Who do we think we are? And why do we keep seeking answers to that question?
Call it the blessing or curse of modernity, destroyer of all certainties and fixities: this compulsion to characterize and define who we think we are, individually and collectively. Whether to enlighten or control, to entertain or edify, to liberate or subjugate, we theorize endlessly about ourselves…and therefore we are. Salutary as that impulse may be—after all, Socrates was not alone in warning against “the unexamined life”—it can lead down strange and even dangerous paths, some ending in fealty to totalizing ideologies, others in the adoption of cultish conspiracy theories. Our various self-understandings, whether produced in the academy or churned out in feature journalism or simply passed off in daily conversation (with supporting evidence now often acquired at the information bazaar of the Internet), can lead, variously, to cynicism or despair, to a sense of futility or delusions of grandeur. Given the consequences of their careless adoption, the concepts, characterizations, and narratives we use in thinking about who we are need to be handled with greater care, even skepticism.
In this issue of THR, our authors explore the allure, efficacy, and perils of some of our more compelling constructs of self-explanation. These range from the political (see “Puritans’ Progress,” Peter Skerry’s discussion of Lawrence Mead’s controversial book on American national culture) to the social (see Nancy Isenberg’s “Left Behind,” her astute vivisection of the media’s fondness for a euphemism that obscures the true plight of hard-strapped Americans).
Not surprisingly, many of our self-explanations emanate from the academy. The nascent field of critical race theory has, for one, provided useful analytical tools for exploring the destructive persistence of racism, structural and otherwise, but as Malloy Owen argues in “The Unchosen Condition,” some extrapolations of that theory have led to perversely demoralizing conclusions that may only exacerbate the problem. Similarly, while gender studies has usefully challenged the rigidities of biological overdeterminism, Phoebe Maltz Bovy, in her “Straightness Studies,” questions the dogmatic overreach of some thinkers in this field.
Generational stereotypes, the staple of marketers and journalists, too often serve as props for lazy social and cultural analysis. In his autobiographical reflection, “‘Peace’ and the Organization Kid,” Mike St. Thomas takes a rueful look at an epithet that came to characterize his own millennial cohort, even while he recalls the music that brought precious respite from the pressures of getting ahead. In “The Strange Undeath of Middlebrow,” Phil Christman considers a label long assigned by sophisticates to consumers of popular and earnestly edifying works of literature and art. Christman questions whether middlebrow, more recently lamented as the lost core of our democratic culture, is as dead as we might think, even in our fragmented, identity-obsessed, and niche-marketed times.
Ideas have consequences. And some conceptions of human nature, however dubious the evidence for them, can help shape the cultural climate. In “Thinking the Worst of Ourselves,” the opening essay of the thematic section, Jackson Arn explains how three powerful stories—one told by a brilliant philosopher, one by a social psychologist, and one by a journalist—collectively confirmed an image of humanity as fundamentally lacking in moral agency. That image informed and strengthened a deeply pessimistic current running from the postwar decades into our own time, with arguably parlous consequences. As Arn eloquently warns, “Solving the major crises of the twenty-first century requires more than action. It requires the belief that cooperation, trust, friendship, imagination, and compassion are as fundamental to human nature as the banality of evil or obedience to authority.”
Beyond the thematic essays—though not terribly distant, in deeper ways—are three pieces by welcome newcomers to our pages. In “Creation: Pro(-) and Con,” philosopher Kieran Setiya scrutinizes the moral arguments for and against having children, insisting that “we must explain how human nature shapes the human good without equating what is natural with what is right.” In “Toward an Incarnational Aesthetic,” literary scholar Ashley C. Barnes proposes a critical approach to literature that rescues it from both romantic idealization and the skeptical strictures of so much academic theory by locating “the sublimity of art within the world and within history.” And in “Paul Valéry and the Mechanisms of Modern Tyranny,” Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody has written a revelatory essay on the French poet and intellectual’s astonishingly acute political-cultural critique, anticipating a world in which “we live no longer as citizens among fellow citizens but as depoliticized individuals commanding the services of others via enormous networks of people and machines as opaque (yet dangerously transparent) as any nineteenth-century bureaucracy.”
In our Notes & Comments section we feature the work of two valued past contributors, the wide-ranging architectural and social analyst Witold Rybczynski and the critic Mark Dunbar, as well as that of journalist Sophie Haigney, who appears with us for the first time. In our closing Signifiers section, Sean Wyer offer some illuminating notes on a British cultural signifier—naff—for which we Americans might do well to find an equivalent.