#14 Radical Chic

Radical Chic Cover 1970

Ah, resistance–you definitively elusive devil, you! While we managed to sketch out the cultural battlefield in Hall, we still haven’t made a relief map of complicity *and* resistance by the dominated or oppressed classes. Nor have we figured out why “popular culture” is so contested a thing. (Interestingly, the next conservative turn of co-opting radical/resistant culture doesn’t elude us–good that it’s the subject of our next meeting!) I’d like you all to review Hall’s comments about resistance and come to class with one example you think brings this concept to life.

Our primary reading for Tuesday is a piece of cultural satire rather than criticism or theory: Tom Wolfe’s canny anecdote for New York Magazine called “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s” (which was later published with a companion piece, “Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.”

We’ll pair it with a short text, “Hip-Hop & Hipsterism: Notes on a Philosophy of Us & Them,” which comes from the book What was the hipster?, put out very recently by the hipster periodical n+1. We’ll sample from this collection of symposia and short responses later on in the semester, when we go toe-to-toe with the well-heeled white hipster with whom we at Mac are well-acquainted!

As you read both works, think about how they animate concepts we’ve already discussed, especially Hall’s ideas of complicity and resistance by the dominated classes, and implantation and co-optation by the dominating ones. I have a hunch you’ll recognize your own reality in these works, and hope that makes you more finely attuned to these postwar/postmodern/late-capitalist dynamics, while also making for a fun read!

Erica will lead us from the mean streets of militant activism to the refined drawing rooms of New York’s cultural elite, as Lenny Bernstein and his intimate circle convert black political radicalism into a chic topic for white cocktail chatter. Bottoms up!

Leonard Bernstein and the elite of the Upper East Side are the epitome of high-brow, poshly, citizens. Every action they take, every outfit they wear, and every party they throw must represent what is currently in style.

The spectacle that the guests of the Party at Lenny’s provide, displays a type of conspicuous consumption of entertainment. The Black Panthers are there not because the high class, New York celebrities truly care about their cause, but because they are what is in style. They are Radical chic. They represent a different race and a different class, giving the wealthy guests of Lenny a feeling of worldly openness that we know is oh so poshly. They also represent an alternative form of high-brow living to the wealthy, white member of society. They represent a new, moral high-brow that Bernstein and his guests are able to feel through association and proximity.

The party at Lenny’s gives the impression of breaking down class distinction but it is all just an illusion. What Lenny and his non-panther guests want is the type of entertainment that will get them written about in the newspapers. They invited the Black Panther for many reasons but to truly support their cause is not one of them. They relish the rebellion of supporting a group so different from themselves, they even enjoy the fact that supporting the party is not tax deductible just because it makes it all the more rebellious. The excitement of doing the unexpected and being in the presence of those who are so different from them, is what draws them to this party.

For tomorrow I would like to discuss whether radical chic is degrading to the movements that it temporarily idealizes. Also is it tasteful to aestheticize a real political movement?

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5 thoughts on “#14 Radical Chic

  1. I can see how radical chic would be degrading to the movements it “supports.” While those radically chic inhabitants of New York’s Upper East Side might care about certain causes and movements, there is a certain “double think” (Wolfe) that happens with the pressures for upward mobility and assimilation into high class culture. Namely, these people have a reputation to uphold — which explains, in part, their intense desire to have servants. Yet these servants have to be white, as seen in the story of the party at Lenny’s, or else the hosts will be violating the supposedly cultured norms of radical chic.

  2. I think “condescension” is the word here. I think radical chic is inherently condescending (and thus degrading) to the its cause-du-jour. This is because––like many of the other forms of tastelessness we’ve discussed in class––the radical chic elite strip these radical movements, causes, and beliefs of their core messages, watering them down so they are easily digestible. This is to say that the radical chic selectively chooses which parts of the radical cause they want to associate with––just enough to be ‘radical’ and ‘chic’ but (in a perfect world) in a way that dodges some of the tougher questions. Like so much of what we’ve studied, radical chic is heavily focused on ‘shine’ over ‘substance.’

  3. In some regards, radical chic is determined by how its presented in media. Woolfe not only conceived the term, but how he discussed the Bernstein party as an attempt for the white elites to gain social cache glossed the event as mere chic. That’s not to say he isn’t correct, but we should remember, Woolfe is on the Right, and it serves his interests to lambaste the Left.

    A member of one of the U.S.’s ‘royal’ families, Bobby Kennedy, was known to position himself close to social justice leaders. Though I don’t doubt his decision to associate with the likes of MLK and Cesar Chavez was a political maneuver, positioning him as a compassionate, genuine supporter versus Bernstein as a phony would be misleading. Radical Chic, in many regards, aids to the work of radicalism to some. All of us cannot be at the frontlines, liberating animals from university research centers and protesting the gay mainstream to drop heteronormative goals. The Chic does serve as a liminal sign of solidarity, to recognize the existence of these thoughts, theories, and movements. I think that was an effect of Bobby’s positioning for many.

    What puzzles me is if radical chic, in and of itself, does what Luke believes: waters down the movements, and strips them of their core. Countless white, middle-class high school rebels adorn Che shirts, yet have little understanding or interest in participating in Marxist politics. Still, I don’t think the Chic degrades the movements.The movement is more than the Chic. If anything, the Chic is a compromise, as mentioned in class–broadening exposure of the radical, while simultaneously compromising its form. Doing such affords movements financial support (ex: Hollywood producers funding the United Farm Workers’ offices in Keene, CA), and at least spreads the idea to populations less likely to hear of it. The child in the upper-class suburb could know of Che, and at least develop a fervor that could be channeled to uncompromised knowledge and action of a movement later on.

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