[This review appeared in the Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, Fall 1998, pp. 358-360.] 


Hyperculture: The Human Cost of Speed

Stephen Bertman

Praeger, Westport, CT, 1998


           In this study of the effects of "the accelerating pace of American society," Stephen Bertman makes good use of the areas of study inherent in his position as Professor of Classical and Modern Languages, Literatures and Civilizations at the University of Windsor in Canada. Foremost, this is a socio-psychological study of the impact of speed on various aspects of society, but it is presented with a flair and richness of sensibility that comes from his many well-placed classical and literary allusions. Early on, he tells us the story of Daedalus and his son Icarus (who in his exuberance for flight flew so close to the sun that the wax melted on his artificial wings, causing him to fall into the sea). By such an image, Bertman warns us that the dizzying pace of modern life, while exhilarating, is fraught with danger. His use of this and other stories makes for an engrossingly readable account.

            An analysis of complex phenomena on the basis of one salient causal factor necessarily has the strength that comes from extensively elaborating the central theme. At the same time, it needs to be understood as incomplete to the extent that it leaves out other causal factors that are all mixed together in a far greater complexity than the single-shot explanation admits. This mix allows for a lucid but only partial exposition.

            The theme of Hyperculture is that various factors have come together to stress speed and newness in American life, resulting in a "now"-oriented society that is so consumed by the present that it has lost its sense of continuity with the past and the future. Americans live in a culture of instant gratification, sensationalism and transience. These have the effect of eroding "the essence of our most fundamental values."

            The effects are everywhere to be seen. People suffer stress, causing burn-out and a flight from reality through such routes as drugs, sensual gratification, and a yearning to oversimplify the increasing complexity that constantly confronts them. Reason is subverted as the senses become primary. Individuals are transformed by the loss of solitude and of non-materialistic modes of being. Families are eroded by an expectation of impermanence, by the stresses felt by two-career couples, and by the diminution of the necessary traits of self-sacrifice and patience. Society is transformed into an economy of consumption, with everything made commercial. And humanity estranges itself from the environment as it continues to distance itself from nature. This is, of course, a too-quick summary, since Bertman has much to say about each of these points and many others.

            It's obvious that his critique comes from the long-standing literary and philosophical tradition - which in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries fed into both Left and Right in Europe and America - that refuses to accept a market society, consumerism, and Carlyle's "cash-nexus" as what is best for human life. There is much of Rousseau in Bertman's analysis, as we see when he says that "the civilization we possess was purchased at a high price, for to attain it we had to become expatriates from nature." That is a pretty good summary of Rousseau's message in the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality. When, a century after Rousseau, Henry David Thoreau wrote that "the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation," that, too, was a pretty good statement of Hyperculture's theme, even though Bertman has updated it to the present. It is a mistake, then, to see the critique of "accelerated pace" as merely a critique of a great many recent developments; more fundamentally, it is a criticism of modernity itself.

            When we mention that an analysis based on a single factor has the weakness of omitting much that should be said, we have in mind a good many other forces that deserve to be taken into account. Bertman's analysis of the over-preoccupation with the present, a preoccupation that ignores the past and forms little sense of the future, would be given extra richness, say, if Edward Banfield's insights in The Unheavenly City were included. Banfield, a sociologist, explained the plight of the chronically poor as largely stemming from a limitation in their perception of time. The chronically poor (as distinct from the waves of immigrants who were poor in the first generation and then moved on) show little concern, Banfield observed, beyond the present. A second example would be Bertman's failure to take the modern "alienation of the intellectual" into account as a source not merely for the forgetting of the American past but for the assault upon it. One reason young Americans today revere very little about the American past is that most of what they are taught about it is that it was despicable. Far from being given an image of its idealism and heroics, they are presented with an alienated view of virtually all aspects of American history.

            Such omissions don't invalidate a study of the effects of speed and newness on individuals and culture, but they warn that there are other dimensions that need to be understood for a more complete understanding. ("More complete" is the best we can aspire to. Can a mere mortal ever hope for a complete understanding in a subject-area such as this?)

            Hyperculture is one of many books exploring today's fast-changing society, grappling with the issues on the cutting edge. Whatever the truth of the saying a few years ago that "we are all Keynesians now," it is certainly true that we all must rapidly become "futurists now" if we are to have any hope of speaking to the issues of our time. Bertman's book presents an important and valuable part of the mosaic.

                                                                              Dwight D. Murphey