Friday, October 29, 2004

Janice Radway & Reader Response Theory
I don’t have a whole-whole lot to say about Janice Radway’s article. It isn’t that I disagree with reader-response theory but more that it seems so much like a given that I’m not sure why people have to write about it. She begins with a quotation from Robart Escarpit: “A book is not a thing like other things. When we hold it in our hands all we hold is the paper: The book is elsewhere.” Well, no kidding. It doesn’t help to hold a book or own it if a person doesn’t read it. It also seems to me a given that different readers make different interpretations of the text, dependent on their life experiences and their cultural beliefs and expectations.

Nevertheless, Radway says that if Escarpit’s proposition is “ever taken seriously, it has the potential to alter virtually all forms of literary study” (30). Now is that hyperbole? It seems like it. But she points out that for American Studies people, the “location” of criticism is “with texts alone” rather than with “questions of social process” (30). This question, though will change that.

Radway goes on to say that she isn’t saying we should do away with interpreting the text completely, even though some scholars (like Jane Tompkins and Jonathan Culler) have. But she is saying that for American Studies scholars who want to reconstruct and explain American culture literary interpretation will have to remain one of our “forms of evidence” (30). In addition, though, she thinks we should apply reader response theory to go beyond that interpretation.

In order to explain how we got where we are, Radway gives a summary of the development of American Studies, from Henry Nash Smith and the myth and symbol school to the ideas of “the country’s ‘leading’ thinkers,” and “the ‘great’ works of American literature.” She explains that the practice was based on certain “assumptions” that we might not agree with anymore (31).

She goes on to point out that, for instance, Marx says that the meaning of the text is “inherent,” and that he doesn’t notice that “different readers might be affected differently by particular rhetorical strategies” (32). She’s right. I hate to sound like a total male basher, but Marx definitely falls in to a male fallacy here, when he assumes that the viewpoint he takes on a text is inherent, is so obvious that anyone who picks it up will agree with him. That seems to be dangerous. Marx isn’t totally absolutely, though, because he admits that there may at times be conflicting interpretations, but event then “a reliable scholarly consensus” will come about” (32). Radway says, though, that his assumption here still shows that the conflicting interpretations come about from faulty perceptions and not correctly divergent viewpoints.

But when we start to view a text as a product as a “social process of communication between identifiable groups of people,” then it can’t be a document that can “testify to the state of American culture as a whole” (34). I don’t know. Can it? Let’s see. So say a guy in the barrio writes a story. Will it be evidence of how all of American culture affected him? Well, I guess the rich people of Kennebunkport won’t really have touched him—he may not even know who they are: they may not even know who he is or that his barrio exists. I guess this makes sense. So, what she says is true: “Its historical meaning and significance, then, are intimately bound up with the social and material context within which it appeared, was used, and was understood” (34).

Radway cites the methodological suggestions of Murray Murphey, who says that “the principal goal of any cultural historian is the formulation of an answer to the question, ‘Why is it as it is?’ where ‘it’ refers to some sort of data pertaining to the past but surviving to the present” (34).

A little later Radway takes up Stanley Fish’s consideration of the reader-response argument, saying that she thinks that since Fish says he no longer thinks of “communication as a simple process of transmission and reception,” he, “in effect [is] no longer a reader response critic” (37). She believes he is more of a semiotician, since he “conceives of the text instead as a collection of material signifiers (37).

So Fish’s theory states that the meanings, or significations, of a text are determined by the nature of the reader. Any and all literary critics start with “assumptions about what a text is, what its relation to them might be, how it should be read, and what it could possibly mean” (39). In effect, then, “texts are actually written by readers” because the readers expectations create so much of the interpretation (39).

The implications of this kind of interpretation are important when one wants to determine the meaning of a text “as a historical or cultural document,” since cultural critics cannot make the “subject of their search…the simple object of the text” (40). The important lesson to take from reader-response theory for American Studies scholars is that no single, hegemonic reading of any text exists (40).

In addition to historical and cultural issues to study, it is important to study textual meaning by examining the life of the author. To “reconstruct authorial assumptions and intentions” may help scholars to understand intentions that aren’t otherwise obvious (41). For example, the biography of an author might tell readers who he or she wanted the reader to see a certain character or situation (42). Radway warns against placing too much stock in biographical data about authors, though, because doing so can distort readers’ understanding of meaning. It’s also hard to look at these historical documents and establish the way people from the past interpreted them at the time they came out (43).

Radway advises that “literary critics…working with contemporary texts…have…two options” (45). They can try to figure out what the author meant for us as readers to get from it, in which case it becomes a sort of historical text in view of what life was like for the author. Or else, they can try to decide how the people who have been reading it will interpret it. The problem with this approach is that not much research has been done to show how to do it, other than educational research regarding literacy.

Anyway, as far as Radway is concerned, Fish’s most important point has to do with that “text-reader conjunction” because it will cause us to “relinquish our old subject, the literary text, in order to take on a new one, the socially and culturally determined activity of reading” (47).

Radway is using Fish’s reader-response theory as her own means to get beyond the single, hegemonic approach of American Studies. There is no single view of a text. A text has as many interpretations as there are readers. I always tell my students that a plot does exist. We have to be able to agree that a series of events happened. I think of that time a student in my literature class read a story, I forget which, and shouted, in an epiphany, “So the main character is blind!” I felt terrible explaining to her that that was utterly and completely wrong—she wasn’t speaking figuratively. I had to ask her to agree with me on the plot. However, she, a woman from another culture, with a very different style of interpreting the world, could have many other interpretations than me. Hmmm…maybe blindness was one of them?

Monday, October 25, 2004

Fiedler, 100-200
I wasn’t sure why Fiedler kept talking at such length in the first 100 pages about English authors. In the first 100 pages he spokes at such great length about Richardson. This time he talks a lot about Charles Brockden Browning, the great gothic writer, as well as Fielding and Sir Walter Scott—Finally! One I think I’ve read! It becomes clearer here, though (finally!) that he spends so much time analyzing the work of these writers because he wants to show that their stories are mature treatments of love or of male-female relationships, in contrast to American novels, which—like Cooper’s for example—are just children’s novels.

So in the chapter “Prototypes and Early Adaptations,” Fiedler is still talking about Richardson and European novels, but he’s discussing what began to happen when the bourgeois novels began to be written anti-bourgeois writers. Then, “seduction and adultery […] turn into symbols not of a struggle between established and rising classes, but between the exceptional individual and conventional society” (100). That’s a sort of romantic [my word] struggle. So this “artist of the new age” (101) has become a self-conscious type who has “betrayed his father” to become writers.

Fiedler moves from this idea to the next, that in 1789, William Hill Brown published the first American novel anonymously—titled The Triumph of Sympathy or The Power of Nature. The title page said its purpose was to “win the mind to Sentiment and to Truth” as well as “to represent the specious CAUSES, and to expose the fatal CONSEQUENCE, of seduction” for young women (102). But, as Fiedler says, he must not have been confident about the book’s ability to do so if he published it anonymously.

