Citizen, Consumer, Animal

The documentary film PAUL GOODMAN CHANGED MY LIFE begins a two-week run at Manhattan's fabulous Film Forum theatre on October 19, and will be screened around the country and overseas in the next few weeks. See Jonathan Lee's movie and you'll know why so many of those who knew Paul Goodman, or read his writing, got their lives changed by the experience; why Noam Chomsky says his influence is all around us even today; and why a growing cohort feel his is a voice we need badly to listen to from the standpoint of today's multiple existential crises.

Watching the film may also help explain why the guy was so ineffably hot. He certainly didn't look like a matinee idol. His personality was famously cranky. The snippets of footage the movie provides of the living Goodman, and the recurring still photos of his face, can only partially convey the man's intense personal magnetism. For evidence of his prodigious libido Lee sprinkles in a few (too few!) ribald stories. People reacted to Goodman, and he to other people, very strongly—many hated him, some became enthralled, many were deeply irritated, some went to bed with him. He was always around on the New York streets, unfailingly making the scene, usually with a crowd around him, and his cruising was urgent, none too discriminate, and bordering on the compulsive. He thought of himself as unattractive, but he had one very seductive attribute: his amazing mind. And he was driven by his sexuality—his bisexuality—and by the need to live that bisexuality very openly, with revolutionary liberation.
He had a very big ego—but that's the wrong word. What was big was his selfhood, his self-knowledge and self-confidence, his ideas and ambitions, his mind, his heart. How did he put it: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. Creative adjustment of the organism at the contact boundary with the environment and its novelty. That's what he had. He was a fully alive animal, alive to the moment in all its reality and possibility. As a philosopher, as a psychotherapist, as a serial seducer, as a hungry animal, he lived for what he called "here, now, next." That's why he was hot.
The word "animal" appears a good deal in Goodman's writing. In his work on youth and education, he uses the "animal" energy of young people to encapsulate why compulsory schooling—five days a week sitting at desks bolted to the floor—seems  to him so dangerously absurd. Society's denial and suppression of those animal energies and needs then becomes a central theme in his social criticism and psychological theory. But much of the time, when Goodman drops this charged word into a sentence, he's using it to signal human authenticity, healthy organic functioning, spontaneous response to the environment. 
As I have written previously, Goodman took his identity as a citizen very seriously. He believed that political activism, behaving like a citizen, was self-actualizing behavior; it was how he claimed his ownership stake in society. Many people today lament that so many Americans have given up behaving like citizens and have taken up residence almost entirely within the economic identity of consumer. The corporate-run commercial media, whose messages and stories suffuse our lives, frame us and address us almost exclusively as consumers rather than citizens—or worse, as commodities to be packaged and sold to advertisers. And of course this is a dispiriting and disempowering state of affairs. Within the consumer mindset it is far too easy to relate to the world solely in terms of acquisitiveness. A consumer takes all arrangements of power as given and behaves entirely on the basis of individual interest and advantage. A citizen recognizes the existence and importance of the collective will, the common good, and links that broader interest to his or her self-interest. To put it starkly and perhaps uncharitably, the people who put on suits and go to work on Wall Street spend their day, generally speaking, as consumers. The people occupying Wall Street are spending their every waking (and sleeping!) moment as citizens.
Yet this dichotomy is too narrow, too abstract. Our society may frame us from the perspective of our economic or political arrangements, but lest we forget, fundamentally we are living beings, constellations of organic matter, animals. At bottom, what we spend our day doing is being: manipulating (and being manipulated by) our environments, pursuing our needs and desires and curiosities, responding to novelty and stimulation. Paul Goodman never forgot this, even during his highest flights of cerebral fancy. He was, as he put in the autobiographical Five Years (1966), "a citizen of nowhere but an animal of the world." Come meet him in the Village!


David McReynolds On Paul Goodman Changed My Life

This is a film which brings Paul Goodman back into our lives with both his faults and his genius. His belief in a totally free sexual life was fine - except that it not infrequently butted, uninvited, into the lives of others. On the other hand, he was that rare anarchist who was not afraid of speaking directly with the "establishment" as if men of reason might communicate.

He was thoughtful, challenging, a man whose mind lived far beyond the "box" in which most of us bounce around. I'm grateful for this film. Some people have lives whose record is of interest, but Paul Goodman's life remains profoundly challenging, his life is absolutely contemporary and will remain so.

