Book Review

The Metaphors We Live By: Kuryla on Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America

Andrew Hartman A War for the Soul of America[Introduction: This is review number three, from Peter Kuryla, in our round table on Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America. Kuryla is Associate Professor of History at Belmont University (Nashville, TN), as well as a Texan and a Cubs fan. He earned his PhD from Vanderbilt University, and is working on a book derived from his dissertation, the working title of which is “The Imagined Civil Rights Movement.” The first review in our roundtable came from Bob Hutton, the second from Vaneesa Cook, and two more will follow from Michelle Nickerson and Amy Kittelstrom. Hartman’s reply will be Saturday. Enjoy! – TL]

The Metaphors We Live By

A War for the Soul of America is a history of political culture. The book is a synthesis of lots of different ideas in different contexts, and it covers a whole lot of ground. The pace is rapid; its narrative moves quickly from one thing to the next. It’s really good to have around, because, as the author has mentioned in a few places, the book is the first formal history of its kind. It brings together countless different things under the banner of the culture wars “metaphor”: religion, race, gender, popular culture, mainstream politics, the interaction of the academy with those things, and so on. The remarkable size and variation of the cultural landscape Hartman manages to cover makes it quite an accomplishment. The book should be essential reading for those who would map out more specific features of this moment in the history of American political culture in years to come.

Hartman argues that this culture wars metaphor dominated public arguments over American identity during the 1980s and 1990s. At bottom, the battle was over the ways in which the opposing sides in the debate imagined the 1960s. Their imaginings had lots to do with concrete changes brought about during that decade, manifested in, first, the increasing prevalence and prominence of previously excluded voices in the public sphere, people of color, women, gays and lesbians, and second, in the challenge to the “normative American” values of 1950s waged by the counterculture and those in these previously excluded groups. “[I]dentity based movements of the New Left” though, “were ultimately more threatening to the guardians of traditional America than was the counterculture” (18). While, for a variety of reasons, political power never transferred substantially to those groups previously marginalized, the New Left that opened the public sphere to these groups and the counterculture that challenged “traditional” values seized the day in cultural institutions. The 1960s, in this view, represented a decisive break with the past, a profound disruption of 1950s consensus pieties.

There’s something neatly counterintuitive about this argument. The author goes against some scholars of historically marginalized groups who would emphasize longer-term changes and transformations. Scholars dedicated to the stories of oppressed and exploited people tend to see continuities with previous forms of activism rather than ruptures or breaks (see, for example, the “long civil rights movement” trend in that historiography). Many historians of the conservative movement, starting with George Nash, reach back to origins in the 1940s and 1950s to explain basic ideas and motivations for that group. As for values, scholars have long aimed to complicate the 1950s, emphasizing how “liberal minds in a conservative age” to borrow from Richard Pells, tended to be contemptuous of “normative,” middle class America, with its religiosity, patriotism, and all too comfy enjoyment of consensus in its politics. Hartman acknowledges the merits of certain continuity arguments but sticks with rupture instead, in the process nuancing the 1950s and 1960s imaginary of many contemporary Americans’ and conservatives’ fevered brains. Combatants in the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s tended to see something decisive in those earlier decades. Hartman figures we should see if they were on to something. (Steven J. Whitfield wrote a really discerning article about this a few years ago for a roundtable that readers of this blog should find interesting.) [1]

From there the author considers the last couple of decades of the twentieth century, covering religion, race, gender, the creative arts, public schools, the academy, and history in that order. The New Left and the Neoconservatives become the most critical groups of thinkers according to this strategy, because, in their opposition to one another in earlier years, those two groups played out the basic script of the dramas that would emerge later between “normative America” and “1960s America.”

Taking the received wisdom seriously like this takes courage when dipping a toe in the vast sea of 1950s and 60s scholarship, not the least because Hartman plays a rather dangerous game by doing it. Given the political tenor of the book—on the Left—one could see its larger purposes being undermined by conservatives who might add parts of it to their stockpile of argumentative ammunition, selecting whatever historical materiel fits their fancy. After all, the efforts of scholars to trouble the essentialisms of the 1950s and/or the 1960s, has been done, with varying degrees of explicitness, with the aim of breaking up popular and conservative declension narratives in the present. I wonder if this political tangle explains at least in part the author’s provocative claim in the conclusion of the book that the culture wars “are history” (285). If the war is over, maybe the combatants have less need for new sources of ammunition.

