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Introversion and...

Battle of Symbols

Introversion and Small Symbols

“America is not only big and rich, it is mysterious; and its capacity for the humorous or ironical concealment of its interests matches that of the legendary inscrutable Chinese.”

David Riesman
The Lonely Crowd

One of the key dynamics of American symbolism in the twentieth century was a movement from mass culture to segmented culture, from equality to freedom. A psychological dimension of this cultural movement was a change from an outward-directed extraversion to an inward-directed introversion. These cultural and psychological dimensions were matched by an economic change from a socialistic to a free market economy and a political change from Democratic programs to Republican businesses.

The large archetypal symbols of mass culture began to crumble in the late 50s as the smaller symbols of segmentation began to rise in the 60s, 70s and 80s reaching their zenith in the 90s with so-called postmodernism. In a sense, the term postmodernism is another term for a culture dominated by numerous symbols rather than few symbols. The relationship between the overall psychological orientation of a culture at a point in time (outward and towards the world and society or inward towards the self) has a profound relationship on the symbols it creates and the symbols that define it.

Ultimately, this plays an extremely important (albeit subtle and subtextual) role in the “battle of symbols” America and the western world are engaged in. It is our thesis that large, connecting symbols are difficult to produce in a culture of dominating introversion. This is so even when the world’s greatest symbol creating, communicating and managing machinery is in place.

For this reason, it is important to briefly review some large trends in American culture and see how they might relate to the growing “battle of symbols” in the world today.

One of the first books to comment on long term trends in the make-up of the American character was David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1961). While Riesman’s research extends back into American history beyond the twentieth century, he does locate a general trend extending into the first half of the twentieth century. The major change in the American character Riesman observes is from a character type centering around production in the early years of the nation to one centering around consumption in mid-twentieth century America. The long-term trend Riesman defines as a change from the “tradition-direction” character types to “inner-directed” types and finally to “other-directed” types. In effect, a long term change in American character from rugged individualism captured in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous essay “Self-Reliance” to a type of peer-defined “organization man” of modern American bureaucratic organization.

While Riesman’s book was prescient in ways, it was also a product of the cultural context of its times, the zenith years of mass culture in 1950 when it was first published. For this reason, it perhaps gave more importance to long term trends towards extroversion while playing down the rise (re-emergence) of individualism and introversion in America. In this sense, one might suggest that Riesman’s linear analysis stopped at the end of a long cycle and was unable to see (or admit into its argument) that the cycle was about to repeat itself again.

Almost twenty years after Riesman’s Lonely Crowd cultural segmentation had replaced much of the vestiges of mass culture. The Riesman thesis of an “other-directed” culture was certainly true in some respects by American’s notions of “keeping up with the Jones” next door and defining themselves largely by peers rather than family. Yet a better definition of American character in the decade of the 70s centered around the word “narcissism” with the persuasive arguments of Christopher Lasch in Culture of Narcissism (1979). For Lasch, the emerging niche culture was not a pretty sight with the appearance of a self-absorbed (though not self aware), greedy and frivolous society which depended on consumerism, demographic studies, opinion polls and Government to know and to define itself.

One of the key books analyzing the changing dynamics of American character in the late twentieth century was Habits of the Heart (1985) by University of California Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah. It rapidly became one of the most discussed interpretations of American society in the twentieth century. The book and its extensive research was about those two duality symbols of freedom and the equality perpetually at battle in America.

The trends towards segmentation were extended into the 90s by Harvard sociology professor Robert Putnam with his well-known book Bowling Alone documenting a decrease of “social capital” or the institutions, practices, behavior, and attitudes that create and sustain human communities in postmodern America. Putnam argued that civil society was breaking down as Americans became more disconnected from their families, neighbors, communities, and the republic itself. The organizations that gave life to democracy were fraying. As Putnam observed:

Television, two-career families, suburban sprawl, generational changes in values - these and other changes in American society have meant that fewer and fewer of us find that the League of Women Voters, or the United Way, or the Shriners, or the monthly bridge club, or even a Sunday picnic with friends fits the way we have come to live. Our growing social-capital deficit threatens educational performance, safe neighborhoods, equitable tax collection, democratic responsiveness, everyday honesty, and even our health and happiness.

