Friday, May 05, 2017

History to understand, or to entertain?

Andrew Bacevich recently made this observation (Still Chasing the Wrong Rainbows The American Conservative 05/04/2017):

In our own day, the purpose of history is less to illuminate than to entertain or reassure. More or less like poetry, history serves at best an ornamental function. Today the only American historians enjoying a significant public profile are those like Michael Beschloss or Doris Kearns Goodwin who specialize in repackaging colorful stories. Innovative, critical, probing history does not lack for practitioners; yet beyond the confines of the professoriate, it commands minimal attention.
I recently read several essays be the Argentine philosopher Ricardo Forster in which he draws on the concepts of Guy Debord elaborated in his Society of the Spectacle (English translation 1970). And I'm tempted to say that Bacevich is referring to something like that phenomenon here.

But I've never been able to apply much more than the title phrase of Debord's book because I've never been able to grasp a consistent thread in his argument there. Because he says things like this:

Ideology is the basis of the thought of a class society within the conflictual course of history. Ideological facts have never been simple chimaeras, but deformed consciousness of realities, and as such they have been real factors in turn exerting real deforming action. All the more reason why the materialization of ideology brought about by the concrete success of autonomized economic production, in the form of the spectacle, is in practice confused with the social reality of an ideology which was able to reduce everything real to its own model.
This sounds like a particularly convulted way of describing Karl Marx's theory of commodity fetishism, which refers not to sexual practices but to the mystification of material realities caused by the production relations in society.

Apart from the formidable task of untangling the various threads of Debord's arguments, I'm not sure that what Bacevich is describing fits the Debord "society of the spectacle" model. He's talking about how the dominant corporate media provides history packaged as entertainment with "an ornamental function" and the viewers and listeners tend to receive it as such. This is a different way of processing history than the more critical, substantive way which academic history seeks to achieve.

Ricardo Forster uses the society-of-the-spectacle concept to talk about how the present media-drenched environment makes images into substantive objects in themselves which themselves become matters of political contention and thus gives enormous social and political power to media conglomerates. That line of thinking is something I can work with. But I'm not sure that's actually what Guy Debord had in mind.

For instance, he also writes, "The contemplative side of the old materialism which conceives the world as representation and not as activity - and which ultimately idealizes matter - is completed in the spectacle, where concrete things are automatically the masters of social life." In formulations like that, he seems to be emphasizing the insubstantiality of the hegemonic images rather than their potency. Debord calls the spectacle the space "where concrete things are automatically the masters of social life." But he also says things about the spectacle that seem to contradict that notion.

The focus of Bacevich's essay, though, is not on the philosophy of imagery but on the cautions against militarism and arrogance made by the historian William Appleman Williams (1921-1990). Bacevich ranks him among several other of his contemporaries who had an outlook that could be insightful across ideological divides:

Williams was an unapologetic radical. Yet he was by no means unsympathetic to conservatives. Nor did he lack for patriotism. Indeed, viewed in retrospect, he was one of those American intellectuals who bridge the divide between left and right, thereby representing some distinctive amalgam drawing from both camps. (Among Americans, Randolph Bourne, Charles Beard, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Christopher Lasch offer other twentieth-century examples).
Taking up his own challenge of drawing meaning analytical understanding from history. Referring to how the politics of the Vietnam War undermined Lyndon Johnson's Great Society project, he writes:

Meanwhile, to judge by Trump’s one-and-done missile attack on Syria and the fatuous deployment of the “Mother of All Bombs” in Afghanistan, our president’s approach to statecraft makes Lyndon Johnson look circumspect by comparison. Trump assured his supporters that he was going to break the hold of the foreign-policy establishment. In fact, he has embraced the establishment’s penchant for “using our power for whatever we happen at the moment to want, or against whatever at the moment we do not like.” [W.A. Williams] U.S. national-security policy has become monumentally incoherent, with the man in charge apparently doing whatever his gut or his latest visitor at Mar-a-Lago tells him to do.

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