Culture Against Man
Almost everything in Culture Against Man is familiar through other studies and through articles in newspapers and magazines. It is not news today that this is a society (or culture) in which objects are produced not for use but for profit; in which most people work not at what they want to do but at what they have to do; in which the steady rain of falsehood, exaggeration, and nonsense emanating from “Madison Avenue” conditions adults and children to a perpetual hunger for commodities upon which depends the growth of the Gross National Product; in which achieving a high standard of living goes hand in hand with “loss of Self”; in which compulsive economics fused with the national fear of Communism has harnessed our universities and our intellectuals to a production and military machine largely out of control; in which anxiety about success and dread of personal extinction ruin the relations of man to man, of husband to wife, of parents and children, and haunt the individual from the kindergarten to the wheelchair. This account of conditions is, we say, thoroughly well known; so that one who wishes to repeat it confronts a problem of rhetoric: How deliver the grim description of our collective life in a new way, so that we may apprehend it more clearly, feel it more deeply, and react to it as people who know where we are? There is also, of course, the problem of how to make things better.
Professor Henry is aware of both the rhetorical problem and the problem of action. He addresses himself, however, only to the first; his proposals concerning the emotional handling of children, improving the schools and homes for the aged, and increasing trade with the Soviet Union could scarcely affect the profit system and the processes which separate men from one another and from themselves.
Since Culture Against Man contains neither new kinds of information nor a new program, its value must be estimated on the basis of its mode of presentation of our familiar world, that is to say, its art. It is another instance of the competition by the social sciences with works of literature (fiction, the essay) and with philosophy—this competition is itself a typical phenomenon of the culture Henry deplores. The most notable feature of Culture Against Man is its verbal self-consciousness (which may represent a new development in the social sciences in America after years of being sneered at for their strangled jargon). Professor Henry, trained in cultural anthropology, evinces a strong bent toward literary allusion and metaphor; for example, A Midsummer Night’s Dream stands for elements in our culture arising from “impulse release and fun.” Advertising is “The Great Generator, a hand of deity, so to speak, and it is commitment to this deity that makes advertising men a ‘group of dedicated (a word they love so well) men and women’ ” (his italics).
For its own part, Culture Against Man is “dedicated” to minting labels, an activity not altogether different from that of advertising copy writers—for example, the paid devoutness of advertising suggests to Professor Henry that “we may call this pecuniary other worldliness” (his italics). The “we may call this” or “what I call” phrase is recurrent throughout his composition. The concept of production for use is translated into “what I call production needs complementarity and coincidence“; thinking of people as animals or things is entitled “pathogenic metamorphosis“; ambition is “technological driveness“; “pecuniary logic” is an argument you give somebody to get hold of his money; and so on. Some of these formulas sound like a parody of the awkwardness of old terminolological rag. Production-needs complementarity must be a joke, but Professor Henry keeps a straight face. When he lets himself in for numor or sarcasm it is of the classroom variety—“there ought to be a section of this report dealing with parts of the female that are the best ‘marketing tools.’ For example, I have an advertisement for a popular automobile showing a blonde, bottom up, on the roof of it” (his italics). Other literature-derived terms like “Hell’s Vestibule” tend to be on the facile side.
Apart from his labels, Professor Henry writes smooth, non-technical prose marked by an energetic temperament. He ranges freely in standard sociology and in psychology and existential philosophy, and his intelligence is supple and capable of striking out for interesting connections between data in different fields. He hates all the things a man of good will and perception ought to hate. As a person he seems less bound than most of his colleagues by rubber-stamp assumptions; for example, he sees anger as a necessity of thought (though he himself is not often angry). He has, moreover, shed the pretense of “scientific objectivity” and does not mind saying which things in his environment give him a pain or letting the reader know about his foundation grants and expense accounts. All this is very engaging and adds to the appeal of his book. Not only is the reader told fairly eloquently what is going on, but since Professor Henry is a scientist rather than a novelist he is told it with authority.
The organization of Culture Against Man follows an emotional design. Part One states the general theme of the violation of the American person by American culture, how in the contemporary institutional structure of jobs, status, fear, fun, he inhabits “a Twentieth Century Nightmare.” Part Two—dealing with Professor Henry’s specialized interests, parents and children, the schoolroom and teenagers—is by far the longest. As a second “act” in the build-up of feeling it goes back and forth between despair and hope: The kids and their teachers and parents are not all doomed and most may find their way to an existence, soggy to be sure, but still tolerable. This in-decision is resolved in the third and last part in which American culture gets in its coup de grâce upon its aged members. Here utter blackness reigns. Hopeless, lonely ghosts wander in the wards and corridors of impersonal institutions unable to make their cries of anguish heard even by their fellow victims. “There is a yearning after communion but no real ability to achieve it. In this we are all very much like them” (his italics). These old folks (us) are the ultimate human product of American culture, as junk is its ultimate material product. Or in the poetic strain of Professor Henry, “our culture is an avalanche of obsolescence hurling itself into the Sea of Nonexistence” (his italics).
The question is why reading this volume doesn’t make one feel as sad as it should. The quotations from interviews and reports, especially those obtained in a privately run home for old people living on Social Security checks, are certainly forbidding enough; they show very convincingly how the poverty-stricken aged are systematically broken down into beasts no less than if they were being persecuted by enemies. I found alarming, too, Professor Henry’s demonstration that producing babies on a private enterprise basis tends to populate the country with mental and emotional cripples. In the past a couple reared its offspring under the guidance of society as represented by aunts and mothers-in-law, to say nothing of priests. Today, two segregated egos cultivated by TV, bowling alleys, or cocktail lounges work their will (or lack of it) on helpless infants in the fastness of their split-levels without any overlooking eye to say their yea or nay.
