Dec 5, 2013
June Gloom With Lewis Lapham
Posted on Sep 2, 2011
By Mr. Fish
There is always smoke around Lewis Lapham, as if he’d just been conjured by some sorcerer suddenly enraged by the placation of the status quo and alarmed by the myopia of contemporary culture and the rabid asininity of 21st century political discourse. The smoke, of course, is not supernatural, but rather comes from the Parliament Lights that Lapham has been smoking for decades. Like the man himself, who is never outside of the pressman’s dark suit and tie, they hark back to a time when professionalism was decidedly masculine-chic and personal freedoms, even unhealthy ones, trumped the bullying demands, even the healthy ones, of the dominant culture.
I began reading him as a teenager in 1984, while working at a drugstore after school in southern New Jersey. Harper’s Magazine, with Lapham as the newly reinstated editor, had just undergone a redesign and his monthly “Notebook” column, always constructed with the care and meticulous attention to detail usually associated with those working with either scalpels or explosives, was one of the things that made me want to grow up to become an insufferable and excessively well-read know-it-all. Contrary to his academic lineage, Lapham impressed me, and still does, as the most plainspoken public intellectual ever produced by the blue-blooded coupling of Yale and Cambridge, a feat deserving of real praise if only because similar Ivy League inbreeding has been known to produce great litters of erudite ninnies and putrid snobs.
Anyway, I recently came across an interview that I’d conducted with Lapham in 2008, just as the economic crisis was beginning to unfold its magnificent class-conscious talons and just before Barack Obama was swept triumphantly into the Oval Orifice. It was only months after the launch of his post-Harper’s publication, Lapham’s Quarterly, a themed literary journal that relies on the rigorous mining of world history, both ancient and present-day and everything in between, for its content. The conversation was supposed to be about the death of the mid-20th century counterculture and whether it had been homicide or suicide that’d killed it, and it was, or at least it started out that way, but the cacophony of current events eventually had the better of us and our talk quickly became early 21st century prophesying. We spoke for an hour and a half at Lapham’s then-new offices in lower Manhattan, the two of us sequestered inside a tiny glass room in the corner of a much larger office populated by editors and their editorial assistants. As if he were representative of a rare and nearly extinct bird, his office felt like an aquarium that had been designed to allow the Lewis-icus laphamogatus to live out its final years in an environment best suited to its comfort and joy, meaning that the great tar and nicotine aroma that hung in the air like silt was being churned continuously by a refrigerator-sized air conditioner that roared like a riding mower and cooled the room with all the efficiency of a half-eaten popsicle that is waved through the air.
That said, what follows is a sampling of what we talked about that June afternoon, his voice as clear as a bell on the recording, mine compromised somewhat by General Electric and the helicopter gunship that the good general rode through my entire transcription. Luckily, the notes that I took during my discussion with Lapham, plus the questions that I prepared before our meeting, were able to fill in where necessary.
Fish: Assuming that you recognize the same shift in the American culture that I do, namely that members of the artistic community—specifically those writers and philosophers and painters and poets most committed to exploring the perplexing and fascinating vagaries of our human identity—are no longer encouraged to participate in the national debate about who we are as a nation and what our responsibilities might be to our own moral and humanitarian ideals, all political avocations be damned. In other words, where are the modern day Picassos and Voltaires and Mailers and Twains?
Lapham: I think that what’s happened is that we have a new language. My answer comes out of Marshall McLuhan—McLuhan publishes “Understanding Media” in 1964 and makes the point that we shape our tools and our tools shape us and he sees the shift from print to the electronic media as a revolution in the settled political aesthetic order. Now his observations from 1964 have simply become more and more apparent and seemingly more prescient as time has gone by. He recognized that television is not a medium that lends itself to philosophy, literature or even straightforward narrative.
Fish: Nor does it provide a stopping point for contemplation, which is the only way [that people have] of deepening their understanding of things.
Lapham: Right—with the electronic media there is no memory, it’s always the eternal present, which is constantly dissolving and contributing to a great social anxiety.
Fish: The electronic media has also forced people to become much more private and much less engaged in the community and, therefore, much less politically active. For example, consider the difference between Jon Stewart and somebody like Mort Sahl. Back in the early ’60s, if you wanted to see Mort Sahl you had to congregate with other people in a public space and that takes a certain amount of bravery because you’re visibly aligning yourself with a specific point of view. Not only that, whenever you congregate in a public space you’re making a statement—a political statement, even, given the stuff that Sahl was talking about—with your body and because there are other bodies then the statement is substantial because it is amassed. Conversely, when you watch Jon Stewart you are not in public, you’re in your house—you don’t even need to be wearing pants!—and your dissent is not amassed. You pose no threat to the dominant culture because all you’re doing is watching television. It’s the same thing as wearing a T-shirt from the Gap that has a peace sign on it and thinking that you’re part of the peace movement, even though you’ve done absolutely nothing of any real significance for the cause. In fact, you’ve just gone shopping and given money to a corporation that your peace sign speaks contrary to.
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