Tropes

A trope is a storyline that can be applied over and over again. So the hero off on a quest or the girl left at home to whom he will return are two tropes or part of the same one, this one as old as Homer, in the case of the Odyssey, the girl not being a young thing but his long separated wife. One things learned from studying literature is not to be caught up in tropes that seem to be the common wisdom when all they are are ways of imagining a situation that excludes other ways of doing so. If I, myself, have made a contribution to the #metoo debate in this blog, it is that the trope of males being obnoxiously aggressive is not the only way to imagine the interaction between employers and employees, however much that may be an accurate way of describing Hollywood and its casting couch culture. I remember a time when the organizing principle for interpreting the relation between men and women was romantic, men and woman sparring with one another until they engaged in a clinch and a kiss, the aggressive bully an exception rather than what is always to be looked out for. Better to think of Beatrice and Benedict or Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan than of Harvey Weinstein.

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The Activity of Conversation

When I was a child and went to visit relatives with my parents, I thought how fortunate I was to be a child because I could go off to play in the room of my relative’s child, and use his toys as well as the ones I had brought with me, while the adults spent their time in the living room just talking. I was not aware of the activity of conversation and what were its rewards. That had to wait until I was slightly older when I would sit on the stoop outside my apartment building and go over what my friends and I had seen on television or what we knew about girls. It is worth pondering conversation as an essential human activity and how it is structured. I will leave to others, such as Roland Wulbert, the question of how we are able to exchange utterances so that they add up to something meaningful.

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Universal Roles

Writers and social scientists have always given thought to the sequence of roles that dominate a person’s life and putatively apply to any and all people and so constitute “the ages of man”. Good role theorists that most of them are, they each pick out one or more salient circumstances of each stage that may be obvious but also illuminate the psychological dimensions of that stage as well as its overall meaning. Sophocles, in his riddle of the Sphinx, saw only three stages but his characterization is perhaps still the best in that it is the most minimalist: people crawl on all four as babies; walk erect as adults; and use a cane in old age. Physical frailty characterizes both the last and the first of these stages and so makes the Sophoclean sense of life very sad. Shakespeare thought there were seven stages and he characterized them, in his own vivid way, by a circumstance, an emotion, and an activity. Schoolboys head off to school with their satchels; they are unwilling to do so and whine about it; and they go to school anyway. Soldiers curse a lot, are jealous of their reputations and remain brave even while “in the cannon’s mouth”. All seven stages are portrayed in the most benign way and that suggests that Jacques is speaking in the mood of Arden rather than with the malevolence that Shakespeare usually ascribes to the human condition. That means that one should presume an expositor of universal human roles is not to be trusted, even the present author, whose descriptions are underlain with a sense of the isolation of each human being from other human beings. Erik Erikson, who  saw there to be eight stages of psychosocial development, based his view on the basic Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity. He thought that the fundamental stage of human life was the first one, when an infant sensed that he could trust the outside world to be stable and reliable. Basic trust is a form of faith. But Erikson’s idea is also based on a deep insight into what are the circumstances a baby has to manage from the baby’s point of view: the problems of nourishment and comfort. A later stage in Erikson’s schema concerns the ability to engage in a meaningful conjugal relationship, which means having to develop a capacity for intimacy rather than isolation and that challenge is certainly a version of charity. A yet later stage, that of generativity, concerns how a person can take advantage of opportunities to do productive work during one’s adult years, and that is a version of hope.

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Zones of Identity

Zones of identity are the aspects of the immediate social world that a person identifies with so strongly that the person does not feel complete without it or them. So a person is not fully that without something that is outside his brain, and so there is no getting around the fact that the social sphere is every bit as real as the psychological one, much less the neurological one, even if, obviously, a person might survive without one or another zone of identity, however diminished a life it would be, but it would also be difficult to conceptualize what a person would be without some one or another zone of identity, whether that is occupational or the comfort of having a family hearth to return to at the end of the day, that being the place where one is truly “oneself”.

