Stand Up Sociology
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.