Cult Stud Mugged: Why We Should Stop Worrying and Learn To Love a Hip English Professor

Cult Stud Mugged: Why We Should Stop Worrying and Learn To Love a Hip English Professor

Kevin Mattson: Cult Stud Mugged

BACK IN the late eighties, I was an undergraduate at the New School for Social Research, along with other punk rockers, political activists, and wannabe writers. It was a hotbed of the postmodern academic Left: my fellow students would “interrogate” texts while carefully avoiding “logocentrism,” deconstruct television shows, and write essays that “de-gendered” literary works they hadn’t read.

Like many college students, I was confused and horny. So it didn’t take long for me to notice numerous young women clutching copies of Joan Scott’s Gender and the Politics of History (her then-husband taught history at the New School). Read this book pronto, my libido told me. In short order, I learned to challenge “the accuracy of fixed binary distinctions” and was making casual conversational references to stylish French thinkers like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.

Midway through my reeducation, I came across an essay in Joan Scott’s book that set out to dismantle E.P. Thompson, the historian of the “English working class.” Scott took him on by blowing up the very concept of “rights” and the language of inclusion, as used, for example, by the movement that demanded that people without property be allowed to vote. She questioned Thompson’s faith in “rational” politics and the “abstract individual, the bearer of rights.” I stumbled through Scott’s cumbersome sentences—somehow critiques of abstracted individualism never yielded decent prose. And I remember thinking to myself: aren’t rational arguments in favor of rights a good thing? And especially for anyone who claims to be on the Left, seeing that universal rights are the basis of…well, just about everything?

No, the other students in my classes told me, because such a “position” hadn’t “sufficiently problematized” (a term I heard a lot back then) the binary oppositions inherent in rights and universalism. Conversation after conversation like this ended with my head buzzing and my heart broken.

After getting a Ph.D. in American history and entering the joyous condition of chronic underemployment that it secures, I finally acquired a full-time teaching position in 2001, just a week before September 11. As we all know, a very different world soon opened up. It included not simply a war on terror carried out by a tongue-tied president, but also a conservative movement that was emboldened, by having conquered every branch of government, to search out tenured radicals and make war on the press.

I often wondered where Joan Scott was through the past decade. It turned out that she was heading up Committee A of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), an organization founded almost a hundred years ago by the liberal philosopher John Dewey to fight for the distinctly bourgeois ideal of free inquiry. Committee A focuses on “academic freedom” and tenure issues, and therefore I had to rub my eyes a bit when I came across the powerful testimony Scott gave to numerous state legislatures that were considering rules that would allow politicians to smoke out and dismiss radical professors. Her defense of “academic freedom”—including the right to control classroom content—was steadfast and thorough, and she cited a document that the AAUP had created in 1940 that elaborated on the idea. It read, in bold and clear language, “The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.”

I thought back to my New School days, dwelling on the many ironies that attended Scott’s new professional mission. Academic freedom? Now, aren’t there a lot of binary oppositions and gendered compromises that riddle this dead-white-male, liberal value? Isn’t this an abstract universal proposition, and a meta-narrative to boot? Shouldn’t she interrogate or problematize the idea for those listening legislators?

But we were no longer in the eighties or nineties. The Right had come with guns blazing to legislate against “academic freedom,” and suddenly a left-wing academic realized that the liberal and universal values she used to criticize weren’t such bad things after all. It turned out to be far more important to defend such ideas than to interrogate them. I suddenly realized I had witnessed an intellectual mugging.

IRVING KRISTOL famously quipped in the early 1980s that a neoconservative—a member of a faction then defecting from the Democratic Party in droves—was “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” What he meant was that people like himself—intellectuals who had leaned left—were being driven to the right thanks to their experience with the New Left in the late sixties. Mugged: as in, having your ideas taken away and replaced by something else; a signal that the world no longer operates the way you expected.

Today we’re seeing another mugging occur on the intellectual landscape—a more subdued and drawn-out shifting of intellectual coordinates than anything announced by the self-advertising Kristol, but a mugging just the same. The inflated pomo world I had inhabited at the New School has popped like the dot-com bubble. Joan Scott’s retreat into universal liberal verities was an early symptom, but several years on, the lack of seriousness that had been synonymous with the nineties—the intellectual fads, the pop culture studies, the French theories—had collapsed under the weight of an economic meltdown. What once appeared to be a liberating application of high theory to essential aspects of political and cultural experience now seems silly. Tenured radicals have awakened out of their comfortable nineties slumber to reckon with full-scale catastrophe.

