U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Conflict, Functionality, and the Trope of Culture Wars

freepix_conflictThough the ‘new social history’ had its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, the ‘new cultural history,’ or ‘the cultural turn,’ that started during the same period seems at this point more enduring. For many intellectual historians this has meant a turn to much more diverse texts and a new orientation towards what constitutes the subject matter of intellectual historians. Such approaches have greatly expanded the scope of intellectual history and have created much overlap between the categorizations cultural and intellectual history.

However, opting for the category of the cultural over the social as the “democratizing” force behind this shift in the conceptualization of the intellectual seems to have skewed intellectual and cultural historiography of recent decades towards more functionalist and less conflict oriented analyses. For much of the creative energy of the new cultural history came by way of theoretical frameworks that cast culture, or the concept of discourse for example, as an operating whole, rather than contentious and fractured segments.

In such a manner anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz, who greatly influenced the new cultural historians, tended to approach their subject matter as a holistic unit in which the scholar must immerse herself if she is to understand how it works; how it functions.(1) Similarly, Foucault, perhaps the most influential theoretician of the late twentieth century, as an “ethnologist of truths”—as he sometimes referred to his approach—has sought to unveil the function of the influential concept of discourse as a holistic unit.

Perhaps even more than Geertz, Foucault’s notion of discourse has greatly influenced cultural scholarship. Rather than trying to understand what the truth was, scholars now strove to unpack how it operated and manifested itself in the workings of the discourse. As a Foucaudian scholar once explained to me in a course in college, a discourse is somewhat akin to a ball game. There are certain legitimate ways to make legal plays and score points. The discourse analyst or the cultural scholar, then, does not ask whether or not the game is what it appears to be—what it is “really” about—but what the rules are. She must understand the formal—and better yet—the informal rules of the game, in order to best come to grips with that culture. Indeed, as many have pointed out, Geertz’s notion of a symbolic order in which the scholar needs to immerse herself is quite similar.

Social historians, by contrast, have long viewed society less as a functioning whole and more as a fragmented or fractured phenomenon in which there are clear agendas and incentives. In other words, the “modernist” question of essence, what this is all really about remained fundamental. Usually focusing primarily on class as a conflict oriented category of analysis, their scholarship primarily rests on the copious theoretical body of Marxism—the most quintessential conflict theory.

Indeed, the greatest danger that, the somewhat post-modernist, category of culture poses is that it too often either precludes addressing the reality of conflict altogether, or that it underplays it as secondary. By contrast, the category of the social—at least as it has operated in the discipline of history since the rise of the new social history—tends to treat conflict as primary and functionality, if at all, as secondary. In sociology the long history of methodological splits between those who stress functionality and those who stress conflict has rendered the tension between conflict and function intrinsic to the category of the social, as I believe it should be. Thus in sociology this discussion has become somewhat moot, and more of a touchstone in introductory courses, for sociologist have long acknowledged the ubiquity of both.

However, social history, as opposed to the discipline of sociology, as a social analysis that stresses class conflict over all else, comes with its attendant weaknesses. First, it tends to underestimate both the significance of other categories of oppression, such as gender and race, regarding them as cultural and thus less fundamental.(2) And second, it often disregards the reality that society and culture—in as much as they are useful categories of analysis—always have functional facets, otherwise there would be no use to regard them as a whole.

This is where I have found the recent popularity of the concept of ‘culture wars,’ which this blog has done so much for, of great value. As someone arriving from the field of early American history I had heard of this concept a bit before joining the intellectual history community, but had little notion of its recent popularity. As I have been reading—and greatly enjoying—Andrew Hartman recent book on the Culture Wars, A War for the Soul of America, it struck me that culture wars as a concept and a trope is exactly what we need in order to wrestle with the tension between conflict and functionality. For the idea of culture wars tethers the holistic concept of culture to the trope of war—perhaps the one word more evocative of conflict than the word conflict itself.

To return to the analogy of culture as a ball game and apply the trope of culture wars to such a conceptualization of culture, we should think of a ball game between two teams with different approaches to the game. In this formulation the game is a competition between two distinct strategies. Imagine a baseball game between a team that plays “small ball” and a team loaded with sluggers. I could go on and on, about how we should actually imagine a league, and how we should view each team as an arena of functionality and conflict as well. However, as enticing as that is for me, I must stop here before my trope gets out of hand.

