Spoiler alert: Max Weber’s life is an open book, thanks in part to Joachim Radkau’s wonderful new 700-page biography, so nothing to spoil there. But this essay does reveal the ending of Jason Rietman’s new film.
Thoughtful, intellectual movies are produced each year in the United States and abroad -- open texts rich with meaning, understood by critics or not. Some writers and directors begin with a premise, others stumble into one, and still others capture the zeitgeist and hit a chord, even if we cannot articulate precisely what it is. For me, not much of a moviegoer and certainly not a film critic, Up in the Air, the highly-acclaimed new movie directed by Jason Reitman (he also directed Juno), and written with Sheldon Turner, resonates powerfully with some of my challenging student conversations of late.
There are no ground-breaking paradigms about human nature introduced in Up in the Air, just as we’ve not seen many of those in academic circles in recent times. But by trying to keep us engaged, Reitman manages to come face to face with the very best of 19th and early 20th century philosophy and sociology. It was during this period that the great theorists of industrialization and technology emerged with force – Marx of course, then Max Weber, Ferdinand Tönnies, and Emile Durkheim among others – exploring the relationships among rationality, morality, community, and the acceleration of technological change in all aspects of life.
By the end of the 19th century, the horrors of progress began to take hold in the sociological imagination, a theme that persisted into the 20th century through Foucault and his contemporaries. There are the cheerleaders for sure: Marshall McLuhan – brilliant as he was – could see very little dark side to the explosion of electronic media, for instance. And it is difficult to locate the downsides of advances in medicine or public health technologies without undue stretching. But Reitman is some sort of original and popular voice, struggling anew with the complex interface between rapidly-evolving technology (communication, transportation, finance) and human relations. It’s not a bad addition to a syllabus.
Let's start with Weber, the wildly abbreviated version: With regard to technology, progress, and capitalism, Weber detected a linear trend toward increasing rationalization, systematization, and routinization. In all aspects of life -- from the nature of organizations to the structure of religions -- we seek efficiency and system, in order to gain profit, leisure time, and fulfillment. This drive toward increasing organization, in all its manifestations, is too powerful to fight, given its clear appeal and "scientific" grounding.
Yet, Weber notes, all of this seeming success ultimately makes us less human: With increasing rationalization, we lose our collective spirit. He said, famously, that "each man becomes a little cog in the machine and, aware of this, his one preoccupation is whether he can become a bigger cog," a set of insights that drove him to despair. There are, Weber argued, occasional charismatic leaders that shake up our tidy world of rational calculation. But charismatic movements and people succumb to the inevitability of rationalization, crushed by a culture driven to success, results, and materialism. With no way out, Weber posits, we shall find ourselves in an "iron cage" of rationality, and the human heart will be impossible to locate.
To the film: Ryan Bingham (Clooney) is a consultant who spends most of his life on planes and in airports, traveling the nation as a professional terminator. He is with a firm hired by companies to lay off workers face-to-face (so the employer doesn’t have to), hand them a packet with their severance details, and deliver banal bits of inspiration intended to contain any extreme emotional reaction on the part of the unlucky employee. It’s a perfect Weberian job: Bingham produces nothing truly meaningful, keeps the wheels of capitalism spinning, has no personal relations muddying up his work, and makes good money for the firm.
This all goes well for Bingham; he has no interest in settling down (at least at the start of the film), and being in the air keeps his adrenaline pumping. But his firm has even higher ambitions to rationalize their business model, and with the help of a naïve 20-something M.B.A. type, moves to a system where professionals like Bingham can fire people over videoconference, hence saving millions in travel costs. At the end of the film, due to some unhappy results, the new system is pulled back for more study, and Bingham and colleagues get back on the road to once again fire people in person, which has more heart than the videoconference firing.
A victory against the forces of rationalization? After all, when Bingham fires people in-person, there is something of a human touch. But the film undercuts that thesis as well, with another character, a woman professional, also a road warrior, Alex Goran (played by Vera Farmiga). Goran is attractive and warm, but at base is even more mercenary than Bingham: She too lives in the air, has impressive frequent flyer tallies, and is in all the premium classes that one can aspire to (car rental, hotel, airline, so forth).
Bingham is impressed, having finally met his female match (she quips: “I’m you with a vagina”), finds her in hotels across the country for sex appointments, falls in love with her, finds his heart, and is badly jilted in the end (Goran is married, although she had never revealed this to Bingham). And while he may be badly hurt, she is sincerely puzzled that he failed to understand their unspoken contract: Why, he was part of her rationalized system – husband and family in Chicago, fulfilling career, and Bingham for pleasure on the road.
One of the nice twists of the film is that the female character is a more highly evolved Weberian being than are the men: She has a seemingly happy life – she is content, not alienated or complaining – while Bingham struggles with the rationalization of love, the one aspect of human interaction he apparently thought could not succumb to a culture of calculation. He wasn’t paying for the sex after all; he actually liked her.
