Primates of Park Avenue: A Spoon Full of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down…

Posted on | August 28, 2015 | Comments Off on Primates of Park Avenue: A Spoon Full of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down…

Picture of Jake London holding a copy of  Wednesday Martin's book "The Primates of Park Avenue"


You Can Tune A Piano, When The Heat Is On, But Can You Roll With the Changes, After the Boys of Summer Have Gone?

Back in June, in the run-up to my birthday, I found myself contemplating how much things have changed since I was a kid in the 1970s. Apparently, that sort of pre-birthday nostalgia is a contractual obligation of middle age.

During my formative years, the culture of postmodernity was in its insurgent adolescence (a lot like me). It was steadily chipping away at the hegemony of cultural modernity, but it was not yet the cultural dominant.[1] At least that’s my sense of things now, looking back on it. So the 1970s and the early 1980s existed in a murky transition state, with one foot still on the familiar ground of cultural modernity and the other foot now firmly planted in the exciting possibilities of the postmodern.

Today, things are different. The culture of postmodernity–in all its ironic glory–is fully dominant. And with each passing year, the time-honored roles, categories, and clearly defined conceptual boundaries of cultural modernity (and my youth) have become either residual artifacts of history or hybrid, postmodern jumbles that resemble something familiar from the old days, but seem to mean something different now.[2]

If the culinary metaphor for cultural modernity is a Swanson TV dinner, with each food item placed oh so rationally in its own distinct section on the disposable aluminum tray, the culinary metaphor for cultural postmodernity is a compostable burrito bowl from Chipotle. Or maybe it’s a scoop of rum-infused banana, peanut butter, and chocolate-covered bacon ice cream in an artisanal waffle cone. (“It’s like Bananas Foster on steroids and Elvis Presley’s favorite sandwich all together in a single cone!”)

No more separating things. Now, highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow, and no brow all exist on equal footing. For the first rule of cultural postmodernity is this: “Mix it all together, put a big spoonful in your mouth, and savor the weird and wonderful diversity of flavors.”

Curation, as Fredric Jameson has argued, is the highest form of artistic expression in postmodernism,[3] and an embrace of eclectic mixtures has become the ultimate mark of taste and refinement. The person who elegantly creates the most unexpected and far-flung mix of flavors earns the most cultural capital. The remaining capital goes to anyone who enjoys the mix and gets its references and allusions.

As a result, we’ve come to distrust things that feel like the divided sections of that old TV dinner tray. That’s not an interesting mix. It’s hardly a mix at all. It’s a relic from an older and more rigid time and place, an era where cultural relevance filters were typically on the supply-side and cultural elites at the top had disproportionate influence over what sort of stuff made it through the filter and into our ears, eyes, noses, and bellies.

Today, the old supply-side filters feel increasingly like one of those residual artifacts of history I referenced above. They still exist, but they’ve become less and less effective, as we’ve been overloaded with more and more information. This has forced most of us to do a lot more of our own demand-side filtering–quite a wearying experience for many people.

But it has also taught us to question things, like whether fancy job titles and educational attainment really provide the assurances of quality, legitimacy, and relevance that were attributed to them back in the day. For in the age of the Internet, where almost anyone can share their mix of thoughts with everybody, it’s become difficult to predict where meaningful commentary will come from, what it will look like, and who will be offering it. So it pays to take each bite thoughtfully and with an open mind, rather than rushing straight to judgement.

Take Feminism As An Example

When I think about discourse on feminism, I typically imagine an argument among academics or political activists. But back in early June, rock musician Neko Case–performing a credible rendition of a 1980s women’s history grad student at University of Wisconsin-Madison—posted a thoughtful 17-page essay on-line about her relationship with feminism. (Do yourself a favor and download the pdf–much easier than reading her website’s white on black type.)

Things like that rarely happened when I was a kid. You needed standing to disseminate your essay to a mass audience, and even a successful musician typically wouldn’t have possessed that sort of standing. But times have changed. Now, the platform exists to easily do that. So why not?

