What is most novel about the way we have come to view contemporary social crisis is the dynamic and destructive role we ascribe to technology. With rare and prophetic exceptions, like Henry Adams in The Virgin and the Dynamo, most Western writers, even when unsympathetic to the effects of technical progress, have regarded technology itself as morally neutral, though seductive in its possibilities and subject to dangerous abuse. Recently, however, we have come to see that technology may be autonomous, self-perpetuating, and malevolent. Computers and thermonuclear devices do not, as yet, have minds of their own; but by their availability they bring to power men and social institutions less human than themselves. The managers who tend them impose routines more oppressive than any tyrant would devise for purely personal reasons; and this oppression becomes internalized in the expectations and the very perceptions of reality shared throughout technically developed societies, so that rebellion is usually forestalled by repressive de-sublimation or just plain self-betrayal.
The fundamental social and psychological processes underlying this tragic development have been discussed by many contemporary writers: Marcuse, Ellul, and R. D. Laing most notably. No writer, however, has applied these basic processes to the specifically American situation as precisely and clearly as Professor Slater has done in The Pursuit of Loneliness. If I had to select a single book by which to tell a stranger what life in this country has become and why, it would be this one. It is even more useful in telling us about ourselves.
What Slater does to clarify the relationships between our self-imposed subservience to technology and the quality of life in the United States, Grant does in elucidating the more abstract relationships between technological dominance and our capacity—or incapacity—for making moral judgments with any confidence; and judgments about the quality and meaning of life are ultimately moral judgments. Though more difficult and more old-fashioned in style, Grant’s writing deals with even more fundamental issues than Slater’s, and substantially helps the reader to apprehend the extreme gravity of Slater’s implications.
Slater shows exactly what is happening and why it is destructive, and coolly and cagily suggests shifts in society that might possibly prevent it. Grant—a Canadian professor of philosophy who makes few explicit references to the United States—shows us exactly why no post-industrial society is likely to be moved to make such shifts. To speak bluntly, a society committed to categorizing its experiences in the way required to establish and maintain value-free science and continuous technical expansion no longer possesses any basis for legitimizing a preference for life over death. Neither can be proved better by scientific government tests.
Reading The Pursuit of Loneliness provides almost physical relief from the agonies of life in America, in the same way as discussing a painful illness with a physician who clearly understands the symptoms does, even when he cannot promise that the treatment he recommends will cure. The book accounts for the real horrors, as other books have done; but it also notes explicitly the small, nasty evils which, like the imps of Hieronymus Bosch, are ubiquitous and account for far more of the distress, frustration, and ultimately the terror of daily life. Thus the Preface concludes:
“A traveler returning to his own country after spending some time abroad obtains a fresh vision of it…. Reentering America, one is struck first of all by the grim monotony of American facial expressions—hard, surly, and bitter—and by the aura of deprivation that informs them. One goes abroad forewarned against exploitation by grasping foreigners, but nothing is done to prepare the returning traveler for the fanatical acquisitiveness of his compatriots. It is difficult to become reaccustomed to seeing people already weighted down with possessions acting as if every object they did not own were bread withheld from a hungry mouth…. And the vindictive fury with which they respond to the careless hedonism of their children makes one wonder if something in the American psyche has finally come unstuck.
“The traveler’s antennae disappear after a time. These impressions fade, and the reentry process is gradually effected. America once again seems familiar, comfortable, ordinary. Yet some uneasiness lingers on, for the society seems troubled and self-preoccupied—as if suddenly large numbers of Americans were scrutinizing their own society with the doubtful eyes of a traveler.”
Very early on, Slater defines the issues with which his book will deal:
“What is so severely lacking in our society that the assertion of an alternative life style throws so many Americans into panic and rage?
“I would like to suggest three human desires that are deeply and uniquely frustrated by American culture:
“(1) The desire for community—the wish to live in trust and fraternal cooperation with one’s fellows in a total and visible collective entity.
“(2) The desire for engagement—the wish to come directly to grips with social and interpersonal problems and to confront on equal terms an environment which is not composed of ego-extensions.
“(3) The desire for dependence—the wish to share responsibility for the control of one’s impulses and the direction of one’s life.
