The Fracture of the American Will: The Rise of Ersatz Adulthood

By Dr. Joseph Kramp

 

Introduction: Identity Crisis in American Society

My approach to understanding adolescent identity formation crises and attending anxiety and apathy begins with assessing the writings of Jon Pahl (1992) and Joseph F. Kett (1977), two American historians with interests in American youth. In my estimate, these scholars’ writings show how the intergenerational conflict between youth and adults has evolved from one originally cast strictly in religio-political terms to one that can now be interpreted through the psychological theory of Erik H. Erikson. Pahl and Kett argue that youthful initiative and autonomy were originally negotiated through the means of religious debates over freewill or political discussions regarding personal sovereignty. Kett indicates that Erikson’s work can be seen as a successor to analyzing this conflict, first done by psychologists such as G. Stanley Hall and Edwin Starbuck, who studied the religious conversion experiences of early American youth: “Take away the gibberish of the first generation of religious psychologists…and there emerges a psychological viewpoint in some way similar to Erik H. Erikson” (Kett 1977, 80). This conflict between the generations exacerbates and highlights the early life cycle struggles of American youth in the following stages: basic trust vs. mistrust, autonomy vs. shame and doubt, initiative vs. guilt, industry vs. inferiority, and identity vs. identity confusion. In this article, I am primarily focused on autonomy vs. shame and doubt.

The term “intergenerational crisis” belongs to Erikson, who used it to indicate that adults and youth contest the temporal space leading up to adult commitments of work and family life, for during this time period adolescents begin to make commitments to the future society and adults rightly believe they play an important role in this future development. Nevertheless, Erikson correctly labeled this process a conflict or crisis because adolescent desires and wishes are often thwarted or considered deviant; their hoping mechanisms are threatened in such situations and, along with that, the future health and stability of society. In such situations, it is quite possible that the negative identity of a given youth could become totalized.

In this article, I argue that American youth have been given progressively less room to negotiate or battle in the intergenerational crisis, losing their ability to assert themselves and as such failing in the critical life cycle stage of autonomy vs. shame and doubt. This failure has had grave consequences on American leadership and the ability of American citizens to reach adulthood, as well as assume the responsibilities and commitments that such a developmental accomplishment includes.

Assessing Pahl

Studying the intergenerational conflict begins with questions concerning hoping mechanisms along with the freedom and strength of the will, the first two attending virtues that Erikson assigns to the first and second life cycle crises. Pahl’s (1992) Paradox Lost analyzes the theological debate over freewill occurring in the newly established American colonies between 1630 and 1760. For Pahl, debates over the role of divine providence and human agency were so common and important to the life of the early colonies because “the settlers had to define for themselves whether their own wills were free, and how that freedom could extend in the process of building new communities” (xii). While theological debate over freewill will likely always be a topic discussed and analyzed in learned theological circles, it ceased after this period to be so central to discussion in public life.

Regardless, the psychologist of religion who peruses this text inevitably wonders at the size of this crisis of will in the colonies and its relationship to the emerging political development of the nation and how the nation would define itself. Additionally, the psychologist of religion notes that the crisis of will in Erikson’s epigenetic cycle is located in early childhood-a fitting, if poetic, description of the young nation. Finally, crises of the will are inevitably tied to childrearing practices, which impact the future adaptability of the country’s populace.

The cessation of public theological debate over freewill occupied Pahl’s attention as he closed his book. He argues that the religious concerns of the early American colonists have been transformed into different concerns or debates in American public life, yet continue to contribute to our understanding of personal and social liberties (1992, 173-176). For Pahl, these debates always are religious in their origins and meanings-if not ostensibly so. Pahl’s concern with this is evident in his closing remarks on civil religion in America where he argues that American self understanding and American “attempts to shape political history” (174) are irreparably guided by religious views of American destiny-this interest would ultimately culminate in Pahl’s masterpiece, Empire of Sacrifice (2010).

In Pahl’s (2010) Empire of Sacrifice, he analyzes some contemporary horror films and labels the production and consumption of them as religious. One is forced to at least give a brief defense of why such a set of actions, attitudes, perceptions-even beliefs, should fall under the common name of “religion.” Pahl’s (2010) defense amounts to the following:

The violence in these films deserves the name “religious” if anything does. These depictions of violence are as “primitive” as anything one can find in the literatures or practices of ancient societies, and they serve equally primitive functions…. These films condense and displace desire, wasting it in “reel” time in ways that prepare participants to accept the truncation of desire or its channeling into “suitable” paths in real time. (54)

For Pahl (2010), the transgressive acts committed by young actors in horror films are done in order to “create an excess of youthful desire, transgressive and troubling, and then represent such desires on the screen in order to contain them [my emphasis]” (39). Gender norms are also inscribed: “An equation of manhood with the willingness to endure, or undertake, violence is all but explicit” (41). Pahl also views the production of these films, supervised by government representatives and private businesspersons, as “critical to [the process of] socialization of youth to accept violence as a part of the culture” (38). Therefore, Pahl identifies a set of ritual coordinators, a ritualistic consumption where desire is contained and deployed in set ways by a specific group, and a set of practices and idealizable figures for this specific group (youth) to admire, emulate, and formulate their self and gender identity upon.