While Goran’s character -- a Weberian monster of sorts -- might worry us, she underscores a central problem with the rationalization thesis in an age of social networking, texting, and air travel. Weber and his followers did not foresee the humanization of technology that we see now, and I too have been slow to come to this. For years I taught my students about Weber’s iron cage; they understood it and they appreciated it. They understood how the ATM – for all its efficiencies – lessens human interaction (you’ll not meet anyone in a long bank line these days). They understood what is lost when poll results stand in for qualitative opinion expression, or how a phone call is essentially less human than a face-to-face interaction. The tension between progress and human connectedness – that it was a tradeoff, in fact – seemed to make good sense.
But I struggle to hold up my side of the argument these days. Students insist that their connectedness with friends and strangers, through communication technology, is real, fulfilling, fun, sincere, and intimate (e.g., “sexting”). Weber and I are dinosaurs who have no room in our theorizing for the highly social, extraordinarily human interaction that the Internet has enabled. Technology itself, the force we feared would crush the human spirit, turns out to enhance it.
Or so our students argue. We go round and round on this. And perhaps even those of us who have wrapped much of our intellectual existence around theorists like Weber will see the light, and treat those theories as important, but entirely historically-bound. Up in the Air passes no judgment on Goran’s lifestyle, and in fact, she may be the Übermensch. She controls her destiny and she directs the rationalization of her emotional life. While world-weary (a lot of airport bars, a lot of men), she has found her happiness, while Bingham remains a pathetic, troubled amateur.
Up in the Air encourages a revision of some Weberian views, but also takes on some of our mid-20th century sociological giants as well. Robert Merton, working in the tradition of Tönnies and Weber, argued that the dominant media of his day – radio – had produced what he called pseudo-Gemeinschaft or the "feigning of personal concern and intimacy with others in order to manipulate them the better," for profit, typically. Whether it’s selling war bonds (he wrote on Kate Smith’s campaign) or the perpetual fake-friendly "it’s a pleasure to serve you" we hear constantly, Merton was bothered by the niceties layered atop brute business motive. Is it their pleasure or not? Do they sincerely like to serve us, or do they get points for it on a performance review?
In Up in the Air, our protagonist – thanks to his frequent flying – gets the special "personal" treatment from airline professionals and others. He knows it’s fake, but it is still a pleasurable and valued aspect of daily life. When I raise the old Merton argument with my students these days, they are not bothered by it at all, and Reitman sees the niceties much the same way -- as the state of nature in contemporary capitalism, not a repulsive, slavish persona designed by corporate headquarters. When Bingham finally gets his reward for travelling an extraordinary number of miles on the airline – a personal meeting with the top pilot – he is at a loss for words, after imagining the moment a hundred times in his fantasies. Even when we’ve survived the countless niceties and earned the real human touch, it’s not that great after all, another puzzle for our backward hero.
It is far too generous to say that McLuhan was right, that technology has made us more human, brought us together in a global village of understanding, encouraged tolerance of difference, and connected us to our essential, spiritual, primitive and fuller selves. He slips and slides, preaches a bizarre narrative of human history, and ignores social structure and power dynamics as much as possible. But he did, and profoundly so, foresee something of the social networking of today -- how light might shine through what looks like a mechanical, calculating, and cold world of technological progress. Up in the Air sides with McLuhan and with my students: The film gives one answer to a depressed Weber, but my generation -- at least -- feels empty at the end, as we go back up in the air with Clooney.
Susan Herbst is chief academic officer of the University System of Georgia and professor of public policy at Georgia Tech.
In October, the U.S. Department of Labor announced a fine of more than $87.4 million on BP North America Inc. for "failure to correct [the] potential hazards faced by employees” that had been uncovered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. This set an all-time record for penalties set by OSHA on any company -- dwarfing the previous one, from 2005, of a mere $21 million, imposed after an explosion at a BP refinery killed 15 people and injured 170 others.
Since last fall, BP has gone on to bigger things. A tone of moral indignation has been heard lately (on Capitol Hill, for instance) regarding those OSHA violations. But why the outrage? It’s just business. As long as risk to the company's workers can be translated into a calculable expense, decisions will be made on a rational basis. With an eye on the bottom line, the company can decide whether or not to install adequate equipment to protect either workers or the environment.
Or not to protect them, as the case may be. Profit is profit, and the ocean has no lawyer. Let's not pretend otherwise.
Of course, events might have unfolded very differently if the people working on the offshore rig had decided to shut production down when the company pushed them (once again) to cut corners and ignore danger signs. Every time I see a picture from the Gulf of Mexico, I wonder about that. But when politicians or people in the mass media discuss the situation, work stoppage by BP's employees is one possibility that never comes up.
The very idea seems almost unthinkable. It is easier to get mad at how flagrantly BP ignored safety violations than to imagine labor acting outside the established framework of government regulation and corporate decision making. Maybe BP can afford this failure of the imagination -- but I doubt the planet can, at least not forever.
So it’s a good time to have a new edition of Irving Bernstein’s two studies The Lean Years (1960) and The Turbulent Years (1969). Originally published by Houghton Mifflin, they have just been reissued in paperback by Haymarket Books and offer, between them, a classic survey of how American workers fared during the 1920s and ‘30s. SPOILER ALERT: They tended to do best when they had the confidence and the willingness to challenge their employers -- and not just over wages. Bernstein, who at the time of his death in 2001 was an emeritus professor of political science at the University of California at Los Angeles, makes clear that control over working conditions was usually also at stake.
