more reflections on christopher lasch’s reflection.
The following x-post comes from an ongoing conversation with Christopher Shannon at the Society of US Intellectual History blog. We have been debating the legacy of Christopher Lasch’s social criticism.
What is the “common life” and how do we achieve it? What is “tradition” and how do we use it to grapple with present conundrums and concerns? These seem to me to be the stakes of Shannon’s critique of my recent post on Christopher Lasch, a post that served as a preview of a longer article I published in the print edition of The Point magazine this fall. To address Christopher Shannon’s critique demands attention to the intellectual orientation from which I understand him to be approaching Lasch—and from which he comments on my interest in recovering the mid-career work of this impressive but certainly not perfect thinker.
Shannon uses my recent writing on Lasch to retrofit and restate his general position on secular modern liberalism, a stance of rejection and condemnation that he first mapped out in his striking book Conspicuous Criticism (and expanded in A World Made Safe for Differences). This leads him to contest my contention that the mid-career Lasch is worth recovering in comparison to the later Lasch, who I view as retreating from his earlier confrontations with pressing social issues on their own terms. Not entirely, but in crucial ways, Lasch gave up on that mission in exchange for a seemingly more stable conservative vision that was, because of its intensive efforts to locate authentic and fixed roots for the common life, paradoxically a kind of escapist turn.
I cannot quite tell from his comments if Shannon read the article I published in The Point, or if he is just responding to the post about the article. In the article itself, I am far more sympathetic to the later work of Lasch than my post perhaps indicated. There is, yes, a touch of the declension narrative to my interpretation. But that is because the vast bulk of Lasch scholarship is much more of an ascension narrative: the “Passion of Christopher Lasch,” as I have teased Eric Miller about his excellent biography of this important thinker (a biography that is particularly moving and illuminating on the later Lasch’s turn to theology and his morally and politically infused decision not to undergo chemotherapy when he was diagnosed with cancer).
So I grant that there is an effort on my part to recover a mid-career Lasch that is overshadowed by the later work and life. I do think though, despite my critique, that we also have much to learn from Lasch’s final decade or so of writing. His defense of the family against the encroachments of capitalist market and technocratic state, his recognition of the ideal of progress as, paradoxically, a dead end for making the world a better place, his search for a position of hope beyond the shallow waters of either optimism or its flipside nostalgia, these are all points that are worth keeping in play within the contemporary arena of social and cultural criticism. Like Shannon, though without his turn to traditionalist conservatism, I think Lasch’s later efforts, while at times romanticizing a working-class populism and lumping all professionals, willy-nilly, into the villainous role of out-of-touch elites, have much to offer contemporary social and cultural critics who remain interested in the transformative potential of thinking better about both social injustices and hopes for a better world.
Here’s the difference between us. Shannon contends that the mid-career Lasch I admire is a model of the free-floating, independent intellectual, which, as he argued in Conspicuous Criticism, was a kind of shadowy alter-ego, a doppelganger, to the very technocratic experts and corporate capitalist commodifiers that mid-twentieth century intellectuals such as C. Wright Mills sought to critique, reject, overthrow. Mills’s famous file system of his “Intellectual Craftsmanship” essay are, for Shannon, but a miniature version of the dossiers of the Cold War security state apparatus or the customer research department of the marketing firm on Madison Avenue. Shannon prefers the later Lasch, who grappled with theological perspectives that might provide firmer ground. This Lasch, Shannon contends, transcended the “conspicuous criticism” of modern liberal intellectuals who while they romanticized the lone independent critic were in fact surrounded by file folders and found their craftsmanship but a parallel to the bureaucratic and exploitative structures they scrutinized and so disliked.
