Notes for Comparative Social History Reading List: George Lipsitz

Comment* on George Lipsitz, Rainbow at Midnight: Labour and Culture in the 1940s (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994)

George Lipsitz looks at shop floor activism, working class culture, and a wave of strikes that spread across the United States after the Second World War. Because his culturalist approach to examining ‘working class expression’ during the 1940s owes much to discursive practice, he relies more on “poetic” logic (as, for example, outlined by Roman Jacobson), than historiographical logic (as, for example, outlined by E.P. Thompson).[1] Consequently his work is not likely to meet criteria set out by historians with ‘traditional’ as opposed to high-modernist expectations.[2] Undertaking a fair critique of Lipsitz’s book —one that engages with it in culturalist terms—is, however, no easy task. Foremost, because culturalism comes in many and competing varieties, there is the problem of determining what form of cultural studies Lipsitz has adopted: by what rules of the game is he playing? Beyond crediting labour activist Stan Weir with explaining the concept of romanticism, and noting that “the methods I employ in this book in respect to popular culture” are ones he had used previously in Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture (1990), and derived from “the discussion of discursive transcoding in Douglas Kellner and Michael Ryan, Camera Politica” (1988), he supplies few concrete clues.[3] According to Douglas Kellner, these clues must be followed and sorted if one is to adequately summarize or critique a book such as Lipsitz’s.[4] Kellner has noted that:

One of the hazards of cultural studies is the proclivity toward theoreticism, in which culture and society are reduced to discourse and in which one discourse is privileged above all others. This tendency leads to the problematic notion of a purely Baudrillardian, Foucaultian, Deleuzian, Habermasian, or (fill in the blanks) other form of cultural studies in which analysis is reduced to the problematics of the theorist in question. Of course, deploying any given theory in an imaginative way can yield novel and important insights. But reducing cultural studies to one theoretical problematic, or transcoding cultural studies into the language of a specific theory, can itself be highly destructive of the broader project.[5]

Thus it would not help the “multiperspectivist” ‘broader project’ to misapprehend what one of its practitioner/ contributors was doing/ saying, because “the results of such [cultural] studies need to be interpreted and contexualized within critical social theory to adequately delineate their meanings and effects.”[6] (All of which may be analogously decoded as: an expert knowledge of cricket does not fit a sportscaster to call play-by-play at a baseball game.)

Although I am far from certain of the exact “critical social theory” context Lipsitz must be interpreted within, I am willing to hazard the guess that, following Kellner, he seeks to:

utilize a synthesis of philosophy and critical social theory to develop a multiperspectivist approach which includes investigation of a broad expanse of artifacts, interrogating relationships within the three dimensions of: 1) the production and political economy of culture; 2) textual analysis and critique of its artifacts; and 3) study of audience reception and the uses of media/ cultural products.[7]

 Loosely, Liptsitz can be counted as Marxist. As far as his ‘politics’ with respect to Marxism go, he agrees with E.P. Thompson that class consciousness arises out of “organizational learning, social contestation, and political mobilization.”[8] As well he cites Stanley Aronowitz as an authoritative source for some data and to confirm that “collective understanding” arises out of contest and leads to cooperative efforts.[9] Lipsitz does not mention, but appears to owe much (at least by way of Kellner and Aronowitz), to the Marxist approach to cultural studies exemplified by the ‘Birmingham group’ in England, which included Richard Hoggart, Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams.[10] They in turn were influenced by Claude Lévi-Strauss, Ferdinand de Saussure, Jacques Lacan, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci.[11] As well, though likewise not mentioned, it would be surprising if Lipsitz has not considered French writers such as Pierre Bourdieu and Michel de Certeau and prominent American culturalists such as Clifford Geertz (James Carey is mentioned). The British cultural-Marxists’ influence is visible in Lipsitz’s focus. The Birmingham group analyzed the reciprocal nature of representations and interpretations of ideologies of class, gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality in cultural ‘texts’ (which include all forms of expression in all forms of media). They wanted to understand what working class consciousness was and why it appeared less than ‘revolutionary.’ They arrived at the conclusion (as did other schools and individual theorists analyzing other cultural settings), that mass media/ consumerist culture effectively enmeshed workers in the capitalist web. However, they found expressions of worker resistance in subcultures. These expressions took the form of dress, slang, music, etc., hence Lipsitz’s interest in zoot-suiters, jazzists, Hank Williams, and Marilyn Monroe.

