A Culture Divided: America’s Struggle for Unity (Paradigm, 2009)

Worries about a “divided” America are no secret. In the wake of several evenly divided election campaigns and polls showing vast public disagreement on vital social issues, fears are arising that the once “united” states are being riven apart by conflicting views on issues like gay marriage, immigration, and the war in Iraq. As a recent report from the Pew Center for the People and the Press put it, “The red states get redder and the blue states get bluer, and the political map of the United States takes on the coloration of the Civil War.”A lengthy debate on the subject has been taking place in American society for much of the past two decades, touched off by a handful of books published in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The most influential of these were Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, and E.D Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know in 1987. Both books argued that America had been weakened by a declining cultural values, specifically by the abandonment by schools of the great books and traditions of Western Thought.

These debates were summarized in James Jefferson Hunter’s 1991 book Culture Wars. Hunter’s book, whose title gave the conflicts a name, asserted that a new and expansive discontent had taken over the country. “The contemporary culture war is not just an expression of different ‘opinions’ or ‘attitudes’ on this or that issue, like abortion,” Hunter wrote. “The culture war emerges over fundamentally different conceptions of moral authority, over different ideas and beliefs about truth, the good, obligation to one another, the nature of community, and so on.” Several years later, Hunter warned the controversies might even trigger violent conflict. With the dawn of the 2000s the culture wars moved from the margins of academic discourse to the center of mainstream debate and concern. Search the term “culture war” at the Harvard University library and you’ll come up with 1308 entries. The Library of Congress posts over 10,000 books with titles like Culture Wars, Culture War? Beyond the Culture Wars, Is There a Culture War?, Culture Warrior, etc.

A Culture Divided explores both the symptoms and causes of these contemporary divides in the United States, illustrating how differences of perspective and opinion have persisted throughout the nation’s history––from the earliest days of the revolution to the most recent events in international diplomacy. A Culture Divided takes the somewhat contradictory position that the divided character of the American nation is both a curse and a blessing, giving rise to some of the nation’s most vexing social and political problems, but at the same time imbuing the United States with a freshness and vitality that have kept its values relevant––or at least potentially so. Continue reading “A Culture Divided: America’s Struggle for Unity (Paradigm, 2009)”

Everyday Culture: Finding and Making Meaning in a Changing World (Paradigm, 2007)

EVERYDAY CULTURE draws its inspiration from a particular historical moment. In 1968 the meanings and potentials of ordinary life received attention in cultural and political circles throughout the western world as never before.  Radios were playing “Everyday People,” a song by the rock/funk band Sly and the Family Stone. Released in the months following the infamous Tet Offensive in Vietnam and the assassination of Martin Luther King, “Everyday People” captured the spirit of US culture as a plea for peace and equality. Remembered for it’s chorus, “I am everyday people,” the song resonates in a celebration of diversity, as lead singer Sly Stone Stewart proclaims “We are the same whatever we do” with the refrain, “We’ve got to live together.”  “Everyday People” holds the distinction as the first hit song in the U.S. by a multi-racial performing group.

As “Everyday People” was moving to the number one spot on the U.S. pop  chart, a more material manifestation of the everyday was taking hold in Europe. In May 1968 a general strike erupted in France within universities and high schools in a series of uprisings protesting poor wages and governmental wrongdoing. From riots outside the Sorbonne in Paris, the strike quickly was joined by workers, minorities, the French Communist party, and members of Situationist Internationale. Within a week France was crippled by a work stoppage of 10-million people––roughly two thirds of the nation’s labor force­­––making it the largest strike in recorded history.

Informed in part by these historical legacies,  Everyday Culture  is about the confluence of cultural and material possibility––the bringing together of thought and action in daily life. The book argues that an informed and invigorated citizenry can help reverse patterns  of dehumanization and social control. The impetus for  Everyday Culture   can be described in the observation by Raymond Williams that “culture is ordinary,” and that the fabric of meanings that inform and organize everyday life often go undervalued and unexamined.  Everyday Culture shares with thinkers like Williams the conviction that it is precisely the ordinariness of culture that makes it extraordinarily important. The ubiquity of everyday culture means that it affects all aspects of contemporary economic, social and political life.   Seen his light,   Everyday Culture  is about a hope for a better future.


Reading Digital Culture (Blackwell, 2001)

To say that we inhabit a digital world is an understatement. In recent years information technology has transformed many fundamental parts of life: how we work and play, how we communicate and consume, how we create knowledge and learn, even how we understand politics and participate in public life. It is nearly impossible to make it though a day without encountering a computer, a digitally mediated image, or a news report about the current technological “revolution.” Most of us carry encoded magnetic strips of digits that tether us to our identity and enable us to function through digital means.  From the supermarket to the stock exchange, virtually all commerce is now mediated by computers. In al of these manifold ways, our reliance on digital data storage, computation, and telecommunication has made us profoundly dependent on digital technology whether we realize it or not. Indeed, ubiquity and invisibility have become defining characteristics of the  paradoxical information age.

