Tuesday, February 15, 2005

American Dialectics

In today's version of Slate Daniel Gross reviews John Gartner's new book on the psychiatry of American business success, which posits that, "America may be the dominant force in the global economy because we're a nation made of somewhat Crazy Eddies—gonzo businessmen and women who may be genetically predisposed to take big-time risks."

The foray of mental diviners - scientific or not - into the national character is as old as the republic, and I would have been interested in an argument which included sound extrapolation from national data. But, not surprisingly, Gartner falls back on the rhetorical toolbox of psychotherapy: extrapolate from the one, or the few, to the millions:

Gartner sets out to prove his case not through contemporary case studies or the aggregation of vast quantities of data, but through brief, lively studies of key hypomanics from five different centuries.

But shortly thereafter, Gross gets to the real point which caught my attention:

It's a fun read. But Gartner's diagnosis overlooks the more rational factors that were crucial to the settling of America and the construction of our unique economic and business culture. The British Protestants who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the 17th century came for God, but they also came for the cod. And the timber and the tobacco. By the time John Winthrop arrived in Massachusetts, non-dissenting settlers—economic opportunists, not prophets—had been farming and trading in Jamestown, Va., for more than 20 years.

Immigrants like Hamilton, Carnegie, and David Selznick's parents may have been hypomanic. But whether you were a landless peasant in Ireland in the 1840s, a Jewish cobbler in Russia in 1910, or an Indian computer programmer in the 1980s, the decision to move to America made profound economic sense. America had cheap land in abundance. The opportunities—if occasionally overblown—were real. So was the infrastructure that provided for the rule of law, capital markets, and the protections of minority rights.

In fact, practicality and realism have coexisted with messianism and utopianism in the American experiment from the very beginning. Benjamin Franklin was almost certainly hypomanic by Gartner's reckoning, but he was also one of the most relentlessly practical Americans of the 18th century. The U.S. economy has been distinguished by hypomanic booms and busts and by the creative destruction that lies at the heart of entrepreneurial capitalism. But it's also distinguished by durable systems and institutions that are emblematic of our distinct style of managerial capitalism—the Federal Reserve and the New York Stock Exchange, our telecommunications networks, and Procter & Gamble. Such institutions are not the work of flamboyant geniuses but of tons of thoughtful, far-sighted, and average Americans.

Juxtaposing "practicality and realism" with other seemingly contradictory values allows Gross to argue that one such element cannot be wholly explanatory (contra Gartner, and contra psychological reductionism of social and cultural phenomena) but, rather, value systems which, he reminds us, have "coexisted...in the American experiment from the very beginning." This point of view has been explored not only by social philosophers, but more recently anthropologists. Some weeks ago I had the opportunity to revisit Charles W. Nuckolls' enlightening (and readable) work "Culture: A Problem That Cannot Be Solved" (Wisconsin, 1998), which takes this finding to the heart of his argument: many cultural systems of knowledge are rooted in dialectical relationships between opposing values, and must be understood and explained with regard to this ongoing tension. I recommend it to those who might be interested in the topic, if not those who are predisposed to simplistic, modal explanations of American values. [Nuckolls examined three cases for his argument: cooperation and self-gratification among the Ifaluk in Micronesia; community and individualism in Oklahoma; and opposition within disorder characteristics in American psychiatry.] The following from his preface is a brief description of the argument:

The conclusion of this book is that culture is a problem that cannot be solved, and thus it contradicts the view that culture is a solution to existential problems that all human beings share. This is a statement of an extremely one-sided position, and is probably wrong, but the purpose of the argument is to show that extreme positions are productive when they exist in unrelieved tension with their opposites. This is as true of the book as it is of its ethnographic subjects.

As an example, consider the topic that informs much of the book: the conflict between American values of independence and dependence, or individualism and collectivism. Should we be ruggedly individualistic and cooperate only to the extent that it serves our individual interests? Or should we construct social institutions on the model of the family and form intense and long-lasting dependency relations that are not contingent on calculations of personal gratificiation? Some, like Tocqueville, argue that the conflict between these two positions defines American culture, but whether that is true or not, the real question is this: Can a culture be understood as an opposition between equally desireable alternatives, such that cultural knowledge systems come into being as partial (and necessarily temporal) solutions to problems that can never be resolved?

Certainly, no one expects the conflict between American individualist and communitarian perspectives to be resolved. But in the absence of resolution, the attempt to satisfy opposing ideals shapes the development of knowledge in disparate domains, from political parties (Republican versus Democratic) to the construction of gender (male versus female) to psychiatric categories (antisocial versus histrionic). Americans work through the dialectics constituted by opposing values. In the process they make up whole knowledge systems - systems that develop in pursuit of a goal that can never be reached, to solve a problem that can never be solved. (Pp. xv-xvi)

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