What set Bernstein's work apart from the usual run of scholarship on American labor history at mid-century was his strong interest in the life and activity of non-unionized people -- including those working in agriculture, or leaving it behind for new kinds of employment, in the case of African-Americans leaving the South. And Bernstein wrote with grace. He had a knack for the thumbnail biography of ordinary people: There are numerous miniature portraits embedded in the epic. He was sensitive to the changes in mood among workers as they faced the boom of the 1920s (which passed most of them by) and the agony of the Depression (which hit them hardest). In many cases, they blamed themselves for their misery. The possibility of joining forces with others to change anything took a while to sink in.
The new paperback editions come with introductions by Frances Fox Piven, a professor of sociology and political science at the City University of New York Graduate Center, who draws out Bernstein's argument on this point: "The train of developments that connects changes in social conditions to a changed consciousness is not simple. People ... harbor somewhere in their memories the building blocks of different and contradictory interpretations of what it is that is happening to them, of who should be blamed, and what can be done about it. Even the hangdog and ashamed unemployed worker who swings his lunch box and strides down the street so the neighbors will think he is going to a job can also have other ideas that only have to be evoked, and when they are, make it possible for him on another day to rally with others and rise up in anger at his condition."
Quoting that passage gives me pause -- for Piven, a former president of the American Sociological Association, has in recent months been the focus of intricate theories about how Barack Obama was using ACORN to impose martial law on gated communities. Or perhaps ACORN was using Barack Obama to that end. I must admit some difficulty in reading the pertinent diagram. But in short, she has been involved in some quite nefarious activity, such as encouraging poor people to vote.
No doubt this will make Piven's endorsement of Irving Bernstein's two books seem particularly worrying. Only someone in the Tea Party (a well-funded movement organized by professional lobbyists) is supposed to "rally with others and rise up in anger in his condition" -- not an unemployed person who wants work and decent health care. Furthermore, protesters ought to direct their rage strictly at the government, and never at private enterprise.
I suppose the late Irving Bernstein will end up as a box in the big flow chart of cyclothymic, pseudopopulist political discourse. It seems like a matter of time. But if you read his books, something eventually becomes clear. He thought the New Deal had saved capitalism and made it more fair. He was not fond of the Communists, who expected the Depression would work to their advantage. Before writing his labor histories, Bernstein specialized in collective bargaining. (Aside from publishing books on the subject, he served in arbitration disputes.) The Turbulent Years is dedicated to Clark Kerr -- the president of the University of California system and a major target of the radical student movement in the 1960s.
In short, when Bernstein wrote with sympathy about the strikes and street fighting of the 1930s, it was not out of an instinctive combativeness but from a sense that people do these things because they have been left no choice by "an unbalanced society" (to borrow an expression he used to describe the United States on the eve of the crash of 1929). If his book sounds almost revolutionary now, that is a sign that the ordinary frame of reference for political judgment has skewed so far to the right that reality is standing sideways.
I contacted Frances Fox Piven to ask her opinion of this assessment.
"Bernstein definitely thought of himself as a centrist, but a reformer," she told me. "He was quite contemptuous, for example, of ideologues on the Left in the 1930s. But he was never contemptuous of workers themselves, and his respect and empathy for workers forced him to pay attention, even respectful attention, to the strikes and sit-downs and demonstrations they undertook during the 1930s. One of the consequences of the rise of a turbulent and aggressive labor movement was to open up normal politics, to move the political culture to the Left. The Civil Rights movement had a similar consequence thirty years later. It is chastening to observe that in the absence of mass movements from the bottom (and the Tea Party is not a movement from the bottom) that our politics reverts to a kind of default position in which business interest groups have outsized influence."
If a sufficiently "turbulent and aggressive" spirit had prevailed among the people working for BP just a couple of months ago, there might not now be one hundred thousand barrels of crude oil (by the company's own estimate) surging into the ocean every day -- with no end in sight.
Every so often a thinker will earn a place in history through the force of a single really bad idea. Cesare Lombroso (1832-1909) was such a figure. Examining the physiognomy of known felons, living and dead, the pioneering Italian criminologist concluded that some people were organically predisposed to breaking the law. It was just in their nature. They were degenerates, in the strictest sense: biological throwbacks from civilized humanity to something lower on the evolutionary scale.
Various physical traits signaled the regression. This was the bright side of Lombroso’s theory, since it told you what to watch out for. Rapists tended to have abnormally round heads. Women with masculine faces and excessive body hair were a menace to society; a lack of maternal instinct made them capable of acts more vicious and depraved than male offenders. Left-handed men were closer to the state of "women and savage races," thus more prone to crime or lunacy than we law-abiding right-handers.
All of this proves less amusing given how influential Lombroso’s books remained into the early 20th century. Somebody probably went to jail for having a sloping forehead and asymmetrical ears.
A few years back, Duke University Press brought out translations of a couple of Lombroso’s works, which apart from their historical significance, are fascinating for the images the esteemed researcher used to demonstrate his argument. They are haunting, especially the photographs. The faces wear various expressions: hardened, hungry, bitter, confused, terrified. Each evokes a long story of bad choices or bad luck, or both. I’m not sentimental enough to believe that all of them, or even most, were innocent. There are some tough customers who look ready to stick to their story, no matter what. (“That guy was already dead when I got there.”) But the crimes are long forgotten. What remains now is the trace of misery, caught in the gaze of a criminologist who has reduced them to specimens.
