All in the Family

Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged
Christopher Lasch

Lately I’ve been thinking about feedback loops. I first encountered the concept in amplifier design. In that case you literally siphon off some output and direct it back to the input. If you do it right and the feedback is positive the result is a stronger, clearer signal.

Over in the Social Sciences building there’s quite a bit of feedback studying going on. Economists talk about signalling in both contract theory and, for the Austrian school, pricing. Either way you look at it, the process is analogous to a circuit and the response is fed back into the system resulting in price adjustments that optimize utility. Similar concepts exist in sociology and psychology.

So you can probably see why I believe that what media people choose to consume contains information we can analyze. There’s a whole Frankfurt School debate in this neighborhood that I’ll avoid because I’m less interested in the intersection of capital and creativity than I am in what choices tell us.

So let’s look at some choices made back  in the 1970s and 80s. Among the writers that had buzz, if not astronomical sales, was Christopher Lasch.  Lasch was a professor of history at the University of Rochester and among a certain sort of morose, middle-brow, would-be-intellectual his books sold. When I was in school the same folks, me among them, seemed to  always be clutching The Culture of Narcissism or The Denial of Death.

The first of those titles is, perhaps, Lasch’s best-known work. But it’s really the second work in a trilogy aimed at a broader public. Haven in a Heartless World  is the first in the series. The book was published in 1977; that I’m getting to it now demonstrates why I’m not a candidate to be an intellectual.

Lasch’s subject is modern society in all its technocratic, consumer-oriented glory. By the time he’s done neither the technocrats nor the businessfolk have been spared and that was always the problem for Lasch. The far left could revel in his dissection of how marketers of consumer products wormed their way in to the home and played family members against each, other all in the name of higher sales and profits. But there was no way Lasch was climbing on a barricade or signing on to the Marxist notion that the family ought to be abolished.

You might think that having done a good job of irritating both the free-market crowd and the ultra-Left that Lasch would be the belle of the mainstream Liberal ball. Another social critic might have gone down that path. Lasch’s genius was that once he’d seized on an analytical framework he applied it. Do that to the swarms of well-intentioned do-gooders churned out by schools of social work and education and the bureaucracies that arise to support them and they wind up looking no better than the marketers. Because just like the marketers they have their nose inside the business of the family and the individual in a manner he found deeply disturbing.  See for yourself:

Today, the state controls not merely the individual’s body but as much of his spirit as it can preempt; not merely his outer but his inner life as well; nor merely the public realm but the darkest corners of private life formerly inaccessible to political domination. The citizen’s entire existence has now been subjected to social direction, increasingly unmediated by the family…

If that sounds a little bit like Ron Paul you’ll understand why Lasch gave everyone fits.

It isn’t as though you can’t find problems in this book. Here’s one: an unrepentant Freudian, Lasch’s insistence that the preponderance of oral sex in pornography marks an immature culture sounds especially absurd today.  In a culture that extols aging, hipster doofuses should we really believe the telling mark is an absence of genital orgasms?

Still, he hits the mark more often than not. In a popular work full of scholarly footnotes (they really don’t write them like this anymore) Lasch convincingly demonstrates that for close to a century the family as a social institution has been under attack by business and the state. He lays out a persuasive enough case that a reasonable person, willing to reconsider their existing beliefs just might find a new way to look at things.

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