literature and have extended it to cover cultural phenomena abstracted from the material conditions from which they are derived. I may be violating the strict meaning of ideality in some of my applications, but I will explain the rationale for doing so shortly. The ideal means simply the intangible products of mental and social activity—thought, ideas, concepts, information. Unlike the physicalism characteristic of certain western approaches to the mind-body problem, Soviet dialectical materialism, following Lenin, insisted on the opposition between the material and the ideal, rather than their identity (i.e. a thought is this chemical or that group of neurons firing). (One example of the literature: The Problem of the Ideal by David Dubrovsky.)

Clearly, cultural ideas circulating in society would come under the realm of the ideal. But I don't know about "cultural products" , as so many of them are stubbornly material practices. Chinese cuisine, African music, or European ballet are all extremely tangible and physical activities or entities, but I want to group them with ideality for two reasons. Their stylistic, aesthetic, and organizational properties can be abstracted out of the physical activity and material culture and produce them (food preparation-> recipes, music and dance-> styles and principles of organization, etc.). Secondly, from an everyday social standpoint we are quite accustomed to abstracting out the unique creative and expressive properties of various social groups and calling these things "culture." When you go to an ethnic festival, you want to sample the food, listen to the music, watch the dance, check out the clothes, etc., but you if you have any sanity you could care less about the family structure, child-rearing practices, the economic and technological infrastructure (beyond specific tools of the trade) supporting these activities or the other routine commonplaces that make everyday life so unspeakably tedious. When you see "culture", it's show-time, and this is what I mean by ideal. It is the realm where people express themselves, their creativity, their aspirations, even their utopian ideals.

However, to understand these things, one has to set them against the materially existing life from which they originate. A fortiori for what we now like to call "culture": literature, movies, CDs, TV shows, etc.

To understand what "culture" means now in relation to the reality we live and what it was then in relation to that living reality, this is my task, esp. with respect to the need to understand the particular configuration of the utter rottenness of both the materiality and the ideality of the world we live in now.

Written 29 October 1997, edited & uploaded 1 August 2000
1997, 2000 Ralph Dumain

100 Years of C.L.R. James

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 1 August 2000

©2000-2009 Ralph Dumain