The Politics of Plenitude

The marketplace multiplies cultural identities and creates true diversity. No wonder the right and the left are upset.


It was Plato who gave us the "principle of plenitude." He understood the universe as a place where "all that can be imagined must be," one in which no potential of existence remains unfulfilled.

Plenitude retains its significance in contemporary life. But while the blooming, buzzing diversity that caught Plato's eye was a property of the natural world, our plenitude is a property of the social world. For us, plenitude is a matter of lifestyle, belief, behavior, and an ever-increasing variety of observable ways of living and being that are continually coming into existence. Plenitude is everywhere among us, especially in our culture and our politics, where it is the source of gross misunderstanding and profound conflict.

We have long been accustomed to stuffing the social world into a handful of categories. We used to say such things as, "basically, there are two kinds of people in the world," or to bundle the world into a typology: social classes, psychological types, birth signs, genders, generations, or lifestyles. But increasingly, the world won't go along with our attempts to reduce it. Where once there was simplicity and limitation, everywhere there is now social difference, and that difference proliferates into ever more diversity, variety, heterogeneity.

In the late 20th century, there has been a quickening "speciation" among social groups. Teens, for example, were once understood in terms of those who were cool and those who weren't. But in a guided tour of mall life a few years ago, I had 15 types of teen lifestyle pointed out to me, including heavy-metal rockers, surfer-skaters, b-girls, goths, and punks. Each of these groups sported their own fashion and listened to their own music. The day of the universally known Top 40 list is gone.

Gender types are proliferating. Whole new categories of powerful, forthright femaleness have emerged, while "maleness" is undergoing its own florescence. Gayness, which used to mean adhering to a limited number of public behavioral models, has rapidly subdivided into numerous subgroups. Many of these groups have developed their own literature, music, and even retail communities. They have become social worlds.

New species of social life can form everywhere: around rock groups (Deadheads); football teams (Raider fans); TV series (Trekkies); leisure activities (line dancers); means of transport (Hell's Angels); sports (Ultimate Frisbee); movies (The Rocky Picture Horror Show); technology (geeks).

So various and changing is this new social world around us that we can barely keep up with the pace of transformation. The tremors of change can be felt everywhere: in our schools and in our grocery stores; in our courts and on our playgrounds; on our computer screens and our multilingual ATM screens; in our reading and in our fashion and in our families. Perhaps most of all in our politics, where plenitude is at the heart of continuing and sometimes bitter conflict. Both left and right have attempted to manage plenitude; both have failed. The reasons for their failure may help us understand the commotion around us.

Plenitude is an unsettling prospect, I think, for everyone. But for the political right it is compelling evidence that things have gone terribly wrong. There is anarchic, willful, recklessly individualistic behavior everywhere. There is evidence that we are losing touch with our most grounding and stabilizing traditions, that any kind of kook can give us advice on private and public life. The world feels tippy, puzzling, dangerous, and odd. We have lives to create, children to raise, communities to build, futures to secure. How are we to do this in a land of drive-by shootings, drugs in the playground, guns in the high school, lawlessness, godlessness, and an abiding sense that private and public security can no longer be guaranteed? How are we to do it in a land of rock videos, Mapplethorpe exhibitions, and a persistent sense that the rules of gender, decorum, and politesse have fled the land?

For the right, a well society is a stable society: composed, self-possessed, in control of itself. By this reckoning, the constant speciation of social life is evidence of a deep malaise. Healthy societies do not throw off a constant succession of new groups. They do not engage in constant reinvention. Plenitude, says the right, is a sign that we have lost touch with our founding traditions.

The right has targeted plenitude as the enemy. The Rev. Pat Robertson famously suggested that feminism "encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians." Pat Buchanan, campaigning for the presidential nomination, called Mexicans "José" and emphasized each syllable of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's name.

