coromandal


the preferences of others


This is about a change of course, paradigmatic, in which people move from being directed by inner assuredness to being manipulated by external influence and whim.  Ironically, because one would assume that an outward look would be motivated by selflessness, both are firmly rooted in self love.  The ratios are revealing:  that production is self-reliance and consumption is skittish, and getting worse.

Half a century ago, Yale University Press published the first edition of ”The Lonely Crowd,” by David Riesman with Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney. The book’s subject was nothing less than a sea change in American character: as America was moving from a society governed by the imperative of production to a society governed by the imperative of consumption, the character of its upper middle classes was shifting from ”inner-directed” people who as children formed goals that would guide them in later life to ”other-directed” people, ”sensitized to the expectations and preferences of others.” In Riesman’s metaphor, the shift was from life guided by an internal gyroscope to life guided by radar. The new American no longer cared much about adult authority but rather was hyperalert to peer groups and gripped by mass media. Father might know best, but if he did, it was increasingly because a television program said so.

The book went on to become, according to a 1997 study by Herbert J. Gans, the best-selling book by a sociologist in American history, with 1.4 million copies sold, largely in paperback editions. For years, the book made ”inner-direction” and ”other-direction” household terms, canapes for cocktail party chat. It was read by student radicals in the making, who overinterpreted its embrace of the search for autonomy as a roundhouse assault on conformity, when in fact Riesman was at pains to point out that any society ”ensures some degree of conformity from the individuals who make it up,” the question being how it secures that unavoidable conformity. In the 1960’s, ”The Lonely Crowd” was read as a harbinger of alienation leading to affluent revolt. Its title phrase even cropped up in a Bob Dylan song of 1967, ”I Shall Be Released.” By the time of his introduction to the 1969 edition, Riesman was regretting that ” ‘The Lonely Crowd’ contributed to the snobbish deprecation of business careers.”

~BOOKEND / By TODD GITLIN, How Our Crowd Got Lonely

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