Puny Expectations

Puny Expectations

The End of Utopia:
Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy
by Russell Jacoby
Basic Books, 1999 236 pp $26

“If you can’t say anything nice,” my mother used to admonish, “don’t say anything at all.” Presumably Russell Jacoby’s mother told him the same thing. (All mothers do.) Fortunately, he disobeyed her and has written some of the most useful, tactless, and entertaining cultural criticism of recent decades. Social Amnesia (1975) traced the Americanization of psychoanalysis, in the course of which it lost sight of how society constrains subjectivity and hence lost its critical edge. Dialectic of Defeat (1981) surveyed the “Western Marxist” tradition of Lukács, Korsch, et al. The Last Intellectuals (1987), his best-known book, deplored the extinction of independent intellectuals, with wide interests and a broad general readership, and their replacement by academics and journalists housed in institutions and writing primarily for peers. Dogmatic Wisdom (1994) blasted both sides in the culture wars—militant multiculturalists and apocalyptic neoconservatives—for “litigating over property lines when the house is on fire”; that is, while liberal education “shatters under the weight of commercialism” and while the “irresistible power of advertising and television” produces a “monoculture of clothes, music, and cars.” Jacoby’s arguments were often original and were unfailingly astute, though not always couched in the gentlest, most collegial tones. One finished these books with a heightened appreciation of many intellectuals’ capacity for vapidity, trivialization, and self-importance.

...

Lima