In terms of methodology, Lipsitz appears to owe as much to the literary, textual, and cultural analysis undertaken by Northrop Frye, Hayden White, and Kenneth Burke—or, alternatively, his work appears to support their formulations/ hypotheses regarding the structure of discourse. Lipsitz adopts the assumption that society is a culturally interconnected whole and therefore one may select from among the artifacts generated within that whole during a given time to weave a description that tells a story about the people who fashioned those artifacts. The story he tells adheres to what might be characterized as a Marxist-inspired allegory. Following Northrop Frye, of the available archetypes of literature, Lipsitz demonstrates a concern with “the hero’s power of action” common to fiction and/ or a non-fiction “pregeneric plot structure” that contains elements of “primal myths.” There are hints of ‘comedy’ in that there is a quasi- “reconciliation of the protagonist with his community at the end.” But, there are as well hints of: ‘romance,’ in that the search for group consciousness “chronicles what seems like a knight’s quest”; ‘tragedy’ in that Lipsitz “shows us a hero’s separation from his society”; and even ‘irony/ satire,’ which “gives us the everyday difficulties and dissembling of life.”[12] The ‘hero’ in Lipsitz’s account is of the “low mimetic mode,” common to comedy and realistic fiction, whereby working class persons are “no better than the rest of us.” Such heroes typically elicit sympathy from the audience/ reader as long as the story displays “the canons of probability that we use in ordinary experience.”[13] As far as I can tell, Lipsitz’s text can be seen to be ordered tropologically. Following Hayden White, Lipsitz—in attempting to “structure the world and produce meaning for a chaotic reality” as well as to describe “the problem of freedom of moral choice”—moves, in poetic fashion, “from a metaphorical identification of units of experience, to their metonymic displacement, to a synecdochic representation of their part/ whole or genus/ species relations, to an ironic awareness of the disparity between what is stated and what is intended.”[14]

As for the “dramatistic” theory of Kenneth Burke: “a system of procedures based on five terms,” which when applied to discourse analysis, “can be used to investigate and to understand any human action,” Lipsitz uses: (1) act—what was done; (2) scene—where and when it was done; (3) agent—who did it; (4) agency—by what means; and (5)  purpose— why. All five terms also figure in Burkesian “ratios” or combinations such as “act-scene, act-agent, act-agency, act-purpose” etc.[15] Thus Lipsitz describes the protagonists (‘workers’) who in his view “demonstrated the “potential … to undermine hierarchy and exploitation”; who live in a time of ‘transformation’; and who encounter obstacles erected by antagonists (‘corporate-liberals’) intent on imposing a ‘world-view’ by “reconceptualizing business” and by supporting policies such as increased defense spending and deindustrialization. In the end, the workers, despite efforts worth celebrating and remembering, received economic concessions but did not achieve political democracy.[16]

Cultural/ poetic logic allows Lipsitz to assume both the interconnectedness of his elements and interconnectedness to his analysis. Therefore Lipsitz does not need to clarify where exactly the connections exist—that task is left to the reader, if they wish to undertake it. I do not. I find the vagueness of his formulation too daunting to sort out. I do not know, for example what is it about ‘work’ that separates Lipsitz’s ‘workers’ from ‘executives’ because he does not organize: full-time, part-time, casual, temporary, non-wage, wage, organized, unorganized, clerical, managerial, technical, consultant, and executive positions within the workforce in a way that indicates where, how (or, in some cases, if), the separation takes place. Nor does he explain where entertainers, as part of the entertainment industry, fit in. Lipsitz offers only that working-class people make their living by selling their labour power to someone in return for wages. They clearly are not the political-economic elite. The working-class people are vulnerable to subordination on the basis of class, race, and gender (which are inextricably linked categories of exclusion). They are not “better” people than others, but they do have aspirations to become less vulnerable to the vagaries of life within a capitalist system, which they struggle to realize through agitating/ calling for social change as they “experience … being in transit” through it. But, in keeping with the tropisms outlined above, political struggle is “complicated and unpredictable” and victory tends to go to those with “money and power.” Lipsitz, in accepting the overweening power of the capitalist/ corporate-liberal project, does not bother to clarify when in time or where in conceptual space “working class public culture” becomes middle-class consumerism or a site of upper-class dilettantism.[17] That I wish he had bothered to do so says more about me than about Lipsitz or his text, according to poetic logic.

