Plenitude watch


Prefatory note: yesterday, I promised to look at the “cultural literacy” a CEO like Meg Whitman needs to run the rapids of the contemporary marketplace and to advance shareholder value, but that’s going to have to wait for tomorrow.

The intellectuals shook their heads in gloomy wonder. This would have to end badly. North America in the 1950s and 1960s was collapsing in on itself. Conforming was the order of the day. Colorless, featureless uniformity was the ineluctable result. Thus said John Kenneth Galbraith, Philip Riesman, Newton Minow and several others.

Wrong! In fact, contemporary culture began to fill with difference. Throw a dart anywhere on the demographic map and heterogeneity is there for the asking. The categories of age, gender, class, lifestyle, ethnicity, nationality, all of these show invention furious in kind and quality.

This so stunned the intellectuals that they threw up an academic embargo. Apparently, the hope was, ignored, heterogeneity might go away. But it got worse. Heterogeneity would have to be acknowledged.

The intellectuals sought to repair their position by insisting that, yes, there was lots of cultural innovation, a new diversity of definition for the group and the individual, but really this existed for a simple, single reason…and the reason was politics. All that furious cultural invention was ‘transgressive” in its intentions. People created new notions of age, gender, class and so on, in order to “fight the power.”

And then a discovery so stunning that the intellectuals were reduced virtually to silence. There was invention going on “out there” that even transgressive view of politics could not explain. People were engaged in acts of innovation for a variety of motives and sometimes this motive was the simplest differentiation. People were making differences between groups, within groups, and within this increasingly unlikely thing called the self, and they were doing so, in some cases, just because they could.

Politics, schmolitics. It was as if Plato’s account of the great profusion of life in the natural world applied now even to the cultural one:

[T]he universe is a plenum formarum in which the range of conceivable diversity of kinds of living things is exhaustively exemplified…no genuine potentiality of being can remain unfulfilled.

We are still some ways away from living in a world that exemplifies our “conceivable diversity.” But we have come a startlingly long way since 1955.

Naturally, the intellectuals are still dragging their feet. They remain devoted to the idea that contemporary culture is flawed in its very heart. Acknowledging diversity makes it harder to make this case (though God knows, they are trying). In effect, the embargo is still in place. The anthropological, sociological, historical, literary, and media studies called for here all pretty much remain to be done.

But we can spot some of the machinery of our diversity from a simple reading of the newspaper. Here’s a recent story from the Daily Telegraph. On Monday, David Blunkett, the former Home Secretary of the UK, called for a robust celebration of St George’s Day next month. St. George is, of course, the patron saint of England. St. George’s Day has not been much celebrated for fear of giving offense to the Welsh and the Scottish.

Blunkett says,

“We don’t need to be afraid of that because devolution has strengthened their sense of identity so that we can now assert Englishness without in any way damaging Britain.

In sum, there is something circular about plenitude. First, it maps out the margin. In the British case, it gives recognition to the distinctness of Scotland and Wales. This diminishment of the center’s powers of hegemony ought to play out in a zero sum game. The new vividness of the margin ought to come at a cost to the center. But, no, if Blunkett is to be believed, the centre becomes more vivid, more marked. The recognition of the Scottish rebounds in a new recognition of the English.

There is a deeper cultural mechanism at work here. In the West, the more powerful political party chose at some point since the Renaissance to “dial down” its political symbolism. Men began to dress more simply than women. Upper classes began to dress more simply than lower classes. And of course the English made something like a fetish of understatement in their self presentation, so to keep from provoking the colonials. These latter, like women, lower classes and other subordinates creatures, simply could not help but make a spectacle of themselves by comparison, and thus was the dance of differentiation conducted, understatement on high, overstatement below. This was the cultural logic of asymmetrical difference: high standing parties were subdued, low standing parties, overwheening and conspicuous.

I’m not sure about this one, but I think we are seeing all the superordinate parties engage in a self advertisement that used to be forbade them. Thus do men dress more conspicuously. The wealthy, with the exception of very old money, are more striking in their self presentation. And now the English went through their own moment of self assertion with Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia.”

And what goes around, comes around. Now that superordinate parties are engaged in conspicuous behavior, subordinate parties no longer pay a penalty for spectacular behavior. This as much as anything may be responsible for the extent to which things like the tattoo taboo is now over. Once an act of self stigmatization, tattooing is ok. (There are of course many other cultural factors at work here.)

What’s missing is any sense of trade-off. The recognition of subordinate parties provokes a new vividness on the part of superordinate parties which in turn provokes a new vividness on the part of subordinate parties. We don’t see the operation of a pendulum, where the acknowledgement of some difference encourages finally the reassertion of some homogeneity. Weird.

We are a difference engine. There is no difference between the straight away and the round about.

[David Blunkett] spelt out his love of England, its culture and political and social traditions, listing many reasons to be proud of being English.

When was the last time you heard someone say they were proud of being English?


Fenton, Ben. 2005. Time to celebrate our Englishness. Daily Telegraph. March 15, 2005. here

Fletcher, Angus. 1968. Allegory In Literary History. Dictionary of the History of Ideas. 1: 41-48, p. 42, 43. Angus Fletcher defines Plato’s plenitude as “the notion that an intelligible world would possess all possible forms of all possible things” and as “an infinitely subdivided universe.”

Lovejoy, Arthur O. 1950. The Great Chain of Being: a study of the history of an Idea. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 52.