On page 78 of William Garriott’s Policing Methamphetamine: Narcopolitics in Rural America, published by New York University Press, there is the reproduction of a poster called “A Body on Drugs.” The author, who is an assistant professor of justice studies at James Madison University, found it taped to the wall of a sheriff’s office in “Baker County” -- the name he has given to an area in West Virginia where he did ethnographic fieldwork in the mid-2000s.
Garriott calls the poster “reminiscent of the catalogs of criminals from which the 19th-century criminologist Cesare Lombroso sought to discern the distinctive features of congenital criminality.” I will return to this idea later, but first should describe the poster itself. Because it has been reduced to the dimensions of a single page in a book, the text is almost impossible to read, but you can still make out the photographs, which show the long-term effects of methamphetamine use on the body through a combination of mug shots and close-ups, plus brain scans.
All of it is ghastly. “The arms and legs had open sores,” recalls Garriott, “the hands were scabbed and bandaged, the mouth was missing teeth, the brains showed signs of malfunction, and the faces were prematurely aged.” If anything, the images may understate the impact of meth. The festering sores result from an accumulation of toxins in the addict’s body. They can also induce psychosis. “Cooking” meth in improvised labs, besides running the risk of explosion, generates extremely dangerous contaminants.
The social profile of crack cocaine, 20 years or so back, was black and urban, while meth’s “brand identity” tends to be white and (especially in recent years) rural. Garriott initially went to West Virginia as a cultural anthropologist to study “the treatment experiences of addicts working to overcome their addiction to meth,” he writes, “what I thought of as the ‘therapeutic trajectory of their recovery process.' ” The focus of the project shifted as Garriott noticed how often “drug problems generally, and the methamphetamine problem specifically, were framed locally as matters for the criminal justice system,” rather than as a medical issue.
To describe the relationship between addict and community, then, was impossible without assessing the role of the police. This is hardly surprising, and perhaps least of all in rural areas, where state and civil society tend to meet at the same diner and church socials. But Garriott’s analysis leaps from the ethnographic particulars to broad claims about what he calls the “narcopolitics” of meth. The term is modeled on Michel Foucault’s concept of biopolitics, which covers a host of ways the modern state seeks to monitor, classify, regulate, and control the population of human organisms within its territory. (However befuddled Lombroso’s dubious Darwinism, for example, his work is the perfect instance of a biopolitical strategy: identifying a defective and dangerous human subspecies enhances the power of the authorities over the social order. That was the plan, anyway.)
Once, the narcopolitical imperative was summed up in the slogan “War on Drugs,” which you don’t hear invoked much anymore. (To quote Detective Ellis from "The Wire": “You can’t even call this shit a war… Wars end.”) Yet the constant mobilization against illegal drugs not only continues but blurs the line between narcopolitics and the “normal” functioning of the state – including, in Garriott’s catalog, “the election of officials, the administration of justice, the practice of law enforcement and the formation of public policy (both foreign and domestic), the allocation of social services, the use of military force, the interpretation of law, and the behavior of the judiciary.”
And because the prosecution and incarceration of drug offenders is one of the few areas of governmental action with broad public support, narcopolitics serves to legitimate the state itself. Policing the availability of illegal drugs and the behavior of their uses becomes a means through which the authorities establish and maintain public order -- or can at least be seen trying.
These tendencies become self-reinforcing. Drug abuse ceases to be a social problem. Rather, social problems, including violence and poverty, look like effects of criminal drug enterprises – which means resources should be channeled towards interdiction and incarceration.
With this notion of narcopolitical power -- as with just about any schema derived from Foucault’s work -- you soon get the sense of a juggernaut rolling over the landscape, flattening everything in its path, with nobody resisting because nobody can, and you’d pity the fool who tried.
In an epilogue, Garriott takes up the question of what reforms of the system suggested by his analysis -- then admits that none really follow. I respect his candor. If you can’t change the world, might as well interpret it, not that doing so makes much difference. But there is at times a strange disconnection between his analytic framework and his descriptions of life in Baker County.
The narcopolitical imagination, by Garriott’s account, “maps” social space according to its own imperative to track and control illegal substances. The community learns to define itself in opposition to the menace of drug dealers and addicts. Social anxieties become focused around them. The preferred response is punitive. Therapeutic treatment for meth abuse is something prescribed by the legal system; it is part of a continuum, with prison at the other end. And all of this functions in a closed loop -- with the problem always finally defined as a matter of criminality, thereby reinforcing narcopolitical power.
But Garriott’s fieldwork shows a community with every reason to regard meth as a real menace – not because it is a convenient explanation for social disorder, but every phase of its existence creates actual dangers. The author does not mention this. Cooking one pound of meth creates six pounds of toxic byproduct. Recovery from addiction is difficult and rarely lasts for very long. Nor does accumulation of narcopolitical power by the state generate confidence in its authority. Garriott notes rumors that local officials are failing to deal with the meth problem because they are somehow involved in trafficking. And while Foucault's thinking about biopower treated certain new disciplines (criminology for instance) as modes of domination over the social field, the knowledge gained by the police and citizens clearly has the very opposite effect. Garriott quotes one officer saying, "Sometimes I wish I was more naive." The awareness that a trash bag on the side of the road might be filled with deadly chemicals from a meth lab is itself a kind of "poisonous knowledge," as the author puts it.