Aside from the time it took for her to research and write the essay, it’s relatively cheap to make it available to millions of people. And if you’re somebody who is constantly being asked what it’s like to be a woman in rock music, why not put your thoughts out there unfiltered, control the message, and let people know what you’re thinking?

That’s something I really enjoy about 2015. Blogs and websites allow more artists and musicians like Ms. Case to proudly fly their intellectual freak flags and remind us how multi-dimensional they are.

Of course, people like Ms. Case aren’t the only ones getting in on this action. A few days before her feminism essay dropped, author and social researcher Wednesday Martin released Primates of Park Avenue, her memoir about being a mother in Manhattan’s hyper-affluent Upper East Side (UES).

In it, she plots a course towards the cultural mainstream, performing a credible rendition of a dishy purveyor of pop, chick lit, and proving in the process that it isn’t just musicians who are feeling freer to step outside of defined roles and explore unexpected subject matter and modes of discourse. Yale-trained comparative literature PhDs (like Martin) can do it too.

I started reading Primates in an Olmsted park by the shores of Lake Washington (Seattle’s Seward Park–one of the great ones). I finished it a few weeks later in the same spot. That seemed the best place to read Primates, as so much of its action takes place within spitting distance of NYC’s Central Park–the O.G. Olmsted.

Given that there have been something like eight articles in the NYT about this book since its release and that it has spent time in the upper reaches of the NYT best-seller list, I’m not sure it really needs any publicity help from me. But since Wednesday is an old college friend of mine, I wanted to say publicly that I enjoyed reading Primates and then share some additional thoughts on the book in the remainder of this blog post.

It’s nice when old friends, like Wednesday and my old buddy John Shaw, are given the opportunity to put their books out in the world. Back in our University of Michigan-Residential College days, while we were busy learning the value of this new thing called “inter-disciplinary education,” many of us dreamed of doing cool shit like writing books. It’s awesome that some folks have managed to make that dream real.

To the extent that I’m a feminist, Ms. Martin is one of the people who sent me off down that path many years ago, a path I continued to explore during my grad school time in Madison, Wisconsin with the help of some great feminism mentors, including Bridgette Sheridan​, Maggie Brennan​, Sara McLanahan Edlin​, Carolyn Helmke, and of course, Professor Linda Gordon.

So while I make no claims to being an expert on the subject, I suspect that I have at least a little more background in women’s history and feminist theory than many middle-aged dudes do (although much of that knowledge is 30 years old at this point).

Why am I saying this? Well, Primates has been kind of a lightning rod for controversy. And while I doubt that hurts the book’s sales any, I fear that it may be painting a distorted picture of what the book is.

Yes, it is a dishy, pop book and apparently destined to be a motion picture. Having read much of it by the water, I can say that it’s great for the beach or the park. And yes, some of it apparently nudges out of memoir territory and into the territory of the novel. But if the nut of it is on the mark, which it mostly feels like it is, I’m not sure it matters very much.

Given the high percentage of status obsessed rich people living in the UES, does anybody really doubt that the percentage of loathsome individuals living there might also be higher than elsewhere?

In any case, if you want to learn more about that controversy or read a more detailed synopsis of the book’s plot, I suggest you consult those other articles, because I’m not going to delve too deeply into those things here.

The Wheat Germ Is Not A Gimmick

What I do want to delve into is some stuff that seems to have gotten lost in all media hubbub: the academic/technical wheat germ lurking underneath the milk chocolate surface of Primates.

At the start of the book, Martin and her family move to the UES from the upscale but bohemian West Village to be closer to her husband’s in-laws and to access better public schools for their son. For Martin, the move ends up being unexpectedly jarring.

She feels like an outsider in the culture of the UES, and somewhat improbably for somebody north of 35, finds herself in the role of the ingénue. Think Anne Hathaway in the Devil Wears Prada, with all the other UES mothers collectively inhabiting the Meryl Streep role.

To cope with this situation, she imagines that she is an anthropologist conducting a field study of UES mothers and their culture, all the while slowly becoming one of these people herself (i.e., going native). This conceit allows Martin to incorporate into her narrative theory and specialized-vocabulary from both cultural anthropology and primatology.