It turns out to be a sentimental, schlocky book, with characters like Mrs. Holmes, who is a “serious sentimentalist.” Fiedler uses this to make some generalizations, citing Geoffrey Dorer: “They idiosyncratic feature of the American conscience” he says, “is that it is predominantly feminine…Duty and Right Conduct become feminine figures” (104). This is an interesting observation because I think in some cases it might still be true. Dorer also says “the fact that the rules for moral conduct are felt to emanate from a feminine source is a source of considerable confusion to American men. They tend to resent such interference in their own behavior, and yet are unable to ignore it, since the insistent maternal conscience is a part of their personality…A second result is that modesty, politeness, neatness, cleanliness—come to be regarded as concessions to feminine demands, and…as such they are sloughed off—with relief but not without guilt” (104).

Actually, I think what he is saying is true—particularly for the time, and particularly for now, in some relationships. But why should it be so? Why would men resent interference in their behavior? Why should men resent feminine interference in their behavior? Why isn’t it the opposite?

Next is Chapter VI, “Charles Brockden Brown and the Invention of the American Gothic.” Fiedler starts by talking about the first Gothic novelist, Horace Walpole, who wrote The Castle of Otranto in 1764 (112). Although Walpole’s novel had the “major themes,” it wasn’t until Anne Radcliffe, termed a “female scribbler” that gothic fiction became successful. Radcliffe, who was known as the “Shakespeare of the Romance writers,” read Walpole’s book and wrote “variations on the archetypal theme” to develop a gothic novel of her own (113).

Fiedler contrasts the Richardsonian and Radcliffean “treatments of the pursuit of the maiden,” which is to say, I believe, the difference between the early sentimental and gothic novels (114). First, they differ in setting. The sentimental novel takes place in the real world, whereas the gothic novel takes place in the “dark region of make-believe” where there may be castles, ghosts, or other supernatural elements. Also, the “tone and emphasis” differ. The sentimental novel may be “melodramatic or even tragic,” but “its intent is to reveal the power of light and redemption, to insist that virtue if not invariably successful is at least always triumphant” (114). By contrast, the gothic novel portrays “the power of darkness.” The focus is not on the heroine, but instead on the villain—Fiedler calls him the “villain hero.” So were are to focus on his “temptation and suffering,” as well as “the beauty and terror of his bondage to evil” (115).

But Radcliffe is called “polite” in comparison to “enfant terrible” Matthew Gregory Lewis, who wrote The Monk (400 pages) in three weeks. Wow! He was an English novelist. Henry James, though, was an American novelist influenced by these gothic tones (118).

Another popular influence of these gothic novels was the ghost story. An interesting point Fiedler makes about these stories is that they seem to be “parodies of the immortal soul in which men had begun to lose faith” (118). In other words, the ghosts were a symbol of the dying embers of Christian faith. Interesting, he notes that “the Devil lived on in the imagination after the death of God” (118).

One of the most common of the gothic symbols is “the shadow” (119). This is the person who imprisons the maiden—a “devious Inquisitor, corrupt nobleman…” or some other type. Fiedler also goes on to discuss the other archetype of this kind of story, the “hero-villain,” which is the Faust type. This is a person who “seeks not to taste life without restraint but to control it fully; and his essential crime…is, therefore, not seduction but the Satanic bargain” (120). So it substitutes terror for love. So, he says, “some would say…that the whole tradition of the gothic is a pathological symptom rather than a literary movement, a reversion to the childish game of scaring oneself in the dark, or a plunge into sadist fantasy” (121). Fiedler compares the gothics to the retreating Beatnik writers as well as movements like Dada, Surrealism, and Pop Art (122).

In fact, he says, “the gothic is an avant-garde genre, perhaps the first avant-garde art in the modern sense of the term” (122). Fiedler says that the gothicists weren’t just avant-garde ”in their literary aspirations, but radical in their politics” because they were “anti-aristocratic, anti-Catholic, anti-nostalgic” (124).

It was hard to translate the gothic novel to America because the gothic novel represented some purely European concerns. For one, “a gothic country house on Long Island … remains not merely unconvincing but meaningless” (132).

Charles Brockden Brown solved many of the problems of adaptation of the gothic novel to America. For example, for the “corrupt Inquisitor and lustful nobleman” archetypes, “he substituted the Indian” (148). For the “haunted castle and the dungeon, Brown substitutes the haunted forest.” Fiedler notes these “ancient, almost instinctive symbols” connecting the selva oscura back to Dante.

No wonder Fiedler hasn’t got much hope for the American novel. The next chapter is VII: “James Fenimore Cooper and the Historical Romance.” Ugh. Fiedler compares this genre to the gothic, saying it shares “a concern with the past and desire to restore to prose fiction ‘the improbable and marvelous,’ which the sentimental novel of contemporary life had disavowed” (150).

Also, here Fiedler begins to distinguish between white romanticism and black romanticism, as “gothic subtraditions” (150). Fiedler explains, “the white or philistine variety is based on a belief in the superiority of feeling to intellect, the heart to the head; though for it the heart is carefully distinguished from the viscera or the genitals, whose existence is scarcely admitted at all” (150). The white Romantic writer may get material from sources such as folk tales or ballads because “the primitive remains something clean and heroic, immune to the darkness and demonic” (150) because “the cheerful and hopeful note” is necessary for his work to be truly romantic, and “melancholy is treason” (151). If you think this is close to basic sentimentalism, you’re right. It is. Fiedler says it is “not merely a ‘male’ counterpart to the Richardsonian ladies’ novel, it is also a predestined best-seller” (151). The people who wrote them, too, he says were, like the “female-scribblers,” a new kind of “merchant authors.”

Now one interesting factor of these books is the landscapes. Fiedler says that one of the chief interests in the books was “vicarious tourism.” This kind of novel “represents the sight-seeing of the middle classes before cheap and speedy transportation had made it possible to do it in the flesh” (151). So, in many cases, the readers were not as much interested in penetrating the character’s mind as they were in penetrating, say, the landscape of Africa. In fact, he says, it “is precise Africa they want, mapped, documented, and in detail; and it is Africa they get” (152). So setting was a critical factor of these white romances.

A little later Fiedler discusses Fielding as a comic novelist, one who took a “more masculine comic view of life” (156). And though he may have been melodramatic, he was far different from the later Romantics.

Apparently, it was a trend at the end of the 18th and 19th centuries to term people “Shakespearean novelists.” But the name never really stuck until Sir Walter Scott came along. The “pseudo-Shakespearean novel,” says Fiedler, is “not merely middlebrow; it is also theatrical” (157). It shifts “the center of interest from character to plot, from analysis to section” (157).

Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814) was the first successful historical novel. Others existed before then, but his was the true mark of the genre (159). Interestingly, Fiedler calls him a “middle-aged novelist” because he did not publish his first novel until he was 43 (160)!

Scott, of course, was English, as was Fielding. But Fiedler writes about them to generate a comparison to Cooper. Cooper’s books, are clearly for children, he says (170). They’re books with “boyish” themes and no real plots that deal with love, because “love always threatens to develop into sexuality and sexuality would turn the pure anti-female romance into the travesty of inversion and would frighten off the child reader” (171).

Nonetheless, Fiedler sees this “boyish” theme repeated in Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn as well as in many other important authors. So he says “Cooper…first dreams the American version of this theme, converting a peripheral European archetype into the central myth of our children” (171).