Putnam’s initial research was greatly expanded with the creation of the Saguro Institute at Harvard with the help of some 50 assistants and multimillion-dollar support from foundations, including Carnegie, Ford, Rockefeller and the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Based on this research, Putnam argues that the hollowing out of American democratic infrastructure began suddenly in the late 1960s, when the first generation raised on television reached adulthood. The privatizing effects of television, Putnam estimates, have caused about 25 percent of the decline in social and civic engagement.

To a lesser degree, Putnam also cites the rise of two-career families, suburban sprawl and the resulting increase in commuting, all of which siphon off time, energy and interest in social activities. Combine these factors with devastating demographic momentum, where decreasing engagement by parents begets even less involvement on the part of their children, and the result is a very slippery slope indeed.Much of Putnam’s observations are glowingly evident to a growing group of Americans from all political parties, religious persuasions, economic classes and age groups. The reasons for their angst is captured brilliantly in the finest history of America in the 90s yet written - The Best of Times: America in the Clinton Years (2001) by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Haynes Johnson.

Not surprising, Johnson characterizes the American 1990s as “an era characterized by accumulation of wealth and self-indulgence.” Johnson casts a cynical eye on what he sees as a nation of voyeurs, fixated on reality shows, the Internet, celebrities, screaming pundits and an utter contempt for privacy.

Johnson divides his ambitious social history of America at the “zenith” of power and influence into four interwined sections: Technotimes, Teletimes, Scandal Times and Millennial Times. In short, America in the 90s is viewed through Johnson’s filter as close to that paradoxical year of 1775 that Charles Dickens described in his famous book A Tale of Two Cities. As Dickens says in the opening lines of the book, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

And so it was for America in the 90s. It was the “best of times” in a culture dominated by a growing Internet and biotechnology technology including the Human Genome Project, cloning, and genetically modified crops. Yet it was also the ”worst of times” in the same culture with the growing power and consolidation of a celebrity-possessed media entranced over OJ Simpson, Jon Benet Ramsey, the Menendez brothers and ultimately the on-going soap opera of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Johnson is scathing about the role of the broadcast media and the entertainment industry, arguing they essentially made a business decision to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

In retrospect, it seems to Johnson the country was ripe for Bill Clinton. “I’ve tried to shut my body down, sexually, I mean,” the president tells Dick Morris, according to the Starr Report, “but sometimes I slipped up and with this girl I just slipped up.” Clinton’s “slip-up” gave the ultimate smoking gun to his enemies.

Johnson traces the right wing’s paranoia about Clinton from Whitewater to the death of Vince Foster, to Travelgate and Filegate, and asserts that there was no wrongdoing on the president’s part. Johnson’s parade of characters includes the usual dreary suspects: Ken Starr, the special prosecutor whose office, according to Johnson, perpetrated “a disgraceful episode in the annals of American jurisprudence”; Monica Lewinsky, touchingly ingenuous one moment, scheming the next; Linda Tripp, who comes across here, as she appeared to many at the time, as a sordid character; and, of course, the news media, caught in a frenzy that, according to Johnson, was “motivated by a desire to become the next Woodward and Bernstein, to discover scandal where in fact none exists.”

Throughout, Johnson is consumed with missed opportunities, with a nation “at a moment of peak power and influence” that spent so much time, so much political energy and so much talent on “self-destructive squabbles, petty political assaults, growing inattention and the diversions of the electronic entertainment and scandal culture.” He acknowledges the scientific and technological achievements of the age but he seems mystified that the nation which produced such technological and economic progress could, at the very same moment, become so obsessed with notorious celebrities on television trial in front of the nation.

But the final paradox of the “best and worst” times of the 90s was embodied in the young millennial generation. As Robin Toner says in her 10/28/2001 New York Times review of the book “There are few voices more haunting in Haynes Johnson’s history of the Clinton years than those of the young.” This was the millennial generation, that generation entering adulthood in the year 2000 with an expectation of “peace and prosperity and a boundless belief in the private marketplace.” They were the “exemplars of their age” as Haynes points out, the idealistic young hope of a new America:

A survey of American college students in 1997 found that 77 percent believed they would become millionaires someday. Four years later, with the New Economy in tatters and the nation reeling from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it is almost painful to read of the innocence - or is it hubris? - of the millennials, like peeking in on the English in the spring of 1914. They had no idea what was coming. For that matter, neither did most of their elders.

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Copyright © 2001 John Fraim