Archive for July, 2013


Some Thoughts on Reading “Adventures of an Accidental Sociologist,” Part 2

July 22, 2013
"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

In Part 1 of this entry, I wrote about how much I appreciate about the contribution Peter L. Berger has made. Not only to sociology but, I would say, to intellectual discourse generally for my generation. I also said that my “relationship” with PLB was not untroubled. Here I will expand on this a bit.

As I stated in Part 1, Berger’s books were prominent among those I took with me from America as I moved for further university studies, in summer of 1978, to Eastern Europe. Just to remind us of the setting, Jimmy Carter was still a very popular President and both Carter and the USSR leader Leonid Brezhnev were, it certainly appeared, quite sincere in their pursuit of a warming relationship between the so-called Superpowers, and an end to the Cold War. It certainly seemed to me at the time that in the coming decades, USSR economics and social policy would become more capitalist/market-oriented and democratic, and correspondingly, USA economics and social policy would continue to incorporate social democratic elements.

Of course, world events were soon to go in a much different direction. The Iranian Revolution and the ensuing hostage crisis more or less sank the Carter administration. Soon after, the USSR invaded Afghanistan. More than any just about anything else, this invasion spelled the end of the mutual USA/USSR policy of Détente. Because I was living in Hungary, a Warsaw Pact country behind the so-called Iron Curtain, I know my perspective on this was much different than that of most people in the USA. I had regular access to the daily newspaper International Herald Tribune and the weekly European edition of Time Magazine. The US Embassy library also had other papers, but I tried to keep my visits there to an absolute minimum. So while I could know intellectually that things had changed radically in terms of the general political ethos in the USA, emotionally I still lived in that space of détente and moving toward that future of social democracy (in many ways, I still do!)

Well, back to Peter Berger. It must have been sometime in the winter or spring of 1980. I was in the reading room attached to the philosophy faculty at the University of Budapest (Eotvos Larand.) I saw there lying on a reading table a journal, more like a magazine actually, that had a prominent article by Peter L. Berger. I jumped on it like water in a desert, but was quite dismayed to find that it was full of basically standard Cold War rhetoric about totalitarian repression and forced conformity under communism, and in contrast what amounted to a rationalization for US support of authoritarian military regimes (so much for Jimmy Carter’s emphasis on Human Rights!) I have tried many a time subsequently to figure out exactly which article that was so that I could review it again, but I haven’t been able to nail it down. My recollection of it, however, these 30 years later, is that Berger basically made the argument that while authoritarian military regimes (capitalist) have the possibility of evolving into democracies, totalitarian regimes (communist) cannot and so can only be overthrown. Furthermore, as I recall, the litmus test he advocated for delineating the difference between totalitarian repression and military authoritarianism is how much independence each gives to its intellectual class in general and its sociologists in particular. Military authoritarianism tends to ignore “mere intellectuals” while totalitarian regimes go after them with a vengeance, hence stamping out even the “seeds” of future reform.

I had always known that PLB was not shy about criticizing and pointing out the inconsistencies of American liberals and liberal policies. I saw that as a positive point of honor in his favor. This was not a man afraid to go against the grain. But I was simply stunned by this article, so much so that I spent some weeks wondering if this were not perhaps a different person with the same name. This was not at all an example of bravely going against the grain, but simply conformed, rationalized propaganda for a grain that had shifted entirely.

Furthermore, I could see every day that it was full of downright lies about what social life and more importantly intellectual life is like in a communist country. After all, I accessed this magazine on the open reading table in the philosophy faculty library at the main university of a communist country (a library which, I assume, was open more or less to any person who wanted to use it – certainly no one ever checked your ID to enter or inquired by what authorization you were there; in other words, much more open than many university libraries are today in America.) I was taking a seminar at that university focused on the social and political theory of the Frankfurt School (the very school that so influenced Berger’s own professors) and even with my language limitations I understood clearly that the discussions in that seminar ranged far and wide, without any sense of fear or intimidation.