During the course of the book, we learn that UES residents must navigate an “Honor/Shame Culture,” where overt displays of wealth, power, and beauty define the “Dominance Hierarchy,” and that the gender roles of UES men and women are typically dictated by a “Traditional Gender Script,” which places men and women into separate, sex-segregated spheres.

UES men occupy the public sphere. There, they compete primarily against other men to provide material support for the family. Wealth and money are a UES man’s most important commodities and the source of his power.

Although many UES women are highly educated and accomplished professional people, they nevertheless dominate the domestic sphere, make babies, raise them, and spend most of their time hanging out with other UES mothers who are doing the same thing. Other than their own physical beauty, children and their attainments are a UES woman’s most important commodity and therefore the main source of her power within family and her prestige within the UES culture at large.

Every UES kid can’t be a smashing success in every endeavor, so there is fierce intra-sexual competition among UES mothers to secure as many advantages as possible for their kids (e.g., getting them in the best schools, in popular social groups, etc.).

The net result of all this is what Martin terms “the Culture of Intensive Motherhood,” where women are required to spurn things like careers and non-kid-related friendships to devote all of their energy to the enrichment of their children. Fail in this task and you bring shame to your family, even to the point of undermining your husband’s achievements in the public sphere. Succeed, and you may earn yourself a “wife bonus” (financial compensation from your husband that is tied to your child’s peak performance in school, etc.).

But while many UES moms are the sort of people who will do the things that others won’t (e.g, hiring the handicapped “guides” to help them jump the line at Disney World), Martin eventually learns that it’s a mistake to reduce all UES moms to hard-edged, Machiavellian masters of the domestic sphere. For despite the fierce intra-sexual competition, she receives unexpected and much needed support from some of the other mothers during a very difficult period.

Certain reviewers have been quick to dismiss Martin’s decision to incorporate anthropology and primatology terms into her narrative as a gimmick.

But now that I’ve finished reading Primates, I don’t think that’s a fair assessment, and here’s why:

First, these reviewers underestimate how much skill is required to distill the academic/technical stuff into something digestible by lay readers. They also underestimate the value and importance of making the effort to do so.

As the cultural studies scholar Lawrence Grossberg has argued in Dancing in Spite of Myself, “cultural studies…challenges not only the boundaries between…disciplines but, more importantly, the boundary between the academy and the world outside.” In Grossberg’s estimation, intellectuals “will have failed” if they “cannot speak, as intellectuals, through the popular…”

This is exactly the goal of Primates, and in my opinion, it is generally successful in achieving that goal.

Second, some of the academic/technical stuff is also quite funny, especially juxtaposed with the more dishy aspects of the book. Perhaps that went past some people, or they have a different sense of humor than I do (I’ll never escape being the son of a professor).

Third, and most importantly, I don’t think these reviewers take seriously enough how the academic/technical material in Primates affects the framing of the narrative for the reader. Indeed, as Joe Orman recently noted in an article about Seattle’s Hempfest, “Anthropologists study intersectionality..,” the way that different cultural issues intersect in a particular activity and place, like motherhood in the UES, and what we can learn from these intersections.

A book about the myriad ways in which UES moms are unhappy, backstabbing bitches, but not completely unredeemable, would still have tabloid, popular appeal. But that sort of book would lack the intersectional context of Primates, leaving the whys and wherefores of UES mom behavior unexplored. So while the reader would get a nice one-dimensional, jealous hate/envy schadenfreude hit reading about how these women behave, she or he would gain no framework, tools, or vocabulary for acquiring a richer understanding of it.

To me, that sounds like a much less interesting mix of flavors. It’s like a Thai curry without the fish sauce. The dish isn’t inedible, but it’s missing the funk that makes it special.

Technical Accounts and The Concision Problem

Academic/technical/theoretical discussions are all about providing framework, tools and vocabulary. In his book “Why?” the historian and sociologist Charles Tilly called them “technical accounts.”

