13 December 2021


Christopher Lasch
The Minimal Self (1984)
Total institutions—the death camps above all—have made us aware of the banality of evil, in Hannah Arendt's famous phrase; but they have also taught us something about the banality of survival. A growing belief that heroes don't survive informs the disenchantment with conventional codes of masculinity... It is not only masculinity that has lost its survival value, however, but the entire stock of allegedly outworn ideals of honor, heroic defiance of circumstances, and self-transcendence. As Vincent Canby noted in reviewing Lina Wertmüller's movie Seven Beauties, the survivor has discovered that "idealism is self-defeating."
(p. 73)

"A number of things give us hope," write Ehrlich and Harriman in the conclusion to [How to Be a Survivor]... "The first is that survival itself is the issue. Once people understand that, they will fight like hell for it." On the contrary, people committed only to survival are more likely to head for the hills. If survival is the overriding issue, people will take more interest in their personal safety than in the survival of humanity as a whole. Those who base the case for conservation and peace on survival not only appeal to a debased system of values, they defeat their own purpose.
(p. 78)

To fight like hell or to head for the hills,

i.e. Fight or Flight, in the well-worn saying...

Here Lasch invokes the ultra-rational conclusion that Flight best ensures mere "survival," from which mere-ness the question, What For? naturally follows. He seeks thereby to emphasize the uniquely human social implications of choosing to "fight": the consideration, both prospective and retrospective, of paths not taken, of consequences, and not least of all, the problem of what all of this means for all concerned: not just survival or extinction, usually, but also honor and shame, coalition and fragmentation, violence and peace.

This is how a literal-minded intellectual approaches this problem. Being one myself, I would know. But, treated here to a view from the outside, I do wonder if it might actually be pretty hard to predict who will react how to the pre-linguistic inkling that "survival itself is the issue." In Kahneman's taxonomy, this is nothing less than the archetypal System 1 decision, and as such it is best, I suspect, not to overthink it, whether retrospectively, prospectively, or (perish the thought) in the moment.

What we have above, then, are two authors choosing to underplay, in turn, one and then the other side of a simple binary distinction under the logic (the same logic for both of them, I think) that circumstance is determinative. And that is the connection to my ultimate concern in discussing this enigmatic book of Lasch's, a tendency which I will call socio-determinism in the study of art practices, history, and traditions. It is a distant connection, to be sure, but one to which Lasch has frequent recourse.

The everyday survivalist has deliberately lowered his sights from history to the immediacies of face-to-face relationships. He takes one day at a time. He pays a heavy price for this radical restriction of perspective, which precludes moral judgment and intelligent political activity almost as effectively as the apocalyptic attitude he rightly rejects. ... He may refuse to listen to talk of the end of the world, but he unwittingly adopts many of the defensive impulses associated with it. Long-term commitments and emotional attachments carry certain risks under the best of circumstances; in an unstable, unpredictable world they carry risks that people find it increasingly difficult to accept. ... The invasion of everyday life by the rhetoric and imagery of terminal disaster leads people to make personal choices that are often indistinguishable in their emotional content from the choices made by those who proudly refer to themselves as survivalists...

The softer style of survivalism, precisely because it is unsupported by an ideology or a political program or even by a rich fantasy life...tends to give way in moments of personal stress or heightened imaginative awareness to a harder style. Everyday life begins to take on some of the more undesirable and ominous characteristics of behavior in extreme situations: restriction of perspective to the immediate demands of survival; ironic self-observation; protean selfhood; emotional anaesthesia.
(pp. 93-94)

Well, is it so difficult to argue that
ironic self-observation
emotional anaesthesia
restriction of perspective to the immediate demands of survival
are obviously bad,

protean selfhood
is not so bad?

Clearly Lasch intends the first sense. The second sense has much to recommend it, though, and the hivemind's exempli gratia certainly meets with my approval.

Whereas the hard-core survivalist plans for disaster, many of us conduct our daily lives as if it had already occurred. ... We deplore or laugh at those who try to arm themselves against the apocalypse, but we arm ourselves emotionally against the onslaught of everyday life.

We do this in a variety of ways: for example, by concentrating our attention on the small, immediate obstacles that confront us each day. ... Recent success manuals, unwittingly echoing studies of behavior in extreme situations, stress the importance of narrow, clearly defined objectives and the dangers of dwelling on the past or looking too far into the future. ... The human potential movement, the medical and psychiatric literature on coping, the growing literature on death and dying all recommend the same strategy for dealing with the "predictable crises of adult life."
(pp. 94-95)

From a recent success manual, of sorts:
Any activity at the limits of your ability will require full concentration and effort. ...

Maintaining this sort of focus is hard work, however, even for experts who have been doing it for years. ...the violin students I studied at the Berlin academy found their training so tiring that they would often take a midday nap between their morning and afternoon practice sessions. People who are just learning to focus on their practice won't be able to maintain it for several hours. Instead, they'll need to start out with much shorter sessions and gradually work up.

