1.0 INTRO: A EUROPEAN INTELLECTUAL IN UNCLE SAM'S COURT
Just a glance across the works of Umberto Eco suggests that he has a foot in two worlds: one staked firmly in High Culture and the other sunk deep into Pop. His books seem to belong more to an author’s library than to his portfolio. With titles (available in English to the American reader) like A Theory of Semiotics next to the novel The Island of the Day Before; The Limits of Interpretation next to How to Travel with a Salmon; Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages next to the children’s book The Bomb and the General; and The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas next to Six Walks in the Fictional Woods; one can begin to sense the array.
This type of crossing became popular among academics in the late 1950s and ‘60s. Eco in 1959 – unaware of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies of 1957[Eco, Misreadings, 1] – began writing a column called Diario Minimo for Il Verri and since 1965 has contributed frequently to L’Espresso. His subject matter included commentary on Charlie Brown, James Bond, and Superman. The popular criticism at the time contended that it was inappropriate to use high-brow strategies to examine low-brow products. Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein heard this same cry of “inappropriate” in response to their works of the same period. The 1980s and ‘90s saw no let up in either this practice or this criticism, and Italy boasted the first ever pornstar-cum-politician in La Cicciolina who Jeff Koons later married and collaborated with thereby contributing to making him one of American art’s success stories. Eco addressed this practice and criticism in 1964:
“The sum of these minimal messages that accompany our daily life constitutes the most manifest cultural phenomenon of the civilization in which we are living. As soon as it is decided to turn these messages into objects for criticism no approach can be unsuitable and they must be treated as worthy of the greatest attention.” [Eco, Apocalypse, 33]
In 1987, for the English publication of Travels in Hyperreality, this criticism – or by then maybe it had become only a perceived disjunction – surfaced again. Eco began the preface to that collection in this way:
“An American interviewer once asked me how I managed to reconcile my work as a scholar and university professor, author of books published by university presses, with my other work as what would be called in the United States a “columnist” — not to mention the fact that, once in my life, I even wrote a novel (a negligible incident, in any case, an activity allowed by the constitution of every democratic nation).” [Eco, Travels, xi]
In 2008 we can add four more novels; several collections of essays on interpretation, mass media, language, and cognition; plus a host of interviews, debates and columns all collected in books by a variety of publishers. His subjects include the Vespa, cell phones, s-codes, belief, labyrinths, the internet, translation, fútbol, and Immanuel Kant.
We might, at first, excuse the anonymous American interviewer since it took until 1994 for the translation of the 1964 answer to jump continents. But today, or more specifically, on May 2, 2008, twenty-one years after the publication of this preface to Travels in Hyperreality, the question surfaced again as Leonard Lopate interviewed the Three Musketeers – Eco, Salman Rushdie, and Mario Vargas Llosa – at the 92nd St. Y. In discussing Llosa’s run for president in Peru, Lopate proposed that writers in other countries serve a different function than writers in the United States in that they get involved with politics, but in the US the writer is seen more as an entertainer.
Eco’s response in 2008, as it was in 1987, was that Europe and America have different patterns of culture. To Lopate and his colleagues he offered two theories. The first was that someone like Noam Chomsky who is both a linguist and a political commentator is “unacceptable for the American mind,” whereas in Germany or France this is perfectly acceptable. The second was that unlike in France, Germany, and Italy, in the United States and England the universities are geographically located outside of the cities, isolated on campuses such that the professors are removed from the political issues. While this second theory may account for Harvard and Yale, it doesn’t account for NYU, Columbia, and Cooper Union, a fact that did not go unnoticed by his New York City audience.
In 1987 when he reflected on this question in writing, he called the habit of writing for newspapers and magazines across broad subject matter one common to all European intellectuals.
