Review (Books, Movie etc)

Paul Goodman, Out of Obscurity

By Matthew HoustonPaul Goodman was considered by many the “philosopher of the New Left,” a person whose writings and reflections had profound impact on the generation of the 60s, and the resurgence of his works in the last few years is heartening. In 2010, PM Press published three works: The Paul Goodman Reader, Drawing the Line Once Again, and New Reformation: Notes of a Neolithic Conservative. Most recently, a film produced by JSL films entitled Paul Goodman Changed My Life was released to much acclaim in late 2011.

Director Jonathan Lee provides us with insight into Paul Goodman’s life and times using ample historical footage, interviews with people affected by Goodman and discussion on some of his most important works.

The film connects us with Goodman in a more visceral way than we might otherwise experience through his writings. His quick wit, enigmatic smirk and intelligence come through the screen through the use of historical footage & erudite reflections from friends. One such example is Goodman’s account of a teaching experience in which he paired elementary Latin with pornography, the hilarious highlight of an 1966 interview on Firing Line, a nationally syndicated show hosted by William F. Buckley, Jr. A video clip from that same interview opens the film, a tantalizing introduction to this remarkable intellectual. Buckley extols Goodman’s virtues and eccentricities in his guest’s introduction:

“Mr. Paul Goodman is, roughly speaking everything, except as far as I know a basketball player. Everything else he excels in. I suppose I should list Mr. Goodman eccentricities: he is a pacifist, a bi-sexualist, a poverty cultist, an anarchist, and a few other distracting things”.

The film then introduces us to one of Goodman’s most noted works, Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized Society. Published in 1960, it became an anthem to the emerging youth movement of the 60s. The book unravels the reasons for youth’s disenchantment with and disaffection from the organizational society of the 50s, seeking to explain the growing frustration of the youth, which would soon find expression in the cultural revolution of the 60s. The film includes a telling interview with Studs Terkel, a noted broadcaster and historian, who stated that it was “a book on waste really.” Paul Goodman agreed saying, “yes, a waste of humanity, a waste of the most hopeful part of humanity, the growing-up part.”

The film addresses a criticism of both Growing Up Absurd and Goodman himself, namely, a disregard for gender equality. An attitude not unique to Goodman, it is nonetheless a significant and poignant shortcoming for an anarchist. Deborah Meir, founder of the Central Park East School, provided an excellent example of Goodman’s disregard for gender equality with a frank gender-biased quote from Growing Up Absurd:

“When I say young men and boys, a girl does not have to make something of herself. Her career does not have to be self-justifying. But if the boys do not grow up to become men, where shall the women find men, or the children find real fathers?”

A characteristic of Goodman’s approach to presenting a radical idea was to posit it in a very reasonable and matter-of-fact way, as if it were not utopian at all, but logical. This presentation style allowed for a more objective and sustained dialogue, and it encouraged conversation with much more liberatory possibilities. It was with this type of argument that Communitas: Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life was born, along with proposals for relieving urban congestion and rethinking public school organization. One of Goodman’s proposals sought to limit vehicles in Manhattan to taxis and public transit, thus reclaiming 30-35% of former road space for low-density urban housing and reducing the need for skyscrapers. Most intriguing perhaps, is his idea to create small schools consisting of 25 students and four adults (a teacher, housewife, college student, and high school graduate). His gender bias notwithstanding, Paul Goodman’s ideas for smaller schools and for fewer cars in Manhattan are still debated by civic reformers today.

Director Lee’s documentary seeks to bring Goodman out of obscurity so that both he and his ideas can be appreciated today. Yet the documentary fails to dive deeply enough into Goodman’s ideas of radical decentralization, freedom, and his critique of capitalist society. It would also benefit current examples of the praxis of Goodman’s ideas. For instance, with the rise of Occupy in the last year, Goodman’s salient voice would have found a large community to engage with. His thoughts on decentralization in both Drawing the Line Once Again as well as People or Personnel offers a number of practical insights into building a humane world through a predominantly decentralized framework.

It also would behoove us to revisit Goodman’s discussion on freedom within our society. In a somewhat similar vein as John Holloway’s Crack Capitalism, Goodman argues that a free society “is the extension of spheres of free action until they make up most of the social life.” While he saw contemporary society as being very coercive and becoming increasingly so, he thought that there was much within it that was free: “In creative work, in passion and sentiment, in spontaneous recreation, there are healthy spheres of nature and freedom: it is the spirit of these that we must often extrapolate to all acts of utopian free society, to making a living, to civil life and law.” He believed that while many of the functions of our present society have been corrupted, they draw from a “free natural power,” which is the very source of existence. We should live presently as though we are free, to break open the cracks under which flows free natural power, and when needed, clash with the coercive elements so that we may create a truly free society.

In my mind, Goodman would enthusiastically applaud John Holloway’s closing plenary talk at this year’s Left Forum in which he said, “…or we take the hazardous path, many paths of inventing different worlds, here and now and through the cracks we create in capitalist domination, and as we invent new worlds we sing loud and clear ‘we are the crisis of capital, we are the crisis of the rush towards human destruction and proud of it, we are the new world that is pushing through…get out of the way, capital.’”

While Paul Goodman Changed My Life is an enjoyable documentary, it has the feel of a period piece, disconnected in some ways from today. Although the interviews of people affected by Goodman were utilized well to provide viewers with a personal connection with him, the documentary would have benefited from the viewpoints of people engaged in projects that play out aspects of his philosophies. It is within communities of anarchists and radicals that one would most likely find his spirit and his ideas manifested by individuals who, having read Goodman, found that his work resonated with their own. Nonetheless, the film is an enjoyable account of an innovative and revolutionary thinker that should inspire many to further explore Paul Goodman and his ideas through his works.

The documentary is available on Netflix and can be purchased on DVD at www.paulgoodmanfilms.com. The Multnomah County Library currently has Drawing the Line Once Again by PM Press and New Reformation: Notes of a Neolithic Conservative by Random House 1970 available for check out.

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