Casey Nelson Blake
“In every day’s newspaper there are stories about the two subjects I have brought together in this book, the disgrace of the Organized System of semimonopolies, government, advertisers, etc., and the disaffection of the growing generation.” So begins Growing Up Absurd, Paul Goodman’s massively influential 1960 report on “the problems of youth in the Organized Society.” Polemics often don’t age gracefully, and there are certainly some aspects of Growing Up Absurd that we should be happy to leave in the mid 20th century, but on the whole the book remains remarkably prescient on the issues facing young people today. The faults of the Organized System were laid bare by the youth-driven Occupy Movement, Arab Spring, and the massive student protests in Chile and Quebec.
Paul Goodman’s work is getting a welcome second appraisal, beginning with the 2011 documentary Paul Goodman Changed My Life and continuing with the republication of Growing Up Absurd by the New York Review of Books after 50 years of being out of print. To mark this occasion I spoke to Casey Nelson Blake, professor of History and American Studies at Columbia University, who wrote a wonderful introduction to the new edition.
Blake is the perfect candidate to place Goodman’s work in a broader historical and intellectual context. And to add to that a perspective on how the youth of today will receive the book, we asked Michael Fisher to write about his experience with Growing Up Absurd. Fisher is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Rochester and wrote the introduction to the new edition of Paul Goodman’s New Reformation: Notes of A Neolithic Conservative. In his short essay he takes up the fate of Goodman’s radical question “socialization to what?”
Blake and I discussed the experience of reading Growing Up Absurd in the wake of the 1960s, Goodman’s stylistic successes and failures, and the continuing importance that 20th century theories exercise on the civic imagination.
Michael Schapira: To begin, what was your initial experience with the book? When did you first read it and what kind of impact did it have?
Casey Nelson Blake: I can’t remember exactly when I first read the book. I believe it was late in my teenage years, when I was either in high school or just starting college. I certainly didn’t read the book when it was first published; I was only 4 years old at the time. And it definitely wasn’t assigned in any of my courses, so I either came across it in a bookstore or sought it out because I’d heard of it. This would have been in the early 1970s, shortly after Goodman died, unbeknownst to me.
I’ve been trying to think about why the book had the impact that it did on me at that particular moment, which was of course a very different moment than the U.S. of 1960. I’ve often thought of the early ’70s in terms of an observation that Joe Strummer had about his generation, which is, I guess, my generation as well. He had the sense of having almost by accident come across a battlefield immediately after the end of a war. The ground was strewn with corpses, but the armies had retreated.
I think that for those of us who came of age in the early 1970s there was a sense that the conflicts of the 1960s had subsided, though not disappeared altogether, as is commonly believed. But they had subsided or taken new forms. What was left in their wake for many Americans of different political persuasions was a profound sense of cultural and, more importantly, moral dislocation. I certainly felt that powerfully as a young person.
Would you call it “dislocation” or was it almost a form of exhaustion after a burst of activity (political, utopian, cultural, etc.)?
It may have felt more like exhaustion to the people who had lived through the 1960s as adults. As a precocious child growing up in New York I gobbled up everything I could pick up about what was going on in the streets in the late 1960s. I also joined several major antiwar demonstrations in the city as a young teenager. But obviously I wasn’t a participant in the same way as those people just a little bit older than me.
The point I’m trying to make about reading the book in the 1970s is that I think it spoke to me, as someone growing up at a rather different time, as a work of cultural criticism. And more importantly it was a book written by a moralist, or someone who wrote explicitly in that mode. I don’t think I picked up one way or another on the political arguments in the book, but rather responded to those aspects of Growing Up Absurd that differed from the political criticism that I was already starting to read. The emphasis on “faith,” “vocation,” “community,” or even “patriotism” — words Goodman capitalized throughout the text. He devoted individual chapters to these ideas. This aspect of the book struck me as quite original. It spoke to my own sense that these were important issues, and I believe in retrospect that I and many other people at the time were hoping to re-endow those words with meaning. So in that regard the book spoke quite powerfully to me even at a very different moment than the time of its publication.
I would say a couple of other things about the way I read the book as a very young man. I was attracted to the argument in the book that, even in the 1950s, cultural radicals like the Beats and white-collar executives (company men or “organization men”), were actually brothers under the skin. They both shared a cynical belief that role-playing and reputation were all that mattered. I already had the sense as a teenager that a lot of the so-called “counterculture” of the 1960s was quickly being absorbed by the upper middle classes. Much of the counterculture, in fact, re-energized American consumerism at a critical moment, so I saw Goodman as quite prescient in this regard.