“When I say that these three desires are frustrated by American culture, this need not conjure up romantic images of the individual struggling against society. In every case it is fair to say that we participate eagerly in producing the frustration we endure—it is not something merely done to us…. The thesis of this chapter is that Americans have voluntarily created and voluntarily maintain a society which increasingly frustrates and aggravates these secondary yearnings, to the point where they threaten to become primary. Groups that in any way personify this threat are therefore feared in an exaggerated way, and will be until Americans as a group are able to recognize and accept those needs within themselves.”
While each of these three needs, and even the relationships among them, have been discussed by writers like Robert Nisbet and, especially, by a number of existentialists, none depicts as concretely as Slater the social consequences of their frustration, and the roots of that frustration in technologically patterned striving. Thus, in considering the habitual uninvolvement with which we defeat our quest for engagement:
“Asking us to consider the manifold consequences of chopping down a forest, draining a swamp, spraying a field with poison, making it easier to drive into an already crowded city, or selling deadly weapons to everyone who wants them—arouses in us the same impatience as a chess problem would in a hyperactive six-year-old.
“The avoiding tendency lies at the very root of American character. This nation was settled and continuously repopulated by people who were not personally successful in confronting the social conditions obtaining in their mother country, but fled these conditions in the hope of a better life. This series of choices (reproduced in the westward movement) provided a complex selection process—populating America disproportionately with a certain kind of person.
“In the past we have always, explicitly or implicitly, stressed the positive side of this selection, implying that America therefore found itself blessed with an unusual number of energetic, mobile, ambitious, daring and optimistic persons. Now there is no reason to deny that a number of traits must have helped differentiate those who chose to come from those who chose to stay, nor that these differences must have generated social institutions and habits of mind that tended to preserve and reproduce these characteristics.
“But very little attention has been paid to the more negative aspects of the selection. If we gained the energetic and the daring we also gained the lion’s share of the rootless, the unscrupulous, those who value money over relationships, and those who put self-aggrandizement ahead of love and loyalty. And most of all, we gained a critically undue proportion of persons who, when faced with a difficult situation, tended to chuck the whole thing and flee to a new environment. Escaping, evading, and avoiding are responses which lie at the base of much that is peculiarly American—the suburb, the automobile, the self-service store and so on.”
The frontier now being closed, it is hard to escape physically even in a Mobile Home. Evasion is now probably more common than physical escape, and proceeds under what “we might call the Toilet Assumption—the notion that unwanted matter, unwanted difficulties, unwanted complexities and obstacles will disappear if they are removed from our immediate field of vision…. And when we come into immediate contact with anything that does not seem to fit into the ordinary pattern of our somewhat bowdlerized existence our spontaneous reaction is to try to somehow flush it away, bomb it away, or throw it down the jail.
“But…evasion creates self-distaste as well as comfort, and radical confrontations are exciting as well as disruptive. The answering chord they produce within us terrifies us, and although we cannot entirely contain our fascination, it is relatively easy to project our self-disgust onto the perpetrators of the confrontations.”
Slater is not, of course, the first to perceive that reaction-formation is the mechanism of our self-inflicted wounds; and his explanation of how that mechanism is powered is explicitly derived from Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, with Marcusian revisions. This part of the argument is familiar: grossly abridged, it maintains that people are induced to strive, produce, and save by so conditioning their choice of sexual objects that they can only desire a mechanical bride who proves inevitably to be an iron maiden of shoddy workmanship and obsolescent style.
It seems obvious then that over-whelming repressiveness is required to deny the need for warmth, repose, and human response that goes unfulfilled; and that increasingly grotesque measures will be adopted to meet the needs thus denied. Blacks are excluded, and new suburban developments built with electrified fences and guardhouses, not only because the whites are projecting their own rage on the outsiders but because they deeply feel that they will have a real community if they can limit its membership to their own kind. This is a tragic error, but xenophobia is an ancient vice and one which has not usually been accompanied by violently destructive rage against the excluded. Slater attributes our hatefulness to positive socialization:
“Lenny Bruce used to point out that a naked body was permissible in the mass media as long as it was mutilated. This is true, but for a good reason: our society needs killers from time to time—it does not need lovers. It depends heavily upon its population being angry and discontented; the renunciation of violence would endanger our society as we know it.”