It is true that young sociologist Miklos Haraszti had had his dissertation rejected by the state-run academic publisher, who said it was not up to the “scholarly standards” of the press (Haraszti was probably the closest thing there was to a public intellectual dissenter or strongly “oppositional” figure in Hungary at that time.) But the rejection of his dissertation was a big scandal, the source of much debate in academic circles, and in any case the English version published by Penguin under the title A Worker in a Workers’ State, was easily available to anyone who wanted to read it (most Hungarian academics can easily read at least 3,  4 or more languages). Manuscript copies of the Hungarian version floated around, and though were scarce by today’s standards (this was back when Xerox copies were 25c a page or more) I saw at least three of them myself. (note: Haraszti’s book deals with the feelings of boredom, discontent, alienation and being valued only for their labor among industrial workers in state-owned factories in Hungary. The irony of this is that in a “workers’ state” the workers are supposedly in charge of their own lives, which was obviously contradicted by the Haraszti’s findings. Yet every point of their feelings of frustration, boredom and alienation Haraszti outlined reminded me exactly of what I experienced among American factory workers during the time I spent as a line metal punch-press operator, an employee of the Anderson-Boling Corporation, turning out Dodge truck grills and other Chrysler auto parts.)

Furthermore, Haraszti helped to found and edit a journal/newspaper, Beszelo, which was at least moderately available to anyone who wanted to read it (this was an example so-called samizdat literature, a publication that existed without official approval or sanction, and thus could have trouble finding material and press time, its staff would be considered “unemployed,” and they could not charge for the product.) Most of my friends read Beszelo regularly – one copy would make its way through dozens of hands eventually. So Haraszti’s views and those of his circle were certainly well known. I could go on about the “home lectures” held regularly in people’s apartments, about the artistic and intellectual life centered around various Budapest cafes, coffeehouses and theaters, about the strong registering of dissent on many public issues including even the tacit “official” support Hungary expressed for the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. (I could only WISH we had such an engaged intellectual life here now…) But the point is, I knew first hand that PLB’s analysis was abjectly false.

Over the ensuing years, I watched a number of intellectuals of a once-Lefty bent when that was popular suddenly, experience their “conversions” to New Right and hawkish Neoconservativism when the wind shifted during the Reagan years. David Horowitz, Michael Novak, Richard John Neuhaus, to name only a few who had been prominent in my intellectual life; each of them were generously rewarded by the long list of foundations and think tanks set up exactly for that purpose. And though I can see from his memoir that at least in his own mind Peter Berger tried to chart an independent path, for many years everything that I saw put him directly in the center of that crowd.

In this memoir, PLB does talk about these years and acknowledges that a recognizable shift occurred in his point of view, especially related to capitalism versus socialism. But attention to that will have to wait until Part 3 of this blog review.


Nostalgia and the Ability to Mourn

July 10, 2013
"k1f" Kirby Farrell

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

According to the New York Times (July 9, 2013), research shows that nostalgia can “counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.”

Chances are, you’re not surprised. Turning up as “sentimental memories,” nostalgia is a robust industry in popular culture. At the University of Southampton, a questionnaire developed by social-psychologist Constantine Sedikides seeks to measure nostalgia’s effects. Dr Sedikides distinguishes nostalgia from homesickness, because it’s not just about home, and it’s not a sickness, even though ” Nostalgia had been considered a disorder ever since the term was coined by a 17th-century Swiss physician who attributed soldiers’ mental and physical maladies to their longing to return home — nostos in Greekand the accompanying pain, algos.

The researcher’s method understandably focuses on a particular butterfly. But just for fun, let’s open up the frame a bit. For one thing, nostalgia is grounded in neurophysiology. When you dream, the process is reorganizing memory traces important enough to have persisted. The stories that dreams form usually have a problem-solving function. They’re sorting out past experience to create meaning. In this way dreams use memory as a source of parables that can help us interpret the world. As Mark Turner demonstrates in his beautifully lucid introduction to cognitive science, The Literary Mind (1996), we think in terms of parables: stories that condense complexity and create a more user friendly reality.