"A Body on Drugs," the poster mentioned earlier, is a concentrated bit of such poisonous knowledge. Garriott borrowed its title for the dissertation later revised as this book. His commentary treats the images as a contemporary narcopolitical variant of Lombroso's work, "drawing attention to a generic type of criminal and the signs by which they could be identified." Recognizing the open wounds, rotting teeth, and emaciation "made possible ... understanding both their physical appearance and their criminality as symptoms of their addiction." The poster did not say they were "born criminals," as Lombroso might. But the narcopolitical gaze was linking their biology and their criminality just as closely.
Having finished reading Policing Methamphetamine, I used a magnifying glass to examine the poster closely. You could see, for example, the little jar that one woman used to collect the imaginary bugs she felt crawling under her skin and removed with a knife. So I learned from the captions. There were some mug shots taken of people who had been arrested before becoming addicted to meth and then afterward. Garriott calls them "a concrete means of imagining the temporality of the relationship between drugs, addiction, and criminality," which is certainly one way of putting it. But in spite of prolonged squinting, I never saw any mention of criminality on the poster. That was not its point. It was about suffering.
Looking back at the early 21st century in their seminar rooms, somewhere down the road, historians might spare a few minutes to consider a short video shot, and posted to YouTube, on the day after Osama bin Laden was killed. It records an attempt by someone in a crowded New York City subway car to lead the other passengers in a triumphant chant of “USA! USA!”
The first half of the clip is evidence of the famous wall of indifference encasing each New Yorker while occupying public space -- and especially while riding the subway, where your car may be invaded at any moment by a roving mariachi band or someone delivering a loud sermon.
Having documented this familiar demeanor, the man with the camera expects to break it down by reminding everyone that Osama is now dead. The effort misfires. Nobody responds. The news is not cathartic. The anthropologist Victor Turner used the term communitas to name the state of collective intimacy, a collapse of social distance, accompanying certain kinds of rituals or festivals. The aftermath of disaster can create it, too -- and as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, there will no doubt be more and more tributes to the spirit of communitas that emerged then, for a while. Our would-be cheerleader expected it to be churning beneath the surface, now that 9/11 was avenged. But the faces he filmed say otherwise. For them it was just another commute, on just another Monday.
The little drama of awkwardness captured in this slice-of-life video is interesting because it embodies a real conflict over how to respond to an act of violence. One way is to celebrate it -- in this case, it seems, by assuming that revenge brings something to an end. ("We killed Osama, so now we're even.")
The other response proves more ambiguous and harder to characterize, though “resignation laced with dread” might be about right. That is the shade of my own ambivalence, at least. As someone living near enough to the White House to take the mission of the Flight 93 hijackers rather personally, I did not wish Osama bin Laden well. But celebrating his execution as a rite of closure seems both barbarous and bad magic; the spirit of revenge, once summoned, is hard to control. If the people in the subway car don’t start giving each other high-fives, that’s because some are already preparing themselves for the worst
A new anthology called Transforming Terror: Remembering the Soul of the World, published by the University of California Press, strives for higher ground than either the “USA! USA!” camp or Team Stoic Pessimism. Edited by Karin Lofthus Carrington and Susan Griffin, it comes with a foreword by Desmond Tutu, who calls the volume “a path through which we might one day meet the challenge of terrorism and bring peace to our troubled world.” (Carrington has served as an adjunct professor of depth psychology at the Pacifica Graduate Institute, and Griffin is the author of several books, including A Chorus of Stones, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.)
Writing as “a witness to many beautiful and unexpected acts of courage and generosity,” the Archbishop of South Africa testifies to the possibility of redeeming the world -- something he understands as a human task as well as a theological doctrine. The editors share his vision, which they cast in terms of a cosmopolitan spirituality with psychotherapeutic overtones. That does not mean withdrawing from the world’s violence to contemplate higher things. Parts of the book constitute a tour of hell on earth: there are excerpts from accounts of lynching, car bombing, nuclear destruction, civil war, and genocide. “We are looking,” the editors write, “at the way terror damages the human psyche or, as the ancient Greeks called it, soul, and how it is through this damage that the world enters seemingly endless cycles of violence.”
They define terrorism to include “acts of violence against unarmed civilians, no matter who perpetrates them” or whether “purposeful or labeled as collateral damage.” This casts the net more widely than usual, of course. Grabbing the closest suitable reference book at hand, I find that the 2000 edition of the Collins Web-Linked Dictionary of Sociology calls terrorism “a form of politically motivated action combining psychological (fear inducing) and physical (violent action) components carried out by individuals or small groups with the aim of inducing communities or states to meet the terrorists’ demands.”
Carrington and Griffin are much less concerned with the political motivation or consequences of terrorism than its defining effect: fear, trauma, powerlessness … in short, terror itself. The cycles of wounding, retribution, and brutalization pay no heed to the distinction between terrorism and war (which is, from this perspective, semantic).
