The limits of mimesis. Seeing Others, by Michèle Lamont. Educated, by Tara Westover.
Many narratives are merely that. Narratives.
Harvard sociologist Michèle Lamont’s new book Seeing Others is a summary of her research on the topic of equality. It is by gaining recognition, Lamont argues, that groups become more equal and valued in society. Lamont believes that while psychologists focus on the inner mind, and economists focus on allocation of resources, the “intangible, collective, cultural dimension of worth” is overlooked.
It seems plainly wrong to say that the intangible, collective, and cultural are overlooked in modern society, but that is only a stepping-stone to the bigger claim: by creating new narratives, we can empower people and change their lives, and bring about a more “meaningful, just, and fair society.” It is the open integration of others—seeing them, as per the title—that matters. Only by “acknowledging people’s existence and positive worth” can we create social change.
Despite the fact that this thesis is obviously true, and accords with common sense, it is also limited and overstated. Lamont’s conclusions are based on qualitative research with 180 people, but presented as definitive. Take the idea that the media “often” centres our attention on individual heroes. Lamont gives as examples The Great Gatsby, American Psycho, and The Wolf of Wall Street—strange choices when your argument is that we take individual heroes too seriously, as those works all centre on people who are, to greater or lesser degrees, morally bankrupt. In at least the case of Gatsby, they also place huge stress on the role of culture, on the way that by not seeing others, we fall into tragic fault. Indeed, that might be one of the biggest general lessons of literature. The idea that Gatsby represents the “narrow norm” of individual heroes is just wrong. Lamont has failed to see Gatsby.
The list of such quibbles is too long to remain interesting for very long. Tax cuts are explained as incentivising the rich to make more money, which is hardly a complete way of thinking about tax cuts. The best example Lamont has of factions trying to “leverage the power of narratives” is Newt Gingrich and the Republican party of the 1990s. Although the interviews that the book is based on were conducted thirty years ago, Lamont simply states that economic conditions in the interval make the findings more relevant as “all but a few” have been “left empty handed.” That is empty political rhetoric, not suitable for a book of this nature. As Chris Pope said, “The United States in 2019 had the highest levels of disposable income of G7 countries for 9 out of 10 income deciles.”
So while there is no argument from me that the humanities have a role to play in shaping society, Lamont’s bigger arguments often feel like partisan political points, rather than something that belongs in a book by a professor of sociology.