12 October 2020

Facts and Fancy

(from my Goodreads review of Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960 by Nicholas Sammond)

The overall posture and style of this study are so self-consciously disinterested and relativistic as to read like a caricature of postmodern academic writing. This pastiche has lost not merely its sense of humor but its sense of purpose too. The fear of letting a stray value judgment slip out seems to have stultified the author's analytical capabilities. And yet values per se are largely what the study is about. The superficial irony of this is plain enough, but I think it is more than ironic. It is at least mildly disingenuous. In some respects it is cowardly.

The disinterested empirical scholar is discouraged from bringing their own values into the mix because disinterested empiricism cannot, by its own inner logic, operate that way. This book stumbles its way into a subdiscipline where disinterested empiricism is thought to be especially de rigeur but where it is actually quite inadequate. Sammond repeatedly invokes something like "the dominant presence of members of the white, Protestant, progressive middle class in the study of childhood." (7) He repeatedly names and specifies these agents of institutionalized moralization, repeatedly inviting us to consider them by profession, race, and class. Their work, he tells us, was profoundly shaped by classbound values. The fact of classboundedness and the identity of the classes in question are unequivocally named and reiterated. But Sammond seldom names the values themselves, and when he does name them I found it difficult to conjure much righteous indignation.

I do not wish to suggest that there actually is a universal morality. That is not what I believe. I don't think you have to believe it, though, to trip up on the idea that "truthfulness" and "unselfishness" are "middle-class virtues" (85) which cannot be reasonably expected of other classes. To me that sounds a lot like, say, reading being a White thing. Sammond himself probably believes no such things, but he is not allowed to say so, because this is scholarship and mere opinions aren't worth anything. The hubris of progressive sociologists, on the other hand, is an objective fact which can be presented as such, for if there is no universal morality then all progressivism is just a stillborn moral fallacy. Even "truthfulness" cannot mooch a provisional exemption. Truthfulness!

Naturally, the chickens of relativism roost in the hencoop of hypocrisy. What are the moral implications of accommodating the actions of a dishonest or selfish poor person? Does this help them or hurt them? Is it justified merely by the fact that they are poor and you are rich? By the right to cultural self-determination? Liberty? Consequentialism? Echoing overzealous committees everywhere, Sammond could claim that these properly philosophical questions are beyond the scope of his social-scientific study. I agree that they threaten to explode any such study into an unwieldy interdisciplinary patchwork; but I would strongly disagree that they are, literally, outside his scope. His own methods have made these questions essential to his scope and he makes no effort to acknowledge or address this. Instead, the really important takeaway is that most of the reformers were white, Protestant, progressive, and middle-class, whereas not all of their objects were these same things. As it turns out, this is not quite worth writing a book about.

Reformers of any slant in any area of human endeavor are vulnerable to the charge that they have put forth their own values as universal ones. Without this fundamental arrogation there can be no collective social action of any kind. The mere fact of arrogation is endemic, background radiation to the perceptible heat and light of social and political life. The arrogation of reformers is not an urgent sociological issue. What is urgent, I think, and what could have been pursued more doggedly here, is a compelling chronicle of the dynamic interaction between values and institutions. Strictly speaking, the thesis that "discursive circuits constructed around and through media-effect arguments sell products and build careers" (360) does describe a dynamic process, but it begs a lot of questions too. My sense is that Sammond forbid himself as a matter of methodology from opining, judging or blaming, and that by proscribing these things he railroaded himself into a static account rather than a dynamic one. (When your first order of business is to name the race and religion of the principals, it's hard to say much of anything more without offending.)

I also am not convinced, either by this account or by others, that the interaction between the Disney Studio and the reformers Sammond identifies was truly dynamic until quite late in the period he covers. In amongst all of the imbrication and commodification, I noticed that the dates, types and sources of the documents he reproduces throughout the book support my skepticism. Concerned parents created the market and Disney, eventually, seized on it. But Disney already had an enormous market, and progressives had a lot of ideas which were oblique to Disney and to media generally. Following academic convention, Sammond takes a laser-focus on the tiny area of overlap. It turns out there is not nearly as much for him to write about as the length of the book would imply.

If you don't already know something about the reformers Sammond chronicles, you still won't have much of an idea of what their values actually were after reading his book. He detects that the progressives have unduly assumed at least one non-working, stay-at-home parent, a luxury which many working class and immigrant families didn't enjoy; and he points out that child labor has persisted in agriculture (and disproportionately among children of color) long after progressives had more or less succeeded in abolishing it for white children. These are sobering reminders for white, middle-class readers; they are nonetheless quite underwhelming in the role Sammond has carved out for them here, where the towering monoliths of American Sociology, Enterprise, and Entertainment have collided in a giant orgy of...what exactly?

