“As a Teen-Age Boy of the Twentieth Century…”

Culture Against Man

by Jules Henry
Random, 485 pp., $7.95

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.