Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

Personal tools

Navigation

Primitive America

The Ideology of Capitalist Democracy

2007
Author:

Paul Smith

Primitive America

An urgent examination of the deep cultural roots of America’s response to 9/11

For cultural critic Paul Smith, the tension between progressive and primitive is a constitutive condition of American history and culture. In Primitive America, Smith contemplates this primary contradiction as it has played out in the years since 9/11. An urgent and important engagement with current American policies and practices, Primitive America is, at the same time, an incisive critique of the ideology that fuels the ethos of America’s capitalist culture.

Primitive (as in accumulation) America (as in underlying political-economic contradictions that have always structured the republic): a land of fundamentalisms only accelerated by 9/11. Paul Smith is the ideal reader of this conjuncture—mordant, biting, refreshingly savage.

Eric Lott, author of The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual

One of the most confounding aspects of American society—the one that perhaps most frequently perplexes observers both domestic and foreign—is the vast contradiction between what anthropologists might term the “hot” and “cold” elements in the culture. The hot encompasses the dynamic and progressive aspects of a society dedicated to growth and productivity, marked by mobility, innovation, and optimism. In contrast, the cold embodies rigid social forms and archaic beliefs, fundamentalisms of all kinds, racism and xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, cultural atavism, and ignorance—in short, the primitive.

For cultural critic Paul Smith, the tension between progressive and primitive is a constitutive condition of American history and culture. In Primitive America, Smith contemplates this primary contradiction as it has played out in the years since 9/11. Indeed, he writes, much of what has happened since—events that have seemed to many to be novel and egregious—can be explained by this foundational dialectic.

More radically still, Primitive America attests that this underlying stress is driven by America’s unquestioned devotion to the elemental propositions and processes of capitalism. This devotion, Smith argues, has become America’s quintessential characteristic, and he begins this book by elaborating on the idea of the primitive in America—its specific history of capital accumulation, commodity fetishism, and cultural narcissism. Smith goes on to track the symptoms of the primitive that have arisen in the aftermath of 9/11 and the commencement of the “Long War” against “violent extremists”: the nature of American imperialism, the status of the U.S. Constitution, the militarization of America’s economy and culture, and the Bush administration’s disregard for human rights.

An urgent and important engagement with current American policies and practices, Primitive America is, at the same time, an incisive critique of the ideology that fuels the ethos of America’s capitalist culture.

Primitive America

Paul Smith is professor of cultural studies at George Mason University and the author of numerous books, including Clint Eastwood: A Cultural Production (Minnesota, 1993).

Primitive America

Primitive (as in accumulation) America (as in underlying political-economic contradictions that have always structured the republic): a land of fundamentalisms only accelerated by 9/11. Paul Smith is the ideal reader of this conjuncture—mordant, biting, refreshingly savage.

Eric Lott, author of The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual

This readable, argumentative book investigates some of the material conditions and dominant discourses shaping cultural debate in contemporary America. Smith documents the enormous and insidious role of ‘primitive’ capitalism and criticizes not only its neglect by servile right-wing ideologues, but also its underestimation by Marxists, liberal journalists, and academic theorists ranging from Emmanuel Levinas to Judith Butler. An important contribution to debates launched by Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Michel de Certeau, and Judith Butler, and in Michael Denning's Culture in the Age of Three Worlds, this book will serve not only students of economics but also those interested in American studies, cultural studies, literary theory, and philosophy. Recommended.

Choice

Primitive America provides a sobering cultural materialist counterpoint to cultural globalization theory’s arguments about the decline of state power and the collapse of cultural nationalisms. The historical ground that seems to have fallen out of post-structuralist and post-modern theories of the autonomy of cultural politics is illuminated and restored by Smith’s timely book. Primitive America is a ‘hot’ riposte to the many subjectively appealing but nonetheless ‘cool’ liberal criticisms of the U.S. state that fail to critique the system it defends and extends.

Politics and Culture

A provocative, original, and unorthodox critique of contemporary American capital and culture.

Reviews in Cultural Theory