One figure encapsulates the shift from the heyday of cultural studies in the eighties and nineties more fully than any other: NYU American studies professor Andrew Ross. Here was the studliest cult stud of them all. Ross was the celebrity professor who rebelled against literature in favor of popular culture, who left a tenured position at Princeton’s stodgy English department to head up NYU’s booming American studies department, a place where gay porn mattered more than Hemingway. “I am glad to be rid of English departments,” he told a reporter for New York in 1994. “I hate literature for one thing, and English departments tend to be full of people who love literature.” He edited the red-hot academic journal Social Text, wrote books published by the theory-happy publishing house Routledge, and even dressed the part of puckish culture rebel with not just one but two earrings. A New York Times reporter at the Modern Language Association (MLA) conference in 1991 remembered Ross for his “hand-painted Japanese tie,” “mango wool-and-silk Comme des Garcons blazer,” and “wedge-heeled suede lace-ups recently acquired on West Eighth Street in Greenwich Village,” as much as for the paper he presented on “Mapplethorpe and 2 Live Crew”: “Tall, lean, with saturnine good looks, Ross attracts attention wherever he goes. ‘That’s him!’ comes a reverent whisper from a group of graduate students nearby. ‘That’s Andrew Ross!’”

In 1997, Ross’s status as king of the cult studs was confirmed in James Hynes’s novella Queen of the Jungle, whose central character sweats away as a literature postdoc in Iowa, hoping to clinch a position at a university in Chicago where his wife just received tenure. He writes a paper that makes a “linkage … between ‘The Metamorphosis’ and My Mother the Car.” His wife calls it “a little too Andrew Ross for me,” but that just fuels his desire to outline a new book with chapters like “The Sitcom at the End of the New Frontier: The Brady Brunch and The Wild Bunch in Contrapuntal Perspective.” So Andrew Ross.

Such gently satirical callouts were meant as homage to Ross’s wide-ranging influence. He was a wordsmith, prolific in intellectual output. His career took off in 1989 with No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture. The book rode a cresting wave of voguish populism among the university’s theory elite. Ross derided the “well-known, conspiratorial view of ‘mass culture’ as imposed upon a passive populace.” He celebrated “the ability of people to variously interpret and use what they see and hear in mass-produced culture.” He sneered at intellectual elites who suffered from “paternalism, containment, and even allergic reaction” to pop culture—including, bizarrely, those who criticized the rigging of the quiz shows during the fifties. These snobs ignored the “extraordinary success and immense popularity” the shows evinced—meaning, one supposes, that their popular mandate entitled them to continue jacking up ratings by fraud.

The larger message of No Respect now seems embarrassingly trite. It amounted to this: if you find yourself digging television, don’t sweat it. Even pornography, as the reader found out in the second to last chapter, should elicit no concerns about the mechanization of sex but instead should be seen (if not celebrated) as representing an exciting conflict between the “discourses of popular pleasure” and the “morality laid down by the appointed or self-styled intellectual protectors of the public interest.” The Rossian populist revolt might be summed up with the slogan, Run to the video store!

The cult studs of the nineties took the putative political implications of such work very, very seriously. As George Herbert Walker Bush dispatched troops to the Middle East to free oil-rich Kuwait from Saddam Hussein, cult studs mounted the barricades of protest, armed with pop guns. Here’s the ringing first line from an op-ed that Ross wrote with Constance Penley condemning the Gulf War in the New York Times: “As scholars of popular culture, we spend a good deal of our time resisting the widespread assumption that people are passive consumers of the mass media.” In other words, they took the occasion of war to assail the “myth” of the “couch potato”—a stratagem that fell considerably short of inspiring the multitudes to take to the streets chanting, “No war for oil!”

What Ross and Penley succeeded in was advancing the kind of vapid sloganeering that passed for campus radicalism in those days. “It is war that makes people stupid, not TV,” they wrote. Never mind that a lot of people were getting their information about war from TV. What really mattered was the “racist and xenophobic aggression” that drove Americans’ war-time fervor. Porn was OK, and so were rigged quiz shows, but war was not. Unfortunately, this time the people were on the other side, supporting the war by a wide margin.

As it turned out, the Gulf War didn’t last long enough to test audience-reception theories and their relationship to military mobilization. And by 1992, everything had changed. The Clinton years were about to start. The tech bonanza was just around the corner, the Internet was blossoming, the hills were alive with the sound of globalization. As the economy boomed, cultural studies did too.

