Vitality Rages Against the Machine

From The Wall Street Journal:

“All history is the history of longing,” Jackson Lears has written. In four major works, ranging across subjects as varied as advertising, gambling and the search for grace, his gaze has turned to one form of longing in particular: our desire to escape the iron cage. That metaphor, as used by Max Weber, illustrates our modern predicament. Progress has left us mired in bureaucracy, disenchanted by science and severed from the nonhuman world.

According to Mr. Lears, the period between the Civil War and World War I was when the cage snapped shut. “Rebirth of a Nation” (2009), his study of American life in those years, traced how the modern corporation organized everybody’s lives for maximum productivity, depriving us of our full, messy humanity. Our longing to regain our freedom peeks through all of Mr. Lears’s books, sometimes in unexpected places. The craps table might be unsavory and slot machines addictive, but in “Something for Nothing” (2003), his book about the culture of chance, Mr. Lears suggested that they are also useful tools for rebelling against “the modern utopian fantasy of the systematically productive life.” Bucking the system this way, bashing against the bars of our cage, satisfies a deep human craving, though not one that tourists think they’re going to Las Vegas to assuage.

Now, in his fifth book, this note of longing at last finds full voice. In “Animal Spirits: The American Pursuit of Vitality From Camp Meeting to Wall Street,” Mr. Lears offers a direct challenge to what he calls “the official conceptions of what America was (and is) all about”—which, to again evoke Weber, is the perspective of the guy holding the key to the cage. According to this positivist view, we are efficient workers doing efficient jobs in a world where nothing enchanted or spooky or even particularly irrational is going on. Mr. Lears unfolds, in abundant detail, another tradition. For generations, a few bold souls have thought, or preached, or simply lived out a defiant conviction: There is no cage.

. . . .

The huge-and-elusive-ness of Mr. Lears’s subject arrives before you even open the book. The phrase “animal spirits” is fiendishly tricky: an unstable compound of two unstable words. “Animal,” in this context, originally meant “animated,” as though a person received a spark or push from some invisible power. But in the last few centuries, the word has developed a different usage, referring to nonhuman creatures. “Spirit,” for its part, originally meant “breath” or “respiration.” But it, too, has taken on a new meaning, shedding its physiological origins to connote something ethereal: a soul.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

3 thoughts on “Vitality Rages Against the Machine”

  1. According to Mr. Lears, the period between the Civil War and World War I was when the cage snapped shut.

    Because, of course, life in age before the Civil War was all sunshine and rainbows.

  2. Mr. Lears’ image of a cage door snapping shut in the period between Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and the quite fortuitous sinking of the Lusitania is a striking one, and brings to mind the assertion that the passage of the 1883 Civil Service Act birthed what a disreputable handful of cranks and malcontents have come to call the American Deep State.

    • The problem is not in how people obtain the positions they hold, whether through the old “spoils” system, or the modern Civil Service laws and regulations – it’s in the existence of the positions in the first place.

      I’ve gone back and forth with a few people who are enthused by President Trump’s pledge to reclassify many Federal workers to allow them to be fired. That will be of little benefit, unless the position – and every position under that one, root and branch – is eliminated. The fired bureaucrat will simply be replaced by another one, who might be more, the same, or less efficient in wielding their powers. Powers that no Federal worker should have in the first place.

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