Assembly Required

Posted on May 6, 2013 by


“Assembly,” noun. First of all, a gathering, all of us here together. Convocation. Parliament.

The act of putting something together: assembly required.

The thing that is put together, parts considered as a whole: a mechanical assembly.

Many years ago, through their observations of “ordinary” Americans (this was the late 40s, so we’re mostly talking about white middle class men), David Riesman1 and his colleagues came to believe that a new sort of person was emerging whose character was qualitatively different than the sort of person who conquered the West and created the Industrial Revolution. The old style person was “inner-directed”: his2 sense of self derived mostly from his accomplishments, what he was able to do in the world. The new model was observed to be “other-directed”: his sense of self derived mostly from how his peers regarded him. The first sort of person had a life narrative: where he started, what he did. Was he honorable, moral, solid. The second sort of person instead managed a number of contexts — work, home, leisure — in which he performed a somewhat flexible self-creation where the goal was being liked, being perceived as a team player, what we would now call “brand management.” The self, they thought, had mutated from something you had then developed and expressed to something that you created then performed for the benefit of others. For the inner-directed, the other-directed man seemed like he lacked a core, sociopathic.

Character being thus seen as perpetually ambivalent and dynamic enters then into an absolute relativity where there are no truths other than the isolated truths of what each observer feels at each instant of his existence.

What is consequent therefore is the divorce of man from his values, the liberation of the self from the Super-Ego of society. The only Hip morality (but of course it is an ever-present morality) is to do what one feels whenever and wherever it is possible, and — this is how the war of the Hip and the Square begins — to be engaged in one primal battle: to open the limits of the possible for oneself, for oneself alone because that is one’s need. Yet in widening the arena of the possible, one widens it reciprocally for others as well, so that the nihilistic fulfillment of each man’s desire contains its antithesis of human cooperation. — Norman Mailer, “The White Negro,” 1957

(I’ll get back to that, I promise.)

In their books, Riesman and his colleagues advanced a number of potential explanations for the shift. For a lot of people, the nature of work changed: people were, overall, less engaged with making things and more engaged with managing people in one way or another. When, as in Joseph Heller’s brilliant Something Happened (1974), you spend your day managing salesmen who themselves are managing clients who themselves are buying advertising to create and manage customers, your self and your relationships become the main product of your labor. Then you go home, or to the golf course, and do pretty much the same things. That is, people become the main problem you have to solve each day, and you develop a self that facilitates doing that.

A second explanation, not in conflict with the first, observes that the rise of mass media suddenly put individuals into immediate contact with many more people than before. In their example, a child wants to take up piano, say. The child takes lessons, practices, and ultimately performs for his or her friends. Immediately, the friends comment, perhaps favorably, that his or her playing sounds “just like Horowitz”; the child’s efforts are immediately placed in a very large context for evaluation, making it difficult to individuate one’s art, or (for that matter) feel successful at it. Of course, you can’t really blame the friends: the child pianist is no doubt already doing it him- or herself. The self is produced in sympathy and tension with mass-marketed models.

One of the things Reisman et al. observed in their studies was how important music had become to young people. Listening to records and discussing artists were found to be major activities in groups of teens. In order to succeed in being a member of the group, it seemed that being able to articulate the right preferences in music was crucial. To achieve high status in the group, the key skill was to be able to pick tunes or artists that had not yet been identified as “cool” by the group, but were consistent enough with the group’s preferences that they could be accommodated. You could call it pre-conforming if you wanted, and it remains the essence of being cool.

Now consider the problem of making a self in mass society: Anything you might want to do has already been done, millions of times, by people who are better than you are at it. You can ape your heroes, or parody them, or pointedly refuse to excel like they do but do what they do anyway. Or, you can become an expert consumer, assembling bits of mass-produced products into your own unique presentation. You pick various bits of clothing from the stores at the mall, or the thrift shop, and put them together for your look. You get Jennifer Anniston’s haircut, or shave your head like the Rock. You read science-fiction, or listen to metal, or do sports, but you put a little personal twist on it — you liked [band name] before they went mainstream, or read some obscure 70s novels. Just to differentiate a little, give it a little edge.

We assemble a self. We curate.

So that’s the project.

1 The Lonely Crowd, 1950 (back)
2 I think women were, in the main, always other-directed. (back)

You are connected to Eunoia Solstice, a web-magazine curated by Jason Quinn Malott, Eric Jenkins, and Stephen McClurg. “Assembly Required” is my twice-monthly column concerning free improvisation, folk music, the apocalypse, and the self in contemporary society. Check out some of the other stuff on offer. Come back soon!