THE PROBLEM OF AUTHORITY IN AMERICA by John P. & Mark E. Kann--Eds. Diggins


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The presupposition of this anthology is clearly evident in the title: authority is a problem, particularly for Americans. In nine essays that originated at a 1980 Univ. of Southern California conference, diverse political, literary, and psychoanalytic theorists (and one historian) apply themselves, and their specialized insight, to this ""problem."" Historian Diggins and political theorists Kann and Sheldon Wolin go at it from a political viewpoint--and all agree that the Founding Fathers had a hard time establishing the foundations of authority. Diggins finds three main strands of authority in this country: spiritual (Puritan), political (the delegation, to political institutions, of authority denied to the sinful or untrustworthy populace), and social (the weight of collective ""opinion""). With the exception of the first, as Diggins shows, these strands avoid the question of authority rather than solve it. Wolin, too, looks to the founding, but with greater clarity he argues that the Constitution and its accompanying documents, the Federalist papers, establish a bulwark against democratic participation and foster dependency--from which the current ""crisis"" of authority derives. With more words but less theoretical acumen, Kann maintains that without legitimate authority there can be no consent; and, unless some new set of values comes along to garner the consensus now denied all values, authoritarianism or anarchism looms ahead. Alfred Kazin on Ezra Pound and William Arrowsmith on T. S. Eliot shift gears rapidly--to the point of rendering their judgments null--in a pair of essays about the authority of poetic tradition and language. Another political theorist, John Schaar, does better by William Faulkner; going over The Bear once again, he lays out two different views of authority that have coexisted, contradictorily, in America--the community-oriented view, whereby authority derives from ""independence, loyalty, and respect for the past""; and the contractarian view, ""built on the foundation blocks of private property, individualism, and the limited interest of each in the welfare of the whole."" Philip Rieff, taking a shot at Freud et al., makes a case for more authority and blames psychoanalysis for helping to undermine it; while Russell Jacoby and Jessica Benjamin argue over the validity of the image of ""narcissism"" in contemporary culture. The whole is a collection few will want to read through, but some may want to read in.

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Temple Univ. Press