For Shannon, Lasch stepped out of the deeper currents of the Enlightenment project in which modern liberal individualism was immersed. He moved away from the strategy of isolating and instrumentalizing the entire world from its smallest everyday elements to its largest forces. Instead, he turned to traditions of humility and limits, boundaries and faith-based tradition. In the process, Lasch came close to overcoming what Shannon labels as the failed modern quest of social and cultural criticism in service of transformation and moral improvement through analysis and rational-critical comprehension. Some things, Shannon believes, should be left as mysteries, should exist outside the scope of critical inquiry. Though he critiques Lasch for looping back into the problematic American mode of the jeremiad, he positions himself in the late Lasch’s footsteps down the path away from modernity. This is fitting, since Lasch was quite literally one of his teachers. But Shannon goes further down the antimodernist track, or, better said, further back along it than Lasch. He draws upon Lasch’s work to advocate that we leave modernity behind entirely. Or better said, we should leave it ahead. Like many “postmodern” theorists (Foucault, the Frankfurt School), Shannon contends that modernity will ultimately eat itself. The Enlightenment project will eventually and paradoxically darken our doors.
I find Shannon’s own thinking on these matters intriguing, even compelling. Even more so, I find his attention to Lasch as an antimodernist important. But I perceive the late and the mid-career Lasch in almost exactly the opposite way than he does. Whereas Shannon sees the mid-career Lasch as a failure for attempting, supposedly, to escape into a fantastical absent-presence as a “free floating” independent intellectual, in the process merely masking his membership in the very professional classes benefitting from the modern capitalism and the technocratic state he sought to condemn, I view mid-career Lasch not as independent, but as engaged. He was hardly independent or free-floating in this work. He was, rather, in deep and careful conversation with those around him. He implicates himself in their pursuits. But he does not merely acquiesce to the trendier obsessions around him, whether it be the vanguardist “new radicalism” of the liberationist left during the late 1960s or the cynical conservatism and cozying up to power of the mainstream liberal establishment or the rising “New Right.”
To my reading, it is not the mid-career Lasch but the later one who, while full of insights into modern America, tilted toward an escapist fantasy: that we can somehow return to a nineteenth-century populism or even Shannon’s idealized premodern traditions without arriving at them within our own modern existence. The mid-career Lasch looked the predicaments of modernity more clearly in the eye, I think. He got face to face with the roiling forces of the 1960s and 1970s. Without turning away, he offered a mode of social and cultural criticism that was sharp, barbed, and very critical. But this work was also sympathetic and filled with a hope born of extended inquiry, listening, and thinking. It represents a staunch refusal to give up on the best aspects of the modernist project while still forcefully critiquing its ironic, vexing, and tragic twists and turns.
The argument I make is that the mid-career Lasch is more useful for contemporary social and cultural criticism because his writing from that time is, in its way, more humble yet determined than his later work. By listening more closely to the voices around him, he expressed a humility of engagement, not independence. He did so not by agreeing or rejecting, but by his willingness to identify, analyze, and clarify shortcomings in the positions of others while granting them credence where he saw fit. This is not “free floating” freedom but rather commitment, obligation, and duty at work.
Indeed, the best aspects of Lasch’s last writings are present in the mid-career essays, book reviews, and social commentaries. The idea of limits, for instance, appears first in this mid-career work. Lasch presents the concept of limits as a possible source for fostering a new kind of common life that does not turn away from uses of the state or the market for good, but rather utilizes them as a way to mitigate or even stop once and for all the worst aspects of these structures. The contemporary left has much to learn from this interest in limits. Lasch’s critique of liberation as an ideal, of progress as the main goal, also remains deeply relevant. What, he begins to wonder in the mid-career essays and fully articulates later in his career, would it mean to approach pressing social issues by exploring not how to break on through to some utopian future, but rather recover useful elements of older traditions, whether they be the cultivation of limits, the affirmational potential of work outside of modern regimes of production and consumption, and the reinvigoration of the private sphere of the family as a foundational site of shared, public, civic virtue? It is not breakthrough he seeks here, but rather the question of what kind of balance might be achieved when vanguardist liberation is replaced by sustained inquiry and a mingling of old and new.
Not only members of the left, but also those on the contemporary right might grapple far more robustly with Lasch’s speculations on these counts. I would hope then that traditionalist conservatives such as Shannon spend as much time critiquing others on the right who advocate “progress” and “liberation” as they do attacking modern liberalism.
