I re-read a friend’s novel, preparing to discuss it again with students. It’s weird and wonderful, terrifying and funny, the fictional consensus realities of Norman Rockwell paintings and Nancy Drew novels turned askew. The small town after which the book is named operates as a microcosm, patriarchy ensnaring the novel’s female protagonist, interrupting her attempts to see beyond her surroundings. Mansplaining townsfolk infantilize her, stripping her of self-confidence to the point where she doubts her own existence. All of this occurs in a limbo-like bizarro-world, some liminal Nowheresville halfway between Twin Peaks and Bikini Bottom. The book is a dystopian fabulation in some sense, its grammar taken from capitalist realism; but it leavens this weight with its slapstick and the joy it takes in language as a site of play — its reminder, in all of these ways, that Utopia is right there for the taking. Despite our society’s sometimes horrifying resemblance to the world of the novel, the book’s delight in the craft of writing shows that it needn’t be that way. The book ventriloquizes and caricatures ruling rhetorics. Institutions are made to speak: landlords wax eloquent about landlordism, mothers extol the virtues of shopping. All of these rhetorics in their recitation are shown to be evasions and denials, self-propagating fictions, avoidances of past and ongoing abuse. Against these rhetorics, the book celebrates and revels in the imaginative flights and associative leaps of its protagonist, whose mind races, a part of it still attentive, still wanting to know, still curious and free despite circumstance.
Maslow’s ideas influenced the utopian consciousness revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s in a variety of ways beyond the ones I’ve already mentioned. Betty Friedan wrote at length about Maslow in a chapter of her book The Feminine Mystique, embracing his humanistic approach as an alternative to the pessimism of the Freudian paradigm. Yet Maslow’s views regarding women certainly weren’t what we would now recognize as progressive. A woman could only self-actualize and “realize her own potential,” he claimed, “through her husband and children.” His views were shaped by largely unexamined heteronormative, gender-binary assumptions. He remained in all things a centrist, an opponent of the New Left despite an attraction to democratic socialism in his youth. By the time of his greatest influence in the 1960s, he was essentially a New Deal Democrat, fearful of communists, and committed to US victory in the Cold War — a war that was fought in part on college campuses, including those where Maslow worked. Integration, globalization — these were posited and advanced by Maslow and others as solutions to nuclear war. The humanities and the sciences need to synergize, the centrists argued, if we’re to avoid destruction. Let us love each other and teach each other to dance. Yet here we are today, globalized and integrated by digital capitalism, rich waging war on the poor, planet on the verge of catastrophe, fascism waiting in the wings. Might there be other ways for us to put our heads together, both on campus and off, consciousness used to heal rather than curse?