Response to Marshall Berman

Response to Marshall Berman

Instead of critical culture, “struggl[ing] actively over how human beings should live,” we have a pale culture of critics. Censorship is a permanent irritation but serious-minded people (who can also be joyful, why not?) need to face up to the fact that the grim-faced likes of New York’s Mayor No, his mouth locked into a permanent sneer, is also, for critical critics, a feel-good source of embattlement, a convenient target for free-loving thinkers. If we have the luxury of living outside the Bible Belt, the censors are not the essential problem. Transgression is cheap. Criticism is all over the cable dial. The internet is loaded with sniggers. Derision, as Mark Crispin Miller pointed out years ago, is the normal stuff of sitcoms.

The “transgression” so tediously heralded in unreadable academic journals is not exceptional, not transgressive at all; it’s normal. It’s the necessary accoutrement of a sales culture that offers a zillion commodities to rattle the nerve endings. Everything from farts to camp to hip-hop is available on demand—who needs politics for that? The wonderful “Simpsons” are Rupert Murdoch’s most remunerative export. One of the chief applause terms today is “edgy”—it’s enough to make one want to turn to the Baffler, which bills itself as “the magazine that blunts the cutting edge.” The libertarian side of the left, from Greenwich Village bohemians of the teens and twenties through the sixties, hasn’t—or can’t—come to grips with the prevailing cultural sponginess. As Berman writes, we have “too many ideas, coming through too many channels.” I would say, rather, that more than ideas, there’s a superflux of impulses, quivers, tropisms. This isn’t the desert, it’s the swamp. Here’s the pathos of individualism in a prosperous society: If your objective is to kick open the doors of musty rooms, there’s no failure like success. The consumer paradise on offer every day in a thousand forms—just put down your plastic and sign here—is as wide open as a trap door. Rebellion is written full-bore over the banality of most hip channels and independent films. A rebellion industry is the routine accompaniment of the sales onslaught.

Among those of a genuinely critical bent—those who care about equality and fraternity as well as liberty—ideas in the abstract about the Good are not what is lacking today. Far more important, what we lack are ideas about forms of action. It wasn’t ideas about democracy, or civil rights, or poverty, as such, that made the sixties distinctive—the ideas had, for the most part, been kicking around for decades—but forms of action that were (a) promising, (b) exciting for a critical mass of activists, (c) galvanizing of a larger social spirit, and (d) ultimately effective, like the Freedom Ride, the nonviolent sit-in, the freedom ballot.

Finally, I disagree with my friend Marshall that “Marxian and Freudian thought are bo...