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Harmless Pleasures

“Harmless pleasures” is a conventional phrase for the description of activities that are satisfying without imposing any harm on anyone. Hobbies such as stamp collecting or raising roses or following the fortunes of a baseball team are considered harmless pleasures, that taken as a term of praise given how many awful things happen in the world. Harmless pleasures are to be indulged because human action could also be malicious and destructive. Its companion term is “guilty pleasures” which are also for the most part minor but do carry at least some threat of doing some damage, probably in the long run, to the person indulging in them. Examples of these would be eating chocolates, which make you fat and raise your cholesterol levels but taste so good; enjoying pornography, which appeals to the male desire to look at naked female bodies but may weaken one’s appreciation for the personhood behind the body; or following gossip columns so as to be in the know about celebrities but also encourage a disrespect for the privacy of a person. Guilty pleasures won’t do much damage to your soul or your body but they address an indulgent side of yourself and so are, in some way, sinful. Smoking, however, has been moved in the past fifty years from being a guilty pleasure to being an out and out evil in that the practice is very highly correlated with the development of lung cancer and other diseases. The tricky issue are those cases where it is not at all clear whether a pleasure is harmless or guilty or downright bad. Clarifying the status of some test cases will allow elaborating what are the criteria by which a harmless or guilty pleasure turns into something else, something downright unacceptable. What are the additional circumstances which turn a harmless or guilty pleasure into something more momentous: a tragedy or a comedy or a history or a romance, to use Shakespeare’s categories?

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Charity is an Outdated Idea

There are fewer beggars on the streets of New York than there used to be but you run into them everyday on the subway and sitting on cardboard in the streets with signs announcing what led them to beg: illness, PTSS, a dog that needed to be fed. People are likely to identify some beggars as more deserving of charity than others, and so the moral question of whether to give becomes complicated. If we are more likely to give our handouts to those beggars who look most nearly like ordinary people, and so evoke sym[athy, then charity is given for our own well being because it has become possible to identify with one of God’s less fortunate creatures by having overcome only a minimum of disgust or disquiet because this person seems capable of becoming even more like us. On the other hand, if handouts are more likely to be given to those who look most needy, then the giver is perversely catering to his sense of disgust because he rewards those who are most grotesque and so gives tacit approval to those people who maim themselves or appear maimed or drag along children to increase their take.

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Freud & Sexual Harassment

Sigmund Freud was a major intellectual force from the Thirties through the Seventies, so much so that humanistic intellectuals during the time when I became exposed to cultural developments, the Fifties and Sixties, were deeply into the question of how to reconcile Freud and Marx, those two great explorers into the science of society, those humanistic intellectuals blissfully unaware that there were other savants, like Weber and Parsons, who also had to be reckoned with. Freud went into decline after it became clear that his method of cure, talking to people at great length, was not reliable and also very expensive, and that, as Grunwald showed, rigorous scientific experimentation did not justify Freud’s theories. Moreover, cheaper and more effective cures and mitigations of mental troubles could be accomplished through drugs. Better living through chemistry. Nowadays, Freud seems additionally discredited by the claims of people like Frederick Crews that his case studies were fraudulent reports and that Freud was himself not a very nice man, the latter charge obvious to anyone who defended the great man’s theories, whatever his shortcomings as a person, given that he two timed his wife, dismissed as worthless most of those who broke with him (though not Jung, whom he thought went on to do good work) or how cruel he was to his daughter, subjecting her to psychoanalysis with her own father. But put that all aside. There is still something to be said for his insights, which do capture the feel of the underground life we all lead with regard to our sexuality and these insights even illuminate the present public controversy concerning sexual harassment.

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Anticipation

Here is a simple guide to human motivation.

