God, listen to me! Or don’t.
–A. O. Scott
As you may have heard by now, A. O. Scott wrote an article earlier this month for the New York Times Magazine entitled “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.” Beginning with a discussion of Mad Men’s Don Draper and other recent television “avatars of masculine entitlement” (Tony Soprano, Walter White), Scott wondered if the “slow unwinding” of American patriarchy had brought with it some unanticipated consequences. “It seems,” he argues, “that in doing away with patriarchal authority, we have also, perhaps unwittingly, killed off all the grown-ups.”
This is the place I would usually offer more details about how Scott supports and develops his opening thesis. That would be difficult in this case, however, since the article actually unfolds as a series of hedges on that thesis, followed by partial retractions, followed by warnings that it is probably best to suspend judgment. American culture has always been fundamentally sophomoric, Scott backtracks, cf. Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel and the “legacy of Huck Finn and Rip Van Winkle.” Moreover, it is possible that adulthood “may never really have existed in the first place, at least in the way its avatars imagined.” And, to the extent that it did exist, perhaps it really was inseparable from the edifice of patriarchy, which of course good riddance. Where you might expect to find a conclusion, Scott instead winds things down with a succession of “on the one hand, on the other hand” vacillations:
I do feel the loss of something here, but bemoaning the general immaturity of contemporary culture would be as obtuse as declaring it the coolest thing ever. A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can be a lot of fun, too. … We have more stories, pictures and arguments than we know what to do with, and each one of them presses on our attention with a claim of uniqueness, a demand to be recognized as special. The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight. I’m all for it. Now get off my lawn.
Given Scott’s own ambivalence, it is not surprising that most of the immediate responses to the essay began with a hypothesis about what its author was “really” trying to say. For instance, according to Adam Sternbergh, writing in Slate, “essays about the death of adulthood are often Trojan horses for a different complaint: the death of seriousness.” For the Awl’s Maria Bustillos, Scott is another elitist in sheep’s clothing, while Tom Hawking suggests on Flavorwire that Scott remains attached to an outdated or immature version of adulthood, symbolized perfectly by spoiled man-children like Don Draper and Tony Soprano. Having established the heart of Scott’s argument, these critics are off and running with their own, usually pegged at what they believe to be Scott’s (subtly veiled) reactionary bias. The rebuttals almost all end with a version of the thought expressed in Alexandra Petri’s headline for the Washington Post: “The Death of Adulthood? Yes, Please!”
The irony is that these criticisms are all expressed originally, and often more coherently, by Scott himself, sometimes in caveat form, sometimes as a potential alternative reading to the declinist narrative he initially seems to set in motion. Yet this only underscores what may be the most revealing thing about “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” which is Scott’s unwillingness to “really” argue anything at all. If all Scott is doing is describing a standard issue “crisis of authority,” then it would be helpful to point out that virtually every generation of Americans has deconstructed the norms and values of their elders (it happened even before Derrida gave us a word for it), something Sternbergh and Hawking both emphasize in their commentaries, and which is also embedded in Scott’s own discussion of the history of the American novel. But Scott seems at other points to conflate a crisis in one form of authority with something larger and deeper, and which ultimately marks his essay more than it is marked by it. And that thing is a crisis in the concept of authority.
The difference is between the thought that a given form of authority (say, one generation’s image of fatherhood) ought to be challenged or supplemented, and the thought that all forms of authority are inherently illegitimate. This distinction exists as an undercurrent in various American cultural controversies, especially on the left. A familiar example with direct bearing on Scott’s case is that there are two progressive objections to the idea of a prescribed “Western Canon” of literature and art in universities. One objection says that the canon has traditionally been insufficiently inclusive, and should make room for more works from previously under-appreciated demographics. Another says it should not exist at all, largely on the grounds that any authoritative selection of “great books” would be irredeemably suspect and potentially repressive. In academia and in the elite circles Scott inhabits, at least, the consensus for some time now has been that the second perspective is the more enlightened one. Scott does not explicitly enter into this argument, but his reticence about judging the cultural phenomena he spends some 5,000 words cataloguing speaks either to his sympathy for the consensus view, or to his fear of appearing to challenge it (possibly both).