Mixed in with the reports on violence and atrocity are excerpts from poetry (Federico Garcia Lorca, Theodore Roethke, Taha Muhammad Ali) and scores of essays, along with the occasional prayer or sermon from figures in various world religions. The material is divided into thematic clusters, with one chapter on “trauma, violence, and memory,” for example, and another on “gender and violence.” The first half of the book covers the psychic damage done by terror, including the pathological dimensions of the desire to strike back. The second considers various modes of nonviolent “paths to transformation,” including citizen diplomacy (informal exchanges among ordinary people from adversarial countries) and truth-and-reconciliation efforts in places where a state or powerful group has terrorized a population.
Even with this structure, though, the book is a bit of a dog’s breakfast. Some benefit might follow from reading things in sequence, but I found this impossible. Excerpts range from a few lines to several pages in length; the effect is jolting, and the attention wanders. And some of the editorial choices are unfortunate. Placing a traditional Buddhist prayer (translated by the Dalai Lama) right across from a passage by St. Thomas Aquinas isn’t a problem. A little like something the hip young clergyman in a romantic comedy might do? Sure. Otherwise it’s unobjectionable. But turning the Aquinas text into a piece of free verse that sounds like Kahlil Gibran is not much of a contribution to peace and justice.
On the other hand, the world is such a mess that it makes no sense to get too irritable with anybody trying to mend it. Transforming Terror has its heart in the right place, even if it does include the wisdom of Deepak Chopra. Treating war and terror as maladies of the soul can be reductive. But ignoring the wounds they leave means letting them fester, and it makes for a kind of madness.
“I am not a donkey,” Max Weber once said, “and I do not have a field.” And yet it is always possible to label Weber as a sociologist without unduly provoking anybody. Things are decidedly more complicated in the case of the American thinker Kenneth Burke (1897-1993). Situating such Burkean treatises as Permanence and Change (1935), A Grammar of Motives (1945), and Language as Symbolic Action (1966) in cultural and intellectual history is a task to test the limits of interdisciplinary research. His theories concerning aesthetics, communications, social order and ecology took shape through dialogue with the work of Aristotle, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Bergson, and the American pragmatist philosophers, to make the list as short as possible. (And Weber too, of course.) It’s still hard to improve upon the assessment made by Stanley Edgar Hyman, the literary critic and Bennington College professor, more than 60 years ago: “He has no field, unless it be Burkology.”
The triennial meeting of the Kenneth Burke Society, held at Clemson University over the Memorial Day weekend, drew a diverse crowd, numbering just over one hundred people -- with at least a third, by my estimate, being graduate students or junior faculty. The Burkological elders told tales of the days when incorporating more than a couple of citations from “KB” in a dissertation would get you scolded by an adviser. Clearly things have changed in the meantime. Tables near registration were crowded with secondary literature from the past decade or so, as well as a couple of posthumous collections of KB's work. The program featured papers on the implications of his ideas for composition textbooks, disability studies, jazz, environmental activism, and the headscarf controversy.
There were also Burkean discussions of “Mad Men,” Mein Kampf, and the Westboro Baptist Church. Unfortunately I missed it, but Camille Kaminski Lewis gave a paper based on her continuing analysis of the history and ideology of Bob Jones University, where she once taught. (Her book on the subject did not meet with the institution's approval, a matter she discussed in an essay for the Burke Society's Journal.)
The range of topics would sound bewildering to anyone uninitiated into KB’s work; likewise with the vocabulary he created along the way (“dramatism,” “logology,” “terministic screen,” “socio-anagogic interpretation”). But people attending the conference received commemorative tee-shirts bearing excerpts from KB’s “Definition of Man” -- an essay attempting to reduce his thinking to a succinct formula, devoid of any jargon:
"Man is the symbol-making animal, inventor of the negative, separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, moved by the sense of order, and rotten with perfection."
Quit a bit is going on within that nutshell. (The phrase “rotten with perfection,” for example, is Burke’s idiosyncratic take on Aristotle’s idea of entelechy.) But an academic organization devoted to an esoteric thinker who fits comfortably in no particular departmental pigeonhole would seem unlikely to have much potential for growth. On the final day of the conference, David Cratis Williams told me that when the Kenneth Burke Society formed in 1984, he suspected that it would for the most part appeal to people who had known KB personally. And that small circle was bound to shrink over time, as people retired.
Something else has happened instead. There was more to it than a few then-young Burkologists becoming institutionally well-situated – though that no doubt made a huge difference. Williams, for example, is the director of the graduate program in communication and media studies at Florida Atlantic University. (He is also working on a biography of the maverick thinker.) And David Blakesley, who organized the conference at Clemson just a few months after arriving there to assume an endowed chair in English, is also the founder of Parlor Press, a peer-reviewed scholarly publishing house. The name of the press is taken from a passage in which Burke describes the world as a parlor where an unending conversation unfolds.
Having a few well-placed and entrepreneurial Burkeans has certainly helped to consolidate the Society. But I suspect that other factors are involved in the continuing vitality of the KB scholarship. Three things stood out about the conference: the crowd was multigenerational; many of the younger Burkeans have a strong interest in archival research; and the scholarship is now orienting toward digital media, not just to study it but to use it.