The right is not always so unsophisticated, but it has been inclined to harbor misgivings about "outsiders." In the mythic vision of the right, people live in a heterosexual, two-parent, one-marriage family, preferably in a freestanding house with a white picket fence. There is nervousness here–and a brute and thoroughgoing discomfort with difference.

It is as if the right can't discriminate between difference that matters and difference that doesn't. Teen fashions, rock lyrics, and certain prime-time TV shows are not differences that matter. But with no operative theory of plenitude, the right must dispute every departure from convention. Worse, it must incline to moral panic. Surely some differences are, in the apposite language of the Protestant Revolution, a "thing indifferent": In the larger scheme they do not matter.

Again and again, the right prohibits in a wide swath where something more discriminating would do. The effect is to make the community smaller and more brittle than it needs to be, and to make the right an enemy (real or apparent) of the expressive, creative, sensual, and open-minded. (This was the political advantage of a figure like Lee Atwater. He was "proof" that Republicans were not repressed and life-denying. P.J. O'Rourke has made a somewhat wittier contribution.) The ideological costs of error on this count are great. It gives comfort and place to those who are narrow, provincial, small-minded, and nervous–and antagonizes the rest.

Effectively the right is arguing what it has always argued: Suffer this and the world will come undone. "This" has been the vote for women, access to high culture for those without educations, admission to law schools and medical schools for "outsiders." "This" was always made to seem the last defense of civilization, the innovation that would send the world into a downward spiral from which recovery was impossible.

And…nothing happened. In point of fact, the threatening outsider rarely proves an agent of chaos or the beginning of the end. We have brought virtually all these differences on board, and nothing changed. Civilization did not cease. We will invent many more differences, and these will prove absorbable too. The world of plenitude is as accommodating as it is generative. It turns out the voice of grave and magisterial caution is almost always wrong.

The right suffers the debilitating illusion that small-town moralities are the way to contend with the challenges of the contemporary world. Because it cannot grasp how much of plenitude is "a thing indifferent," the right allows itself to be taken hostage by the small-minded and the life-denying–radical Christians and young fogies both.

One does not need to be a political strategist of any great cunning to see that this bodes ill. As the world becomes more various, not just on the margin but at the center, the party that turns its back on difference asks for trouble. And the world is becoming more various in the very dens, bedrooms, and basements of the most middle-class homes in the most Republican suburbs.

Naturally, the right has its own account of plenitude. Here is William Bennett on his Washington stay as secretary of education: "My wife Elayne and I…enjoyed wonderful evenings at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts…but we were also on more than one occasion dismayed by some of what we saw at this revered center of Washington cultural life."

In this case, and where he talks about "good art, good music and good books" that will "elevate taste and improve the sensibilities of the young," Bennett betrays a wish to see the world as exemplary. And he betrays a nervousness that the stage might be used for art that is at odds with higher values. In this world, there is a single set of things to revere, and the purpose of art is to encourage us in this reverence. Art that departs from lifting hearts and minds to higher, nobler goals is dismaying.

In this world, the art of Robert Mapplethorpe, for instance, is an outrage. But Bennett's difficulty is self-made. It is only when art is supposed to have an elevating moral purpose that Mapplethorpe's work is scandalous. Bennett is right, I think, on many points and especially when he insists that we are a culture, a civilization, with its own traditions and standards. He is right to insist that we preserve these traditions. He is right to say we mustn't make ourselves so accommodating of the values of others that we are unable to honor and realize our own.

The trick is to see that plenitude is our tradition. It is one of the traditions of which we have the right to be most proud–not just the ability to endure differences, but the ability to make them. The continual creation of difference, variety, and novelty may be a signature gesture of our culture. It is most certainly a defining characteristic as we enter the next century. This is the tradition that we must honor.

No return to classical simplicities will make plenitude go away. No purifying moral purpose will make art more fit for Washington cultural life. Art is already quite slow and confused enough in its response to the varieties of contemporary life. To devote it to the celebration of an exemplary would simply remove it from usefulness altogether. More important, to devote any political capital to the task of criticizing Mapplethorpe or controlling the public venues in which his work might be seen is ludicrously mistaken. This art is a thing indifferent.