If one of the goals of culturalist approaches is that of “breaking, revising or weakening … dominant codes” of description, then there are some codes that, I would argue, Lipsitz carries forward rather that exposes.[18] For example his presentation of class, race, and gender is conventional among social historians who neglect such categories as age, transience, religious denomination, and regional affiliation (he does allude to intelligence).[19] Likewise, Lipsitz does not counter a conventional view that women ‘controlled’ norms regarding masculinity and ‘civilized’ behavior, even though he describes women as behaving “freely” when “unsupervised” by men, which would seem to suggest that men as often ‘controlled’ norms of female behavior.[20] Nor does Lipsitz challenge conventional representations of workers as peculiarly susceptible to ‘exploitation.’ He finds that managers who agree with racist workers ‘exploit’ their hatred, rather than suggesting that the workers ‘exploited’ (or cooperated with) management racists in order to take advantage of an opportunity to express racism in a legitimated chorus.[21]

Following Kellner, there is a question that might be expected of a historiographical critique such as mine. If, in culturalist historiography, “One can obviously not deploy the full range of methods and perspectives … [of cultural studies] in each distinctive project that one undertakes and the nature of particular projects will determine what perspectives are most productive,” then I should offer an opinion as to whether, as a culturalist, Lipsitz hit upon the “most productive” means of analyzing ‘working class expression’ in shop floor activism, working class culture, and a wave of strikes that spread across the United States after the Second World War.[22] I cannot do so. Because of a theoretically in-built resistance in Lipsitz’s account to critique from a traditional historiographical standpoint, and because my criticism is only one of an indeterminately multiple number of possibilities, I simply do not know how to arrive at such an opinion. I have no way of determining whether I have properly ‘translated’ his work—or how accurately he translated anyone else’s. I cannot know if I have adequately ‘discovered’ Lipsitz as an author. I will not even pretend to have “put [his work] into the context of a present historical moment and [tried] to use it for present needs” because, apparently, whether I have or not is up to the reader of my text (you, reading this one online, here/ where you are) to translate and decode and decide.[23] I suppose if Lipsitz likes what he has produced, and especially if somebody else likes it, then from a culturalist standpoint, he has been relatively successful. I have no idea how an absolute valuation capable of distinguishing a ‘most’ productive from a ‘least’ productive approach is to be arrived at within the culturalist perspectives. To my knowledge, when using poetic logic, resort to dichotomies that suggest one history may be more valid than another is disallowed. ‘Validity’ and ‘invalidity’ are meaningless terms, because, as Hayden White observed: “reason [is] not set over against imagination as the basis of truth against the basis of error.” [24] In the words of Bryan D. Palmer, this may be “a rather hard sell” for many historians—historical materialist and otherwise.[25]


*Written c. 2005 in preparation for PH.D. comp. exam; see “bibliography 2: knowing Social History; Field: Comparative Social History: select themes in consciousness and identity” this site.

[1] Roman Jacobson, quoted in Hayden White, “New Historicism: A Comment,” in The New Historicism, ed. H. Aram Vesser (New York.: Routledge, 1989), 300, also 295, 301. Jacobson observes: “The poetic function [of language] projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection … to the axis of combination.” White explains that this allows the author to determine a sequence in narrative capable of “breaking, revising or weakening … dominant codes” of description that legitimate or sustain oppressive cultural ‘myths.’

For additional descriptions of the ‘poetic’ indicative of the logic at work in literary approaches, see Frank J. D’Angelo, “Tropics of Arrangement: A Theory of Dispositio,” JAC 10.0 (1990) online journal, available at Articles/7.htm; and Pauline Vaillancourt Rosenau, “Into the Fray … Substance of a Post-Modern Social Science,” Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences: Insights, Inroads, and Intrusions (Princeton NJ.: Princeton University Press, 1992), 3-11, 14-17. For a response to the ‘poetic,’ that includes a description of its logic, see Ewa Domanska, “Hayden White: Beyond Irony,” History and Theory 37, no. 2 (May, 1998): 173-181.

