Blue Jay Way: Where Will Critical Culture Come From?

Blue Jay Way: Where Will Critical Culture Come From?

Considering the mass murder and Nazi-style brutality that engulf so much of the world in the 1990s, it takes chutzpah for an American to say that our collective life contains any trouble at all. Our economy is thriving. It wasn’t so long ago that there was nothing out there for kids coming out of school and college; today, kids are getting jobs. After years of rising homicide rates, people are killing each other less. People are still getting AIDS, but more of them are staying alive. American society is more open and inclusive than ever; it’s not just what you see on the Madison Square Garden station or MTV—though that itself is something—it’s all the interracial families and their marvelously colored children out shopping any Saturday afternoon at your local mall. So we should lighten up and enjoy the good news, right?

We at Dissent crave joy as ardently as anybody. But it’s not easy for us to lighten up. Most of us are in or near middle age, and we worry about what will be there for our children and their children. Here’s something that troubles our minds: There seems to be no critical culture in America today. A critical culture is one that struggles actively over how human beings should live and what our life means. Most of us can remember living in the critical culture of the sixties—a few of us can even remember the critical culture of the thirties—and we can feel the difference. When a critical culture breaks down or wears out or fades away, sources of joy dry up. What makes this happen? Why has it happened now? Is the loss permanent? Or are there traces, fragments, intimations of a new critical culture just around the corner? Where might it come from? How can it come together? Is there anything people like us can do to help it come?

One symptom of the lack of a critical culture today is our fetishism of “order.” Giuliani-type politicians have convinced many people, including those who control the mass media, not only that they personally have made the homicide rate go down, but that they have done something even more profound: “restored order.” New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s idea of order seems to require freeing the streets not only from beggars and homeless people, but also from newsstands, food vendors, and wandering artists. His 1997 re-election campaign featured born-again testimonies from people said to be lifelong Democrats and liberals who had come to love him, because, like Moses parting the waters, “The mayor has stopped the violence.” During the campaign, he proclaimed that, now that he had ended the violence, the police were going to start arresting people for jaywalking. At that point, the great Jules Feiffer published a cartoon (on the New York Times op-ed page) depicting a man making nasty remarks about the mayor’s priorities and his sense of civic life. In the last panel, a police officer arrests him. For what? he asks. For jaytalking. Feiffer’s image gets it just right, not just about the mayor, but about the culture of the nineties, and its amazing lack of jaytalking. The most endearing quality of the sixties was the way it taught us to jaytalk: to talk back; to talk against the lights; to talk outside the designated lines; to talk like our great American blue jays (there they are in Audubon’s Birds of America, Number 282), small birds who emit loud and raucous cries that no one can ignore.

How does a culture of jaytalking come into being? It requires three things: (1) powerful and provocative ideas; (2) smart and imaginative people working in various sectors of life, often wholly unaware of each other’s existence; and (3) “experimental neighborhoods,” places where people and ideas can bump into each other, and where young people, with little experience but boundless energy, along with middle-aged people longing to escape from “uptown” or “the boroughs” or “suburbia,” can find or imagine new ways to put the ideas together, and to act out their new syntheses.

The critical culture of the sixties came from very diverse sources. There were our universities, enlarged and intellectually enriched in the cold war boom. C. Wright Mills, Irving Howe, Herbert Marcuse, Noam Chomsky, David Riesman, Norman O. Brown, were all “tenured radicals” who developed their dangerous ideas within the classiest academic crosswalks. (Many of the creators of Students for a Democratic Society were their students.) Mike Harrington and Jane Jacobs worked as journalists and editors. Grace Paley taught, did secretarial work, brought up kids, and organized demos (at first quite small) as she wrote. William H. Whyte, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, Walt Kelly, Dr. Seuss, all got rich from their books, and used their money to say things that would have got them in trouble (or gone unheard) if they were poor. Paul Goodman, like many great artists of the “New York School” generation, was supported by his wife; Dwight Macdonald, one of very few radicals from the echt ruling class, by his trust fund. Harold Rosenberg taught us to see through the mass media, to which he made one spectacular contribution: he was the man who created Smokey the Bear. The 1950s theatre produced Death of a Salesman, one of the permanently great radical plays, but also the avant-garde experiments of the Living Theatre, and Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre, which synthesized vanguard dramaturgy with popular front marketing.

What about experimental neighborhoods? The 1950s offered plenty of these. As an ironic result of the flight of capital from American cities after World War II, every city gained grungy low-rent neighborhoods that could incubate bookstores and art studios and modern dance groups, experimental theatres, venues for jazz and folk music and performance, and the sort of shabby clubs and coffee houses and music stores and cabarets that nourished Lenny Bruce and Nichols and May and Woody Allen and Bob Dylan. New York’s Village (first West, then East) is what I knew, but there were neighborhoods like this all over America. Late in the 1950s, they started to fill up with kids from all over metropolitan areas who could read the little magazines and the Grove Press paperbacks in the bookstores, hang out in streets and play their guitars in parks, hear sounds of music that carried from clubs they couldn’t afford to go to, find intense people like themselves to walk and talk with through the night, and maybe to grope and love. These people transformed old and often sleepy streets into vibrant public spaces that never seemed to sleep at all.

