Growing Up Absurd

Growing Up Absurd

Growing up as a human being, a “human nature” assimilates a culture, just as other animals grow up in strength and habits in their appropriated environments, that complete their natures. Present-day sociologists and anthropologists don’t talk much about this process, and not in this way. Among the most competent writers, there is not much mention of “human nature.” Their diffidence makes scientific sense, for everything we observe, and even more important, our way of observing it, is already culture and a pattern of culture. What is the sense of mentioning “human nature” if we can never observe it? The old-fashioned naive thought, that primitive races or children are more natural, is discounted. And the classical anthropological question, What is Man?—”how like an angel, this quintessence of dust!”—is not now asked by anthropologists. Instead, they commence with a chapter on Physical Anthropology and then forget the whole topic and go on to Culture.

On this view, growing up is sometimes treated as if it were acculturation, the process of giving up one culture for another, the way a tribe of Indians takes on the culture of the whites: so the wild Babytribe gives up its mores and ideology, e.g. selfishness or magic-thinking or omnipotence, and joins the tribe of Society; it is “socialized.” More frequently, however, the matter is left vague: we start with a tabula rasa and end up “socialized” and cultured. (“Becoming cultured” and “being adjusted to the social group” are taken almost as synonymous.) Either way, it follows that you can teach people anything; you can adapt them to anything if you use the right techniques of “socializing” or “communicating.” The essence of “human nature” is to be pretty indefinitely malleable. “Man,” as C. Wright Mills suggests, is what suits a particular type of society in a particular historical stage.

This fateful idea, invented from time to time by philosophers, seems finally to be empirically evident in the most recent decades. For instance, in our highly organized system of machine production and its corresponding social relations, the practice is, by “vocational guidance,” to fit people wherever they are needed in the productive system; and whenever the products of the system need to be used up, the practice is, by advertising, to get people to consume them. This works. There is a man for every job and not many are left over, and the shelves are almost always cleared. Again, in the highly organized political industrial systems of Germany, Russia, and now China, it has been possible in a short time to condition great masses to perform as desired. Social-scientists observe that these are the facts, and they also devise theories and techniques to produce more facts like them, for the social-scientists too are part of the highly organ...


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