Hip figures : a literary history of the Democratic Party

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Arbiters of hip for readers who weren't, they effectively branded and marketed the liberalism of their moment—and ours. Get A Copy. Paperback , pages.

More Details Other Editions 2. Friend Reviews. To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up. To ask other readers questions about Hip Figures , please sign up. Lists with This Book. This book is not yet featured on Listopia. Community Reviews. Showing Rating details. Sort order. An interesting attempt to apply a cultural reading to political history.

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In the end I was not persuaded by the author's argument. There are no discussion topics on this book yet. About Michael Szalay. Michael Szalay. In the following weeks, Steele embraced what National Public Radio described as a hipper—some may say a hip-hop—vernacular to breathe vigor into the demoralized GOP. Republicans remained attached at their grass roots to the modern conservative movement crystallized by Barry Goldwater, committed to consolidating white supremacy, concentrating wealth, and privatizing the New Deal welfare state. A tide of rappers had turned out during the race for Obama.

Breathless, American Prospect declared, Whether or not he is aware of it, Barack Obama is the first hip-hop presidential candidate. The moment seemed to abound in historical firsts. Watch him walk, Politico urged. Listen to him talk. See the body language, the expressions, the clothes. The American public had elected a man with dark skin to its highest office.

Who could refrain from wondering what opportunities this would create for entire classes of people?

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In his epochal race speech, Obama had sought to remind Americans that many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. The candidate seemed poised to redress these disparities, and it was tempting to see his hip in this light.

A white writer, Cottle cited African American journalist Donna Britt on the distinction between cool and " brother cool, and reminded her readers that maintaining a calm and collected outward appearance had often been, for black men, a matter of life and death. Kennedy, whose very person seemed to capture the newfound importance of style to American liberalism. At the start of the sixties, mainstream political thought turned with frequency to what the sociologist David Riesman called the process by which people become related to politics, and the consequent stylizing of political emotions.

As Riesman saw it, If politics is a ballet on a stage set by history, then style tells us. I am interested in a particular stage, one not only set by history but furnished by novelists, and I mean to insist that it matters a great deal, to our sense of both literary and political history, that the fantasies of hip that have mattered most to liberalism first emerged in novels. Doctorow, and Joan Didion without understanding how they too invoked hip on behalf of the Democratic Party of their time.

Principally, these novelists invoked hip, as Mailer did, to consolidate the voting constituencies of postwar liberalism. To be sure, the novelists to whom I turn worked within a larger coalition culture ; their novels joined a range of expressive forms—jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll prominent among them—that militated on behalf of new unions between black and white voters and, more broadly, the ends associated with the Civil Rights Movement and the larger project of integration.

But Hip Figures argues that novelists played a far more significant role in that coalition culture than we might at first imagine. They were, in a very real sense, the most important political strategists of their time.

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Though they were responsive in individual ways to the massive voter realignments then changing American electoral politics, these novelists were primarily male and primarily interested in other men. Electoral politics was for them—as in many ways it still is today—an insularly fraternal affair. We can be more specific and postulate that these self-consciously hip novels were written for white male professionals and managers in the Northeast who were then rising to prominence within the Democratic Party. Few of these white-collar workers were what the sociological literature of the moment would have considered authentically hip; most experienced hip as a distant echo.

But they no doubt glimpsed, even if only vaguely, its ultimate importance to their class, whose political power would depend upon sponsoring the aims of the Civil Rights Movement. Styron had this class in mind when he complained, during the sixties, that liberalism in the North demanded little more than that you smoke pot and dig the right kind of jazz in order to demonstrate that you really love Negroes.

For Susan Willis, blackface is a metaphor for the commodity. It is the sign of what people paid to see. That site looks different, however, when the blackface in question, now removed from sight, appears in figurative language, as a metaphor for a metaphor for the commodity. Literary hip is a doubly deracinated sign, one that abstracts embodied, coercive relations and subjects them to particularly complex forms of profit-bearing exchange. Like the minstrel show from which it is descended, literary hip presides over a series of alienations that remove individuals from the conditions of their labor, from the social relations implicit in those conditions, and, finally, from themselves.

