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Custodians of Value: Meritocracy, Classlessness, and Other Late Modernist Dreams

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Custodians of Value takes as its starting point Thomas Piketty’s unusual thesis in Capital in the Twenty-First Century that World Wars I and II were accidental engines of equality that wiped away older structures of capitalist inequality and occasioned Thirty Glorious Years (1945-1975) of felt classlessness and meritocratic faith in the advanced industrialized democracies of the US, UK, and Europe. It traces the continuation of modernism beyond WWII as it was reanimated, rearticulated, and reinvented in these spaces under new postwar coordinates of the disappearance of capital, the eradication of the old aristocratic order, and the rise of meritocracy, before they shifted again in 1973. Complicating Raymond Williams’s claim that modernism—and all its manifold powers of negativity and varied techniques of disruption—went to its death in a “post-war settlement” with mass-organized, official institutional cultures of higher education, the university, and the museum, Custodians of Value traces a modernism that did not die but grew, mutated, and shifted terrain in the gyre of meritocracy.

The dissertation analyzes the work of four late modernists under the sway of meritocratic optimism—Samuel Beckett, D.W. Winnicott, Iris Murdoch, and Frederick Wiseman—and shows how each, variously, exalted and enshrined key liberal meritocratic values of autonomy, discipline, hard work, self-expansion, merit, and right. None of their relationships to the culture and values of meritocracy is straightforward or simple. Rather, meritocracy sets the backdrop through which these figures came to be and through which their projects—literary, theatrical, psychoanalytic, philosophical, and filmic—emerged. Being late modernists, they struggled to take hold of the contradictions inherent in meritocracy’s commands to seize on talent, work hard, study, and move up beside its hierarchical sadisms, its evacuation of social realities, and its limited horizons for play, ethical life, moral vision, and cultural experience. Faced with the problem of how to reconcile individual freedom and social dependence under newfound postwar conditions of apparent equality and prosperity, the late modernisms of Beckett, Winnicott, Murdoch, and Wiseman wrestled with key paradoxes, failures, and agonies of meritocratic culture at the same time as they registered its seductions, powers, aesthetic heights, and affinities with earlier modernist dreams of self-expansion and collective transformation. They present as a rich set of authors to read at the ends of modernism as liberal democratic capitalist cultures now face uncertain futures but remain in thrall to meritocratic dreams.

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This item is under embargo until October 12, 2023.