Fiedler has to state the obvious about Cooper: He stayed within the theoretical in his books. “Cooper had, alas, all the qualifications for a great American writer except the simple ability to write” (181-182).

Fiedler discusses The Last of the Mohicans, the popular favorite of Cooper’s books. It contains elements of romances like “the good Indian and the bad, the dark Maiden and the fair, the comic tenderfoot and the noble red patriarch; these elements are presented in their pure essences” (191). So although the other characters seem to be types and the scenery is wooden, the archetypal romance elements are there and strong.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

"What Happens to American Studies
if you Put African American Studies at the Center?”
Mary Helen Washington
This essay is about the growth in interest about marginalized groups in the American studies association. Washington claims it took a surprisingly (?) long time for the ASA to recognize minorities like Blacks, Latinos, etc.

She begins to show the parallel growth of the ASA and Black Studies scholarship, in which scholars were studying “the triangular slave trade, the underground railroad, and the Great Migration,” rather than “the pioneer trail from East to West.”

Black Studies scholars didn’t have it easy in the 1970s and 1980s. Washington tells of working as a literature professor but having her course being considered as an elective because her colleagues believed “eventually this ‘black stuff’ would all blow over.” In addition, she was “expected to be the race relations expert,” and one time was asked to mediate “a conflict resolution meeting between the black and white women in the dorms.” When she published articles for Black World magazine, she was being judged by “black cultural nationalists,” but at the same time she was publishing in Feminist Press and being judged by “white feminist” standards. So when she describes that period as “political minefields,” it’s not exaggeration.

Surprisingly, though, neither she nor any of the politically active African Americans at the time were involved in the restructuring of the American studies community. She says “the loosening of disciplinary boundaries, opening of the traditional disciplines to fields like folklore, music, and art as part of a synthesis of disciplines; the historicizing issues of race, its multicultural perspective; and its critique of nationhood (so critical to the American studies project) – should have been made, but did not make, African American studies and American studies natural collaborators, fraternal, if not identical, twins.”

So, since the 1980s, what were once marginal topics have become commonplace. Washington uses three examples of the way issues of marginalization and borders have come to the forefront, not just in the scholarly community but also in culture. Her examples are Wedding Band, a play about an interracial couple, which she says is important because “it centers our attention on race politics and demands that we develop that ‘second-sight’ necessary to critique our institutional lives.”

If you think this stuff isn’t important in the larger culture, she says, consider the example of California: “In the last twenty years, California has built 21 prisons and one university. The share of the state budget for the university system in California has fallen from 12.5 percent to 8 percent, while the proportion for corrections has risen to 9.4 percent, up from 4.5 percent, an amount identical to the loss of university funds. In this twenty-year period, California universities have had to lay off 10,000 employees, many of them professors; in that same period, the number of state prison guards has increased by that exact same number: 10,000.” Her point here is that the inequities for marginalized groups begin at the institutional level and that we have to start by fighting them at the institutional level!

She also talks about the film, Lone Star, which deals throughout with the metaphor of borders and boundaries. Finally, she deals with a CD by Laura Love, Octoroon, which in its lyrics deals with issues of borders and boundaries. All these demonstrate that organizations and institutions need to change to reflect the true population.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Love & Death in the American Novel, first 100 pages
Love & Death in the American Novel really is a tome, a thick doorstop of 513 pages. How does Fiedler know all this? It’s stunning!

Leslie Fiedler sees a difference between American fiction and European fiction. He says, “our novels seem not primitive, perhaps, but innocent, unfallen in a disturbing way, almost juvenile.” In fact, it seems, our greatest works are so juvenile that they could be “notoriously at home in the children’s section of the library” since “their level of sentimentality [is] precisely that of a pre-adolescent.” Fiedler blames that sentimentality, or “the incapacity of the American novelist to develop” on a tendency to revisit childhood. That makes the novelist write “the same book over and over again until” the writer finally either gives up or lapses into “self-parody” (4). These are strong words.

Another problem, he says in his opening gambit, is that since the American writer has no tradition of language to draw from, “no conventions of conversation, no special class idioms and no dialogue between classes, non continuing literary language,” he (or she) is “forever beginning, saying for the first time” (4). In other words, the traditional symbols do not yet exist.

Fiedler acknowledges that not every work of art must rely on love. He mentions the Iliad, for example, as a heroic poem that is an epic of war rather than love, but he goes on to say that the novel is more the province of love than the epic. It was, “the product of the sentimentalizing taste of the eighteenth century.” Further, the “subject par excellence of the novel is love, or more precisely—in its beginnings at least—seduction and marriage.” Still more interesting is that in Europe—specifically France, Italy, Germany, Russia, and England, Fiedler says, “love in one form or another has remained the novel’s central theme,” whereas the American “anti-novel, is the womanless Moby Dick” (5). He goes on to compare—While Europeans have Madame Bovary and Pride and Prejudice, we have The Scarlet Letter, where “all the passion is burned away before the novel proper begins” (6). He cites also Huckleberry Finn, Last of the Mohicans, Red Badge of Courage, Poe’s short stories, calling them “books that turn from society to nature or nightmare out of a desperate need to avoid the facts of wooing, marriage, and child-bearing” (6). Wow. What does that say about us as people? Would that predict that we’d be people who would watch Jerry Springer and Rikki Lake?

Rip Van Winkle supposedly “presides over the birth of the American imagination.” But as Fiedler would have it, since then, “the typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat—anywhere to avoid ‘civilization,’ which is to say the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall to sex, marriage, and responsibility” (6). More strong words! Is it any wonder contemporary men have commitment issues?!

But outside in the big, bad natural world, there’s usually a “substitute for wife or mother […] waiting in the green heart of nature: the natural man, the good companion, pagan and unashamed—Queequeg or Chingachgook or Nigger Jim” (6). Watch out, though, because, that “Black Man” is another name, says Fiedler, for “the Devil himself” (6).

What Fiedler says about humor is interesting, but I’m not always sure I understand it. I do understand what he means about Twain’s humor, though, in that it really isn’t funny in many places. He points out that “American literature likes to pretend […] its bugaboos are all finally jokes: the headless horseman’s a hoax, ever manifestation of the supernatural capable of rational explanation on the last page—but we are never quite convinced” (6-7). He cites as examples when in Huckleberry Finn Huck’s father has D.T.’s in the beginning, or the horrific incident of soaking the dog in kerosene and lighting it, or the other deaths in the book. Fiedler says, “But it is all ‘humor,’ of course, a last desperate attempt to convince us of the innocence of violence, the good clean fun of horror. Our literature as a whole at times seems a chamber of horrors disguised as an amusement park “fun house,” where we pay to play at terror” (7).

Later, though, Fiedler says that “since the decline of orthodox Puritanism, optimism has become the chief effective religion” (8).