In 1992, the movement produced its foundational document, a doorstop of a book titled Cultural Studies that bulged with essays and transcripts of conversations held at a conference at the University of Illinois. Ross’s essay in the volume, titled “New Age Technoculture,” explored how “modern science’s founding sacraments”—note the equation of science and religious faith—were “rapidly disintegrating.” This erosion was on full, deliquescent display, Ross argued, in the wacky New Age cults that had grown out of the sixties counterculture. Ross wrote that educated elites saw New Age stuff as mere dross, the “lowest of the low.” But not an arch-populist like Ross: he saw “political lessons” in the New Age movement, which, to give just a smattering of examples, included such empowering diversions as “aromatherapy,” “Bach Flower Therapy,” “chakra therapy,” and “quantum healing.”

The essay was filled, as such work usually was, with flashes of silliness, mountains made out of molehills, and things-that-make-you-go-hmm elevated to a level of grave academic import. Consider how, in this hothouse atmosphere, Ross pounced on a certain New Age guru named Dr. Welles for failing to fully understand the politics of the toilet. Ross drove his verdict home against his opponent, who lacked “any description of the historical or ideological conditions under which immaculately white porcelain toilet technology was developed to demarcate squatting from non-squatting populations, and thereby create, if you will, an international division of excremental labor.” (Less high-flown critics might have taken this observation to mean that we were dealing with some real shit here.) Ross slammed shut the door on the traditional, compromised misreading of the toilet with a rhapsody of relativism: “the highly technological concept of a ‘correct’ or ‘natural’ human posture is itself a culturally relative idea for which no universal norm can be assumed.” The death of master narratives and universals explain everything else, so why not the ways we relieve ourselves?

Ross’s next step was to bend one knee at the altar of Madonna. One of the signature cult-stud moves in those days was to transform the disco chanteuse into a readymade vector of all things subversive, pansexual, and patriarchy-challenging. So in the collected set of essays titled (what else?) Madonnarama, our heroic theorist of demotic porn greeted the publication of Madonna’s salacious book-like object Sex with another overheated salute to dirty pictures. Sex represented “twenty post-Stonewall years of sex radicalism,” Ross wrote; the multivalent Madonna opus was “nurtured by its uneasy bedfellowship with free market enterprise.” Uneasy? The most cursory flip through the title in question showed it to be an all-out, race-to-the-bottom romance with the market.

In a saner discourse about mass culture, other questions might command attention—such as, who the hell cares about scandal-addled pop singers, and why would we want to read even more about omnipresent celebrities? Why bother putting academic gloss on what everyone knows is a commercial boondoggle? There was something so nineties about this sort of thing.

Which is not to say that the Rossian worldview was ephemeral. It has in many ways formed the template for so many later waves of fake-populist bullshit, delivered by the Ivy League hipsters in the squalid orbit of Vice magazine or the “creative class” working in the culture industry. There was also—and this explains in part Ross’s prolific nature—something easy about this work. Call it couch potato theory. Its user manual went roughly like this: absorb some liberating cathode rays; read something published by Routledge; then write, write, write. This briskly productive ethos accounts in part for the insular thinking that governed the allegedly populist cultural-studies academy. The sheer scale of theoretical labor on display ensured that few would challenge this or that reading of on-demand porn or the Weather Channel or the Madonna revolution. Ross never bothered to interview any ordinary Americans to find out if they were lulled by pop culture, or weren’t racist after all, or didn’t really give a shit about what sort of titillating fare went out for public consumption under the Madonna brand. Hell, no one did that in those days.

Ross just barreled ahead. He was in his groove, able to toss off observations about every species of American cultural effluvia. His career was skyrocketing. His visage made it into New York, the New York Times, even GQ.

THE ROSS star, like the NASDAQ index, continued its remorseless ascent, but only for so long. First came cracks, and then a bust. Reality started to mug Andrew Ross—albeit in distinct stages. The first crack in his brand came in May 1996, via an admirably executed literary hoax: the so-called Sokal affair.

Many of us remember this event as a turning point in American intellectual life (or at least a turning point for the cultural studies movement). Alan Sokal, a physicist at NYU, wrote a complete bullshit article, putatively about physics but mainly significant because it was chock-full of postmodern jargon and quotes from then-fashionable theorists. (Its absurd title: “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.”) Sokal sent it to Social Text, hoping Ross and his fellow editors would publish it, positioning him thereby to expose their vapidity. The trick was a wild success, even garnering front-page coverage in the New York Times.