Metaphors We Live By

I’ve stolen the title of this essay from George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s The Metaphors We Live By (1980). My thinking about that text alongside Hartman’s also explains the labored war metaphors in the preceding paragraph. Might as well go with the flow. Lakoff, a linguist, and Johnson, a philosopher, used the example “argument is war,” to describe how metaphors work in a culture, how “[t]he essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another”:

Though there is no physical battle, there is a verbal battle, and the structure of an argument–attack, defense, counter-attack, etc.—reflects this. It is in this sense that the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture; it structures the actions we perform in arguing. Try to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground. Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently. But we would probably not view them as arguing at all: they would simply be doing something different. It would seem strange even to call what they were doing “arguing.”

If “argument is war” happens to be a “metaphor we live by,” the received wisdom of the culture wars becomes harder to parse. This surely explains why the “culture” part of the culture wars becomes so critical to Hartman’s argument. People argued about—made war over—a 1960s shift in culture that the author describes as sui generis. Yet, in a book like A War for the Soul of America, where the word “epistemology” or some form of it appears several times, it’s worth considering some its metaphors with a greater degree of precision, especially its central one.

So before finishing up with the “war” metaphor of the book, I’ll take a detour to consider another trope in the oppositional imaginary of the 1950s and 1960s that Hartman uses, a metaphor that appears only a few times in the text, specifically with the opening chapter on the 1960s in discussions of the sociologist C. Wright Mills and social critic Paul Goodman (13-14). I’m thinking here of the “iron cage” of capitalism. As far as I can tell, the author chooses this metaphor to describe Mills and Goodman’s debt to Max Weber.[2] To be precise though, Hartman borrows from Talcott Parsons’ 1930 translation of Max Weber’s most famous essay to describe the Weberian dimensions of Mills and Goodman’s critique of conformity in “normative America.” [3] That metaphor, of course, is now widely used when thinking about the bracing conclusion to The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. But for Hartman, “normative America” is also about the “Protestant ethic,” a phrase that pops up now and again a few places. He sometimes uses it interchangeably with 1950s “normative America” or “traditional America” and so on. To be fair, by the 1950s, along with Hartman’s normative Americans, I suspect a few less thoughtful consensus types figured that something like the “Protestant ethic” was a good thing for a booming market, American as apple pie and Ben Franklin’s bromides. [4]

Yet, for the New Left and the Counterculture alike, the “elemental passions” and “sporting contest” that Weber decried in the early 1900s were certainly evident in 1950s “normative America,” with its orgy of consumption. The question then becomes, what normative America did they revolt against? Was it the Protestant ethic, the spirit of worldly asceticism, or the iron cage of capitalist materialism? Ben Franklin’s bromides or Goethe’s “specialists without spirit, hedonists without a heart?” Was it simply all those things, as if Weber’s new human beings under capitalism had never been created, or in Parsonian terms, as if the spirit had never escaped the cage? Maybe for the New Left, the narrow materialism and rampant, pointless bureaucratic rationalism of that period demanded that Parsons’ cage be smashed and replaced with something else lest despair win the day. But, as Hartman suggests, others believed that the resources to accomplish this, as before, would have to be spiritual, this time reworked in therapeutic registers. If meaning were to be found again, there would have to be a challenge to the repressive “Protestant ethic,” to quote from Hartman’s quote of Theodore Roszak’s elision of New Left and counterculture (14). By all of this I mean that I had a hard time squaring Hartman’s use of the “iron cage” metaphor on the one hand with conflations of normative America and the Protestant ethic on the other. In Weberian terms, did normative America lack the rigor of the calling or not? Who thought so, and when did worldly asceticism—a historical outcome that Weber thought somehow linked to the Protestant ethic—go away? Weber, of course, thought it already had in the early 1900s. To parody David Riesman in my favor, are we talking about “inner-directed” types with “gyroscopes” that needed breaking, or are we talking about “other-directed” types whose “gyroscopes” had already broken?