Utopian, Practical: What DREAM is our one demand?

Is the flower of revolution budding on our lawn? Paris '68 has journeyed by way of Seattle '99 and made it to New York 2011 as the #occupation of Wall Street appears to have legs. Kalle Lasn, who wrote the book on culture jamming, was already one of my heroes for giving us Adbusters magazine and Buy Nothing Day. The meme-warrior's beautiful dream of Tahrir on the Hudson is coming to life in a powerful action the media cannot ignore or, apparently, understand. "Why don't they make any demands?" the pundits cry. Out of their mouths, the question is inane and prosaic, but in the Adbusters promotional image, the same question is profound and poetic. Tell us, ballerina on the bull, "What is our one demand?" How can we distill the dream to a sentence?

And as we speak of dreams: I commend to you a meditation on political dreaming by one of today's crackerjack New York intellectuals, Stephen Duncombe of NYU. Occupy Wall Street makes his 2007 book Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy appear downright prescient. Duncombe trenchantly identifies a key dilemma facing U.S. liberals and progressives today. The box we've folded ourselves into is a box of conventional rationality. Thinking won't get us outside this box since our thinking is the problem; we'll have to dream our way out. Duncombe argues for dreampolitik, a politics that craftily wields the power of imagination, desire, and the razzle-dazzle of pop culture spectacle.

Conservatives successfully employ the lessons of Ronald Reagan and Roger Ailes—in politics, you win by crafting compelling stories and pushing people's emotional buttons. Meanwhile, liberals have become the boring ones stuck in our reality-based community. What happened to I Have a Dream? The Democrats offer no winning story because their strategies have gotten bone-dry and their leaders have lost touch with their own dreams, let alone ours. The only contemporary progressives Duncombe views as dream-worthy are the radical culture jammers; the another-world-is-possible types: the people occupying the dreamspace where that other world is already becoming real, while working on the ground to clear the path for that new society. Duncombe was himself involved in some of the best, and funniest, radical meme-warrior street theatre of the past decade, things like the world trade protests, the Billionaires for Bush, Reclaim the Streets, and Reverend Billy's Church of Stop Shopping (now the Church of Earthalujah). We should take a page from these pranksters, Duncombe says, but turn it up a few notches and start producing big, seductive, beautiful, ethical, participatory spectacles that mobilize our desires and common dreams. Isn't that exactly what's taking place at Zuccotti Park?

The philosophy of dreampolitik jibes perfectly with the spirit of Paul Goodman's artistic activism. Viewers of PAUL GOODMAN CHANGED MY LIFE will catch on to the befuddlingly radical pranksterism behind Paul and Percival Goodman's modest proposal to ban cars from Manhattan, or the idea of tiny schools Goodman brought to his neighborhood school board—25 kids, a teacher, a student teacher, a parent, and a teenager. Elsewhere he writes about creating schools without school buildings—why not let the community, the city be the campus? In the film, political philosopher Michael Walzer explains how Goodman liked to use "the sly pretense of being a moderate" to provoke people into noticing the irrational arrangements of "normal" social reality and questioning what Goodman called "the 'nothing-can-be-done' character defense."

Goodman's 1962 book Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals is the clearest expression of his tactical practical methodology. The book intersperses "moderate" interventions, like his proposals for urban youth work camps, eliminating obscenity laws, and banning cars from Manhattan, with social criticism that examines why such ideas get branded "utopian":
Naturally, we who are beguiled by the sirens of reason, animal joy, and lofty aims, fail to notice how far out into left field we sometimes stray; but we are most out of contact in naively believing that, given simple means and a desirable end, something can be done.

This is the crux of the argument over utopian thinking. It is true that the organized American system has invaded people's personalities, even though it protects every man's individuality, privacy, and liberty of choice. For the system has sapped initiative and the confidence to make fundamental changes. It has sapped self-reliance and therefore has dried up the spontaneous imagination of ends and the capacity to invent ingenious expedients. By disintegrating communities and confronting isolated persons with the overwhelming processes of the whole society, it has destroyed human scale and deprived people of manageable associations that can be experimented with.
The capacity to do something rather than nothing, and to do it without coercion, without permission, with free will, individual and collective: this is the key motivation in Goodman's fusion of artistic, psychological, and political thinking. His ideal is autonomy, or "the inventive, flexible and maturing behavior of the animal initiating and responding in its natural field." (from "Freedom and Autonomy") Or, from his World War II-era "May Pamphlet": "Free action is to live in present society as though it were a natural society.... [including] those natural acts or abstentions which clash openly with the coercive laws: these are the 'crimes' which are beholden on a free man to commit..." This is a utopian vision, a dreampolitik, driven by personal psychological emancipation of the kind envisioned by Wilhelm Reich, a major influence on Goodman. It's also a vision of public life as a kind of performance art: "In the breakdown of repression, the artists do their part by first dreaming the forbidden thoughts, assuming the forbidden stances, and struggling to make sense. They cannot do otherwise, for they bring the social conflicts in their souls to public expression."

