A Thought Experiment, and One (or More) Earnest Questions

by Debra Morris

Asr-cover2010Imagine flipping through a copy of the academic journal Sociology and Social Research. One article in particular—”Our Schizoid Culture”—catches your eye. The author is well-known: a professor of sociology, soon-to-be editor-in-chief of the American Sociological Review, and, in something of a blow to “two cultures” thinking, future poetry editor for the Humanist magazine. Certainly you could quibble with a number of statements, and some of them seem so wide-ranging as to be inarguable, but in general you share the author's dismay at the “great deal of irrational, contradictory behavior” within contemporary American culture. You agree: “When an individual exhibits similar symptoms, the psychiatrist calls him neurotic, or if he lacks ‘insight' into his difficulties, psychotic.” This is what accounts for, and in your mind fully justifies, the article's tone: honest, emphatic, no-nonsense, but also deeply attuned to ordinary pain and suffering—quite unlike the academic caviling to which you're accustomed. Yes, someone needs to say it: in many domains of life our culture is so confused, so riven, as to be quite, well, unwell. Really, all politics aside, it would be hard to argue with any of this:

We praise competition, but practice merger and monopoly…. We praise business organization but condemn and prevent labor organization…. We give heavier and more certain sentences to bank robbers than to bank wreckers. We boast of business ethics but we give power and prestige to business [disruptors]…. Everybody is equal before the law, except … women, immigrants, poor people.… We ridicule politicians in general but honor all officeholders in particular and most of us would like to be elected to something ourselves. We think of voting as the basis of democracy, but … seldom find more than fifty per cent of eligible voters actually registering their ‘will.'… Democracy is one of our most cherished ideals, but we speak of upper and lower classes, ‘look down on' many useful occupations, trace our genealogies…. We believe in the brotherhood of man, but we are full of racial, religious, economic, and numerous other prejudices and invidious distinctions. We value equality, but tolerate greater inequality of wealth and income than has ever existed in any other society…. We drape nude statues and suppress noble books…. We try to foster participative recreation, but most of it is passive, much of it vicious, and almost all of it flagrantly commercialized…. This is the age of science, but there is more belief in miracles, spirits, occultism, and providences than one would think possible…. Our scientific system produces a specialism that gives great prestige and great technical skill, but not always great wisdom…. The very triumphs of science produce an irrational, magic-minded faith in science….

Realize, now, that the article was written in 1935. The author was Read Bain, professor of sociology at Miami University in Ohio. As a founding editor of the American Sociological Review, he would become embroiled in early disputes between the “scientists” and “humanists” in his own discipline. He was thus involved in theorizing—and, in that spontaneous way of so many early- to mid-20th-century American academics—practicing in the mode of a “public intellectual,” that figure who today, apparently, is nowhere to be found.[i] In terms of Bain's analysis as synopsized above, and even more to the point, in terms of the social critique it so earnestly propounds, what struck me when first reading it was how contemporary it sounded and how apt its reproaches were.

I merely had to update “business buccaneers” to “business disruptors,” for instance, to mark the return of irresponsibility, recklessness, and pathological disregard for the distress of others fostered by our own contemporary cult of innovation.[ii] Naturally I elided references to “Negroes” (for obvious reasons, one of them being that my thought experiment would not have worked particularly well, or for very long, had I not), but I could have substituted equivalent terms easily and honestly enough, and many of Bain's declarations would have been rendered even more compelling thereby: e.g., “Everybody has equal economic opportunity, except people of color, immigrants, women, and the unemployed”; or, “Everybody is equal before the law, except gays and lesbians, women, immigrants, poor people, and economic ‘radicals.'”

What am I suggesting? I am not a historian by training, but I know that a strong argument can be made for the importance of understanding the intellectual and cultural background of our current moment, however unprecedented that moment may seem and however inexorable its effects are said to be. I was once, however, a political philosopher, and I don't recall ever doubting the relevance of, say, an 800-year-old text—very deep background, indeed!—though presumably it would have been much harder to update, its abiding concerns much more difficult to transcribe into current parlance, than an 80-year-old text like Bain's. I was lucky enough to teach in a comparatively open and eclectic department; and, within the subset of political theorists, though I may have been the only self-identified pragmatist I always had the sense that my theory colleagues, whatever methods they might otherwise favor or overarching theoretical orientations they espoused, operated pragmatically as well. That is to say, they were interested in any claim about how society (or more specifically its politics) worked—or didn't; thus their “theory” was always in some measure “critique”; and, perhaps because of this essentially critical impulse, potentially any data (wherever they originated) could prove interesting, every kind of text relevant, many an argument “good.” Maybe all I'm trying to say is that political science always struck me as a particularly hybrid discipline, with very porous parameters—nowhere more so than in the subfield of political philosophy—such that it is hard to recall dustups like the one occasioned very recently by Peter Unger's book Empty Ideas (see Grace Boey's piece for a nice recap as well as entrée to the entire debate, including copious online commentary, on 3QD).

