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Wilfred M. McClay

Auspicious Criticism

The challenge of Christopher Shannon.

The University of Scranton Press may be one of the least well-known academic publishers in the United States. But for my money, it has stepped right into the big leagues by deciding to reissue, in a revised edition, historian Christopher Shannon's extraordinary 1996 book Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in American Social Thought, from Veblen to Mills, originally published by the John Hopkins University Press. (The subtitle of the new edition is slightly altered.) Scranton is thereby performing a public service, and a courageous one, at a time when economic pressures are forcing university presses to become very nearly as bottom-line conscious as commercial houses. A book like Conspicuous Criticism will never be a bestseller. But one dares to hope that with this new edition, Conspicuous Criticism will, after a decade of languishing in the shadows, emerge from its status as a bit of an underground classic, with a following among young Christian intellectuals in particular, and at last begin to get the kind of respectful attention across the intellectual spectrum that it deserves.

Shannon's book remains as fresh today as when it appeared, an unusually penetrating and challenging rebuke to the social-scientific outlook on human existence. The social sciences, he argued, have used the anthropological idea of "culture" to unsettle the very basis of everyday life, promoting "a destabilization of received social meanings." Critical social-scientific analysis, which so presents itself as the heroic antidote to the ravages of "the market," is in fact in "the vanguard of extending the logic of commodification to the most intimate aspects of people's lives." If Shannon is right, the most celebrated critiques of modern American society, from Veblen to Mills, are pernicious failures, launched in the name of a thin and debased understanding of "culture," and imposing an obsolete and misleading apparatus for thinking about society and culture. If Shannon ...

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