One short piece from Utopian Essays deals squarely with Duncombe's Dream theme of ethical spectacles. "Designing Pacifist Films," originally published in Liberation magazine in 1961, is not very successful as a how-to (although reading it, it occurred to me that Dr. Strangelove (1964) does some of what Goodman wants a pacifist film to do). The essay is sharpest when Goodman points out the ways the deck is stacked against making cinema into a vehicle for pacifism. The conventions of narrative, the repellent attraction of violent imagery, the atavistic quality of the dark movie theater, and the psychic structures of fantasy and repression all make it hard to craft effective peace propaganda that will motivate audiences to take action.

At least in the movies. Goodman would agree with Duncombe that subversive/progressive spectacles must be live and participatory and must summon a better world into being. I feel sure if Goodman were alive he would not be missing a minute of the Wall Street occupation. And I think he would find the young people in Liberty Plaza very much to his liking, with the right spirit and community anarchist orientation. People with the courage not just of their convictions but of their dreams.

"Dreams,” Duncombe wrote to me recently, “are what we need to free ourselves from the tyranny of the possible: the thousand and one ways in which we are told everyday that the present is the best we can hope for. We may never actualize these dreams, indeed, the very nature of dreampolitik is that it can not be realized, yet such visions give us a lodestone with which to orient our political compass, a much-needed direction to walk toward. The architect of ‘realpolitik,’ Germany’s 19th century ‘Iron Chancellor’ Otto von Bismark is famous for insisting that ‘politics is the art of the possible.” What we need today, in the 21st century, is a politics that embraces the art of the impossible. I think Paul Goodman realized the progressive potential of this politics earlier than most. ”

Paul Goodman, anarchist philosopher-poet extraordinaire, was an Enlightenment rationalist to the core, but he had the cojones to create his own reality, to "prove by experiment that direct solutions are feasible," to "embrace the art of the impossible," to practice dreamcraft. And this is part of why so many people said he changed their lives.

And what was his one demand? Remember, all of you holding the plaza, it doesn't have to sound like a revolution to work like one. Better, perhaps, to make it sound like a perfectly practical, perfectly beautiful dream. People have been tossing you suggestions for how to answer the ballerina's question: here's two cents worth from Paul Goodman. Mike check! my judgment, the best that is to be hoped for is a tolerable society that allows the important activities of life to proceed... ["Anarchism and Revolution," 1970]

Politically I want only that the children have bright eyes, the river be clean, food and sex be available, and nobody be pushed around. ["Politics Within Limits," 1971]

Roger Kimmel Smith is a freelance writer based in Ithaca, New York. The documentary PAUL GOODMAN CHANGED MY LIFE opens October 19 at New York's Film Forum.

Eat the Fire: Paul Goodman is 100

One hundred years ago Friday—September 9, 1911—a boy was born in upper Manhattan, the “Sugar Hill” area between Washington Heights and Harlem, into a family freshly torn apart. The boy's father, a second generation German-Jewish immigrant, had done well in the antiques business and the family was prosperous, but now, in 1911, Barnett Shatz had taken a mistress, and in the midst of divorce proceedings he absconded, leaving his wife pregnant with their fourth child and bereft of material resources. Augusta Goodman made do, selling ladies' fashions, mostly on the road. She leaned first on her sisters, then on her eldest child, Alice, to care for the infant, Paul. Such sibling bonds would be the boy's core family relationships as he grew up. All traces of his father—photos, documents, stories, even his name—were erased.

One hundred years ago a fatherless child could play truant on the streets of New York—streets not yet rendered dangerous by automobiles or unintelligible by over-development—and not only escape without coming to harm but gain initiation into how the real world works through adventure and mischief. And years later, looking back on these magical experiences (and making some stuff up), the boy would create the unforgettable character of Horatio and the phantasmagorical New York that is The Empire City.