Shannon’s response to what he perceives as the dead end of modern liberalism and the Enlightenment project is ultimately quite different from Lasch’s. While Lasch never rejected modernity but sought out ways of altering its worst aspects, Shannon calls for us to abandon the modern Enlightenment project in toto as a method for pursuing moral inquiry and social transformation. Instead, we should return to older, premodern traditions as wellsprings for these kinds of endeavors (or giving up on them entirely as beyond the scope of human comprehension and control). All efforts at achieving freedom against the worst aspects of modernity from within its lines of analytic inquiry will, Shannon argues, be complicit with the very forces they oppose. That these so-called premodern traditions have themselves already intersected with the development of modernity—and that we cannot magically return to them, even by a leap of faith, but through the currents of modernity that already surround us—is something I wonder about. But the point here is that Shannon turns to a particular vision of the premodern, traditional, and conservative in what to me seems an intellectual strategy that seeks to outflank the complicity in the ills of modernity that he perceives in all Enlightenment-descended modes of cultural critique and social science.
In this regard, we might call Shannon’s writing (playfully) conspicuous conservatism. It shows off excessive conservatism in an effort to outcritique, to outradicalize, the traditions of analysis found in the secular, modern, liberal Enlightenment legacy itself! Liberation will arrive, Shannon’s line of thinking implies, by the forsaking of liberation once and for all. This seems to me as much an extension of the liberationist impulse within modernity as a rejection of it. In seeking escape through reactionary rejection, through a certain construction of a pure premodern tradition erected outside and against modernity, it leads Shannon toward a reactionary position that is not too different from the very ideologies he seeks to combat within the confounding modernist tradition of erasing tradition itself. Freedom comes, in this (masochistic?) version of antimodernism, by submitting.
I do not mean solely to hoist Shannon on his own petard here. What I do admire about his work is that he very profoundly helps us consider how as we are unmoored in the pursuit of more, whether it be more abundance, more control, or more understanding and meaning, we lose any attachment whatsoever to the mores—the values and morals—that matter. With no ground to stand on, we sink into the abyss, analyzing our fall all the way down. This is a remarkable warning. What is so oddly dizzying about Shannon’s thinking is that he argues for this reactionary stance from the vantage point of the avant-garde. The reasoning of the most advanced kinds of modern social theory undergird his very retreat from modernity. As a sympathetic commentator, Wilfred McClay, wonderfully put it, Shannon’s work is “a cross between the cultural criticism of the Frankfurt School and the constructive impulses of communitarian Catholic social thought” (McClay also notes, intriguingly, that Shannon demonstrates how these may not be as different as one at first thinks). Shannon is, as McClay points out, as “at home in the precincts of social theory” as he is in the world of conservative thinking. His ability to hook the most postmodern and futuristic modes of recent critical theory back into a traditionalist orientation is as intellectually intriguing as it is disconcerting and strange. His writing is suffused with the most cutting-edge social theory, put into service to undermine itself.
Both mid-career Lasch and the best aspects of late Lasch often arrived at a related position to Shannon’s: the cure was worse than the disease, the liberation from limitations itself was a devil’s bargain, only further enmeshing individuals in what we might call uncommon but unfulfilling lives rather than the common life. Which is to say experiences that were thrillingly liberating at first for the immediate intensity and gratification of their taste of freedom were unsustainable and, ultimately to Lasch, even more alienating than what they momentarily replaced. Liberation was a canard, a phantom, an insidious lure that provided no true and sustainable freedom.
This brings us to the question of second wave feminism, aka Women’s Liberation, and its relationship to the common life. The late-career Lasch angrily lambasted upper middle class women for pretending that entering the work force without altering the fundamental forms of industrial capitalism was anything but a way to maintain class prestige and power. Two career families and equal access to jobs might appear liberating at first, he contended, but they were only bringing women into the ills of corporate capitalism without transforming the system for the better of all. These are important interventions, ones that Lasch shared with socialist feminists. But his interest in demonstrating how the traditional family had been a key site of mutual obligation, sacrifice and commitment for all—men and women (and children)—led Lasch to minimize how the family itself had been a patriarchal institution whose inequities themselves undermined the common life (Lasch does something of the same kind of operation in his mention, then overlooking of the xenophobia, racism, sexism, and paranoia of the nineteenth century populists).
