Thursday, September 20, 2007 • 10:57 AM Comments (13)

On Beating Bill Bennett, the Academic Study of Pop Culture, and the Soul of Man Under Late-stage Capitalism

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Of the many arguments I’ve fantasized about having, one of them, oddly enough, is on the topic of the academic study of pop culture. It takes place on the Charlie Rose Show, and I’m facing off against Bill Bennett, perhaps the grossest of the professional fuddy duddies—the fusty old white men and women who get paid to wear bow ties and pearls and write tsk-tsk articles about the sabotage of western civilization by Foucault-wielding academics.

He comes on with his standard talking points, about how, thanks to the loose morals and Frenchification of our nation's English professors, the kids today are giving each other handjobs and smoking MTV instead of reading Shakespeare on the farm while their fathers beat their mothers for burning the meatloaf (or whatever Bennett’s vision of the good life is). And I, instead of making some thoughtful but very dry argument that there are a dozen threats to the integrity of higher education that are greater than the influence of English professors, will just accuse Bill Bennett of being a philistine who doesn’t have the moral, intellectual or literary standing to question anyone’s legitimacy as a thinker.

In preparation for my appearance on the show, I’ll have read Bennett’s awful books and selected some particularly awful passages, and I’ll read them out in all their awfulness, then contrast them to a few nice passages from some of the better academics working—people who turn their intellectual consideration of American pop culture into a kind of art. Say, Gerald Early writing about the Miss America pageant, or Dave Hickey on the Las Vegas aesthetic, or Nancy Bauer on pornography. Or even John McWhorter, who’s a bit of a professional fuddy duddy himself, writing on Tupac Shakur.

“Charlie,” I’ll say, “the problem with talking to someone like Bill is that we can’t even have a thoughtful conversation about these issues because he doesn’t take thinking or writing seriously. He can’t write an original sentence, or make a graceful transition from one paragraph to another. His own books have no originality to them, and he obviously hasn’t read what any of the people he's attacked are writing aside from the short, out-of-context excerpts his research assistant hands him. He doesn’t know anything about the scholarly conversations in which they’re participating. He thinks the truth of his position is so apparent that there’s no need for empathy, no need for humility, and no need, really, for much thought at all. He’s not an intellectual. He’s a mouthpiece for his prejudices, and yet he has the gall to make sweeping pronouncement about the corruption of the Academy.”

To every point Bennett tries to make, I’ll simply respond with another deconstruction of one of his crappy sentences, and I’ll make the point that until conservative critics of the Academy can actually prove that they know anything about the high culture they claim to be defending, then we shouldn’t have to listen to them.

And eventually Bill will burst into tears, too humiliated to continue, and I’ll be celebrated by the liberal blogosphere as a great champion of intellectual freedom and integrity. Or something like that.
It’s a fantasy, of course, not just because of all the fantastical elements of it, but because it gratifies my wish that the issue could be resolved so easily, that the criticism of something I love—the university, the academic study of pop culture—is wholly bogus, born entirely of resentment and stupidity and envy. If we could expose the jokers for who they really are, all of the problems would go away.

But it’s not like that. There are, actually, very good criticisms of what’s happening in humanities departments on a lot of campuses. There’s a lot of academic writing about pop culture that’s not just useless but annoyingly grandiose, convinced of its own virtue, as if writing about the subversiveness of a particular artifact or emanation of pop culture is a subversive act in itself (in this respect, lefty-ish professors are making the same kind of conceptual error made by their conservative nemeses--believing that the value of your work inheres in the subject of it, be it Shakespeare or Roseanne, Aristotle or Che, rather than in the quality and honesty of your thought).

The problem is that people like me, who would like nothing more than to whack professors (because we envy their degrees and their job security), aren't willing to spend too much time publicly criticizing them so long as the criticism will get absorbed, as it inevitably will, into the blob of know-nothing voodoo that Bennett and his crew do so well.

The Bennett fantasy is, in part, about dominance, payback, and self-glorification. It’s also about wishing the world were simpler than it is—wishing that our problems would go away if we could just expose and destroy the few evil masterminds who are supposedly creating them. But it’s also, and maybe this is the healthiest part of it, about wanting to clear the path a bit, wanting to get the assholes out of the way so that I can have a really invigorating argument with people who, although they disagree with me, at least accept the premise that we’re arguing because we care.

