TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Value of Cultural Hierarchy

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Beau Mullen looks at Martin Jay’s “Hierarchy and the Humanities: The Radical Implications of a Conservative Idea” from Telos 62 (Winter 1984).

The notion of “high culture” has been under attack in different ways by critics, academics, and the general public for generations. Moreover, as Western culture becomes increasingly commercialized, egalitarian impulses have exiled much of what was considered by many to be high culture to obscurity, appreciated mainly by a minority who are themselves regarded as cultural elitists. Popular or mass culture appears to now reign supreme, but this does not mean that cultural hierarchy has been brought to an end. Cultural hierarchy still has its defenders, and as Martin Jay suggests in his 1984 Telos article “Hierarchy and the Humanities: The Radical Implications of a Conservative Idea,” it clearly has a place in current cultural evaluations.

Jay begins his exploration of the attack on cultural hierarchy with analysis of a bitter quote by Adorno on culture. Adorno, who asserts that the Holocaust proves all claims that high culture promotes virtue to be nonsense, states “Whoever pleads for the maintenance of this radically culpable and shabby culture becomes its accomplice, while the man who says no to culture is directly furthering the barbarism which our culture showed itself to be” (Adorno quoted in Jay, 131). Culture does not lead men to respect humanity, and perhaps even the opposite is true. Yet rejecting culture has no positive effect and in fact secures its baleful downward trajectory. The view that cultural hierarchy does in fact have a “sinister effect,” as Jay calls it, is specifically what he wants to address. He does so by examining two attacks from disparate sources; the first from historian William J. Bouswama and the second from critical theorist Michael Ryan.

Bouswama’s attack on cultural hierarchy rejects the classical ideal of manhood, which prized reason over all other virtues (135). In antiquity, one was seen to be mature, specifically a mature man, when one was able to employ intellect or reason rather than emotion. The preference of the rational over the irrational came from the beliefs that the rational was more closely related to the divine, and that mankind had divided selves, the rationale being the superior of these parts. Furthermore, this characteristic was inherent to males (women were seen to be more prone to hysteria), hence the justification of patriarchy (135).

Bouswma prefers a holistic vision of personhood, which he sees exemplified in the ideal of Christian “adulthood.” Jay explains Bouswma’s position:

This second Christian ideal was one of “adulthood,” a term without the gender connotations of its classical predecessor. Rather than privileging sober maturity over playful childhood, this ideal recognizes the valuable residues of our pre-rational selves in our adult lives. Growth does not mean leaving our capacity for play behind, but rather remaining open to the possibility of divine foolishness. Nor does the Christian adult in this view place the soul above the body, whose ultimate resurrection is a sign of its value. (136)

This holistic view of personhood explicitly rejects the dualist version and thus implies that any cultural hierarchy based on appeals to either man’s higher or lower natures is flawed.

Michael Ryan is no less hostile to the concept of cultural hierarchy, but he attacks it as a radical deconstructionist whereas Bouswma does so as Christian anthropologist. Jay identifies Ryan’s view as based on a marriage of the ideas of both Marx and Derrida, rejecting all forms of hierarchy and authority (138). Ryan combines the humanism of Marxism with Derrida’s rejection of exclusion and white patriarchy. Jay explains, “Any intellectual or cultural hierarchy, Ryan argues, is immediately complicitous with political repression. . . . The truly libertarian alternative . . . is a politics of permanent revolution, which is analogous to the infinite, transgressive play supported by deconstruction” (139). Ryan espouses not only the rejection of capitalist, ethnocentric patriarchy but also conceptual hierarchal distinctions that evaluate different cultural activities as having more worth than others. Jay lists the distinctions between theory and practice, reason and the irrational, works of art and ordinary text, to be among the type of differentiations that Ryan regards as tools of repression. The result is a radical relativism.

Jay does not find either of these strategies of rejection or the models suggested for alternative approaches to cultural hierarchy particularly convincing. He views both Bouswma’s and Ryan’s arguments as neglecting history. In the case of Bouswma, even if the holistic view of Christian adulthood is correct and has replaced the classical dualistic of manhood, the latter view should be no less relevant to historians since that was the dominant view for centuries. Jay writes, “the social hierarchy that in some sense was the underpinning of the those distinctions must be taken into account in any attempt to reconstruct how meaning was made in history” (136–37). Even if the hierarchal assumptions are refuted, they must still be given relevance since they were essential to how people viewed themselves for much of recorded history.

Jay is more unreserved in his objection to Ryan’s assault. To begin, Jay questions the very basis of Ryan’s synthesis of the theories of Marx and Derrida as inherently incompatible. He points out that while the Marxist tradition is grounded in humanist concerns, the deconstructionists typically see the self-negated (138). More importantly, Jay sees this unholy marriage as forced in order to manufacture philosophical support for Ryan’s contempt for all varieties of hierarchy.

More importantly, Jay sees a very similar problem with Ryan’s argument that he detects in Bouswma’s. Specifically, they neglect just how important cultural hierarchy has been in formulating most concepts historically. Therefore, it is doubly difficult to discount. “Perhaps because Ryan is so hostile to hierarchy of any kind, he refuses to privilege any historical cause in explaining the source of present inequalities. Instead he supports a holistic relationism in which nothing is prior to anything else” (139). Both Bouswma and Ryan are, in Jay’s opinion, taking an ahistorical stance by promoting the rejection of any cultural evaluation that is based on a hierarchal assumption in place of their own favored holistic model.

Beyond this, however, Jay wants to make clear that he is no apologist for hierarchal reasoning. Jay instead argues that in some cases, instances of elitist intervention by rather purposefully unpopular artists or movements may in fact promote cultural liberation more effectively than more decidedly egalitarian ones. To illustrate this, Jay points to Adorno’s championing of Schoenberg and Beckett over the Surrealist movement, of which Benjamin was a champion.

Instead, he (Adorno) championed that current in aesthetic modernism which remained esoteric rather than exoteric in its appeal. Figures like Schoenberg and Beckett, who resisted the demand to make their art immediately effective in political or social terms, were more genuinely revolutionary in the long run than those, like the Surrealists, who did not. (143)

The work of Beckett, for instance, has been extraordinarily influential on generations of artists, whereas, as Jay notes, “The once disturbing techniques of movements like the Surrealists have shown themselves to be easily adaptable to the demands of consumer advertising” (144). This is an example of an exoteric movement actually being hijacked to perform a function that was wholly unintended and contrary to its goals, while the esoteric is able to quietly, albeit slowly, change the culture. When one adds Jay’s contention that these cultural hierarchies are constantly changing with modern evaluations, it seems that the eradication of cultural hierarchies is not only impossible, but perhaps even its attempt is unwise.

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