Pity the right such a world. For this is the wrong landscape from which to take one's lessons. It is better, wiser to look to the great tutor of plenitude, city life. Cities tell us that plenitude is inevitable and that it is, within certain limits, benign. While the rural communities sought singleness, the city has always, blithely, thrown off difference and variety. The lesson of this great experiment is clear: The cultivation of sameness is not needed to secure compliance with a larger set of values. Cities work in spite of plenitude. They work because of plenitude. This is the symbolic landscape in which the real ideological lessons of the 21st century are to be found.

At the core of the right's difficulty with plenitude is the quiet conviction that anyone who departs from convention becomes dangerous and uncontrolled. Interestingly, there is sound anthropology at work here. A classic stage of ritual transition is the liminal one in which the individual is often seen to be a danger to him/herself and everyone around him/her. But there is another stage that follows: that of incorporation, in which the individual returns to the world to embrace its conventions.

The right acts as if the many groups thrown off by plenitude harbor an anarchic tendency, that people have become gays, feminists, or Deadheads in order to escape morality. This is not the logic of plenitude. These people have reinvented themselves merely to escape a morality, not all morality. New communities set to work immediately in the creation of new moralities. Chaos does not ensue; convention, even orthodoxy, returns. Liminality is the slingshot that allows new groups to free themselves from the gravitational field of the old moralities they must escape. But liminality is almost never the condition that prevails once this liberation has been accomplished.

The right is inclined these days to declare itself the true friend of tradition, and to declare tradition the path to civic virtue and public morality. It presents itself as champion of practices and values tested by time. But the truth of the matter is that plenitude is a Western value and indeed the very author of many of the traditions now being claimed by the right. The Protestant traditions the right holds so dear come out of the spirit of plenitude that created first a church distinct from Rome and then successive, ever more radical versions of Protestantism. Plenitude was there in the beginning. A return to tradition will not make it go away. It is tradition.

But there is perhaps a more pressing and personal reason for the right to rethink its attitude towards plenitude. It is that every member of the right must live in the world that plenitude has created for them. They must endure families that change shape and form. They must endure a workplace that is constantly reinventing itself. They must somehow manage their own lives as notions of gender change continually, as notions of the self come and go. The inhabitants of the right must live in the world that plenitude has wrought.

What the right needs is what we all need–the ability to shift perspectives, honor differences, embrace the generative powers of plenitude. For these generative powers cannot be diminished. They will continue to fill up the world, to work and rework the body politic so that it becomes a web of endless possibilities. New groups, entertaining new assumptions, creating new values, refusing all exclusions–these are inevitable. We need the intellectual and moral flexibility to live in such a world. There is no retreat to a single point of view. There is only movement forward into a world with many points of view. The left has made a great deal of its sensitivity on issues of gender, race, ethnicity, diversity, and multiculturalism–a sensitivity, it typically claims, the right cannot imagine. In fact, the left has misapprehended and mismanaged these issues almost as consistently as the right–with consequences every bit as grave.

The left has not always claimed a sensitivity on this score. Plenitude was regarded by some as a barrier the revolution would have to sweep away. In the words of the English anthropologist Ernest Gellner (recently deceased), "[T]he Marxists…thought universal and liberated man would emerge in the more tragic melting-pot of an impoverished proletariat, stripped by alienation of all specific attributes, and discovering, and implementing, true humanity through this historically imposed social nakedness."

And this is how socialist regimes were often judged. They were seen to be so suppressive of difference that life was rendered, in the favorite and damning adjective, "gray." More than the common ownership, a command economy, or state culture, this was the telling detail of the socialist regimes of the 20th century, the one that condemned them most in the eyes of a not always unsympathetic West. This may not have been the most sophisticated grounds for political judgment, but for our culture, then and now, it was the most compelling. Fairly or not, we damned these regimes as insufficiently various, as enemies of plenitude.