Often, technical accounts are on the abstract side and lacking in the kind of linear narrative story that average people use to make sense of things. They use words and phrases that assume a lot of specialized knowledge.

In the interests of streamlining discussion, experts regularly allow one word or phrase to serve as shorthand for paragraphs, pages, or even books worth of concrete stories and other information, assuming that everybody in the conversation already knows it. This is similar to the way that lawyers use defined terms in a contract.

Unfortunately, unlike most contracts, technical accounts often don’t include a definitions section or glossary of terms. So most people find them difficult to understand, because they lack all the background knowledge that the experts possess.

As a result, you get what Noam Chomsky has termed the mass-media concision problem. In an interview back in 2002, he explained that as follows:

The kinds of things that I would say on Nightline, you can’t say in one sentence because they depart from standard religion. If you want to repeat the religion, you can get away with it between two commercials. If you want to say something that questions the religion, you’re expected to give evidence, and that you can’t do between two commercials. So therefore you lack concision, so therefore you can’t talk.

In other words, it’s very difficult to introduce new technical vocabulary in a concise fashion, let alone make a nuanced argument or deconstruct existing technical vocabulary that is perceived to be the conventional wisdom. Therefore, most academics and technical experts don’t even bother trying to get into that exercise on a mass scale, and those who do sail into an exceedingly stiff head wind. [4]

Readerly, Writerly, and The Conventions of Arena Rock

At the end of the day, pop books like Primates must also reckon with Chomsky’s concision problem.[5] For they are the literary equivalent of an arena rock show: Subtle gestures get lost in the big hall. So it’s no small matter to integrate a technical account while keeping every movement intelligible to the folks in the back rows.

To remain within the conventions of arena rock, one needs to keep things relatively big, straight up, and on the mark. Often, it’s as much about what you take away as what you add. Or to borrow some terminology from literary and cultural theorist Roland Barthes, the conventions of the arena rock form demand a text that is more “readerly” than “writerly.”

What does that mean? Well, according to Barthes, a readerly text is one that doesn’t “locate the reader as a site of the production of meaning, but only as the receiver of a fixed, pre-determined, reading.”

“Readerly” texts “are thus products rather than productions and thus form the dominant mode of literature under capital.”

So a readerly text is one that purports to be something that the reader can take at face value.

Conversely, a “writerly” text is one that “…force[s] the reader to produce a meaning or meanings which are inevitably other than final or authorized.”

John Copenhaver, a novelist, explains further: “Readerly texts reassure us with answers, and writerly texts ask us to struggle with the human mysteries they offer us.”

In keeping with the conventions of arena rock, the surface of Primates is a readerly commodity. But lurking underneath it, there are more writerly aspects as well. I wonder if some reviewers have missed these (or under-estimated their value).

For example, by framing a relatively clear, readerly story within a simplified technical account, Primates gives concrete meaning to terms like “Intra-Sexual Competition,” “Gender Script,” “Honor/Shame Culture,” “Wife Bonus,” and the “Culture of Intensive Mothering.”

This is valuable, because the only way to overcome Chomsky’s concision problem is to put forth new vocabulary and give non-specialists tools to assimilate it. Terms like “Gender Script” and “Intra-Sexual Competition” are not currently a part of the standard religion. Until they are part of it, it’s hard to have a society-wide, mass-media level conversation about the ideas they address, ideas that are central issues of feminism.

You can’t just say “Gender Script” on Conan or Jimmy Fallon and assume that everybody will know what that means. But by placing it in the context of a readerly story, a book like Primates has the capacity to help change that, illustrating what it means and in the process naming a feeling or experience that many people recognize intuitively but lack vocabulary to describe concisely.

I’m An Animal, You’re An Animal Too, What if God Was One of Us, Just A Stranger On The Bus, And An Animal Too?

Because Primates is set in a realm that is somewhat separated from the experience of most people, it allows the average person enough emotional distance to engage with the ideas without getting defensive about how they might also be a part of their own life.

It’s a bit like Greek mythology, where the gods seem to have all the problems of human beings, only on a grander scale and on a separate plane. The grandiose separateness of the characters in these myths makes it easier for people to absorb their lessons.

