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Zoltan Zigedy deconstructs Cold war cultural theory

One can too easily blame capitalism for debasing the culture and intellectual life of the US. The profit motive has surely placed commercial success ahead of artistic merit. Independent purveyors of art and ideas have been either co opted and absorbed by monopoly corporations or ground to a pulp attempting to compete with corporate-sponsored rivals. Culture has become corporate culture, despite the democratizing relief sometimes offered by the Internet.

From producer to consumer, arts and entertainment corporations are the ever-present intermediaries for successful production and realization of cultural commodities. Their goal is profit and not artistic merit.

Similarly, the humanities have been marginalized through the marketization of higher education. The ever present mantra of “running everything like a business” has deeply infected the process of learning, thus sending philosophy, political studies, literature, history and other humanities to the dustbin. That which cannot pay its way deserves no place in the university, say administrators wedded to best business practices. Consequently, the appreciation for and vibrant generation of the humanities is stunted by the dominance of the “practicality” of the sciences and business. Higher learning becomes learning for a purpose, namely, getting ahead.

But the arts and independent thought are threatened by other factors as well. While even those friendly to capitalism will give a reluctant acknowledgment of the economic factors that diminish culture and humanistic pursuits, few accept the significant role of politics in stunting culture and learning. Of course many will readily agree that right wing zealots chip away politically at the liberal values that are believed to be the foundation for cultural and intellectual enrichment. They will eagerly concede that pornography police and music censors retard the free flow of ideas. But they, nonetheless, celebrate the US democratic spirit that continues to nourish the spring of cultural production and intellectual innovation.

Accordingly, they forget, or purposely overlook, the insidious role of Cold War repression that befell intellectual and cultural life in the US from the late 1940s through the early 1960s, with loud echoes today. For nearly a decade and a half, intellectual conformity on class, race, and Communism was rigorously enforced through punishment or fear, especially in the sensitive areas of culture and ideas (the battle of ideas is not merely in academia or among the men and women of letters but in the unions and mass organizations, where a vibrant incubation of radical ideas was replaced with a tepid, mediocre, and intolerant uniformity). Thousands of cultural and intellectual workers lost their jobs, were shunned, or blacklisted. Tens of thousands were frozen with fear and determined to assiduously avoid anything controversial.

Artists and intellectuals grew timid: ironically, some of the best popular cinema of the otherwise mediocre era was offered by ex-Communists who had made their mea culpas and thus earned the right to tackle edgy themes (for example, A Face in the Crowd (Kazan), Sweet Smell of Success, and The Big Knife (Odets). The best of television, a then-new medium seemingly happy to wallow in mediocrity, came from deeply covert writers who had been expelled from Hollywood. When vibrant African American music in the form of a subversive Rhythm and Blues stood to crack the cultural barriers, US entertainment corporations co-opted and whitened the music while transforming it into mildly titillating Rock and Roll (RCA and Elvis Presley), a safer alternative.

The false radicalism of Abstract Expressionism was promoted by a deeply conservative coterie of wealthy art impresarios intent upon overshadowing any subversive messages borne by representational art (see How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, Guilbaut). And mildly mocking satire of upper-middle-class and suburban mores a la New Yorker magazine became the gold standard of popular literature.

Youth rebellion, thought to be a biological imperative, found expression in the middle-class angst of the “beat” generation or through revisiting frontier toughness through the cult of the motorcycle. “Alienation” replaced “exploitation” as the theme of critiques of industrial society.

Moral and political philosophy shunned social criticism for the fetish of linguistic analysis while the social sciences fell under the sway of the paradigm of the self-interested, rational individual.

But it was not simply fear and intimidation that drove the vapidity of culture and thought in the high season of anti-Communism. The best and brightest of Cold War liberals readily collaborated with the US government’s security forces and propaganda offensives. As Frances Stoner Saunders thoroughly documents (The Cultural Cold War), the CIA’s front organization, The Congress for Cultural Freedom, purchased or captured in its net some of the most illustrious intellectuals in the US and the world. Recruitment and manipulation of writers, editors, journalists, academics exerted a strong influence on the direction of intellectual and cultural life for decades. It would be naïve not to believe– and contrary to what has been uncovered– that these same government tentacles had not reached into the US labor movement and numerous NGOs.

It is a pity that no one has taken on the daunting task of assembling all of the glimpses, hints, testaments, and documents that have allowed us to peek behind the curtain of secrecy and deception shielding the vast apparatus of thought control employed by US rulers. What we know about the co-option of a student organization like NSA, a labor front like AIFLD, a publishing house like Praeger, or public intellectuals like Isaiah Berlin, Mary McCarthy, Clement Greenberg, or Arthur Schlesinger Jr. suggests that the instruments of influence stretch far and wide and ensure limits to discussion, debate, and artistic expression.

