Powerful Books

Every once in awhile I read a book that comes to help shape how I look at life, my research and society.   Three books stand out as especially influential in that regard, and each has something in common: the author’s perspective and interpretation of what is happening in the world is very similar to my own.    So I am drawn to those books not because they change how I think (I would be worried if one book could change a lifetime’s contemplations about reality), but they speak in new ways to my already existing understanding of the world, stretching or altering it in subtle but real ways.

The first was Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality. The book crystallized for me how one can study and comprehend social reality through analyzing ideas and signified shared/understandings of reality,  without relying on beliefs on essential human nature or timeless modes of thought.   I read this book in 1987 (it was written in 1968).

The second was Chris Hedges’ War is a Force That Gives us Meaning, a short but powerful expose on war from a war reporter who had been in just about every major battle zone from the early eighties to 2001.   His brilliant and cutting analysis brought home the importance of the human element in understanding world events, and changed how I teach political science and approach research.   I found this book at Barnes and Nobels in 2002 shortly after it was published and bought it out of curiosity.

Tuesday I read Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm, first published 62 years ago in 1948.   Fromm is part of the Frankfurt School, and through the work of Horkheimer and Adorno I’ve already found myself drawn to their form of critical theory.   This neo-Freudian approach and especially Fromm’s connection of social processes to psychology is something I find compelling, and represents a necessary link between abstract social theory (liberalism, Marxism, etc.) which often ignores or assumes the psychological component, and my desire to understand social transformation and change.   Social theory is very good at predicting constant behaviors, but when something essential changes (like  the Cold War ends or the economy collapses) once dependable theories start to fail.

My last blog entry, Changes, asserts that the new media is generating an information revolution that will have as profound an impact on politics and society as did the rise of the printing press, which destroyed the medieval order and made modernity possible.   Where this is going, and how we might avoid chaotic and even violent change is a very difficult question, especially if our theories and ideologies are rooted in an era that is passing. We don’t have the tools to understand the new era coming.

I believe that elements of these three books will help guide my research.   How can we understand what is happening, and is it possible to avoid the chaos and violence which often accompanies fundamental social change?    The Berger and Luckmann book opens up the ability to de-naturalize the existing order and not see it as “normal.”  Humans very easily see their own culture as natural and far more coherent and consistent than it is.   All cultures have morphed and collapsed, the elders often horrified by what the youth are constructing.   To study this, we have to avoid the bias of seeing what we’ve experienced as “normal” and something almost certain to continue (or which normatively should continue), or as resulting from some fundamental human nature.

From Hedges I keep my focus on not just abstract theory or aggregations of outcomes, but on what things mean to individual humans, how life experiences are affected by change.    Hedges focused on war, but economic factors, cultural change, and all of what is happening hass very real and profound impacts on the daily lives of average people.   Hedges ended his book talking about Freud and the instincts of Thanatos and Eros, which is a good segue into Fromm.

Fromm essentially argues that modernity has increased negative freedom (freedom from), but by pushing back tradition, religion, and community — the old ties that bound one with the natural and social worlds — has created isolation and a sense of powerlessness.    Modernity produced the first true individual, but the cost of that was to strip people of meanings and senses of identity that gave comfort to existence.  People respond in different ways, but often try to escape this freedom and the anxiety of individuation by embracing authoritarianism, destructiveness, or dehumanizing conformity to social expectations.

I’ll write more on Fromm’s specific arguments soon.  However what I find intriguing is that these problems, which he ties to among other things the rise of fascism, essentially show how people are driven by psychology to irrationally embrace demagogues and ideologies out of fear.  It’s not just propaganda or evil manipulative leaders (or advertisers), but a consequence of the psychological dilemmas the modern age has fostered.   By pushing aside religion and tradition we’ve freed ourselves from past superstitions, but have not yet achieved the capacity to fully actualize positive freedom in a way that allows the development of a truly liberated and content individual.

Suffice it to say my project is moving in ways not anticipated last year, and starting to come together as meshing media studies, social constructivism and political psychology.    Given that my specialization is German politics and international relations, I’m finding this journey into new directions intellectually stimulating and, well, exciting!

  1. #1 by Mike Lovell on August 11, 2010 - 13:54

    Wow, now I feel undereducated by using the Calvin & Hobbes series as my life changing reads!

    • #2 by Scott Erb on August 13, 2010 - 01:23

      The theologian John Calvin and British Philosopher Thomas Hobbes certainly are worth reading…Seriously though, I love Calvin and Hobbes, it beats out Bloom County for my favorite all time strip. I used the characters for bed time stories, keeping them true to their personalities (even having Susie Derkins involved). That was genius!

  2. #3 by renaissanceguy on August 12, 2010 - 16:02

    I’m happy that your thoughts are finding more direction as you learn more. I applaud you.

    I find these things difficult to understand, although I am a bit above the Calvin and Hobbes level. As time has gone on, these kinds of theories become too complex for me to get a hold of. Simplicity is the spice of life for me.

    • #4 by Scott Erb on August 13, 2010 - 01:28

      Yeah, but I think there is a way to communicate the ideas without too much complexity. Still, I recall grad school when the first year I had seminars where I literally could not understand the articles we were reading, and had to struggle to learn the concepts. Then it started to click. I think learning social science/social theory is like learning mechanics. When a mechanic starts talking about my car and I hear words like “differential…carburetor…timing chain…blah blah” it’s way over my head and I end up muttering “yeah, OK, that makes sense” and tell him to fix it. I’m sure if I were to study it then things would fall into place after awhile. Because with a car, and more so with trying to understand how the world works, I think simplicity means a lot of stuff is being ignored or not analyzed.

  3. #5 by renaissanceguy on August 18, 2010 - 03:26

    Good point. Unfortunately our huge mass of knowledge makes us dependent on the experts, just as you, and I, are dependent on the mechanic.

    It’s not that I don’t want to know and understand the things that you write about; I just don’t want to take the time and exert the focus required to do it. Shame on me!

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