Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Tipping point

Alfred Schuetz' "The Stranger: An Essay in Social Psychology" is such a great text for "Seminar in the City"! Students prepared it for Monday's class, but we had so much fun with urban studies, including our own foray into Jane Jacobs' "sidewalk ballet," that we didn't get to it then. We turned to it today, after some discussion of the new and different experiences and orientations the refugee scholars of the University in Exile brought to The New School starting in 1933.

Schuetz (or Schutz, or Schütz) found his own way to New York in 1934, but became a central figure in The New School, bridging not only philosophy and the social sciences in a quite European way, but also bringing together the phenomenological tradition of Husserl (with whom he had studied) and the pragmatist thought of James and Dewey. The essay, published in 1944, doesn't speak from personal experience, but it must have resonated with the experience of many who found themselves at The New School in those years. (In its concern only with strangers seeking to become part of a new environment, it also fit with the public ethos of the refugee scholars during the war, who worked hard to reassure a xenophobic and often anti-semitic American public that they were not dangerous aliens, let alone agents of Germany.)

The central idea is that the cultural pattern of group life is experienced differently by insiders and outsiders, each of whom is oriented to a different objectivity. An actor, someone making a life in a culture, doesn't have and doesn't need a scholar's (or tourist's) view of his culture as a whole. Indeed, the knowledge of the man who acts and thinks within the world of his daily life is not homogeneous; it is (i) incoherent, (2) only partially clear, and (3) not at all free from contradictions. (500) This is because action is contextual and practical, and each situation has different - and limited - conditions of relevance. No quest for certainty is involved (502).

Indeed, the actor's awareness of relevant things is surrounded and enabled by a near-unawareness of everything else. It is the function of the cultural pattern to eliminate troublesome inquiries by offering ready-made directions for use, to replace truth hard to attain by comfortable truisms, and to substitute the self-explanatory for the questionable. (502) It consists not of theories but an unsystematized welter of recipes for effectively getting things done, but it is experienced as objective because of a certain abstractness:
(American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 49, No. 6 [May, 1944], 499-507: 505). Recipes work because they are shared by actors interacting with each other. [T]he objective chances for the efficiency of a recipe are the greater, the fewer deviations from the anonymous typified behavior occur, and this holds especially for recipes designed for social interaction (505)

The situation of a stranger is thus disturbing and discouraging at multiple levels. Unfamiliar with the new culture's recipes for typical interactions, he gets things wrong. But he also finds no ready answers to his questions about what's going on in this impenetrable culture, which are outsider's views, seeking and expecting general norms and rules. In this he shares the objectivity of a disinterested scientific onlooker of the social world (500), but it's not what he needs: the relevant objectivity here is pragmatist: what works? At the same time, his failures confront him existentially with the inadequacy of his own inherited recipes - which he hadn't had to recognize as mere recipes before. The cultural pattern no longer functions as a system of tested recipes at hand; it reveals that its applicability is restricted to a specific historical situation. (502) But the people in the culture he's trying to participate in don't know this of their world, or want to.

The process of assimilation is fraught and complicated in ways Schuetz' account opens up. He intends it to be a general account applicable in many situations, the immigrant ... The applicant for membership in a closed club, the pro- spective bridegroom who wants to be admitted to the girl's family, the farmer's son who enters college, the city-dweller who settles in a rural environment, the"selectee" who joins the Army, the family of the war worker who moves into a boom town (499). I think it illuminates the frustrations involved really well, and the particularly soul-sapping forms of discouragement and alienation, but offers no easy way to get beyond the problem - beyond, I suppose, experience in Dewey's classic sense: "trying" out a hypothesis and "submitting" to what happens next. Eventually one finds one's way into the frame of relevance of the desired cultural pattern, and its myopias.

Still, is he suggesting we need to find a way to shed the objectivity of the outsider or scholar to live? Schuetz' friend (and New School successor) Aron Gurwitsch was appalled at what looked to him like an attack on critical consciousness and, indeed, on the vocation of the philosopher itself (see #3 here). When I first researched this two years ago I reflected: Gurwitsch seems right to sense a kind of assimilationist fatalism in Schütz' account - it does not imagine that anyone might find herself a permanent stranger in a place, or even seek out such a status, even embrace it as an identity and a calling. At play, explicitly and implicitly, are weighty issues of the significance of exile, philosophy, civilization, culture, the everyday, the modern mass society typified by America, and - hidden in plain sight - the perhaps world-historic role of the Jewish outsider.

So many directions one might go... from the experience of what's now called "college transition" to the difference between academic and everyday understandings of things, from all the things celebrated as "critical thinking" to the a Deweyan understanding of "habits" as enabling rather than disabling new learning, etc. but I had time for only a few. So after a rousing discussion of an ideal example of a practice lacking in consistency, clarity and coherence - tipping - I turned our attention back to Jacobs. For Jacobs argues that the genius of cities is precisely the way in which it enlists "strangers" rather than "neighbors" in maintaining a space safe enough for flourishing. My friend J, who led the discussion of Jacobs last week, had mentioned that Jacobs' community of city strangers excluded a lot of people. (One could do an interesting analysis of it as a text in the creation and management of whiteness.) From Schuetz' vantage point, the "strangers" Jacobs celebrates have learned the recipe for safe street interaction. But how does one learn that if one isn't, well, from that kind of neighborhood?

Jacobs describes a scene where an unknown man appeared to be trying to coerce a young girl to go away with him. The street noticed, and moved toward them. It sounds like a scene from a western. That man did not know it, but he was surrounded. In the end, nothing happened. I am sorry - sorry for purely dramatic purposes - to have to report that the little girl turned out to be the man's daughter. (39) But Jacobs has powerfully conjured the power, the violence, of mob justice. Behind the "eyes on the street" lies violence. In 2015, I reflected, it's hard not to read that scene without being grateful nobody had a gun. And to think of all those killed (not just by police) because they look like the wrong kind of stranger, engaging in the wrong kind of typical behavior.

How do people learn to avoid dangerous deviations from the anonymous typified behavior accepted in a city (or anywhere else)? Important issues for the academy and beyond...

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