How (our) culture gets better

This is a quote from Deborah Eisenberg. A couple of years ago she was interviewed in The Paris Review. She describes how writing gets better.

I read this this morning and thought to myself ‘this is precisely the way a culture gets better.’

Popular culture used to be punched out. It was dazed and confused. It was harried and corralled. It was made to take refuge in genre. It was conventionalized.

We left no one behind. This is one of the accomplishments of American culture. It was determined to make itself apparent even to someone who spoke English as a second language, was exhausted by an 70 hour week in a factory, and, in any case, not entirely sure how to make sense of that flickering image on the screen. So for simple, democratic reasons, to say nothing of commercial ones (and there is a lot to say about commercial ones, just ask the ghost of Jack Warner, who is with us always, reading this even), the idea was to ‘keep it simple, stupid.’ And if this meant ‘keep it stupid simple,’ well, we did that too.

But over the last 20 years we have seen culture escape the fish farm called genre. It wriggles free. Hollywood writers, now fighting for their commercial lives, insisted on climbing out of the space capsule of Hollywood convention to see where you could go, what you could say.

And this means we can use Eisenberg’s beautiful account of how writing works as an account of how we make culture now. (With due apologies to Ms. Eisenberg, a writer who writes so well, there should be a law against using her prose for any unintended purpose. It is perfect as it is, for what it is.) But imagine Eisenberg is talking not about prose, but culture.

Our American culture has undergone a phase change. Structural properties are moving from those that favor the well formed, predictable, effortlessly assimilable, to those that promote a certain unformedness, unpredictably, and edifying difficulty. American culture once too obvious now resists our apprehension in precisely the way that art is supposed to do. Well, we are not quite there yet. But moving in that direction, finally. It’s easy enough to name 20 TV shows as cases in point. (And remember when The Wire was the odd one out, the exception that proved the rule of genre.)

What’s sad is that we remain captives of old ideas of culture. We continue to say that American culture is popular and therefore dumb, that it is high and therefore elite, that it is empty (so says Baudrillard and the post modernists), that it is ideologically motivated (the Frankfurt school). For many people, saying that American culture is dumb is the smart, the flattering, the self aggrandizing thing to say. How embarrassing for them. Many veils stand between us and the recognition that American culture is a culture getting better.

There have always been a small group of people prepared to see the awakening of American culture. My personal grotto of patron saints includes Greil Marcus, Saul Bellow, Morris Dickstein, Brian Steinberg, Daniel Bell, Emily Nussbaum, John Carey, but it is time to make this a popular understanding.

To see that American culture is getting better will make it better still.


The quote is from Steindler, Catherine. 2013. “Deborah Eisenberg, The Art of Fiction №218, an Interview.” The Paris Review. 2013.

Thanks to the MacArthur foundation for the the image above.

I'm an anthropologist & author of Chief Culture Officer. You can reach me at

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