People play amusing games with Sari, the voice of Google. They ask to marry her. They ask her trick and obscure questions about history. They remark on how she never gets tired of giving you new directions when you have gone a block beyond where you were supposed to turn. What is funny about her is that she never loses her patience, even though she seems to be a human voice, and we know why that is true. She is, after all, a machine. People, on the other hand, get annoyed if you repeat a question more than a few times; they take offense at lewd remarks; they are displeased when they display themselves as ignorant. That is because they are reflective about where they fall short of their images of themselves, of their self-conscious selves. They know how they anticipate how they will act or have their actions looked at and so can measure where they fall short. This solipsism is the beginning of wisdom because it can be stretched to include all the many ways in which people anticipate the consequences of their actions and of collective action. Machines, on the other hand, are infinitely patient, never jumping to the future, because, after all, they are not exercising patience at all but merely being what they are, which is procedures whereby things get done through physical and electronic arrangements, whether that is a lever, always there to serve, or an automobile, whether or not it is driverless, and computers, that do get unplugged, but do not go mad, except in a metaphorical sense, as happens with any old fashioned IBM calculator when you tried to divide by zero: it just started jumping around the table. This distinction between people and machines, people having intentions and machines not, provides a lever into understanding motivation.

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On Being Late

Being a combination of the sociology of everyday life and the history of ideas.

Getting places on time is a ubiquitous feature of modern everyday life. The first ads for cell phones said the devices were useful for making contact with people who might be waiting for you on the wrong corner or for when you might be a little late. Other uses were secondary or came later. We train our children to be on time because not to be indicates a slovenliness of character and inconsideration towards others. Kids learn, train themselves, to be on time, and schools and dates require it of them and so will their future employers. How did this become the case? David Landes, that very distinguished economic historian, suggests that the clockmakers of early modern Switzerland set a revolution in motion when they perfected their instruments so that all of Europe and what would become the civilized world could go by the clock. People who did not catch on to that, who practiced a “manana” mentality, or what I remember being referred to as “Jewish time” because it referenced recently arrived immigrants, were just not suited to the modern world of enterprise and personal advancement. They were like children. 

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Cultural Moments, Cultural Amnesia

Before going on to discuss the present cultural moment, the Age of Trump, let us get straight the definition of the concept of cultural moment.

A cultural moment is the period of duration of a uniform set of preoccupations, emotions and meanings within a community. It consists of the things that people regularly allude to in their thoughts and their talk regardless of what is happening in their personal or work lives. These topics, feelings and images seem to the people of the community to be inevitable references and so not require people to explain why they are so preoccupied. A war, such as World War II, is a public event which defined a cultural moment that lasted from Pearl Harbor to past V-J Day. There may be overlapping events which are fads of the period, that associated with the moment. For World War II, that included swing music and Bond Drives and rationing. There also can be remainders of previous moments that conflict with the prevailing cultural moment but appear to be as such because they are allusions to alternative moments of public consciousness. Labor conflict, a theme from the Thirties, could not hold its own as a legitimate context of experience during the World War II culture, as John L. Lewis found out when public support for strikes disappeared in the context of war production patriotism.

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Social Distance

Social distance is a sociological concept that I will define as describing the differences between people that arises out of them having different ways of life resulting from their differing social classes. As a metaphor, it provides a sense of how social separation is like geographical separation, and that sometimes applies to sociological social distance, as when the poor live in the hills while the rich live in the flats, as occurs in Rio de Janeiro, or visa versa, where the rich live in the hills while the less affluent live on the flats, as occurs in Berkeley, California. Mostly, though, social isolation is a matter of people feeling comfortable or uncomfortable with one another (which comes close to the way Bogardus defines the concept) because of what they give off to one another about the way they lead their lives, as when people use more high faulting language than is part of common discourse in the community, or when people carry expensive accessories, real Gucci bags rather than knockoffs. Some people can tell the difference while others are just baffled. People who follow prize fights are likely not the swells who dressed up to go to championship fights, while it is noticeable that baseball is a sport that appeals across class barriers. Social distance is, I would  say, more significant and subtle than the bi-polar or multi-polar social divisions, like gender and race, that  have been the focus of attention for the past few generations, and which are noteworthy because they are largely overt, people classified clearly as of one or another kind, white or black or brown, or male and female, with a great deal of attention paid to those who fall in the middle, quadroons in an earlier time, transgender people nowadays. People fight for their classifications within and fight against those groups external to them in those dimensions of social life, some even holding out the hope of a time which  is post-racial and, maybe, sometime way off in the future, post-gender, in that people will be polymorphous in choosing sex partners. Social distance is not like that because people may not be aware of where they belong or the extent to which they belong to one social class or another and experience their membership within their social class as not anything noteworthy but only as the way they tend to be, the path of least resistance for habits, beliefs, accoutrements, language, and so forth. To borrow Erving Goffman’s term, people "give off" their social class, emit it, through their behaviors, rather than treat social class as a creed, even if ideologists of class may want people to become more self-conscious of their class and act in the interests of their class, just as some, and only some, Black men and women of the Thirties were known as “race people” because of their self-conscious adoption of race as the explanation of the social condition of Black people. Much more has to be said about social distance to restore it to its importance for the explanation of social life.

