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.
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