Jerome Bruner On Cultures That ‘Breakdown’

In Acts of Meaning (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1990, pp. 96-97), Jerome Bruner writes

When there is a breakdown in a culture…it can usually be traced to one of several things. The first is a deep disagreement about what constitutes the ordinary and canonical in life and what the exceptional and divergent….this we know in our time from what one might call the “battle of the life-styles.” exacerbated by intergenerational conflict. A second threat inheres in the rhetorical overspecialization of narrative, when stories become so ideologically or self-servingly motivated that distrust displaces interpretation, and “what happened” is discounted as fabrication. On the large scale, this is what happens under a totalitarian regime, and contemporary novelists of Central Europe have documented it with painful exquisiteness–Milan Kundera, Danilo Kiš, and many others. The same phenomenon  expresses itself in modern bureaucracy, where all except the official story of what is happening is silenced or stonewalled…finally, there is breakdown that results from sheer impoverishment of narrative resources–in the permanent underclass of the ghetto, in the second and third generation of the Palestinian refugee compound, in the hunger-preoccupied villages of semipermanently drought-stricken villages in sub-Saharan Africa. It is not that there is a total loss in putting story form to experience, but that the worse scenario story comes to to dominate daily life that variation no longer seems to be possible. [links added]

My reasons for posting this passage, at this time should be clear enough.

The first state of affairs that Bruner lists above has been a feature of American life for as long as I can remember it, and indeed, has been from the birth of the nation; it constitutes a  dynamic and creative tension in American culture. It has led to many species of politics and political engagement, not all of them conducive to the continuance of the American polity. The third condition too, has been realized in ample measure in American life; it is what makes the ‘voices of the downtrodden’ especially worth listening to–as rappers like Public Enemy were fond of saying, by listening to them you learned something about a world most American citizens did not need or want to interact with; that music offered affirmation that despite the ‘impoverishment of narrative resources’ powerful, creative voices still spoke loudly and clearly. The second condition is the one that will seem especially familiar to us now in this era of ‘fake news–the relentless, seemingly unstoppable lying, the bald-faced denial of ‘what is in front of our nose.’

The crucial mistake, a self-congratulatory one, would be to imagine that this state of affairs is entirely new; bald-faced, persistent, and systematic liars have long worked their trade. What is new is the materiality of our information exchanges, their speed and ubiquity, their all-pervasiveness. They make possible the ‘breakdown’ in communication many experience today; the so-called ‘echo chambers,’ the sense that some divides cannot be bridged by discourse. The central irony in all of this, as media scholars have not tired of pointing out, that it is our civilization’s most pervasive, most efficient, most democratic communication system ever that has facilitated this state of affairs.

Breakdowns in cultures are not trivial affairs, and there is no sign that the current political and cultural tensions in American life will lead to anything like an irreparable rift; but complacency is no substitute for thinking about what changes in material conditions can induce a different social and personal consciousness that could help heal the present schisms.

Ross Douthat Finds ‘Ascendant Social Liberalism’ Lurking Beneath His Bed

The New York Times’ Resident Sophist Laureate, Ross Douthat, has a long-running argumentative and rhetorical strategy of suggesting, through dark imprecations, that ‘liberalism’ and ‘godlessness’ are to blame for America’s social evils, for they they have produced them by provoking a reaction to their excesses. If only social and political movements didn’t engage in such vigorous protest, score legal victories in the Supreme Court, and influence the nation’s various discourses, they wouldn’t spark the reaction they do. There is no systemic social and political pathology to be combated; all is mere resentful pushing back, the rightful response of the righteous–and religious–to hectoring from the left. (This should sound familiar; remember David Brooks’ claim that anti-racism protests encourage racism?)

This highly remunerative schtick finds its latest expression in the following:

[T]he Democratic Party’s problem in the age of Trump isn’t really Jimmy Fallon. Its problem is Samantha Bee.

Not Bee alone, of course, but the entire phenomenon that she embodies: the rapid colonization of new cultural territory by an ascendant social liberalism.

In such a domain:

[Late night show hosts] are less comics than propagandists — liberal “explanatory journalists” with laugh lines.

As a result of which:

[O]utside the liberal tent, the feeling of being suffocated by the left’s cultural dominance is turning voting Republican into an act of cultural rebellion.

Douthat’s Op-Ed is sparked by the reaction to Jimmy Fallon’s recent I’ll-get-on-my-knees-if-you-say-so bootlicking reception of Donald Trump on his show recently. But his superficial understanding of ‘comics’ renders suspect the entire foundations of the sly ‘you asked for it’ screed that follows.

