Umm…This Was A Really Good Book…

Umm…This Was A Really Good Book…

T. J. Jackson Lears’ No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 presents a fascinating, if somewhat disheartening, case study of the role of oppositional discourse in strengthening cultural hegemony. His discussion of antimodern theory and practice at the turn of the past century centers upon the quest for “the real”–through the “cults of inner and outer experience”–in an increasingly abstract mental and physical environment. Lears’ focus upon bourgeois intellectuals and popularizers is crucial to his argument that, in protesting against the inauthenticity of modern life, these “hollow men” (and women) helped to spread the contagion of hyper-subjectivity beyond the narrow confines of their own class, as defined in strictly economic terms; a process which he sees as ongoing at his own historical moment. For Lears, every “way out” of alienation and despair only aggravates the problem and feeds the liberal-capitalist dynamo–and even his own (immensely attractive) doctrine of “ambivalence”, which at least does provide some respite from the fevered dreams of modernity, cannot truly be said to offer much hope of staying the course of the disease at the societal level.

The common denominator which unites the subjects of this book is subjectivity itself. The cry of “disconnectedness”–from God, from the land, from a meaningful understanding of labor and social roles–rallies these figures to their ostensible war against the forces of modernization. Beneath the multiplicity of discontents, Lears uncovers two fundamental modes of protest–the cults of inner and outer experience. The former encompasses all of those activities which would eventually cohere into the “therapeutic worldview” of self-help culture. The latter conduces to a doctrine of bluff vitality which privileges a proactive relationship to the world, in lieu of “morbid introspection”. The author makes a powerful case for thinking of both strategies as part of a general pattern of “evasive banality” (7)–which is not to say that he concurs with the description of these activities as “mere escapism”. On the contrary, Lears identifies his bourgeois antimoderns as, paradoxically, the principal disseminators of the cultural forms they opposed–both to the lower classes, and to the world at large.

Each chapter of the book works relentlessly toward a reenactment of Lears’ overarching thesis–i.e. that the only “exits” from the prison of subjectivity lead to ever deeper levels of self-involvement. His analysis of the search for “wholeness”–through attempts to reconnect with the transpersonal imperatives of medieval culture and the Catholic Church, through the gospel of “simplicity” and resistance to market values manifested most notably in the “arts and crafts” movement, etc.–traces out the various ways in which each of these “critiques” eventually became “coping mechanisms” that addressed key psychological “trouble spots” unforeseen by the more straightforward proponents of “modernization”, thus enabling the project itself to forge on.  Meanwhile, the cult of outer experience–or “strenuosity”–performed an analogous function, by encouraging angst-ridden bourgeois subjects to cathect the malaise of modernity upon each other (on the playing field), the wilderness or, alternatively, and even more usefully (given the necessity for capitalist expansion) the rest of humanity–through militarism and the “muscular Christianity” typical of the Protestant missionary culture that blossomed in the late 19th century.

Each of these routes out of despair led inevitably back to the starting gate of “the rat race”, only reconceptualized in various ways–through the rhetoric of “personal growth”, bodily well-being, or meaningful action/”real living” (i.e.”be all that you can be”)–so as to make this position seem, at least momentarily, more palatable. Lears reveals Emerson’s  “soldiery of dissent” as, in fact, a self-diagnosing and self-medicating (though most emphatically not a self-abnegating) soldiery of peace and of war, whose ranks have swelled–both within and without the borders of the United States–in the decades since the close of the period here under consideration. Far from a means of “escape”, with which one would associate the dissipation of energy, “evasive banality” unleashes powerful antimodern frustrations upon  the world, with very “real” effects.

Given Lears’ sense of the inevitability of these processes, it is not surprising that his own proposed “exit strategy” from the modern condition–ambivalence–can only be understood as a more “genuine” form of escape. By privileging  the early, tension-wracked cultural criticism of Van Wyck Brooks, most notably America’s Coming-of-Age (255), and the poetic oeuvre of T.S. Eliot, Lears appears to be arguing: “if you can’t beat ’em, at least don’t join them”–that the way to halt the machine is not to “rage against it”, but to look upon its manifestations (and its impositions upon the “modern soul”) with a sense of tragic/ironic bemusement (i.e. that the dream of “wholeness” could never have come about without the “reality” of alienation, and that, without our sense of loss, we would founder) . While this is an extremely appealing formulation–and may even be correct–it is impossible to imagine that any society, as a whole, could attain the ambivalence that Lears so admires in Ash Wednesday (moreover, Eliot himself failed, quite spectacularly, to maintain this attitude in his more political writings), and it could certainly be argued that this entraps the author within the logical futility of antimodern self-absorption that he describes so well.

Later Tonight–Cerebus #8 to 10!


One comment

  1. Dave:

    You’re weird (in a good way). You might like Rites of Spring by Modris Eksteins. It examines the avant-garde in Europe following the Great War and how the war created this new artistic movement. Nice book – possibly up your alley.


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