With the waning days of the year upon us and the holiday break at hand, we’ve been looking back on everything we have published in 2021: the often poignant, sometimes humorous, and always searching explorations of our cultural experiences and predicaments. There are many pieces to revisit, but here we collect a handful of essays that make for worthwhile re-reading—all out from the paywall over the New Year. From all of us at The Hedgehog Review: Happy holidays!
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Phil Christman considers “middlebrow,” a label long assigned by sophisticates to consumers of popular and earnestly edifying works of literature and art.
Everything that was once considered lowbrow is now triumphant. It is still common for people to talk of “guilty” cultural pleasures—TV, dance music—about which no one has felt guilty in decades, and to apologize for them with an enthusiasm that looks a lot like pride. But the pretense of guilt is merely there to increase our pleasure; it adds the excitement of transgression to an otherwise banal activity.
In this “Signifiers” column, Wilfred M. McClay explores how the now-overused epithet “performative” has come to mean the exact opposite of what the term originally conveyed. It has, he writes,
managed to insinuate itself in record time into the discourse of academics and journalists, seemingly overnight becoming an infestation as annoying as body lice and as worthless as a pile of wooden nickels.
Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody has written a revelatory essay on the French poet and intellectual Paul Valéry and his astonishingly acute political-cultural critique, one that anticipated a world in which,
we live no longer as citizens among fellow citizens but as depoliticized individuals commanding the services of others via enormous networks of people and machines as opaque (yet dangerously transparent) as any nineteenth-century bureaucracy.
In a searching essay on the dogmatic overreach of some thinkers in gender studies, Phoebe Maltz Bovy writes about the trap of what she calls “the idea of human boringness”:
By that I mean the notion that how compelling or complex someone is can be determined on the basis of snap assessments of the person’s clothes or stated identity categories, rather than on the basis of something far more ineffable and individual.… Is it really true that variances in sexual desire become imaginable only once they are sorted into identity categories?
Almost no one wants to be accused of utopian thinking. It is an idea that carries the accumulated scorn of failed radical and revolutionary projects of the nineteenth and twentieth century. But utopian styles and ideas are hard to keep down. S.D. Chrostowska questions whether utopianism may be an as-yet untapped and salutary resource for thought and action:
Indeed, utopia can be many things at once. My intention in arguing for a different composite version of it is punctual and undogmatic. On the one hand, utopia is any embodied desire, here and now, for a good society; a desire capable of giving form to individual and collective action and thus becoming prefigurative of such a society, which nonetheless remains latent and dynamic, rather than being elaborated as a social plan. On the other hand, utopia is a futureward myth that activates hope and orients, without purporting to normatively determine, action.
Even though self-care is a cliché and its ubiquity a symptom of an unhealthy society, and even though it is easy to mock, deride, and criticize, self-care isn’t all bad. As B.D. McClay writes in this “Signifiers” column, self-care can’t be avoided, not entirely.
However theorized or commodified, what people need for good lives is ultimately stubborn and simple: food, shelter, friends, and the give-and-take of freedom and structure…. But while the Instagram ad promising the secret to a well-managed life isn’t going to help you, neither is an account, however true, of why the world you live in is stacked against you. You’re still stuck with the world you fall asleep and wake up in.
Critical race theory, almost unknown in popular political culture before 2021, is now a familiar theater in the culture war. The academic field, for its part, has provided useful analytical tools for exploring the destructive persistence of racism, structural and otherwise. But Malloy Owen argues that some extrapolations of that theory have led to perversely demoralizing conclusions that may only exacerbate the problem.
Is there really anything left to say about White Fragility?… Appreciating the true strangeness of White Fragility can help us to distinguish that significant and urgent body of work [of critical race theory] from the excesses that DiAngelo’s work represents—excesses that too easily lend themselves to the caricatures drawn by CRT’s most hostile critics.
What does it mean to be an authentically black person? What does an authentically black politics look like? Gerald Early shows how the question of cultural and political authenticity has been a burden placed on African Americans since at least the time of slavery when the epithet of “Uncle Tom” began the circulate. The contrasting ways many black people have navigated that question correspond, Early suggests, to two influential biblical figures.
While Moses stood up to Pharaoh, insisting that his people be let go, Joseph, the favored son of Jacob who had been sold into slavery by his brothers, became Pharaoh’s key adviser and interpreter of his dreams….For most black Americans, though, Joseph falls far short of Moses. Too much the assimilationist, he is seen as having accommodated himself to his oppressors…. Are we then to understand Joseph as a collaborator—a betrayer of his authentic identity as a Jew—or as a protean trickster who turns the reality of his oppressors to his own, and his own people’s, purposes?
Talbot Brewer argues that to call Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov a love story is to misunderstand one of the fundamental characteristics of true love: the desire for the good and the growth of another person.
If genuine love provides us with the clearest appreciation available to us of the inviolability of the other, hence of what is impermissible and why, and if Humbert Humbert’s love for Lolita is genuine, then even the clearest appreciation of the inviolability of others does not include an appreciation of the vileness of the serial rape of a child. But if the serial rape of a child is not beyond the pale, then nothing is. God may as well be dead, the good unreal, because everything is permitted.
Philip S. Gorski looks at the deeper transformations of social and cultural capital within America’s religious camps, particularly the conservative Christian one and its recent embrace of white nationalist politics. Gorski finds that today’s
conservative evangelicals speak derisively of ‘the culture’ as if it were something external to “the church.” In truth, the evangelical movement, as they understand it, is increasingly indistinguishable from American culture, or, more precisely, from certain racial and regional variants of it. Complaints about ‘attacks on the church’ are often just veiled complaints about attacks on ‘the culture,’ or, rather, a culture, or the declining hegemony of that culture.