These are real issues, but I doubt that Culture Against Man will add to the feeling of urgency about them. On the contrary, like Vance Packard’s account of sleep-walking supermarket matrons who were caused to dip into the stalls by the color red on packages, Culture Against Man can be read with enjoyment. In part, the reason is that it is so relaxed in form. Well over half its pages consist of quotations, that is to say, of inert material. Do we still need dozens of samples to prove that ads for Revlon or Wonder Bread fail to tell the literal truth? (After all the scholarly use of it as a horrible example, I find myself growing rather fond of “tired blood.”) Henry’s blocks of data, whether taken from the newspapers or from interviewers and researchers sent out by him, keep presenting the reader with glimpses of the everyday world, like pieces of newspaper or strips of cloth pasted into a painted composition. The book is put together like a kind of collage of ideas and patterns of data collected in different periods and while working on different foundation-sponsored projects. But collage is a decorative technique whose ornamental matter consists of bits of “reality.” The glimpses of the familiar through a “scientific” screen make Culture Against Man attractive and easy to take, like snatches of gossip or passages of court testimony which can be absorbed passively. On the other hand, continuity of interest and feeling is hampered by repetition and the frequently boring character of the reports. Thus Culture Against Man can be popular as a book to dip into without having much impact on opinion.
Professor Henry does not accumulate data in order to generalize their meaning: His method is rather to interpret details “in depth” until he reaches the current cultural configuration which they presumably symbolize. This procedure incurs the danger of attributing to modern life trials that beset human life generally—after all, Ecelesiastes did not have in mind Herman Kahn. Henry’s researcher brings back a report that a high-school girl, Lila, sometimes wears a padded bra but dislikes Roger because “he goes out with girls for what he can get.” Professor Henry comments: “Lila believes she has to make her body more provocative to boys, while at the same time she objects to their reaching for it. There is no doubt that adolescent girls have a carefully worked out and well-understood system of conventions—a kind of pragmatic morality—with which they legitimize their sexual behavior. Among the canons of this morality are the conventions of legitimate misrepresentation, as exemplified, for example, in the padded bra complex…. Thus misrepresentation, ‘fooling,’ and the legitimizing…are the products of fear—fear of losing out” (his italics). And Professor Henry concludes that “this competitive anxiety enhances the gross national produce by increasing the sale of padded brassieres.” To believe that “the conventions of legitimate misrepresentation” in sex are a novelty of Cold War and automation culture one must have been raised in Mardi or some other island paradise where nothing was hidden either by clothing or cosmetics.
The looseness of Culture Against Man in designating which of our liabilities are of today and which have been inherited from past ages prevents it from carrying conviction as a statement of our predicament. It is criticism of modern culture from a Utopian point of view; its sole measure for contemporary life is primitive society. Such a measure may appeal to the romanticism of “the literary mind”; as, for example, the measure contained in the famous question which F. R. Leavis hurled against C. P. Snow’s idea of progress through science: “Who will assert that the average member of a modern society is more fully human, or more alive, than a Bushman or an Indian peasant…?” But to sandwich civilization between thin slices of the immediate present and the pre-historic past can scarcely serve the ends of science.
In the perspective of history rather than of Eden, there is enough wrong with the post-war United States without holding it responsible for the fact that “for most people their job was what they had to do, rather than what they wanted to do,” as if work and human relations were not alienated in all civilized societies. It is not within the power of an historical culture to satisfy Professor Henry’s requirement that it give its members interesting tasks. Is any kind of work objectively “interesting?” Writing poetry or hunting the snark can also be a form of drudgery. The category of “interesting” was not, I venture, a consideration among Professor Henry’s aborigines. Society can deprive the individual of enlivening situations; it can use him up through direct compulsion or through forcing him into hardships in order to acquire the necessities of life. Are people today being more used up by their jobs than during the reign of the twelve-hour day? Are teenagers more or less erotically self-possessed than they were forty years ago? It is through answering relative questions that the trends and possibilities of our culture are revealed.
There are no temporal comparisons in Culture Against Man—our doings are reflected there in the silent pool of the thatched-hut community. But to make it in one jump from Madison Avenue to the South Sea isles is itself a species of Pango Peach fantasy on a par with a new shade of lipstick. In reflecting on the modern world it is of the first importance that the unavoidable cots of freedom and individuality be distinguished from the costs of the distortions of freedom and individuality. No doubt individuality is impossible without destroying many of the inherited forms of social communion; yet individuality does not demand that the old or the young should be abused as they are at present or that they should conceive themselves as they are being taught to conceive themselves. Our society stands accused not by the values of the past but by its own values. It has come to dominate as a detached whole without transforming itself into a society of individuals. The huge complex of the modern state has been developing increasingly efficient means for encompassing the individual in all aspects of his life, as if society were swinging back toward the simple relations of the primitive community. Given the urbanity of Professor Henry, I was disappointed at his failure to analyze the part of the social scientist in augmenting current anxiety and “drivenness”—after all, he does point the finger at physicists and mathematicians who serve Cold War culture. Surely, the cultural anthropological concept of modern disorientation produces a seepage that enters the mind at an early age through uneasy mothers and schoolteachers in search of intellectual guidance; it brings a message of self-doubt, the conviction of being overwhelmed by objectively imposed difficulties that only specialists understand. Where but in the mirror of cultural anthropology could an interviewee quoted in Culture Against Man have obtained the following image of himself? “As a teen-age boy of the Twentieth Century, I have many problems…”