‘Plenitude’ and American politics


I’d never encountered the word “plenitude” until a recent post at Reason pointed me to this fantastic 1998 essay, “The Politics of Plenitude,” by cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken.

What is plenitude? For McCracken, it’s “a matter of lifestyle, belief, behavior, and an ever-increasing variety of observable ways of living and being that are continually coming into existence. Plenitude is everywhere among us, especially in our culture and our politics, where it is the source of gross misunderstanding and profound conflict.”  So it’s “diversity,” if you like, though that useful word has been twisted beyond its original meaning in the public’s mind. (McCracken touches on why.)

The problem with plentitude from the right:

The right acts as if the many groups thrown off by plenitude harbor an anarchic tendency, that people have become gays, feminists, or Deadheads in order to escape morality. This is not the logic of plenitude. These people have reinvented themselves merely to escape amorality, not all morality. New communities set to work immediately in the creation of new moralities. Chaos does not ensue; convention, even orthodoxy, returns. Liminality is the slingshot that allows new groups to free themselves from the gravitational field of the old moralities they must escape. But liminality is almost never the condition that prevails once this liberation has been accomplished.

And the problem with plentitude from the left:

The only real plenitude that counts in the left’s scheme is that which has an explicitly oppositional quality. Thus, women’s groups are “diversity,” but country and western line dancing groups are not. Both of these groups may equally engage the individuals within them, both may represent a very substantial shift in cultural categories and social rules, both may mark differences that will continually breed differences, but it is only when the group is explicitly at odds with the mainstream that it qualifies as interesting. …

There is a deliberate narrowness to the left’s definition of plenitude. It is interesting to observe, for example, that the “Diversity Librarian” at the University of Michigan is responsible for collecting only in the following areas: minority studies, sexual orientation studies, and multicultural studies. This so diminishes the scope of the problem as to invite astonishment. Diversity overflows these categories. Real diversity happens everywhere–outside the designated political categories of the left, and its intellectual categories as well.

Much like Brink Lindsey’s excellent book The Age of Abundance, McCracken’s essay pinpoints how  the cheerleaders of America’s deeply flawed red vs. blue political system always miss the forest for the trees. Read the whole thing.

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