The other thing I would say is that I just liked Goodman’s prose style — or rather his prose style at his best. He also wrote some awful sentences. I’m sure Growing Up Absurd appealed to me because of its directness. I was reading a lot of George Orwell at the time, and of course admired him. Soon thereafter I was reading people like E.P. Thompson, Raymond Williams, Christopher Lasch — who likewise wrote in a direct prose style that had something in common with Goodman’s way of writing.
You mentioned that Goodman’s voice was a new, fresh voice for you. Were you reading the great works of mid-century sociology like C. Wright Mills, William H. Whyte, or John Kenneth Galbraith? Was he being put into conversation with these voices?
Well, I personally did not read those people until shortly after reading Goodman. I may have read Mills at roughly the same time, but I don’t think I had read Whyte and Galbraith. But certainly in his day Goodman was entering into a public conversation that was deeply informed by these earlier or contemporary works of social criticism.
Was part of this due to a healthy publishing apparatus in New York that existed at the time? Or one that at least allowed someone to conduct themselves as a public intellectual?
Goodman wrote for Dwight MacDonald’s Politics journal in the 1940s, but most of his output was in very obscure anarchist publications when he was first getting started. These pieces probably reached 100 people at most. Growing Up Absurd was serialized, or at least three chapters of it were, in Commentary magazine. Norman Podhoretz had just assumed the editorship, and at that time he wanted Commentary to take a political direction somewhat to the left of Partisan Review and even The New Republic. It’s hard to believe now, but he was drawn to Goodman as an unorthodox radical.
I should also say that Goodman was an important contributor to Liberation magazine in the late 1950s and early ’60s. That magazine was in some respects the successor to Dwight MacDonald’s Politics in its anarcho-pascifism.
You read the book in the early ’70s as a teenager. I actually just read it for the first time and I’m in my late 20s. I’m interested in how different generations who still feel affinity to the youth, or feel themselves as youth, read this book. The reason I ask is because a lot of the conditions that Goodman is talking about don’t seem to have changed tremendously. There is still a lot of skepticism about what we might call the Organized System if we are talking about conventional politics, corporations, advertisers, the entertainment industry, etc. The kind of disaffection Goodman describes still seems to be there.
It’s only to be expected that different generations are going to read the book in different ways. I remember teaching the book when I was at Reed College in the late 1980s. Even then, even at Reed, people felt that it was a book to some extent from another era. Of course the now quite shocking argument that the problems that Goodman was exploring in that book were irrelevant to the experiences of women was an issue for us to talk about in a way that it wouldn’t have been for students in the early 1960s. On the other hand, many Reed students — as you might expect — were drawn to the Beats. His critical but to some extent appreciative take on the Beats was something they found compelling and wanted to grapple with.
As to how your generation and even younger people read the book today, obviously I can’t speak for all of you. I think there are aspects of the book that are extremely relevant today, perhaps to some extent more so than when it was first published. The cultural, moral, and spiritual lament that one finds in the book seems to me still to speak to the yearnings of the young people who I encounter, including my daughters and their friends.
However, the critique of the Organized System that provides the historical and sociological background for the cultural criticism in the book may no longer be applicable to the political economy and social conditions of our time.
I’d be very curious to know how college students read the book now. One aspect of the book that I find a little less compelling is that it seems like a lot of young people, even those engaged in mass protest, aren’t necessarily refusing the system in total. They just seem to want some more effective buy-in because they are saddled with debt and there are fewer quality jobs out there. This doesn’t seem to have the critical and disaffected aspect that Goodman was speaking to.
This would be speculative, because you haven’t taught the book recently, but maybe you could say something about how the basic economic reality that young people are facing today would make them read that aspect of the book a little differently, as opposed to those living in a post WWII social compact situation.
This is an overstatement, but there are times when one reads some of the early documents of the New Left (and we could certainly include Growing Up Absurd under that rubric) and have the sense that the worst thing that could happen to a young person was to have a job for life that came with good wages and good benefits, in a corporation, for example. It’s not the nightmare that young people live with today. On the other hand I do think there is a good deal of disaffection with the Organized System, if it can still be called that. The issue of finding meaningful work remains an elusive goal for young people, and for the not so young as well.
