Peter Heinegg

O.K., post-Christian (we’ve read our Nietzsche), postmodern (the MLA insists on it), postcolonial (goes without saying), post-structuralist (ho-hum)but post-cultural? Can Christopher Clausen, an English professor at Penn State, be serious? Indeed he can. First, assume that culture in the old sense of a more or less rigid, coherent set of norms and customs that wall off insiders from outsiders (cf. the Navajo name for themselves, Dineh, "people," implying that non-Navajos are...God knows what) has been rapidly breaking down in the centrifugal whirl of money-, media- and youth-dominated America. Next, assume that we’re setting the pace for the rest of the planet (though visions of a plasticized "McWorld" are premature). Finally, assume that a lot of the talk about multiculturalism is mere nostalgia (the Sons of Italy, the United Daughters of the Confederacy) or decorative fluff (Kwanzaa). To be genuinely multicultural would be like riding more than one horse at oncea rare and strenuous feat. The name of the game is, by and large, assimilation (groan).

So what we will get, and are getting already, outside of resistant pockets of Orthodox Jews, Old Order Amish, et al., is "mass individualism," which, banal, chaotic and dumb as it may seem and be, easily beats the dismal alternatives of tribalism (clitoridectomy) or collectivism (Chinese, etc., trampling on human rights). The vast majority of our speciesjust ask harried wives in Africa and India, not liberal academicswould adore driving to a mall, if only they had cars and malls, and spending the day there.

So "culture" (the hierarchical, hidebound, home-made kind) is on the way out in these parts, and evidence for that is everywhere: from the Mindanao Trench of TV offerings (American women over 55 watch an average of 41 hours per week) to the proliferating "kudzu" of the Internet to "tabloidism" (the coverage of Monica Lewinsky, the cult of Lady Di). If this isn’t exactly dramatic newsa host of plausible Jeremiahs, from Matthew Arnold to Dwight MacDonald, have been reporting it for generationsClausen’s summary of it has pungency and verve. His book bristles with pointed dicta, such as, "In a living culture E. D. Hirsch would not write a book called Cultural Literacy to teach native-born Americans things they would already know if they were part of one."

Clausen is not telling us either to mourn or to organize; he simply shows how the much-maligned melting pot is still roaring away. He cites, for instance, a bit from a New York Times book review about the marriage of a Hawaiian couple, Trudy Schandler and Alvin Wong: "When Alvin Wong decided to convert to Judaism," the reviewer burbles, "his assimilationist parents were overjoyed by this proof that their sonfrom whom they had calculatedly withheld instruction in the use of chopstickswas now really an American." The kids have been raised as non-kosher Jews: Ari had his bar mitzvah at a Chinese restaurant, and Shaaroni went to her bat mitzvah in a muumuu. Ari thinks being Jewish is "cool"though what sort of service the family will have when he marries a Nisei Buddhist (i.e., someone belonging to the current majority religion in Hawaii) is unclear. Seeing all the immigrants to 18th-century America with their amazingly varied but already diluted faiths, Crèvecoeur predicted that "this mixed neighborhood will exhibit a strange religious medley." And how.

Clausen’s case is not simplistic. While deriding the inanity of much of post-culture, he never claims that it will drive all high or traditional cultures to extinction: There will always be room for them on democracy’s mind-boggling menu. And while many smaller and less resistant cultures, like endangered species, will go under (about half the world’s 6,000 languages are expected to vanish in the 21st century), many will survive, flourish and refuse to be outposts of the Disney Empire. (One of the forces guaranteeing this is the perennially virulent antibody of nationalism.)

With monoculturalism on the right and multiculturalism on the left proving to be "museum pieces," Clausen can only hope that post-culturalism will mature and improve with age. Will individual freedom, egalitarianism and the willingness to try anything and move beyond the deadlocks of the past manage to overcome "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 causes of conflict in the world"?

Who knows? But in the meantime, better those crowds of placard-waving idiots whooping it up for the camera in front of the "Today" show and "Good Morning America" than the mobs of Serbian ethnic cleansers or the orchestrated public ecstasies for Saddam Hussein. And better, for that matter, a silly Enlightenment feast of the goddess Reason than the recent deluded and disgusting hunt of California gray whales with anti-tank guns by the Makah Nation of Washington State in their effort to avert "cultural genocide." With luck, our options won’t be so extreme.

In any event, Clausen treats these crucial questions with acumen, balance and unpedantic style. Whether or not "post-cultural" makes it to the top of the Trendy Terms chart, Faded Mosaic is going to fuel a lot of lively debatesand it should.

Peter Heinegg is a professor of English at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.