Mike B.’s post yesterday on clapclap.org addresses some problems in leftist cultural critique that have bothered me as well: there is something disturbingly parternalistic and condescending in claiming that a certain group of people is under the influence of false consciousness, and such claims are often made with little understanding of the selected group’s actual motivations. There is certainly a well-documented tendency for some practitioners of critical theory to slide towards elitism – witness Adorno in the 1960s, with his insistence that jazz fans are somehow being lulled into acceptance of what he saw as inferior music – and while not all go that way, the tendency for critics to assume that no one could rationally like the things that they do not themselves like – in this case, it was Celine Dion – persists, and, as Carl Wilson came to realize in his investigation of Dion, it is fatal. I agree with the main drift of Mike B.’s post and I have nothing to add to it except to point the way to Isaiah Berlin’s attack on paternalistic notions of liberty, but there is a minor point of his that I would like to expand upon:
Their arguments [those of speakers at the EMP Pop Conference] ran more along Carl’s lines, that a strip mall eradicates the culture of a community. Moreover, there was a creepy strain of intentionality going on there, that zoning boards let strip malls in precisely so that they could accrue the benefits of destroying a community’s culture.
There certainly is a lot of cooperation between between the corporate and government worlds, but the assumption in a lot of leftist thought is that they all form one unit whose interests are exactly those of the status quo, so that whenever there is some aspect of culture that is perceived to have a negative effect on individual or community freedom, it is assumed to be imposed willfully by this oppressive body – it’s Pynchon’s Them, basically, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is a level of paranoia that we’re not meant to aspire to. It seems like Foucault’s claim that not all power is exerted by any particular party has given way to a semi-mystical idea of a generalized opponent that gets the blame every time something happens that might restrict people’s freedom. Max Horkheimer may have made a breakthrough when he declared that the critic of culture must acknowledge the fact that he or she is also steeped in it, but I think it’s time we take this a little further: whatever persons are pulling the strings of culture, if anyone is, live within that culture just the same as the rest of us, and might be pulling each others’ strings as well. There are no puppeteers behind the curtains, and no one is following a script.