Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Culture of Excess

It's no coincidence, surely, given my current activities around the web, that this book should have come into my hands. It's called The Culture of Excess, by the clinical psychologist J. R. Slosar. His subtitle is "How America Lost Self-Control and Why We Need to Redefine Success." Readers of "The Buddha Diaries" and my new blog, "Persist: The Blog" will be aware that I put out this question via Facebook and Twitter, "If you're a creative person, how do you define success in this commercialized world?" And you will know, too, that I received an enormous amount of responses, comments, tweets--and quite a good deal of thanks for bringing up the question. It obviously reached a lot of people where they live.

There are an awful lot of us who are uncomfortable with the culture we have collectively created over the past century of our history. A great deal of that discomfort seems to turn outward, erupting in the form of almost willful ignorance and anger--a manifestation, perhaps, of the nature of that culture, and where the cultural trends have led us. For most of those who responded to my question, though--creative people, involved in one way or another in the arts--the discomfort tends to become introspective, a sense of frustration and bewilderment that centers around the conflict between the inherently generous act of making something and putting it out into the world, and the indifference or hostility with which it is too often received.

In The Culture of Excess, Slosar writes of a "cultural narcissism" that infects American society. "Today's sense of reality," he writes, "is characterized by immediacy, illusionary expectations, inflated self-concepts, a demand for a perfect image, and loss of privacy and access to our inner world." The drive to succeed, he suggests, brings along with it a disproportionate sense of self-entitlement and leads to the kind of disastrous arrogance we have seen recently in the financial industry. He traces the effects of its toxicity in every warp of our social fabric, from our religious practices and beliefs to our disagreements over health care and immigration policies, from our sports heros and pop idols to our education system, our self-destructive eating habits, our very identities and the way in which we construct them. Everywhere, this collective binge and worship of the self and its needs contributes to a growing ethical decay that threatens to undermine our contemporary culture and, worse, the future of our planet. Hence, as I understand Slosar's argument, the need to recover self-control and come to a healthier understanding of what we really need if we wish to be "successful" human beings.

What's needed, Slosar argues, is a transition from "Generation Me" to "Generation We"--a radical shift from traditional American thinking which has been rooted, since the origins of the country, in the supremacy of the individual. It has often struck me--and I think I myself have often argued, in The Buddha Diaries and elsewhere--that our obsession with individual rights has run amok. Perhaps it's my own European origins, but I believe strongly that there has to be a symbiotic relationship between the individual and society, and that the individual must give as well as take, must embrace responsibilities in the relationship, as well as demand rights. Looking around at the political stalemate and the refusal to compromise that characterizes our national life today, it's hard not to conclude that we have reached the end of the road so far as the "maverick" is concerned--or the "rugged individual"--and that we must all learn, left and right, to yield some part of our right-eousness if we are to move forward from this place. (I have often argued, with regard to the attacks on Obama from both left and right, that his attempt to find a rational Middle Way is exactly what we need; but I recognize that we may well destroy the man out of our own individual intransigence before the necessary work gets done.)

It's not a popular view. I'm not past rebelling against it myself, when it comes to compromising on some of my own deeply held beliefs. That's perhaps the natural human instinct. But we won't get anywhere if the current cultural climate persists, and I appreciate Slosar's efforts to point us toward some sanity in this world gone mad with self-adulation and self-entitlement, and to suggest ways in which this trend may be reversed. Indeed, must be. He brings to his writing not only the dispassion of a clinical approach to understanding human nature, but also the passion of one who seeks to make a difference. What he has written is not an "easy read"--though it's absolutely readable. It's a serious book, with all the formality of a serious academic study, including a myriad of footnotes. It will take time and patience to follow his carefully reasoned arguments, but time and patience, in this case, will surely be rewarded. His message is a deeply important one for our too often, regrettably adolescent minds!


Mark said...

Sounds spot on to me, regrettably. I think we experience the deep voids in our lives which SHOULD be filled with mutual understanding and deep, committed relationships with each other. Somehow we lost that along the way and we're just buying more and more stuff to try and fill that hole. It never works, but Mother Culture keeps whispering that lie into our ears. It's sad. Very, very sad. No wonder we're prescribing more anti-depressants than ever before.

On a lighter, more Earth-friendly note, I heard today from Eli (you remember him, no?) that the Hummer has been discontinued! That's at least a symbolic victory for those fighting for Earth's right to survive.

CHI SPHERE said...

Mother Earth will spit us up and send us right back to the caves we once huddled in if we don't reverse the non sustainable rush to artificially comfort a few while spilling the majority into the frying pan of debt that the Blankfein's of the lower world have heated up.

The BP Gulf spill defines the desire of the corporations to "Drill Baby Drill" at all costs using our "advanced technology". This is folly on the grandest scale. We are taring and feathering the world with selfish indifference while many wish to live and cooperate with nature by understanding that her body is our body.

Good riddance to the Emo in the psyche and welcome the compassionate humans who will strive to reverse "The world gone mad with commerce".

PeterAtLarge said...

Mark, yes, I do remember Eli. And yes, I had heard about the Hummer. I see fewer of them, these days, and am happy for that. A sign of smaller things to come?

Chi, good to hear from you, as always with wise insight. I have been thinking about that tarring and feathering, and how sad it is that we're simply tarring the feathered ones these days. I've been planning to bring that up. Maybe today...