Abundance for What?
Reading through this new collection of David Riesman’s essays is a peculiarly unpleasant experience. The pieces collected here were originally published or delivered as lectures during the past nine years, and though they fall naturally into four sections divided by subject—“The Impact of the Cold War,” “Abundance for What?” “Abundance for Whom?” and “Social Science Research”—all together they comprise a single continuing enterprise: to define the new temper of American life brought about by the conditions of “abundance” or “affluence” or whatever term one chooses to characterize the postwar period. Now this subject is one that no one living in America can long escape from or fail to feel himself implicated in. It is, moreover, preeminently David Riesman’s subject; indeed, one might almost say that in The Lonely Crowd he invented it. And yet far from providing illumination or even entertainment, Abundance for What? only wearies the spirit.
Why this should be so is not quite self-evident. It is not that Riesman has nothing interesting to say. He has all too much that is all too interesting to say. It was, after all, in a review of The Lonely Crowd that Lionel Trilling made his now-famous remark about sociology’s having taken over the traditional work of the novel, and even in these essays one can see what Trilling meant: Riesman has the kind of imaginative concern for the styles and textures of social behavior that becomes all the more precious as it threatens to disappear (in, oddly enough, this age of sociology).
To be sure—as Daniel Boorstin so heatedly demonstrated in Book Week—the difficulty with Abundance for What? is partly literary. Reisman is not by any definition of the term a good writer; and this book was clearly edited by a process of agglomeration, by the addition of further notes and comments and explanatory prefaces, when what was needed was a sharply critical blue pencil. Beyond that there is the fact that the essays collected here are not essays at all but memoranda, or, rather, hasty outlines for books. With most of the pieces Riesman does not seem to be exploring the subject at hand so much as trying out yet another angle of entry into some imagined new “classic study” of American society. The result of writing under the pressure of this constant straining for the definitive idea and idiom, this operating in a veritable frenzy of extrapolation, is a prose style that is at one and the same time gruelingly explicit and maddeningly general.
Finally there is Riesman’s unfortunate taste for working in collaboration. No fewer than seven of the essays in this book bear the name of a co-author, and in most of the others one can find at least some touches of an alien hand. Riesman and his collaborators seem to regard social “insights” as so many bits of raw ore that can be refined together in any combination; and the broader the combination, the grander and more durable will be the alloy. In the midst of a discussion of the American obsession with being tough, for instance (offered apropos the cold war), one suddenly comes upon the observation that England has produced no figure like Reinhold Niebuhr. Obviously this idea occurred to somebody in passing and was stuck in to enrich the argument; it is the sort of thing—the book is full of them—that makes one want to weep for the demise of narrow pedantry.
If the problem were only—or even centrally—literary, however, one’s discomfort with Abundance for What? would be parochial and mean-spirited. Riesman has of course, probably far more than he realizes, been taken over by the rhetorical barbarity of American social science. But unlike most of his colleagues, he has a generous mind and a genuinely playful one. He is also in some way a good deal more modest than they: while he uses pretentious and trashy phrases like “anticipatory socialization” when he means “upbringing”—a habit of social science about which there is nothing left to say—he never quite permits his plain meaning to be clouded over. Riesman really means to discover for us big things, important things, which is the kind of high personal ambition that always demands its measure of humility.
What he means to discover for us are the nature and quality of our discontinuities from the American past. He wants us to see and understand all the ways in which we are new men living in a new society—that just as our fathers’ way of life is no longer ours, so their characters and aspirations are no longer ours. There seems to be no need to rehearse his main theme, which was set down in The Lonely Crowd, and has become almost a platitude of serious social thought since then: that technology increasingly shifts our basic relation to the world’s goods from that of producers to that of consumers and that this shift is bringing with it radical revisions in some of the patterns of our social behavior. Furthermore, these new patterns are, at least so far, attended by a curious feeling of malaise—call it apathy conformity, “other-directedness.” There is no educated American by now—thanks in great measure to Riesman himself—who cannot in some way articulate the effect on our national habits of the fact that we are richer than ever before at a cost of less human labor than ever before: that we do not save but spend, that we do not risk but play the odds, that we tend to seek our comforts and pleasures in a more or less uniform way. Though the “other-directed” man does not appear by name in the present volume, he nevertheless remains the author’s main protagonist. In their politics, problems of work, leisure, education and family life, the Americans of Abundance for What? are the same largely passive creatures of social manipulation as the other-directed men of The Lonely Crowd.
