Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

America: The Archipelago of Almost Fame

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

America: The Archipelago of Almost Fame

Article excerpt

IN A RECENT NOVEL by David Lodge, a character mentions that we as a people--as Westerners in particular--have gotten "beyond the four Fs" (100-1). His inquisitive colleague asks, "What are they?" The character responds, "Fighting, fleeing, feeding and ... mating." While Lodge applies this axiom to the evolution of the human mind, it also seems suitable for describing everyday life in the United States. To some extent, Americans have gotten beyond the need for large-scale social involvement for securing their basic needs. Once the engine of collective activity, the "four Fs" are now taken for granted by many Americans.

When it comes to international conflicts, responsibility for the first two Fs--"fighting" and "fleeing"--has been placed in the hands of a relatively small group of professional soldiers and military experts. The size of the armed forces, according to Sider and Cole, has declined in recent decades and its demographic composition has become less and less representative of the total population. Threats from abroad may still loom, but without a military draft, the sense of a common fate has weakened and with it one of society's collective impulses.

As for "feeding," the United States is one of the most overweight and wealthy countries in the world. Though poverty lurks in certain areas, providing oneself with the essentials is not a concern for most Americans. In step with the armed forces, the gathering of food has lost its collective character. Corporations now control the lion's share of U.S. farmland, and new technologies have displaced workers from the fields. Solitary individuals wander the aisles of supermarkets, carefully avoiding the shopping carts of other humans. With self-serve checkout lanes, even the purchase of groceries can be completed without social interaction.

"Mating," no less than the other Fs, has become increasingly driven by individual choices rather than by social institutions. Few social scientists deny, for instance, that the role of marriage in society has changed over the last decades. A recent study by Martin, et al., found that a majority of adolescents indicated that they would engage in sexual intercourse before marriage, or already have. A similar number of adolescents held positive attitudes toward cohabitation (see Harding and Jencks). For many Americans, the institution of marriage is no longer a primary guide for sexual behavior.

Getting Beyond the "Four Fs" in Literature

If it is true that many Americans are becoming less and less dependent on large groups and social institutions, how will society change and what will be its purpose? Classic literature offers several grim answers to this question. In the short story "The Blood of the Walsugus," for instance, Thomas Mann writes about a relationship between a twin brother and sister, Siegmund and Sieglinde, who live in a wealthy household in which they have almost complete autonomy, zero social responsibility, and instant access to whatever they desire. Far beyond the four Fs, the twins slip into an insular world of physical gratification, introversion, and narcissism. Without the necessary social mechanisms in place--socialization, respect for marriage, and adherence to the incest taboo (see Slater, 1963)--Siegmund and Sieglinde withdraw first from society, then from their family, and finally engage in the ultimate act of narcissism: an incestuous relationship between two people with almost identical looks, personality, and demeanor.

Mann's story points to one of the dangers of getting beyond the four Fs, namely, the individual's withdrawal from society. If this tendency increased at a constant rate as people moved beyond the four Fs, social breakdown would be inevitable in the United States. The general absence of this breakdown, however, suggests that people need more from society than the four Fs. Indeed, people rely on others not only for their physical needs--fighting, fleeing, feeding, and mating--but their psychological ones as well. …

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