Thursday, August 25, 2011

beats, 1960s - book - 1960 - Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized Society

Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized Society
Paul Goodman
Vintage Books
1960
296 pages

Just before the start of the 1960s, and into the first couple years of the decade, a number of books were published that took a critical eye to American society during one of its most prosperous periods.  Such books included The Organization Man (1956) by American sociologist William H Whyte, that critically analyzed the behavior of American corporate executives, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) by freelance writer and urban critic Jane Jacobs, that critiqued the contemporary design of urban centres and their effect on quality of life, and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1960), a book that inspired the environmental movement with its descriptions of the harmful ecological effects of certain industrial practices.  Growing Up Absurd (1956), Paul Goodman’s 300 page discussion of contemporary life and its effects on burgeoning masculinity in mid-century America may be added to this list, especially as it played a role in inspiring the radical 1960s.

Paul Goodman (1911-1972) was a radical leftist intellectual polymath who left behind a large body of literature when he died.  He was a prolific writer who had produced a number of works of fiction, drama and poetry.  Most of his work, however, was critical commentary and cultural analysis, on a myriad of subjects, delivered from a far-left perspective.  Goodman has been mentioned in Andrew Cornell’s article A New Anarchism Emerges as one of the writers who kept American anarchism vital during the mid-century period when far-left politics were at a low ebb in the United States.   Goodman wrote for a number of leftist magazines, publishing articles in which he discusses the mass media, sexuality, politics, social behavior, and the arts.  Out of Goodman’s large bibliography, Growing Up Absurd is probably his best known work, and the text that gave the author his reputation as a first-rate social critic.

In this book, Goodman identified a decline in the possibilities for young men in the United States during the 1950s.  Much of his analysis is focused upon what he considered to be the poor quality of employment positions that were available to young men at that time.  Goodman argued that, while a young man (the author operated under the presumption that masculinity was at stake, young women, according to the author, may still find life satisfaction in motherhood) may have opportunities open to them, the capacity for these opportunities to offer life satisfaction to them is nonexistent.  Many work occupations were/are unskilled or driven by business principles that empty them of their apparent usefulness because they become isolated from   Goodman's thesis for the text is that there were few avenues for an adult male to realize their masculinity in 1950s American society.

Goodman also argues that society has (essentially) become a machine of interactive mechanisms oriented towards production, and this has resulted in a withering of the aspects of life that once gave it meaning including community, education, and democracy.  Because Goodman was primarily focused on the effects of this society upon the quality of life for young men, he determined that delinquency, gang life (cf. Street Corner Society by William H Whyte for more concrete analysis of this social phenomena), and the arts (as represented by the Beats) became the major realms in which young men may find community and self-satisfaction.  That young men would turn to such outlets in order to feel useful is problematic to Goodman, however, who explains his sympathy to the need of youth to feel useful as they become adults, but also argues that such outlets in fact interrupt development and maintain the subject’s adolescent state.  

Goodman’s text basically predicted the youth culture of the 1960s.  Growing Up Absurd analyzed the socio-cultural conditions that gave rise to the Hippies, and what’s more Goodman’s political writings contributed to a body of far-left literature that influenced the New Left.  Goodman calls for a restructuring society oriented away from the technocratic strictures of isolated production towards the building of communities that enhance the experience of living.  It appears that many of the conditions Goodman described have continued, possibly even accelerated, where a division from work and community has lead into crises like the currently ongoing financial meltdown and a Graduate student bubble.  Numerous other crises of youth have emerged with the acceleration of the consumer society as individuals try to construct their identities based on brand associations and through image manipulations via social media.  All of this suggests that Growing Up Absurd can be read as a text that divined the cultural ground for the new social forms of the 1960s, but also that aspects of the text are still relevant as cultural analysis.




1 comment:

  1. I was so glad to come across your post! I am doing an independent study on Native American culture (specifically Lakota culture) and was considering using this text. You have made my mind up. I will definitely use it in my critique of America's interaction with this tribe. After your description, I am sure Growing Up Absurd will have all sorts of correlations with killing off Lakota culture as well.

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