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Mental labor and the cultural work of agency panic (1).

In the last twenty years historians and cultural analysts have thoroughly reconsidered the meaning of the 1950s. Once (mis)-understood as a time of suburban anomie and Cold War anxiety and, at the same time, nostalgically, as a golden moment of prosperity and consensus, the postwar period now appears well-fraught in the literature. In this context, it's fair to ask if the field really needs one more book self-avowedly reinterpreting the "mainstream fiction" of the 1950s, even one that persuasively corrects the influential claims of Thomas Hill Schaub and Morris Dickstein that mid-century literature "abandoned the economic for the psychological" (1). On first glance, Hoberek's book appears merely to extend this fundamental rethinking of the postwar period. But, in my mind, one of the least expected results of the decentering of the experiences of the Organization Man in postwar accounts has been the ability to see what once appeared to be an objective description of mid-century American society as an class-specific effort by members of the professional-managerial class to claim a universalizing authority to shape society to their imperatives. Indeed, the ability of white-collar workers to see their world as uniform was effectively, if perhaps unconsciously, a bid to defend their hegemonic position in American society, a position they perceived as increasingly insecure. As Timothy Melley shows in Empire of Conspiracy (2000), cultural critics, fiction writers, social scientists, and FBI Director Hoover all noted disturbing threats to individual agency in the postwar period. Impersonal agencies of social control--variously figured as advertising, the total organizations of mass society, secret government agencies, or conspiratorial subcultures--were not only targeting individuals with hidden forms of influence understood to be "malevolent, centralized, and intentional" (Melley 5). These organizations were accreting to themselves precisely the qualities middle-class white-collar men feared they were losing: freedom, autonomy, agency, relevance, and moral judgment. In response, they championed a classically autonomous form of personhood, the assertion of which ideal provoked deep and specific anxieties. How could an Organization Man act freely and in his own interest in the creeping conformity of the consumer republic when consumption, not citizenship, was the preferred mode of participation in the public sphere? How could he make moral and aesthetic judgments given his sense of increasing cultural impoverishment in "middlebrow" culture? Even given his personal and political commitments to "containment" and "security," how could he protect himself and his family from the enemies within in a time of domestic surveillance, political and otherwise? (2)

Hoberek's book helps us see that the Organization Man's apparently psychological responses to the emerging social structures of postmodernity were actually misguided efforts to stake a claim for economic, political, and cultural authority predicated on a new form of labor: mental labor. According to Hoberek, by the end of World War II, the New Deal consensus among corporations, the federal government, and labor unions seemed to have solved industrial labor problems. More problematic, as the postwar period developed, was white-collar workers' sense of rootlessness and declining agency. Positioned as permanent salaried employees, with limited decision-making and goal-setting authority, white-collar workers could no longer claim to embody public authority premised on ownership of property or small capital. Accordingly, they staked their claim on owning the products of their minds: their ideas, their aesthetics, their style, and their identities. For Hoberek, the terms of this claim explain the mid-century move to psychological themes in literature and yoke the psychological inextricably to the economic. In the context of real fears of downward mobility, the narratives of threatened individuality so beloved of middleclass postwar social critics, novelists, and late twentieth-century literary critics, are a coherent class-based response to new forms of middle-class economic life.

Hoberek explores this thesis in both familiar and unexpected territory, pairing works of fiction with works of social criticism, often producing startlingly new connections between different groups' lived experience of the postwar period. For example, in the third chapter, Hoberek pairs Ralph Ellison with E. Franklin Frazier--the mid-century sociologist famous for the proposition in The Black Bourgeoisie, that middle-class African Americans performed "the behaviors and consumption patterns of middle-class life without the economic base such activities presuppose." In Hoberek's view, the Invisible Man shares the embattled individuality of the Organization Man. This is a potentially problematic assertion given white literary critics' efforts to deracinate Ellison's politics in the 1950s and 60s, and the response among later African American critics to recover them. But Hoberek's claim is that "the organization-man narrative gives form to the novel's African American content" (55). By highlighting the role property ownership played in "underwriting American liberal individualism," and preserving the distinction between white-collar service work and the work of professionals and managers, Ellison's appropriation of the narrative of threatened individuality gives new meaning to African Americans' historic exclusion from property ownership, including the right to own themselves. It equipped them with the ability to perform situation-specific identities. With its portrayals of just such performances, Ellison's novel has much to teach us about this kind of role playing both as means of survival in a hostile world and a means of resistance to it. Read into and against the organization-man narrative, Invisible Man "offers a countergenealogy of white-collar alienation that explains such alienation's racial unconsciousness even as it undermines the peculiarly privileged position from which the organization-man discourse issues its complaints of middle-class angst" (68).