“I added, somewhat maliciously, that if there was any problem with this it was not my problem as a European intellectual; it was more a problem of American intellectuals, who live in a country where the division of labor between university professors and militant intellectuals is much more strict than in our countries.” [Ibid, ix-x]
He continued then by saying that he “owes the American reader [the] explanation” that European scholars take a stand on political issues in columns, on subjects that concern all citizens (not just academics), as a political duty or moral obligation whereas in the United States he contrasts politics as a profession — merely an occupation. He broadly named this as a difference in “patterns of culture” between America and Europe.[Ibid, ix-xi]
“Cultural anthropologists accept cultures in which people eat dogs, monkeys, frogs, and snakes, and even cultures where adults chew gum, so it should be all right for countries to exist where university professors contribute to the newspapers.” [Ibid, x]
Column pieces, he explained, in contrast to theoretical or book works, demand less perfecting — effused in a moment of white heat [Ibid] — such that they may represent imperfect ideas. By putting them in the newspapers and reading them the next day, the columns perform as triggers of agreement or dissent for readers and can be read and forgotten. By this method the risk of contradiction and being proven wrong produces the vibrancy of this short life span.
He ends this preface in Travels in Hyperreality with an example of the European duty he describes, turning the preface into another essay within the collection. His moral obligation to the American reader and intellectual is spelled out almost as a reprimand:
“...sometimes you have to speak because you feel the moral obligation to say something, not because you have the “scientific” certainty that you are saying it in an unassailable way.”[Ibid, xii]
Both of these commentaries, in 2008 and in 1987, are made, as he explains, in the moment of white heat, and they present imperfect ideas. So as an American reader – and writer – having more time to consider this question, I will take the opportunity of this essay to examine the issues in more detail. Taking Eco’s answer from 1964 as a sufficient explanation for the cross from High culture to Pop, I will not readdress that directly, but instead I will address the question of the theories from a European perspective of an apparently American problem, and consider why Americans obsess over this question. Why don’t we get that this phenomenon could be something other than a paradox? I will begin from Eco’s lead and take the reigns from there. Either the Europeans have it wrong, or the Americans have a problem to solve. Or both. Eco takes the second position, hoping we will solve it soon so he doesn’t have to face this question for another twenty years.
1.1 POPPING: THE QUESTIONS
My initial response is that while Eco’s theory seems plausible on the surface and has an historical precedent, there are layers to it that an easy answer does not address. First of all, in this age of globalization and information sharing I find it hard to believe that the division and professionalization between High Culture and Pop – for producers and critics – is not ever present in daily life, and in academic life, in both criticism and taste, in Italy or Europe as a whole. The fact that Eco has addressed this question for his European audience in many essays on mass media and culture justifies this observation. Secondly, with the changing demographics in all countries due to immigration it seems difficult to talk of “Americans” as a whole much less than that complex category known today as “Europeans.” To reduce the question to one of nationality serves less to find an answer than to add another academic dichotomy for students to debate over in the ivory tower. The third question is, are there or are there not American intellectuals in the popular press? If they are not, surely the problem can’t rest only on the shoulders of the American intellectual. Another question that comes to this American mind is where do these “European” remarks come from, what is the historical precedent? Adding to this, where are these European intellectuals in the mass media? In the final analysis I must return to the question of the role of writers, and specifically novelists and poets, in America and in Europe. Lopate’s question was aimed particularly at writers and the perception of the writer as a “Public Intellectual” – in today’s parlance – versus the writer as an entertainer, and it seems that the entire debate is lodged there. I will consider these questions in the context of the current debates around public intellectuals in the United States. Mostly, I will focus on American patterns of culture and only briefly point to possible European patterns.
1.2 IS THERE A PROBLEM, AMERICA?
Salman Rushdie, in his response to Leonard Lopate, suggested that this was a fairly recent phenomenon and cited Norman Mailer as a counter example. Eco introduced Noam Chomsky. Mario Vargas Llosa entered the name of Ezra Pound, recognizing that sometimes this crossover of the novelist, artist, or intellectual into the political realm is not always met with praise. Llosa’s other example, this time a European, was Martin Heidegger who was never apologetic of his Nazi involvement. Political engagement and the moment of white heat whether from Jean Paul Sartre or Ezra Pound isn’t always in defense of the side “we” are on. Freedom of expression and the voice of the artist-as-citizen must be encouraged from all sides, not only those we side with.