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Catskills Vacations: Cultural Rituals

The men would arrive at the bungalow colony in the Catskills every Friday night to spend the weekends with their families. They would take over the pool, and expect a big dinner, and would entertain one another with stories about how difficult the traffic had been, and whether it would be better to leave late Sunday night or early Monday morning so that they might most easily get back to their jobs in the garment district or the post office.

After dinner, the men congregated on the lawn again and talked candidly, or so it seemed to an eavesdropping teenager, about growing up in the Depression, and the paths not taken. The furrier had trained to be a lawyer; the civil servant took an examination that would settle his life just because some friends were taking it. The wives sat on the arms of the patio chairs in skirts and sweaters listening attentively before going off to put the children to bed. The men would stay up longer, exchanging smutty stories and confidences about their bosses before joining their wives and their sleeping children in the little cottages that surrounded the central lawn.

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Grief and Isolation

When I walked my dog in my old neighborhood, I would continually come across a young couple standing in front of a brownstone, good weather and bad, smoking up a storm, one of them doing so even if the other were absent. When together, they were in animated conversation, or looking into one another’s eyes, or just intruding into one another’s space, and so, as anyone else would, I thought them to be lovers who could not for one reason or another go inside, and it is always heartwarming to see young lovers. But I was also tempted to go up to them and say to them that they should stop smoking for one another’s sake so that they did not have to face my fate which was to be made a widower after forty-eight years of marriage because my wife had been a heavy smoker for fifty years even though she and I and all her friends had made the effort to get her to stop smoking. In the early years of our marriage I had even gotten her to try a woman’s pipe, which was a small and pastel colored thing to make it seem feminine, and was something of a fad at the time, but that hadn’t worked, and so by the time she died of lung cancer her only hope had become, as she said, that she would beat the odds. Nobody’s fault that she was dying; only a hope of rescue unfulfilled. But I never did intrude on the couple’s time or space. It was not that I am timid about expressing my opinions. It is rather that you respect the choices people make, however foolish they are, and also so as not to too much blame the addiction prone for their cravings.

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A Material Family

There is a family I have never met that I came to know quite well over my years as a college teacher. They are the Greenwalts, once of Birmingham, Michigan, a wealthy bedroom community outside Detroit, who were the subject of a documentary entitled "But What If The Dream Comes True?" that appeared on CBS in l970. Unlike other family portraits of the time, such as that of the Louds, where a hand-held camera picked up the wife telling her husband to move out, the portrait of the Greenwalts was not given to titillation or uncovering family ghosts. Nor was this a video blog pretending to be the real life of a celebrity with all but selected warts edited out. Its method was that of a standard documentary: interviews with the protagonists and film on the settings in which they lived their lives. Its purpose was an exploration of the American character, and its narrator, Charles Kuralt, brought his usual mixture of amusement and appreciation to an hour-long human interest story that was and is more than a sidebar.