This argument is especially convincing when considering the ways in which Pahl’s (1992) Paradox Lostsupports his argument in Empire of Sacrifice (2010). In both cases, Pahl argues that a heightened surveillance over youth’s development inhibits their sense of hope, will, and obstructs their developing sense of purpose by instead imposing a quite limited sense of developmental possibilities. Pahl attributes the ever-gnawing sense of public despair and anxiety to this excess oversight and calls this controlling behavior religious for its rituals of initiation and process of execution. Pahl’s more inclusive identification of phenomena as “religious” is consistent with other major works in the field of psychology and religion, a discipline which has historically been comfortable with defining manifestations of religion in a broad and inclusive sense. Donald Capps indicates this in his (2001) Freud and Freudians on Religion, which surveys a number of notable psychologists of religion: “These dimensions [of defining religion] are not exclusive but inclusive…. By and large, the authors included in this text would not be uncomfortable with [a] more inclusive view of religion” (4-5).

In addition to Pahl’s descriptions of the religious dimensions of the contemporary horror film genre designed for youth, it is additionally important to point out the ways in which important emotions are displaced through identification with actors on the stage. While Pahl repeatedly uses the word “desire” to describe the process of displacement, it is important to be more nuanced with this terminology. For example, these films potentially bring some temporary respite for youth suffering from mild to extreme forms of paranoia as Pahl’s descriptions of the movies are clouded with suspicion of who will die next and where the killer will come from. Coupled with the temporary respite would perhaps be feelings of confirmation that one is justified in having their paranoia, as the division between reality and fantasy dissolves in the contemporary teen horror film.

It is hard to accept the idea that youth would gladly accept a culture of violence, without the skillful psychological manipulation that Pahl describes, coupled with the youth’s sense of despair that their own perspective and exercise of will hardly matters in such a competitive world, where an American success ideology has a large stake in the identity development of youth.[1] Anxiety over one’s future, rage or anger and apathy over the loss of one’s power over controlling one’s future and destiny are feelings that are potentially heightened in the scenario Pahl describes. This would be due to the loss of autonomy and will, though instead of developing any kind of self reflection over this psychosocial crisis, the films Pahl describes encourage youth to simply conform to the mores that brought these circumstances of powerlessness about. The anxiety, anger and apathy which youth identify with in these films are normalized and such painful feelings are touted as essential for survival. A blurred gap between fantasy and reality in the films serves to further normalize a viewer’s identification with the extremely destructive scenarios on screen.

According to Pahl (2010), the blurred gap between fantasy and reality allows for “the marketed operation of violence under an illusion of purity and innocence” (47). If this is accepted, then Pahl (2010) argues that “the truly ‘American,’ if not imperial, and the truly ‘religious,’ if hardly sacred, quality of these films has been realized. They produce domination ‘innocently’ (47). While Pahl examines other marginalized populations, he argues that adolescents or youth are most vulnerable because they have “the fewest material resources at their disposal to resist them” (37). Material or financial resources are, therefore, very important to Pahl’s understanding of the problem. Material resources at this stage in identity development provide the youth with access to a wide array of psychosocial moratoriums. Limiting such moratorium possibilities, such as higher education, further strains or exacerbates the adolescent crisis of will.

Pahl subsequently identifies American youth as also psychologically vulnerable to the appeals of the horror films. Pahl (2010) states this in passing, describing the lack of interest among historians related to the “ongoing religious valorization, if not anxiety, attached to the coming-of-age process in America” (38). Pahl’s analysis in both his (1992) and (2010) works is aptly described as an example of a culturally experienced loss of historic virtues or values and symbols, since this religious valorization and anxiety was managed in earlier periods in different ways, but originally through theological debate over the freedom of the will, as Pahl shows in his (1992) Paradox Lost. When both of Pahl’s works are observed together, we can see that over time, youth’s development came under increasing surveillance and the process by which youth were able to express their will declined. The cultural ideals and symbols that encouraged debate over free expression, conditioned by one’s commitment to one’s neighbors and community, were slowly lost. Pahl’s chapter on horror movies portrays a society that has entirely supplanted such debate over free expression with active subversion and attempted coercion of youth’s free expression, in the hopes of conditioning conformity to contemporary mores of the success ideology or social Darwinism.