One hundred years ago a bright child born into relative poverty in New York City could obtain a very high-quality education, from elementary school to a college degree, all for free. Paul Goodman had the good fortune to start out in a teachers' college “model school,” P.S. 22; to hustle through a fast-track junior high into the city's elite, admission-by-exam public “prep” school, Townsend Harris Hall; to graduate at 15 and hurry on to the City College of New York, where he studied with the world-class philosopher and teacher, Morris Raphael Cohen, and mingled with the cream of the new immigrant generation (all male, of course), later to be known as the “New York intellectuals” of the 1940s.

One hundred years ago a child could grow up in decent poverty—poverty about one rung above misery—and learn to survive and thrive, making do with little and still living the life of the mind. This capability, and this bohemian, anarchist attitude, would allow Goodman to live in Manhattan through the Depression, the war, and the "Duration" without ever taking or holding a "real" job—always insisting he was a writer, and in fact producing copious prose and poetry, a book a year for every year of his adult life.

One hundred years ago, just in case you forgot, there were no portable electronic devices of any kind; the telephone was a heavy, awkward, newfangled instrument primarily used for business, and radio was still used almost exclusively for maritime communication; refrigeration (on railroad cars) was a big new breakthrough for the meatpacking industry. One hundred years ago, the biggest motion pictures of the year included a 25-minute version of Shakespeare's Henry VIII and D. W. Griffith's 30-minute version of Tennyson's poem "Enoch Arden" (both silent, of course).

And one hundred years ago, the stars were all there was to see in the night sky, and you could see them in Manhattan.

And one hundred years later, the memory of that boy/man, his works, and his maverick romp through the twentieth century will be revived—not a moment too soon—by Jonathan Lee's documentary PAUL GOODMAN CHANGED MY LIFE. The film doesn't open for another six weeks, so the Paul Goodman centennial is likely to be a quiet celebration, observed by you and me. Celebrate him by finding his words and listening to his voice. (If you're in the empire city, Left Bank Books in the Village would be a good place to hunt—a "vanishing New York" sort of place, to be sure.)

Happy birthday!


Now isn't it time

when the candles on the icing

are one two too many

too many to blow out

too many to count too many

isn't it time to give up this ritual?

although the fiery crown

fluttering on the chocolate

and through the darkened room advancing

is still the most loveliest sight

among our savage folk

that have few festivals.

But the thicket is too hot and thick

and isn't it time, isn't it time

when the fires are too many

to eat the fire and not the cake

and drip the fires from my teeth

as once I had my hot hot youth.

- Paul Goodman

ps: Thank you very much to Taylor Stoehr for contributing to this piece, and for everything!

Good Sixties/Bad Sixties? (part 2)

Paul Goodman died in 1972, after roughly a dozen years as a widely-read and celebrated author. For this reason, he is largely remembered as a sixties figure, even though much of his important writing was published in the forties and fifties. Goodman's salad days as a public intellectual came in the early part of the sixties. Goodman became one of those figures, like Michael Harrington, C. Wright Mills, Rachel Carson, and Martin Luther King Jr., who at this pivotal moment in U.S. history transmitted into the culture ideas that helped bring about dramatic change. His writing helped both inspire and explain the new, radical consciousness of which the youth of the sixties were heralds.

Yet a few years later, in the latter part of the decade, Goodman became bitingly dismissive of the young people and their New Left movement. Goodman lauded the instigators of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964, but by 1970 he'd given up on a movement that was, in his view, disdainful of history, descending into fits of rage, seduced by grandiose notions of revolution, and blowing its opportunity to push the nation toward more humane values. It wasn't a coincidence that Goodman's acrimonious breakup with the young left took place just as he was mourning the premature death of his 20-year-old son, Matty, in 1967. The final sequences of PAUL GOODMAN CHANGED MY LIFE portray, with some sensitivity, the heartbreak of the author's final years.

I wrote in part 1 of this piece that it's tempting today to look back on the sixties with a similar sense of disappointment and loss or even distaste about how the decade turned out—the type of "good sixties/bad sixties" dichotomy Goodman himself arrived at, presciently as always, in that slim segment of the seventies he got to experience. And it's understandable given the sad things that happened in the late sixties: the assassinations of MLK and RFK, the election of Nixon, the failure to end the war in Vietnam, Kent State, the excesses of radical chic on the left. And then as now, hippies make an easy target.