The flaws of the traditional family were precisely what led feminists such as Ellen Willis to decide that there was no turning back. The path beyond modernity’s ills had to be through modern experiences themselves. These could be—indeed they were for her coming of age as a woman in 1950s America—subversively radicalizing steps on the way toward a more thorough and thoughtful revolution. For Willis, the problematic but quite real liberations experienced in the sphere of consumer capitalism (a sphere gendered female already) were openings to deeper political efforts. “The history of the sixties,” she wrote in 1981, “strongly suggests that the impulse to buy a car and tool down the freeway with the radio blasting rock and roll is not unconnected to the impulse to fuck outside marriage, get high, stand up to men or white people or bosses, join dissident movements.” The language here—”not unconnected”—reveals Willis’s own careful scrutiny of how these linkages between pleasure and power worked in actuality. And they remind us that she, like Lasch, was not simplistically committed to liberation as a straightforward path to the common life.
Lasch came to be convinced that the common life could not be achieved within the constraints of modern individualism’s insistence on liberation. Hence “Women’s Liberation” fell directly under fire in the ill-tempered condemnations of his later work. For Willis, however, the patriarchal legacy of traditional constructions of family and public life alike meant that there could be no turning back to pasts in which women were fundamentally restricted from shaping their fates. The path to mutual obligation, sacrifice, and commitment had to travel through whatever experiences of liberation could be grasped at hand in the existing system, she believed. He argued for a common life that might, in its return to tradition, liberate Americans through a renewed emphasis on limits. She responded that “collective liberation without individual autonomy is a self contradiction.” The past was of less help than Lasch thought. Indeed, it was of no assistance at all other than as a long litany of examples of what should not be repeated in the lives of women. The path forward was…forward. Without something new, women could never imagine, never mind achieve, full participation in a common life worthy of its very commonness in all senses of the term, whether it be its everyday ordinariness or its accessibility for everyone.
That Willis took such umbrage at Lasch’s work bespeaks the similarities as well as the differences between them. Both agreed that the current situation was untenable. And both searched for a common life that might replace it. What is intriguing to me is that mid-career Lasch offers intersections with Willis’s position—even presages it—that his later writings do not. Rather than merely dismiss the liberation in Women’s Liberation in his mid-career writings, Lasch kept his focus on the need for the second wave feminist critique of the family to expand to an analysis of the connections of the family to larger structures of power in society (as indeed many socialist feminists were doing at the time). Here is Lasch in World of Nations, the essay collection published in 1974:
What will emerge from the new criticism of the family is not yet clear. Whether the latest wave of feminism leaves a more lasting mark than earlier waves depends on its ability to associate criticism of the family with a criticism of other institutions, particularly those governing work. If the attack on the family results merely in the founding of rural communes, it will offer no alternative to the isolated family or to the factory, since in many ways the rural commune simply caricatures the new domesticity, reenacting the flight to nature and the search for an isolated and emotionally self-sufficient domestic life. To be sure, it reunites the family with work, but with a primitive kind of agricultural labor which is itself marginal. The “urban commune,” in which the members work outside, avoids these difficulties, but it is not clear that it is more than a dormitory—in particular, it is not clear whether it can successfully raise children.
Lately, there has been a tendency for the attack on the family, like so many other fragments of the new left, to degenerate into a purely cultural movement, one aimed not so much at institutional change as at abolishing ‘male chauvinism.’ I have already criticized the illusion that a “cultural revolution,” a change of heart, can serve as a substitute for politics. Here it is necessary only to add that the criticism applies with special force to feminism, since the peculiar strength of this movement is precisely its ability to dramatize specific connections between the realm of production on the one hand and education, child rearing, and sexual relations on the other. It ought to be recognized, for example, that large numbers of women will not be able to enter the work force, except by slavishly imitating the careers of men, unless the nature of work undergoes a radical change. The entire conflict between “home and career” derives from the subordination of work to the relentless demands of industrial productivity. The system that forces women (and men also) to chose between home and work is the same system that demands early specialization and prolonged schooling, imposes military-like discipline in all areas of work, and forces not only factory workers but intellectual workers into a ruthless competition for meager rewards. At bottom, the “woman question” is indistinguishable from what used to be known as the social question (pp. 157-158).