But this is not the whole truth. Some American racism and xenophobia are a reaction, I believe, against an egalitarian ideology that makes aversion the only practical way of obtaining privacy. Xenophobia is always invidious, but in its more genial form it prefers social stratification to genocide. The kind of community for which, as Slater notes, America suffers so savage a nostalgia was a network of related individuals who accepted very different statuses associated with their different styles of life. In pre-industrial Southern towns and cities there were no black ghettos and no need for them: racial caste provided a more than adequate substitute for racial segregation, and the presence of black residents was not perceived by whites as a threat to the neighborhood. Americans exclude by force and violence not only because we are often hateful, but because we have made it ideologically impossible for ourselves to exclude anyone by more legitimate means.
When we consider that he is chairman of the department of sociology at Brandeis, it seems odd that Slater has so little to say about the role of social class factors in the current climate of oppression. He notes, wryly and correctly, that our awareness of violence results not so much from any increase in domestic violence but from the fact that it has become democratized and now threatens the middle classes as well as the poor. But he does not discuss the converse process: the unwillingness or inability of high-status adults to protect themselves and especially their children from harassment and constraint by lower-status sentinels hired for the purpose. As the roster of major public officials, general officers, and diplomats whose children are busted for pot or protest grows, no one, among the many who gather at the generation gap to mourn the death of public morals, wonders why a ruling class should shamefacedly define its own children as completely vulnerable to constraint by their putative status inferiors. Yet nothing is so distinctive about mass society, especially in America, as the fact that the highest status does not free its bearers from intrusion or oppression, and does not even suggest to them that they might expect it to. The richer the suburb, the more willing it seems to be to live by the folkways of its local police, or at least to impose these on its children.
Slater does, in fact, explain this, but skips over the social class issue in doing so—that is, he simply shows that the characteristics that lead to success in our society are highly associated with vicious uptightness, and deals with class characteristics in psychological terms associated with child-rearing practices rather than political institutions. His climactic position on the crucial social conflict of our time is therefore devoid of recognizable political features, but an extremely clear statement, nevertheless, of what the conflict is about:
“My main argument for rejecting the old culture is that it has been unable to keep any of the promises that have sustained it for so long, and as it struggles more and more violently to maintain itself, it is less and less able to hide its fundamental antipathy to human life and human satisfaction. It spends hundreds of billions of dollars to find ways of killing more efficiently, but almost nothing to enhance the joys of living…. The old culture is unable to stop killing people—deliberately in the case of those who oppose it, with bureaucratic indifference in the case of those who obey its dictates or consume its products trustingly. However familiar and comfortable it may seem, the old culture is threatening to kill us, like a trusted relative gone berserk so gradually that we are able to pretend to ourselves he has not changed.”
But is escape possible? Slater, though guardedly optimistic, is explicit about the difficulties. He notes that: “Every social system attempts to exercise the most rigid control over the mechanisms by which it can be altered—defining some as legitimate and others as criminal or disloyal. When we examine the characteristics of legitimate and non-legitimate techniques, however, we find that the ‘legitimate’ ones involve a course of action requiring a sustained commitment to the core assumptions of the culture. In other words, if the individual follows the ‘legitimate’ pathway there is a very good chance that his initial radical intent will be eroded in the process. If he feels that some fundamental change in the system is required, then, he has a choice between following a path that subverts his goal or one that leads him to be jailed as a criminal or traitor.”
And the difficulty is compounded by the lethal and invidious commitment to individualism that disqualifies Americans for civic responsibility and is equally destructive to both new and old cultures, destroying the commune through slovenliness and irresponsibility as surely as it drives the failing executive to suicide. “The American in fact never thinks of other Americans at all—it is his most characteristic trait that he imagines himself to be alone on the continent.”