American figures like Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglas, Richard Wright, Charles Baldwin, H.L. Mencken, Mary McCarthy, Audre Lorde, Susan Sontag, Kathy Acker, and Edward Said, to name just a few, did not hold their tongues about political or religious issues. Cornell West, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Ishmael Reed, Gore Vidal, Alice Walker, Joan Didion, Carolyn Forché, Adrienne Rich, Dennis Cooper, David Foster Wallace, and William T. Vollman, are just a few more American literary figures who are currently politically engaged in their books, magazine essays, and in public life. And, though not a literary figure in the academic sense, Michael Moore warrants special mention. Cornel West, facing the other direction, produced his own R&B/Hip Hop CD, Thomas Pynchon lent his voice to the The Simpsons, Paul Auster wrote two screenplays, and Rushdie, as Lopate noted, recently appeared in several movies and also a music video with Scarlett Johansson. Eco should neither feel so alone in either direction, nor so European.
Prospect Magazine, in 2005, compiled a list of the top 100 Public Intellectuals, and they followed it up with a new list in 2008. In the 2008 list, which the votes haven’t been tallied into an order yet, 34 ½ nominees are identified as Americans (seven halves are listed as having dual national identities). An additional 13, while not identifying as Americans, currently hold academic posts in American universities. Twenty-six are identified as Europeans: 5 French, 9 ½ British, 1 ½ German, 3 Italian, 2 Netherlander, and one each from Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Slovenia, Spain, and Switzerland. (Three Russians could go either to Europe or Asia). Debates around the usefulness or accuracy of this list abounded in 2005 as they do in 2008. Selection criteria, the origin of the compilers, and the political persuasion of the compilers, all come into question. The list itself represents just the kind of crossover between the intellectual and the entertainer that this essay seeks to explore: the voting process compares to that of American Idol. Despite these debates, clearly Americans are well represented.
1.3 WHAT AND WHO IS A PUBLIC INTELLECTUAL?
Just as Americans have asked Eco the same question over the years, never hearing or being satisfied with the answer, so too have they been asking the question, what and who is an intellectual? And more recently, what and who is a Public Intellectual? In 1987, the same year Eco’s preface to Travels in Hyperreality appeared to the American reader, Russell Jacoby put the term “public intellectual” into circulation (while coinage is attributed to C. Wright Mills in 1958) in his book The Last Intellectuals, which inspired much debate. In 1993, Edward Said delivered a series of lectures that are collected under the title, Representations of the Intellectual. In 2001, Christopher Hitchens published his own version of representations of an intellectual in a book called Letters to a Young Contrarian, and also in 2001, the issue significantly surfaced again in a book by Richard A. Posner, Public Intellectuals: A Study in Decline, which again stirred up debate. Then in 2005, Prospect Magazine issued their Top 100 Public Intellectuals list which caused even further debate, and now in 2008, Prospect has announced the 100 nominees for the new Top 100 list and the print media and blogosphere has again erupted in debate.