A little later, Fiedler talks about what led up to the invention of the novel. This is something I talked about with Bill H. who is taking a seminar on Jung and who mentioned that really the novel wasn’t possible until people had the concept of the personality. Until there was a sense of the inner workings of a person, there wouldn’t be an impetus for a novel. Interesting. Fiedler calls it “the Break-through,” discussing it in the context of the events that included the “American and the French Revolutions,” as well as “the rise of modern psychology, and the triumph of the lyric in poetry” (I guess that sweeping statement includes Jung). Those events were what led up to the invention of the novel and the romantic period. So this “Break-through,” according to Fiedler, was “characterized not only by the separation of psychology from philosophy, the displacement of the traditional leading genres by the personal lyric and analytical prose fiction (with the consequent subordination of plot to character; it is also marked by the promulgation of a theory of revolution as a good in itself” (13). Fiedler doesn’t mention this in the same context, but maybe the revolution and novel had an effect on religion, since “Institutionalized Christianity […] began to crumble when its mythology no longer proved capable of controlling and revivifying the imagination of Europe” (16).

In the second chapter, “Prototypes and Early Adaptations,” Fiedler spends the whole time looking at the way Richardson’s Pamela influenced early novels in America. The problem I have is that since I haven’t read any of these early novels, I have no idea what he’s talking about. He mentions Richardson and Fielding, English novelists (I understand Fielding is very funny…but how funny can an 18th century novelist be?). And then he talks about the early American novelists like Brown.

I have to say that when I read this part of the book, my head begins to spin. I’ve never read any of these. When will I even have time to read them? I stopped to seriously ponder reading Feilding, but there’s no time in the life of a graduate student. Or let me say it differently: I could easily be waylaid and try to read every book in the library to prepare for this Ph.D. It would just take me the rest of my life. I have to remember to save some books for my old age.

Moving right along, Fielder says that Richardson’s novel is basically in the Protestant genre, and that it’s more “puritan” than it is “realistic.” He adds that “beyond its representing the marvelous as the ordinary and passionate impulse as Christian piety, it also represents entertainment pretending to be a sermon (or alternately, a sermon pretending to be entertainment)” (26).

When Fiedler discusses the idea of endings, I was surprised. I didn’t realize that they are a modern invention, that ancient authors like Dante or Augustine wouldn’t know what “they lived happily ever after” means. Fiedler says, “Plato would not even have identified the ‘they’ as male and female; while neither he nor Augustine would have conceived ultimate bliss as a joining of flesh with flesh, no matter how fully sanctified the ritual and custom” (28). The troubadours, after all, look at marriage as an “enemy.” They want the woman to be married, but to someone else, so that she isn’t attainable (34). So really, Fiedler says, this modern idea of “sentimental love” is “part of a continuous process whose end is not yet in sight. It stands between the codes of courtly love, on the one hand, and the recent Romantic defenses of passion as the end of life, on the other” (28). As I understand what he’s saying, we don’t know where it’s heading.

In the early novels, the seduction theme was critical. Fiedler discusses the fine points of this at length, mentioning that at least part of the appeal in the English novel at least was of the “conflict of aristocracy and bourgeoisie” in the bedroom (53-54).

At the end of that chapter, Fiedler mentions parody in an interesting way, saying “Parody destroys nothing; it is only a reluctant and shamefaced way of honoring an example on is ashamed to acknowledge, and, for one too proud to attempt so popular a form as the novel without tongue in cheek, a way of becoming a novelist” (56).

Chapter IV is “The Bourgeois Sentimental Novel and the Female Audience.” I haven’t read any criticism of Fiedler yet, but there has to be plenty of this chapter. I know he is writing about some of the worst, cloying fiction in the world, but the way he talks about women in this chapter is degrading. The feminists had to have a field day with Fiedler.

Fiedler talks here about the “blight” of the sentimental novel (58). One explanation for the sterile novel in the U.S., he says, is that “no real tradition of gallantry [exists] in America, no debased aristocratic codes of love against which the bourgeois belief can define itself” (59). Most novels, he points out, with the chaste example of Richardson’s, have some adultery, or at least a hint of seduction. Fiedler quotes Denis de Rougement’s comment that “society requires that women have husbands…but in novels it is found necessary that they have lovers” (59-60). But not in America, “in its classical period.” None but Hawthorne even gets close to the topic until Henry James, whereas in Europe even pornographic novels like Justine came about, defining “a delicate line between obscenity and art, inconceivable to the American mind” (60). YET, at least.

The American novel had to “justify its existence on moral grounds—declaring itself the servant of religion and especially the keeper of the consciences and the virginity and young girls” (61). No wonder they were no good. Interestingly, though, “By the time of Mark Twain, however, even the claims of the old faith are asserted only by women; it is woman who has become the guardian of morality and the embodiment of conscience” (61). Another interesting connection that Fiedler makes is that America as a nation has denied so many fathers. We denied our fatherland (though why it isn’t a motherland as one is usually called, I don’t know). The pope and bishops have been rejected, as well as the king of England. So Fiedler says, “only the mother remained as symbol of authority that was one with love” (62). He uses that reasoning to justify the way the American novel evolved into the “Sentimental Love Religion” that “simultaneously disowns sex and glorifies women” (62).

Women were the writers of these sentimental novels. Hawthorn called them a “d____d mob of scribblers” (66). These were the true bestsellers, the books everyone was reading. They weren’t reading Melville or Hawthorne, and probably because the people couldn’t understand either one of them any better than anyone can today!

But…the interesting thing here, Fiedler mentions, is that there hadn’t before “been an art form whose production women played so predominant a part” (66). In other words—they could actually support themselves by writing novels, whether or not Nate Hawthorne approved. Fiedler calls it “a critical moment in the emancipation of woman” (66). That’s exciting…but then think about that sentence. Isn’t there something disturbing about the words he chose? Emancipation seems to imply enslavement. Hell, maybe he’s right.

Anyway, here are the numbers: “before the publication of Cooper’s Precaution in 1820, one-third of all our novels had been written by women—and within that third were to be found nearly all the best sellers” (66). That’s amazing.

Nonetheless, Fiedler offers harsh criticism of their work, which seems to be the precursor to today’s Harlequin romances: “Neither inwardness nor character, however, interested the scribbling ladies at all. They sought, however unconsciously, the mythical beneath the psychological—and rendered the myth in sub-literary or pre-literary form, degraded it to the stereotype” (67). I thought this was so cruel last night when I read it, but now that I see it in the light of day, I agree that he probably was right, particularly when I think of these novels, which granted I have not read, in comparison with Harlequin romances.

So, these sentimental novelists were “lady Richardsonians” in their sentimentality (68). But it began to happen that these American novelists started to try to find “sentimental substitutes for the struggle with the seducer” and by the end of the 18th century, “the treatment of seduction had been surrendered to literary radicals and semi-pornographers” read by “young girls in search of literary titillation” much like the romance novels of today (69).

The most interesting part of the argument to me is that Fiedler observes that “the thrill of seduction [is] expurgated from popular fiction and the threat of rape removed,” and as a result death becomes the focus. Rather than the prurient pleasure at the seduction, we take voyeuristic pleasure at the deathbed scene. As Fiedler says it, “melancholy becomes contraband in the polite world of woman’s books, permitted when bootlegged in small amounts, but frowned on as ‘morbid’ when overwhelmingly present” (71). “Cheerfulness,” he says, “became obligatory,” but only when it didn’t succumb to “melodrama” (71). He mentions as example here Uncle Tom’s Cabin. All these nineteenth century novels are really nauseating examples of this disgusting trend.

