[NYRB: 2012]

“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.  

On the occasion of its republication by New York Review of Books Classics, we asked Michael Fisher to write about his experience with Growing up Absurd and reflect on its enduring influence half a decade after it first appeared in print. 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 this short essay, he takes up the fate of Goodman’s radical question “socialization to what?”

We also interviewed Casey Nelson Blake, professor of History and American Studies at Columbia University, who wrote a wonderful introduction to the new edition. – Michael Schapira, Thinking the Present Editor

“We see groups of boys and young men disaffected from the dominant society…. Demonstrably they are not getting enough out of our wealth and civilization. They are not growing up to full capacity. They are failing to assimilate much of the culture. As was predictable, most of the authorities and all of the public spokesmen explain it by saying there has been a failure of socialization. They say that background conditions have interrupted socialization and must be improved. And, not enough effort has been made to guarantee belonging, there must be better bait or punishment. But perhaps there has not been a failure of communication. Perhaps the social message has been communicated clearly to the young men and is unacceptable. In this book I shall therefore take the opposite tack and ask, “Socialization to what? to what dominant society and available culture?” - From the introduction to Growing up Absurd (1960)

“Socialization to what?” is a radical question. But it’s also fairly easy to gloss over under certain social circumstances. I’ve asked this question in the writing class I teach to college freshmen, and typically my students’ response is stony silence. It’s an awkward question, but I try to push it further. “What does this classroom tell us about the ways in which we’ve been socialized? What do you notice about this particular arrangement of desks, the clock on the wall, and the fact that you’ll be leaving this room in exactly 37 minutes?”

One can imagine that the response to these questions would have been somewhat different in the college classrooms of the 1960s. Particularly for people of my generation (I was born in 1984), the legacies of that decade tend to animate powerful utopian fantasies. Most of the time we’re able to keep these fantasies at bay by remembering that our hippie parents lost, that they failed to incite the social revolutions many of them dreamed of, and that the harsh realities of the early 2010s confirm where so much utopian sentiment ultimately leads. But then there are moments of genuine reverie. Moments like the one I experienced nearly seven years ago when I first discovered Growing up Absurd as a college senior. Since we have no basis for nostalgia, we periodically allow ourselves to entertain the possibility that some part of that Sixties spark might have stayed lit and carried over to our own time.

Every time I’ve asked Goodman’s question in my writing class I’ve bet on that spark, and every time I’ve been disappointed. With few exceptions, students find Goodman’s arguments mystifying, old-fashioned, and difficult to follow. Even though the book is ostensibly addressed to them, they miss the connection. They are eager to talk about something else. It’s tempting to consider this proof of a wider generational phenomenon: today’s college students are apathetic. They are incapable of real critical thinking, and except for a small minority, they are politically hopeless. The evidence for these claims extends well beyond my small classroom in one of the nice private universities in the northeastern United States. But if Goodman were available for comment (he died in 1972), he would likely remind me to look more deeply. Seen from his vantage point, the one that made Growing up Absurd a sensation among educated readers and a bible of the New Left during the 1960s and beyond, my students’ silence testifies to the ongoing “Problems of Youth in the Organized System”; problems that are no less recognizable but which are now distorted along different cultural lines.

The argument that guides Goodman’s landmark book could not be more relevant today. But it is deceptively easy to cast off as “dated.” There is a reason for this, which Goodman analyzed at length. “The Organized System of semimonopolies, government, advertisers, etc.” thrives on the perception that “nothing else is thinkable.” It is not a conspiracy exactly. But its constituent parts are owned and operated by definable agents who stand to benefit from the maintenance of the status quo. There are certain interests involved; in most cases they are moneyed interests who want us to keep thinking and buying along the same socially sanctioned lines. Above all, these interests hope we will keep thinking there is no Organized System: that it is we and our credit cards who are in control.

The phrase “the Organized System” made people uncomfortable in 1960, and judging by my students’ more recent reaction, it still makes people uncomfortable now. Yet this discomfort was part of what interested Goodman. As a social critic and lay psychologist, he saw an underlying symmetry between the ideological assumption that there was no Organized System and the evidence that many people were reacting against it. It was obvious, for instance, that beatniks and juvenile delinquents were repelled by what the Organized System and its dominant values asked of them. But it was equally obvious that their alternative values represented little more than symbolic opposition, efforts to flee rather than adjust. Beneath the appearance of disparate responses, Goodman saw a common cultural condition. The Organized System stripped everyone of the same human goods — “force, grace, discrimination, intellect, feeling”; people merely reflected the costs they suffered differently. (“This is the beautiful shaping power of our human nature,” he wrote.) It was on this basis that Goodman staked his main ethical claim: “We do not need to be able to say what ‘human nature’ is in order to be able to say that some training is ‘against human nature’ and you persist in it at peril…. Contrariwise, if you don’t provide [people] with certain things, they’ll fill the gaps with eccentric substitutes.”

Excavating the particular patterns of eccentric substitutes that took shape in 1950s America is largely what Growing up Absurd is about. But embedded within this project is a potent set of political questions that remain urgent today. Who are the agents of dehumanization in our culture, and what real needs do they obscure? Do the social roles we play feel like eccentric substitutes? What are we substituting and why? What would we have to change in order to put ourselves in closer contact with “human nature,” with “a standard of the worth of life” that “comes from bona-fide activity and achievement,” not “status, role playing,” and “prestige”?

From the standpoint of the smooth operation of the machine, these are dangerous questions to ask. But Goodman was intent on asking them, as we should be too. Of all the good purposes to put him to today, this may be the best: he offers the promise of shocking us back to our senses.

Growing up Absurd may still feel dated to some contemporary readers. But then again, the very act of reading a book itself may also feel dated, which is part of the point Goodman was making. The compound process of psychic, social, and economic manipulation operating all around us always threatens to become less visible. The noise is so loud now in the halls of the Internet that almost nothing other than the whir of the machine is audible. For this reason, my own Net generation may be especially at risk of naturalizing the structures of the Organized System beyond objective recognition. But we might also be the first in recent memory to reclaim our agency from the structures of modern-day domination.

“One has the persistent thought that if ten thousand people in all walks of life will stand up on their two feet and talk out and insist, we shall get back our country,” Goodman wrote in 1960. The stakes are higher and the factors are more complicated today. Still, the question remains, “Socialization to what?”