Thursday, December 9, 2010

Provincialism and the Intellectual as a Social Type

Christopher Lasch opens this book about as directly as one possibly can: "The main argument of this book is that modern radicalism or liberalism can best be understood as a phase of the social history of the intellectuals. In the United States, to which this study is confined, the connection is particularly clear. There, the rise of the new radicalism coincided with the emergence of the intellectual as a distinctive social type" (ix).

It is interesting to compare this very plain thesis statement, however, with later iterations of the book's "main argument." For instance, although I think he reads feminism incorrectly as being seamlessly assimilated to his larger typology (his thoughts on feminism are face-palmingly bad), the following articulates very well how Lasch conceives of what goes into this "social history of the intellectuals":
When one sees the feminist impulse as an aspect of a more general development—the revolt of intellectuals against the middle class—one begins to understand the feminists' acute fear that life had passed them by. For this conviction that life lay always outside the narrow confines of one's own experience was common to all those, of whatever sex, who felt themselves imprisoned in the stale room of a borrowed culture.
Or later (though still quite problematically as it applies to feminism and as it applies to Bourne's physical disability):
[I]ndeed the sense of being cut off from "life," the sense of being in some way disabled and deformed, weighed heavily upon a whole generation of American intellectuals. As intellectuals they envied the working class. As women they envied men. But so did men envy women, and for the same thing, their easier access to experience… th[is] sense of "alienage" was a highly subjective state of mind, one which cannot be traced to any such simple source as the deprivations of American women or even to so real a disadvantage as a physical deformity. The pervasiveness among intellectuals of the fear that life had somehow passed them by suggests that the fear reflected the growing isolation of the intellectuals as a class from the main currents of American life. It was both cause and consequence of their rejection of their middle-class origins. Seeking experience, they rejected a culture which seemed to them increasingly artificial, increasingly cut off from life; yet, having broken away from the middle class, intellectuals often found themselves no near to "life" than before (100-101).
Only one more (long, but still quite interesting) passage before I try to make a slight alteration in Lasch's model and a few miscellaneous comments/critiques:
The originality of the new radicalism as a form of politics rested on a twofold discovery: the discovery of the dispossessed by men who themselves had never known poverty or prejudice, and the mutual self-discovery of the intellectuals. The combination of the two accounted for the intensity with which the intellectuals identified themselves with the outcasts of the social order: women, children, proletarians, Indians, and Jews. At the very moment when they became aware of the other half of humanity, they became aware of each other and came to see themselves as yet another class apart. In time, their very sense of kinship with one another made them all the more painfully conscious of their collective isolation from the rest of the society. Then the "submerged tenth" came to be seen not only as the visible representation of the unsublimated selfhood of mankind but, more immediately, as a potential political ally. The intellectuals came to court the dispossessed with an ardor doubly endowed. (147-148)
"The mutual self-discovery of the intellectuals" is a lovely, evocative phrase, and when one thinks of the vibrant energy behind all the "little magazines" and coteries being formed in the early years of the twentieth-century, it also seems remarkably apt. However, Lasch's description of this process is both rather weakly existential and abstractly or ethereally un-located ("they became aware of each other") and yet also, in another sense, implicitly quite concrete, located, and very embodied: the "mutual self-discovery of the intellectuals" was, for many though not quite all, carried through by the physical congregation of these intellectuals with one another and with "the submerged tenth" in the city—in bohemias and settlement houses, at strikes and on the street, in museums and lofts.

If we do add this more located history of the "mutual self-discovery" into the record, then the painful consciousness of "their collective isolation" must also be read in something more than existential terms, less as a "sense of 'alienage'" and more as a quite material experience of either separation, deprivation, or involuntary seclusion. It is the memory of distance not just as an emotional or even intellectual problem or as a figure of speech, but as a physical limitation or constraint, as a condition which removes many options for what one could do, acquire, and know, and makes still other options rare and strange—that memory, or the continued experience of it, is, I believe, the more potent "social history of the intellectual" at this time, at least for a very large number of the figures Lasch would have categorized as intellectuals.

One word to describe this more located history (although I think it is still too abstract and notional, or too metaphorical) is provincialism—it at least retains or includes, necessarily, some overtly spatial, if not actually embodied, meaning, whereas, I think, "isolation" or "alienation" lead inexorably toward over-abstraction, toward more primarily mental or emotional "senses"—"discontent" or Jackson Lears's (and Nietzsche's) "weightlessness," or "angst" or even "Weltschmerz" from an earlier epoch. I prefer "provincialism" not as a superior synonym for "isolation" or "alienation" (it is, clearly, not synonymous with them, as it is frequently used as a pejorative description of the condition of other people, not of the self, while "isolation" and "alienation" are generally more self-applied or self-inclusive), but as an alternative or substitution. A phrase like "the main currents of American life" (which Lasch uses on 101, 294, and 349) requires an objective correlative, a physical location that "isolation" only suggests figuratively. I feel that "provincialism," with its primary reference to actual geographical distance from "the main currents" of culture, power, and activity, better grounds the condition that Lasch is trying to identify and to theorize.

Lasch's intellectuals felt like provincials, physically unable to access "the main currents," either by the obstruction of gender, of geography, of class, or of (although this does not enter into Lasch's discussion) race or ethnicity. "Provincialism" is the belief that one is located wrongly—removed from where the action is when one belongs in the action. Print culture and correspondence can't fully make up for this dislocation; it requires re-location, and, at least for part of the history of the formation of Lasch's intellectuals, the destination of that re-location was not entirely taken for granted, as Europe still retained quite a hold, and the hierarchy of domestic cultural centers was at a moment of flux, with new centers (Chicago, San Francisco) emerging and older ones (Boston) waning. New York was (as Lasch argued in the passage I quoted from before) only now, at the turn of the century, consolidating the full range of activities and resources which would make it "the spiritual home of the American intellectual" (320), with an emphatic underline beneath the definite article. In a strong sense, this confusion meant that everyone had some claim to feeling provincial: when no one knows where the action is (or where the action next will be), all are peripheral to it.

Yet still we see that Lasch is content with New York as merely the intellectual's "spiritual home" when the point is that for many at this moment (though, of course, by no means all), the "spiritual" was insufficient. I think that part of what makes the "status group" that Lasch was trying to assemble actually cohere is the common experience of provincialism, of realizing that aspects of one's material life—one's geographical location, one's gender, class, or ethnicity—obstruct or put one at a distance from the "main currents," from where the action is. This recognition is what made the "mutual self-discovery of the intellectuals" so energetic, so intense, and so transformative.

1 comment:

Shelley said...

As a writer, I'd love to hear what Sherman Alexie might have to say about intellectuals "identifying" with Indians.

Instead of face-palmingly bad (love that phrase), it might be a knee-slapper.