The trouble is that the very intellectual quality that manifests itself as openness and playfulness of mind also serves to undermine Riesman’s usefulness as an observer of other people’s lives and behavior. In creating his typology of “inner-” and “other-directed” men, he was undoubtedly trying to extend into our own day some form of Max Weber’s apprehension of the relation between Calvinism and capitalism. He was trying, that is, to analyze what he saw as the new American “religion” of sociability in terms of the pressing new need to have the profusion of goods produced by an advanced technology efficiently consumed. But there is this difference between Weber and Riesman: to Weber religion and capitalism were real, as were the human beings caught in their toils. To Riesman, on the other hand, as his very choice of approach shows, the things of which he speaks are not real but have only the limits his speculation gives to them. Consumption, after all, is not an institution, it is an activity and an ephemeral one at that; sociability is not a belief, nor even a clue to character, it is a style of behavior. Riesman’s data, in other words, are not institutions or ideologies but styles. When he talks about the middle class or the working class, for example, what he conjures up for us are images of the fashions that have prevailed among these groups for the past twenty years. Fashions can tell us a good deal about the economic and even the political conditions of a particular society. But what about the men who are given over to them? For Riesman the members of society are not men whose lives and strivings are ransomed to forces over which they have no control—the forces of nature or the forces of history; nor are they even (like Max Weber’s Calvinists) men who really believe what their roles in society have required that they believe. They are mere semblances shaped now this way and now that by conditions that are themselves only semblances.
The story of what happened at the Hawthorne plant of the Western Electric Company is a perhaps minor but exemplary illustration. In the late Twenties, as Riesman tells it, a group of psychoanalytically oriented social workers set up a program in the plant for non-directive interviews with the workers. The workers were invited to come and air their gripes. However, since the interviews were only intended as therapy—a time for the unburdening of grievances and problems—the interviewers made no report to the management of what they heard and did not intercede on behalf of their complaining subjects. At first the employees believed that the social workers were there to help effect changes in the plant, and morale was given an enormous boost. But by 1948, when Riesman went to visit Hawthorne, the workers were of course fully aware of the practical futility of these interviews and were quite indifferent to the whole interview program. Their indifference might have seemed the most natural and obvious response of sensible people to something that was getting them absolutely nowhere. Riesman, however, found a different explanation:
…one factor which might be important is the shift in the impact of permissiveness. When the program began, many employees at Hawthorne were poor, isolated immigrant women who were intimidated by their bosses in the plant, at home, and in the precinct…As the milieu is now less aggressively directive, so there’s a different breed of girls working there now [italics mine].
Riesman simply cannot see the manipulative attempt being made on those workers. He cannot see it because his very description is part of the same attempt writ large. The social workers were engaged in a shoddy—and all the more shoddy because unwitting—effort to do the Hawthorne employees out of their grievances with a “therapy” that had no reference or relation to the actual content of those grievances. Riesman’s treatment of the problems besetting his contemporary Americans, like his “explanation” of the Hawthorne workers, is similarly “non-directive.” For him, attitudes and forms of behavior—whether in relation to war, to the raising of children, to deprivation, or whatever—are never responses to real conditions Out There but always and exclusively the result of the conditioning of a man’s milieu. If the postwar American malaise has indeed to do with people’s inability to take the soundings of an independently experienced reality—as he himself has said it does—then his own work, to the extent that it succeeds in influencing American culture, must only serve to contribute to that malaise.
Reading David Riesman, then, is like being in a hall of mirrors. The literature that teaches us about “other-directedness” is itself totally other-directed. The essays from which we learn of a widespread acquiescence in the demands of the surrounding culture confirm themselves by their own acquiescence. The unpleasant experience one has in reading Abundance for What? is, finally, vertigo.