Since this loss of public debate has not been replaced with any other forms of cultural supports to constructively manage the intergenerational crisis, Pahl’s work shows that a symbolic loss or loss of historic virtue or values has occurred and continues to be experienced by youth whose autonomy and will are threatened. The American cultural religion identified by Pahl shows that the founding, once cherished ideal of individual liberty is currently at risk in a society that struggles to differentiate between fantasy and reality. This symbolic loss or loss of historic virtue has been replaced with, among other things, an entertainment industry that, according to Pahl, socializes adolescents to accept violence in the culture as well as the loss of personal will, autonomy, or agency. This is the critical and contemporary problem with identity formation in American youth.

The values of social Darwinism that have replaced the historic ideals of assisting youth in their identity formation have encouraged youth to accept a culture of victimization or blame, gross personal entitlement, and vacuous pursuit of financial gain irrespective of the meaning behind such pursuit. In this process, youth fail to develop an identity that accepts personal responsibility, enjoys the process of constructively asserting one’s sense of agency, and as a result fails to assist the larger society in adapting to contemporary problems. Youth, in other words, remain youth-unable to accept adult responsibilities or engage in personally meaningful work or spiritual practices, even with the passage of time.

 

Assessing Kett

The thrust of Kett’s (1977) scholarship is in harmony with Pahl-both view American youth’s development as increasingly marked by, in some cases, paralyzing oversight. Also, in the nineteenth century and before, students were regularly treated by teachers with outright acts of physical abuse and humiliation; Kett only notes that this began to change closer towards the twentieth century when “school reformers committed themselves to a system of discipline based on ‘moral suasion’ instead of corporal punishment and humiliation” (129). Still, for Kett, humiliation remained central to the ethos of American education and guidance of youth to the point that, in some cases, it was debilitating.

Kett argues that this has had a lasting effect on the life cycle development of aging Americans, many of who have been unable to enter into adult commitments. Kett argues for a “less pernicious version of adolescence” that would “sanction the isolation of youth from adult roles not because such roles ‘tempt’ or ‘corrupt’ the young but because they fail to provide scope for freedom and spontaneity” (272). This is precisely what Erikson has suggested with his concept of psychosocial moratorium: it would allow for smoother transition throughout the life cycle, and grant successful transformation of symbolic loss or loss of virtue, which assists society in adapting to contemporary needs for leadership and direction.

More recent scholarship supports Kett’s argument that humiliation was and is still present in American education and culture, if only in the form of acceptance of a culture of expertise. Hedges’ (2009) Empire of Illusion argues that humiliation has become central to the ethos of American education, as television teaches that “life…is a brutal world of unadulterated competition” (30) and that education professionals rely on a “private dialect that is a barrier to communication” (97). Examples of such private dialects abound and are witnessed in our contemporary emphasis on expertise and specialization. One is not really allowed to speak or hold supportable beliefs unless one specializes in that particular area. Hedges (2009) uses the issue of the economy as an example-the specialized languages used to describe market behaviors such as “deleveraging” or “credit default swaps” (97) function to exclude non-specialists from debating these issues. Nevertheless, competency to engage in these debates and others is crucial to democratic participation and constructive use of one’s personal will or agency. When such terminology is untranslatable to others, it is used to conceal meaning-even shame one’s listeners.

The brutal world of unadulterated competition enters the way in which we speak and process complex issues, intentionally excluding potential opposing viewpoints but also discouraging public intellectuals from creatively challenging viewpoints on the grounds that one is not a specialist in that area. Such a structure prohibits broader, systematic reflection that societies of the past have depended upon for their collective well-being. Examples of this would be any socially conscious novelist or speaker, such as Emerson, Dickens, or Franklin.

Educated professionals, like contemporary youth, are socialized and educated to speak and live in accord with a very narrow social role. In such an environment, one’s sense of agency or will is reduced and the mechanism of humiliation often unwittingly becomes a tool one uses to squelch opposing viewpoints or even creative agreement that might advance one’s ideas. In both cases of youth and educated professionals, one’s education becomes a process of accepting narrow, conforming roles in a complex society and one’s sense of creative personal agency or will is elided. Education, in both cases, becomes a tool to foster conformity and specialized knowledge rather than creative interpretation of larger social forces and connections that fosters understanding and human connection. A vicious process ensues where specialized knowledge no longer is a tool for self and collective understanding, but rather a tool to be used to present vacuous ideas and relentlessly oppose potential opposition. Such a process is justified by the social Darwinism that has contaminated American education.