It is only relatively recently that the left has awakened to the possibilities of diversity. Cynical observers have said it awakened to these possibilities precisely because they were so possible. Class had proven intransigent as an opportunity to mobilize dissent outside the system or leverage power within it. Gender, ethnicity, and race looked more promising.

The first symptom of difficulty is the narrowness with which the left defines diversity. The only real plenitude that counts in the left's scheme is that which has an explicitly oppositional quality. Thus, women's groups are "diversity," but country and western line dancing groups are not. Both of these groups may equally engage the individuals within them, both may represent a very substantial shift in cultural categories and social rules, both may mark differences that will continually breed differences, but it is only when the group is explicitly at odds with the mainstream that it qualifies as interesting.

This makes for every kind of intellectual difficulty. It means that no sooner has the left embraced plenitude as something to be taken seriously than it forswears the better part of the phenomenon. Intellectual difficulty begets political difficulty almost straight away. Earnest and pragmatic, the left is almost always the last to know. Innovations arise, blossom, put their stamp upon the world, but it is years before the left takes notice. Restricted to political categories, wedded to fixity, it cannot glimpse the implications of plenitude's cultural developments.

This is true even of the Marxists who descend from the Frankfurt School and claim to care about contemporary culture. I expect there is no one on the left capable of giving a good account of line dancing. Yet line dancing provides an interesting and dynamic site for the transformation of gender, class, outlook, and, yes, politics. It is on the dance floor that cultural categories and social rules are being re-examined and, sometimes, reinvented.

There is a deliberate narrowness to the left's definition of plenitude. It is interesting to observe, for example, that the "Diversity Librarian" at the University of Michigan is responsible for collecting only in the following areas: minority studies, sexual orientation studies, and multicultural studies. This so diminishes the scope of the problem as to invite astonishment. Diversity overflows these categories. Real diversity happens everywhere–outside the designated political categories of the left, and its intellectual categories as well.

But there is a more chilling aspect to the left's notion of diversity. Too frequently, it isn't very diverse. No sooner has a gender, racial, or ethnic group been identified than it begins to get hedged in by orthodoxies and high-church rigidities. George Wolfe is the writer and director of Jelly's Last Jam, the director of Angels in America, and the producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival. He is both black and gay. In some communities, this definitional versatility is held against him, as he noted in a 1995 interview. "If I'm including something new, if there's a play that has a gay theme, the response is, `He's not black anymore, he's doing that homosexual thing.'" What Wolfe is describing is cultural "silencing"–in effect, expulsion from a group based on perceived transgression of its official boundaries.

But plenitude is a restless creature. It will not forgive fixity. It will not endure stasis. It will not allow identity politics to insist on certain orthodoxies because these are "good to think" and variously clarifying of what the emergent group might become. Plenitude resists conformity, orthodoxy, conventions, and rules. The transgressive energies out of which new groups come will continue to course through them even after the moment of creation. We cannot close Pandora's Box behind us. And this is the last thing we would want to do. Plenitude is breaking through the orthodoxy imposed by a middle-class, centrist, bourgeois society, and with this change come opportunities of liberation of every kind. To resist this force is not just pointless. It is wrong.

Plenitude is a force for the infinitely divisible. It will use groups as its vehicle as long as this is possible, but it will make individuals the unit of agency the moment it is impossible. Plenitude has found a friend in individualism, and there is good evidence that it will be a lasting affair. When the left insists on the primacy of the group over the individual, it commits an error from which there is no recovery. Plenitude makes the individual the locus and an engine of much of its innovative activity. It will happily create a world that is an addition of individuals. Groups will cease to matter. Pity the ideological operation that has put groups, and especially particular groups, at the center of the exercise.

