Tom Engelhardt’s The End of Victory Culture is interesting enough, and provocative enough to merit a few days worth of responses. I’m not particularly interested in reviewing the book (or any book)—reviews are boring, and plentiful enough in any scholarly journal. I did find quite a bit to respond to, however, and hopefully in the process of response I can provide a sense of Engelhardt’s book for the reader(s) that I have.
In brief, the book is an amalgam of personal experience of a Cold War youth, media and culture analysis, and history of the US between World War II and the present. His purpose is to expose the “victory culture” of the US (propagated by media and industry, particularly those that are geared towards children), and its decline from the Vietnam War to the present. Engelhardt makes this book relevant by tying it to America’s more recent efforts abroad—even as recent as our crash-and-burn attempts at installing democracies in the Middle East (or newfangled imperialism, either way . . . and incidentally, for my right-leaning readers, if you grow frustrated with what seems like a lopsidedly liberal reading list, maybe I will address this in a later post!). At any rate, Engelhardt is not only critical of American military and diplomatic approaches, but also sees the US as the next logical casualty of the end of the Cold War. If East Germany and the USSR went out with a bang, the US simply endured a more gradual slide from superpowerdom.
Anyway, I was able to flip to any page of this book and pick up reading . . . which more than anything else is a testament to my familiarity with this time, and this particular cultural history. It helps to be fluent in the films, literature, comics and toys Engelhardt talks about. In fact, there’s much to compare about our mutual experiences, despite a difference in age. One of the minor problems with the book is its tendency to jump around from cultural reference to reference, possibly leaving the reader with the sensation that he has lost the thread. I often lost the thread, and as a result wondered if I was missing the point.
I don’t think so, though. Ultimately, Engelhardt is doing this: complicating the picture and reading things against the grain. How modern historians (well, he’s an essayist, not an historian, but whatever) love to complicate things! I think I saw a humorous piece on that in The Chronicle of Higher Education. As frustrating as it can be to read work after contemporary work which complicates but does not answer, it reflects a reality about the world which is absent from the definitive histories of the past. This is particularly important when we are basically still living in this world. The people who experienced these cultural moments are still alive; the wisps of all this cultural miasma are everywhere, even now.
As for reading things against the grain (or even with it), I think Engelhardt does a creditable job—but misses some interesting phenomena that I wish I could mention to him, and get a sense of his reaction. I’ll discuss some of these things in a later post. I do appreciate his inclusion of himself in the narrative, in much the same way that Susan Douglas does in Where the Girls Are. The particulars of his and my experience of the Cold war are something that I’d also like to write about. Finally, this book prompts me to write about the uses of film and television as sources in academic work—the good, the bad, and the really memorable.