...Focus and concentration are crucial...so shorter training sessions with clearer goals are the best way to develop new skills faster. It is better to train at 100 percent effort for less time than at 70 percent effort for a longer period. Once you find you can no longer focus effectively, end the session. And make sure you get enough sleep so that you can train with maximum concentration.

(Ericsson and Pool, Peak, p. 154)

To effectively practice a skill without a teacher, it helps to keep in mind three Fs: Focus. Feedback. Fix it. Break the skill down into components that you can do repeatedly and analyze effectively, determine your weaknesses, and figure out ways to address them.
(ibid, 159)
So, we have the element of trauma ("at the limits of your ability", "so tiring that they would often take a midday nap") leading rather directly to the need for laser focus ("shorter training sessions with clearer goals", "Break the skill down into components that you can do repeatedly and analyze effectively"). This is exactly what I was taught by Messrs. Tolbert, Ashworth, Luckhardt and Kirchhoff, among others. I have found it thoroughly validated by personal use, even while concurrently becoming aware that I am nowhere near its most maniacal nor its most exemplary practioner. Armed with this method, I feel justified in putting forth my musical training as just close enough to what Lasch calls "honest manual labor" to have bestowed some (not all) of the same benefits; whereas without it there can be no such case made. And, to Ericsson's point, it gets harder, not easier,
[I would say ESPECIALLY]
for experts who have been doing it for years
It is therefore unusually well-suited to an ideal of human development that is Eriksonian rather than merely protean; that is, to the ideal of a protracted adolescence of creative minds which underlies so much grownup generativity.

It is also true that such parallels between technical and developmental factors can be taken too far, as in the "critical" video game theorists who reject the Flow State as a gameplay ideal because it suggests (metaphorically?) a state of political ignorance and apathy. No one who has really applied themselves to a long-term technical project would ever take this position, because they would have learned, for one thing, just how elusive Flow can be, and for another, that technique itself can be a source of power, agency, and self-determination. Demanding that this political element be rendered as surface content in a game or a painting or a novel smacks more of virtue signaling than of earnest, effective political action. If these days we are essentially Gaming While Rome Burns, I doubt this has much at all to do either with Flow or with Mulveyian unpleasure.

A focus on the present serves not only as a requirement of successful "functioning" but as a defense against loss. The first lesson survivors have to master is letting go. ... The survivor cannot afford to linger very long in the past, lest he envy the dead. He keeps his eyes fixed on the road just in front of him. He shores up fragments against his ruin. His life consists of isolated acts and events. It has no story, no pattern, no structure as an unfolding narrative. The decline of the narrative mode both in fiction and in historical writing—where it has been displaced by a sociological approach that tries to reconstruct the details of daily life in earlier times—reflects the fragmentation of the self. Both time and space have shrunk to the immediate present, the immediate environment of the office, factory, or household.
(pp. 95-96)

Call this part

The Revolt of the Bookworms and the Betrayal of Aesthetics

A connection is drawn

the softer survivalism
whereby we take things
one day at a time


a trend in literature,
the decline of narrative
(Does narrative always require more than one day to unfold?)

This is also where Mumford, taking Picasso and painting as his mark, declared that although there were still great artists around they could not possibly make anything worth looking at because their world was not worth living in.

But to claim that the old way of narrative
has been displaced by a sociological approach
is a bit disingenuous when one's whole theory of what literature does in fact rests upon a panoply of assumptions which can only be called Sociological both in nature and in origin; the same kind of assumptions, as I said above, which lead to tenuous predictions about who will flee and who will fight.

Like all such Sociological explanations for art, Lasch may be accurately describing one factor among many.
He may even have hit on a dominant factor.

Still, there is always something like
the Fallacy of Incomplete Evidence
to contend with
in making such sweeping pronouncements;

which is to say not only that

(1) there must still have been plenty of narrative being spun

but also and more imporantly,

(2) that there must have been
(or at least I want to insist that there can be posited with great political and moral heft)
at this moment,
moved away from the kind of narrative Lasch here seems intent on advocating for.

The gist of (1) is particularly harmful to Mumford's case, I think, depending as he does on the reductio ad absurdum of this socio-deterministic outlook; that is, he literally reduces his sample size all the way down to a single artwork, as if the wide circulation, influence, and "importance" of this work also make it representative of anything in particular.

(In a facile way, we might counter that such exceptional works are definitionally not representative. This is probably true most of the time, but it is also too absolute and deterministic.)

