By Michael W. Lynch
Date: Wed, December 30, 1998
Subj: Cultural Studies
REASON infiltrated the leftist preserve of literary studies on Monday, when Senior Editors Chuck Freund and Nick Gillespie and Contributing Editor Deirdre McCloskey brought the good news of consumer culture and free minds and free markets to the Modern Language Association's annual meeting in San Francisco.
My lovely wife, an aspiring English professor herself, is attending the convention in hopes of securing employment. Being a supportive husband, I decided to spend a week in San Francisco with her. So I was on hand to cover the event.
The panel, titled "The Economics of Culture: Non-Marxist Materialist Approaches to Literary and Cultural Studies" was scheduled for 1:45 p.m., which is exactly when I managed to arrive. Opening the door, I thought at first that I must be in the wrong place. The room was packed; at a planning lunch just two hours prior, Messrs. Freund and Gillespie had speculated that there wouldn't be much of a crowd.
As I wiggled into a back row seat and pulled out my tape recorder and pad, Nick appeared at the podium to introduce the panel. This is when they'll leave, I thought. They probably have this panel confused with the cash bar sponsored by the MLA's Marxist Literary Group. But as Nick introduced the topic, everyone stayed put.
Ms. McCloskey was the first up. The microphone wasn't working, which immediately presented a problem. To solve it, Deirdre held forth from the center of the room. "I've been many things in my life," McCloskey opened in a hoarse and hushed tone, which had everyone sitting on the edge of their seats. "A man, for example, and a Marxist."
Slam dunk lead, in a room filled with Marxist symps who no doubt admire anyone who would make the ultimate demographic transition. She would later provoke laughter by asking, "Do I look like a conservative?" A question that answers itself.
McCloskey's point was simple, and seemingly well taken. "Despite what you have heard in these halls," she said at one point, "capitalism and markets are emancipatory, not enslaving." This rather bold statement not only induced no boos, groans, or hisses; it prompted no exits either. As McCloskey finished, there were five people sitting on the floor, as by now the seats were all taken. And even though the room was cramped, a bit hot, and plenty stuffy, only two people left when McCloskey was done. Perhaps, I thought to myself, we're on to something with, in Chuck's coinage, this "New Materialist Project."
Chuck was up next, no doubt feeling pressure to top his gut-busting performance at Reason Weekend 1998 in Texas. He may have.
Chuck led with, "Let's go shopping with the Virgin Mary," as a famous Renaissance picture--made more famous as last June's REASON cover art--appeared on a projection screen just behind his head. He remarked that although today we celebrate such art as high expression grounded in deep faith, it is easier to find the peacock in the picture than the Holy Ghost. [See "Buying Into Culture," June 1998.] Chuck wove an impressive list of scholars, painters, and periods together to make the point that for art, cultural production, and what Chuck might call "individuation," the free market is an enabler, not a shackler.
Academic audiences are a bit stiff, perhaps because, in the politically correct world they inhabit, the funnier something actually is, the less freedom they have to laugh at it. After a while, these folks just forget how to laugh, and their faces freeze up in a pious pucker that gives testimony to their recognition of the constant injustices of the world.
Chuck, however, made these people laugh. And so, come to think of it, did Deirdre and Nick. While Chuck reached as far back as the Renaissance to make his point, Nick, in his words, "limned" the past 30 years of cultural explosion. From the moment he appeared at the podium proffering words such as limned, it was clear that Nick was in his element. Comfortable and confident, he employed his deadpan wit to show the audience the profusion of cultural production and outlets for such production due to the market.
He quoted not only the literary elite but the libertarian elite as well, invoking Nobel laureate James Buchanan not once but twice. All the while, people kept coming in the door and filling up the side aisle, as if word that there was actually a panel where people weren't reading mind-numbing papers was spreading.
At approximately 2:50 p.m., Nick finished up and opened the floor to questions, of which there was only one--a Marxist inquiry about the use value vs. the exchange value of art and how this had something to do with something else.