This book addresses the way people think about this paradoxical age, the facts and fantasies of which have produced what might be termed a “digital culture.”  It tells the familiar story of a widely held popular viewpoint countered by various less-than-sanguine alternative perspectives. Celebrating the new computer era is a massive discourse in both mainstream media and academic literature in which the figure of

utopia looms large.  Evoking traditions of technological determinism and free-market boosterism, the denizens of information technology have promoted digital culture as the culmination of the Enlightenment project and the economic panacea of the post-industrial world. This overwhelming positive view of the information age is supported on one level by the very computer and software industries that have created the  largest,  wealthiest, and most powerful corporate infrastructure in human history, and on another level by the enormous “information economy” of content producers, merchandisers, communication provides, and other ancillary services of the digital industrial complex. All of this is equated with a narrative of humankind’s ever advancing march of progress, as information technology is touted as the ultimate vehicle of mastery and transcendence. Indeed, to some this technology is seen as the key to overcoming the limits of material existence––the means by which we become “posthuman.”

This utopian enthusiasm has been met by a less ubiquitous, but frequently vociferous,  measure of resistance from a myriad assortment of skeptics, neo-Luddites, and conspiracy theorists—ranging from pacifists and ecologists who despair the ruinous effects of war machines and greedy businesspeople, to the countless peoples and nations who stand on the wrong side of the “digital divide.” As Bill Gates and Steve Case proclaim the global ubiquity of the internet, it is important to remember that the majority of non-western nations and a whopping 97 percent of the world’s population remain unconnected to the net for lack of  knowledge, access, or money. [ii] In this regard its worth remembering the advice of Frederic Jameson, who warned two decades ago of dangers of equating “progress” with “utopia.” The desire for a future that is both different and better is often more a symptom of our dissatisfaction with the present than a genuine improvement in our lives. Enveloped as we are by the ideologies and social structures that surround us, the imagination of anything like a true utopia may well be impossible.

Cultural Democracy: Politics, Media, New Technology (SUNY Press, 1997)

We live in an era of democratic contradiction. As the Cold War recedes into history and the apparent triumph of liberal democracy spreads around the globe, the domestic state of democracy within the United States continues to erode. Rather than a nation where citizens feel empowered in their common governance, the US has become a land of where the vast majority of citizens hate their leaders yet never vote. Massive anti-incumbency sentiments and resentment toward representative government parallel the rise of grassroots militia movements and media demagogues. Clearly something has gone wrong with democracy in the US–or more precisely with the way democracy is understood and exercised.

Nowhere are these difficulties more pronounced than in battles over cultural issues. Debates about canonical values, revisionist curricula, artistic censorship, and freedom of expression have moved from the margins of public debate to its center. Increasingly, people across the political spectrum recognize the strategic role of the arts and humanities in shaping human identities and influencing politics. At a historical moment lacking in superpower conflicts, ideological debate has become internalized as it did in the 1950s.  Once again battles that were waged with guns and bullets are now fought with ideas and symbols. And once again access to the debate is a crucial issue, as attempts are made to exclude voices that would contest the status quo.

This book is premised on the regrettable fact that the US has nothing even approaching an egalitarian realm of public communication and civic ritual. Although identity politics and the so-called “culture wars” have done much to expand the national conversation about pluralism and values, these issues have also induced heightened levels of divisiveness and antagonism.  As television and computers have made more information available to people than ever before, the electorate finds itself increasingly uninformed and confused.  And while democracy is a word that politicians and media personalities bandy about with great alacrity, its usefulness has become all but exhausted by divergent interests it has come to serve.

Cultural Pedagogy: Art, Education, Politics (Bergin & Garvey, 1995)

Despite their many affinities education and culture are usually considered separate issues, with the former functioning as the delivery mechanism for the latter.  The reasons for this derive from divisions set in place by academic disciplines, routines of professional certification, and a fair amount of good old-fashioned intellectual bias. Regrettably, this separation of artists, writers, and critics from school teachers, technical instructors, and college professors is part of a broader scheme of social fragmentation that compartmentalizes public life. Set in place by the bureaucratic impulses of

modernity and the economic drives of the corporate state, the resulting divisions frustrate dialogue and the formation of positive alliances. This difficulty in finding common ground has been a persistent impediment to the advancement of progressive politics. Recent critical theory has further exacerbated the problem by introducing  broad based suspicions of totalizing paradigms.


This chapter discusses some of the reasons that cultural practice and teaching have been held apart and proposes the benefits of considering them together.   It seeks to establish  a broadened definition of cultural “writing” that encompasses all efforts to produce, transmit, and organize subjectivity.  It also resuscitates the term “cultural worker” from the lexicon of the 1960s to unite those on the Left involved in the making and sending of texts.  This terminology would intentionally frustrate the identification of culture with “art” to extend its definition in sociological and political terms.  Although produced in differing circumstances and regimes of legitimization, the generalized substance we call culture is something that all of us fashion in the course of our daily lives as we communicate, consume, and build the world around us. We make it as it makes us.