December 13, 1999
Volume 52, No. 15
Books in Review:
For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today
Jedidiah Purdy, Knopf 1999
Reviewed by Michael McQuaide
With his text For Common Things, Jedediah Purdy joins an increasingly long list of scholars who fear that the fabric of American society is fraying in ways which threaten everyone's well-being. Using the TV character Jerry Seinfeld as his illustrating model, Purdy focuses on what he defines as a clear and present danger posed by a refusal to acknowledge that almost all of our actions have either direct or indirect public consequences. The consequences of this blind spot mean that we lose sight of how our actions and values have a real impact on others. Hence the title For Common Things.
The sort of irony that the text describes is best summarized early in the book. "Irony makes us wary and abashed in our beliefs. We do not want the things in which we trust to be debunked, belittled, torn down, and we are not sure that they will be safe in the harsh light of a reflexively skeptical time."
In other words, "We practice a form of irony insistently doubtful of the qualities that would make us take another person seriously; the integrity of personality, sincere motivation, the idea that opinions are more than symptoms of fear or desire. We are wary of hope, because we see little that can support it. Believing in nothing much, especially not in people, is a point of vague pride, and conviction can seem embarrassingly naïve."
And of the causes of this skepticism? If we listen carefully to the frequently pseudo-hip conversational styles that prevail today, we may discern the relentlessly anti-intellectual and cynical voice of the mass media in general and television in particular. A heavy reliance on television to define both our time and our selves degrades the value of rationally articulated language and substitutes an emerging contempt for politics, serious ideas and the public life.
Typically, cynicism is arrived at after a long period during which one's values and aspirations are repeatedly violated. In one context, cynicism is the next stop after crushed idealism. Purdy suggests that before the current, postmodern period, cynicism was more typically the domain of people who had undergone sufficient disappointments that left them disaffected and fatalistic.
Current social conditions produce circumstances, according to Purdy, that create cynicism at progressively younger ages. Rather than segue into disaffected irony during middle age, there is an increasing tendency to emerge from adolescence into young adulthood already burdened by the alienating effects of a cynical worldview. Purdy is less concerned with the origins of this sort of facile sarcasm (his definition of "irony") than he is with its many consequences. Purdy takes clear aim at this form of "idiot culture" ("Idiot" coming from the Greek word for someone who does not participate in public life). The irony described is an effort to block disappointment by resisting serious ideas. The dilemma of living in an increasingly complex and brutally fast-paced world tends to produce the opposite of fundamentalism. Rather than reduce life to a set of fundamentals, the ironist believes in nothing. In place of the "idiot culture," he advocates a grass roots embrace of the public good that provides for the well-being of the individual.
Purdy does not specifically address his text to an academic audience, but the issues he explores have significant implications for us as members of the educational community here at Emory. In our disparate roles within this intellectual village, we encounter students in a variety of contexts as they pursue a broad array of goals. What unites all of us is our enduring desire to create circumstances that allow our students to become better versions of themselves. The most important dimension of that task is a striving to cultivate traits and values in our students that make them fit for their adult roles. Independent of our respective areas of expertise, we can and should acquaint our students with the inescapable fact that their work will contain consequences that will be both immediate and distant, transparent and opaque, private and public.
Purdy's plea is for us to make visible to our students the apparently invisible connections that constitute the "public good," upon which rest all of our private aspirations. The task of infusing our students with a renewed sense of belonging to a broadly defined public community will be a challenging one. Many Americans believe that macro-level politics has failed to change the world by improving communities. This is particularly true of the media-savvy young adults from whom we draw our students.
The belief that politics and public service are no longer the engine that powers human progress helps to explain the current emphasis on changing one's self. If we perceive that it is not possible to make substantial modifications in the world, then efforts will collapse back onto an increased focus onto one's self. This makes more likely the emphasis on the private rather than the public realm. This fact helps us to understand why some students eschew politics for the highly individualized pursuits of the various self-help movements so present in contemporary society. Our task might be to reintegrate the emphasis on the self into an awareness of and commitment to the public good.
Purdy's contribution to this project takes a variety of forms. He shows us the problem, elaborates on its consequences and explores ways of tying together the private and public aspects of life. He performs the last function most precisely in the chapter titled "The Practice of the Public."
For Common Things is a thoughtful contribution made by a relatively young man; Purdy was 24 when he wrote this book. Woven throughout the 200 pages are many insights relevant to our tasks both as members of an educational community and as citizens of the society at large.
Michael McQuaide is a professor of sociology at Oxford College.
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