We continue, here, with the task of thinking about the rise of Theory in the United States––a phenomenon roughly contemporaneous with the displacement of the New Deal order by neoliberalism, beginning with the economic shocks and crises of the early 1970s. What we are asking is whether the new passions for methodologically sophisticated critique within the humanities and social sciences since the 1970s might productively be categorized as evidence of an emergent Epistemic Left. Continue reading
I recently read Fred Siegel’s The Revolt against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class (2015), a self-inflicted fate which should excuse anyone else of ever having to read it. Its many mendacities are both so petty and so bold that it’s not worth taking the time to critique, but the book’s constant paranoia about cultural elitism (or just plain snobbery) as the glue uniting a ruling class of intellectual mavens is illustrative of a broader tendency of thought that does deserve attention. This is the “new class” line of thought which I wrote about a little in my last post: the idea that “knowledge workers” or a cultural/technical/professional/creative elite have, over the course of the twentieth century, used their privileged positions in political, economic, academic, and cultural institutions to insulate themselves from both pressure from below and control from above, leaving them free to influence society according to their internal values and mores without being accountable either to their audiences or their economic superiors.
I am interested in this idea for some reasons related to my scholarship, but lately I have been thinking about it in connection with my teaching. Because I think that the larger conversation of which the “new class” critique was a part has embedded certain norms in academia and especially in the humanities that could use some contemplation, given the very different world (culturally and economically different) which most of our students enter after college. I will put my point simply for now, and then take the rest of the post to try to back it up.
The point in miniature is: Humanists often focus on imparting cultural capital to students because of assumptions dating back many decades that, in a post-industrial future, cultural capital both would be necessary for advancement and would appreciate in value. I don’t think that future ever arrived for most students, and the forecast doesn’t look good.
This week was a microcosm of modern African American history. When I wrote this, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) just opened its doors in Washington, D.C. A testament to years of hard work in getting the museum funded, the NMAAHC has already received considerable media coverage. It is also part of the Smithsonian’s system of museums–more than likely “the last great museum on the (National) Mall.” Intellectual historians will have plenty of time to consider the “civil religious” ramifications of a museum devoted exclusively to the Black experience (although it should not be limited to within the United States). But events to the south and west of Washington, D.C. put into stark relief the continuing irony of African American history.