'America created the 20th century,' Gertrude Stein wrote in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, 'and since all the other countries are now either living or commencing to be living a 20th-century life, America having begun the creation of the 20th century in the sixties of the 19th century is now the oldest country in the world.' She meant, quite reasonably, that America was the oldest country in the world because it was the first to be modern. By 1933, Stein had already witnessed the industrialisation of America and the new technologies of standardisation and control unleashed by Fordism and Taylorism. Had she lived longer into the 20th century, one can only imagine what she would have made of the many organisation men, hidden persuaders and lonely crowds still to come, or of the other ideological prisons created by the national security state and the Cold War. It already seems as if it was a long time ago that America, transitioning from industrial to consumer capitalism, lurched into the age of postmodernity. The brisk destruction of old ways and the foreclosing of possibilities have become such an accepted fact - not least in the social sciences, from Daniel Bell to Fredric Jameson - that it is easy to forget what a large-scale re-engineering of human lives they have led to. Jennifer Egan, an American writer, is rare for still being able to register incredulity at the weirdness of this process. In her novel Look at Me (2001), she makes one of her main characters, an isolated intellectual, spell it all out: The 'narrative of industrial America began with the rationalisation of objects through standardisation, abstraction and mass production', and has concluded 'with the rationalisation of human beings through marketing, public relations, image consulting and spin'.
LRB 31 March 2011 | PDF Download