Primates also appropriates the language of primatology, using it as a prism for examining why UES people do the things they do and what the stakes are. In the process, the book encourages us to see ourselves in this light as well, as primates governed by certain biological imperatives, and it provides us with some tools and vocabulary for doing so.

Indeed, as I read Primates, I kept thinking about how the culture of the music business is distressingly similar to the UES mom culture in many ways (not sure who should be more distressed about that–UES moms or people in the music biz—in any case, it sounds like both groups like to toss back booze and pills at all hours of the day and night).

While I was somewhat familiar with the notion of a “dominance hierarchy,” the term “Honor/Shame Culture” was new to me, and it provided me a nice phrase to sum up the ways that the UES mom culture is similar to that of the music business.

Fist City

Martin’s approach also shines a bright light on the female will to power and female competitiveness, things, imho, which are too often trivialized, or worse, kept invisible, repressed, and under-acknowledged by both participants and observers.

The “sisterhood is powerful” message of certain strands of cultural feminism has often been Pollyannaish about the existence of this female competition, either (i) attributing an essentialized cooperative spirit to relationships among women, or (ii) assuming that this competition is simply a result of false consciousness, rather than something that may be an intrinsic part of the human condition, male or female.

Perhaps it is a sign of progress that more women now feel empowered, secure and comfortable enough in the 2000s to publicly acknowledge intra-sex disagreements and competitions.

Primates, serves as an example of how this sort of discussion can be brought to the surface. Within the conventions of the form, it makes an effort to go beyond the sort of mean girls and bitches narrative that is the stock and trade of teen movies and chick lit alike–a place where even adult life remains strangely reminiscent of high school. Instead, the book endeavors to explore more explicitly the rational stakes and motivations for women behaving in these ways.

There is a tendency in the culture, especially among men, but also among many women as well, to see intra-sexual competition among women as nothing but gossip and petty, low-level, emotional sniping. But while the currency may be different than the currency over which men commonly compete, Primates shows us why the stakes are no less concrete or important.

Indeed, the book underscores that competition is often most brutal within social groups that are vying for a limited universe of resources, relative to their white male counterparts. And even if rich white women have it way better than most people in society, the book underscores how these women nevertheless also feel the negative effects of inequitable gender relations.

But making this point is not without some moral ambiguities. Indeed, these ambiguities comprise the other major writerly aspect of Primates, and the reader is asked to sort out quite a few of them.

Are we meant to hate the moms of the UES? Or are we meant to sympathize with them, oppressed as they are by patriarchy, even with all their money and elevated social status?

What about Wednesday herself? How are we supposed to feel about her?

Is she on our side, a bohemian, intellectual, downtown gal from Michigan sent uptown by fate to serve as an anthropological spy, break the code of omerta, and give us inside information about a secret society?

Is she a double agent, working both sides of the fence, telling us how fucked these people are, letting us feel morally superior and happy that our lives aren’t as unpleasant as theirs, while simultaneously working for the other side, by drawing attention away from all the ways in which their lives are infinitely more fabulous and comfortable than anything we can even imagine?

Or is Wednesday just as bad–or maybe even worse–than the people she is describing, a class traitor and opportunist, exploiting other people’s trust in the interest of aggrandizing herself?

It’s never totally clear and if I didn’t know her, it would probably be even muddier. So you have to make up your own mind on these questions and about whether the book’s ambiguity is a bug or a feature. More than likely, all people won’t reach the same conclusion.

Every Rose Has Its Thorn

Having heaped a lot of praise on the academic/technical aspects of Primates, I should also acknowledge, in the interests of trying to maintain a measure of objectivity, some instances where those aspects of the book didn’t work quite as well for me.

Don’t get me wrong, reading Primates was as smooth and easy as downing an ice-cold quart of Stroh’s beer in Burns Park on a hot Ann Arbor summer night back in 1984. (Almost sounds like a Bob Seger tune, doesn’t it?) But it also felt like there was room to dig deeper into some of that academic stuff without sacrificing the book’s readerly tone. So it’s a little disappointing that Primates didn’t push further in that direction. If it had, perhaps it would have ended up tasting more like a pint of Lagunitas IPA (hoppy, a little more highbrow, but nevertheless smooth, accessible, and easy to drink).