But here's why this dichotomy is so off base. The passage of so much time makes it clear that the truly meaningful and positive legacies of the sixties are the cultural changes that germinated between about 1966 and about 1972. Visible at the time only in embryonic form, they became pervasive and powerful over the decades that followed. Things like the women's movement, with its transgressive idea that the personal is political, and the gay liberation movement, to which Goodman contributed through the example of his life. Through the proliferating notion of civil rights, embraced in the late sixties by Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, and others, America steadily, gradually shifted to a multicultural concept of what the nation is. It's been persuasively argued that the most influential legislation of the sixties turned out to be the Immigration Act of 1965, which eventually made the nation's demographics far less white. It became that much harder for Americans to ignore the radical idea that there's a world beyond the United States, a world consisting of more than just Western Europe. Goodman was heavily steeped in the classical and Western tradition of letters, but he had a clue—he loved Lao Tzu as well as Aristotle.

The other major contribution of the late sixties was the environmental movement, and the ecological thinking that gave rise to organic farming, health food, recycling, sustainable energy, and concern about the costs of both industrial pollution and everyday consumption of resources. These changes are still filtering through the culture, and they'll save us if anything will. It becomes clear that the hippies, say what you will about their fashions and hygiene, had a lot of the right ideas.

Goodman, who had such a variety of ways of thinking about the mutual influence of human beings and their environments, wrote in New Reformation (1970):
The complement to prudent technology is the ecological approach in science. To simplify the technical system and modestly pinpoint our artificial intervention in the environment is to make it possible for the environment to survive in its complexity, evolved for a billion years, whereas the overwhelming instant intervention of tightly interlocked and bulldozing technology has already disrupted many of the delicate sequences and balances. The calculable consequences are already frightening, but of course we don't know enough, and won't in the foreseeable future, to predict the remote effects of much of what we have done.
To my mind, that's one of Goodman's most valuable quotes, a distilled dram of sixties wisdom with a prescription for how to survive this century. I'd only add, bitterly, that we now know much more about those calculable consequences and remote effects—they're not too remote anymore—yet through strenuous oblivion, and industrial lobbying, they can still be denied...

Decent Poverty Report: Own Goal!!

To watch PAUL GOODMAN CHANGED MY LIFE is to spend time with an American who saw deeply into the nature of society and its institutions. For a time his voice was very much in vogue, and he was widely admired and quoted by influential young activists. He wasn't a "pundit" in the contemporary sense of having tailor-made opinionated commentary for every news cycle. Rather, he had a philosophy, a coherent and consistent way of seeing the world, that could profitably be consulted for interpreting the news.

So this reporter rifled in vain for a passage of Goodman that could be applied to the debt debacle dominating this week's news. Here's the best I could come up with:
Worst of all, the earth-destroying actions of power are demented; and as in ancient tragedies and histories we read how arrogant men committed sacrilege and brought down doom on themselves and those associated with them, so I sometimes am superstitiously afraid to belong to the same tribe and walk the same ground as our statesmen.
- "Freedom and Autonomy," published 1972
Know what I mean? This episode has to rank among the most disgusting affairs of government in many moons. Everyone involved has behaved abominably. As this slimy piece of political theatre unfolded, with Shakespearean inevitability, our erstwhile hero of the executive branch brandished his tragic flaw, his utter weakness when confronted with ruthless and amoral adversaries. An impotence he tried vaingloriously to disguise as magnanimity, conciliation, mature and responsible statesmanship. In the end, #44 soundly booted the ball into his team's own net.

Paul Goodman was an anarchist who believed fervently in decentralizing power and dismantling the interlocking bureaucracies of our excessively centralized state. But this is a viewpoint worlds apart from today's foes of big government, the ones who want to drown it in the bathtub, this round's winners. For Goodman also believed in decent poverty, which should be possible in a wealthy society as it is (or was) the norm for majorities in poor villages and backward nations around the world. To the extent that decent poverty is possible in the United States, with its storied standard of, and exploding cost of, living, it's because for one reason or another the government wove a safety net with programs like Social Security and Medicare, Medicaid and Food Stamps. And the sad, enraging truth is that these crown jewels of twentieth-century liberalism, the most humane things our democratic government has achieved, were offered up for the slaughter by a Democratic president.

