Stephen James’ “American Stew”

Dan Liechty | March 20, 2010

Stephen James' "American Stew

Of Recent Interest…

is the new book, American Stew: Hope In a Toxic Culture, by Stephen James (Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse, 2015.) Stephen James is a media consultant of long-standing experience, and this background shines through as he turns a critical eye on American cultural trends of the last generation. Ernest Becker is James’ most important influence, though he demonstrates a deep understanding of other major cultural critics as well. Probably the most worth mentioning in this regard is the perspective of Kirby Farrell, himself a cultural critic strongly influenced by Ernest Becker. Farrell’s category of a “berserk style” in American culture is distinctly echoed in James’s idea of a “toxic” culture. James’ book is definitely worth a close reading by anyone interested in the application of Becker’s ideas to life in late capitalist America.

The heart of James’ book is the thesis that American culture has turned toxic. This is not, however, simply a jeremiad against America, but an extremely interesting theory of culture in general. In James’s reading, all cultures contain certain irreconcilable contradictions in their founding myths, that is, the stories people of that culture learn and repeat to explain to themselves the nature of life in the world, who they are as a people, delineate their basic values, and what gives their lives meaning and significance in the face of anomie and mortality. This is not a bad thing, and in fact the tension that these internal contradictions create is the very vital energy of a healthy and dynamic culture. In the best of times, the cultural ethos moves from emphasis to emphasis each decade or generation, without the internal contradictions becoming totally at loggerheads. A culture in which the internal contradictions do become at total loggerheads, with people lining up on each side determined to have it out once for all with those lined up on the other side, is basically what James diagnoses as a culture having become toxic. You can see this as a repeating dynamic in human history, and we are certainly seeing it in American culture today.

That we are engaged in America in a so-called “Culture War” is a phenomenon noticed by cultural critics for a couple of decades already. But I think this only scratches the bare surface of what James is pointing toward. For example, one of the deepest “contradictions” in the American cultural mythology is simply this: “all human beings are equal” (underlined in our sacred writings in the famous prologue to the Declaration of Independence); and, “we are not all equal” (underlined in our sacred document, The Constitution, which makes clear distinctions between those with and without property, slave and free, women and men, and so on.) These two points of view clash with each other on many assumptions and practical applications, for example, on the assumption of who should govern and wield political power. One view asserts the common people should govern themselves as equals, and has moved us over time toward greater inclusion in the voting process. The contrasting view asserts that governing is better left to an elite, who have been prepared for this task through family history, schooling and cultivation of a more aristocratic sense of public duty and obligation.

The thing to notice here is not which of these opposing views is “correct” or “truly American.” One is as correct and deeply American as the other. The thing to notice is that in those times we recognize are our best, these two views are held in a balanced dynamic tension, with each one serving to curtail the extremes and excesses of the other. This is not a question of party affiliation, liberal or conservative, democrat or republican. Expressions of both views are easily seen within each of these usual camp divides. Yet clearly in the last few decades we have watched as those advocating the hyper-individualism of neoliberalism and those advocating more communal, collectivist approaches to political life have increasingly separated into factions that are distinguishable not only on issues across the board, but even by such elements as food and music preferences. Each side often seems less interested in learning from the other and more interested in simply seeing the other eliminated from the conversation. This, James suggests, signifies a culture entering into a toxic phase of cultural decline.

Much of this book is devoted to chapter examinations of the collapse of dynamic tension in areas of religion, economy, race, and other major markers of culture. James adds a very significant element to the analysis that has latent in much of the existing Becker literature. The working thesis of Terror Management Theory, for example, is that people construct cultures as an answer to the problem of mortality. A healthy and vibrant culture is one in which there are thousands of roles and projects through which people maintain their sense of self-esteem. James turns his spotlight on the implied converse of this thesis, which especially as a culture turns toxic, these myriad roles and projects become increasingly narrow, and that in a sense out of its own need to maintain and keep itself from dying, the culture begins to produce the type of people it needs to continue its cultural illusions. So whereas, for example, material acquisition and wealth accumulation has always had its place in the American narrative of values, what we see happening now is the creation of people whose desire for increasing wealth has flipped into an uncontrolled overdrive, which in the meantime leaves large majorities of people feeling economically insecure and disenfranchised by comparison. This escalating compulsiveness is especially the place of overlap between James’ category of toxic culture and Farrell’s category of berserk style.

As noted above, when a culture moves into a toxic phase, this certainly indicates a culture in decline, a culture that has lost its essential vitality. Does that mean that James insists that our culture is on its last legs? After all, the subtitle seems to promise at least some element of “hope” in his analysis.

Well, if you are looking for easy pathways to hope and cultural revival, James does not offer this. Like Becker, his optimism about our prospects is well chastened. But he does make some worthy gestures in the direction of a modified evolutionary theory as a possible source for narratives of species meaning on the far side of the toxic phase. He appreciates evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller’s suggestion, for example, that the development of the human mind does indeed demonstrate elements of intelligent design, the source of which, we learn, is selection for sexual partnering. In other words, it is our own human intelligence that comes into play in our species history to shape our minds with spiritual, creative and artistic characteristics and sensitivities far beyond what is needed for bare survival.

James agrees with Ernest Becker that armed with the knowledge of how ongoing death anxiety impacts our behavior, and this within an environment of a toxic phase of culture, we do have at least some countervailing energies against the worst of our proclivities than we would have without that knowledge. James outlines a vision of balance between self-interest, social immersion, individuation and community as the context in which to regain the dynamic tension in our culture and bring us back from the brink of continuing decline. He is less convincing on how we can get from here to there than probably most people will find satisfying. As with Becker, he maintains his faith in the “sway of reason” in human affairs. But we can hardly fault James for failing to lay out an unequivocal blueprint for all of life’s problems (and would rightly suspicion him highly if he did so!) What we can say is that James has produced a very fascinating book and has contributed a highly valuable voice to the ongoing discussion. What more can we ask from an author?

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