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Being Comfortable & Self-sufficiency

Dogs show themselves to be comfortable. My dog lies on his back under the air conditioner, the breeze going through his whiskers and onto the hairless part of his undercarriage. He has just been walked and so has relieved himself and he has been fed. His social nature is also satisfied in that I am present in the room with him while he stares out into space doing nothing but being comfortable. He exudes his comfort even though he doesn’t know he is comfortable, is not self-aware of his comfort. Maybe the dog is close to Nirvana, though I am not big on thinking it is better to be unconscious rather than conscious of one’s state. People, for their part, know when they are comfortable and knowing so is itself a pleasure and a satisfaction. I am ever more conscious of this self sufficiency as I get older even though I don’t think there ever was a time for me or for anyone else when we did not both sense and know when we were comfortable. I wake up in the middle of the night, aware of the silence, of the fact that I am breathing comfortably, that my bowels are untroubled, that the temperature is just about right, and that my thoughts can wander whichever way they care to. It is like when my wife slept next to me before she died though not as good as that, my listening to her unlabored breathing and touching her warm skin though not with so much pressure as to wake her.

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A Nazi Dedication: How hHistory Can Be Normalized

Here is a dystopia that came awfully close to coming true and which shows how history can be normalized by rhetoric and so come to be just the substance of the familiar and the everyday.

Remarks at the Dedication of the Berlin Center for Judaic Studies (1994):        

In the Spring of l950, when the Fuhrer was taken from us, worn down by his years of service to the European peoples, it would have surprised the world that the international system he put in place would still be in place, stronger than ever, half a century later. His dramatic and memorable declaration of l945, "The Channel is deeper than the Atlantic", had allowed the British to accept the bitterness of their inevitable defeat: their armies decimated in Africa; their cities devastated by the Luftwaffe; their population demoralized; and a grand army about to be lifted by the then newly invented jet transports in an invasion by airbridge over the now militarily meaningless Channel. Let the British and their American and Commonwealth allies control the intercontinental oceans, the Fuhrer was saying. They shared a similar bourgeois way of life-- and a similar set of economic problems. The Continent, however, would achieve its rightful unity as the Federal Republic of Europe, a destiny which had eluded it since the collapse of Christendom as a unifying ideal some five hundred years before. Fratricide in Europe was finally over.

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Cab Confessions: Ethnic Ripostes & Making Assumptions

Memorable conversations with cab drivers are an emblematic New York experience available to both tourists and long time residents. A few days ago, I climbed into a cab whose driver began by telling me how crowded with traffic were New York streets because of all the construction of new residential buildings. I demurred that new building was a sign that New York was prosperous, whatever the state of the Great Recession, and the new residents supplied more business for cab drivers such as himself. He said he would prefer less traffic and fewer customers. He said that the city was filthy and stank, which I readily agreed was particularly true in the summer, but a small price to pay for living in this glorious city. He said he was going back to his native Armenia after his thirty years here so that he could live in comparative quiet and calm. I said no one had to live here.

 

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Silences

There was a newspaper report of an armed gunman who said, when told by his victim that it was a policeman that he was holding up, “You know, now I have to kill you.” That is the stuff of gangster melodrama, and may even be true. The exchange reminded me of "The Asphalt Jungle" which was a remarkable movie because, among other things, it violated the movie convention whereby people who have others at gunpoint keep talking until the person with the gun pulled on him finds a way out of the situation. Rather, Louis Calhern just starts to sweat and lose his game face as he realizes that his erstwhile comrades in crime are going to kill him. However much they talk, the gangsters in "The Asphalt Jungle" don’t talk about what they are doing while they do it.

 

Why does the movie convention violated by "The Asphalt Jungle" make sense? Why do characters say what they are going to do rather than just do it? That is the same thing as asking why such dialogue occurs in real life, because the movie convention is simply exploiting and adopting a usage of everyday life, in that dramatic tension arises from whether an assailant will speak or not. So why did the gunman in the newspaper report act the way he did? (Here, I am engaged in applying Georg Simmel’s dictum, which is contrary to the accepted wisdom, that the sociologist can analyze fictional as well as real situations because both make use of the formal properties of social life.)

 

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