Response to Marshall Berman

Response to Marshall Berman

I suspect we all share Marshall Berman’s craving for a “critical culture . . . that struggles actively over how human beings should live and what our life means.” But when he laments “the amazing lack of jaytalking” in contemporary America, I demur. It seems to me that jaytalking has become as widespread and safe as the misdemeanor from which he derives the term—crossing the street against the light—an act that almost never gets one in trouble (even in the reign of Rudy) unless one is very unlucky in traffic. In the past, jaytalkers paid for their candor with public shame and broken careers. (Berman mentions Lenny Bruce.) But who are their heirs today? Posturing professors who hold forth in a “transgressive” academic subculture that has almost no salutary impact on society at large, and professional foulmouths like Howard Stern and Al Goldstein, who sometimes jaytalk with charm, but mostly do it for money, and thereby become heroes of metropolitan life. In fact, there has never been a hotter market for jaytalk than there is today—a victory, to be sure, for tolerance and free speech, but one with insidious consequences for the real critical culture that we all want to revive. The fact is that jaytalk today is everywhere—and, therefore, nowhere. It has been co-opted and commodified, as Lionel Trilling (a jaytalker himself, despite his donnish decorum) foresaw nearly forty years ago, when he noticed the beginnings of the “acculturation of the anti-cultural, or the legitimization of the subversive.”

Berman wants to believe that we are living through a prelude to some sort of revival of the real thing—and who can blame him? But I wonder if he isn’t swayed into expectancy by a certain uncritical nostalgia for the 1960s, when, he says, the world was full of “intense people” ready and able to “walk and talk through the night, and maybe to grope and love.” History has judged that they—we—did not do a very good job of transmuting this narcissistic intensity into durable forms of productive social action. As guardians of the critical culture, we failed.

In its failure to renew itself in the 1990s, the so-called counterculture of the sixties has proven to be historically distinctive. Until now, critical culture in the United States has tended to follow something like a thirty-year rhythm of ebb and flow. Perhaps this is because of the comparable lag between the age when one is most likely to be fruitfully insolent (one’s teens and twenties) and the coming-of-age of one’s children. A case could be made (Morris Dickstein did so implicitly in his book on the sixties, Gates of Eden) that our earliest counter-culture was the wave of religious revivals that periodically swept the American colonies—outbursts of resistance to prevailing dogma and established churches, often led by young ministers who belonged to the lineage of oppositional intellectuals whom Michael Walzer described in his book ...

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