Continuity and Change

Book cover
Culture, Capitalism, and Democracy in the New Americaby By Richard Harvey BrownYale Univ. Press. 342p $37.50

Voltaire loved to mock the pretensions of scholastic philosophythe notion that some grand, intellectualist construction would explain any fact, the conviction that one’s own mental categories were the real stuff of the universe, the assumption of a guiding intelligence behind every event.

What, then, might Voltaire have made of the late Richard Harvey Brown’s Culture, Capitalism, and Democracy in the New America? In Brown’s New America unspecified corporate elites drive a vast process of hyper-rationalization and radical subjectivism that explains literally everything. Have racial tensions eased in recent years? That’s because It no longer makes sense for elitesto play off one group of workers against another in order to deflate wages. The fingerprints of the corporate elite can be found even within the tent of Brown’s own postmodernism. In an extended riff on the late 1980’s controversy over the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, Brown asks, perhaps with a bit of paranoia, who benefits most of all from the intellectual constructions made around postmodern art forms? Could it be that the example and defense of postmodernism provide an implicit justification of the newest forms of capitalism, a perverse if unconscious alliance between some segments of the economic and cultural elites?

Postmodernists, following French deconstructionists, tend to see history as a series of alternative rhetorical performances. Power is about controlling descriptions. (Bertrand Russell once quipped that only savages and intellectuals confuse words and real things.) The political project of postmodernism is to unmask the unseen describers and thus subvert the established power elites. Brown, who was a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, himself worked in community development in Brazil and Guyanain a highly political context, as his vita puts itand did field work in the East Asian diaspora before becoming something of an academic guru of postmodern sociology.

Culture, Capitalism, and Democracy, to use Brown’s terminology, is structured as a metatheoretical narrative. Although it occasionally reads like a history of American culture, it is more a commentary on theories of American culture, or at least those within the Marxist, post-Marxist and postmodern persuasions. What gives the work its scholastic tinge is the implicit conviction that if one can only get the theory right, if the a priori categories can be made to line up just so, consequential truths will follow. (Exactly what those consequences might be is not clear, but they would surely create tremors within the bastions of the corporate elites.)

Although Brown’s sources are wide rangingfrom de Toqueville to Oprahhis book has a self-referential quality, relying heavily on authors who think pretty much as the author himself does. Consider, for example, an extended discussion of shifting conceptions of time and space. Historians from Lewis Mumford to David Landes have long since explored the psychological and cultural implications of the shift from agricultural to commercial tempos of living. But Brown is making polemical points about the sources of modern alienationfor example, how corporate elites have replaced multi-use public spaces with single-use privatized spaces like suburban malls, thereby increasing social segmentation and generating a longing for personal authenticity, a permanence of place, and a remembrance of origins.

All of that sounds plausible, but is it really true? Many suburban malls seem to function more like older multi-use town centers than single-use private spaces; that’s why mall-rats hang out in them. Is society really more segregated than it was in, say, the 19th century, or the 1950’s? And how does Brown know that Americans are longing for a remembrance of origins? Stripping away the wheeze-making academic jargon, in short, leaves not much content here. At bottom, Brown has done little more than compile a vast array of snippets and clippings and wrap them up in a clanking theoretical apparatus. Whether such an exercise advances knowledge or clarifies perceptions is highly doubtful.

A bit surprisingly, Brown, much like the late Christopher Lasch in his Culture of Narcissism, often slips into a semi-ranting, neoconservative tone, appearing to worry at one point, for instance, about sexual freedom among young people. Indeed, he writes, it can now be asked whether extramarital loves are a sign of confident autonomy or conjugal betrayal. Almost touchingly, he wonders whether his own postmodern ideology may be part of the problem: could the postmodernist impulse to relativize all accounts of history and cultural standards itself have contributed to the widespread anomie?

Many of the problems Brown raises are cause for real concern. There is no question that income inequality has been increasing for at least 20 years, or that families are under strain, or that consumerism is an insatiable master. But behind mouth-filling phrases like temporal dimensions of paired gender conceptions, the quality of discussion in Culture, Capitalism, and Democracy is no more profound than one might encounter on, say, the Charlie Rose or Oprah television shows.

Where Brown is taking all this is unclear, although he seems to be attempting to map out a new path for postmodernism. But perhaps he should speak for himself. Here is his wrap-up:

Drawing on both postmodernism and its critics, we could say that the emphasis on deconstruction and on the openness of all interpretations encourages a multiplicity of local discourses and a more rapid turnover in the most popular ones. The resulting cacophony of language games tends not only to delegitimate hegemonic discourses and create space to find new ones, as postmodernists argue, but it also tends to accentuate the consequences of late capitalism, as well as the fragmentation of shared paradigms for any public discourse, as critics of postmodernism have insisted. These are not contradictory positions, however, if we see them as expressions of the simultaneous hyper-rationalization and radical subjectivism that characterize contemporary American life.

Anyone troubled by the legitimacy of hegemonic discourses, one presumes, will take solace in such insights.

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