Comedy isn’t, and never has been, ‘apolitical.’ It either skewers the powerful or it reinforces existent patterns of power. To laugh at the powerful is a political act; so is laughing at the politically dispossessed.Comedians don’t get to stand out of the political fray. (Note that Douthat describes as an ‘apolitical shtick’ a show segment which normalized the behavior of a fascist; joking around with Bernie Sanders on the same show would have been considered further evidence of ‘the left’s cultural dominance.’)

Douthat correctly notes that his conjecture about national voting patterns is just that, in noting that this supposed cultural liberalism “may be one reason the Obama years, so good for liberalism in the culture, have seen sharp G.O.P. gains at every level of the country’s government.” He does so because presumably he does not want to make note of gerrymandering which locks in Republican power at the state level, or voter ID laws, which disenfranchise voters who might vote for the Democrats, or the continuance of neoliberal economic policies so beloved of national administrations, which have systematically immiserated large swathes of the American electorate.

Douthat also displays a remarkable cluelessness in his feverish ascriptions of cultural and political power to late-night comics. The dominance of the kind of humor that Douthant bemoans on television comes about because television executives determine, through marketing techniques, what brand works best with their audiences; comics don’t drive social change, social change drives comics’ lines. Moreover, late-night television is a small component of this nation’s cultural space where political contestation might take place; far more occurs in the twenty-three hours that precede those slots, in many other spaces: the streets, workplaces, classrooms. To be sure, those jokes may animate conversations outside the television studio, but despite the chuckles they engender on social media, there is little evidence that a single voter has had his or her mind changed by a comedian.

Lastly, Douthat conveniently ignores the presence of right-wing talk radio, which is remarkably humorless–except when it is cracking sexist and racist jokes, commands considerable time on the nation’s airwaves and which is committed to polemicizing and persuasion. They know something Douthat doesn’t want to acknowledge: if you want to effect political change, make sure folks know you are deadly serious.

Academic Arguments, Sports, and Urban Policing as ‘War’

In the introduction to The Social Construction of What? Ian Hacking writes:

Labels such as ‘‘the culture wars,’’ ‘‘the science wars,’’ or ‘‘the Freud wars’’ are now widely used to refer to some of the disagreements that plague contemporary intellectual life. I will continue to employ those labels, from time to time, in this book, for my themes touch, in myriad ways, on those confrontations. But I would like to register a gentle protest. Metaphors influence the mind in many unnoticed ways. The willingness to describe fierce disagreement in terms of the metaphors of war makes the very existence of real wars seem more natural, more inevitable, more a part of the human condition. It also betrays us into an insensibility toward the very idea of war, so that we are less prone to be aware of how totally disgusting real wars really are….Wars! The science wars can be focused on social construction. One person argues that scientific results, even in fundamental physics, are social constructs. An opponent, angered, protests that the results are usually discoveries about our world that hold independently of society. People also talk of the culture wars, which often hinge on issues of race, gender, colonialism, or a shared canon of history and literature that children should master—and so on. These conflicts are serious. They invite heartfelt emotions. Nevertheless I doubt that the terms ‘‘culture wars,’’ ‘‘science wars’’ (and now, ‘‘Freud wars’’) would have caught on if they did not suggest gladiatorial sport. It is the bemused spectators who talk about the ‘‘wars.’’

Two quick responses. First, Hacking is correct to note that the invocation of ‘gladiatorial sport’ in the recounting of academic debate is an integral part of the rhetorical arsenal deployed to describe academic debate. This is presumably meant to indicate the extent of the disagreement extant between the parties in the debate, but over time it has come to characterize debate itself in too many disciplines. In philosophy, as I’ve already noted–much to the detriment of women philosophers–this has become the norm. An argument is an opportunity not to move toward discovery and edification but to destroy a putative opposing position. The conquest of one’s intellectual ‘opponent’ becomes our primary, normatively assessed responsibility.

Second, Hacking is also correct in indicting the usage of the language of ‘war’ to describe academic disagreement: it simultaneously trivializes war while dangerously lowering the standards of discourse in academic debate. In general, wherever the language of ‘war’ and ‘battle’ is thrown around freely, the standards of behavior in that domain decline.  Consider sport, where the all-too frequent reliance on military tropes results in the condoning of illegitimate play and questionable sportsmanship, and more generally, the attitude that games, like wars, must be won by any means necessary. Or consider urban policing, where the constant reference to ‘war zones’ results in a ‘shoot or be shot’ mentality that takes the lives of innocents each year. The trigger-happy policeman is already convinced he is a soldier on patrol, well behind enemy lines, surrounded by hostiles ready to take him out. The outcomes that result are grimly foretold.