Eventually there was a move from simple seduction to a consideration of “relations between rich and poor,” says Fiedler, “but it was a long time […] before socialism penetrated deep enough into the American mind to make a modern version of the class-struggle novel possible” (73). In the meantime, Fiedler says, the recurring drama of the bestseller was of the good colonial girl remaining chaste against some intruding male of one kind or another. Related to humor, he says, “the farmer’s daughter and the traveling salesman of a thousand dirty jokes represent a last degradation (though a strange persistence, too) of the archetypal figures of Clarissa and Lovelace” (73).

Anyway, Fiedler chooses to make this point about these women writers: “In popular fiction produced in American by and for females, the seduction fable comes chiefly to stand for the war between the sexes and the defeat of the seducer […] as a symbol of the emasculation of American men” (73). That’s a pretty strong influence for scribbling women to have, isn’t it? But he goes on to say that no matter what it is, the sentimental drama “must end with the downfall of the male, “ whether it is in “Charlotte Temple [or] the latest daytime serial on radio or TV.” Fiedler even argues that “In this country the only class war is between the sexes!” (74).

So in these books, the “female is portrayed as pure sentiment, the male as naked phallus” and “though the male is allowed still to spout ‘ideas,’ those ideas are revealed as irrelevant to life and good sense, the babble of a bookish child” (74). The hilarious comment he makes is “What is baffling is why men […] should have accepted this travesty on their nature and role in life” (74). It’s a mystery, isn’t it Leslie? You ought to be asking how women put up with your bullshit for centuries without complaint!

Now when Fiedler does stoop to discuss these novels in actual detail, he refers to the women writers as Mrs. Rowson. He even says that women have “kidnapped” the form of the sentimental novel (77)! Who wanted it in the first place, for crying out loud!? Anyway, Mrs. Rowson writes the “first popular American image of the Seducer” (74), but she renders him fairly powerless. He tends to have “fits of insanity” (74) and she punishes him by being “forced to watch his children on the verge of an incestuous catastrophe bred by his sin and cowardice” (75). Incidentally, Fiedler says “The theme of brother-sister incest haunts the early American novel on lower levels of literacy as well as on the higher” (82). Even Fiedler acknowledges that Hawthorne borrowed from some of these melodramatic devices in the Scarlet Letter.

One interesting melodramatic device Mrs. Rowson used was in her novel, The Coquette, which was to fictionalize “a contemporary scandal (which may have involved Aaron Burr or, at least, the son of Jonathan Edwards) with only the most perfunctory attempt at disguise” (83). Now THAT’s American!

Anyway, Fiedler thinks that the sentimental, “women’s” novel’s rise so early in the country’s history had the effect of drawing a divide in the country’s reading, causing there to be a sort of division in the reading—an “intellectual” person’s reading and “the unlettered” person’s, which is interesting, given that the idea of starting the colonies was to move away from the sharp class divisions of Europe (77). Fiedler ends the argument by saying, “For better or for worse, the bestseller was invented in America (the flagrantly bad best seller) before the serious successful novel” (78).

Fiedler also talks about the first American novelist, Charles Brockden Brown, who he says “lacked the wit and irony as well as the talent for structure of Jane Austen—so that, aiming at modesty, he created dullness; and avoiding the spectacular, he fell into the inane” (84). No wonder we don’t know his work. He wrote one called Ormond; Fiedler says it is “surely the most passionate […] but there is little erotic passion displayed” (87). Bummer.

So, in sum of this chapter, Fiedler says, no novelists could write about love without falling into sentimentality. He says, “only by bypassing normal heterosexual love as a subject could such writers preserve themselves from sentimentality and falsehood” (89). Is that why they called it the gay 90s?

Okay, so Chapter V is “The Beginnings of the Anti-Bourgeois Sentimental Novel in America.”

This is where we start to see novels “which asked the reader to identify not with the female victim but with her male betrayer—thus introducing a note of moral ambiguity baffling to the simple-minded sentimentalist” (90). Later, Fiedler calls it “the anti-type, the mirror image of the bourgeois sentimental novel” (96). So, while for the bourgeois, death or suicide on purpose would be shocking, to Werther (the hero of a novel), it is “the noblest of all actions” (98).

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

“Paradigm Dramas” Part 2
Yesterday I was talking about Wise’s article on the paradigms of American Studies. We left off at Perry Miller’s “jungle epiphany.” By the time Miller decided to formalize his education and go to graduate school (rather than hang around in the Belgian Congo), he was invited to attend, unlike Parrington, and by this time, in the 1920s, Miller found a sympathetic audience to the kinds of ideas that Parrington had to fight to publish. At the University of Chicago, Miller was allowed to write about his passion and take courses according to his interest. So Miller mixed history and literature courses, focusing on early America, and that made him noteworthy because he combined the disciplines in such a way to form a concept of “the American Mind.”

During the 1930s, other American schools experienced this tension as well, but it was embodied most obviously in Miller’s work. Another way we see that this tension was played out was in literature departments. Wise says for “some decades prior to the thirties, momentum had been building to free the study of American literature from its role as an appendage to Anglo-Saxon literature, and instead to study it ‘on native grounds.’” Finally in the late 1920s and 1930s a few universities adopted an American literature curriculum, influenced at least partly by Parrington.

American Literature was founded in 1929, and four years later Yale opened a department of History, the Arts, and Letters. Through that department, A. Whitney Griswold’s dissertation, “The American Cult of Success,” is claimed (retrospectively, to be “the first American Studies, or American Studies-like, Ph.D. ever granted”). Shortly after, other schools followed: GWU and Harvard in 1936 (Harvard with Perry Miller and F.O. Matthiesen). The first person to earn the American Studies Ph.D. at Harvard was Henry Nash Smith. In 1937, U Penn. The field grew from there.

What was interesting to me in reading this part was first how young the field is. It rose and developed mostly during my mom’s lifetime, and wholly during my grandparents’ lifetime. Somehow I had assumed that it would have been as old as 1620…but of course when I realize that doesn’t make sense. Of course it would take many years for a country to exist before it could be studied, analyzed. Then, it was surprising to me that American Studies Ph.D. programs that I strongly considered—Brown, Maryland, Mason—only began offering the degree on a short time ago. When I researched American studies programs, I had no sense of that short historical sweep.

Anyway, Wise goes on to summarize what he calls “the intellectual history synthesis” up to that point.” This meant a collection of assumptions that guided scholars. First, “there is an ‘American Mind,’” meaning that all Americans share a common element. Even though it may be “complex and constructed of many different layers, it is in fact a single entity.”

Next, what “distinguishes the American Mind is its location in the ‘New’ World.” As a result, people in America are “hopeful, innocent, individualistic, pragmatic, idealistic.” America is a land of opportunity, whereas Europe is limited and corrupt.

Also, “the American Mind can theoretically be found in anyone American.” Most commonly, though, we can identify it in our “leading thinkers,” people like Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, etc. Thus, “early American Studies programs offered courses on the ‘Great Books,’” so that students could be introduced to “the American Mind.”

Further, the “American Mind” is seen throughout our history. We can follow its themes through Puritanism, Individualism, Progress, Pragmatism, Transcendentalism, Liberalism, and so on.