Willis reminds us that in mass culture many of the social contradictions of capitalism appear to us as if those very contradictions have been resolved. The mass cultural object articulates the contradiction and its imaginary solution. But these novels indicate how members of the professional-managerial class might, as readers of novels , view themselves as simultaneously inside and cast out from the center of political power, as possessed of both white and black skin.

In these works, which transport whites into the imagined bodies of African Americans, the burnt cork of blackface returns, dematerialized, as a figurative second skin meant to hold together the straining coalitions of a Democratic Party undergoing decisive change. The Marxist critic William Haug describes commodities as promissory second skins —iridescent phantasms that drift unencumbered like a multicolored spirit. The second skins with which I am concerned drift into households inside of novels, as hip figures.

These skins—figures of skins and skins produced through figures—bear the imprint, or brand, that would define postwar liberalism, and render it subject to exchange.


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When Mailer dubbed Kennedy hip, he reasoned that the candidate had just enough patina of that other life, the second American life, the long electric night with the fires of neon leading down the highway to the murmur of jazz PP Mailer conjured this shimmering patina to brand Kennedy voters, no less than Kennedy himself. A recent study announces in familiar fashion that while emerging consumers are a demographic fact and a sociological reality—in many ways they are a metaphor, a metaphor made fact by branding.

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In the early seventies, Doctorow announced that unlike the politicians we [novelists] take office first and then create our constituencies ; the novels discussed in Hip Figures go further, branding those constituencies on behalf of the Democrats. Reading hip figures against the grain, as efforts to elide contradictions in the interests that motivate liberal coalitions, I describe novelists struggling—with mixed motives and results—to create that brand.

Whether or not these novelists did so successfully is a question for which there is no simple answer—a question, moreover, that opens out on at least four decades of debate within the humanities over the significance of symbolic forms to more ostensibly real political formations. In practical terms, voting constituencies are less forgiving than reading ones: no national politician could have championed the inflammatory interracial sexual unions dramatized by Updike and Mailer, for example. Most significantly, the rising clout of professional and managerial elites within the Democratic Party came at the expense of old guard southerners still committed to white supremacy and segregation, and took place alongside the increasing electoral importance of African Americans, who had turned en masse to the Democrats during the New Deal.

In , when Roosevelt ran against Herbert Hoover, the Republicans won more than two-thirds of the black vote.

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Four years later, with another presidential contest under way, Time announced, In no national election since have politicians been so Negro minded. Between and when women first began to vote Democratic more than Republican blacks represented the single largest new voting bloc to enter the party. But just as importantly, blackness took on a symbolic importance in the party beyond the practical influence that black politicians were able to wield.

In some versions of this rite, African Americans were cast as beatific ideals of public virtue, possessed of a deep moral warrant. In others, they were anarchic and rebellious, angry guardians of democracy because of their unwillingness to surrender or submit. Either way, black bodies demarcated what Ellison called that area of the national life where political power is institutionalized and translated into democratic ritual and national style.


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I focus on a reinflection of this process, in which novelists institutionalized and translated the style of hip subcultures into the political power of the Democratic Party. For these writers, subcultural style does not, as it does for cultural critic Dick Hebdige, articulate a refusal of power or a breakdown of consensus. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. Committing to racial justice involved something more than committing to one group among many.

It meant, rather, discovering the grounds for a deeper unity.


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As Mailer saw it, Kennedy committed the Democrats to hip and to civil rights together, in the same moment, but it was already clear, before , how hip might identify the greater vision of American pluralism with the Democratic Party itself. Since the end of the forties, novelists had been treating the hipster as the paradigmatic liberal subject, as a vigorous example of how even the most intense expressions of difference and disaffection might contain within them the grounds for producing ever-more-encompassing groups and collectivities.