Not only does Scott neglect to make an overarching judgment, he demonstrates skepticism about the possibility of qualitative distinctions of any kind—what one might have naively thought to be the chief function of a cultural critic. Early in his essay, he describes Ruth Graham’s polemical argument lamenting the popularity of young-adult fiction among adult readers. Scott confesses (sort of) to agreeing with Graham, or at least to sharing her intuition that grown-ups ought to “feel embarrassed about reading literature for children.” But after relating the ensuing uproar against Graham on social media he concludes: “It was not an argument she was in a position to win, however persuasive her points. To oppose the juvenile pleasures of empowered cultural consumers is to assume, wittingly or not, the role of scold, snob or curmudgeon.” Only the fact that such reasoning has become habitual can keep us from appreciating the oddity of the sentiment. What does Scott mean that Graham could not win the argument “however persuasive her points”? Can he really believe that “cultural consumers” are able to clinch a debate just by shouting the loudest on Twitter? And isn’t it part of the job of critics like Scott to adjudicate such arguments based precisely on the persuasiveness of the points being made?
Scott refuses steadfastly to blame anyone for the “death of adulthood in American culture,” and repeatedly he implies that, given its historical inevitability, critics like himself and Ruth Graham can hardly do better than to throw up their hands and make way. But this endorsement of critical passivity is simply one symptom of the death of the concept of authority, for which there is plenty of blame to go around. It is not all capitalism’s fault, or the Internet’s. Since the 1970s, consumer culture and elite culture have taken aim not only at the “avatars” of cultural authority but also at the idea that there can exist any reputable argument against subjective opinion. In the former case, the motivation is obvious, since it flatters consumers to be told they are the only authorities that matter. More surprising is the degree to which our scholars and critics continue to aid and abet this flattery by endorsing the view that intellectual authority is little more than an illusion based on social privilege.
Scott would probably not call himself a postmodernist, but his essay provides an unusually transparent example of how postmodernism’s legacy continues to filter down into public conversations. One danger of this legacy can be expressed by the cliché that nature abhors a vacuum. And there is evidence that postmodernism, most likely on account of its continued dominance in academia (where reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated), is doing far more to discourage our intellectuals from exerting authority than to discourage the rest of the population from looking for it. The void is filled here by evolutionary psychology, and there by neuroscience; and most often it is filled, as Scott’s essay attests, by the wisdom of “empowered cultural consumers.” Some of the anger that has been directed at Scott stems, perversely, from the assumption that he is questioning the “rights” of those consumers (Who is he to tell anyone not to read YA novels!?); the disturbing thing is that not only is Scott not questioning anybody’s rights, he does not even (unlike Graham) seem willing to question their choices.
In one of the much re-tweeted objections to Scott’s essay, Maria Bustillos raises Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” as an unflattering forerunner to “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” and also as an example of something we should now be “way, way, way past the sniffy superiority of.” Sontag was one of the pioneers of high-low criticism, a blurring of the lines that makes an essay like Scott’s conceivable. But what Bustillos hears as “sniffy superiority” is something that used to be recognized as the sound of confident criticism. In the afterword to a new edition of Against Interpretation, released in 1996, Sontag actually worried that her earlier enthusiasm for some “popular” works of art may have unwittingly contributed to the “ascendency of a culture whose most intelligible, persuasive values are drawn from the entertainment industries.” Scott’s essay not only bears witness to the triumph of these values; it embraces them. His surrender to consumer taste is so complete that he implies it is impossible for a critic to win a principled argument against a vocal popular opposition.
As an explanation for his anxiety about trusting his judgments, Scott feels it sufficient to acknowledge that he is, after all, a middle-aged white male. In a way this is appropriate; the essay is about the possible death of a vision of authority that corresponds to being middle-aged and white and male. At the same time, there is something discomfiting about seeing one of our most widely read cultural commentators disguise himself as an innocent bystander. The challenge for critics has always been to wield an authority that passes for something more than an expression of personal preference or privilege. For those of us better schooled in deconstructing strong positions than in taking them, this continues to prove especially hard work. But it has never been easy, as Scott admits, to talk like grown-ups.
Photo of Susan Sontag in a bear suit by Annie Leibovitz.