Finally, though studying “popular minds” like “Davy Crockett [and] Daniel Webster’s Buffalo Bill’ might be “academically legitimate,” “America is revealed most profoundly as ‘high’ culture.’”

According to Wise, “the decade and half following 1960—between Virgin Land at one end and Brooklyn Bridge at the other—has come to look like the ‘Golden Years’ of the movement.”

For the third paradigm drama, Wise chooses Robert Spiller’s seminar on American Cultural values of the twentieth century at the University of Pennsylvania in 1954. The paradigm signifies a change in that it is the first paradigm we see inside academia—which demonstrates that American studies has finally been legitimized enough that it’s not just a course here and there or a rouge scholar; now it’s institutionalized and represented in courses.

Not only did private funding make the course possible, but grants began to fund other scholarship during the 1950s as well. It was a “corporatization” of the discipline. But in the 1960s, the political climate was incredibly different. The result is what Wise calls “the ‘coming apart’ stage of American Studies.

The paradigm for this stage is “Culture Therapy 202,” which is the title of Robert Meredith’s Miami University Seminar in the late 1960s, a response to the tumultuous political currents of the times. He wrote a pamphlet as well called “Subverting Culture: The Radical as Teacher.”

Meredith was different from his predecessors because he “was not satisfied merely to discover what American culture is.” That would be so obvious to his students that it would “corrupt” them. Instead, he saw his role as assuming an adversarial “role against the culture…[to] save himself from the culture’s poison tentacles, and […] save others too.” Ultimately, his “only humane option […] is to serve as a cultural radical.” Hence the title of the course, Culture Therapy.

Meredith even went so far as to discourage colleagues from publishing. He thought the work of subverting the culture was so important that scholarship was a waste of time. The result was “newly-academized experiences” that “imposed massive strain on the old intellectual history synthesis.” From that point forward, no one could honestly assume that “America is an integrated whole: division and conflict, not consensus, seemed to characterize the culture.”

Another important here is that the shift also moved us away from the “privileged position of elite ideas as a window into the culture.” Instead, the most powerful images were the riots and assassinations. The “airy myths and symbols” didn’t seem to matter as much. American Studies students instead studied “material artifacts like houses or bridges or buildings.” The tangible, it was felt, better represented America.

So since the sixties, American cultural studies have focused more on subcultural studies and almost no one trying “to integrate the whole culture.” So, Wise says, “American Studies has never recovered from the earthquake-like jolts of the sixties.” Others might blame it on America itself, saying that we’re not as “new and innocent, as idealistic, as pragmatic” as we once were.

Wise admits that “American Studies is no longer working on the frontiers of scholarship. “ Surely in the 1950s and early 1960s, “symbol-myth-image scholarship came uniquely out of an American Studies perspective, and it influenced scholars in traditional disciplines too, particularly in intellectual history and literary history.” But that part of American Studies history is over. Since then, he says, American Studies has become a “parasite field” because it is “living off the creations of others but not creating much on our own, nor contributing much to any field outside ourselves.” Further to complicate matters, Wise says that the ties between American Studies and traditional disciplines like American Literature became less secure—for one American Literature no longer needed American Studies to legitimize it as a discipline.

Another interesting factor that has caused American Studies to lose its focus has been that the “richest works giving us intellectual bearing on our experience today are being written by journalists” like Tom Wolfe or David Halberstam. Furthermore, viewers see important cultural issues in TV Shows like Lou Grant or Maude or All in the Family. So, as Wise says, “None of the cultural criticism coming today from film, television, radio, music, magazines, or newspapers owes anything at all to academic American Studies.” So that’s important. An even more disturbing point he makes is that, “If we borrow mightily from them in our courses and our scholarship on the contemporary, they have little reason to look at us in turn. In this sense too, we are relegated to a parasite role.”

Nonetheless, Wise thinks “American Studies has never been stronger and healthier.” New programs were launched in the 1970s and the NEH funded the National American Studies Faculty (which later, like all good things, stopped being funded).

So there isn’t really a paradigmatic representation for that last era Wise talks about. As he states it, the field “lacks a single synthesis with the influence, say of the old symbol-myth-image explanation.” There isn’t “a single holistic ‘American Culture,’ expressed in ‘The American Mind,’ to a more discriminating consciousness that contemporary cultures function on several different levels and in several different ways.” Wise lists many cultures, with different viewpoints, like the popular culture, women, Blacks, youth, aged, Hispanics, Indians, material culture, culture of poverty, regionalism, academe, professionalism, etc.

Wise talks about important scholarship that came from U Penn, including the new ethnography which he says has had a “substantial” effect on the discipline. Before ethnography mixed with American Studies, the “Americanists tended to view social scientists with some humanistic disdain.” But the ethnographic view allows more humanistic views into the discipline. Sociology and anthropology also came into play.

More recently, Wise says, American Studies has taken a “reflexive temper in scholarship and teaching.” Does that mean a tendency to look back at oneself? He says it is what “impelled people to continue asking, ‘Who are we?’ and ‘Where are we heading?’” But the sea change in the discipline caused the reflexivity and that has to be a good thing.

A note on the notes: In one place, Wise admits that choosing Parrington isn’t the definitive answer to the “Intellectual Founder of American Studies.” Some, he says, would nominate de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1840), or Moses Coit Tyler’s A History of American Literature 1607-1865 (1878), or Frederick Jackson Turner’s “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1893), or Van Wyck Brook’s America’s Coming of Age (1915), or Lewis Mumford’s The Golden Day (1925). Later works that might be suggested would be Matthiessen’s American Renaissance (1941), Smith’s Virgin Land (1950). I wrote in the margin that it would be a good paper topic to argue which one would make the best intellectual founder (ho hum).

Also in the notes is a discussion of the “coterminous” development of popular culture studies within American Studies. Wise notes also that a split finally occurred that caused the popular culture people to leave and form their own association; thus the PCAS/ACAS. Interesting!

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

“Paradigm Dramas”
Gene Wise writes a surprisingly interesting account of the history of American Studies in his 1975 article. The title refers, of course, to Thomas Kuhn’s book. More specifically, though, Wise is saying that students of American History have asked “Who are we?” and “Where are we heading?” only to find that “American Studies has had little sense of its own history at all.” In fact, he says, just as the citizens of the U.S., the Americanists had been too busy until this time to “pause and reflect much on their own roots.” So in trying to organize a history of American Studies, Wise used an organizing principle of four paradigms that describe the “representative acts” that “crystallize possibilities…in each stage of the movement’s history.”

The notion of using these four paradigms at all is interesting, and its different enough that Wise must spend some time in his essay justifying his approach. Typically, he says, scholars manage “ideas in historical context,” in what he terms a “climate of opinion” mode of explanation. It’s probably the most familiar methodology to most of us. Wise defines it as the sort of narrative where “one need only catch the general tendencies of an age, then explain any particular idea simply by plugging it into the general category.” Wise observes the flaws in this method: that the resulting narratives are “flat and one-dimensional,” and “too deterministic.” This type of history is “too monolithic” and “rigidly hierarchical.” The result of this sort of description is the kind of problem we have in American literature class when we try to decide where enlightenment writing ends and where romanticism begins—or, as one student asked last time, whether Emerson knew he was writing romantic writing or transcendentalism.