The author also argues that “the Protestant work ethic” (by which he really means the spirit of world asceticism) was something “that the mostly Jewish neoconservatives came to adore” (67). In Parsonian terms, then, presumably the spirit might be crammed back through the bars and into the cage from which it had escaped, since human beings had remained pretty much the same in the offing. Were these Jewish intellectuals making prescriptive historical arguments as reactionary as this? If so, who did and who didn’t? Perhaps some of their “new class” arguments were really more precise Weberian arguments. That is, those who became neoconservatives lamented the coming of a “new” “adversarial” class of “specialists without spirit…hedonists without a heart” for being the latest iteration Weber’s new human beings in a spiritually bereft capitalism. If that’s so, the “new class” was a permutation of the conformist middle class America that had been the subject of so many withering critiques years earlier. At best, perhaps it was more traditionalist conservatives with Calvinist backgrounds, who, longing for the rigor of the calling by God, stood up for something like a renewal of some 1950s “Protestant ethic” in their frightfully loose borrowings from neoconservative critiques. I doubt it though.

All of this leads me to wonder whether Hartman’s radicals of the 1960s, living by the iron cage metaphor in the book, ultimately play right into the hands of critics like Christopher Lasch. Lasch, even if he didn’t think about it in precisely this way, saw little difference in the impact of the counterculture’s rebellion and conformist culture more broadly. At this deeper Weberian level, both sides in the argument, as creatures of modernity, had the same “elemental passions.” Rather than challenging capitalism or its culture in any substantial way, therapeutic radicalism only showed just how transformed these modern humans were, as in the end they made space to enjoy different, remarkably feckless forms of consumption, this time as a culture of narcissism. It comes as no surprise that Lasch saw the spectacle of sport as a larger cultural metaphor. It followed Weber’s use of that trope. At this level, the stubborn permutations of Weber’s new beings under capitalism proved tougher to crack than the impact of any cultural beachheads won during the 1960s. Thankfully Hartman observes something like this in his conclusion: “American culture—American capitalism—discovered a new dynamism by incorporating the oppositional themes of the New Left” (289). (In Laschean terms, I would quibble with the use of “New Left” here, and substitute “counterculture.”)

But there’s always danger in seeing nothing new under the sun. Lakoff and Johnson’s “argument is war” metaphor does trouble Hartman’s argument for the particular historicity of “culture war” some, in that the obsessively rigorous intellectual historian would have to trace the origins of battle or war metaphors in public discourse to get a sense of when all this started. (I’ll gesture to an origin shortly.) I’m inclined to think that Hartman is on to something essential with this book, getting at certain features of an American social imaginary, in the sense that A War for the Soul of America is really the story of the latest expression of a working politics in the United States. We’ve long used war metaphors in our arguments, so at best, the 1960s gave these metaphors a new texture if nothing else. By “working” here, I mean the relative stability of our body politic. For those who fought the culture wars, this might seem perverse, but if we take the implications of Lakoff and Johnson seriously, our “war is argument metaphor” makes us who we are. So I wonder whether occasions of culture war, then, exemplify who we are as Americans precisely because the rhetoric is so violent.

I’m not setting the bar all that high for this. Aristotle probably set the bar highest in the Politics. Doing politics in the proper sense, where equals are rulers and ruled, allows us do our best work as human beings, to be what human beings are, to do what human beings do. We do it not just for the sake of living, but for living well. This is why Aristotle famously had this to say about those outside politics:

[O]ne who is cityless as a result of nature rather than by choice is either insignificant or more powerful than a human being. He is like the person reviled by Homer as “without fellowship, without law, without a hearth,” for someone of that sort is at the same time naturally bent on war, since he is in fact like an unpaired piece on a checker board…and one who is no part of a city, either from lacking the power to be in an association or from needing nothing on account of self-sufficiency, is for that reason either a beast or a god.” [5]