Today’s reception and loose usage of the term “public intellectual” can be viewed parallel to that of the term “mass culture” as Eco described its emergence in his essay titled Apocalyptic and Integrated Intellectuals (published: Italy 1964; USA 1994). Both phrases, on the surface, appear oxymoronic. Culture, according to one of the definitions in Webster’s dictionary, concerns the “steady endeavor and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training and acquaintance with and taste in fine arts, humanities, and broad aspects of science as distinguished from vocational, technical, or professional skill.”[Eco, Apocalypse, 117] While culture possessed this aristocratic quality, mass, on the other hand, possessed a quality of baseness, and the lowest common denominator, or consensus. The categories of High Culture and Pop attempt to make the same division, but, as Eco explained:
“...the culture industry does not conveniently present us with the possibility of distinguishing two independent spheres, with mass communication over here and aristocratic creation over there, the latter coming first and remaining untouched by the other. The system of the culture industry imposes a mechanism of reciprocal conditioning so that the very notion of culture tout court is affected. If the term ‘mass culture’ represents an imprecise hybrid in which both the meaning of culture and the meaning of mass are unknown, it is nonetheless clear that it is now no longer possible to think of culture as something which is articulated according to the inexorable and incorruptible necessity of a Spirit that is not historically conditioned by the existence of mass culture. From this point onwards, the notion of ‘culture’ itself has to be re-elaborated and reformulated.”[Ibid, 22]
Likewise, the term “public intellectual” presents us with just such an imprecise hybrid where both the meanings of “public” and of “intellectual” are unknown. The apocalyptic intellectuals, such as Russell Jacoby (The Last Intellectuals), Bernard Henry Levy (Eulogy for an Intellectual), Jean Francois Lyotard (The Tomb of the Intellectual), George Gross (The Decline of the Left Intellectual in Modern France), and Richard Posner (Public Intellectuals: A Study in Decline)[Robbins, 1] who announce the doom and gloom of the intellectual fetishize (to echo Eco’s use of Marx) this division between the public and the intellectual as they are traditionally conceived. Eco, for his part, plays the role of the apocalyptic to some extent, too, with his diagnosis of the American intellectual. Whereas the integrated intellectual, “like the man of culture facing the era of industrial mechanization,” can not ask how to return to the time of intellectuals such as Emile Zola, but instead must ask “what is required in order to elaborate a new image of man in relation to the [current] objective conditions; a man not free from the machine, but free in relation to the machine.”[Eco, Apocalypse, 23] Eco’s accusation of the American intellectual is just such a call to return to the past. Today, both “public” and “intellectual” have to be re-elaborated and reformulated, and intellectuals and academics must find a way to not be free from the public, but to be free as a member of the public.
The central debate has always focused on three issues: the decline of the public intellectual, the nominees for the title of public intellectual, and the terminology “public intellectual”. Christopher Hitchens (nominee for 2008, and 2005’s number 5) notes this transition in terminology when he sees that the public intellectual is no longer associated only with the secular and the left, as the term “intellectual” has been historically associated. He points out the presence of Pope Benedict XVI, Tariq Ramadan, and Yusuf al-Qaradawi on the 2008 list.[Hitchens, 1] The term “intellectual” as it evolved from the literacy-based “man of letters” to its political connotation in the late nineteenth century as a term of abuse to characterize those individuals, like Emile Zola, who came to the defense of Captain Dreyfus, transformed into a term of endearment for those subversives who spoke out in protest and opposition. Along with being subversive, the intellectual also came to be known as an individual who held no position of power, was unaffiliated and therefore independent, and was unmotivated by winning rewards. In his lecture series, Edward Said considered power, affiliation, and the possibility of winning rewards
“not at all conducive to the exercise of that critical and relatively independent spirit of analysis and judgment that…ought to be the intellectual’s contribution.” [Said, 86] “I would go so far as saying, that the intellectual must be involved with a lifelong dispute with all the guardians of sacred vision or text, whose depredations are legion and whose heavy hand brooks no disagreement and certainly no diversity.”[Ibid, 88-9] “The intellectual has to walk around, has to have the space in which to stand and talk back to authority, since unquestioning subservience to authority in today’s world is one of the greatest threats to an active, and moral, intellectual life.”[Ibid, 121]
Considering these conditions, no matter how intelligent, influential, and skilled as a debater the Pope (any pope) may be, or how broadly he speaks on various topics, he cannot, technically speaking, be classified as an intellectual. Nor can he serve as a role model for intellectuals because of his encouragement to his church followers to be both subservient to his authority as well as to the authority of a God whose existence must be accepted on faith. “Faith,” as Hitchens tirelessly and accurately describes it, “is the negation of the intellect:” it supplies belief in place of inquiry, skepticism, the dialectic, and of the disorder, anxiety, and struggle that are required for intellectual inquiry.[Future, 14] Although “speaking truth to power” as the intellectual’s motto has gone out of style because Power already knows the truth, and because truth is never 100% certain no matter who delivers it (as Chomsky has made both clear), an odd paradox occurs when the Pope is expected to critically consider his own doctrines and subvert them. Likewise, a similar rupture occurred when Teresa Heinz Kerry, in her campaign speech for her husband’s bid for the presidency of the United States in 2004, used this expression.1 Power speaking truth to itself from its own armchair has no subversive strength; actually the very strength exercised in this is more often the source of the trouble.
