Notes from the Great Outside (cont.)

In the 1950s, there was this great upwelling of criticism of what was called (by Dwight McDonald) "midcult" and "masscult."

Civil War history as we know it today continues in the midcult/masscult of that era. It's helpful therefore to know and apply midcult criticism to this little corner of the nonfiction world.

Dwight McDonald wrote of masscult and "its impersonality and its lack of standards" and its "total subjection to the spectator," or in our case, the reader. Let me elaborate on this: ACW history too often spares the reader messy explanations, confusing background information, time-wasting digressions, proofs of claims, and deviations from the master narrative.

Kitsch sits at the center of masscult. Whitney Rugg (Chicago School of Media Theory) said something about kitsch that should resonate with every long-suffering reader of ACW history: "Kitsch does not analyze culture but repackages and stylizes it." Let's retell the story better. Let's offer the definitive narrative pop history. Let's write a history that does better at highlighting the dramatic elements.

The culture critic Gillo Dorfles edited a very interesting book called Kitsch in the 1960s. I loaned my now-valuable copy to a pretty artist, never got it back, but remember this definition offered by Dorfles: Kitsch reviews itself. In other words, Kitsch explicitly solicits the response it wants from the viewer or reader. If you have trouble matching this to ACW history, pick up a book and read the adjectives. The ham-fisted authors will "spill their guts" about the events unfolding on their pages, ladeling out scorn, anger, joy, approval, etc. The more restrained authors are also manipulating the reader's opinion through subtler means.

Dorfles viewed kitsch as a cultural problem brought on by the "industrialization of culture" which produced "falsification." I would add that institutionalized falsification is our biggest problem in Civil War literature. It is driven my mass-market history requirements. These requirements are about efficient storytelling, effective memes, symbols, and archtypes, and about satisfying a mass audience emotionally.

Clement Greenberg (photo, top) wrote a famous article, "Avant Garde and Kitsch," which makes this point:
Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates ... insensibility. It is the source of its profits. Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money -- not even their time.
"The debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture" pretty well sums up so many professors writing Civil War history, does it not? Consider also all the time-saving authors of ACW history who will spare you lots of troublesome detail! Greenberg:
The precondition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends. It borrows from it devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes, converts them into a system, and discards the rest. It draws its life blood, so to speak, from this reservoir of accumulated experience. This is what is really meant when it is said that the popular art and literature of today were once the daring, esoteric art and literature of yesterday. Of course, no such thing is true. What is meant is that when enough time has elapsed the new is looted for new "twists," which are then watered down and served up as kitsch. Self-evidently, all kitsch is academic; and conversely, all that's academic is kitsch. For what is called the academic as such no longer has an independent existence, but has become the stuffed-shirt "front" for kitsch.
Can we name a stuffed shirt front (or two) for authorized Civil War history, BTW? I think we can.

When I see "devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes" I see ACW history writ large.

Food for thought.