The pursuit of loneliness

by Rob Horning

20 December 2006


Anthropologist David Graeber makes an interesting argument in the most recent Harper’s that seems relevant to the cognoscenti wariness I expressed yesterday. He surveys the American red-blue divide and concludes it stems from different classes having different access to altruism and the human dignity it supplies.

Why do the working-class Bush voters tend to resent intellectuals more than they do the rich? It seems to me that the answer is simple. They can imagine a scenario in which they might become rich but cannot possibly imagine one in which they, or any of their children, would become members of the intellegensia. If you think about it, this is not an unreasonable assessment. A mechanic from Nebraska knows it is highly unlikely that his son or daughter will ever become an Enron executive. But it is possible. There is virtually no chance, however, that his child, no matter how talented, will ever become an international human-rights lawyer or a drama critic for The New York Times.

Working-class kids lack the access to the networks of cultural entitlement (epitomized for me by the Slate rock-critic roundtable, and on a somewhat more significant scale by, as Atrios explains, the Washington pundits who think they run things) and they lack the financial resources to support themselves through the necessary unpaid internships to secure the glamour jobs, in which one gets to shape culture or “make a difference.” (Graeber argues that since working-class kids are increasingly shut out of academic routes to such jobs, their best bet is to join the army where they’ll get paid to occasionally help village kids get dental care when they are not patrolling, policing or getting shot at or bombed.) This makes sense to me; in my limited experience of the magazine publishing world, this certainly holds true that that you need to be willing to work for nothing and you need usually to be vetted by people already in the industry before you can be entrusted to contribute. A deep-rooted skepticism toward outsiders is pretty palpable; the same faces seem to circulate among the open editorial positions. But once you are in, it seems as though you are suddenly magically qualified to sound off on just about anything. Then to preserve authority, what editors actually do tends to get mystified into hard-to-define sensibilities that can’t be replicated but somehow mysteriously translate into newsstand sales, into accurately and oracularly sizing up what audiences need.

In The Hidden Injuries of Class Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb tackle this same issue, how the working class feels excluded from the habitus of white-collar America and thus pursues a counter-productive dignity in defiant self-reliance (which is not unlike the knee-jerk rejection of holiday cheer or the popular zeitgeist that I mentioned yesterday). “Americanization the transformation of a man who once sought respect as a member of a tight-knit community into one who has sought respect from others because he can take care of himself…. If you don’t belong to society, society can’t hurt you. A ‘pursuit of loneliness,” Phillip Slater calls it.” This, as Sennett points out, is the essence of American transcendentalism, of fantastical Walden Pond style individualism, which locates the real self as something entirely outside of the reciprocal demands society engenders. It’s the basis of our notion of convenience—not having to deal with anyone else. And it lingers in cultural contrarianism—“I don’t need water-cooler talk or a magazine to cue me to what I should pay attention to. I do my own thing.” “I don’t need to exchange a bunch of gifts because that’s what everyone else is doing.”—which makes a virtue of the core feeling of having been excluded for unfathomable reasons which are ultimately class-based and thereby remain invisible to the sufferer in our alleged class-free society. This reinforces the exclusion and makes the excluded seem responsible for it. This sparks a need to justify one’s worthiness by proving one is even more independent: “So much of the loneliness in our culture comes from the vicious circle people get caught up in when they try to prove they are adequate enough to be loved.”

So what Slate’s critic’s-roundtable features seem to provide is a yardstick for measuring that adequacy. It serves to remind certain aspiring members of the audience of their exclusion and their need to be even more vigorously independent and disdainful, and the better part of the audience of their good fortune at their general social inclusion, at the leisure and self-confidence they enjoy that makes such a conversation seem engaging and pleasurable instead of threatening.

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