The Opening of the American Unconscious

Reading between the lines.
March 7 2011 6:47 AM

The Opening of the American Unconscious

David Brooks solves all our problems in The Social Animal.

The Social Animal by David Brooks.

David Brooks, the comic sociologist of our postwar meritocracy, has written a strange and strangely fascinating new book that partly refudiates the meritocratic view of life. We've all been busy seeking the laurels of advanced degrees, or the corner workspace, or the proper mix of antique and modern in our country houses, but this is a false path. In The Social Animal Brooks has concluded that we cannot willfully guide ourselves to contentment. Our big mistake has been to view the unconscious as the junk drawer of evolution. "The unconscious parts of the mind are not primitive vestiges that need to be conquered in order to make wise decisions," he writes. "They are not dark caverns of repressed sexual urges. Instead, the unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind—where most of the decisions and many of the most impressive acts of thinking take place. These submerged processes are the seedbeds of accomplishment." In other words: Use the Force, Lucas!

To tell the story of the unconscious and its role in shaping our fate, Brooks invents a man and a woman, Harold and Erica. The two are like the Forrest Gumps of social science: From birth to death, they illuminate the major (and minor) discoveries that have emerged from applied psychology, behavioral economics, and similar fields over the past decades. Brooks' device is to have them age, though the year is always 2010, so the science is always up to date. Thus when Harold is a baby, we learn that he was securely attached to his mother and that these sorts of children "tend to cope with stressful situations well" and "have more friends at school and summer camp." Erica, who is being raised by a single mother in a poor neighborhood, goes to a charter school called The Academy, which gives Brooks a platform to discuss the strategies of "immersive schools" that inculcate lower-class kids into a college-bound, achievement ethos.

Onward: Erica defies the odds of her upbringing by graduating college and getting a job with a consulting firm. While her boss is demonstrably a genius, Brooks reminds us that scientists have found that "there is little relationship between more intelligence and better performance." Indeed, "studies have shown" (the most popular phrase in this book) that hard work is the key determinant of success. Harold, meanwhile, has embarked on a "new life phase" known as the Odyssey years, that period of not starting a family and not becoming financially independent. When Harold and Erica meet, Brooks plunges into the concept of limerence, the pleasure experienced when our inner models of the world match reality. This could be as simple as doing a crossword puzzle, or as complex as falling in love and starting to breathe like another person, talk like them, and see the world as they do.

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And there's more. Erica joins an Enron-like corporation: cue several pages on studies that show how effective companies function and what leadership qualities make for a good CEO, unlike hers. Harold writes a book about the British Enlightenment, in the course of which he becomes enamored of the concept of epistemological modesty: "the knowledge of how little we know and can know." The reader quickly becomes accustomed to these sorts of swerves. There's a chapter that segues from Erica's extramarital affair to Rwandan genocide as Brooks explains the intuitionist view of morality. "The deep impulses treat conscious cognition as a plaything," writes Brooks. "They not only warp perception during sin; they invent justification after it." Pity the poor Organization Kid whom Brooks introduced us to in the early 2000s. We can't solve the world's problems with a PowerPoint presentation. We can barely choose to eat a burrito for lunch. The unconscious is always nudging, prodding, and tugging us.

And wait, there's more! Erica joins a political campaign with an Obama-like candidate, glides through the inner circles of Davos, and lunches with a friend who is nuts about meditation. Harold joins a think tank, which studies how an information society requires an increased "cognitive load" and advocates for the merits of a Hamiltonian democracy that's dedicated to preserving America's rags-to-riches social mobility. Harold and Erica retire to Aspen. She tries art. He ruminates on the unpredictable flows of memory. They start a tour company for cultivated travelers!

Finally, and mercifully, Harold dies. Although he is constructed out of trends, studies, and limited conclusions, I found his final day to be moving. On his deathbed: "He was unable to wield the power of self-consciousness but also freed from its shackles." All along, Brooks has relentlessly etched his portrait of a mind in which all the culture, education, and wisdom we take such pride in ride atop a bucking bronco of the unconscious. Death is when our little lighthouse of reason snuffs out, and the unconscious drama of the human race continues without us.

