Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Slater - The Pursuit of Loneliness

Slater, Philip Elliot. The Pursuit of Loneliness; American Culture at the Breaking Point. Revised Edition. Boston: Beacon Press, 1976.

Writing at about the same moment of American 70s malaise as Lasch (Culture of Narcissism) and Bell (The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism), Slater also begins with the assumption that America is in decline. He argues that three positive societal needs - community, engagement, and dependency - have been marginalized by American individualism. (p.33) Chapter two, "Kill Anything That Moves," expresses Slater's horror at the technological developments seen in the recent Vietnam war that allowed the American military to kill indiscriminately from the air with napalm and cluster bombs.

In chapter three, Slater briefly uses The Graduate along with a dash of Freud to critique familial relationships. He argues The Graduate shows how parents see their children in a "vimpiresque way. They feed on the child's accomplishments..." (p.66) Homebound mothers look to sons to provide the satisfaction and achievement they themselves cannot achieve and they cannot get from the absent working husband. Slater also critiques the concept of romantic love as another symptom of individual - a selfish belief that there is one match in the world that a person is meant to be with that leads the individual to close himself out to broader social relationships.

Chapter 5, "Divided We Sit," addresses countercultural movements that arose in the sixties. Slater approves of some of their ideas which encourage community and attack traditional romantic love notions. But he senses an undercurrent of individualism that encourages people to "do your own thing" without concern for the needs of the group. (p.128)

Proposed Solutions - Chapter 6 & 7
Slater proposes some radical (somewhat half-baked) ideas to address these problems. One goal he has is to remove the incentive to achieve wealth. To do this, Slater suggests a 100% tax on income beyond $100,000. He is also disgusted with inherited wealth, and similarly proposes strict limits on money that can be passed down to generations; he suggests estates be pooled and distributed fairly to all members of the following generation, perhaps in an education fund.

Use of Evidence
This is clearly written for a popular audience, and the footnotes are few and far between. Slater offers his own intellectual musings rather than rely on a body of research or connect with any other works.

Slater makes his claims without a strong base of evidence, so it is difficult to take him seriously. It feels like he is just throwing ideas up in the air. Still, he fits right into the Bell/Lasch category in underlying tone, if not in academic rigor. I'm not quite sure how useful a read this was, but it certainly was a change of pace from the academicky stuff I have been grinding through.

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