“Beyond Relativity”: James Agee and Others,
Toward the Cold War
IN MY DISCUSSION of the “cultural” moment of the thirties, I addressed the double-sided consequences of the domestication of culture: while it offered a way to articulate national coherence conforming to the country's increased political, economic, and social centralization, it could also be used to express a certain resistance to that centralization (associated with both massificationand totalitarianism) through the idea of regionalism, on the one hand, and through a class-based cultural politics, on the other. As we saw, the regionalist idea would be especially powerful for the way that it mobilized a populist antiurbanism and contributed to the formation of a new, positively conceived category of taste: the middlebrow. However, this development produced its own reactions, including an emergent “highbrow” anxiety about mass culture and populist politics.
Here, I turn to the moment of mobilization for World War II and its aftermath in the Cold War, which would put new ideological pressures on these usages of “culture.” While the fear of totalitarianism (firstfascist and communist, and later Soviet) remained a more or less constant feature of American politics from the thirties onward, the cultural responses to this threat proved inadequate in the face of the war. Indeed, both regionalist and radical understandings of culture produced in the thirties were increasingly seen as ideologically dangerous for their divisiveness and for their potential to encourage “isolationism,” an issue of particular concern as policy makers tried to preempt the kind of antiwar sentiment that had arisen during World War I. In the ideological battle against isolationism, moral applications of cultural relativism also became a target. For, as we saw in Chapter 2, relativist deployments of “culture” such as those by Randolph Bourne and Franz Boas were part and parcel of arguments for military neutrality, suggesting both that nations had shapes and destinies unique to themselves, and that (thus) there was no moral justificationfor interfering in other nations' affairs. In the face of the new national emergency, such sentiments would clearly require revision.
This revision of “culture,” from a basically comparatist one to a normative and hierarchical one, affected the two groups represented in this narrative in rather different ways. As we saw in the last chapter, elements once affiliated with the cultural Left, newly suspicious of the political impulses of the “people,” were transformed into the relatively marginalized “highbrow” antipopu