Cultural Associations Do Not Add Up

In reviewing Jonathan Lethem‘s Dissident Gardens (“Leftists in Jeopardy“, New York Review of Books, April 2014), Michael Greenberg writes:

Lethem’s impulse to display his knowingness, his “vernacular” expertise, as he calls it, his belief that “were’ surrounded by signs [and] our imperative is to ignore none of them engenders a narrative noise that drowns out the novel’s subtler chords. His characters become the sum total  of their cultural associations,  creatures of the zeitgeist, a form of determinism, that as determinism does, leaves little or no room for spontaneity and nuance. We know them by their era, their affiliations, the music they listen to, and the products they boycott, or acquire.

Greenberg may be right that such ‘narrative noise…drowns out the novel’s subtler chords.’ But I do not know if the fundamental anxiety he expresses, that the characters subjected to such treatment become entirely relational–the “sum total of their cultural associations…with no room for spontaneity or nuance”–is all that worrisome or even perspicuous.

These associations and affiliations are expressions of taste, evidence of choices. These choices may display the very ‘spontaneity’ and ‘nuance’ whose absence Greenberg is bemoaning. We might know these characters by ‘their era, their affiliations, the music they listen to, and the products they boycott, or acquire’ but that does not mean the particular and peculiar way these are assembled by each individual may not be a ‘style’, a distinct signature, all its own.Greenberg seems to imagine such characters are entirely passive, merely bearing the impress of their cultures. But that would only be so if there is an assumption of, ironically enough, a certain ‘determinism’ on his part. These collections of ‘cultural associations,’ often very distinct from each other, present a different breeding ground for the various influences they subsequently encounter. Those interactions will often result in a quite unique character.

As but a trivial example, the temporal sequencing of these cultural adoptions may significantly affect the particular ‘sum total’; cultural choices and tastes do not follow some commutative law of addition. The teenager who discovers Slayer first, and then Black Sabbath later is very different from the one who listens to Black Sabbath first and finds Slayer later. The former finds his beloved thrashers have their provenance in classic heavy metal; the latter finds his beloved masters continue to live on in the homage paid them by contemporaries. The former may be tempted into an exploration of an older school of music; the latter may seek to find other bands’ expressions of a signature style. Their resultant journeys are likely to be very different. Or, if you prefer a more exalted example, those who read military histories of the Second World War first, and then later read those written by Herodotus, are likely to have a quite different reading experience from those who bring Herodotus to their reading of the Second World War histories.

Conformity is a genuine worry, but not quite in the way that Greenberg worries about it. The notion of a ‘sum total…of cultural associations’, in particular, strikes me as incoherent.

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