Grant, though the force of his argument is less immediate, is more profoundly pessimistic. He sees the instrumentalism of modern life as not merely dehumanizing, but as having deprived us of any means whereby we might regain our moral judgment. In recent years, the Massey Lectures of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which Grant gave in 1969, have largely been devoted to such issues. Paul Goodman and R. D. Laing are among his recent predecessors in this series. Technology and Empire is a slightly earlier work: a group of six related essays dealing with the development of the North American mystique. Slater would certainly agree with Grant that:
“The dynamism of technology has gradually become the dominant purpose in western civilization because the most influential men in that civilization have believed for the last centuries that the mastery of chance was the chief means of improving the race. It is difficult to estimate how much this quest for mastery is still believed to serve the hope of men’s perfecting, or how much it is now an autonomous quest. Be that as it may, one finds agreement between corporation executive and union member, farmer and suburbanite, cautious and radical politician, university administrator and civil servant, in that they all effectively subscribe to society’s faith in mastery…. The purpose of education is to gain knowledge which issues in the mastery of human and non-human nature.
“Within the last hundred years, it has become increasingly clear that the technological society requires not only control of non-human nature, but equally the control of human nature. This is the chief cause of the development of the modern ‘value-free’ social sciences…. For the social scientists to play their controlling role required that they should come to interpret their sciences as value-free…. Social sciences so defined are well adapted to serve the needs of the ruling private and public corporations.”
So far this statement is essentially a more abstract way of expressing a perception very similar to Slater’s of the emergence of the dominant American character type. But Grant quickly proceeds to the stubborn philosophical root of the difficulty which then arises in legitimizing any proposal for institutional reform:
“From the assumption that the scientific method is not concerned with judgment of value, it is but a short step to asserting that reason cannot tell us anything about good and bad, and that, therefore, judgments of value are subjective preferences based on our particular emotional makeup. But the very idea that good and bad are subjective preferences removes one possible brake from the triumphant chariot of technology….
“In looking more closely, however, it will be seen that the fact-value distinction is not self-evident, as is often claimed. It assumes a particular account of moral judgment, and a particular account of objectivity. To use the language of value about moral judgment is to assume that what man is doing when he is moral is choosing in his freedom to make the world according to his own values which are not derived from knowledge of the cosmos…. And the fact-value distinction is the most sacred doctrine of our public religion.”
It is certainly the doctrine that the makers of American foreign policy and the engineers of the Chevron Oil company draw on in their freedom to make the world according to their own values, which are indeed not derived from knowledge of the cosmos. “Western men,” Grant further observes, “live in a society the public realm of which is dominated by a monolithic certainty about excellence—namely that the pursuit of technological efficiency is the chief purpose for which the community exists…. The tight circle in which we live is this: our present forms of existence have sapped the ability to think about standards of excellence and yet at the same time have imposed on us a standard in terms of which the human good is monolithically asserted.”
The monolith is now fortunately cracked if not shattered; there is plenty of alarm about the violation of the environment and skepticism about the beneficence of scientific progress. But there is, as yet, no source of authority by which the ravages scientifically inflicted in the pursuit of power, profit—and loneliness—may be opposed and arrested. A paragraph near the end of Grant’s essay on “The University Curriculum,” from which these excerpts were drawn, might have served as well for a just conclusion to Slater’s work:
“It would be presumptuous to end by proposing some particular therapy by which we might escape from the tight circle of the modern fate. The decisions of western men over many centuries have made our world too ineluctably what it is for there to be any facile exit. Those who by some elusive chance have broken with the monolith will return to the problem of human excellence in ways too various to be procrusteanly catalogued. The sheer aridity of the public world will indeed drive many to seek excellence in strange and dangerous kingdoms (as those of drugs and myth and sexuality). In such kingdoms, moderation and courage may be known by the wise to be essential virtues. But when such virtues have been publicly lost they cannot be inculcated by incantation, but only rediscovered in the heat of life where many sparrows fall. Much suffering will be incurred by those who with noble intent follow false trails. Who is to recount how and when and where private anguish and public catastrophe may lead men to renew their vision of excellence?”
Abbie Hoffman and Dave Dellinger will so recount, among others. At a moment in history that seems so near the end of it, when fallen sparrows have become so poisoned with accumulated DDT as to endanger the maggots that devour them, Professor Grant’s style seems dreadfully leisurely. Desperation, however, is not a satisfactory basis for either optimism or action; and during a crisis there is no better company to be sought than that of men who speak the truth, each after his fashion. Both Phillip Slater and George Grant satisfy this criterion admirably; and it is an ironical tribute to the objective test of validity both find so inadequate that they meet it by independently corroborating each other from very different points of view.
June 4, 1970