These tendencies seem to be mutually reinforcing. Since the early 1990s, Jack Selzer, a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University's main campus, has not only been doing archival research on Burke’s involvement with a number of literary and intellectual circles, but encouraging his students to use the Burke papers at Penn State as well. One of his graduate students was Ann George, now an associate professor of English at Texas Christian University. In 2007, the University of South Carolina Press published Kenneth Burke in the 1930s, which situates its subject in the political and cultural context of the Depression. (While specialized and extremely suggestive to the longtime Burkean, it’s also the book I’d be most likely to recommend to someone new to KB.)
Now students of both Selzer and George are digging around in the 55 linear feet of Burke papers at PSU -- and sometimes taking trips out to the farmhouse in New Jersey where Burke lived and worked, full of still more manuscripts as well as KB’s heavily annotated library. Besides his correspondence with other literary and academic figures, they’re finding unpublished manuscripts and notes showing his concern with economics, music, and other areas relatively neglected by earlier Burke scholars. One senior figure told me that the influx of graduate students was both encouraging and anxiety-inducing: “I really have to finish the project I’ve been working on because now it’s just a matter of time before one of them beats me to it.”
The value of having digital editions of his writings seems clear -- especially in the case of works that Burke revised from edition to edition. In the meantime, two graduate students are digitizing "Conversations with Kenneth Burke," which consists of eight hours of interview footage with Burke conducted by Clarke Rountree at the University of Iowa in 1986. (He is now a professor of communication arts at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.)
Joel Overall, who is one of Ann George's students at TCU, told me about it. "Our project involves upgrading 8 hours of interview footage from VHS to DVD format,” he said. “In addition to upgrading the graphic design of packaging materials, DVD titles, and credits, we're also working on transcriptions of the interview that will be included through subtitles and a searchable pdf file. This is a particularly valuable contribution since KB was somewhat difficult to understand at the age of 89.“ (The other member of the project, Ethan Sproat, is at Purdue, where he worked with David Blakesley before DB's move to Clemson.)
The DVD will be released by the Society within the next year. “Since [Burke’s] written works are often difficult when first encountered, these interviews allow us to hear his voice and see him in cinematic motion, providing us with extra-textual elements that are crucial to understanding his work.”
Following the conference, David Blakesley pointed out another development in the Burkological world. While he was a polyglot as well as a polymath -- reading and translating work from from French and German, and an ardent student of Latin literature as well -- Burke's reputation has long been almost exclusively confined to the United States. But Belgian and French scholars were at the conference.
“They, too, felt welcome, “ he said, “and are excited about their prospects for future work on Burke. In fact, Ronald Soetart (University of Ghent) wants to organize a European Burke conference now. The French contingent was eager to see that as well since there appears to be a groundswell of interest in Burke throughout Europe. I noticed that when I presented on Burke and visual rhetoric at the International Association of Visual Semiotics in Venice last April, too.”
I attended the conference as a keynote speaker, and also delivered a paper -- and so was sitting there feeling mildly fried when I was invited to participate in another multimedia project. A group of Clemson graduate students in the master of arts in professional communication (MAPC) program were conducting a series of interviews for a video on the field of rhetoric. (That is rhetoric understood as the well-established study of effective communication, rather than in the modern sense of a technique for evading reality.)
Drew Stowe, a second-year student in the program, explained that the project would “show the importance of rhetoric for modern students, in the modern university, and to lay audiences such as parents of prospective students, the board of trustees and other corporate partners who recruit graduates from the MAPC program.” Burke is considered one of the most innovative thinkers in rhetoric since antiquity, so scouting the conference for talking heads made sense.
In front of the camera, I aspired to coherence rather than eloquence. My main point was that KB’s work is a toolbox of ideas useful for analyzing the messages with which everyone is bombarded. As someone who’s read a few of Burke’s books until they’ve worn out -- my hardback copy of the first edition of Philosophy of Literary Form (1941), for example, started falling apart during the conference -- I take his continuing relevance as a given. But where did it come from?
“I've always sensed that KB lived at a particularly interesting cultural moment,” wrote Jack Selzer to me by email, following the conference. “Major wars were changing international affairs fundamentally, new communications technologies were so important, and of course postmodern and post-Nietzschean philosophies (and the linguistic turn) were troubling modernist and rationalist assumptions. Somehow he was brilliant enough to perceive the vitality of these changes even as he was living amidst them, and he was able to theorize and meditate on things so productively -- even though (or because?) he was so close to them. As a consequence, what he has to say remains very contemporary. It was wonderful to see the younger scholars drawn to his work in every way imaginable, and I think it has to do with how shrewd KB was about such important intellectual currents.”
Ann George described teaching Burke in a couple of courses over the past years and finding that students “were struck with, and even a little dispirited by,” the parallels between Burke’s motivating concerns and the present scene. “His political, economic, and environmental insights are remarkable: American exceptionalism and the war in Iraq; 'socialization of losses' via government bailouts, 'rereadings' of the Constitution, Ponzi schemes -- it's all there. Of all the theorists we read in the modern rhetoric course … though, students felt Burke offered more answers -- or more hope -- because he didn't idealize human motives or overestimate how much we might be able to change things for the better. “
That’s a very good point -- and there is a profoundly humanist vision that emerges as the pieces of Burke’s theoretical jigsaw puzzle come together.