More problematically, everyone must necessarily belong to many groups. We may be gay, but we must also be many other things. Necessarily we are only one kind of gay among many, and almost certainly we will not be that kind of gay for very long. The left presupposes a world in which certain definitions of the individual are privileged and frozen into place. The irony is that the left has used the idea of diversity to attack the idea of difference. This leaves it hopelessly at odds with the world plenitude has wrought.

In sum, right and left have not distinguished themselves on the issue of plenitude. Both of them can claim certain victories in this decade. But neither party has got this issue right. Never mind. Plenitude will have its way with them as well.

Our world is filling up with differences. And this is a good thing, for some of these differences advance the cause of human dignity. Plenitude embraces those who would otherwise be persecuted for their difference. Better, plenitude dispenses with "permission." No one needs the liberal generosity of the mainstream to exist. It is enough merely to stake out a social space and to occupy it. Plainly, this is to the good.

But plenitude should also give us pause. It has a darker side. It is capable of creating horrifying aberrations. Plenitude allows (encourages?) the "mustering" of paramilitary groups who cultivate their own deeply skewed notion of the world. It forgives (encourages?) a world so decentered that even the bombing of federal office buildings in Oklahoma City can seem plausible. Plenitude permits (encourages?) the monstrous.

We have a choice. Plenitude can create the glorious or the monstrous. It depends on what we do with difference. It depends on what difference becomes for us.

Traditionally, difference has been a path to identity paved with hostility and antagonism. It has given us a "sharpener" of identity and a recipe for action: find the odd man, the odd group, the odd nation, the odd culture, and then: mock, repudiate, assault, and, too often, exterminate. (Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Amin, Pol Pot eliminated difference by eliminating people, tens of millions of them. They made our century a slaughterhouse.) This approach to difference has used it to sharpen identity through contradistinction. We are what the other is not. Worse, our path to definition may be found through acts of differentiation, antagonism, and hostility against the other.

By this reckoning, things look rather grim. More difference can only mean more antagonism. If we are filling up with differences, we will find ourselves surrounded by otherness and increasingly called upon to challenge it. New and emerging identities will put our own in question. Our identity will depend upon the defacement of their identity. Plenitude's world has the potential to make us smaller, meaner, more loathing, and more loathsome. And we are the God-fearing folk. It will be worse for others, the bigots and the hatemongers. These people will find themselves so provoked by the rising tide of plenitude that any act of opposition will seem tolerable (and psychologically necessary).

But there is an other use for difference. In this case, we use difference as a definitional opportunity. We say of otherness, "Wonder what that's like?" We venture out and try otherness on. This has always been the spirit of Mardi Gras and other liminal moments. But I think there is good evidence that our entire culture is shifting in a transformational direction. More and more, we are prepared to try on difference, to test it out.

This is a radically new approach to difference, one that completely shifts the field of assumptions. In the old sharpening model, we use difference to push off against. We are not what the other is. In this new transformational model, we use difference as a definitional opportunity. We use it as a shape to try on and act out. Our most fundamental reflexes are rewired. When we see a new species of social life (Dennis Rodman, say) we no longer say, "Weirdo! Get 'em!" We say, "Um, that's pretty strange. What's it like to be like that?"

We move from difference as contradistinction to difference as definition. We move from difference as sharpening to difference as shaping. Difference is less and less for "pushing off," and more and more for "trying on." Almost certainly, we will pursue both. And this too will prove, as everything seems to, yet another engine for our plenitude.

There is a second reason to be frightened. Plenitude challenges our most fundamental ideas of social and political association. What becomes of the "common good" in a body politic that has precious little in common? What happens to the "community" when it fills up with differences? How can we hope to act in concert when we are speciating so intensively and so extensively?

I wish I had a clever answer. I have what is merely a sneaking suspicion. There is a common culture that unites the world of plenitude. It is, I think, the marketplace. This is the great lingua franca of the contemporary world. As long as we can meet somewhere in the exchange of something for the benefit of someone, we have a foundation that can sustain plenitude. After all, say what you will about the marketplace, capitalism, and the consumer culture, they have got us this far.

