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Radical Pluralist

Intellectuals and Popular Culture
By Andrew Ross

With the triumph of "theory" making it harder than ever for leftist intellectuals to debate vernacular culture in the vernacular, Andrew Ross's cannily casual No Respect is enough to renew your faith in the future of sanity. Quietly ambitious, unfinished by design, it presents itself as a history of "Intellectuals & Popular Culture"--leaving Ross free to move from secondhand account to secondhand account when concrete works might prove unwieldy. Yet though his reliance on competing authorities is maddening at times, Ross definitely sounds like a fan, a remarkable achievement for an academic--not even Simon Frith, who as a sometime journalist doesn't always have his department chairman peering over his shoulder, conveys such lively, wide-ranging practical enthusiasm. And if Ross's ending, which he calls "Defenders of the Faith and the New Class," is also disappointingly secondhand, intellectuals have by then provided the perfect cover for what he's really trying to bring off--nothing less than an up-to-date overview of popular culture as theory and practice.

It's foolhardy to try such a thing, especially in 232 pages; even if you could get a handle on the overwhelming volume of subject matter, which you can't, there'd be no way to reduce what you know to words without sinking into abject abstraction. So Ross tries an oblique strategy. Not only does he never come out and admit what he's doing, but he picks and chooses like any other consumer from the incomprehensible welter of information products. No Respect has the unassuming look of a collection of linked and rewritten journal articles on subjects that happen to interest him. There's no way every theme and suggestion that arises is going to be woven neatly into a blanket conclusion, but in general his method serves him well.

The argument per se, for instance, kicks off from an unlikely place. "Reading the Rosenberg Letters" first skewers the aestheticist snobbery of the infamous Rosenberg essays in which Leslie Fiedler demonstrated the supposed A-spies' moral bankruptcy by dissecting their prose styles, then goes on to charge that critics from Harold Rosenberg to Morris Dickstein fall into the same trap when they accuse Fiedler of shallowness or inauthenticity, because those are aestheticist categories. For Ross, what's most significant now about Ethel and Julius's letters is their "continuing capacity . . . to compromise every possible canon of `legitimate' taste. The problem of petty-bourgeois taste, culture, and expression remains to this day a largely neglected question for cultural studies and a formidable obstacle to a left cultural politics." Very smart. Yet only rarely does Ross address this problem in so many words himself. Instead it reappears in variations on his most crucial assumption, which is the folly of hoping that good art and good politics will always be congruent--or even of hoping that somebody else's good art (or good politics) will always be yours. If this smacks of liberal pluralism, tough noogs--Ross is a radical pluralist, a spokesperson for what he likes to call the "liberatory imagination." Refusing closure, his somewhat episodic book complements this pluralism, reflecting his commitment to "impure criticism" (Ross's italics), his refusal of "any high theoretical ground or vantage point from which an entire historical trajectory could be summed up," and his stubborn belief that the art people like tells us something about the life they really need, even if those needs are inconvenient or unjust.

Ross's political orientation leads him irresistibly to the Rosenbergs, the magnificent obsession of American leftists and their feuding cousins for two generations, and informs his choice of stopping places elsewhere. Anybody tackling such a project would feel obliged to trek through '50s mass culture theory, as Ross does in "Containing Culture in the Cold War." But he soon abandons academic obligation for pleasure and polemic, moving on to black music, communications theory, camp, and pornography. While these subjects clearly reflect the author's own interests, they also they dovetail with the great targets of postmarxist activism: racism, imperialism, homophobia, and sexism (though not eco-collapse, proving that other people's good politics aren't always pop intellectuals' own).

It worries me that the only one of these chapters I find seriously wanting deals with music, the subject I know best--in addition to other oddities, Ross's discussion of funk skips from Stax to rap with no mention of late James Brown or George Clinton, who between them invented the genre even though no one's ever written a book about it. Nevertheless, by emphasizing "hip" as the key to black/white musical crosstalk, he introduces one of his chief fascinations: intellectuals coming to grips with pop culture by putting it at a distance. His (basically antihip) conclusion is that "racial integration" would have to "feel its uncharted way . . . not in the best possible world, where ethnic self-respect and self-determination can always be guaranteed a fair hearing, but in the impure setting of the marketplace of cultural exchange." This is his most fundamental and paradoxical perception: that mass media comprise a highly inefficient instrument of social control, and, conversely, that when the media liberate, the political risks can be disturbingly high. Tough noogs again.