Updating these ideas for the modern world, Hannah Arendt for example, saw political activity—the space of freedom and concern with working out the principles of a shared human world—to be the highest of values, beyond those of mere biological necessity or the inward, private concerns that take place within ourselves. For both thinkers, Aristotle and Arendt, “war” in the sense of that term as violence, could no longer be in the realm of politics, because violence requires a suspension of speech. The argument stops. It just so happens that, in the United States, the space of politics first opened in a revolutionary context, where violence was a very real possibility. Maybe we live by “argument is war” metaphors because this is how we recall the revolutionary moment when the political—the space where people can actually engage in truly human activity by creating something new—came into being for us. Following Arendt in On Revolution, different from the French or Russian Revolutions, the American Revolution never turned so quickly to the realm of necessity, so the space remained open much longer. Maybe the tragedy and genius of politics in our age of modern revolutions stems from our inability to shake off their violent origins. Solutions to arguments require doing rhetorical violence against our opponents.

In the end, I’m not entirely certain that “The logic of the culture wars has been exhausted” (285) because an intimate part of the logic of our politics is the logic of the metaphor “argument is war.” Ironically, when we stop using martial metaphors to argue with one another, we stop doing what resembles politics in the United States. Riffing a little on William James, Ralph Ellison put it this way:

Usually this contest (our improvised moral equivalent for armed warfare) proceeds as a war of words, a clash of styles, or as rites of symbolic sacrifice in which cabalistic code words are used to designate victims consumed with an Aztec voracity for scapegoats. Indeed, so frequently does this conflict erupt in physical violence that one sometimes wonders if there is any other viable possibility for coexisting in so abstract and futuristic a nation as this. [6]

If Hartman is right, and the culture wars are “history,” then we might lament their passing, as pathos-ridden and painful as the process was and can be. To borrow from one of his really fun posts on this blog, this time in an ironic register: “The Culture Wars are Dead, Long Live the Culture Wars.” Thanks to Andrew Hartman’s remarkable and astute survey, we can be assured that they will live on in scholarship yet to come.


[1] Steven J. Whitfield, “How the Fifties Became the Sixties” Historically Speaking (January/February 2008), 8-11. Online at Accessed 25 June, 2015.

[2] While Mills mentions Weber a handful of times in White Collar, he never used the term “iron cage.” The same is true of Goodman in Growing up Absurd. (I looked back over these books to make sure. I hope I didn’t miss it.) The quotes around the term in Hartman’s book in reference to those two texts, then, must be there to identify the author’s Parsonian understanding rather than Peter Baehr’s “shell hard as steel” from the more recent translation. See below.

[3] See Peter Baehr, “The ‘Iron Cage’ and ‘The Shell Hard as Steel’: Parsons, Weber, and the Stahlhartes Gehäuse Metaphor in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” History and Theory, 40(2) (May 2001), 153. The term “iron cage” was Parsons’ take on the German phrase “stahlhartes Gehäuse” which translates to something like a housing or case which is hard as steel. My copy of Weber’s essay is Baehr’s from 2002, where he renders it “shell hard as steel.” A “housing or a shell” is different from a “cage” in figurative terms. In the History and Theory piece, Baehr points out that whereas “ a cage confines human agents…leaving their powers otherwise intact,” a “shell hard as steel” is a more typical of modernity, in that capitalism transformed human subjects in Weber’s view, suggesting “a new kind of being.” The newer/older Weber’s “shell hard as steel,” on the other hand, suggested the modern “hedonists without a heart,” motivated by “materialist consumption, confident of superiority” and blithely unaware of the world they had created for themselves. He also shows that Parson’s use of that term amounted to creative license based upon Parsons’ application of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress to Weber’s text, where Bunyan’s “Christian” sees a man trapped in an iron cage, “a man of despair…shut up in this Iron Cage.” In this sense, Parson’s metaphor has a religious tinge to it that probably invites conflations.

[4] I have a copy of a book called Ben Franklin and the American Character that I picked up on a table of free books that a retiring Vanderbilt professor left out about a dozen years ago. It was part of Amherst College’s “Problems in American Civilization,” and it was published in 1955.

[5] Aristotle, Politics, trans Joe Sachs. (Newburyport: Focus, 2012), 4. The emphasis is mine.

[6] Ralph Ellison, “The Little Man at Chehaw Station: the American Artist and His Audience” The American Scholar 47(1) (Winter 1978), 34.