Despite this misappropriation of the terminology, and mischaracterization of individuals as intellectuals, Hitchens concludes that “public intellectual” may be necessary as a contrast to the pundit or opinion maker. Herbert Gans, on the other hand, in a panel discussion in 2001 with Hitchens and others, characterized the public intellectual as just that, a pundit for the educated classes. He reduced the role of the public intellectual to supplying quotes and legitimizing the media. “You know,” he said, “if no journalist calls for a quote, then I’m not a public intellectual; I just sit there writing my books and teaching classes.”[Ibid, 8] But to write books and teach classes is no less public. “There is no such thing as a private intellectual,” Edward Said notes, “since the moment you set down words and then publish them you have entered the public world.”[Said, 12]
Prospect Magazine defined their selection criteria in these terms: “Candidates have to be living and still active in public life. They have to have shown distinction in their particular field as well as an ability to influence debate across borders.”[2008 Prospect] Although not included in the 2008 nominees, one can see how Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, and maybe even Malika El Aroud may be nominated in future years – (to the chagrin of Zola and Sartre). Al Gore, on the other hand, makes the list by satisfying the requirements of both terms: he lost his seat of power, hosted Saturday Night Live, and independently produced an award-winning film about global warming. He is neither a subversive character, nor an exile, nor even a contrarian. Instead, he is the quintessential do-gooder, the good Samaritan of the world. Even though the oil companies might not agree with my characterization, he’s a long stone throw from Edward Said or from Christopher Hitchens who tackled Mother Theresa for her endorsement of the Duvalier regime in Haiti. “Public Intellectual”, in today’s parlance, then satisfies anyone within the range of the Pope right, Al Gore center, and Chomsky left.
But the ultimate paradox of the Prospect Top 100 list is that if the term “intellectual” is to retain an association to the subversive, as Hitchens hopes it will, and the individual is to accumulate his/her import from marginality, powerlessness, and publicly speaking out against the status quo, then Chomsky, Eco, and Hitchens, who occupy the top of the list have acquired caches of power. They have something to win and something to lose. By the very definition of the subversive intellectual, those not even listed are more likely the true candidates for the title, and those occupying the top are the very ones that others will seek to take down. None of these three would have it any other way. (Actually, any intellectual would care little about this list at all).
When Russell Jacoby used the term “public intellectual” in The Last Intellectuals, he did so in comparison to those private intellectuals who he saw retreating into the specialized and cloistered environments of the academy. These academics were publishing obscure texts in jargon that only their fellow academics and students could understand, and they were first forced to toe-the-line in order to get tenure, and once they got it they became lulled into their comfortable appointments as Chairs becoming, in turn, the mouth pieces of the university. He, later in 2001, described this change from the pre-1950 intellectual to the post-1970 public intellectual by saying, “those of that generation started off as independent intellectuals writing for small magazines and ended up professors. The next generation started off as professors [and therefore] wrote differently and thought differently.”[“Future,” 3]
In light of this criticism, while the problem for the American may rest on the shoulders of the intellectual, as our European colleagues have suggested, some of the responsibility must also lie with the American press, publishers, and readers. For various reasons, professionals in the press don’t welcome novelists, artists, or university professors in the popular press as anything more than quote-suppliers or legitimizers (in Gans’ words)[Ibid, 8] and nor do mainstream readers or publishers welcome their opinions into their houses on topics other than their specialization. The problem, as seen from the American point of view, might lie less with the lack of expression of these opinions by American intellectuals or artists, but more with the apparatus that should be asking for them. All of these theories, whether accurate or not, make up the myth or narrative of the demise of the American intellectual that Americans never tire of telling and that European intellectuals never tire of exploiting to the betterment of their own images.
