Friday, May 11, 2012

Growing Beyond Yourself: Some Thoughts On Rob Horning

It was 1985 when the professor from whom I was taking American History I made sixty people look stupid. Having just moved through the election of 1800, and celebrating the victory of Jefferson and the democratic idea over the hemi-aristocracy of John Adams and the Federalists, Gary Ostrower said a few words about the power and strength of Jefferson's ideas on the power of the sovereign individual, on the potential of such sovereign individuals to successfully guide a nation to greatness, and on the persistence of individuality as part of the necessity for our republican form of government. Heads were nodding around the room; had it been a church service, I probably would have heard some "Amen!"s.

Ostrower turned and asked us if we agreed with these ideas. Did we think that America was a place that, perhaps unique among other nations and cultures, created opportunities for self-expression and disdained conformity. With one voice, the congregation affirmed this solemn declaration of American greatness.
"How many of you are wearing blue jeans?"

Everything in the class stopped. Like that, Ostrower had produced the pin that pricked the balloon of our self-conscious, conformist individualism.

I got to thinking about that moment when I was reading Rob Horning's "Outgrowing Oneself". I can't think of a more persistent, thorough, insightful, engaging cultural critic than Rob Horning.
“Dance the Night Away” by Van Halen was playing, and next came “Mysterious Ways” by U2. The transition was seamless and unremarkable, only I can remember when I was in high school, when listening to U2 and not Van Halen was of intense social importance, when the difference was glaring, and it dictated how one wanted to perceived and whom one felt comfortable hanging around with. It seems incredibly silly now, but growing up in semi-rural, semi-suburban Upper Bucks County, the discontinuity between Van Halen and U2 created a space in which to exist, and a hope that one might turn out to be something other than what the suburban environment seemed to promise. You could listen to something like the Beastie Boys and think your friends were the only other people who got it — them and maybe some idealized people out there who also would have been your friends if you weren’t so isolated. The special few who would redeem the future.
With its veneer of conformity, suburbia imparts a sense of aggrieved, threatened individuality, but more important, it gives its children a constitutive myopia about it, making it impossible for them to see that the ambitious discontentedness, the certitude that one is far more special than the mediocrity of shopping malls and chain restaurants and the rest, is part of the code for reproducing the suburbs, not a disruptive mutation. In short, it would be weird if you didn’t feel alienated.
As with so much of Horning's work, I find myself nodding in agreement. At first. Then, I might say, "But, wait . . ." It was this piece that made me understand the source of that persistent "but". For all that we exist within webs that reduce even that by which we define ourselves, individually and collectively, to bits of stuff that can be replaced without thought with other bits of stuff, the relationships among culture, the capitalist manipulation of culture, and individuals and groups for whom various cultural referents become touchstones is less one-sided that the picture Horning presents here.

Even Marx, for all his persistent dwelling on the insidious ways social relations not only create the economic conditions in which the warring classes find themselves, but also the larger superstructure by which the classes understand themselves in broader cultural contexts, would never insist on a description in which there is so much fatalism, such a pervading sense of powerlessness in the face of the relentless drive to commodify all reality. These relationships were dialectical precisely in the sense that there existed sources of power on both sides, even if not acknowledged or used, that created the dynamics of social and cultural conflict, apart from the central conflict over the means of production. 

Horning's position has far more in common with strands of Marcuse's idea of "totalitarianism" in which the dialectic has completely disappeared. In particular, One-Dimensional Man paints so gloomy a portrait of human beings under late capitalism, one wonders how Marcuse could see fit to argue a way out from under such a regime.

There is most certainly more than an element of the totalitarian spirit in the way capitalism seeks to strip meaning from human life, reducing even those elements for which "meaning" is intensely subjective and ill-defined (albeit not in the way Horning so aptly defines in the first paragraph) to items to be bought and sold, traded and interchanged without thought precisely because they are products which can, in the final analysis, find their only real intersubjective value in the price one is willing to pay for them. Without yielding one inch in agreement with this, I think it is also important to add that part of the possibility of resistance, whether it is social, political, or cultural, lies precisely in individuals and groups who are unwilling to allow such simplistic commodification and reduction. The kind of overweening totalitarianism described by Marcuse, and hinted at by Horning, is just the place where such systems show their inherent weakness. Resistance to being defined in the many ways capitalist ideology demands begins with the "No" we utter when we realize it has happened.

Were we powerless in the face of the relentlessness of such power, we wouldn't even be able to recognize it for what it is, to name it, and to mourn our powerlessness in the face of it.

It is precisely because social groups refuse to allow our lives and our culture to be reduced to marketable entities that are interchangeable with other, seemingly similar, entities that cultural conflict, in an at least quasi-Marxist way, is even possible. For all that I find something fatalistic in Horning's work, a view of the powerlessness individuals and groups have in the face of the unrelenting demands of capitalist ideology, I am very glad we have someone doing the work Rob does.

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