We’re meaning-making animals: it’s how we’re built. Sorting out good and bad memories, we’re boosting morale and reinforcing that lifelong project of creating a conviction of “what is right.” But at the same time, we’re also constructing a vocabulary to make life thinkable. Past experiences, in dreams or awake, function as “words” or story materials which imagination uses to “find” and construct meanings for today. When people gossip or tabloids gasp about the scandalous lives of celebrities, the story-tellers are exploring lives that can be useful materials of meaning. We think through analogies.

It’s not an accident that nostalgia has been associated with homesickness for so long. Like many other animals—only more so—we have a need to ground ourselves in the world. Many animals locate “home” through the senses. The cues can be familiar or unconscious, like the pheromones that enable a mother to identify her baby. Proust’s taste of madeleine cake took him back through his own lifetime to home and mum. The seven volumes of his novel are epic nostalgia.

Thinking through symbols and analogies, we conceive home as the ground of personality: the remembered source of feeling and “what is right.” It’s mom and apple pie, but it’s also whatever you associate with mom and apple pie. Some creatures are distinctly imprinted at birth on a mother or mother-substitute. You and I aren’t ducklings, but we too are in a sense imprinted by powerful embodiments of meaning. You see it in love and hero-worship: transference.

This starts to get at the core of the behavior. We orient ourselves around “home” in this expanded sense because we’re the animals uniquely aware that we’ll die. The terror of being annihilated stems partly from living in a wink of time, with no ground. Beyond a few generations, we have only mythic ideas about where we come from. We—and everybody else, including ancestors—are irreducibly mysterious to one another. We cope with this inconvenient anxiety by devising shelters: culture, home, family, mum, the past. They make us feel that our lives have enduring meaning: or as Ernest Becker puts it, “symbolic immortality.”

It’s the opening to death that has given nostalgia its ancient association with pain and the demonic.

And this is why research can conclude that “Nostalgia does have its painful side — it’s a bittersweet emotion — but the net effect is to make life seem more meaningful and death less frightening. When people speak wistfully of the past, they typically become more optimistic and inspired about the future.” In creating that “net effect,” that is, people are devising symbolic immortality and easing death-anxiety. The Times quotes one researcher who comments that “Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function . . . . It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives. Some of our research shows that people who regularly engage in nostalgia are better at coping with concerns about death.”

In this larger frame, nostalgia is not a niche experience but a basic cultural practice and creaturely behavior. “Most people report experiencing nostalgia at least once a week,” says the Times, “and nearly half experience it three or four times a week. These reported bouts are often touched off by negative events and feelings of loneliness, but people say the “nostalgizing”—researchers distinguish it from reminiscing—helps them feel better.” In effect, people are developing a cultural strategy that can convert death-anxiety into energy for life. Dr. Sedikides imagines “building” nostalgia into a “memory bank,” which evokes the cultural values of fitness training and piggy banks. Whatever works.

Just this behavior is what Peter Homans calls The Ability to Mourn (1989). Life is always dying away from us. In time you lose your childhood, friends, pets, the freshness of some cherished experience. True enough, says Homans, but we have the ability to mourn: to transform what’s lost into some symbolic equivalent. You don’t “lose” your childhood, for example: it’s still with you in memory and all sorts of modulated behaviors.

In this sense, nostalgia is one phase of the creative conjuring trick that makes being alive lively, and makes you who you are.


Sources mentioned in this essay:

John Tierney, “What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows,” NY Times (July 8, 2013).

Mark Turner, The Literary Mind (1996)

Marcel Proust, A Remembrance of Things Past (A la Recherche du Temps Perdu)

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (1973).

Peter Homans calls The Ability to Mourn (1989).