What we might not remember is just how squarely Sokal’s blow hit Andrew Ross. It was Ross, after all, who took leadership in obtaining the article. He wrote Sokal back in November 1994, soon after the physics professor submitted the article, to say that the editors found it “interesting”; in March 1995, he followed up with a letter to Sokal requesting that he revise the piece for inclusion in a forthcoming science-themed issue of Social Text. The editors then went ahead and accepted Sokal’s piece as it was. And at that point in the trajectory of Ross’s career, the editors of an anthology called The Sokal Hoax recount, “Ross’s visibility helped to ensure that Sokal’s hoax reached a wide audience.” More to the point, though, Ross’s views on science—as just another fiction or belief system relative to other contested narratives—were just the kind of balderdash that Sokal wanted to mock. Here, for example, is Ross’s critique of “objectivity” in Strange Weather, his book-length meditation on the cultural politics of the Weather Channel: “Any picture of the world purporting to be ‘natural’ and fundamental is in fact heavily underscored by particular moral and political beliefs about nature and social behavior.”

The Sokal hoax showed, in other words, all the classic signs of an intellectual mugging. Ross himself described feeling “snakebit” in the wake of the embarrassing disclosure that the whole thing had been a put-up job. Still, stodgy empirical matters could never deter the appointed course of theory, so Ross and his co-editor Bruce Robbins engaged in acrobatic apologetics. They explained that Sokal’s article appeared “a little hokey” to them but “not knowing the author or his work”—and not even bothering to pay him a visit in his nearby office on the NYU campus—“we engaged in some speculation about his intentions, and concluded that the article was” in earnest. But they didn’t send it out to anyone with a knowledge of science any deeper than what you might learn from the Weather Channel or the various philosophers of science published by Verso Books. In an especially telling maneuver, Ross tried to turn the political tables on Sokal, accusing the physicist of defending the science status quo. (The populist rebel in Ross just wouldn’t die.) At one point, Ross told the New York Times that Sokal had written “caricatures of complex scholarship,” now sounding like a boundary-policing academic elitist. He zigged this way and that. Katha Pollitt reported on a conversation with Ross in which he argued that “Sokal had possibly written his article seriously, and only now claimed it as a parody,” that “its being a parody was, in any case, irrelevant to its content,” and that “leftists should support Social Text out of ‘unity and solidarity.’” Solidarity, it seems, being the last refuge of the mugged.

Today, the idea that science is an elitist practice that excludes what ordinary citizens want to believe is no longer the domain of the populist academic Left. Like so many of the populist tendencies in cultural debate, it has become a hallmark of the Right. The same year the Sokal hoax occurred, the Discovery Institute was founded in Seattle, a think tank devoted to promoting an updated version of creationism called “intelligent design.” Discovery Institute scholars began to crank out papers echoing one of the better-known refrains from the academic culture wars, urging educators to follow an open-minded course of “teaching the controversy.” Teachers don’t need to endorse creationist curricula, the Institute’s argument goes; instead, they can teach intelligent design as just another paradigm like evolution—itself a master narrative requiring interrogation. Phillip Johnson, the chief intellectual guru behind the Discovery Institute, admitted his politics were rightward but claimed his ideas were “dead-bang mainstream” in “academia these days.” The same dynamic lurks behind the Right’s climate-change denialism—right down to the think-tank front groups. In other words, the postmodern Left of the nineties provided fertile ground for the anti-intellectual backlash of the following decade.

ANOTHER CRACK in the Andrew Ross brand had nothing to do with science or even with Ross himself; rather, it involved academia and the homelier aspects of casualized labor. Recall that Ross solidified his academic celebrity when he moved from stodgy Princeton to hipster NYU. NYU had not always been hip, of course. But in 1984, the school launched a bonanza fundraising drive, aiming for $1 billion that would be used immediately to upgrade infrastructure—which in New York City parlance means real estate. NYU was able to leverage the support of trustees who just happened to work at such places as Chemical Bank, J.P. Morgan, and Salomon Brothers, reaching the $1 billion target well ahead of schedule. I can remember from my New School days in the East Village how the NYU brand spread like an ink blot through the neighborhood, the university’s trademark royal purple flags hovering over more and more buildings, its dormitories pushing out old immigrant housing, even encroaching upon the Lower East Side.

