Not much time lately to think or write--or read. But I was struck by A.O. Scott's piece in yesterday's NYT Magazine entitled "The Death of Adulthood in American Culture", and by Andrew O'Hehir's thoughts about it today in Salon. There is much in both pieces, but these paragraphs in O'Hehir's piece gets to the nub:
But to use Scott’s schema, the old-style masculine adult clearly thought of himself as productive first and foremost, even if (like Don Draper) he was actually a species of cultural parasite. The consumer, on the other hand, is a distinctly childlike figure, a dependent who demands pleasurable stimulus 24/7 from the comforting and/or imprisoning info-bubble around him. “The elevation of every individual’s inarguable likes and dislikes over formal critical discourse, the unassailable ascendancy of the fan, has made children of us all,” Scott writes. “We have our favorite toys, books, movies, video games, songs, and we are as apt to turn to them for comfort as for challenge or enlightenment.”
He is right that this happened, but he doesn’t appear to see (or doesn’t want to say) exactly how and why it happened. The suit-wearing, gin-drinking 35-year-old Organization Man of 1964 and the couch-bound, action-figure-collecting 35-year-old fanboy of 2014 are dialectical mirror images of each other, economic archetypes called forth by their respective eras. The freedom and autonomy each perceives in himself is better described by some other term, a force of compulsion or overdetermination (there’s the college Marxism again) that disguises itself as liberation from the stodginess of yesteryear. For better or worse, the “crisis of authority” Scott sees in contemporary culture is not a matter of “choosing” to emulate childhood long into adulthood, or to read J.K. Rowling instead of Philip Roth. (A choice for which I cannot blame anyone!) It’s the latest manifestation of the corrosive, creative and revolutionary force of capitalism, which may or may not be in terminal decline but continues to shape us into its instruments.
I don't think either writer defines adulthood in a way that resonates with me. I think for men being an adult has meant doing what it takes to get what you want. Isn't that essentially what the women's movement has been about, trying to accomplish a narrative in the feminine imagination where they can become adults too? It means not playing by the rules if the rules are an obstacle. It means being transgressive of society's arbitrary repressions grounded in left-behind religiously precriptions and proscriptions. This is the Liberation project that has defined western culture at least since the Enlightenment; it is a project to live one's life without any of the constraints of tradition, and consumer capitalism is its reductio ad absurdum.
But without the trellis of tradition, the soul has nothing to grow on, and instead sprawls aimlessly, and to be a consumer is just that: to sprawl aimlessly in the pursuit of infantile amusements. So yes, Scott is right, we live in a culture dominated by a consumer capitalist ethos that legitimates infantilism, and O'Hehir is right, that there isn't any essential difference between Don Draper and one of the idiots showcased on, say, "The Real Housewives of New Jersey". Both represent different style of infantilism, or what Kierkegaard called the despair of the aesthetic.
But I sense that whether Don Draper lives or dies, the writers are moving him in the direction of a kind of awakening to adulthood, which, to use K's scheme, is a movement into the Ethical, which requires making something other than your infantile desires worthy of your deepest commitment. That's the beginning of becoming an adult, when you are able to do something you don't want to do, not just because it's socially expected of you, but because you choose it because it's the right thing to do, even if it is indecorous. And that's always been true, whether now or a thousand or two thousand years ago. It's just that now there's no trellis; you have to figure it out for yourself. The adult, as I see him, is one who refuses sprawl and still finds a direction upward without a trellis to guide his ascent.