Sunday, October 27, 2013

Stranger and stranger

This past week's session of the New School History course worked especially nicely! Our period was the 40s and 50s, the main theme the school's place - as a place - in the city. The readings were Alfred Schütz's 1944 American Journal of Sociology essay "The Stranger"; the first four chapters of Anatole Broyard's Kafka Was The Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir (Vintage, 1997), a narrative of a vet's becoming a bohemian writer in the Village and The New School in 1946; and "Our Way of Life Makes us Miserable," a 1964 Saturday Evening Post essay by Erich Fromm. Each fascinating on its own, they also resonated with each other and with our class discussions in many delicious ways. Let me mention a half dozen of the most suggestive.

Broyard mentions taking classes from Fromm, whom he found pompous but also irresistibly magnetic. Fromm was one of the New School refugee scholars who added a touch of Weltschmerz to Broyard's generation's giddy exploration of the possibilities of postwar peace.
Fromm, we learn, tried to make his students aware of their own fear of freedom, something which made no sense to Broyard and his classmates, but they accepted everything he said ... because we liked the sound of it - no one knew then that we would turn out to be right in trying to escape from freedom (15-16).

Describing a class on Gestalt psychology (in which he claims to have heard a dead person sing), Broyard makes an interesting observation about the refugee scholars: It seemed to me that Germans were sometimes stunned into a kind of stupor by an ordinary insight, which they would then try to elevate into a philosophy or a system. Colliding with a modest fact in the midst of their abstraction, they just couldn't get over it. (17) This probably describes many a non-philosopher's response to philosophy! But it also resonates with Schütz' account of the cognitive experience of "strangers," who, new to an environment, don't share its denizens' almost thoughtless "thinking as usual." 502:
In fact "thinking as usual" tends to be incoherent and even contradictory as theory (500), but it's sufficient to the task of making a home in this world (so long as it doesn't change). Its recipes tell people how to respond to common types of situations as a matter of course - almost anonymously. The stranger, however, already reeling from the failure of his own culture's "recipes" to make sense of the new environment, sees the incoherence and contradictions in cultural patterns which he experiences not as a shelter but as a labyrinth, in which he has lost all sense of his bearings (507). In a spot-on phenomenology of what it is to be in a foreign culture, Schütz notes that the stranger can't distinguish individual from type: the observed actors within the approached group are not - as for their co-actors - of a certain presupposed anonymity, namely, mere performers of typical functions, but individuals. On the other hand, he is incined to take mere individual traits as typical ones. (506) So it's no wonder the stranger might stumble and even be vaulted into philosophy by what strikes a native like Broyard as an entirely ordinary insight or modest fact!

Schütz' essay "The Stranger" is one of his most influential but it has also had its critics. As I learned this past summer, his good friend Aron Gurwitsch (who joined The New School faculty after Schutz' death) found it so offensive he broke off their correspondence for a year. How could Schütz, a student of Husserl, sound so unphilosophical - suggesting that the goal of human life is to be at home, or find a way to be at home, in an incoherent "thinking as usual" that rarely rises to the level of thought, let alone philosophy? In its cool sociological-philosophical stance Schütz' essay does seem to pathologize the stranger's assimilation-complicating objectivity, which seems a problem for the host society as well as for its guest, not an opportunity for true thinking. Indeed Schutz observes that The doubtful loyalty of the stranger is unfortuantely very frequently more than a prejudice on the part of the approached group (507) since the stranger has made the fateful discovery that all "thinking as usual" is unreliable. We're surely not just talking about philosophers here, whose questioning you don't need to be Leo Strauss to think will never sit well with the thoughtless masses. Schütz's essay was published in 1944. Could he, ten years in America and starting to sound like an American pragmatist, have forgotten that one lethal strand of modern European anti-semitism was couched in precisely these terms? I want to learn more about Schütz, and about the New School exiles' views about the Jew as outsider condemned or blessed to objectivity, to be the critic and conscience of the world.

