Stand Up Sociology

Jennifer Schuessler writing in the NyTimes Review of Books:

Pity the poor Organization Man. Once upon a time, he ruled the American Century with his natty fedora and his quest for “belongingness.” Sure, every­one loves him in “Mad Men,” but these days his wife makes more money than he does, his kids take more meetings and the senior v.p. next door has started wearing age-­inappropriate indie rock T-shirts. Even his shrink finds his pre­occupation with the authentic self passé. And the sociologists can’t stop writing his obituary.

Organization Man is a reference to the ultra-classic (ultra-brilliant) 1956 text of the same name by William Whyte.  (You can read some of the chapters of that magisterial work here, a nice summary of some of the earlier chapters here). Organization Man (and he was a man) gave his life to the corporation, lived in the newly built suburbs, watched as his children rebelled in the 60s counterculture, survived through the Cold War, struggled to find personal meaning in the midst of a sea of collectivity (existentialism, Frankfurt School, psychoanalysis, etc).

Schuessler (re)introduces us to Oragnization Man to review a new text claiming a new post-organization man era:  Elsewhere, USA by Dalton Conley.

Schuessler reviewing Dalton’s thesis:

Instead of individuals searching for authenticity, we are “intraviduals” defined by shifting personas and really cool electronics, which help us manage “the myriad data streams, impulses, desires and even consciousnesses that we experience in our heads as we navigate multiple worlds.” The denizens of our “Elsewhere Society,” Conley argues, “are only convinced they’re in the right place, doing the right thing, at the right time, when they’re on their way to the next destination. Constant motion is a balm to a culture in which the very notion of authenticity . . . has been shattered into a thousand e-mails.”

First off, there is clearly a class bias to this analysis (as there was with Organization Man).  Probably generational too and some professions more than others.  Which isn’t wrong, it’s actually fine, just “we the readers” in order to form a more perfect understanding of what it is getting at should recognize that this does not cover in many ways what are called the working poor or the straight up poor poor.  The shift from the “search for authenticity” to the search for authenticity for a few seconds, is a general modern to postmodern shift.  The fragmentation, relativization, and pluralizing of the self and of its multiple contexts and the understanding that who one is, involves in healthy measure, the context.  If those contexts start moving at faster speeds and changing rather quickly, what is the effect of that upon the psyche(s)?

If you want a kind of short version of Conley’s argument, here’s a short piece of his in HuffPo applying his logic to the First Family:  Obama with his blackberry, mom and dad both working juggling child care, “home office” work.  His comparison between Obama and Bush as the last representative executive-branch wise of Organization Man actually I think strikes a chord.

Schuessler has her critiques of the work, which since I haven’t read it I have no way to judge.  The title for this post comes from her review.  This however seems fairly on target (if not potentially massively overblown as social commentary):

What has changed, Conley argues, is our sense of time and value. In an “economic red shift,” the merely affluent feel themselves falling behind the superrich even as they pull ahead of the average worker. And so they clock endless hours in the online “portable workshop,” mindful of the opportunity cost of not working. Finally, the new “price culture” puts a dollar figure on everything while undermining confidence in our ability to know the value of anything, including ourselves. “The division between price and value has increasingly collapsed under the weight of economic rationality that spreads like wildfire across sectors of our existence,” Conley writes. “In today’s economy, many are dogged by the question ‘What was my value added?’ ”

[Sidenote:  For those interested a further explanation from Conley himself on this “economic red shift”.  He, er, elsewhere, argues that this overall trend is suggesting a limit to scientific knowledge in a socially diffuse, high information-saturated environment.]

Some of this analysis may be in for a hit (we’ll see) depending on how the whole economic situation turns.  But I think this point about not knowing the value of the things, particularly coming out of the age of cheap credit (bubble in credit forms of non-money) is a huge issue:  moral, political, psychological, social.  Schuessler seems to imply that Conley’s prescriptions (“how then shall we live”) are lacking in some depth and basically capitulate in some fashion to this state of affairs (or more positively argues how best simply to flow with it I suppose).  Again I have to read the text to find out.

Exit Question for my fellow members of the League.  I would be interested in hearing yours thoughts about how we can get back to sense of the value of things:  community, trade, materiality, thought, our time and what it should be spent on, family, and the like.  For example regarding sexual relationships Conley picks up on a really big trend of Elsewhere USA-ers, which he calls “dynamic polygamy”–i.e. serial, socially condoned polygamy which is basically what I see practiced among people near my age in my church work life.  The “intraindividuals” meet with other intra-individuals in certain vectors or sub-viduals (as it were) of each other that serve some function in the other and when they jump to identifiying (for a period) with another of their vidual selves, the other person no longer may serve that identity and someone else new enters the picture, with or without breaking up with the other person and/or telling them about the new relationship.

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10 thoughts on “Stand Up Sociology

  1. Well, first off – fascinating piece, and I will have a longer response up at a later time, but I think you’re very much on to something here with this question of Self and Value and our inability to draw meaningful connections between the two.

    However, you have placed this in the Goodbye to Culture11 series and this is another relationship which I can draw no sensible parallel between… ;-)

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  2. I wonder if something is up with the radio button. This is the 2nd time this has happened. I put in the modern-postmodern thing. Went back and edited it and somehow a number showed up in the “assign a number” place. This time it was four. Which automatically made it fourth in whatever series needed a number 4, which turned out to the adieu to Culture11. Weird. I used the back button to go back to the edit function–maybe that was it?

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  3. My best advice is first to never use forward/backward buttons in your browser when editing; second always check your series after you update (and before you update) your post; and third never put a number in the box unless you have to–as in somehow it got lost and then four new posts have been published and you need to put it back where it was.

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  4. This kind of sounds like our ability to mash up disparate strands of the culture is leading to higher competition and greater rewards. What’s the problem with that? Perhaps, mashing your serial polygamy with the Obama’s decision to introduce a third adult into the family will facilitate yet further wealth and meaning generating opportunities. Some children have a problem with mixing the foods on their plate. Perhaps, as a society we’re getting beyond this phobia.

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  5. I had to read this a few times to fully grasp the point (not because it’s confusing but because it’s not something I’ve thought about much before). I think I get it now; my initial reaction was similar to Cascadian’s, but having re-read it a few times and taken the time to think about it more critically, it’s a lot easier to see just how much of a dilemma this poses. At the moment, solutions seem kind of hard to grasp, but when I get the chance I’ll probably try to provide my own explanation of why this is all so problematic in the first place.

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  6. I think the exit question is challenged by what Conley refers to as “price culture” in the above, or what I’d refer to (since this is tagged postmodernity, I’ll bring up Foucault and W. Brown) a neoliberal governmentality. It’s difficult to read the word “value” without heavy airquotes; as Conley points out, Elsewhere Man looks at himself in the mirror and asks “What was my value added?”

    Value goes from a verb (“what do I value?”) to a noun (“What is my value?”); from an expression to a product, and the product is profitability. Self-governance runs deep, so it does not surprise me that our Elsewhere Man looks to his lovers, citizenship, education, family and ideals as simply matters of self-corporate governance decision making.

    The relationships you describe are akin to that – they strike me as at-will employment – we can quit “for good cause, or bad cause, or no cause at all.”

    Recapturing the idea of value itself would be step one for you.

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