Daily Archives: October 18, 2009

Weaving the Past Together

Since the midterm we’ve covered about 20-odd years of history, most recently with Gail’s lectures on the Great Depression, a slice of time we could call, as is traditional, the inter-war period– though that designation begs the important question of what it means to periodize history according to conflict.

The foremost features of this era– which, as we proceed, will expand to include WWII and its immediate aftermath, and thus require a new nomenclature– are, as we’ve already discussed, the rise of mass society and with it the spread of mass culture. The effects of these processes were ambivalent, and by the 1940s the Frankfurt School had taken on the contradictory nature of modern life as an object of criticism, often relying in some fashion on the work of Max Weber, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. Soon after, middlebrow practitioners of pop-sociological critique such as William Whyte and David Reisman warned that economic conditions had produced new social identities such as “the Organization Man” and “the Lonely Crowd”– concepts intended to emphasize the waning power of an individualism that was usually located in the earliest years of (19th century) modernity. Fears of deepening conformity spread with remarkable speed, and commentary on that phenomenon appeared not only in the Partisan Review but (the recently deceased) Reader’s Digest. Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit— a novel depicting the struggle of middle-class characters in a world dominated by market values– and Norman Mailer‘s seminal (if controversial) essay (pdf) The White Negro attempted to describe a situation of radical inauthenticity, a society whose members were already well along the path of a kind of consumerist group-think. In this scenario, an economic landscape structured by corporations and mass production/consumption threatened to colonize the imagination itself– people’s deepest anxieties and desires. How would they respond to those conditions?

Historically, societies faced with a crisis of confidence about the present have adopted any number of different strategies. Fascism, for instance, arose in the wake of WWI’s destruction of the 19th century order of things and subsequent global depression. Like many ideologies, fascist values were often contradictory– at once modern and anti-modern, contemptuous of economic and political liberalism yet consumed by its hatred of the anti-capitalist left. On the other hand, WWI also generated cultural innovations such as Expressionism, Surrealism, and Cubism. Surveying the wreckage of Europe, different groups came to different conclusions: Spanish Carlists, US communists, Irish republicans, Italian nationalists.

If the apparent inexorability of massification could not be equated with the catastrophes of world war and depression, the threats it presented still prompted a frenzy of responses. As we discuss Adorno’s critique of “instrumental reason” and the culture industry, we should keep in mind that such ideas would be approximated and rearticulated by others, spawning the search for some solution, whether spiritual regeneration, “the aesthetic dimension,” or a new politics.