It turns out that Anatole Broyard is more than just another native, too. Through a process of self-invention described in part in Kafka Was The Rage, Broyard became an influential critic and book reviewer for the New York Times - one of the ultimate arbitrators of taste. But his was more than the familiar story of a kid from podunkville making it in New York. As even his children learned only after his death, Broyard was a Creole from New Orleans whose light skin allowed him to "pass" for white. Broyard's success in "passing" is hard to discuss (especially for me, who as a white man doesn't have to work to "pass" as a typical individual). It certainly raises powerful questions about the sacrifices demanded by assimilation. As I noted in a blog post a long time ago, it's hard now not to read works like Kafka Was The Rage as an account of losing a self as well as making one. The tragedy - and the comedy - of my story was that I took American life to heart with a kind of strenuous and ardent sincerity that young men usually bring to love affairs, Broyard wrote in the books' "Prefatory Remarks." While some of my contemporaries made a great show of political commitment, it seems to me that their politicizing of experience abstracted them from the ordinary, from the texture of things. They saw only a Platonic idea of American life. To use one of their favorite words, they were alienated. I was not. In fact, one of my problems was that I was alienated from alienation, an insider among outsiders. (viii) If the Jew was paradigmatic critic and conscience of Europe, what W. E. B. DuBois called African Americans' "double consciousness" affords a similarly prophetic burden of "objectivity" on this side of the Atlantic.

These are becoming little essaylets so I'm going to resist the temptation to do more than remind you of Broyard's odd claim, in response to Fromm's famous ideas in Escape from Freedom (or, in the British edition I was transfixed by in college, Fear of Freedom), that we would turn out to be right in trying to escape from freedom. By the time of his 1964 essay he had factored in how the threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction and consumerism exacerbated modern people's inability to assume responsibility for their situation, and for each other. Can we lead truly human, loving and reasonable lives as strangers to ourselves? Discuss!

Let me turn to the present, and to the world of our students. We started our lecture by asking them to help us assemble a typology of kinds of strangers. It being midterm, most were unconstrained by the terms of Schütz's discussion, but in its way this only made the resulting catalog more interesting. Here it is. (The last item was my addition.)

Once you've finished your mélange of Schütz, Broyard and Fromm, you might want to go through this list with our questions about the circumstances, anxieties and insights of strangers in mind. In my discussion group we had particularly lively discussion about 4, 7, 8, 12 and 13.

The main subject of our discussion, however - and here I will, I promise, end! - was students' reports on interviews they had conducted across the university in recent weeks. In pairs, they had been tasked to approach a fellow student and someone who'd been at The New School at least five years. What they found was intriguing in detail and in general - the divisions know little of each other, change produces anxiety, etc. And while my students mainly interviewed their Parsons instructors, they still learned that identity here is fluid - many faculty and staff members were New School students once or started teaching while students elsewhere, and many still are. But discussing this on the heels of our multifaceted exploration of strangers and The New School made something else clear to me too. Being a school of strangers (in all those senses of the term) is in our DNA. From the start, The New School sought out students who already had lives, and probably already had degrees (degree programs came very late in our story). Most of its faculty had appointments at other schools or careers as artists or professionals in their fields - a situation not that different from today where, despite the growth in full-time faculty like me, the majority of classes are taught by part-time faculty. This wasn't because of economic necessity (at least not in the initial scheme) but essential to the place The New School sought to be. Here people could become familiar with people they'd otherwise encounter only as strangers, could explore their own stranger selves as students or as teachers. This is part of what was subversive in the concept of "adult education," I suppose. It survives in our understanding of ourselves as an urban school with no campus of our own (with its attendant "problem of community"), as a place uniquely suited to help students develop the aptitudes, appetites and agility that will make for success in the complex and ever-changing world because they're already partly immersed in that world while here. Do we help people find multiple homes, or enable them to be strangers everywhere?

Do you hear it too? The discussions described in Broyard, and the charged encounters of worlds of fear and hope, echo on in our halls.

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