Ethnographers of the Everyday

Indiana State University quad. From indstate.edu.
  • Stephen Schryer. Fantasies of the New Class: Ideologies of Professionalism in Post-World War II American Fiction. Columbia University Press, March 2011.

The humanities have been looking a little haggard lately. The UK recently saw government-mandated cuts to university programs; American universities have experienced more of a war of attrition, a steady drainage of students and dollars. The humanities’ abiding self-defense—that art and literature defend values that the free market fails to support—may persuade in and of itself, but the academy has been little inclined to communicate those values in language and teaching that would secure their transfer to a new generation of students. As William Deresiewicz concluded in a review for The Nation on the current barrage of books on higher education, “The liberal arts, as we know, are dying. All the political and parental pressure is pushing in the other direction, toward the ‘practical,’ narrowly conceived: the instrumental, the utilitarian, the immediately negotiable.” The humanities can no longer be counted on to operate as a check against the reductive machinery of a corporatized American culture.

Against the backdrop of these recent manifestos and policy debates a quiet counterweight has appeared. Stephen Schryer’s Fantasies of the New Class is a slender study of how the American novel has dealt with the professionalization of the intellectual class. Unobtrusive in its politics, it is in essence a cultural history of intellectual self-image. Taking as his starting point the 1952 Partisan Review symposium “Our Country and Our Culture,” Schryer looks back to a time when intellectuals saw themselves as the steering committee of national culture. In Schryer’s account, the defining feature of the postwar period is an idealistic re-imagining of the high intellectual mission. Whereas intellectuals in the prewar period saw themselves as of a piece with the New Deal technocracy, their postwar counterparts sought to embody, rather than simply advocate, the elevated ideals of American democracy (and American Leftism in particular): they “moved intellectuals and other cultural professionals to the center of US society and attributed a crucial yet also mysterious agency to them. Intellectuals do not formulate ideas about a better society; they bring this society into being through their very existence.”

For Schryer, the New York Intellectuals represent a golden age worth reclaiming: that brief window in the 1950s when the cultural elite, unburdened by a latter-day irony, had no qualms anointing themselves the shepherds of a new order. This “saving remnant”—a term Schryer borrows from Matthew Arnold—took it upon themselves to “disrupt the stock notions of the middle-class.” The theological overtones must be deliberate.

The father figure of Schryer’s study is Lionel Trilling. From Trilling, Schryer draws a sense of literature’s power to complicate the comfortable assumptions of the American middle class. If there is a second, quieter patriarch in Schryer’s work, it is C. Wright Mills—the “sociological imagination” dovetailing with the “liberal imagination.” Where Trilling offers a sense of possibility—the intellectual as agent of cultural change—Mills frames that position as a beleaguered ideal. Schryer quotes from his Power, Politics, and People: “We, the cultural workmen, do not have access to the means of effectively communicating images and ideals; others who own and operate the mass media stand between us and our potential publics.” Indeed, it is the fantasy of the intellectual rather than his workaday reality that is Schryer’s principal interest. Fantasies of the New Class is foremost a study of fiction, and Schryer’s twin readings of literary and sociological criticism of the fifties and sixties are only a prelude to his readings of representations of this “new class” in literature.

Schryer is a product of the scholarly developments he documents, plying his trade with the professional tools made available to him. Each chapter uses one or two novels to chart a course through the changing landscape of American letters, with particular emphasis on the New York school. But his methodological scrupulousness conceals what is at heart a far more ambitious project. Schryer not only historicizes the debates about what the study of literature is for but does so using the discipline’s own tools.

The novels Schryer selects portray the fleeting period when “social trustee professionals”—“professionals who combine specialized expertise with a commitment to public service”—were not only the principal purveyors but also the major subject of American fiction. The postwar period saw a glut of novels about professors and their ilk, the students and writers floating about their periphery. “In the fictions of figures such as Ralph Ellison, Mary McCarthy, and Saul Bellow,” Schryer writes, “ideas and the intellectuals who create them move to the center of novelistic representation. All of these writers envisaged their novels as records of conflicts taking place within the cultural center, and they imagined these conflicts as having epochal significance for the rest of the US society.” The postwar authors he spotlights, many of whom were at least tangentially affiliated with the Partisan Review, “inaugurated a new kind of novelistic aesthetic, one specifically oriented toward representing the pervasive cultural influence of the new class.” It’s an attitude born of the same confidence we see in the PR symposium, the sense that intellectual life was no longer marginal to American culture at large.

