Decline and Fall

Decadence: Radical Nostalgia and Decline in the Seventies By Jim Hougan William Morrow & Co., 251 pages, $7.95

THE MAIN THING to remember is that it's only a matter of time. An Army group ominously called the Intelligence Threat Analysis Group has come up, Jim Hougan says, with 385 potential military conflicts that may come up by 1990, 145 of them involving the United States, and one, by god, involving the Army versus the American citizenry. We are almost assured of running out of oil by the year 2000, a crisis that will spawn countless other crises and lead to the collapse of American society. The land is full of false prophets preaching evil gospels. The question is not so much how or when The End will come--it's inevitable that something crucial will break down soon--but what we should do while waiting for it.

Hougan's world is a gloomy one indeed, one so firmly in the vice-like grip of something called the technical chreod (like his world, Hougan is driven to neologisms) that nothing anyone can do could have any possible effect on its numerous ills. We are all slaves of a drive for the perfection of pure technique that is strong enough to have become self-sustaining and unstoppable; we live in a world full of machines and agencies that run themselves toward no particular end. It is absolutely inevitable that at some point the morass of technique will break down at a crucial point (viz. the oil crisis) and the world will be profoundly altered.

Now none of this, to Hougan, is particularly good or bad. Technique does tend to isolate people, to negate any feelings people may have had for responsibility or creativity or ability to affect the world; on the other hand, a total eschewal of technique would be a backward, unproductive step. So, for that matter, would be a total embracing of it, an attitude he attacks various people--including Harvard professors Daniel Bell and B.F. Skinner--for espousing. The future in a world in the grip of technique is more inevitable than it is bleak.

Hougan uses this idea to explain everything about American society these days, and in particular the fall of the various movements of the sixties. The counterculture, despite its noble opposition to technique, tried to create alternatives in a world where there can be no alternatives. It was reacting with hopeful millennial fervor to social upheaval, which was perfectly understandable but led nowhere. Hougan doesn't see the counterculture as political in nature, and in fact he reacts to the New Left with almost unremittent bitterness. The Left in the sixties was "blunt and calculated," he says, "exploiting Vietnam as an opportunity for recruitment, the Left sought to coopt the counterculture, to reforge the latter's cultural discontents into the political framework ordained by Marx a century earlier." In an era he sees as affluent, afflicted with cultural alienation rather than economic problems, socialism has no place.

The answer, instead, is what Hougan calls decadence, which in turn, despite its bad name, is actually a kind of style, "multi-dimensional, coherent and complex." It involves making choices in a flamboyant and self-indulgent way--the best way to spend one's time while waiting for the chaotic forces of history to wash over society. Since changing the inexorable and self-controlling march of technique is futile, the best thing to do is give up, look out for yourself, have a good time and hope that the apocalypse will do more good than harm.

DECADENCE IS A VAPID and appallingly amoral book in more ways than all this indicates. Hougan, a contributing editor of Harper's, seems to suffer from a malady from which precious few journalists escape--a desire to retire to an isolated cabin somewhere and put it all together. In the effort, he's thrown together an indiscriminate, undirected mix of modern philosophy, fiction and social theory, and fitted it to everything on the American scene. There is hardly a cliche of any sort about recent America that's missing, be it drugs, the New Army, rock music, assassinations, or Nixon. Hougan, now intellectual, now hip, now detached, now personal, manages at least to use his confusion of sources and styles to cover a wide territory.

Intellectually, too, not much is there. Hougan knows about America and Europe in the sixties, and he knows some odd bits of philosophy. He has no grasp at all of American history, which accounts for the overwhelmingly present-oriented tone of Decadence. Now, Hougan is saying, is the time of real crisis in America; if the world at this moment seems on the verge of unprecedented fundamental change, it's because it is on the brink of such a change. If crazy political, spiritual and religious sects are proliferating, it's a natural response to unprecedented times like these. Perhaps Hougan doesn't know that crazy sects have always been present in America, or that there have been many fundamental crises and changes; certainly, if he does know about them, he doesn't see them as worthy of mention.

All this is minor in light of the far larger errors and oversights Hougan makes in the process of drawing his conclusions. The basis of his advocacy of decadence for Americans is that nobody is really poor any more, or wanting, or discriminated against, and hence that everyone is able to make significant choices about the conduct of his life. "For what may have been the first time in history," he says, "the masses were expected to decide questions of an aesthetic nature: wing tips or sneakers? Viyella or lamb's wool? peas or lima beans? colonial or ranch? Mustang or Vega?" If the ills of our society are completely out of our control, and if we all have limitless options individually, we can all become, as Hougan wants, nobly narcissistic.

Well. We certainly do not have limitless options individually. Even in the affluent America Hougan describes, there are severe economic and social strictures placed on a great many people on the basis of class and race. Even if the villain, at least in part, is technique, it is older and more easily defined things as well, things that people are firmly in control of. Hougan's well-to-do factory workers still have little choice but to be factory workers, and the productivity ethic that makes them unhappy is more the product of those who benefit from that productivity than of any mystical process that generates itself and benefits no one.

All this is, to be sure, extremely hard to change. It is not, however, totally out of the sphere of human influence. It is not a process whose progression we should watch bemusedly, having fun in the meantime. Hougan's world may well be, as he so fervently hopes, one of the seventies, glib and liberal-sounding and, underneath, totally embracing, even celebrating, things as they are. If that's the case, it's more a reflection on the mood of the age than on its realities. As long as the state of the world means anything to us, the kinds of solutions Hougan proposes--giving up, accepting, waiting for the fireworks--will be the hollowest and most callous possible way of dealing with it.