In any case, and crazy beer analogies aside, here’s what I mean by “digging deeper into the academic stuff.”

Back in my Madison days, when we were discussing feminism and the plight of women in the USA, we often talked about the interrelationship of race, class, and gender. This book focuses primarily on gender, leaving race and class more in the background (actually, race is pretty much non-existent, probably because most people in the UES are apparently white, which is telling in and of itself).

And while the book is reasonably honest about the class position of the people it describes, it probably could have done a better job explicitly locating the people of the UES in a larger class context. As a friend put it to me, “There’s a lot of discussion of intra-class conflict, but not much exploration of inter-class conflict” (i.e., the conflict between rich and poor).

For example, Primates doesn’t really grapple explicitly with issues like these:

  • What sort of stuff have these people done to make all that money and what does that mean for the rest of us?
  • The members of this class are very proud of their charitable efforts. But to the extent that their charitable activities are tax deductible, aren’t the rest of us just indirectly funding their pet projects? Moreover, would we have such a dire need for these charitable activities if these folks had not helped to systematically gut the public sector over the last 40 years, thereby insuring that do-gooder agendas are increasingly set by rich people in the private sector, rather than in a more distributed and democratic fashion through governmental institutions and a more progressive tax system?
  • Are the charitable activities of rich people really altruistic or are they simply another narcissistic display ritual?
  • Is charity from the rich a fair exchange for society, given that the risks of capitalism have increasingly been socialized across all taxpayers (e.g., bank bailouts) while the benefits have mostly accrued to the kind of folks described in this book?
  • Do UES people ponder these kinds of issues at all?
  • Or are they too busy competing with each other for top rank in their internal dominance hierarchy to spend much time self-reflecting on that kind of thing?

That being said, class is still implicitly a very significant part of the book. Whether by accident or on purpose, “Primates” ends up being a case study in Marxian concepts like these:

  • how domestic labor, which is typically gendered, is undervalued by capitalism, because it is not easily commodified;
  • how the “Wife Bonus” Martin describes in Primates is an effort to put a commodity value on this domestic labor;
  • how women themselves become commodities in the culture of the UES;
  • how precarious life as a human commodity is, even when that commodity exists in a privileged space;
  • how children in that privileged space become commodities too;
  • how UES women use the acquisition of expensive commodities, like the Hermes Birken Bag, as a way of enhancing their own value as commodities (I found Martin’s discussion of the Birken Bag and its meaning to be particularly resonant and interesting); and
  • how the alienation that is wrought by capitalism affects even the so-called “winners” of the game.

Indeed, more than anything else, the book is a good reminder that Marx was right. Everybody may experience alienation under capitalism, but not everybody is alienated in the same way:

The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-estrangement. But the former class feels at ease and strengthened in this self-estrangement, it recognizes estrangement as its own power, and has in it the semblance of a human existence. The class of the proletariat feels annihilated, this means that they cease to exist in estrangement; it sees in it its own powerlessness and in the reality of an inhuman existence. It is, to use an expression of Hegel, in its abasement, the indignation at that abasement, an indignation to which it is necessarily driven by the contradiction between its human nature and its condition of life, which is the outright, resolute and comprehensive negation of that nature. Within this antithesis, the private property-owner is therefore the conservative side, and the proletarian the destructive side. From the former arises the action of preserving the antithesis, from the latter the action of annihilating it.

The Holy Family, Ch. 4 (1845).

Elaborating on the above referenced quote, Todd Chretien explains further:

The rich may be alienated, may even be depressed at times, but as a rule, they compensate themselves with a semblance of human nature, based on their own power over society as a whole. Yes, money can buy you love! Especially–and this is crucial–because all that money buys you political power, a bit of control and the freedom to do what you want, at least part of the time, and in that freedom, the rich can recover a “semblance of a human existence.” And they fear losing this most of all.