A Swamp of Gullibility: The Case of Paul De Man

It was in the context of reflecting upon the Cold War clamp-down on US culture and intellectual life that I approached Evelyn Barish’s new book, The Double Life of Paul De Man. From the mid-sixties until his death in 1983, De Man acquired a scholarly, intellectual reputation that secured him a position as one of the most influential intellectuals in the Western world. His students and colleagues in the intellectual school popularly known as “deconstructionism” held prestigious positions at many academic centers, influenced most of the humanities, and succeeded in penetrating into popular culture. Deconstruction– as an intellectual current– has the curious distinction of being nearly incomprehensible to the uninitiated, yet purporting to be a devastating critique sweeping away all that comes before it.

Not long after de Man’s death, an admiring student of his discovered evidence that de Man collaborated with the Nazi occupiers in his native Belgium, contributing pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic articles to Belgium’s leading newspaper. This revelation rocked the academic community and beyond, raising questions about de Man’s integrity and fitness to retain his celestial place in the liberal arts heavens. De Man loyalists sought to cast the collaboration as an aberration and, perhaps with some merit, as irrelevant to the value of his work. As with other fascists or collaborators– Martin Heidegger, Herbert von Karajan, Werner von Braun, etc.– it may be possible to separate their life’s work from their work with the devil (possible, but difficult).

Critics like David Lehman in his 1991 book, Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man, offered no such life line to de Man and deconstruction. He argues forcefully that deconstruction is as tainted by hum-buggery as de Man is flawed as a human being.

But like the Western debate over Heidegger’s past, sides were drawn, but no minds were changed.

Now comes Ms. Barish’s book which shows that Paul de Man was thoroughly a cad, a thief, and, with few exceptions, cavalier with the truth. While Barish indulges in annoying flights of psychological speculation, while she gets some minutiae wrong, she marshals a most convincing case that de Man neglected a wife and children, falsified official documents, stole from investors, lied about academic credentials (even about his own paternity), failed to pay debts– the list of crimes and misdemeanors goes on and on… Those curious of the myriad, lurid details should buy the book; they will find it more bizarre than fiction.

Predictably, the Barish book drew many responses. At one extreme, de Man friend and Sterling Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Yale (succeeding de Man as Sterling professor) and Andrew W. Mellon Scholar at Princeton, Peter Brooks, brought his scholarship to bear on the book in a review published in The New York Review of Books. Notable for its prickliness, the review challenges Barish’s “scholarship” but fails to engage or correct any of the substantive claims at play. Nor do Brooks’ scholarly sensitivities note that the NYRB published several de Man articles previously, perhaps a fact that might be seen as tainting the editors’ objectivity.

Robert Alter, writing in The New Republic, saw the Barish book as demonstrating that de Man was simply a “total fraud,” a conclusion with which those of us less concerned with scholarly niceties might concur. Carlin Romano, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, similarly recoils from de Man’s demonstrated moral corruption.

Harvard Professor Susan Rubin Sulieman, writing in the New York Times concedes that de Man is a “con man,” but cannot resist the academic urge to cast a long shadow by scolding Barish over her scholarly standards. Her sense of moral proportion seems to be overshadowed by her outrage over professional standards.

Writing in The New Yorker, Louis Menand details de Man’s sins with a school-boy relish, while attempting to separate his turpitude from the intellectual views associated with his work. Menand writes, in defense of deconstructionism:

We could say that deconstruction is an attempt to go through the looking glass, to get beyond or behind language, but a deconstructionist would have to begin by explaining that the concepts “beyond” and “behind” are themselves effects of language. Deconstruction is all about interrogating apparently unproblematic terms. It’s like digging a hole in the middle of the ocean with a shovel made of water.

“… go through the looking glass…”? “…digging a hole in the middle of the ocean with a shovel made of water…”? Is this nonsense or an example of the elevated, urbane wit so long associated with The New Yorker?

Chickens Coming Home to Roost

While writers milk the de Man affair for its full entertainment value, and academics debate the damage to the deconstructionist program, critical questions are quietly passed over: How did de Man, the con man, slip through the filters of some of the world’s most prestigious universities? How did Bard, Harvard, Cornell, and Yale allow this man who never completed a baccalaureate snooker the gatekeepers on his journey to claiming one of the most prestigious academic chairs in the US? More broadly, how were the celebrated New York intellectuals, especially Mary McCarthy and Dwight McDonald, seduced into sponsoring de Man into the highest intellectual circles?

In her fashion, Barish speculates on the personalities and psyches of those taken in by de Man in order to supply an explanation. But such an explanation would reduce the rise of Paul de Man to an unprecedented, finally inexplicable historic accident.

A better answer is found by returning to the historical context of Paul de Man’s journey. De Man arrived and maneuvered his way into a position to launch his career at the peak of the Cold War repression in the US. Academics and intellectuals were not expanding horizons nor inviting fresh currents. Rather, they were circling the wagons and banning controversial ideas. This was, of course, fertile soil for opportunists, people who could read the signs and conform.