He put it best in Attitudes Toward History (1937): "The progress of human enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious, but as mistaken.
“When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that undergirds great tragedy.” Studying Burke is sometimes difficult, but there are moments when it makes the world seem a little less mad.
“Only boring people get bored.” Google offers no settled judgment about who coined this aphorism, but it came to my attention via Arline Tehan, the Rodin scholar, who happens to be my mother-in-law. It was the law of her household, in decades past, giving the kids an incentive to use the library, since otherwise some bit of housework could always be found to occupy their attention. All of this was well before the advent of the Internet, of course -- and I’m told that the TV set was off-limits except during specific evening hours. Then again, staring at a screen never relieves boredom, only anesthetizes it.
The propensity of children to get bored is well-known. Peter Toohey notes in Boredom: A Lively History (Yale University Press) that many adults will insist, out of pride, that they never succumb to it. But thinking of boredom as childish is too simplistic, he argues, while claiming immunity from it is seldom convincing. He admits to being bored “for very large tracts of my life,” and so one may regard his subtitle with a degree of suspicion. If he is prone to boredom, wouldn’t that make him boring? How lively can the book be?
Plenty, as it happens -- though the subtitle is still a bit misleading. The book’s approach is historical only in part. Toohey, a professor of Greek and Roman studies at the University of Calgary, draws on research in such fields as neurochemistry (the relationship between boredom and low dopamine levels) and penology (prisoners in solitary confinement are pushed to the extremes of tedium). He is skeptical, though not dismissive, of the trend in much humanities scholarship of late that treats emotions as so deeply embedded in specific social and cultural contexts as to be inseparable from them.
The most emphatically historicist understanding of boredom, for example, treats it as one of the side effects of modernity, kicking in sometime after the middle of the 18th century. The word “bore” in this sense, whether as a noun or a verb, doesn’t appear in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary from 1755. It seems to enter the English language in the late 1760s, with no clear etymological provenance. And for the symptom-of-modernity interpretation, the timing of its arrival is no accident.
The possibility of boredom only emerges once enough people have the security, leisure, and comfort to complain that security, leisure, and comfort aren’t everything. This coincides with, and is reinforced by, the rapidly expanding market for novels, with their reminder that one’s life could be much more interesting than (alas) it usually is. By the late 18th century, then, the conditions existed for a new sort of unhappiness, requiring a new word to name it. Until then, boredom was not really a problem. Things like famine and religious warfare had made life altogether too exciting.
This insistence on historical context runs against the more commonplace understanding of emotions -- the assumption that they are essentially timeless and universal. To be sure, the factors eliciting admiration, fear, anger, etc., vary from culture to culture, and so does their expression. The disgraced Samurai of the 16th century would commit seppuku; the disgraced American politician of the 21st calls a press conference. But the feelings themselves are the same -- and arguably, there are certain aspects of how we exhibit them cut across any cultural and historical barriers.
The late Silvan Tomkins argued that a few basic affects are hard-wired into us as organisms; they are part of how our nervous systems respond to signals from the environment. Disgust, for example, involves a rapid assessment that something is toxic or contaminating; this induces an involuntary impulse to pull away, with a tendency for the upper lip to curl, as when you smell something foul. The kinds of things inducing that feeling vary from society to society -- and within a society, for that matter. But the curled lip is nature, not culture, at work.
We are complex organisms -- our experience mediated by language and memory, not just sensory impressions. And we are capable of more than one response to a given stimulus. And so the hard-wired affective tendencies identified by Tomkins interact in all kinds of subtle ways -- creating a broad spectrum of human emotions.
Toohey doesn’t discuss affect theory. But he does mention the rather Tomkinsian speculation that boredom may not be a distinct feeling. Instead, it could result from a mixture of “frustration, surfeit, depression, disgust, indifference, apathy, and the feeling of being trapped or confined.” Marshaling evidence for art and literature over the centuries, Toohey makes the case that variations on this combination of feelings can be found well before modernity. Certain similarities of bodily expression of boredom cut across various cultural divides, such as a certain way of slumping while resting head on hands. Boredom is, he argues, a feeling akin to depression and anger, but also a kind of emotional signal telling you to remove yourself from a situation that might overwhelm you with depression and anger.
For what it's worth, I find this intuitively persuasive. At any movie where there turns out to be a car chase, for example, my response always involves “frustration, surfeit, depression, disgust, indifference, apathy, and the feeling of being trapped or confined.” And Toohey tends to confirm my mother-in-law's adage. If you wallow in boredom, or try to evade it by mind-numbing expedients -- rather than cultivating the skills needed to redirect your attention to something else -- there are other soul-depleting forces ready to kick in and make things worse. Clearly the author knows this; he's written an interesting book. And when you finish it, there's one on a recent volume on Rodin by another author that I'll recommend.
It's rare for a publication to print letters to the editor about articles published more than 25 years ago. But a letter in the new issue of The New York Review of Books couldn't have been published back then.
The letter, "McCarthyism at Harvard," details the experiences of Robert N. Bellah, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley who previously taught at Harvard -- and ran into difficulties there in the 1950s because of his brief membership in the Communist Party while a Harvard undergraduate in the late 1940s.