David Steigerwald. Culture's Vanities: The Paradox of Cultural Diversity in a Globalized World. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004. xvi + 276 pp. $96.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7425-1196-5; $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7425-1197-2.
Reviewed by Daniel Weimer (Department of History, Northwest Vista College)
Published on H-Diplo (August, 2005)
"Culture," as a term and ill-defined concept, pervades our daily lives according to intellectual and cultural historian David Steigerwald in his wryly-written new book, the first in a projected trilogy. We encounter references to culture in such venues as public policy, academia, and popular entertainment, but for the author this profusion of culture is quite troubling, if not downright confusing. At the heart of Steigerwald's book is a paradox--one in which the use of culture as a concept to "explain nearly everything" (p. xi) in contemporary America is contradicted by a dire deficit of actual, lived culture in the developed world, particularly the United States. That is, first industrial and then postindustrial (globalized) capitalism has nullified the material basis of what Steigerwald considers true culture and thus we live in an "Age of Anti-Culture" that belies any claims to a multicultural or diverse America. Capitalism, through constricting bureaucracy and rampant commercialization, has so leveled and homogenized most Americans in their work and free time that any assertions to cultural differences--whether based in ethnicity or race--are in fact mere abstractions or more precisely coping mechanisms to deal with the alienation inherent in late capitalism. Culture, let alone multiculturalism, is impossible to create and sustain under consumer capitalism and those intellectuals and policymakers who maintain that economic and political inclusion and difference can survive side by side are naively ignoring the material realities which undergird contemporary America. In order to arrive at such a conclusion, the author, in a series of seven essays, examines the twentieth-century career of culture as an aesthetic and anthropological concept and then the misuse of culture during the last quarter century as it relates to work, ethnic identity, race, and Leftist thought. The Marx- and Weber-inflected analysis rests upon a wide range of published sources, ranging from scholarly monographs and articles, to legal documents, business journals, and popular periodicals.
Steigerwald explains in the first three chapters that it all started to go wrong when material abundance began to unmoor humanity from its struggle with nature. The human impulse to distinguish itself from nature acts as the basis of culture--the "creation of unnecessary goods" which center "us in traditions and community settings" and "precede our birth and remain after death" (pp. 20-21). Industrial capitalism not only made struggle with nature irrelevant but it also shifted our energies away from production to an emphasis on the consumption of goods. Hence, we created and still inhabit "an age of anti-culture, because it alienates human beings from nature, disparages fine work, and dissolves away organic connections to the past and future, not least by running on a scheme that simultaneously replaces everything and destroys everything" (p. 23).
This unfortunate but familiar story then segues into a discussion of the aesthetic and anthropological ideas about culture. Culture's lot continued to decline in the twentieth century because both the aesthetic and anthropological conceptions suffered from inherent flaws--subjectivity and abstraction respectively. Aesthetically, by the early twentieth century strict standards of craft and beauty had given way to taste in assessing cultural objects (such as art, literature, music) which meant that consumption or reception rather than production became the site of valuation. From here, taste degenerated into mere consumer choice, which had a veneer of human agency about it, but in fact played into the hands of marketers. In anthropology, following the lead of Franz Boas, culture came to signify "a way of life." But unlike Boas, who adhered to a stringent definition of culture that necessitated linking material culture, social relations, art, and religion as a structural, coherent whole, later definitions of culture became more abstract to the point that anyone could "lay claim to solidarities that hardly exist in practice" (p. 51).
From here, Steigerwald explores the uses of "culture" and "diversity" in corporate America. The push for diversity in the corporate world during the 1980s and 1990s masked how little control employees had over their labor and workplace diversity acted as a booby prize to soothe the alienation that resulted from working in corporate bureaucracies. Again, Steigerwald emphasizes that diversity within rigid bureaucracies is pure delusion, as is the notion that bureaucracies can best preserve diversity. All the while, ever-growing corporate conglomerates geared products to increasingly narrow "cultures"--whether race, ethnic, age, region, or "lifestyle" based--and cultural production (such as popular books and music) become mass commodities unconnected to any form of "enduring life" (p. 102).
Next, the use of culture to discuss ethnic identity and race during the past two decades comes under similar scrutiny. For Steigerwald, race and ethnic identity movements set themselves against the notion of assimilation, which was deemed a tool of WASP domination. For instance, ethnic identity movements, particularly in the 1990s, held out the hope that minority inclusion in mainstream economic and political institutions would result in multiculturalism and a "mosaic" society. Yet, this claim ignored two critical points. First, economic inclusion subjects everyone to deracination and social homogenization--alienation is not specific to white males, they've just experienced it longer. Thus, multiculturalists' arguments that assert choosing an identity could stave off alienation cannot account for the author's second point, which is that intermediary institutions and structures, such as family, kin organization, language, and religious rituals and beliefs, that serve as buffers between authentic cultures and consumer capitalism have broken down with inclusion, not to mention being eroded by time and space. Moreover, identity movements falsely claimed that "differences could be 'imagined' and freely chosen regardless of material circumstances" and that "it was possible to cloak oneself in ancestral identities without either opting out of the bureaucratic-technological order of things or, for that matter, embracing the rigid orthodoxies and self-denying obligations that every ancestral culture contained" (pp. 145-146). This same criticism holds true for race thinking. African Americans have had their intermediary world eroded due to the civil rights movement (though Steigerwald notes that it was an "incomplete revolution") and by the 1980s blacks were "both structurally assimilated and deracinated, just like white ethnics" (p. 181). Likewise, prominent African-American intellectuals, such as Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornell West, who averred an authentic black culture as a source of power have ignored this turn of events.