As you can gather, The Social Animal is overstuffed with what seems like a lifetime of clippings, browser bookmarks, and favorite book passages. It also represents a highpoint of the current mania for brain science and all the fields that invoke it. How to account for Brooks' obsession? The simple and perhaps most facile answer is that much of this "new science" supports a conservative view of life: "People who have one recurrent sexual partner in a year are happier than people who have multiple partners in a year." Or: "The best parents provide their kids with stable and predictable rhythms." Married people tend to be happier, as are those who have close friends, as are those who have chosen a profession or calling. You don't want to be bodysurfing in Maui with your new masseuse girlfriend when you're 40, you want to be manning the grill on a Friday evening after your 10th work anniversary while your children play tetherball in the yard.

A classic conservatism also spurs Brooks' championing of the unconscious. If an individual's motivation is too shadowy to understand or predict, imagine the forces that propel an entire society. Government should be limited, modest, and aware that much is unknowable and unsolvable. Brooks hasn't completely given up on the meritocracy. He still believes that "a healthy society is a mobile society … in which everyone has a reason to strive." But he also believes that the current setup of things in America is unfair. If your conscious and unconscious aren't cultivated in an information-rich environment starting from birth, you can almost never join the cognitively adept class that runs the world. The role of government—somehow—should be to build a uniform intellectual and cultural foundation for all. Through schooling, I suppose, and policies that encourage community and strong moral fiber. It's all very …Greek.

We've wandered far from the unconscious and Harold and Erica. The Social Animal, in both its ambition and its occasional ear-shattering hectoring, resembles another product of the University of Chicago: Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. Bloom wanted higher education to instill core virtues based on classic texts, music, and art—in order to combat mushy moral relativism and the banal horror of MTV. Brooks has the same interest in character-building but he doesn't have Bloom's confidence in our ability to control ourselves. It's almost as if we have to construct society as a playpen for the unconscious: Don't leave any sharp objects around that will cause us to become despondent, make rash decisions, or place high value on the wrong things like money and real estate instead of friends and finding a calling.

I suspect that Brooks has found his own calling while writing The Social Animal—a new seriousness. In his previous books, he practiced what he called "comic sociology," writing things that were sort of true and sort of funny. And some of these riffs were sort of genius. In On Paradise Drive, Brooks goes on about how the "modern suburb enshrines the pursuit of par," which is a moderate life, a life without "tension, hurry, anxiety, and disorder." The state of par is one where "your DVD collection is organized, and so is your walk-in closet … your telephone plan is suited to your needs … your various gizmos interact without conflict." This isn't literally true, but it has the ring of truth, and it makes you laugh.

In The Social Animal, this point would have been made differently. Brooks would have cited a study that says that men's "pleasure receptors" light up when they are on the golf course, or that the layout of long par 5s brings up pleasing memories of our hunter-gatherer time on the savannah. (In fact, he does mention that oldie-but-goodie.) I liked it better when his insights were unencumbered by their nerd friends. Do I really need brain science to tell me that women like men who seem empathetic? Or that people in long-lasting marriages tend to be happy?

My favorite parts of The Social Animal are when the old Brooks peeks out. At one point Harold works as an associate editor at various Washington-based policy magazines, and Brooks has a great line: "The organizations and journals he worked for were run by paunchy middle-aged adults who had job security and a place in society. People in his cohort, on the other hand, were transient young things who seemed to be there mostly to provide factchecking and sexual tension." "Yes!" I wrote in the margin.

That moment did not have many sequels. The Social Animal is worth reading and debating, but it doesn't give a lot of pleasure. Brooks tries to embody the story of the "revolution in consciousness" in two characters, but they are rarely believable as such. The irony is that he doesn't trust the unconscious. The writing is not suggestive enough—too much is explained, spelled out, referenced, and enumerated. David, you've spent the last 200 pages telling us how puny the rational mind is when compared to unconscious drives and emotion! Where's the story, the heartfelt moments, the villains?

Which is all to say that The Social Animal is an apt reminder of why we need great social novelists. It's not easy to the capture the zeitgeist. You often have to sneak up on it, catch it unawares, or just sort of feel it in your gut. I did come away from the book intensely curious about Brooks' own path. How far will he go in listening to his unconscious desires and in acknowledging that the traditional markers of success—a prominent op-ed perch, say—don't necessarily lead to happiness? How much will he strive to balance his emotional core with his rational thoughts? I'll look forward to reading his novel, or joining his ashram.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

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