As NYU boomed along with the dot-com bubble, according to The University Against Itself, it became “the most popular choice for college applicants” in America, and its bank accounts overflowed with ballooning tuition fees. Ross had no role in the fundraising scheme or the skyrocketing enrollment costs, but he was an asset of intangible value all the same. In much the same way that the boutiques of Eighth Street and Fifth Avenue helped lure suburban kids into NYU’s orbit, Ross was something of a boutique intellectual, a magnet to the fashionable and au courant. Trustees from big financial institutions couldn’t care less that Ross still claimed to be a Marxist—especially if that Marxist said crazy things that made for good publicity. Media profiles about Ross made the university’s stock go up. And graduate students, in their hip-looking glasses and nose rings, came in droves in order to study the hermeneutics of Star Trek and porn.

Although it seems hard to believe now, there was a time when grad students were cool, but what was most important about them was that they also worked as teaching assistants, running classes and grading papers on the cheap. No one paid it much attention at the time, but this pool of cheap labor helped nurture the NYU boom—and it was to prove an early casualty of late-nineties bubble culture. A year after the Sokal hoax, NYU grad assistants created the Graduate Student Organizing Committee and contacted the United Automobile Workers to organize a union. By 1998, they had enough cards signed to warrant a union election. They filed a complaint about their status as university workers in 1999, and a year later the National Labor Relations Board ruled in the students’ favor, affirming their rights to organize as NYU employees. One person who testified on their behalf, a friend of mine named Joel Westheimer, found himself denied tenure soon thereafter. As part of his case, an attorney made public an email from Dean Ann Marcus that explained the labor practices of NYU in terms so bold they still shock: “We need people we can abuse, exploit and then turn loose.” Westheimer departed for a teaching position in Canada, and the graduate students are still trying to get NYU to recognize their union to this day.

To his credit, Andrew Ross came out on the side of the graduate students, thereby locking horns with the administration that had recruited him as a badge of NYU’s academic status. The edgy souls who had once looked like future symbolic analysts started to look more like sweaty workers; nose-ringed hipsters now were a pool of low-wage employees with lousy benefit packages—what the more class-conscious breed of cult stud might call the “global south” of American academe. The NYU boom had helped jump-start Ross’s renown, but now its dark underbelly was impossible to ignore. No longer could a cocoon of academic prattle shield theorists from the market’s abrasive workings.

IT’S HARD to miss the change in Ross’s tone since the late nineties. His writing has steadily shifted from consumption to work, from leisure to labor, from science in the abstract to workplace organization. He has, in his own words, “grown weary of armchair opinion” and resolved to become more of a reporter—not tossing off observations about the Weather Channel from the couch but actually going to workplaces and interviewing people.

There’s something more visceral and weighty about his work now. After all, it’s nearly impossible to get inside the heads of TV watchers to see whether they’re manipulated or empowered by the habit. But an observer can actually see the impact of globalization on work, or what Ross calls “downward wage pressure, and the establishment of a permanent climate of job insecurity” in Chinese workplaces. Merely by opening one’s eyes, one can see labor “casualization” in places like Silicon Valley and New York City, which serves as the basis of Ross’s important 2003 book, No-Collar.

In a series of interviews, Ross has explained the pronounced shift in his published work. He tells one interlocutor that there was a “certain degree of overcompensation involved in the cultural turn” he and others had pursued during the nineties—something of a world-class understatement. Still, he insists, there are points of continuity between his pre- and post-boom careers; he began examining the inner workings of the international textile sweatshop, for instance, thanks to his ongoing interest in fashion consumption. It’s better than presenting oneself as a mugging victim, I suppose.

Consider his most recent book, Nice Work if You Can Get It. Here Ross examines how paying attention to questions of labor can change the way we perceive culture. In explaining the rise of digital music, Ross writes, “As a devotee of these electronic genres, I could certainly count myself among those who believed that their inventive use of drum machines, samplers, and sequences ushered in a quantum leap in musical progress.” This is the old language of the cult stud—imagining consumers appropriating cultural shards for their own, invariably progressive purposes. “Yet,” he goes on,

whenever I asked no-name working musicians who depended on live club and bar bookings what they thought of ‘DJ music,’ I was guaranteed an earful. There was no question in their minds that owners of live venues welcomed and encouraged a DJ-based economy of pre-recordings or musical acts because it cut their overheads and labor costs by eliminating drummers, keyboard players, guitarists, and vocalists. Killing off live music may have been sold to fans as a worthy crusade against the pretensions to authenticity of the rock aristocracy, but it was also a serious labor problem.

Once the fake populist posturing of the cult stud gives way to matters economic, the callow characterization of performing musicians as an “aristocracy” becomes instantly unsupportable.