Schryer’s argument is twofold: first, that postwar culture was defined by the institutionalization of literary labor; second, that the novel was the medium best positioned to explain these developments. In the service of the former notion, Schryer trains his focus on the New Critics as well as the Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons, both of whom he argues ushered their respective disciplines into an era of scholarly specialization. Where the New Critics brought method to literary studies, Parsons brought science to sociology. The irony is that these efforts to filter out the impurities of amateurism actually brought the fields into a new solidarity: both became foundational paradigms of the newly scientized academy. English departments, as much as sociology departments, adapted to the prerogatives of research culture. Schryer writes, “These projects stemmed from writers and sociologists’ idealized sense of their civilizing mission at a historical moment when both the new class and the university seemed to be at the height of their influence within the US welfare state.”  Under the pressures of the cold war, the university became a Platonic microcosm of the nation.

A detour into science fiction aside, it’s Ellison, McCarthy, Bellow, and DeLillo who illustrate Schryer’s claim that “intellection” is the major subject of the postwar novel. First up is Ellison, and while he would seem an odd choice, he comes across as a new class fantasist despite himself. In Schryer’s reading, the conclusion of Invisible Man sees the title character abandon the orthodoxies of black identity politics in solidarity with the American dream:

While hiding in his underground cellar, the invisible man affirms ‘the principle on which the country was built,’ which Americans ‘had dreamed into being out of the chaos and darkness of the feudal past, and which they had violated and compromised to the point of absurdity even in their own corrupt minds.’ This affirmation coincides with the invisible man’s transformation into a saving remnant who reveals the complexity and difficulty of American social experience.

It’s a convincing reading, but Schryer’s sentence structure contains a clever elision: in the novel, these musings take the form of a question. Here is the Invisible Man’s monologue in full:

Could [my grandfather] have meant—hell, he must have meant the principle, that we are to affirm the principle on which the country was built and not the men, or at least not the men who did the violence. Did he mean say ‘yes’ because he knew that the principle was greater than the men, greater than the numbers and the vicious power and all the methods used to corrupt its name? Did he meant to affirm the principle, which they themselves had dreamed into being out of chaos and darkness of the feudal past, and which they had violated and compromised to the point of absurdity even in their own corrupt minds?

Schryer’s gloss on the ending is consistent with his tendency to privilege the affirmative aspects of the new class project. His interpretation isn’t out of step with Ellison’s own vision—Invisible Man was, according to Ellison’s National Book Award speech, “an attempt to return to the mood of personal and moral responsibility for democracy which typified the best of our 19th-century fiction”—but by scrubbing the novel of this ambiguity, Schryer has it both ways. His Ellison, it turns out, is no less a traditionalist than Matthew Arnold: “[T]he novel reiterates an Arnoldian theme that pervades the work of post-World War II literary intellectuals: the idea that artists cultivate forms of cultural capital that negate the instrumental rationality associated with technical expertise and economic wealth.” Never mind that the Invisible Man is voicing these views not from an English department but from a basement.

Fantasies of the New Class is quick to draw connections between the Arnoldian tradition and the new class, but Schryer has remarkably little to say about the more adversarial tradition from which Trilling and his Partisan Review compatriots emerged. The relative uniformity of the cold war era, which saw, in the words of the PR symposium, writers ceasing “to think of themselves as rebels and exiles,” conceals the revolutionary architecture of their thought. These social trustee professionals of the 1950s, for all the benignity of the term, have a more conflicted pedigree; their espousal, and subsequent rejection, of Communism left them with the outlines of a social theory but no ideas with which to fill them in. The notion of culture as a tool of national improvement was born of a moment when intellectuals, accustomed to seeing themselves as the engines of social change, suddenly found themselves politically aligned with the majority. The result is a vestigial dialectic, stripped of its revolutionary aims and mapped onto the terrain of culture: Vive la cultural criticism!

That the cultural critique to which novelists like Ellison and McCarthy aspired grew out of a Communist political tradition makes Schryer’s account of their migration to the new class all the more jarring. Without the background of the pro-Stalinist ’30s, it’s impossible to see why the new class aspired to cultural disruption in the first place, and why the period in which their ideas were viable was so ephemeral. No sooner has Ellison issued his rousing defense of the American creed than McCarthy is reporting, in her Vietnam-era novel Birds of America, on the cultural elite’s increasing isolation from the middle-class mainstream they were meant to shepherd. Peter Levi, the college-aged protagonist on his junior year abroad in Paris, thinks in the kind of moral absolutes that crumble when put into practice. A clocharde he tries to shelter steals his doorknob; the categorical imperative demands that he scrub down the hotel toilet. His petty challenges to bourgeois norms amount to little more than an effete paternalism.

