When I go running late Saturday afternoons I always listen to Garrison Keillor‘s A Prairie Home Companion, a sophisticated show designed to be heard out on the prairie by college-educated exurbanites from places like LA. Keillor’s spoofs of private eyes and cowboys, his fake ads for animal calls, “duck” tape, Mournful Oatmeal, and rhubarb pie are so clever that I often burst out laughing in the middle of San Vicente Boulevard. The highlight of the show is the weekly narrative of life in Lake Wobegon, his fictional home town. These gentle satires of small-town life in Lutheran Minnesota nearly always succeed in making the listener reflect more in love than resentment on the ironies of desire.
Keillor’s program is also a variety show. The other day, he introduced a young woman from Greenwich Village who had metamorphized herself into a Nashville-style country music singer and gone to live in the South. And then she sang a song about a girl who left the South to go north to the Big City but weeps with nostalgic longing for the Mississippi she left behind.
Toute notre culture est là. The lament of the displaced Southerner in the big city is culturally correct, but not the longing of the New Yorker for roots in a folk culture to which she doesn’t belong. Yet there are probably fifty New Yorkers in the second case for every Southerner in the first. This cultural adoption of the victimary position is nothing new; it has its crude antecedents in those blackface minstrel shows that–it’s hard to believe today–were still popular in the 1930s. But the difference between the prewar and postwar varieties is that the postwar generation wants to keep playing the role after the show is over.
I am old enough to remember the beginnings of this phenomenon. In the mid-50s, the age of rock ‘n’ roll began with Elvis, Bill Haley, Little Richard et al. Adolescents who had never been west of the Hudson River nor south of Staten Island suddenly started to talk, or at least to sing, with a Mississippi accent, just as a generation or two later they would put their caps on backward and pretend to be homeys from the ‘hood. In contrast, the black teenagers who imitate the styles of whites do so chiefly for economic, not cultural reasons.
These narratives illustrate the paradigmatic opposition of culture and the market. The Southern girl comes North to work; she moves from periphery to center. But whether she prospers or not, she regrets the folkways of the backward area she has left behind. The Northern girl goes South to find herself culturally, by adopting a folk identity she can sing about. (In the process, she is able to make a career for herself, and more money than she could have made by staying in the North, the economy of which seems to be slowly going South in any case.) The white kid envies and emulates the culture of the black minority; the black kid envies and, if he has the chance, emulates the socioeconomic advantages of the white majority. As with love and cards, one can’t be lucky in both culture and the market; or rather, the “lucky” in the cultural marketplace are those who can market original or borrowed victimary stigmata.
Seinfeld, who would have caught the irony, is closer to the spirit of high culture than any of this. But Seinfeld is no Proust. The paradoxes of desire from which Proust patiently built his cathedral are today the stuff of a half-hour TV episode. High culture is made by ironizing unreflective desire, whether it be that of Oedipus seeking his father’s murderer, or Hamlet, Dmitri Karamazov, or Stephen Dedalus doing pretty much the same. But the irony has to inspire us with fear and trembling as an originary revelation of the human. Our Greenwich village friend and those white boys with the backward caps are killing their fathers too, but we’re no longer building cathedrals to house their tombs.
Today’s Kulturkampf is a battle over the place of the victim. The deferral of violence through representation, like time and tide, wait for no man. No solitary individual, however profound his agony, can compete for the victimary spotlight with whole classes of people whose resentments, if left unchecked, would pose urgent problems to the social order.
As culture becomes a minoritary province, we are duty-bound to help it lose its sacrificial edge and become the vehicle for a dialogue to which we can all contribute. Once we become aware of our own sociohistorical particularity, we realize that we’re all minorities, which also means that we’re all equally valid examples of the human universal, heirs of our common scene of origin. Garrison Keillor‘s folksy sophistication, his ironic affirmation of his small-town roots as a cultural source rich as any other, show us that white Northerners don’t have to sing their uniqueness in a Southern accent–but that they shouldn’t turn up their noses on those who do: American culture is one of different strokes for different folks. I imagine that’s why I always listen to A Prairie Home Companion while running on Saturday afternoons.