I must say that what might be called the digitization of culture and the digitization of personal life that the young in particular have experienced in the last decade reintroduces all the issues that Goodman was wrestling with. He spoke about a culture that was overly concerned with appearances and the scramble for reputation as the sum total of human aspiration. In that regard, even as the political economy that young people are facing is quite different than what their predecessors faced a half century ago, many of the cultural issues that Goodman articulated I think are still very much alive.
Goodman and other authors generated a vocabulary of this period that helped people make sense of their situation. Examples of this abound in Growing Up Absurd, like “the early reigned” vs. “the early fatalistic.” Part of this had to do with mass-market paperbacks that flourished mid-century. You sound an optimistic note at the end of your introduction that maybe many figures will emerge “out of the wreckage of the academy and traditional journalism” that can provide this kind of vocabulary. But is what is occurring on the web different from having a figure like Goodman, who people can talk about and confidently assume that others had read?
The first thing I would say, by way of preface, is that in fact many commentators in the mid and late 1950s believed that the so-called paperback revolution flooded people with cultural products and intellectual choices that had not been available to previous generations. It was making the great works of modern literature and philosophy available to a wider and wider public, but as a result there was even then a kind of diffuse quality to intellectual culture. In retrospect it seems like there was a more focused intellectual culture than that what we are familiar with now, but in fact many of the worries that you articulated were part of the discussion back then.
I think, for example, of Lionel Trilling, who very shrewdly identified the paperback revolution and the expansion of higher education — particularly public higher education — as transformative forces in American culture. He did so in the context of the famous Partisan Review “Our Country and Our Culture” symposium. Several years later in his essay on teaching modern literature he dreaded that his undergraduates approached works of modern literature and philosophy with a kind of blasé attitude. For him these were works that turned the world upside down, that should have kept people up at night in a state of dread about living in a godless universe. In other words, we already heard those concerns a half a century ago.
Having said all of that, I think that you are right that what we are witnessing now is different — in terms of the quality of intellectual culture at a time when everything seems available. Everything is available, but perhaps what is available seems to matter less. Of course the way in which people talk about information as opposed to knowledge, never mind wisdom, is quite revealing. The seemingly effortless distribution of cultural products — not only literary and intellectual works, but music, film, and everything else — seems not necessarily to result in greater knowledge of the world or of self-knowledge, for that matter.
I had a similar experience to Trilling this summer. I was teaching a course on bioethics to 13- to 15-year-olds; for the most part they were able to engage with issues that were quite abstract to them (euthanasia, abortion, eugenics), but during any given breaks they were on their cell phones playing these incredibly inane games. This prompted my TA and me to give a stand-alone lecture on nihilism and bring up the issue of where they might find meaning in this culture.
It’s easy to condescend to students. I’m sometimes guilty of it; I’m not saying you are —
I’m sure I am, in this case.
But it’s easy to believe that what is going on on their cell phones is all that matters to them. I think many young people are trying to find some lessons about how to grow up, and how to grow up into a meaningful adult life. Our culture does a terrible job of giving young people examples of how their predecessors have done that. I’m certainly not, as a professor, going to offer my own life as an example. But it does seem to me that we as a culture owe that to young people and have failed miserably in that regard.
For Goodman a lot of these resources would come from history. In the introduction you note not only Goodman’s “unique synthesis of anarchist utopianism and unabashed cultural conservatism,” but also his unconventional method of making “a list of unaccomplished or lost causes and accumulate[ing] them as a program for action.” In fact, the last chapter lists “missed and compromised revolutions” like Garden Cities, Class Struggle, Democracy, Compulsory Education, and the Enlightenment. In this respect, do you see Goodman as pointing towards something similar to Tony Judt’s impassioned plea for a renewed commitment to social democracy (another idea from the past that is compromised or has never, for a set of complicated reasons, come to full fruition)?
The first thing that I would say is that Goodman had important differences with the social democratic position. Although he shared with social democrats a belief in a solidaristic culture that defended certain human relationships and values against the encroachment of market forces, and for that matter defended those relationships and values against military or imperial imperatives. This is a position that most social democrats also embraced in the early and middle years of the 20th century.
I think that he differed very significantly from social democrats in his skepticism about the State and his anarchist or communitarian emphasis on local initiatives, on face-to-face democracy. I’m not saying that that approach to political or social change is necessarily effective on its own, or superior to the social democratic tradition, but it differs in important ways from that tradition. It seems to me that those people who bemoan the demise of the New Deal social compact in the United States, or the social compact that the Social Democratic and Christian Democratic parties hammered out in Western Europe after the war, are in some respects speaking a different language than Goodman’s. It may be precisely because Goodman had less invested in the state — to put it mildly — that he might resonate more with young people who don’t feel that the liberal democratic tradition that so shaped their parents’ and grandparents’ experiences is as relevant to their experiences today.