The ways in which adolescents experience humiliation impacts the way in which they would think about their rights or the fairness of the world they inhabit; this impacts the second life cycle crisis of autonomy vs. shame and doubt. As Capps (2008) writes: “For autonomy to flourish, one must be able to believe that one’s social world is based on justice” (28). Kett (1977) notes that since students of the early republic were exposed to adult political concerns at an early age, they also invoked their human rights in the face of physical abuse and humiliation (59). This is where Kett’s scholarship supports Pahl’s argument that the loss of religio-political debates over freewill in the colonies has been replaced with an ethos of ruthless competition that undergirds American religious beliefs in a superior destiny. The psychosocial development of American youth has been obstructed in this process, making adaptability exceedingly difficult at each stage of the life cycle crisis and in the possibility of transforming the symbolic loss of individual, cultural and communal ideals. Such transformation is essential both for individual success in identity formation and communal adaptation to the exigencies of contemporary life.

Adults and youth have always contested the process by which youth assume an identity and take on adult roles. For Kett and Pahl, this contest has grown particularly insidious in recent decades, as youth’s development is observed and guided with increasing surveillance to encourage conformity to the ideals of social Darwinism or a success ideology described earlier. This truncation of youth’s will is identifiable as an experience of symbolic loss or loss of cultural ideals or virtues, which compounds the challenge of identity formation.

Conclusion: Ersatz Adulthood and the Fracture of American Will

There is perhaps no place better to observe developmental failure than in American public life. With the loss of autonomy or will comes a loss of trust in authority, which is certainly an apt way to describe the age we live in. Such authorities, civic or otherwise, stripped of their own autonomy and will, find it impossible to live with abiding commitment to the personal and professional codes they have based their life’s work off of. They therefore remain in an adolescent stage of development, even as they physically age and even bear the cultural insignias of accomplishment that over time mean less and less to the very children they work to keep as children, so as to assert control. Such “men” and “women” perform their “masculinity” or “femininity” well at times, often on an as-needed basis-they often specialize at appearances and performances but when their developmental capacities are tested they have little to show. Whatever marks of adulthood they may fleetingly show are, thus, ersatz.

A disastrous spin of corrosive behaviors and attitudes ensues from this state of affairs: gross entitlement on the part of citizens, while leadership fails to believe it has much of any kind of control of the nation’s state of affairs. As a result, victimhood is ubiquitous: CEO’s whose companies are responsible for massive natural and financial disasters blame others for the cause of these problems, leaders of nations blame the slow plight to justice on due process-further weakening the very cultural ideals and symbols that their office and functioning rests upon. A picture develops from this of an entire world drowning and, not knowing how to swim, clinging onto the person nearest them to drag them down to the deep. In order for any kind of democratic republic to emerge from such disaster, it will take leadership that is radically committed to the founding principles of liberty, an acute awareness of how those principles have been threatened, and a keen sense of the threatened emotional or psychological life of oneself and their neighbors.

References

Capps, Donald. 2001. “Introduction.” In Freud and Freudians on Religion, edited by

Donald Capps, 1-7.

—–. 2008. The Decades of Life: A Guide to Human Development. Louisville and

London: Westminster John Knox Press.

Currie, Elliott. 2004. The Road to Whatever: Middle Class Culture and the Crisis of

Adolescence. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Erikson, Erik H. 1969. Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Non-Violence. New

York and London: W.W. Norton & Co.

Hedges, Chris. 2009. Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and The Triumph of

Spectacle. New York: Nation Books.

Kett, Joseph F. 1977. Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America 1790 to the Present.

New York: Basic Books.

Pahl, Jon. 1992. Paradox Lost: Free Will and Political Liberty in American Culture,

1630-1760. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

—–. 2010. Empire of Sacrifice: The Religious Origins of American Violence. New York

and London: New York University Press.

Notes

[1] A number of authors have critiqued this “success ideology” including, but not limited to, Erikson (1969, 38), Pahl (2010, 35-62), and Currie (2004, 255). Other authors have called it “social Darwinism” or “the pragmatic worldview” but regardless, each of the authors are attempting to describe a prevailing American ethos of ruthlessness undergirded by financial pressures to perform or behave in a certain way and to tolerate or enact violent behaviors. Each of these authors are particularly concerned with this because it retards psychosocial development and slowly destroys the historic communal values of democratic society.

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