Of course, some will say that some plenitude has happened in spite of capitalism and consumerism. Others will argue that there may be a place where the consumer culture "runs out" and that the next stage of plenitude demands its collapse. But the striking thing from an anthropological point of view is that capitalism is a little like plenitude. For a great many purposes, it doesn't care (or specify) what must happen, just that something does.

There was a period of confusion in the history of capitalism when this was not clear. In the 1950s in particular it appeared that the marketplace could only work if producers and consumers participated in monstrous acts of conformity and containment. But the 1960s demonstrated the falsity of this assumption. Capitalism doesn't appear to need certain kinds of conformity. Indeed, as the 1990s draw to a close, capitalism appears happiest and most productive when certain conformity rules do not apply. Things that seemed essential in 1955 (e.g., what the neighbors thought) turn out to be "things indifferent."

But the economistic mentality contains a toxin that puts plenitude at risk. As long as the entire enterprise depends on a "means-end" rationality and an instrumental logic, there are certain acts of imagination and invention that may not be allowed to happen. Just as clearly, the true creative powers of the species are held in check. The expressive potentials and the instrumental imperatives of capitalism are daily at odds with one another. They collide every time creative teams in Hollywood, Madison Avenue, Broadway, or Burbank sit down with "suits" who demand deference to the monarch ROI (as "return on investment" is called–usually without a trace of irony). To this extent, the marketplace is the enemy of plenitude. As the phrase has it, it all comes down to money.

I accept this, but I cannot ignore the fecundity I see around me. Capitalism has endured, enabled, perhaps provoked the speciation we see around us. It is, as we have noted, particularly unparticular. It doesn't care what it does. It doesn't care what we do. The strangleholds of hierarchies and elites count for less and less. And capitalism is nothing if not transformational. It is restless, inventive, and novelty seeking. It throws off innovations ceaselessly. The consumer culture is a cause and a consequence of plenitude. Certainly, there are some cultural and social arrangements it will not allow. Just as certainly, there is a truly breathtaking array it will. As the phrase might have had it: It all comes up from money.

I do not solve this issue. But I do wish to show, in a way that social scientists normally do not, that capitalism is not always the villain of the piece. I wish to show that it is as often as much the agent of plenitude as its enemy. This is especially important to grasp when we are wrestling with our options in a society fully captivated by plenitude. For it is clear that as our speciation goes forward we are going to need something–imperfections, warts and all. Capitalism may be a baby we cannot afford to lose with the bathwater.

We have reason to be frightened of the world that plenitude is constructing for us. But it is also true that there may be a net to catch us when we fall. Plenitude will continue to spin off more, and more different, species of social life, but that does not mean that commonality cannot be fashioned. It doesn't mean that these very different species cannot work out some system of mutual recognition that leaves their differences uncompromised. The marketplace is not a perfect solution. It is never a pretty solution. It is rarely a just solution. But it is rather better than the alternative–a tyranny or tower of babel we can none of us survive.

Finally, I think the thing we most have to fear is amnesia–our well-practiced ability to forget what we know about ourselves. We come to terms with one part of the culture of commotion (what is happening to gender, say), but we forget this when we take up another part (what is happening to spiritual belief). And we forget both of these when we sit down to contemplate the tremendous innovations taking place in the worlds of scholarship, business, or art. By systematically forgetting what we know about the disparate pieces of our society, we never have to come to terms with the revolution that is taking place throughout it.

The real danger is that by insisting on the partial view, by selectively forgetting what we know, we need never come fully to grips with the new realities of our world. Plenitude is upon us. It will not go away. It will continue to transform everything about us. It is time to see it whole.

Grant McCracken is a cultural anthropologist at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. This article is adapted from Plenitude (Periph. Fluide), which is available at