Of course, as many have argued insistently—none more cogently than Glenn Greenwald—the thesis of that president as weak and conciliatory doesn't really fit the evidence all that well. The case now seems bullet-proof that the craven outcomes of the Obama administration represent the fruition, not the thwarting, of Mr. Obama's goals. You can choose which you prefer to see as hopelessly corrupt and compromised, his character or his policy preferences. Or both. It's hard to escape the conclusion that the Democratic party has come to function primarily as a bottleneck for progressive aspirations. As Goodman implored, it's time for we the people to practice Drawing the Line Once Again.

The Society I Live In Is Mine

Paul Goodman was a public figure who did not shrink from taking action in support of his beliefs. In the biopic PAUL GOODMAN CHANGED MY LIFE you'll see him alongside draft resisters; speaking out at peace rallies; going before the Board of Ed with radical reform proposals for New York City schools; advocating the banning of cars from Manhattan; and telling elite defense contractors they're the world's most dangerous men. Goodman's formal career in politics advanced no further than a school board position on Manhattan's west side. But his record makes clear that he took very seriously his public role as a political gadfly, an activist, or as he would probably have preferred to put it, a citizen.

There are hundreds of millions of people in the United States of America who are considered citizens in the legal sense. Yet how many of them vote in elections or speak their minds in public fora? How many believe, or behave as though they believe, that living in a democratic nation means they themselves participate in the heavy lifting of owning and operating the machinery by which the nation runs?

Goodman was a patriot in the tradition that defines patriotism as a conscientious quarrel, some go so far as to call it a lover's quarrel, with one's country. He also had an unusually strong sense of inner autonomy, inner sovereignty. Both these components seem to me necessary to explain from whence came PG's commitment to his community-anarchist citizenly activism. Being a writer and citizen of the republic of letters, much of his activism took the form of or was documented in his writing—not just his essays and books but his poems, speeches, even letters to the editor. In 1962 he published The Society I Live In Is Mine, a book largely composed of letters to the editor and similar public and private rantings. He said of these angry missives:
They are the squawks of a Citizen. The society in which I live is mine, open to my voice and action, or I do not live there at all. The government, the school board, the church, the university, the world of publishing and communications, are my agencies as a citizen....It is appalling how few people regard themselves as citizens, as society-makers, in this existential sense. Rather, people seem to take society as a preestablished machinery of institutions and authorities, and they take themselves as I don't know what, some kind of individuals 'in' society, whatever that means. Such a view is dangerous, because it must result in a few people being society-makers and exercising power over the rest.
The book is forgettable but valuable for the way it reveals its author's principled integrity and eccentric turns of mind. He complains to the Board of Ed about commercial brochures his son receives in his junior high school classroom. A few years later, when Matty's at Bronx Science, Goodman defends his son's refusal to take part in those ridiculous air raid drills ("I cannot ask him to move his feet in a way which he thinks to be senseless and evil"). He writes to the New York Times to defend Rachel Carson from the chemical industry's attacks. He speaks to a Lutheran group about liberalizing drug and pornography laws.

The preface to Growing Up Absurd ends with the peroration, "One has the persistent thought that if ten thousand people in all walks of life will stand up on their two feet and talk out and insist, we shall get back our country." That was in 1960. Did we get it back? I think it's fair to say that active citizenship and protest have become more common, even mainstream behavior in American life since the sixties. The popular perception is that activism petered out once the Vietnam war and the draft ended, but I think it actually grew and diversified (or splintered) in scores of directions. The right also eventually adopted the activist tactics developed by the left, and Messrs. Murdoch and Ailes have given them a media platform no leftist radicals could even dream of.

But even if we have more citizens squawking than we did before, apathy and apolitical consumerism (consumerism is the politics of the apolitical) remain rampant among the Americans. And with the economic squeeze that's taken place, the fact that we work 100-plus hours a year longer now than we did then, and you know how well we're getting by—well, who has time? A propos for our time-starved era, we have the new phenomenon of click-tivism—as in click here to "take action now!" Goodman would have hated this, both for how it insidiously attenuates human relations and how (as Micah White argues) it accepts the assumptions of marketing and market research.

Well, guess what? At a moment when Washington would have us believe we must choose between tearing big holes in the safety net (bye-bye decent poverty) or torpedoing the whole economy by blowing the nation's credit rating... Come on, society-makers, we better get squawking!