--Daniel Oppenheimer, Writer and co-founder of Masculinity and its Discontents

Comments (13)
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I don't know enough about the academic study of pop culture to have an opinion on it. Of course I've read the news accounts about some obviously silly course or other, but because any good courses would be considered not newsworthy, the coverage is always one sided.
Bill Bennett is an entertaining talk show guest, but impossible to take seriously since his gambling scandal. It isn't that he's so often shallow or wrong, it's that he's a hypocrite that is so unforgiveable.
Posted by tom on 9.20.07 at 10:30
Bill doesn't know what he's missing if he's not tried smoking MTV. It's incredible. I'm high on MTV right now.
Posted by Hayley on 9.20.07 at 14:53
Originally I also had the kids reading handjobs, but I thought it would detract from the effect of smoking MTV.
Posted by djopps@aol.com on 9.20.07 at 16:28
Bow ties, pearls, deconstruction, PBS - that's a saucy fantasy! I've never been sure how to address a guy like Bennett. As I write that, I'm not even sure that's a proper spelling of his name. Sorry. Bennett in particular presents an interesting case. Here's someone who values a set of virtues I find quite agreeable; check out his Book of Virtues and you'll likely find yourself perfectly happy in the constellation of "how to be a good person" ideas. This can be disconcerting if you're not up for bow ties and pearls, though a few rounds of roulette at Mohegan Sun will ol' Bill would certainly be a blast. The fact that this version of "good person" is quite agreeable is, for me, actually quite instructive. Bennett's objection to popular culture is that it is, to his mind, an improper mirror of those virtues. Which isn't to say that many of the virtues aren't actually in those objects to which he objects, but only that they are improper mirrors. So, for example, homosexuality on Will and Grace is not problematic because of its lack of virtue, it's that the virtue (achievement, friendship, honesty - just to name a few of Bill's and Will and Grace's too) is linked to a "perversion." Thus, it is a sign of degeneracy. In that way, Bill shows himself to be less a thinker of virtue in/against the contemporary age than a blowhard in the "culture wars" (one of the far right's strangest fantasies). So, I have Bill Bennett dreams too. They're kinda like Bill's persona, which is always a fraud. You know, the idea that we could discuss the meaning and power of virtue in late-capitalism. I think it is probably a revolutionary force. Unfortunately for Bill and his colleagues, virtue leads us back to all sorts of proto-socialist ideas like friendship, equity, sacrifice, etc. Alas. We all have our dreams, no?
Posted by John on 9.21.07 at 4:51
But Dan, what I'd like to know is why your particular fantasy is about a fairly low-watt opponent like Bennett? The Big Boss of that particular "Defend the study of Pop Culture against the Canonic Traditionalists" video game is Harold Bloom, and I doubt the same moves would work against him. Not all academic traditionalists are right-wing nut jobs.
Posted by Andrew on 9.21.07 at 8:28
I agree with Andrew. I am not a huge Harold Bloom fan (he has a Shakespear fetish) but I must admit some of his attacks on the modern college curriculum have been devastatingly effective. There's no question that the quaility of higher education has never been lower, but I'm not sure to what extent the infiltration of pop culture has to do with it. The problem seems to me more complex than that.
Posted by tom on 9.21.07 at 9:56
John, I have to admit that I haven't read much of Bennett, and my sense of him derives almost exclusively from the bad faith he shows on his TV performances, so it's possible that he's a more virtuous thinker in print, but my guess is that for Bennett, and a lot of his culture warrior allies, ?virtue? is really a stalking horse for something else.

For some of them, the ones who fetishize what I see as the manners that have traditionally been associated with virtue, it often seems like it?s really about class prejudices, or class anxieties?or maybe, to give them the benefit of the doubt, it?s a primarily aesthetic aversion to a mass culture (or an academic culture) that doesn?t affirm the tastes and manners that they perceive as superior. I don?t begrudge them their tastes, but I wish they?d appreciate the extent to which those manners, or aesthetics, are historically or culturally contingent, that, as you say, it's the "proto-socialist ideas like friendship, equity, sacrifice" that are important rather than the bow ties and pearls with which George Will and Getrude Himmelfarb, say, like to dress them up.

For others, and I put Bennett in this category, ?virtue? really just seems to be club with which to bash the left and to advance the corporatist interests of the Republican party by hiding them behind a rhetoric of virtue that?and this is why it works?speaks to the authentic yearning of the public for a vocabulary of meaning that that can help organize our collective life.

