Friday, May 25, 2007

On Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia

I’d like to call attention to a recent book worth contemplating, Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts. My own attention was drawn to the book by two well-written reviews of it, one by Tara Gallagher in The Nation (May 14, 2007, pp. 46 – 52, very positive), the other by Richard Locke in Bookforum (April / May, 2007, pp. 26 – 27, 53, decidedly mixed).

The book is largely James’ discussion of several decades of reading, with the book taking the form of a series of essays about 107 cultural figures over a span of 876 pages. Given the title, the book clearly is attempting to remedy amnesia with regard to great literary and artistic production. The book could also be taken to task for focusing almost exclusively on white, mostly European, mostly 20th century males, as Locke does to a certain extent in Bookforum. In this context, I’m mainly interested in addressing a few of James’ general arguments.

I’d first like to point out James’ interesting comments on humanism, culture, and 20th century totalitarianism, comments that both book reviewers also noted prominently. Here I quote from Gallagher’s review in The Nation, as her discussion provided a useful frame for the quotations of James:

“But James’s vision of the life of the mind only begins with the individual. His introduction explains how he used to struggle with the seeming paradox that culture doesn’t necessarily lead to humanism – witness Leni Riefenstahl or Louis-Ferdinand Céline, both of whom made common cause with totalitarian regimes. Then it dawned on him: ‘Humanism wasn’t in the separate activities’ that comprise culture, ‘humanism was the connection between them,’ ‘all the aspects of life illuminating one another, in a honeycomb of understanding.’ Humanism is the embrace of human creativity in all its variety. From this principle follows a complete aesthetics, politics and sociology of humanistic endeavor, though James would reject such lifeless and systematizing terms for the philosophy he elaborates, unsystematically and in full-blooded contact with the particulars of dozens of actual lives, across the length of the book.”

He rejects totalizing ideologies as premature synthesizing (a point emphasized by Locke’s review). Insofar as totalizing theory and totalitarianism take a basic idea or principle and use it to explain everything, any synthesis they embody is premature, but I’d even question whether this is synthesis. (As I discussed in my earlier post, “Synthesis and Eclecticism in Theory,” there is good reason to be wary of grand theorizing which claims to have the key to explaining everything.)

James seems in practice to reject synthesis altogether. Despite his key and interesting argument that humanism lies in the connection between all aspects of human life and creativity, in the bulk of the book discussing his readings of particular figures, there’s little of this, at least from one to another. There’s also no clear reason for the selection of the particular 107 individuals to be discussed, except that he gleaned something insightful from having read them. That’s actually not a bad selection criterion, and there’s something highly laudable in any sort of criticism (whether of literature, visual art, theater, or even culture in the anthropological sense) that emphasizes the qualities and features observable in the phenomenon and that attempts to contemplate and explore it on its own terms rather than through an imposed explanatory framework. (I have in mind there the usual suspects – psychoanalysis, Marxism, structuralism and post-structuralism, etc. I actually have no problem with the critical and flexible use of such theoretical frameworks when the phenomenon being discussed is amenable to such theorizing on its own terms. I’m highly suspicious, though, of attempts to use such theories as skeleton keys to explain everything, e.g. explaining all or most literature as symptoms of psychoanalytic functions, explaining everything about human society in terms of class struggle, etc.) My main caveat about James’ book, then, is not his skepticism of theory, much less of totalization, but that in making scant few connections at all, he falls short of his own humanism. (But anyone should feel happy to fall short on such a grand scale as James does here.)

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