2.0 STUDIES IN DECLINE: THROUGH EUROPEAN EYES
These observations follow two currents in the US: the first is a growing anti-intellectualism, and the second is the division of labor that assigns roles to individuals based on expertise. Considering first the responsibility that rests on the shoulders of the American intellectual, the French sociologist Loïc J.D. Wacquant, in a 1996 essay titled The Self-Inflicted Irrelevance of American Academics offered a list of pejorative terminology that contributes to the growing anti-intellectualism in the US and then gives four explanations of how American intellectuals themselves contribute to the negative sentiment.
His first point is in recognizing the “supremacy of economic capital over cultural capital” or “favoring money over knowledge.”[Wacquant, 19] Like Eco, Wacquant sees in American society the placement of occupational duties — those that bring a paycheck — over public or political duties — those that invest in the moral or social fabric. In America where economic hegemony imposes itself on politics (as well as on the industries of the arts, the media, publishing, health and education) such that presidential campaigns exceed the dozen million dollar mark, lobbies openly buy laws with full impunity, and senior government officials come from the boards of multinational corporations, Wacquant asks, “what remains of the pretense to serve the public good?”[Ibid, 19] In this view, the American intellectual is guided more by the dollar than by moral duties (with the understanding that this could be guided by economic imperative and/or greed).
His second observation ascribes the stifled attempts at revolution by intellectuals to the fragmentation of oppositional cultures in the US. Wacquant calls the “feminists, black, Latino and Asian militants, unionists, advocates of children’s rights and the homeless, students and public employees, defenders of single mothers and immigrants, and gay activists,” when they don’t unite in their opposition against the “neo-conservative Blitzkrieg”, “a rag tag band of snipers” who threaten no one but themselves by promoting their own particular(istic) strategies.[Ibid, 20] This splintering of advocates, with political and public motivations, contributes to the sentiment of anti-intellectualism in America in that it portrays intellectuals as too caught up in their own quibbles to make an effective change in the larger public sphere.
While this type of unification might have some power, to call for it is comparable to saying that if Europe could only unify, they could defeat America as a superpower. True, but it falsely posits that the interests and concerns of France are the same as those of Bulgaria, or that the Germans and the Croatians have the same issues, or that Belfast and Dublin have bigger fish to fry, and it fails to acknowledge that the Russians, who bridge two continents, and the British and Swiss who have yet to accept the Euro, have issues specific to Europe that have nothing to do with America being a common foe. While African-Americans, Asians, Homosexuals, Unionists, and students may all be fighting the same opponent at one time or another, the issues affecting them and the solutions that could bring about change will not work for one and all. All of these categories of revolutionaries cross into each other at different axis points, and their issues are not clearly delineated by race, gender, or employer-employee relations. To assume so is to likewise assume that all African-Americans are gay-friendly, or that Asians are not sexist, or that Homosexuals don’t ignore the homeless.
Thirdly, Wacquant sees the think-tank, as an institutional intellectual body, in opposition to the private intellectual. Individuals in the schools of social policy, like the Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute, possess all the trappings of the academic but differ in that they cannot formulate their own questions or seek answers in total freedom. The think tanks stand guard over them and ultimately protect the interests of the American dominant class.[Ibid, 20] Private intellectuals then, guided by money in the first instance, and in competition with institutional intellectuals in the second, find less space to express their opinions, especially when they express a dissenting view.