I think it is this “social question”—which we might also define as the relationship between what Lasch would later come to call work and love, and which Shannon describes as the great tension between modern visions of social unity and individual autonomy—with which the contemporary social and cultural critic must continue to grapple. As Lasch remarked in World of Nations:
…it is only, in short, when we are confronted with the contradictions of individualism and private enterprise in their most immediate, unmistakable, and by now familiar form that we are forced to reconsider our exaltation of the individual over the life of the community, and to submit technological innovations to a question we have so far been careful not to ask: Is this what we want? (p. 307).
And here is none other than Lasch’s supposed arch-nemesis, Ellen Willis, writing in a rather similar vein on the limits that subversive mass art experienced in the sphere of consumption can have when it comes to politics. This is from her introduction to the 1981 collection Beginning to See the Light: Sex, Hope, and Rock ‘n’ Roll (interesting that she, like Lasch, arrived at “hope” as a keyword):
…neither mass art nor any other kind is a substitute for politics. Art may express and encourage our subversive impulses, but it can’t analyze or organize them. Subversion begins to be radical only when we ask what we really want or think we should have, who or what is obstructing us, and what to do about it (xviii).
Two very different perspectives, written in different registers, but they share a common point: the politics of progress may have their origins in the technological capacities of modern capitalism and liberalism to generate abundance, pleasure, and fun—and great wealth for a small slice of the population—but they have to move to something other than this ideal of progress to develop their politics any further. To progress requires abandoning the dream of progress, instead recognizing the cost of liberation as an end in itself (a self-defeating and narcissistic one, as Lasch famously realized) and, as an alternative, seeking out new hybrids of tradition, modernity, and futurity.
For Lasch and Willis alike, this search might be fueled by moving from analysis to what is a rather stunningly simple kind of “asking” that stops us in our tracks for a moment as it intermingles the individual and the collective, the me and the we. “Is this what we want?” Lasch asks. “Subversion begins to be radical only when we ask what we really want or think we should have, who or what is obstructing us, and what to do about it,” Willis writes. There is a faith, a hope, in these two sentences, a form and a mode of engaging in contemplation within the modernist framework. As Lasch himself wrote in World of Nations, “Part of the job of criticism today would seem to be to insist on the difference between attempting to give popular themes more lasting form and surrendering to the absolute formlessness of the moment” (335). If our modern (postmodern?) moment has a formlessness to it even more paralyzing than the one Lasch experienced in the early 1970s, then offering a criticism that has some shape seems all the more important. Bringing Lasch and Willis together in a dance of thoughts might provide a way out—or better said a way further into—contemporary quandaries. For only by going fully into them can we hope to reshape them.
It seems to me that contemporary social and cultural critics might learn from Lasch’s mid-career interest (and Willis’s too) in making distinctions within modernity rather than either simplistically celebrating its liberatory thrusts or rejecting its traditions of inquiry wholesale. The past and its usable traditions can matter here. The premodern too. But only in hybridized forms. The goal would not be jeremiad but rather a wrestling with the angels (and the devils). If this be what Shannon refers to as “thought in motion,” without foundations, then so be it. But perhaps thought in motion can itself become a foundation for the common life. The very energies of conversation become a means not merely of going through the motions, but rather concentrating our attention on what is at stake in the moment as it is historically located. They provide a space in which social and cultural critique can be affirmational even in its negations, and negate forcefully when affirmation is problematic.
At its best, social criticism in this vein becomes relevant without being relativist, instrumental without being instrumentalist, self-reflective without being solipsistic, communal without constraining the call for equality among different voices, critical without foreclosing hope. It asks us to explore the limits of insisting upon no limits while also reminding us that we still must carry on within the paradoxical traditions of modernity—both the dominant ones and the hidden ones—as they exist. It might even, to refer again to Shannon’s conclusion in Conspicuous Criticism, provide a way of informalizing the formal rather than what he discerns in modern social science as the continual formal scrutiny and, hence, colonization, of informal, everyday life. At the very least, it offers a mode for potentially connecting thinking to doing, asking to answering, making new to remembering old from within our current, vexing, deeply imperfect, and sucky stuckness in the middle.