Yesterday I wrote a post about my new house in Bloomington and went off on a parody jag that took a swipe at a certain kind of America-studies writing on cold war culture. It’s a faux-Adornian style I find weirdly easy to write. Thinking it over, there’s a certain standard operating procedure that, once learned, is pretty easy to follow. Its basic form is (1) the fashioning of a concept abstract enough to plug equally well into phenomena on both large (geopolitical) and intimate (sex, family life, pastimes) scale, and (2) the simultaneous deployment of said concept on said phenomena, done in such a way that it is never clear what the exact causality is between those different phenomena — whether the homologies observed across contexts are are directly related to one another, caused by some third factor, or are really only metaphoric.
OK, that’s pretty abstract. Let me offer an example. “Containment,” for example, has become a way to explain pretty much everything that happened in American culture through the two decades after the end of WW II. George Kennan argued that the U.S. should limit Soviet power through the support of pro-American proxies in a worldwide American “sphere of influence”; perhaps the same logic applies equally to private life during the cold war? Thus Elaine Tyler May’s well-regarded study of American gender and family dynamics in cold war America (Homeward Bound) suggests that the geopolitical logic of containment applied equally well to the place of women in suburban America:
In the domestic version of containment the “sphere of influence” was the home. Within its walls, potentially dangerous social forces of the new age might be tamed, where they could contribute to the secure and fulfilling life to which postwar men and women aspired . . . More than merely a metaphor for the cold war on the homefront, containment aptly describes the way in which public policy, personal behavior, and even political values were focused on the home.
Morris Dickstein cites this passage in his Leopards in the Temple, a book that helped inspire my own interest in cold war culture. While Dickstein concedes that “containment” fairly well describes the way conservatives treated New Deal liberalism, he insists that domestic and geopolitical containment are not parallel entities, and that this argument draws its apparent plausibility from “a verbal melding of two forms of security, two kinds of containment”:
But ‘containment’ is a metaphor, a questionable analogy between personal and international security, the home and the world. Moreover, it suggests that the prevailing social force of the postwar years was constriction, policing, and intimidation, a sort of emotional McCarthyism. Yet for all its constraints, this was a period of unparalleled economic growth and social mobility, when the lives of many Americans changed more than they had in the previous two centuries. What containment really means is that revolutionary hopes for egalitarian social change, which flared up during the economic crises of the 1930s, died down during the prosperity that followed the war. This is another way of looking at the period through the eyes of the 1960s or through the critical lens of academic disciplines that flowed from the sixties. It scarcely acknowledges what May herself calls ‘the potentially dangerous social forces of the new age.’
This kind of nails it, I think. With all respect to May (whom I met at the Mailer symposium in November and who is a fine scholar and cool person), her style of interpretation relies on what Gerald Graff calls “radical parallelism”: the habit of understanding developments in the separate spheres of culture, politics, and society as symptomatic of one another. This style of thought evolved within the sphere of 1960s radical critique, whose dashing style (and intellectual success) was owed to the habit of making bold and speculative connections between things normally considered unrelated. You might ordinarily blame the Vietnam quagmire on bad war planning or bad foreign policy, and you might blame police violations of black civil rights on racism, but the classic radical move would be to see both situations as parallel manifestations of a deeper “root cause,” like, for example, sexual repression/frustration in the American white male. (This was the sort of argument Norman Mailer liked to make.)
This giddy free-form drawing of parallels between everything is actually a lot of fun. And once you get started you can just keep on going, as I found in writing my own avowedly bogus architectural hermeneutics. You can be caught up in the sheer pleasure of the intellectual exercise of drawing parallels, which is not such a bad thing, in a way, except that the patterns that emerge tend to reinforce whatever beliefs you had going in. Which is, when you think about it, the opposite of what you’re supposed to be doing as a scholar. You’re really not supposed to go out into the world looking for confirmation of unexamined moral, political, aesthetic beliefs, although god knows everyone does it to some extent. In the historiography of cold war America, though, the problem is that everybody (more or less) has the same monolithic image of the 1950s: Leave it to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, tailfins, sexual repression, duck-and-cover, etc. You know the drill. But 1950s culture was really far more complicated than this. Since the radical hermeneutic gymnastics I’ve described developed in part to explain the 1950 (and thus to explain why the 1960s had to happen), they continue to be applied to 1950s in a routine way, always discovering the same villains (consumerism, the Bomb, red scares, alienation, etc.), and always writing about them in a breathless style that manages to suggest that these completely conventional historical images are somehow shocking, that the writer has managed at last to knock over the bland Disneyland facade and show us the dark underside of the American Imperium, etc. And yet since everybody does this, as Andrew Hoberek has pointed out, there is now a kind of cold-war-studies recipe: “take a 50s text that hasn’t been discussed yet, explain how it reflects an ambivalent liberalism hostile to political extremes (or designates some group as subversive, or denigrates the radical legacy of the 30s), and publish.”* Which isn’t the same thing as saying (as the New Criterion types do) that the 1950s were the Last Good Time in America. Joseph McCarthy was a douchebag, and his style of political demagogery was by no means unusual in its time.
But then again, it isn’t so unusual in our own time now, either. Which is an interesting thought. If you want to ask, what did a repressive political climate do to American culture in the 1950s, one thing you might do is ask, what effect is it having on us right now? Would we apply the same logic to ourselves as we do routinely to Americans in the 1950s? I would suggest that we wouldn’t, but since this post is already pretty long, I’ll say why next week. You see, I am finally getting around to finishing the thought I began more than a month ago, in my long post on contemporary politics. (The point of which has since been amply demonstrated in Jonathan’s post on Nalini Ghuman.)
*Andrew Hoberek, “Cold War Culture to Fifties Culture,” The Minnesota Review: A Journal of Committed Writing 55-57 (2002): 146.