It is important to remember that de Man’s chosen field of literature and literary criticism underwent a radical transformation coincident with the rise of anti-Communist hysteria in the US. Formerly, critics sought to understand literature in broadly open ways, groping for social, cultural, historical, and personal factors that would inform the meaning of texts. A prominent exponent and acknowledged leader of this school was V. L. Parrington. While not a Marxist, Parrington’s “…progressive interpretation of American history was highly influential in the 1920s and 1930s and helped define modern liberalism in the United States…” (Wikipedia) Parrington’s Pulitzer Prize winning book “… dominated literary and cultural criticism from 1927 through the early 1950s…,” according to a source cited in the same article. At that time a Marxist, Granville Hicks, wrote a critical appreciation of Parrington’s work for Science and Society in 1938 (The Critical Principles of V L Parrington), concluding that “…if he were alive, Parrington would be fighting for democracy. Certainly his work is a powerful weapon on that side.” Apparently, too powerful for the malignant 1950s.

Moderately progressive views such as Parrington’s were squelched in this time of toadyism:

After receiving overwhelming praise and exerting enormous influence among intellectuals in the 1930s and 1940s, Parrington’s ideas fell out of fashion around 1950. Richard Hofstadter says “the most striking thing about the reputation of V L Parrington, as we think of it today, is its abrupt decline….during the 1940s Parrington rather quickly cease[sic] to have a compelling interest for students of American literature, and in time historians too began to esdert [sic] him.”Hofstadter shows how Parrington’s ideas came under heavy assault in the 1940s and 1950s, naming Lionel Trilling as especially influential in the attack. (Wikipedia)

 

Trilling was one of the most important “hard-liners” in the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom.

Today, Parrington is largely forgotten, thanks to Cold Warriors and academic opportunists. And in his place, the “New Critics” arose in the late 1940s to rescue literary texts from a fulsome, rich interpretation, especially an interpretation that might even remotely suggest Marxism. From that time on, everything was text and only text. Like the shift from representational art to Abstract Expressionism, the movement to “new criticism” was a Cold War gambit masquerading as a new, daring approach to culture, a safe officially sanctioned rebellion that barred the door from seditious art and interpretation.

Arriving in New York in 1948, Paul de Man’s brand of charm, salon wit, and shameless opportunism fit perfectly into the intellectual milieu of the emerging Cold War. A European, without the baggage of Communism or leftism, but emitting vague hints of participating in the Resistance, proved attractive to Cold War liberals. But when he packed up and left Bard College for Harvard ahead of bill collectors and scandal, his fortunes took another even more significant turn. Harvard’s heralded Humanities Six class gave de Man a taste of the flavors enjoyed at the US’s elite universities. The gift of the New Critics’ method of “close reading” became the foundation for his meteoric career. Add European exoticism, a profound rejection of inter-subjective meaning, and convey this package in a dense, impenetrable language, and you have a ticket to stardom for an incorrigible con man. Paul de Man punched the ticket.

Intellectual life in the US was irreparably damaged by the stifling, suffocating atmosphere imposed by Cold War hysteria. Cultural and intellectual watchdogs collaborated with administrators to master promoting the illusion of a free and open society while blocking any potential challenges to the bourgeois canon. Central to that task was the project of creating and shaping ersatz rebellion, of channeling the natural skepticism and contrariness of young minds towards benign expressions of revolt. Paul de Man became a willing participant in that game, molding deconstruction into an instrument for thumbing one’s nose at an ambiguous, amorphous establishment. A difficult, frustratingly opaque language coupled to a defiant rejection of the most basic category of understanding– meaning– seduced initiates into the world of deconstruction. While it challenged no center of real power, deconstruction tasted, smelled, and looked like rebellion. Thus, it joined a long list of carefully constructed cultural and intellectual manifestations that absorb the rebelliousness of youth while producing a harmless release of energies.

Many believe that with the loosening of the repressive noose popularly called McCarthyism, the US returned to openness and freedom of expression. However, that is a misleading perspective. Openness and freedom of expression mean nothing when intellectual and cultural ideas were purged and remain forgotten or uncritically scorned. Openness and freedom of expression mean nothing when intellectual and cultural workers have had their spines surgically removed to the point that they cannot muster the courage to call out frauds and poseurs.

Though hardly revolutionary, V.L. Parrington’s ideas and those of many similarly purged, remain lost to a new generation, while the ideas of the discredited Paul de Man and those of other intellectual opportunists and charlatans continue to circulate through the universities and in prestigious journals. The same could be said in the arts and many other intellectual pursuits where the limits of debate are not stated, but inherited. This is the legacy and cost of hysterical, unrestrained anti-Communism.

 

Zoltan Zigedy

zoltanzigedy@gmail.com

 

 

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