Screening at Maine International Film Festival this weekend

Come and watch PAUL GOODMAN CHANGED MY LIFE at Waterville's Railroad Square Cinema during the Maine International Film Festival this weekend. Screenings are at 9:15pm tonight, Friday, July 15th, and 3:15pm Saturday, July 16th. Several of the film's stars will be watching themselves on the big screen for the first time on Saturday!

World Premiere at OutFest tonight!

“So many people have told me Paul Goodman changed their life. Someone should make a film about that.”

Taylor Stoehr, Paul Goodman’s good friend and literary executor, said that to me during a stroll in Somerville, MA in 1988. Twenty-three years ago.

Today, it is my great pleasure to tell you that Paul Goodman changed my life. He changed many lives. And I made a film about it. Tonight, my film makes its World Premiere at OutFest 2011 at 5pm, Laemmle Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd, West Hollywood CA. There’s a Q&A to follow – I would love to see you there!

You can also see my film at regional festivals this summer, or during its two-week theatrical premiere at New York's Film Forum this fall (especially that crucial opening weekend, October 19-21). And we hope it will be coming to a theater near you and be broadcast in the months following. To begin our theatrical run at Film Forum has been my dream since beginning this project. I have discovered so many films I love at Film Forum! (When I learned my film would be one of them, I hit my head more than once jumping for joy.)

So please, see this film. Help us launch a Paul Goodman revival now. Maybe he’ll change your life, too!

Jonathan Lee, Director


When you see the documentary biopic PAUL GOODMAN CHANGED MY LIFE, you can expect to learn a good amount about Paul Goodman and absorb a variety of impressions of his life. That's what you'd expect from any documentary biopic. The format of the genre imposes certain norms: an ample selection of snippets of vintage film footage and interviews, edited with adherence to standard narrative and cinema conventions, designed to hold your attention for a reasonable running time, entertain you, and provoke at least a little thought and/or feeling. And the film certainly delivers.

Which is perhaps more than we can say for this blog post! What about the format of this medium? You, dear reader, have surfed your way here out of an interest in Paul Goodman or the documentary about him, and these words are competing for your momentary attention, contriving to stay your itchy clicking finger. You expect me to keep to a pretty tight word limit and deliver you—what? A stab at enlightenment? The comfort of some pat phrases? Not too many ideas, surely, for how many can fit within this quickie format?

Marshall McLuhan wrote that "the medium is the message" in the 1960s. McLuhan, and his more unsung fellow Canadian Harold Innis, opened up a very fruitful line of theory about how our technological tools, especially tools of communication, change us at deep levels of cognition, sense perception, and epistemology. Paul Goodman, an astute and wide-ranging public intellectual, had his own media criticism ideas to contribute. Goodman's point of departure was a bit less esoteric than McLuhan's. Through his idea of "format," Goodman revealed important ways in which the medium constrains the message, or in some cases, destroys the message.

Goodman begins the essay "Format and Anxiety" (also the title of an excellent book of Goodman's work on media, edited by Taylor Stoehr) by recounting an ordinary TV moment: a pundit on Jack Paar's late-night talk show, cut off in the middle of a serious point so the host can read ad copy for some product. Thus the pundit is "treated by Paar and the format of the show with a disregard bordering on contempt....How in such a case can the Americans make sense of the news, follow a train of thought, or indeed retain any notion of the reality of the world?" Fifty years later, we savvy media consumers would barely notice the awkwardness (and certainly not stop to consider the ethics) of such a TV event, but Goodman's question still stings. The line of argument is similar to that of a media-studies classic from the 80s, Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman (a well-known disciple of McLuhan and a mentor of your blogger)—that TV's glitzy, rapid-fire, "now this" mentality reduces all of life to its level of entertaining vacuity.

But print media have their own bedeviling format restrictions, as Goodman knew all too well as a decent-poverty freelance writer. He produced a steady stream of essays and reviews and, for the first 25 years of his career, met more frustration than success in the magazine world. He knew media formats contain within them the essence of the institutional ideology his anarchism compelled him to disrupt:
Format is not like censorship that tries to obliterate speech, and so sometimes empowers it by making it important. And it is not like propaganda that simply tells lies. Rather, authority imposes format on speech because it needs speech, but not autonomous speech. Format is speech colonized, broken-spirited.
- from Speaking and Language (1971)
The antidote to the rigid, bureaucratic, Procrustean formats of mass communication, as Goodman saw it, is face-to-face colloquial conversation, which can be spontaneous, organic, poetic, because its participants are human and autonomous.

Any autonomous humans out there care to comment?