Indeed, Ross’s broader engagement with labor relations has pushed him steadily away from cult-stud truisms and the New Economy boosterism they often resembled. Recall how the management theorists of the nineties championed the economy of the “free agent”? It was a simple matter, back in that heady age, to join the language of the empowered consumer to a celebration of free agents in the workplace, who had supposedly liberated themselves from stodgy corporate structures.

But the new Andrew Ross sees through the liberationist cant. He has spent a good deal of time observing those who are contending with the real-world consequences of the liberated workplace, and he has some bad news for the “creative class” apostrophized by writers like Richard Florida. Ross observes “a stripping away, or shredding, of layers of protection and social insurance against risk and insecurity. In the absence of safeguards and protections, the ultra-humane workplace could easily turn into a medium of self-exploitation—with bottomless seventy-hour-plus workweeks, and a dissolution of all boundaries between company and personal time.” The rebel employees of the nineties simply laid the groundwork for the workplace horrors that more and more will face in our brave new world. “No longer on the margins of society,” Ross observes about free agents, “in bohemia or the ivory tower, they are providing a rationale for the latest model of exploitation in core sectors of the information economy, and pioneering the workplaces of tomorrow.” In a remorselessly narrowing job market, the rebel worker and free agent have found themselves pretty much bankrupted.

What’s most satisfying about all this is that Ross is no longer talking about “the people” in the abstract, the way he did when he celebrated them as consumers. Now Ross talks about actual people in his backyard—even the graduate students at NYU. “The struggle for fair labor is not solely a geographically distant matter, played out in the poorest corners of the world, or among the lowest-paid domestic workers. It also applies to the degradation of domestic white-collar professions as the casualization of work in the domestic economy continues apace.”

Ross’s claim to being a man of the Left no longer sounds as weird or affected as it did during the nineties. Today he moves easily from observations on unfair work conditions to specific policy solutions—including labor union activity, “green-blue” alliances between environmental activists and organized labor, and consumer movements for reform. Increasingly, Ross sounds like a labor policy wonk. In Nice Work If You Can Get It, he discusses the sprawl and environmental devastation around Phoenix, Arizona and proposes solutions that don’t sound sexy and daring but sensible and even viable. He calls for “an infill program” that would provide “tax credits, incentives and waivers” in order to “build in central city areas.” He explains that such a program could not only cut down on sprawl but also provide high-wage employment for construction workers. Yes, construction workers! Not so Andrew Ross.

THE WEIGHTLESSNESS of the nineties is gone forever. And Andrew Ross was not the only one to change; there was an epidemic of intellectual muggings. The Boston University sociologist Alan Wolfe, who drifted rightward during the Clinton era, learned about the true nature of radical conservatism and has now written a book about the virtues of liberalism. Conservative bloggers like Andrew Sullivan and Charles Johnson have been mugged by the xenophobia of mainstream Republican Party discourse.

With these reversals in view, let me go full circle and propose a master narrative for contemporary American intellectual life: the silliness of the nineties has melted into a seriousness for the 2000s (and hopefully beyond). It feels as if the country’s going through a change similar to that from the twenties to the thirties. During those gloriously awful years, you could hear the word “commitment” used to describe the attitude of writers moving out of the alienated “jazz age.” There was a sense that intellectuals had to make their work accessible to ordinary citizens by addressing their suffering. There was a downside to this, of course—the corrupt Stalinism of the era, and some really bad proletarian fiction that no one should ever have to read again. Still, the thirties were a time when “the people”—those whom writers like Sinclair Lewis and H.L. Mencken loved to bash as morons during the twenties—invaded the work of writers and intellectuals and pressed to be taken seriously. Economic insecurity changed the work of the mind. Highbrow writers like Edmund Wilson, who reported on the impact of the Great Depression in The American Jitters, felt obliged to go out, scuff their shoes, and observe people toiling through hard times. By directly engaging with ordinary Americans, such reporting actually informed the policies that New Deal brain-trusters pursued—and sometimes even pushed FDR leftward.

None of this is to say that a new demotic turn in cultural inquiry will follow from our own recent wave of intellectual muggings. Nevertheless, it surely says something that a star professor who made his career by musing over the populist nature of cable programming and the liberating formal innovations of pornography would go on to ponder zoning and labor policy in ever-wonkier treatises on the downward spiral of working conditions. Sometimes it takes a good mugging, after all, to wake a person up.

Kevin Mattson is author most recently of What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President? now out in paperback.

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