Tuesday, May 02, 2006
Get Your Pretty Tired Act! Pretty Tired Act, Here! Pretty Tired Act!
He has reissued one of the oldest, stalest stories in the annals of left-wing heresy-sniffing. It goes like this: Marx’s “old mole” of “the revolution” is eternally burrowing upward toward the light, whatever obstacles “boomer-liberal nation-love” throws in its way. But misleaders slow it down. What Professor Lott calls “new social movements” (i.e., movements some 30 or 40 years old now), like “blacks, Chicanos, gays, lesbians, women, the disabled, and the working class” — “any one of these movements is liable to engage a dominant social formation at one of its weak points and spark a fire that will earn widespread solidarities.” Professor Lott awaits the bracing whiff of a cleansing conflagration in that revolutionary morning.
Eric Lott on Sean McCann and Michael Szalay’s Countercultural Capital: Essays on the Sixties from Some Who Weren’t There:
By now, blaming the counterculture for the “cultural turn” in left political theory so as to indict both is a pretty tired act. It carries the fetid whiff of Richard Rorty in the 1990s, Russell Jacoby in the 1980s, and Christopher Lasch in the 1970s, and you would think that at this point an entire volume devoted to such a critique would be supererogatory. In Sean McCann’s and Michael Szalay’s Introduction and concluding essay, “Do You Believe in Magic,” all the stops are pulled out—Norman Mailer is scarcely different from Lionel Trilling, who in turn resembles C. Wright Mills; and distinctions disappear between libertarianisms left and right. All proving, supposedly, that anti-institutional political excesses in the 1960s bequeathed a critical irrationalism that today hobbles the chance for a meaningful left.
Old, stale stories? Heresy-sniffing? Bracing whiffs? (Gitlin, sarcastically, of Lott.) Fetid whiffs? (Lott, seriously, of McCann, Szalay, Rorty, Jacoby, and Lasch.) Parallel rhetoric, anyone?
“Your arguments are not merely laughable and/or bourgeois, but airborne particles which enter my nose, excite my olfactory nerve and produce an unpleasant, emetic effect.”
Perhaps this is the reason such grudges are held so long?
More on the politics of smell here. (To quote from my response at the time, “I wonder if it’s a coincidence that the writers I most often turn to for humane comfort—James Joyce and Samuel R. Delany—are both on record as lacking ‘dissmell’ altogether.")
Eric Lott is a clown. But I guess he has found a good way to make a name for himself in certain circles.
Why exactly is Eric Lott a clown? I haven’t read The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual, but even as Gitlin describes it, it doesn’t seem quite clownish. If Gitlin is right that “the academic left is nowhere today. It matters more to David Horowitz than to anyone else,” then Lott’s critique (as described by Gitlin: i.e., the Left’s problem is not that it is too left [as Horowitz would have it] or that it is too unorganized [as Gitlin would seem to have it] but that it is complicit in its opposition’s assumptions [and, therefore, its practices]--or in other words, it isn’t left enough) seems quite serious and (to my mind) quite valid. (Gitlin’s problem, on the other hand, seems to be that he can’t conceive of Lott’s project as a structural critique--i.e., as a critique of the way that Leftist opposition, when it fails to account for structural capacity to subsume opposition, does lend complicity [and legitimacy?] to the very causes it opposes.)
Now, although I think Love & Theft is also not in the least clownish (although it is in some sense about clownishness), I don’t know that I’m in those “certain circles” for whom Lott’s “name” is so “made” that his work doesn’t deserve critique. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t as yet offer “clownish” as my critique. And yet, I’d like to know why (not just that) you--Blah-- think he’s a clown.
Unless you mean physically. Not having seen him myself, I can’t say whether or not Lott looks like a clown, but I’m trying to read your post generously enough to see its merit. And I’m guessing that, given one’s typical nose, a clown might have an active role to play in the olfactorial epistemology Scott is sniffing out.
I know this is an old thread, but I reviewed the Lott book in Reviews in American History recently, and I found it rather good. It is a hard book to read, but the argument is essentially sound. I admired the way it made one think about the relationship between DLC liberals like Gitlin and the far Left. After two failed elections for the Democrats, Lott’s challenge makes sense.
I also liked how Lott, with the shape of his intellect, approached the topic. It was interesting to see how he approached the topic in terms of his choice of material and critics. No one writer would approach the topic the same way, which is why criticism is so vital. The book received some savage reviews when it came out, but that was only because it ruffled the feathers of older, former New Left intellectuals. The book actually is quite similar to Russell Jacoby’s The End of Utopia (1999) in its claims. A bit back, there was a radio show in NYC about the book, and Morris Dickstein liked it because he said it raised alot of interesting and unanswerable questions.
The most important thing is the lament in the book, and I assume it is how former radical intellectuals have been bought off by the rewards of success in the new corporate university, thus their criticism has moved to the left-center, as they are now “professionals” and not really “critics.” This is an important point to drive home, and Lott did this well.
The lament has another aspect that most reviewers of the book missed, because they were the same age cohort as Lott’s list of liberal intellectuals. Alot of younger writers and scholars went through public education in the 1970s and 1980s, the post-Vietnam and Reagan Eras. In this skeptical and adrift decade, public education tried to rebuild kids on a different footing intellectually than any other previous generation. Alot of our schooling reflected the nation’s sickness against violence and war, and also the great prospects in equality and law brought about by the Civil Rights Movements. These things were inculcated, rightly, in our educations through college. So after being prepared to enter the world in this highly idealistic and perfectly fine fashion, the older members of the New Left move to the center, and atone for whatever “excesses” (to quote Paul Berman) or “youthful indiscretions” (to quote Gitlin). This impulse within the former New Left had difficulty choosing their inspiration for social activism and student radicalism, so they were into thinkers and figures that promoted violence. It’s not other critic’s or writer’s or student’s fault that they could not find either a Carey McWilliams, A. Philip Randolph, or Randolph Bourne (in the American grain) or a Cornelius Castoriadis, Walter Benjamin, or Henri Lefebvre (in Marxism) to feed their radicalism.
As well, there’s also nothing worse than that worn dynamic between the old and young, “Don’t bother kid. I’ve been there and done that already.” This pretty much sums up the rewritten biographies of this misguided cohort.
When you look on the left, figures like Howard Zinn, Mike Davis, or Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz still have currency among young scholars and readers. That’s because they don’t preach, but guide and generously let young writers, students, and readers find their own way. In some respects, Lott strikes me as this kind of scholar/teacher. I don’t know the author personally, but have seen him interact professionally and he commands admiration from colleagues. It’s probably because he is a better listener and talker.