While Birds of America did little for McCarthy’s reputation as a novelist—it ends with a hallucinated appearance by Immanuel Kant—it gives Schryer an opportunity to wrench his thesis forward. Schryer delivers the crux of his argument in an almost off-handed aside about McCarthy’s “taxonomic” title: the “New York intellectual understanding of fiction may be inseparable from the social scientific rationality it supposedly transcends.” As a novel of ideas (or, more accurately, about ideas), Birds of America subjects the new class to a scrutiny that allies McCarthy at least as much with the social scientific establishment as it does with the cultural vanguard. Schryer is stretching here, but not unpersuasively. In yoking McCarthy, a novelist of the left, to the sociological methods she means to undermine, Schryer, heretofore excessively cautious, launches a stealth attack:

[Birds of America] is a more complicated book about the traditional humanist’s underlying affinity with the celebration of modernization found in mainstream social science of the 1960s. The culture critic’s nostalgia for tradition, the novel suggests, is inseparably linked to the social scientist’s Panglossian optimism—especially when the humanist ends up packaging this nostalgia for mass consumption. Novel writing, moreover, as a technique for describing the ‘manners and morals’ of society, cannot be meaningfully distinguished from the social sciences.

By the 1960s, the new class worldview, conceived as a challenge to the instrumental rationality of the social sciences, becomes but another one of its tools. It’s the novelistic counterpart to the period when, hungering after research dollars in the wake of Sputnik, the humanities adopted the posture of more objective, research-oriented, and specialized disciplines.

By the time we get to White Noise, in Schryer’s last chapter, the new class has become a parody of itself. McCarthy may poke fun at the haplessness of intellectuals, but she never wholly abandons her faith in the new class project; DeLillo, on the other hand, lays the blame for the stultification of America at its feet. White Noise gives us professionalization in extremis: Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler studies, spends his days thumbing through Mein Kampf and trying to learn German. What is essential is the performance of knowledge—most famously captured in the scene where Gladney and his colleague Murray get into a verbal duel over whether Hitler or Elvis was the more doting mama’s boy.  (“For the rest of his life, Hitler couldn’t bear to be anywhere near Christmas decorations because his mother had died near a Christmas tree.”) The intellectual vanguard, charged with sharpening the critical faculties of the middle class, has instead “rendered this class dependent on the hyper-specialized forms of expertise beyond its ken.” Specialization turns out to be a kind of rogue populism: if all things are worthy of expertise, what role remains for the expert?

In his discussion of DeLillo, we see most acutely a hint of Schryer’s own politics. DeLillo, in his reading, offers a canny reversal of the typical campus novel. Rather than portray academe as an elite kingdom oblivious to real-world concerns, DeLillo suggests that the university has become too permeable to mass culture, the rise of Cultural Studies reducing academics to ethnographers of the everyday. (In this sense, White Noise is less a postmodern novel than a novel about postmodernism.)  Schryer couches his conclusions in a summary of DeLillo’s point of view, but it is not for nothing that he closes the chapter as follows:

[White Noise] explores the idea that the new-class revolution predicted by both liberals and radicals in the post-World War II period has taken place, but that its results are far from salutary. Rather than countering the atomist conformism of mass consumerism, the new class perpetuates it. Rather than forming the core of a more intelligent citizenry, the new class has itself become a passive public, alienated from the very knowledge that it produces and distributes . . . The best that this remnant can hope to achieve is the gradual rehabilitation of those fragments of practical knowledge and habits of precise observation not yet displaced by new-class expertise.

This is as close as Schryer gets to indicting the new class for the massive expansion of university bureaucracy and its emphasis on knowledge production devoid of moral content.

That Schryer has managed to write a crypto-political narrative about literary culture’s waning sense of purpose using novels as his means of exposition is, in its way, a vindication of old-school methods of close reading. A resolutely unfashionable undertaking, Fantasies of the New Class is a new class project in its own right. It aims to move beyond the impasse that casts the humanities as either its own form of instrumentalist reason or a romantic lost cause. In the end, despite the pessimistic arc of his account of social trustee professionalism, Schryer can’t quite part with it as a model for the humanities: “Social trustee professionalism, in my view, provides a better rationale for literary pedagogy and scholarship. Among other things, it allows the critic to distinguish between instrumentalism in the service of private-sector profit and instrumentalism in the service of broader social goals.”

This claim is Schryer’s most prescriptive argument. But does he mean that the new class ideology, redirected towards civic ends, is salvageable? Or that instrumental rationality, that bane of the new class, can be appropriate when its aims are noble? Insofar as it’s possible to discern Schryer’s own view at all, he seems to suggest both: “The task for left-wing intellectuals from all disciplines should instead be to create new version of social trustee professionalism, one that conceives of new-class expertise as a resource to be used for the benefit of an informed public and one that eschews the simplistic antistatism of the 1960s counterculture and the later New Left.”  What this “new version” would look like is left unarticulated, as Schryer proceeds to give everyone else’s opinions instead: Derrida’s concern about the colonization of the humanities by business interests, Alan Liu’s case for opening up literary culture to the digital realm. It’s a sad paradox that a project so committed to counteracting the benumbed present of academic literary criticism remains trapped within its conventions.

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