Friday, February 26, 2010

The Lonely Crowd, First Half

You guys must be starting to think that I have an odd fixation on the study of loneliness. I've read Bowling Alone, skimmed The Lonely American, and am now reading the granddaddy of them all, The Lonely Crowd. It would be an especially violent act of forced optimism to deny that sometimes, it can feel lonely to be asexual. And as we've established, it can also be easy to feel lonely as a single person in a society that offers little support to you. The underlying framework of this society is what David Riesman and friends unravel in The Lonely Crowd, which doesn't really have much to do with loneliness specifically. It was written in 1961, which is obvious throughout, as you'll find many offhandedly sexist comments and references to humans as "men", for a start. However, the book seems to still be relevant today. To paraphrase what Theodore Roszak said about Freud, there seems to be no cultural norm that is too sacred for Riesman's analysis.

In the first chapter, I was thinking, "I don't know if I'll get through this". Riesman introduces quite a few terms that I'd never heard before, and he throws them at you all at once, which is a little overwhelming. Add to that a dry tone, and I was not engaged from the start. But once I got the terms figured out, the book started moving a lot faster and getting a lot more interesting. Riesman's main point seems to be that one of three social frameworks predominates in a given society, and which one predominates is based on a society's level of population growth. Explaining them all would be time-consuming (be thankful for small mercies), but what's most important to know is that in our era, we're moving (or by now, have already moved) into a "social character" (or mode of conformity) that Riesman calls "other-directed". As other-directed people, our products are our personalities and our challenge is to have them approved by others. An example of other-directed focus would be a job interview where "teamwork" and "attitude" are a lot more important than your achievements. It's not a flattering portrayal of our society. And considering there are only two other choices of "social character", neither of which seem objectively better, it's looking pretty depressing at this point. Riesman promises that in the last chapter, he'll talk about a viable alternative, "autonomy". Whether his solutions are actually workable will have to wait to be seen, until I finish the book.

Riesman has some clear opinions about sex in an other-directed society, although his comments are brief, and you don't get to them until page 145. However, I can add Riesman to my growing list of people (Michael Lerner, Gunter Schmidt, Leonore Tiefer) who relate our boring and impersonal work lives with our excitement about sex. He writes:

In this phase [of incipient population decline] there is not only a growth of leisure, but work itself becomes both less interesting and less demanding for many; increased supervision and subdivision of tasks routinize the industrial process even beyond what was accomplished in the phase of transitional growth of population. More than before, as job-mindedness declines, sex permeates the daytime as well as the playtime consciousness. (146, emphasis mine)

And if you can forgive the rhyming of the above, here is another of Riesman's thoughts on the matter:

Though there is tremendous insecurity about how the game of sex should be played, there is little doubt as to whether it should be played or not. Even when we are consciously bored with sex, we must still obey its drive. Sex, therefore, provides a kind of defense against the threat of total apathy. This is one of the reasons why so much excitement is channeled into sex by the other-directed person. He looks to it for reassurance that he is alive. (146, emphasis Riesman's)

In previous times, sex was for "production and reproduction" (146). Now, that's changed. If anything, I think it's probably easier to be asexual now than it was in past eras. However, I don't think it's a coincidence that we're called "cold", "frigid", and other adjectives that make us sound less "alive", like a body in the morgue. I also think asexuals have proved that without an excitement about sex, apathy does not reign.


raymoej said...

This caught my eye.

In this phase [of incipient population decline] there is not only a growth of leisure

Please reiterate or contextualize, I'd appreciate that. thx :)

Ily said...

Sure thing-- at the time the book was written, Riesman thought that America was on the verge of population decline, like a few other affluent countries (Italy, Japan) are going through now. How well that theory has held up in terms of the US, I don't know. That said, the population aspect isn't the most important.