New kinds of public spaces were embodied in two important new mass media: alternate weekly newspapers and listener-supported radio. Once more, it happened all over. New York’s version features the Village Voice and WBAI. Both rallied superb arrays of jaytalkers (including Feiffer), and formed intense bonds with their audiences. America turned out to be full of people who were ready to listen to every minute and read every line in media that they felt were their own. These media taught their readers and listeners not only how to grow up, but how to act like citizens, to go into the streets and make trouble. The earliest struggles were to protect their own neighborhoods (in New York, Washington Square). But as the sixties unfolded, the new media made spiritual leaps, expanded their horizons, and developed into genuine moral educators. They taught their readers and listeners to think of black people, poor people, Vietnamese people, and victimized people everywhere as part of their neighborhoods.

Where will our culture find resources like these again? Maybe it won’t, and crews of Bounderbys and Panglosses and mixed megapirates will rule the world forever. Or maybe only violent economic collapse will shake Americans out of their narcolepsy. This would put the left in the creepy position (where it has been before) of longing for horrible catastrophe. On the other hand, it may be, as it was forty years ago, that the country’s very prosperity will give us slack, that it will create imaginative space where people can begin to think about a better life than this.

What forms will critical thought take? Some people think there are no critical ideas left. My own feeling is that there is a superabundance of critical ideas in the air, if we can learn to inhale. Marxian and Freudian thought are both immensely provocative, capable of endlessly new syntheses, spin-offs, and hybridizations. No one has the authority to say definitively what these ideas mean. Not even the founders could close the floodgates they had opened. (They tried, in vain.) Maybe tomorrow’s incarnations will be deepened by feminism, or by environmentalism, or biology, or cybernetics, or by any number of things that blacks and other “people of color” will have to say, or by other forms of thought I know nothing of. Regardless, we should recognize that, with Marx and Freud, we are all living on top of radical gold mines.

I confess (and it isn’t hard to detect), I am guilty of nostalgia for the sixties, days of my youth. But I can see at least two big ways in which the horizon for radicalism is clearer today. Many leftists of my generation disdained the USSR, but still had a deep (sometimes desperate) need to identify with some idealized Other as a focus for their longings. Since 1989, the need for an ideal Other has abated, or at least radically slackened. It’s a great leap forward that people today can criticize and denounce life in the West without having to genuflect toward a mythical East.

The other big problem about sixties radicalism was its lack of connection to a labor movement. The New Left is usually blamed for this. But in fact, the AFL-CIO of those days, dominated by George Meany and his crew, was not only aggressive in its chauvinist patriotism, but strident in its particularism and anti-intellectuality. Obsessed with smashing the commies, it was as rigid and dictatorial as any Communist Party. It fired its old, politically incorrect organizers, and made no moves to hire new ones: it was totally uninterested in organizing the unorganized. The weakness of today’s labor movement follows directly from the stupidity of yesterday’s strong one. But John Sweeney’s AFL-CIO has looked beyond its own apparat, opened up its horizons, and started to imagine how big and powerful the working class might be. The unions have opened up an Organizing Institute, and a new generation of brilliant organizers has come up. Labor has started winning big strikes, not only in New York and Los Angeles, where you might expect it, but in Las Vegas and North Carolina. The labor movement’s Union Summers have not only trained several thousand young adults in organizing skills—many are working as organizers now, many more are fellow-travelers—but generated a vision, a sense of mission, a human solidarity, as the civil rights movement did in its Freedom Summer days. We should listen for jaytalk here.

One big problem for any critical culture to come is, how will its concerns and its ideas be transmitted and shared? There is no way to reach multitudes of people except through media of mass communication. Many people think our mass media inevitably turn all ideas into banal slogans. My own feeling is that, although most of the contents of our mass media are banal (like most of the contents of our most esoteric refereed journals), the biggest problem may be the exact opposite: too many ideas, coming through too many channels. New media played crucial roles creating and developing the critical culture of the sixties. In the nineties, along with books, newspapers, magazines, movies, theater, recorded music, broadcasting, and the new media of yesterday, there are so many new “new media,” from the many forms of cable television, desktop publishing, video, ‘zines, to e-mail and all the metamorphoses of the Net, that it is harder than ever not to be flooded out. As communications technologies metastasize, it will be even harder not to be flooded out tomorrow.

Some people aren’t worried about this because they don’t think our new media have much to say. An epigram of the early computer culture was “Garbage in, garbage out.” A decade ago, Bruce Springsteen had a hit, “57 Channels And Nothing On.” But anyone today who tries to listen and look around is bound to find that there’s more “on” in American popular culture than most of us have thought. In the summer, when I’m freer to sample, my last week’s collection included Daria, on cable television, an animated intellectual nonconformist teenage girl’s so-called life—Salinger’s Franny, geworfen into Orange County; Psychoanalysis, What Is It? and Prince of Thieves; albums by the rapper and producer Prince Paul; the ’zine Processed World, a cyberpunk incarnation of Dissent. All this material shows impressive brains and sensitivity and critical awareness. If only there were ways for these people and people like them—including people like us—to connect and interact!

How can the people and the ideas come together? How can they crystallize into something? In the cyberworld, ideas are channeled into “chat rooms,” a multitude of demographically small, segmented spaces, and focused on limited but intense “niche” audiences. Most of their chats seem to be pretty dull, as most chats are; still it could be that some small rooms have nourished ideas and perspectives that might make big differences. If only we knew how to break open those rooms, we could build Greenwich Villages in cyberspace. In these new experimental neighborhoods, the critical culture of tomorrow could be born.

Or maybe not. Maybe it all will happen on paper in “old” media, or in “old” Greenwich Villages, in old streets and restaurants and cafes and parks, through old-fashioned face-to-face encounters, among people who have lived through everything new that the eighties and nineties offered, and who feel a need for more: for insight beyond any Web site, for a promised land beyond the Net, where blue jays sing.

Marshall Berman’s latest book is Adventures in Marxism