"Truthfulness" and "unselfishness" arise in the discussion of Disney's Pinocchio. It is the natural film for Sammond to discuss, since its overbearing didactic moralism stands out even in the Disney oeuvre. Yet transparent texts can be difficult to handle, and Sammond breaks everything he touches. With so much threadbare symbolism sitting right on the surface (Stromboli is literally a puppetmaster), Sammond cannot possibly work his way back to "middle-class values" without committing an act of interpretation. He has previously been too vague about values, whereas this film is explicit about them. Sontag warned us about this: "to interpret is to impoverish." Disinterested empiricism has taken him as far as it can, and now it is his turn to recapitulate in reverse the error of media effects crusaders by projecting upon the text the social location of those most eager to consume it. Consumer eagerness now engulfs the text from without, metastasizing into its organs of content and meaning. Suddenly it is not Edward Filene or Walt Disney but Sammond himself who has elevated consumption to a moral value! Buy a film and you become its content! And its content you! It's cheaper than the naming rights to a distant star or atoll! Hence a fleeting indulgence in armchair criticism is the precise moment when things go off the rails for good, whereby "truthfulness" becomes "middle-class," whereby poor people's untruthfulness is locked away in the black box of cultural self-determination, whereby Pinocchio cannot reflect the values of a solitary poor person unless all of the other poor people are also lining up to view it. Not just a filmic text is impoverished this way but also the "virtue" of everyone who is not "middle-class." That is quite an accomplishment.

I'm not a critic or a sociologist, but I feel like there has to be a better way to go about this. Fromm defined ideologies as "socially patterned rationalizations." Say we take those three concepts, pair them into three dyads, and then study each dyadic nexus; each one generates a limited but salient field of material which is relevant to our topic, and also a sprawling field of extradisciplinary connections. Given the organic limits of human cognition and the profusion of published research, each of the outward-facing fields is functionally unbounded; but they are perfectly finite in number (there are three of them), and this makes it possible at least to momentarily stare into each abyss and admire what makes it unique from the others and from the original topic. Then we return to the inside, reassemble the triad, and look for the triadic nexus. A geometric analogy to planes, dimensions and wormholes suggests itself. This is just silly stuff I think about, but it seems to me that this book has done none of this nor anything remotely resembling it. It is not even a one-dimensional sociology, because it has not even the first prerequisite for the dimensionalization of sociological thought, namely a sentient authorial being. The strict repression of authorial slant in this area of scholarship is quite ironic given one of Sammond's key takeaways from the inconclusiveness of Media Effects research: even children do not simply swallow whole everything they are told or exposed to. I think we can assume this of readers of scholarly publications as well. A profusion of value-oriented scholarship could actually be the best way to achieve the "parallactic" ideal that some postmodernists have put forth, whereby observation from a variety of angles permits a clearer view than any single one of them can alone. The first step towards that ideal is not to give up on fixed moral positions but rather to stake them out. A moral position can be the second point which defines a line of inquiry. This poses methodological challenges, to be sure, but there is a payoff for surmounting those challenges, a payoff with which studies like Sammond's cannot compete. Fromm and Maccoby made a blind stab in this direction which is simultaneously comical and profound: they constructed numerical scales of psychoanalytically-defined traits by which to measure the Mexican villagers they studied, they took the measurements (basically they made them up), and they performed some conventional statistical analysis of these figures to look for Results. To a self-loathing postmodernist this looks like pure arbitrary slant, the methodological equivalent of intentionally exceeding the speed limit at first sight of a cop. My contention is that if hundreds or thousands of diverse minds were to construct their own numerical scales and take their own "measurements," the aggregated results would be as meaningful as the minds are diverse. (This diversity would need to be more than skin-deep.) Against this backdrop, Sammond's approach looks like another fruitless search for perfect objectivity, distance, disinterest. If the slant is always there anyway, we might as well turn it to our advantage.

At great semantic and rhetorical pains, Sammond does eventually work his way around to some interesting big-picture theses about commodities and the social construction of childhood. For reformers and parents alike, the erroneous belief in strong media effects
"smoothes over some unpleasant contradictions in the construction of personhood and identity in democratic capitalist society. Quite simply: the child as susceptible to commodities stands in for the child as commodity-in-the-making...[whereby] persons must be simultaneously and impossibly unique individuals and known quantities." (360)
Ay, that's the stuff! But by this time the sins of omission are piled high, reflected in the endnotes by a veritable profusion of beyond-the-scope apologias which I literally lost count of. I'm reasonably sure I have never seen so many in one place, actually, and I think that is a singularly meaningful reflection on the nexus of topic and method here.

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