Given the hard case for sociological determinism in the arts, it follows that those who cling naively to outmoded ways will mostly be judged lacking by their peers; and Mumford does indeed take this stance explicitly. But this merely makes the aforementioned Fallacy explicit too: it becomes possible to pronounce upon a dominant trend only by methodically paring away the contrary evidence, i.e. by dismissing it as being of low quality, and/or as not sufficiently "important" or "influential," as too "popular" or not "popular" enough, or really whatever criterion the writer wishes so long as it is a criterion with established critical currency. Thus aesthetics are subordinated to sociology in considering the work of the chosen, and then they are hastily reinvoked against any and all who don't fit whatever conclusions have been reached this way. Aesthetics can be grounds only for un-importance, and not for importance. (All of these problems arise without yet even considering whether the "determinism" on which they depend is even valid in the first place.)

As for (2), while it would undoubtedly be better if the mass casualties of the twentieth century had been spared, alas, finding ourselves today unable to do anything about this we may well make lemonade out of the Socio-Cultural lemons we have found ourselves inheriting in the wake of these disasters.
Whereas the hard-core survivalist plans for disaster, many of us conduct our daily lives as if it had already occurred.
Is it morally defensible to behave as if it had not?

Speaking only for myself now, I cannot really say that my various distastes for narrative and representation follow entirely from a historical view. The historical view is just another after-the-fact rationalization. This I concede. Yet upon reflection, the logic of the rationalization does seem to be valid; and if it is indeed valid, then this needs to be reckoned with rather than merely pathologized.

What, then, might be the source (if we simply must identify one) of what Lasch here calls the sociological approach (as if his own "approach" was not also of this type)? He says that it tries to reconstruct the details of daily life in earlier times. If so, then this is a betrayal not only of classical "narrative" but also of literature as "a lie that tells the truth," since the latter, at least as I understand it, is wholly dependent on the the author writing about their own time, the only time (one can only assume) regarding which they have any empirical authority whatsoever. Historical fiction and futurist fiction alike can lay no claim to this empirical authority; and it is the former which seems to me epistemologically hazardous in the extreme, on which point I would invoke Taleb and Kahneman for support. How would we ever know if the "great" literature was really just literature which confirms us in what we want to believe about the past or about the future? And how would we know if it was not?

At least hindsight eventually catches up to futurist fiction; for obvious reasons, this has become an almost daily occurrence since the turn of the millennium. Historical fiction, on the other hand, only becomes more insidious as time passes, for with the passage of time we move irrevocably further and further away from any means of evaluating the truth of its "lies."

Survivors have to learn the trick of observing themselves as if the events of their lives were happening to someone else.
Again, here is something that certain musicians do as part of their craft, something which we must learn to do in fact, a skill that not everyone is equally able to learn, and a skill which is not demanded in equal measure (or at all) by all musical traditions...
One reason people no longer see themselves as the subject of a narrative is that they no longer see themselves as subjects at all but rather as the victims of circumstance, and this feeling of being acted on by uncontrollable external forces prompts another mode of moral armament, a withdrawal from the beleaguered self into the person of a detached, bemused, ironic observer.
(p. 96)
...But here ends the parallel to Listening With The Third Ear, and blissfully so. Third Ear Listening is anything but bemused, ironic, though certainly it is detached. It is detached for a very specific reason. Detachment per se is essentially a technique that performing artists use in the training and preparatory stages. We are advised to reenter our body-selves in the performance stage, to turn off the judgmental Third Ear. Many of us struggle to do this particularly when we have been immersed in intensive training or preparation.

Previously I have wondered if certain appeals to narrative do not in fact go hand-in-glove with a victim mentality. Lasch seems to think that locating a stable self within a life "narrative" is in fact the best defense against empty victimry. Perhaps a synthesis of these views is possible if it is found that some "victims" do in fact use literary thinking as a defense, but that doing so merely amounts to idealizing and/or rationalizing their circumstances, as opposed to confronting or surmounting them;
i.e. via embellishments which are considered small in the context of formal literary practice but which in so-called Real Life can have quite significant consequences;
i.e. the little white lies of the novel which are, for real couples, real communities, or real legislatures, in fact of the greatest importance (big fat lies are more easily detected);
i.e. the appeal to narrative is stabilizing only in the therapeutic sense which Lasch elsewhere has no use for, therapy as pure release and a suspension of moral judgment, whereas in the practice or the conduct of life the irrational aspects of literary thinking are irreducible and do not disappear simply for being consciously denied.

1 comment:

Stefan Kac said...

Christopher Lasch
Haven in a Heartless World

"What should have been the occasion for reasserting one of the most important psychoanalytic insights—the fragility of any form of socialization in the face of the determinism of unconscious mental life—becomes in the hands of "radical" sociologists an occasion for celebrating the new awareness of "mind, consciousness, and thought.""
(p. 149)

"Like their predecessors, the new critics of Freud, claiming to have revised him, have regressed to a prepsychoanalytic view of human nature, one that tries to restore the illusion of psychic freedom and choice."
(p. 150)


Lasch's deterministic streak is evident throughout his entire oeuvre, despite being in occasional tension with his other ideas.