Two chapters argue that ownership of a cultural or regional identity can provide individuals with a source of authority in an Organization Society. In "Flannery O'Connor and the Southern Origins of Identity Politics," Hoberek argues that O'Connor's Wise Blood "abandons physical property as a source of middle-class individualism; [but] it circuitously reground such individualism in the intangible property of cultural identity." Offering the poor Southerner as the "anti-organization man," O'Connor converts poverty from an economic phenomenon into a cultural one. Hoberek reverses the move, revealing that O'Connor's conceit is the foundation of the "identity politics of the postsixties right" (96). Terms like "heartland values" make the same move, and function as "a vehicle for middle-class ressentiment directed at the Organization in the form of Big Government (and not infrequently its urban minority clients, as well)" (96). In "The So-Called Jewish Novel," Hoberek argues that the works of Philip Roth and Saul Bellows demonstrate how the figure of the Jewish intellectual worked for American Jews (as well as other Americans) fearing a loss of identity as more of them lived outside extended family and ethnic networks. This fear, he goes on, is best understood as a product of white middle-class work, not a trait of middle-class culture. What's useful about the figure of the Jewish intellectual in Bellow's work is that it simultaneously "exemplifies the concerns about alienating mental labor central to the white-collar middle class and retains a memorializing connection to a culture and an identity understood to stand in valuable opposition to the inexorable tide of white-collar middle-class homogenization" (71).

In the particularly compelling second chapter, Hoberek reads Ayn Rand and C. Wright Mills together, discovering unusual points of agreement between Rand's right-libertarianism and Mills' academic leftism. For both writers intellectual property replaces ownership of small capital as the basis for status, position, and authority. For Hoberek, both Rand's insistence that the individual inventor/owner/ thinker operating unfettered in a competitive environment like that of nineteenth-century capitalism is the engine of progress and the basis of equality and Mill's fear that intellectuals were no longer veritable figures of the "'absolute individual,' linked into a system with no authoritarian center, but held together by countless, free shrewd transactions" (38) "serves as a site for the preservation of middle-class agency in a period when the tradition basis of such agency--private property--had given way to a new definition of middle-class status" (39). This juxtaposition produces more than just interesting new re-readings of Atlas Shrugged and White Collar. It shows how the ideal of the classless, ahistorical individual, the one threatened by economic and political incorporation, served the personal and social imperatives of beset white-collar workers.

In the Epilogue, Hoberek transfers this insight to the present by way of Fredric Jameson's once-hegemonic notion of postmodernity. Treating Jameson's "problematically totalizing" account of postmodernism as a "projection onto the world at large [of] the experience of the postwar American middle class in transition" (117), Hoberek argues that the postmodern turn functions as a different, but still paradigmatic, defense of individualism. No longer conceiving of individual style or intellectual property as a defense against conformity, champions of postmodern artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Rauschenburg emphasize their investment in form, preserving it as a "site of artistic agency" (117). This useful reframing of the idea of postmodernism--it's not a description of the world, but yet another universalizing, totalizing, class-specific way of seeing the world--turns it into a particularly interesting story for intellectuals situated in corporatizing universities, the story of the "bitter discovery of one's lack of agency and inability to navigate the world" (129). To many of us, contract faculty or tenure-track, this disaffecting agency claim remains seductive. Even as it expresses current working conditions in many universities, it upholds cherished notions of the autonomous intellectual, producing for him- or herself and masks the implications of academics' status as wage-workers, namely that our labor problems have more in common with those of the service employees whose labor supports intellectual labor more than many of us would like to admit.

More than an entry into debates on the symptomatic meaning of 1950s American literature, The Twilight of the Middle Class also explicates the historical class-origins of current ways of understanding the remaking of academic labor. It will therefore be of significant interest to intellectuals being asked to understand this shift in sacrificial terms.



Campbell, David. Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992.

Cohen, Lizabeth. A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. New York: Knopf, 2003.

Jamison, Andrew, and Ron Eyerman. Seeds of the Sixties. Berkley: U of California P, 1993.

Lhamon, W. T., Jr. Deliberate Speed: The Origins of a Cultural Style in the American 1950s. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution P, 1990.

May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books, 1988.

Nadel, Alan. Containment Culture: American Narrative, Postmodernism and the Atomic Age. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1995.

Rubin, Joan Shelley. The Making of Middlebrow Culture. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 1992.

(1) Review of Andrew Hoberek, The Twilight of the Middle Class: Post-World War II American Fiction and White Collar Work (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2005). 158 pp.

(2) My formulation of these anxieties derives from David Campbell, Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity (1992); Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2003); Andrew Jamison and Ron Eyerman, Seeds of the Sixties (1993); W. T. Lhamon, Jr., Deliberate Speed: The Origins of a Cultural Style in the American 1950s (1990); Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (1988); Alan Nadel, Containment Culture: American Narrative, Postmodernism and the Atomic Age (1995); and Joan Shelley Rubin, The Making of Middlebrow Culture (1992).
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Title Annotation:The Twilight of the Middle Class: Post-World War II American Fiction and White Collar Work
Author:Drown, Eric
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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