Ross recasts the same point in a chapter on cultural imperialism that starts with $64,000 quiz shows and Candid Camera, does a job on McLuhan, and ends up refuting Ariel Dorfman-style theories of U.S. global domination--his final observation is that in the real-life frontierland of the Third World, supposedly propagandistic westerns like Bonanza have subversive lessons to teach native peoples about their allotted fate. He sums up the convoluted distancing devices of camp and its cousin Pop, and finds his faith in unsafe culture fulfilled by the prosex feminism of the anti-antiporn vanguard. An expert might be able to pick holes in some of his history, but as a half-expert I found all of it solid and stimulating. And I couldn't name a heterosexual man with a warmer or more comprehensive take on gay sensibility, or a more candid, realistic, and just plain acute analysis of pornography.

No doubt the theory crowd will carp that most of what Ross says has been said before. His central idea that popular culture is a force field rather than a hegemony--the site of a "struggle for fun," as Simon Frith put it a decade ago, although Ross (prematurely) cedes the term "fun" to the yuppie postmodernists, opting for the more academically fashionable "pleasure"--has become the working assumption of all but his most Frankfurtized colleagues. Those who've thought seriously about these matters will recognize this or that apercu from their own speculation as well as their own reading. But so what? Ross has a bead on the inescapable truth that the body doesn't much care about political correctness, and especially when he gets down to cases, much of his presentation is original, even brilliant. He's put a large number of sound ideas into a book that's as coherent as right reason demands. Ross believes in culture for use. No Respect exemplifies that belief.

Crucial to the book's usefulness, not to mention its coherence, is that it's written to be understood. The ideas can be dense and complex, and when I said Ross was vernacular, I didn't mean he used a lot of slang. But his forceful, declarative critical prose amounts to a grandstand play in an intellectual environment where sentences, paragraphs, sometimes whole books have been known to disappear in whirlpools of jargon. A Scot who teaches at Princeton, he typifies the affection for common sense and common experience that has always distinguished Britain's cultural studies tradition, yet explicitly resists its localism, anti-Americanism, rigid class analysis, and tendency to break out in splotches at the first whiff of mass production. As he says in his porn chapter: "To refuse to be educated: to refuse to be taught lessons about maturity and adult responsibility, let alone about sexism and racism; to be naughty, even bad, but mostly naughty; to be on your worst behavior--all of this may be a ruse of patriarchy, a ruse of capitalism, but it also has something to do with a resistance to education, institutional or otherwise. It has something to do with a resistance to those whose patronizing power and missionary ardor are the privileges bestowed upon and instilled in them by a legitimate education."

Certainly No Respect leaves the two comparable American projects of the '80s sucking dust--Robert Pattison's The Triumph of Vulgarity, a pugnaciously slapdash polemic, and Patrick Brantlinger's Bread and Circuses, a piece of scholarship so evenhanded it reads like a course summary. Though they're very different books, Brantlinger's a pretty good one, both fail utterly to convey the aesthetic give-and-take that makes Ross's work so engaging. No Respect is more in the spirit of Reuel Denney's The Astonished Muse, a 1957 tour of TV, football, science fiction, skyscrapers, and other stuff that caught a sociologist's fancy. Like most of the '50s academics who bothered to pay attention to mass culture before rattling on about it, Denney was no leftist, and three decades later his appeal is undermined somewhat by the complacency of his, well, liberal pluralism. Let's hope Ross's radical pluralism doesn't suffer the same fate. Because for damn sure not all good politics are congruent. And giving the rude demands of vernacular culture some respect just might help us figure out how to cram all those politics together.

Village Voice, 1990