As to why, Andrew, I didn?t engage Harold Bloom in my fantasy, the truth is that I actually did have a Bloom fantasy at one point, after I read the introduction to his Western Canon book, which deals in a surprisingly unimpressive way with ?Theory.?
Posted by Dan on 9.21.07 at 10:09
All of which leads me to recommend the following article from last Sunday's NY Times Book Review, by Rachel Donadio, a retrospective of the publication of Harold Bloom's book, _The Closing of the American Mind_ and the controversery it stirred: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/16/books/review/Donadio-t.html It's a false argument to harp on whether or not the canon should be central in a humanities education and whether or not it is educationally legitimate to make sure that college student readers are also exposed to authors who are women, minorities, contemporary, etc. Of course it's important and valid to a humanities education to be conversant with what Bloom considers the classics. Of course it's also important to have an awareness and appreciation for other voices. Perhaps the bigger issue is time. Is the four-year college education enough? Should not education--structured opportunities to read and think and talk--be promoted and supported thoughout all of our lives? I think it's impossible to choose between the "importance" of Plato versus Toni Morrison. But I also think that it's valid to discuss what kinds of works promote the kind of thinking that one would want all people to be capable of. Perhaps that is the germ of creating a canon.
Posted by Hayley on 9.21.07 at 16:27
Dan, I totally agree about the stalking horse, the dressing up of virtue for a whole host of different things. I imagine an awesome conversation with Bennett (I wouldn't call him a great or profound writer at all - I was referring much more to the ideas themselves that he holds up as instructive) in which we discuss the virtues themselves, not the dressing. Sadly, it's all about the dress-up. The disconcerting moment for Bennett, in my dream beat-down, would come when the virtues become all the stuff they've always been, since the Ancient Greeks: the whole over the part, sacrifice over indulgence, community over the individual, courage over pleasure, and so on. It's hard to run the capitalist machine in that world. And so I also think you're right: the bow tie is a marker of social class, but it is one that's actually long passed. Country club chit-chat about Aristotle, "the Johnsons" or some such WASPy dynasty, and all that stuff. It's dead. Only the manners remain. So virtue is something about lace doillies, ladies in long gloves, and so on. (I think I misspelled "doillies," even though my mother's antique store specializes in Victorian linens...) They use the word "virtue." I love that. It's such a destructive box of ideas and sentiments for those kooks, if those ideas start getting real exposition and historical reflection. Turns out THEY are the ones who don't read or understand. A bit of irony here, if that's the right word: it seems to me that for the past handful of decades, it is actually the poor, especially poor people of color, who carry the torch for virtue. And have for years. It's the only way to survive when you can't afford childcare, scrape by for food, drive old cars, etc. You have to make a community to make life work. Rather than say "damn, the rich and middle-class have lost their way with the loss of the substance of all these virtues...we could learn from the poor and struggling folks!," it becomes all about manners and the like. Reminds me, in a strange way, of the long scene cut out of Apocalypse Now, then included in the Redux release on dvd. You know, where the French are still eating with French manners, cuisine, waxing on about home and abroad - meanwhile, colonialism is dead and there's a civil war just on the other side of the river. The virtue-in-and-as-pearls people remind me of those Frenchies. It's all over. When virtue has turned into manners, you've lost the war. Last gasp shit, all that. Or, and this is my real theory of it all, they've come to the word virtue as a really dangerous one, one that adds a lot of weight and dignity to how a lot of struggling folks live, so they collapse it into manners and style and affected speech. Otherwise, the "bad" people might look pretty damn good. But I ramble...
Posted by John on 9.21.07 at 17:12
Will everyone please stop criticizing George Will's bowtie! He looks very elegant in it.
Posted by tom on 9.22.07 at 12:55
Sorry, Tom, I'll give George a break. I actually respect the bowtie as an eccentric fashion choice.
Posted by Dan on 9.23.07 at 9:18
Hayley, On your idea of education throughout all of our lives, you may find it interesting that Adam Smith, in Wealth of Nations, wrote that this was one of the expenses for which government was responsible.
Posted by John Hill on 9.23.07 at 13:53
I'll take a look and see what he had to say. I feel that to a limited extent, federal and state governments DO support lifelong learning, through community colleges, continuing education programs, and state humanities councils. But certainly more could be done! I think every adult should get at least one paid sabbatical to pursue an educational goal.
Posted by Hayley on 9.24.07 at 6:27
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