Still, there was something about Bain's piece that intrigued me, that had me asking what I sensed were new, and different, and possibly harder questions about my erstwhile discipline, a couple of which I'd like to throw out to 3QD readers. Given certain lively discussions on the site—the one surrounding Unger's attack on analytic philosophy, of course, also Thomas Rodham Wells' recent piece on philosophical arguments for vegetarianism, the overwhelmingly skeptical response to philosopher Justin E.H. Smith's brief argument for God, and way too many threads on science, whether it can be said to “progress” and by what means, to usefully catalog here—I believe there are readers who might find something of interest in these questions for their own fields of study; or who can help me formulate the questions in a better (perhaps less idiosyncratic) way; or who will show me why they are the wrong questions to ask.

I wonder: What does it matter that I happen across a critique written some 80 years ago, and probably intended even then to be more speculative than demonstrable, that nevertheless seems so timely in its concerns?[iii] Is it at all meaningful, at all significant that I can reconstruct a coherent and contemporary-sounding account of our society from a long-obscure text? Of course, I am opening myself to a chorus of blunt “Noes” here, but this is an honest question. I'm curious about what we consider our proper sources, about all the many places we might look for guidance, or insight, or perspective, all the many texts and all the many voices that might condition whatever we contingently call the brute facts of the matter.

And: Is there such a thing as “progress” in social criticism, and by what would we know it? Consider Bain again: “Our culture is rent with internal divisions and conflicts which erupt into group behavior patterns which in their turn produce societal counterparts of all sorts of schizoid symptoms. It is not difficult to think of societal behavior similar to sadism, masochism, persecution, grandeur delusions, paranoias, … regressions, fixations, fetishisms, over- and under-compensations, and so on.” However much psychoanalytic inquiry as evinced here may be contested—perhaps you'd prefer to describe, indeed you think it sufficient to explain, “group behavior patterns” in terms of, say, utility-maximizing behavior—do we lose something vital when we merely explain, when we decline to diagnose? When we decline, more generally, to criticize; to lament as sick, unhealthy, or deplorable; to call out something as not only “inconsistent,” not just bloodlessly “contradictory,” but incongruous to the point of dishonest. Disloyal, even—to ourselves, our humanity, our deepest convictions or most sacred principles.

It is fitting that I end this piece with another short excerpt concerning Read Bain—and a little macabre, I suppose, given that the excerpt comes from the Memorial Statement issued in 1972 by Bain's long-time institutional home, Miami University. But it's worth remembering of anyone that, in the statement's solemn words, “He hated sham and hypocrisy.” And ironic indeed, considering the 1972 date, to discover the surprising and affecting confession that follows immediately upon this tribute to Bain's integrity: “Those of us who were his colleagues are sometimes glad that he retired before the worst ravages of academic bureaucracy were visited upon us.”

[i] Nicholas Kristof's controversial op-ed is only the latest such lament. (Find the original piece here or via the recent discussion on 3QD.)

[ii] See Jill Lepore's “The Disruption Machine: what the gospel of innovation gets wrong,” recently featured on 3QD (here). Lepore's focus is less on the changes wrought by “disruption” and more on the deficiencies of disruption as a theory of change, but I think she'd agree that there is an interesting connection between these two things, i.e., the degree to which a change is lamentable and the degree to which that change is under- or just badly theorized. She writes, “Most big ideas have loud critics. Not disruption. Disruptive innovation as the explanation for how change happens has been subject to little serious criticism, partly because it's headlong, while critical inquiry is unhurried; partly because disrupters ridicule doubters by charging them with fogyism, as if to criticize a theory of change were identical to decrying change; and partly because, in its modern usage, innovation is the idea of progress jammed into a criticism-proof jack-in-the-box.”

[iii] Among the many references one can find to “Our Schizoid Culture,” the most poignant has to be on a site called, tellingly, forgottenbooks.com. There, the article is summarized thusly: “Schizophrenia, a mental disease term used to characterize persons whose behavior is fragmentized into inconsistent parts, is used … as the model for the analysis, or at least description, of some of the more dramatic incongruities in American culture. Most of us will readily recognize that our own thinking is characterized by these inconsistent assumptions and our behavior likewise. This should serve as a strong antidote to those beliefs which grow out of an overstatement of the consistency principle in culture,…” It is a little depressing to contemplate how many other books, articles, arguments, insights, even truths are likewise forgotten, are likewise lost to us.