So instead, Wise uses a different model to explain his views. He uses paradigms “as a sequence of dramatic acts—acts which play on wider cultural scenes….The drama metaphor suggests a dynamic image of ideas…” Wise also defines paradigm, which he notes has been said to have at least 21 separate meanings alone in Kuhn’s book! But he says “the commonest use” is “a consistent pattern of beliefs held by a person, a group, or a culture.”

Anyway, Wise says the first paradigm begins before the real genesis of the academic movement in American studies, saying “the figure who most fully embodies that act is Vernon Louis Parrington.” He calls Parrington the “Intellectual Founder of American Studies” because of his 1927 publication of Main Currents in American Thought. Wise says he “gave life to Emerson’s vision of “The American Scholar,” because he was “a passionate mind encountering a dynamic world, sans the mediating forms of convention.”

Briefly, Parrington didn’t have the traditional education. He graduated from Harvard undergrad but wasn’t accepted into the grad school. There was no such thing as an American studies program at the time. He finally wound up a professor of literature at the University of Washington and wrote his master work there (though Wise notes that had it been at present, he probably would have been denied tenure because he had so much trouble publishing the work).

But Parrington is representative of this early age—a pioneer really-because he did this preliminary work with no help, or in Wise’s words, he was “going it alone in his American intellectual journey. So those who came after have Parrington to thank.

The next paradigm is based on what Wise calls “Perry Miller’s ‘jungle epiphany’ in the heart of the Belgian Congo.” Miller dropped out of college and went on a world tour. When he was in Africa he found the urge to write about what he saw. According to Wise, he found, “the obsession to give order, explanation, to America’s experience.”

Monday, October 18, 2004

“On the Shoulders of Giants”
It’s just before 1 a.m., and I should be sleeping, but instead I just finished Gene Wise’s first article, from a speech he gave at the American Studies Association Convention in 1979. In this article he talks about how American Studies thought has grown since the “Symbol-myth-image generation of American Studies scholars” influenced—really started the field. Here he refers to F.O. Matthiesen, Perry Miller, Leo Marx, Leslie Fiedler, and the others (who I have yet to read).

So these “giants” had the Herculean task of legitimizing “the scholarly study of America” at a time when doing so didn’t matter. Wise argues that we should “pay tribute to the remarkable genius of individuals” in that generation, even if their ideas are ones that have been termed faulty in the more modern era.

He reminds us that those thinkers were responsible not just for conducting the scholarship, but also for starting the programs in schools. He cites folklore scholar, Richard Dorson, among others as people who were instrumental in starting programs (I spent a lot of time reading Dorson when I was considering folklore as an avenue for study).

At any rate, Wise points out that some of the problems with the work of these original American studies scholars lie within the reflexivity about the culture. Wise cites Henry Nash’s Virgin Land as an example, where he writes about myths and symbols and images, comparing them to “designate larger or smaller units of the same kind of thing namely an intellectual construction that fuses concept and emotion into an image.” I take it from my reading here that such reflexivity is not supposed to be a good thing. Further reading will explain more…

Saturday, October 16, 2004

“The Concept of Cultural Hegemony:
Problems and Possibilities”
T.J. Jackson Lears
Lears says he presented an early version of this paper at the 77th Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians in 1984. His purpose in writing here is to ponder the nature of historiography. What gets written down and remembered is important. How the story of what happened is told depends on whose voice records it. That’s where the idea of hegemony comes in.

Really, using and understanding the word hegemony itself is a good analogy for Lears’s early points. I think of myself as a person who has a better than average vocabulary, yet when I encountered the word hegemony in college, I found it mystifying, even after I looked it up in the dictionary. It came up in Eric Zencey’s class—Eric, the social historian—and Eric properly defined it for us. Since then, I encountered it any number of times in my reading, and each of those times I still had to look it up. It probably took me until last year to finally understand the sense of the word enough not to have to look it up every time I encountered the word. I tell this story not to digress but to say that Hegemony is the kind of word that excludes just about every kind of reader. It is a word with a strong power base, one that is so strong, it becomes invisible to the masses.

I felt a certain subversive power when the word came up in a reading for my English class this semester. “Did you look it up?” I asked my students. Some had, but they still didn’t know what it meant. “I know!” I empathized. “It took me so long to learn that one!” I explained it to them, of course, but they’ll have to work for so long to understand.

To move along toward Lears, I’ll point out that he discusses the Italian communist, Antonio Gramsci as “an intellectual cause celebre” (567). His interpretation of Marxism takes the ideas that Marx limited to economics and applies them to social history, in such a way that he has “remarkably suggestive insights into the question of dominance and subordination in modern capitalist societies” (567).

So Gramsci looks at the notion of “cultural hegemony” which is the term he used to describe “the relation between culture and power under capitalism” (568). Apparently, his thinking is not as rigid as Marx’s. He tries to study cultural symbols to understand “how ideas reinforce or undermine existing social structures” and wonders about “the apparent contraction between the power wielded by dominant groups and the relative cultural autonomy of subordinate groups whom they victimize” (568).

But although Gramsci attacks these significant concerns, he never truly defines cultural hegemony. The closest he comes is to say that hegemony is “the ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is ‘historically’ caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production” (568). (Incidentally—this comes from Gramsci’s Selections from the Prison Notebooks, a 1971 translation).

So to think about this for a second—it’s a powerful idea. The power in it has to do with the notion that the consent for control is given spontaneously by the masses. We don’t have to look far for a contemporary example. Just think of the 2000 elections. We knew something “fishy” was going on, but we all had better things to do and we just all thought, oh, fuck it. We have lives to lead, emergencies, weddings, crises at work, deaths, births, whatever. We have a social contract with those we “elect” as leaders, and we’ll let them handle it—and in this case at least, handle it they did—right out of our hands. I don’t necessarily think that this handling always has a negative end. I don’t know that he’s getting at that. But it’s clear that it has a terribly subversive potential, as it did in those elections.

Lears goes on to say that the reason why he doesn’t offer a single (hegemonic) definition of the word is that hegemony can be understood in a number of contexts and a number of ways. So, for example, Lears says, for hegemony to exist, it must be “paired with the notion of domination” (568). According to Lears, “[r]uling groups do not maintain their hegemony merely by giving their domination an aura of moral authority […] they must also seek to win the consent of subordinate groups to the existing social order” (569). Now the idea of consent from these lesser groups is controversial. But Lears says he clarified by saying that “the working class had ‘its own conception of the world’ [and … ] had ‘two theoretical consciousnesses […] one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow workers […] and one, superficially explicit or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically observed” (569).

The first thing that account makes me think of is the idea of a double-consciousness in the essays of W.E.B. Du Bois. Any oppressed group has to have two levels of consciousness—and if you think about that, it is enough to keep them occupied, enough to keep them from standing up to the group in power—all they have time to do really is negotiate the terms of their servitude, not end it.

A related idea comes up later when Lears talks about the ways that “subordinate groups could identify with the dominant culture” (576). So even if the wanted to challenge the group that dominated them, they might identify with that dominant group—and according to Gramsci, the more they identify with that dominant group, the less likely they are to follow through with the challenge of their power. Nonetheless, it’s still a dual identity of sorts.