The author's final substantive chapter centers on Leftist thought since the 1960s, which maintained that culture, not economics, acted as the main site of social conflict and potential liberation. During the 1960s, when Black Nationalism rejected integration and sought refuge in African identity, Leftist thinkers faced a crisis. If America's material abundance meant that economic struggle among the working class was unlikely then another venue of conflict was required. Following the thought of Herbert Marcuse and Antonio Gramsci, American Leftists believed that culture (long ignored by dogmatic Marxists) mattered most in achieving human liberation. Steigerwald faults the Left for distorting Gramsci's concept of hegemony to explain how power works--namely that while Gramsci insisted that culture and economics were crucial areas of struggle, American intellectuals on the Left believed that "cultural resistance" alone would subvert capitalism. Thus, "hegemony," like culture, became an inflated and imprecise concept. In the end, "progressives grew increasingly indifferent to the hard work of political and economic change, to coalition-building and patient organizing" as well as being "convinced that liberation required a culture war, as opposed to either a class war, or for that matter, political conflict" (p. 196). Steigerwald demonstrates the shortcomings of this cultural, rather than economic, determinism in relation to public policy by discussing the War on Poverty, which was conceptually influenced by Oscar Lewis's and Michael Harrington's "culture of poverty" studies. The problem for the author is that poverty became seen as primarily a mental rather than economic condition which required community action and "psychological adjustment" instead of wealth redistribution. Woefully underfunded and conceptually flawed, the War on Poverty was doomed to failure.
So given culture's many misappropriations in contemporary thought, is there any way to salvage it from shallow thinking and capitalism? Steigerwald answers "yes" in his conclusion, but only if we revive culture's earlier aesthetic and anthropological meanings and acknowledge the materiality of culture--that culture must be grounded in the stuff of everyday life, not just act as an ideal. Specifically, he recommends economic protectionism to raise wages and insulate local production as well as insisting on fair treatment of international laborers--which could most likely be achieved through American multinationals. This action coupled with anticonsumerist values would revive the intermediary institutions necessary to culture. Anti-consumerism, in fact, is the most radical of acts to resist consumer capitalism. Equally as important, he calls for "cultural cosmopolitanism" as an antidote to the provincialism encouraged by consumerism and identity politics. When it comes to identity, "one can only be regressive or cosmopolitan" (p. 245). Aesthetically, a revival of taste--"the cultivation of a refined sense of work well done"--would present a much-needed check on consuming mass-produced goods (p. 247). Here the reader can see the relevance of the local foods and antiglobalization movements to Steigerwald's argument. Similarly, those familiar with the "deep ecology" movement will find common cause with the author's wish for a sense of place in capitalism's rootless world.
But the likelihood of this scenario coming about is questionable to say the least, particularly given the overwhelming force that Steigerwald ascribes to capitalism's anticultural effects. However, Culture's Vanities is more important for its analysis than its closing recommendations. Anyone who uses culture as a category of analysis in their research or those who are interested in contemporary intellectual history or the multicultural movement would benefit from Steigerwald's inquiry. As would academics, who have seen the corporate model grafted onto higher education--the section in chapter 3 on "corporate culture" is a useful illustration of the "inflation of culture," not to mention entertaining. One hopes the author will take on another overblown concept in corporate institutions--"leadership"--in future works. Most beneficial is his critique of consumption as agency, power, and the basis for culture. Consumer choice is indeed a thin form of freedom and the author rightly points this out. Perhaps this is the book's greatest strength: its illustration of how weak definitions of culture have furthered corporate control and the ability of capitalism to absorb and appropriate challenges to the status quo. Given this, Culture's Vanities extends arguments presented in the author's 1995 work, The Sixties and the End of Modern America, and would read well alongside Thomas Frank's One Market Under God and The Conquest of Cool. Finally, to the author's credit, he does not dismiss the value of cultural history. His main concern is with culture's misuse as the foundation of public policy to the detriment of economic matters, which makes his discussion of affirmative action legislation persuasive.
In light of these strengths, however, the book does contain some shortcomings. First, in the concluding chapter Steigerwald briefly mentions that racial and ethnic ties could form the basis of cultural renewal since they provide an avenue to a pre-bureaucratized existence. One wished the author had developed this strain of thought throughout the text. Second, given the book's subtitle the work does not provide much substantive discussion of globalization or to related issues like neoliberalism. Third, the sections dealing with anthropological and post-1960s Leftist thought lack discussions of prominent thinkers on culture--Clifford Geertz, Frederic Jameson, and Anthony Giddens, to name a few. The same holds true for aesthetic matters. There is no exploration of recent art criticism for instance, and the book is weighted more towards the recent misappropriation of culture's anthropological rather than aesthetic meanings. Finally, after reading Culture's Vanities one gets the sense that no culture, according to the author's definition, remains in contemporary America. But these criticisms do not outweigh the main value of the book--its persistent critique of consumer capitalism and the necessity of economic fairness in advancing social justice. In the final analysis, for Steigerwald, culture promised much but delivered little. Class, more than race and ethnicity, may be the best way to understand current differences and inequality.
. It is necessary to point out that for all of the value of Steigerwald's analysis of hegemony literature, his judgement of Florencia Mallon's use and definition of hegemony as a "tautology" (p.208) in Peasant and Nation: The Making of Postcolonial Mexico and Peru (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) is overdrawn. The care that Mallon takes to specify hegemony as both a process and an outcome/goal is not unreasonable, particularly since she is examining the process of state formation and that organic peasant cultures played an active role in nation building and providing alternative visions of the "nation." If Gramsci's hegemony concept only or best applies to nations with peasant and working classes, then postcolonial Peru and Mexico certainly qualify.
. David Steigerwald, The Sixties and the End of Modern America (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995); Thomas Frank, One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy (New York: Anchor Books, 2000); The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).
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