Wacquant’s fourth cause for anti-intellectualism in the US lies in the safety and security of the microcosm of the modern university. Reminiscent of Eco and Jacoby, for Wacquant, “It is well known that American academics have instituted…the figure of the professional…” as opposed to the European-style intellectuel and therefore “feel justified to cast aside any and all civic or moral engagement beyond their narrow domain of expertise.”[Ibid, 21] Expert status, in this sense, becomes job security in the university, expressed most clearly through the tenure system, and therefore serves to threaten no one but other experts. This kind of moral or political position-taking bears little revolutionary affect on the world “outside” the university.
In this anti-intellectual climate, one can see why the readership, or the general public, would feel fragmented, disinterested, and estranged from the intellectual. If academics are motivated by money and job security, are fighting too loudly amongst themselves, and are competing for government funding (either from think-tank support or by winning highly competitive grants), when would they have time to consider interests other than their own?
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Wacquant’s article (and most pertinent for its relationship to Eco’s commentary) comes in a note at the end from the translator and the author. They tell us that this article was originally intended for European audiences but that they have retained the tone and the glossary to “entice the American reader to look at his or her own universe through ‘the eyes of the Persian’ (as in Montesquieu’s classic novel).”[Ibid, 23] In the same way that Eco administered parental advice to the American reader, Wacquant follows the lead. From both are we to feel embarrassed or ashamed in the eyes of our European parents? Is this patronizing patrimony a “pattern of European culture”? For Wacquant too then supposedly we Americans are to get busy and Europeanize our academics. (But isn’t the post-structuralist jargon of Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Barthes, and Derrida that Americans have been instructed in just the shovel that buried our academics in the university?) This kind of reprimand sounds like the same one which accuses Americans of misspending their European inheritance on consumer goods, against the models of our ancestors — those ancestors whom, we should remember, Washington, Jefferson, and Adams broke away from.
This European theorizing of the American situation has historical roots, probably most notably expressed through the observations of Alex de Tocqueville in 1830. Tocqueville cited the puritanical origin and exclusively commercial habits of the Americans as two of “a thousand special causes” which “fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects.”[Tocqueville, 37] Tocqueville also said that Americans “have (no) time or taste to devote…to the pursuits or pleasures of the intellect, but (that) all men would (rather) remain paralyzed in a state of common ignorance and equal servitude.”[Ibid] And further, he noted that once men recognize the utility of knowledge in acquiring fame, wealth, and power, they all are attracted to it.[Ibid, 39] We can see that Wacquant is not historically out of place when he aligns economic hegemony to the demise of civic duty.
Social and cultural analyst Andrew Ross points out that the intellectual debates about national culture in America have been directed by European categories of taste and culture.[Ross, 7, 62-3] We bear witness to this by comparing our European cultural imports — theories of Marx, Freud, Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieu, and Eco — with our American cultural exports, predominantly from popular culture — Kiss, Madonna, Hip Hop, Star Wars, and John Grisham. Ross notes that the power and authority of the European cultural establishment had accumulated a wealth of pre-capitalist prestige, originally endowed by aristocratic patronage, and has therefore endured relatively independent of business interests and state authority. The American culture industry, on the other hand, differs in the absence of a pre-capitalist strata: our cultural establishment has become an industry and therefore indissociably tied to capitalist economy.[Ibid, 62-3] This begins to explain the historical perspective of Eco’s politics-as-occupation, and Wacquant’s professionalization of the academic in the American context. And compared to the European intellectual context, Ross notes: “intellectuals have seldom been in the position of being able to earn power, status, or prestige from their cultural production alone.”[Ibid, 63] This can be demonstrated by the amount of national funding given to European artists compared to the lack of state-sponsored, unrestricted funding offered to American artists.
Embedded in this observation and as Ross points out more directly elsewhere, our canons of judgment are still withdrawn from the bank of European “foreign cultural capital”. American notions of — High Cultural — art, theory, and literature are derivative of a European inheritance. Our university professors and students are schooled from this sphere: the tradition of philosophy, Marx’s dialectic, Saussure’s dualistic structures, Freudian psychoanalysis, and all of the European “post-s” thereafter.2 Our canons of popular culture, on the other hand, are supposedly predominantly our own, with a large part of the world inheriting them from us.
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