Another of Gramsci’s ideas is that no matter what, “ruling groups never engineer consent with complete success” (570). In other words, whether or not they’re rooked into agreeing, the working class still knows they’re getting a raw deal, “the outlook of subordinate groups is always divided and ambiguous” (570). Gramsci defines the state as “hegemony protected by the armour of coercion” (570). Its purpose is to “control the masses” (570).

In a different vein, Gramsci parts significantly with Marx in his ideas about a “historical bloc,” a particularly interesting idea to social historians. While Marx would view any sort of grouping as economic in interest, Gramsci views some social formations as those that “cut across categories of ownership and nonownership and that are bound by religious or other ideological ties as well as those of economic interest” (571). These historical blocs might not become hegemonic, depending on how they relate with other groups. The operant variables are “ideological and economic: to achieve cultural hegemony, the leaders of a historical bloc must develop a world view that appeals to a wide range of other groups within the society, and they must be able to claim with at least some plausibility that their particular interests of those in society at large […] The emerging hegemonic culture is not merely an ideological mystification but serves the interest of the ruling groups at the expense of the subordinate ones” (571). If you have questions on this one, think of the current president.

So the points that Lears stresses throughout the article become a little repetitive after this—he’s giving examples. He’s saying that dominant and subordinate societal groups co-exist, and they do so because the subordinate groups “legitimate” their own domination (573). In many cases the subordinate groups do not protest or rebel because they remain occupied with the work that subordinate groups must do. However, in some cases, “the capability for resistance flourishes and may lead to the creation of counterhegemonic alternatives” (574).

Gramsci’s idea that “the line between dominant and subordinate cultures is a permeable” one is makes him differ from other social historians. According to Lears, when he saw the potential for movement between the two groups, he “opened possibilities for more complex approaches to popular culture” (574). One might infer that the idea of more complex approaches to pop culture means that if the original assumed borders—high culture, low culture, etc.—may be transcended or crossed, then popular culture is legitimized or made equal with “high culture.”

Lears gives a different example of the permeability, a different reading of the subject than I’m doing. He says that one historian that used Gramsci’s theoretical perspective was Eugene Geneovese, who analyzed slave culture. Genovese saw how the “master’s paternalistic world view penetrated the slave’s consciousness” in such a way that it caused them to limit their own rights. They so internalized their own domination by their paternalistic owners that “[p]repolitical protest (such as breaking a plough blade or running off into the woods after a beating) provided slaves with valuable breathing space and even a sense of dignity. But it also reinforced the master’s paternalistic belief that he was dealing with irresponsible children.” It’s a great example of hegemony. Lears simplifies Genovese’s argument for us: “powerlessness combined with paternalism to influence the slave’s consciousness in ways that reinforced the master’s hegemony” (374).

Also on the topic of slavery, Lears brings up David Brion Davis’s research, which demonstrates “spread of bourgeois cultural hegemony” on freed slaves. Davis shows “how antislavery agitators unwittingly promoted new forms of cultural hegemony. By ignoring the emergent ‘wage slavery’ in factories and defining labor exploitation solely in terms of the master-slave relationship, abolitionists helped legitimize the capitalist organization of labor” (588). In other words, the slaves went from one kind of slavery to another as a result of the dominant cultural hegemony—by being freed they could fully identify with their captors.

An idea that is particularly suspect to thinkers like Gramsci—and as it turns out an American historian, Richard Hofstadter—is populism. Hofstadter was particularly suspicious of populism. He was even suspicious of what he called the “agrarian myth,” which he said was “concocted by Eastern literati and imbibed by fuddled farmers” (575).

Gramsci was suspect of ideas like populism because “the hegemonic culture depends not on the brainwashing of ‘the masses’ but on the tendency of public discourse to make some forms of experience readily available to consciousness while ignoring or suppressing others” (577). Lears points out that all this reasoning doesn’t mean that the working class has “developed immunity to dominant values” (577). It’s more that, according to Mann, “working class people tend to embrace dominant values as abstract propositions but often grow skeptical as the values are applied to their everyday lives” (577).

Genovese also tried to test Gramsci’s theories by studying the way hegemonic consensus comes about. In other words, how does society agree that its truths are true? What a good question! Genovese conducted some research among a group of minors and found out about how consensus comes about. He noted a situation where a false hegemonic consensus occurred and theorized that “historians do not have to assume false consciousness” in such cases (581).

Aileen Kraditor tried to look at it outside the economic sphere. She theorizes that “workers chose to accept dehumanization in the workplace in exchange for autonomy in the private sphere” (581), an idea that seems logical even without proof. Furthermore, she claims that not every need should be explained by “class interests” and that “not all cultural forms can be pigeonholed as accommodation or resistance to capitalism” (582). She argues in favor of a “private sphere” (582).

Kraditor attempts to disprove the idea of hegemony or consensus and learns that she can’t. However, Lears says that “the concept of hegemony may at least be falsifiable in principle” (583). John Gaventa tried to do so in his book on powerlessness. Gaventa gets back to the idea of “how can one observe nondecisions, analyze nonissues, and study what does not happen?” (583) when he observes a situation where the subordinate interests don’t speak up.

One danger in understanding the concept of hegemony is to confuse it with the notion of social control from the top down. One example Lears gives is when in the late 1800s, people with neurasthenia were treated with the advise to take on lifestyle characteristics of “Oriental people, the inhabitants of the tropics, and the colored peoples generally” (587). While this could be considered an example of social control, it is not an example of a purposeful attempt at hegemonic control.
An important idea that Lears brings up is that the language or “rhetoric of a dominant culture may contain […] clues to is hegemony” (590). Because, as Lears says, language is “a contested terrain,” it is still difficult for us to understand the notion of hegemony. Limiting, he points out, is our cultural tendency toward binary oppositions. Lears explains, “Semiotic theory suggests one way out of the binary realm by drawing attention away from static categories and toward the process by which meaning is constructed in particular texts. From this view, ideology is less a product than a process in which different kinds of meanings are produced and reproduced through the establishment of a mental attitude toward the world” (590). So, Lears says, rather than looking for a specific truth, why not instead examine “elements in a code that resonate ‘truthfully’” with what we study (590).

Another important point Lears raises here is methodology, though Lears says it has more to do with audience than with methodology. Hmm. Anyway, Levi-Strauss’s definition of “bricolage as a pattern for the construction of meaning in modern mass culture” is important in the study of contemporary culture. The person who conducts this kind of study, or the bricoleur, is “a kind of cultural hero, decoding fragments of consumer culture […] and reassembling them to create his own personal code” (590). Bring into this notion Bakhtin’s idea of “culture as a many-voiced conversation” (591). This way of studying culture will be fruitful to test the theories Lears discusses.

The last idea Lears raises is the logical offshoot of bricolage, post-structuralism. Lears gives examples of Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida’s ideas of “’intertextuality’ and multivalence of literary texts” (591). Lears warns us, citing Bakhtin, of the danger for the cultural historian. S/he must “avoid a kind of even-handed reductionism: first look for the assimilation, then the protest” (591). Instead, it’s better to open up analysis to many factors.

So that’s it for Lears.