Arlie Hochschild’s “Great Paradox”

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild has written a most interesting article on “the Great Paradox” of American politics in today’s Guardian. It really is worth paying some attention to, although with some caveats. For one thing, I understand something quite different by the word “paradox” than Hochschild (where it really means “self-contradiction”, or the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing), and for another “the Great Paradox” isn’t exclusive to American politics, but is symptomatic of the self-devouring, self-contradictions of the Late Modern Era more generally.

Still, her notion of the “deep story” that more or less unconsciously frames the terms of “debate” (such as it is) and is at the root of the present political rancour is an example of that “zombie logic” of which I wrote in the last post. The “deep story” is deep not because it is profound, but because it operates in the darkness.

Hochschild describes a “deep story” as follows

A deep story is a story that feels as if it were true. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel. Such a story permits those on both sides of the political spectrum to stand back and explore the subjective prism through which the party on the other side sees the world. And I do not believe that we understand anyone’s politics, right or left, without it. For we all have a deep story.

As you can see the deep story corresponds to what we call a “model” or metaphor. And you may note another thing that accounts for the self-contradiction: although the story “feels” right, it’s not scrutinised by consciousness as to its validity or appropriateness. “It removes judgement. It removes fact.” That is to say, thought and feeling are just not working together. In fact, they are pulling in opposite directions.

The story that Hochschild tested on her conservative informants, and which apparently resonated very deeply with them, has some peculiar features — the idea of everyone in a line or queue. Here is how Hochschild presents it.

The deep story here focuses on relationships between social groups within the national borders of the United States. I constructed this deep story to represent – in metaphorical form – the hopes, fears, pride, shame, resentment and anxiety in the lives of those I talked with.

You are patiently standing in a long line leading up a hill, as in a pilgrimage. You are situated in the middle of this line, along with others who are also white, older, Christian, and predominantly male, some with college degrees, some not.

Just over the brow of the hill is the American dream, the goal of everyone waiting in line. Many at the back of the line are people of colour – poor, young and old, mainly without college degrees. It is scary to look back – there are so many behind you, and in principle you wish them well. Still, you have waited a long time, worked hard, and the line is barely moving. You deserve to move forward a little faster. You are patient but weary. You focus ahead, especially on those at the very top of the hill.

The American dream is a dream of progress – the idea that you are better off than your forebears, just as they superseded their parents – and it extends beyond money and stuff. You have suffered long hours, layoffs, and exposure to dangerous chemicals at work, and received reduced pensions. You have shown moral character through trial by fire, and the American dream of prosperity and security is a reward for all of this, showing who you have been and are – a badge of honour.

The story continues, but here I want to highlight something about this story that is very characteristic of perspectivist consciousness. The line. Why is it a line and not a circle?

Of course, there is the hymn about “may the circle be unbroken”, but the theme of the line rather than the circle is not a trivial one. It’s rather fundamental. Would the political situation look different if the “deep story” was about the circle of life rather than an affair of queuing up?

Of course it would! Aboriginal cultures know nothing of the “line”, “the circle dance”, the circle of life is the principle theme. In perspective terms, however, we “hold the line” or “line up” or are “in line for a promotion” and so on, and  (immigrants, affirmative action candidates, etc) are despised as queue jumpers, for all the reasons Hochschild gives. However, in the line, there is no “vital centre”. The vital centre holds only for the circle or the sphere or the cross. The line, on the other hand, has a trajectory, which is “progress” until such time as it seems to stall or stagnate.

Hochschild’s “deep story” is very certainly connected with the perspectivist structure of consciousness and the notion of the “arrow of time”, which has become virtually an automatism or instinctual. Raising it into consciousness and examining it for its truth value, or lack of truth value, would be a Sisyphean task — in some ways like raising Hell. This “deep story” is the hegemonic idea  that holds awareness  in its grip, which constitutes the era’s “common sense” yet remains unexamined as to its validity. The result is the disintegration of feeling and reason, or “the unconscious” and “the conscious”, which begin to move in mutually antagonistic directions.

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