Moving away from Goodman for a moment, are you in California working on your project on the politics of public art?
I’ve been working for a while on a project that has been taking different forms, but I now see as an exploration of American modernism and the civic imagination. It’s a project that includes art history and particular public art installations and objects, but embeds that history in an intellectual history of cultural criticism and aesthetics.
I should add that many people have responded to my essay on Goodman by encouraging me to write a short book on the Goodman brothers — Paul and Percival Goodman. Percival was an architect and urbanist. He and Paul collaborated on the book Communitas, which was a kind of utopian or anarchist work in urban planning. I may well go ahead with that.
I know his brother designed a lot of synagogues. Have you ever seen any of them?
I know I saw the synagogue he designed in Rochester, NY, and have driven by others. I’m not sure I’ve been inside others, however, though I’ve spent some time with his plans and photographs for certain synagogues. Percival was a very important figure in the history of synagogue design in the post-war period. He was at exactly the right place at the right time, as middle and upper-class American Jews were moving out of cities and into the suburbs. They needed new spaces for worship and congregational life, broadly conceived. He joined a modernist architectural idiom, to a modernist reworking of traditional Jewish iconography, in a way that was quite popular at the time.
The connection between him and Paul in terms of synagogue design (Paul actually wrote on this issue on his own) may have to do with the concern that both of them had with what they saw as the formlessness of post-war American society, its lack of meaningful space. That is to say, spaces that were meaning-full — laden with moral meaning. I believe Percival imagined the synagogues that he was designing in some way as responding to that absence.
What kind of public art are you looking at?
A lot of the public art that I have been looking at in the past has been government sponsored public art; in particular public art sponsored in the postwar period by the NEA or the General Services Commission, which has a 1% for art program that commissions public art, whether inside or outside government buildings. I’ve been interested in what I have called the “Liberal Modernist” project in public art, which began in the late 50s or early 60s and then entered into a serious crisis in the late 70s and early 80s, culminating in the great debate over Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc in New York City, which was dismantled at the end of the 1980s.
I now want to put those debates in a larger context, and in particular bring to the fore an argument that was always there in my studies of the post-war period. That has to do with what I see as the vitality and present relevance of a civic aesthetic that was grounded in large part in pragmatism and which one sees in all various forms in the 20th century, for example in the architecture of Louis Kahn, or in some respects in the Happenings movement. Allan Kaprow, the most important artist and theorist of the Happenings movement, read Dewey closely. I also see it very much in the work of the Iranian-born sculptor and architect Siah Armahani, who has been an important figure in the American public art movement over the last 25 years.
This reanimation of the progressive spirit (Dewey, etc.) comes up on Growing Up Absurd as well. His lament is that progressivism got taken over by what he called “managers.” Are you engaged in a similar project to reanimate or reestablish a more vital connection with this tradition?
I guess that would be one way of describing what I’ve been involved with now for some time. In fact my earlier work on the Bourne-Mumford group of cultural critics at the start of the 20th century was motivated by a similar impulse.
I ask because I’m at Teachers College [at Columbia], so the legacy of John Dewey is very strong. But I take Goodman’s critique at face value and can see very clearly what it looks like when progressive ideas get into the hands of managers or people with other motivations.
I am not as up on this literature as I should be. I am familiar with the theoretical literature and practical efforts associated with the civic engagement movement in American higher education, which I see in some respects as carrying on the Deweyan tradition. I have myself done such work within the context of Columbia’s American Studies Center, where I have launched a civic engagement program that involves partnerships with community-based organizations.
In the case of K-12 education I think the great struggle at the moment is between advocates of so-called “educational reform” that emphasize teaching to the test above all else, as against those people who have a more expansive vision of what education is about. That is the great struggle of the day as I see it. It’s very clear what side Goodman would be on if he were around, and it’s also very clear what side Dewey would be on.
Did you ever read The Empire City, which Goodman saw as a contribution to thinking about schooling?
I have, like many people, found The Empire City almost completely unreadable. Goodman considered it his great achievement and thought it one of the great novels of the 20th century. It doesn’t work for me as literature. Goodman took Don Quixote as his model and inspiration for the book. To be honest, I’d rather read Don Quixote.