[1] For anthropologists this was part of the discussion over the place of history in their analysis. For historians this has obviously never been a real question.

[2] I suspect that part of the recent return to the history of capitalism is a response of social historians to the new cultural history.

6 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I, too, enjoyed this reflection immensely. Now let’s get back to letting our tropes get out of hand . . .

    One upshot of your analysis is that the “culture wars” were raging at exactly the same moment (1980s) when the “new cultural history” was coming into vogue. Doesn’t it seem a touch ironic, and perhaps even a tad implausible, that this moment of intensely politicized cultural “conflict” (the era of Reaganism) found its mirror image in the professional academy historians, which affirmed theories of holism and function over conflict? William Sewell has a fascinating analysis of this very phenomenon in the first chapter of his _Logics of History_, namely, that the trope of “culture” became prominent in the disciplines of social theory and history at precisely the same moment (1970s/80s) that Marxism waned as a major ideological force and neoliberalism took hold.

    Now, this is probably a historical simplification to suggest (and I’m not sure you are guilty of this, though I am above) that history departments stopped focusing on ‘conflict’ in the 1980s. Of course they didn’t! This was the moment when historians learned to let go of “that noble dream” of value-neutral narrative, the era of the race/class/gender wars, etc. There was a holistic Geertzian moment, to be sure, but also deeply contested moment (which we still live with) of “identity politics.”

    I guess my question is: to what extent do you think this issue of _theories of culture vs. conflict reflects larger political _practices_ of culture vs. conflict in the U.S. in these years?

    On a different note: your tropes about culture as a game, with a set of rules, made me think of Wittgenstein, but more germane to this context, I think, is Bourdieu. His body of theory seems to cut across your distinction b/t conflict and function. As I read _Distinction_ and _The Rules of Art_, the whole point of a “field of cultural production” is to suggest that the _conflict_ between social actors (say, niche markets in popular indie rock vs. rap) can be understood as a cultural _function_ of reproducing the dominant economic interests (white professionals vs. urban labor). I’m not necessarily interested in defending Bourdieu, and I’m not sure if I’ve understood his theory correctly. My concern is rather whether his theory might be relevant to your argument, and to the culture wars issue more generally. At least in my primary field of study (American literature), the major theoretical text to come out of the culture wars moment was John Guillory’s _Cultural Capital_ (1992), an early example of how Bourdieu’s concepts could help us to understand processes of canon formation and fashions in literary criticism.


    • Thanks for this great reply. I actually haven’t thought about the political context of the 1980s, and what you suggest seems compelling, though I have to give it some more thought. I do think that the cultural turn is linked to the postmodern and post-structuralist climate, though in a much more moderate way than say cultural studies folks. So I think the move to a more relaxed idea of historical truth, when, as you say, they let go of that noble dream actually jives quite well with this cultural turn, which also regards truth with less rigidity.
      As for Wittgenstein and even more so Bourdieu, I totally agree with you and even had a post about it a while ago,(http://s-usih.org/2014/12/the-use-and-abuse-of-intellectual-history-reflections-of-an-early-americanist-part-the-last.html). Bourdieu is one of my favorite theorists, though I do wish he wrote less densely.
      I also think that Wittgenstein’s notion of word games that eludes any attempt at easy categorization complements the notion that we shouldn’t reduce societies to either conflict or functionality, but combine them both.

      • Thanks, Eran. Your earlier post was exactly the type of thing I had in mind–sorry to have missed it on the first go round.

        If you don’t know it already, you might find this book interesting, on _Bourdieu and Historical Analysis_–seems to take up many of the same questions that you work on the antebellum period: http://www.amazon.com/Bourdieu-Historical-Analysis-Politics-History/dp/0822352737

        I’d still be interested to know, though, whether scholars of the culture wars (like Andrew Hartman, or LD Burnett) would classify the “culture wars” as a “field of relation” in Bourdieu’s sense, what I think he calls a “war of position”. Maybe they’ve addressed this somewhere on the blog already . . .

      • Thanks for the suggestion, Patrick. Will certainly look it up, which means it should be on my bookshelf soon.

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