So the rich not only feel threatened by working-class struggle because they may have to give up their money and power, they also mistake their own stunted humanity for the “universal soul” intrinsic to the proletariat and, therefore, honestly (at least as honestly as scoundrels are able) believe they are defending humanity itself by defending their own narrow privileges.

Wednesday’s own story bears this out, as she and her family entered the UES by choice and always had the option to leave it as well, which they eventually do, moving across Central Park to the funkier, but still affluent, Upper West Side.

Therefore, even if the hollow victories of rich folks are hard fought and not without substantial emotional violence and psychic costs, Primates underscores, perhaps unintentionally, that the victories remain quite significant for the winners, and filled with negative costs the rest of us pay.

Rich people tend to be opinion leaders. So their ideas, trends, and attitudes often roll downhill out of their communities and into society at-large. (See e.g., the Culture of Intensive Motherhood, which is even more damaging to average women than it is to rich women, because it sets an extremely high bar for those who lack the unlimited resources of the rich.)

At the end of the day, our entire society is diminished by the Honor/Shame Culture of places like the UES, and especially by the desperation with which many of these people fight to maintain their privileges, even when the health of the planet is at stake (e.g., the residents of Rancho Santa Fe, California don’t want to have their water rationed this summer, because it would mess up their nice green lawns).

To the extent that Primates encourages people to talk about some of that stuff, it seems worthwhile, and it’s a very enjoyable read in any case. I just hope that deeper conversation doesn’t get lost in the shock and awe of dishy controversy. But if the main outcome of the book is that terms like the “Culture of Intensive Motherhood,” “Gender Script,” “Intra-Sexual Competition,” “Honor/Shame Culture,” and “Wife Bonus” enter the popular lexicon, it will still be no small accomplishment.


1. A couple of aspects of this statement are worthy of additional elaboration, but I didn’t want to clutter the main body of my post with them.

A.  Defining Some Terms. In this blog post, I’m using the terms “cultural dominant,” “emergent” and “residual” as Fredric Jameson uses them in his 1991 book Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.

There, Jameson explains that he is wary of periodizing hypotheses that “tend to obliterate difference and to project an idea of the historical period as massive homogeneity (bounded on either side by inexplicable chronological metamorphoses and punctuation marks).” He argues that the way to avoid this pitfall is to grasp postmodernism (or for that matter modernism, romanticism, or any other ism) “not as a style but rather as a cultural dominant” (i.e. the dominant cultural formation of a particular historical moment).

This conception “allows for the presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate, features,” and it underscores that any given historical moment consists of a heterogeneity of different styles, modes of production, and cultural practices. Nevertheless, the relative power and importance of these factors varies through time. Some styles, modes of production, aesthetic practices, etc. may be (i) subordinate but emergent in one moment (i.e, their intensity and power is growing such that they could one day be dominant), (ii) dominant in another moment, and (iii) residual in yet another moment (i.e., of gradually waning intensity and power or of a steady but nevertheless subordinated intensity).

According to Jameson, even if “all the features of postmodernism…can be detected, full-blown, in this or that preceding modernism (if not, indeed, of the even older romanticism),” their meaning and importance wasn’t necessarily the same as it is today, because the context was different and the blend of emergent, dominant, and residual styles, modes of production, and cultural practices was therefore different.

“[E]ven if all the constitutive features of postmodernism were identical with and coterminous to those of an older modernism…, the two phenomena would still remain utterly distinct in their meaning and social function, owing to the very different positioning of postmodernism in the economic system of late capital and, beyond that, to the transformation of the very sphere of culture in contemporary society….”More than at any previous time in history, “…aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally: the frantic economic urgency of producing fresh waves of ever more novel-seeming goods (from clothing to aeroplanes), at ever greater rates of turnover, now assigns an increasingly essential structural function and position to aesthetic innovation and experimentation.”

Indeed, the “…whole global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world: in this sense, as throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood, torture, death, and terror. So “it [is] only in the light of some conception of a dominant cultural logic or hegemonic norm that genuine difference [can] be measured and assessed.