E.P. Thompson, “The Poverty of Theory or An Orrery of Errors (1978),” The Poverty of Theory & Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978), 37-50, explains “By ‘historical logic’ I mean a logical method of enquiry appropriate to historical materials, designed as far as possible to test hypotheses as to structure, causation, etc., and to eliminate self-confirming procedures (‘instances’, ‘illustrations’). The disciplined historical discourse of the proof consists in a dialogue between concept and evidence, a dialogue conducted by successive hypotheses, on the one hand, and empirical research on the other. The interrogator is historical logic; the interrogative a hypothesis (for example, as to the way in which different phenomena acted upon each other); the respondent is the evidence, with its determinate properties.”

For additional descriptions of historical logic, see Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff, The Modern Researcher, rev. ed. (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970), 19-25, 58-62, 238-246; and Adrian Wilson, “Foundations of an integrated historiography,” in Rethinking social history: English Society 1570-1920 and its interpretation, ed. Adrian Wilson (New York: Manchester University Press, 1993), 293-335.

[2] For example, James C. Foster, review of Rainbow at Midnight: Labour and Culture in the 1940s, by George Lipsitz, The American Historical Review 87, no. 4 (Oct., 1982): 1196, criticizes Lipsitz for his “narrow” approach and the “narrowness of his research base and the inaccuracies of some of his generalizations.”

[3] Lipsitz, Rainbow at Midnight, 15 n. 8, 65 n. 1.

[4] Douglas Kellner, “Cultural Studies and Philosophy: An Intervention,” pdf http://www.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Lipsitz, Rainbow at Midnight, 11.

[9] Ibid., 15 n. 4, 20, 41 n. 1, 252. Stanley Aronowitz, “The End of Political Economy,” Social Text 2 (summer, 1979), 3-52, adopts a post-modern stance with respect to social history.

[10] Norma Schulman, “Conditions of their Own Making: An Intellectual History of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham,” Canadian Journal of Communications 18, no. 1 (1993), available at

[11] Graeme Turner, British Cultural Studies: An Introduction, 2d ed. (New York: Routledge, 1990). Lipsitz only mentions Barthes.

[12] Mark Hamilton “Northrop Frye goes to the Movies,” Ph. D. diss. (Florida State University, College of Arts and Sciences, 2003), pdf,d.cWw&cad=rja.

[13] John Reilly, review, Anatomy of Criticism, archived at

[14] Domanska, “Hayden White,” 174, also 175, 176; D’Angelo, “Tropics of Arrangement.”

[15] D’Angelo, “Tropics of Arrangement.”

[16] Lipsitz, Rainbow at Midnight, 10, 5, 64, 94, 7, 19, 3, 2.

[17] Ibid., 12, 48, 38, 9, 11-12, 40; also 108, 255-256. Bryan D. Palmer, review of Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism, and the Poetics of Place, by George Lipsitz , The Journal of American History 85, no. 4 (Mar., 1999): 1668-1669, voices a similar dissatisfaction with Lipsitz’s approach in another text. Palmer could not  find “where and how” Lipsitz’s resolute respectfulness “of the creative capacities of artists and audiences” and their experience of oppression, and his belief in “the powerfully liberating potential” of ordinary but oppressed people, connected in any telling way to show that “this current of music-driven revolutionary negotiation transforms itself into the socioeconomic project of historic transformation.”

[18] See n. 1 above.

[19] Lipsitz, Rainbow at Midight, 40, 48.

[20] Ibid., 54.

[21] Ibid., 75.

[22] Kellner, “Cultural Studies.”

[23] Domanska, “Hayden White,” 174.

[24] See Hayden White, cited in Ibid., 177.

[25] Palmer, review of Dangerous Crossroads, 1669.



About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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One Response to Notes for Comparative Social History Reading List: George Lipsitz

  1. Damian says:

    Of the 3 HBC Ships cited in List 2 as having sailed in 1738 (Seahorse, Mary, Hudson Bay), how can I discover which visited Fort Albany?

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