So even if all of today’s cultural production is not postmodern in the broad sense of the term,…”the postmodern is…the force field in which very different kinds of cultural impulses…must make their way.” For without “some general sense of a cultural dominant, …we fall back into a view of present history as sheer heterogeneity, random difference, a coexistence of a host of distinct forces whose effectivity is undecidable….”

Therefore, Jameson’s conception of the postmodern “is a historical rather than a merely stylistic one,” stressing “the radical distinction between a view for which the postmodern is one (optional) style among many others available and one which seeks to grasp it as the cultural dominant of the logic of late capitalism…” Indeed, “…the two approaches …generate two very different ways of conceptualising the phenomenon as a whole: on the one hand, moral judgments (about which it is indifferent whether they are positive or negative), and, on the other, a genuinely dialectical attempt to think our present of time in History.”

B.  Just When Did Postmodernism Become the Cultural Dominant?  In periodizing when postmodernism become the cultural dominant, some may protest that it was already the cultural dominant during my formative years in the 1970s and early 1980s. I wouldn’t fight that position too strenuously, as long as anybody taking it acknowledged that postmodernism’s dominance was not as complete in this period as it is today.

Or to put things a different way, even if we consider cultural modernism to be a residual cultural formation by the 1970s and 1980s rather than the waning cultural dominant, a lot more of its residue was still present in this period than in the period after 1992. For the Reagan years were not kind to cultural modernity, as the administration aggressively sought to dismantle public funding for non-profit cultural institutions and creators, lobbied for market-based solutions to every problem (including non-profit funding), and in the end, hastened the demise of the semi-autonomous sphere of culture, which is discussed further in footnote #2 below. [return to article]

2. In The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson argues that postmodernism is “inseparable from, and unthinkable without the hypothesis of, some fundamental mutation of the sphere of culture in the world of late capitalism, which includes a momentous modification of its social function.” Developing this idea further, he adds the following:

Older discussions of the space, function, or sphere of culture (mostly notably Herbert Marcuse’s classic essay “The Affirmative Character of Culture”) have insisted on what a different language would call the “semiautonomy” of the cultural realm: its ghostly, yet Utopian, existence, for good or ill, above the practical world of the existent, whose mirror image it throws back in forms which vary from the legitimations of flattering resemblance to the contestatory indictments of critical satire or Utopian pain.

What we must now ask ourselves is whether it is not precisely this semiautonomy of the cultural sphere which has been destroyed by the logic of late capitalism. Yet to argue that culture is today no longer endowed with the relative autonomy it once enjoyed as one level among others in earlier moments of capitalism (let alone in precapitalist societies) is not necessarily to imply its disappearance or extinction. Quite the contrary; we must go on to affirm that the dissolution of an autonomous sphere of culture is rather to be imagined in terms of an explosion: a prodigious expansion of culture throughout the social realm, to the point at which everything in our social life–from economic value and state power to practices and to the very structure of the psyche itself –can be said to have become “cultural” in some original and yet untheorized sense.

In other words, according to Jameson, there are no longer any “Archimedean footholds for critical effectivity,” no outside we can retreat to in the hopes of seeing things more clearly (i.e., no more rarefied and semi-autonomous spheres–like the realm of art or the non-profit organization–where different rules and values trump the iron rules of the market).

Now, aesthetic production is a fully integrated part of consumer production more generally, so there’s just one big pot, all of us are soaking in it 24/7/365, and our challenge is to try and somehow locate ourselves and understand our position within this enclosed space. [return to article]

3. Jameson’s discussion of curation begins at around 18:38 in the linked video [return to article]

4. Neko Case touches on these challenges in her feminism essay, discussing the difficulty of trying to address a subject like feminism in a nuanced fashion within the context of the typical magazine interview. Indeed, one of the reasons she wrote her essay was to get around that problem. [return to article]

5. To be fair, I should also note that most book reviewers in the mainstream media also bump up against concision challenges as well. More likely than not, this has affected the level of nuance with which some of them have been able to address the more academic aspects of Primates. [return to article]




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