After reading and re-reading Bellah, et al.’s Habits of the Heart, it’s difficult to not see their take on individualism in American culture. One of the main points is that individualism is one of the primary languages in American culture. Two subtypes of individualism are the manager and the therapist. Both are essentially utilitarian or maximizers of preferences with the manager concerned more with the external and the therapist with the internal.
Bellah, et al. do leave the possibility open for new subtypes of individualism to emerge or build off of secondary languages in America such as biblical or republican.
After years of working in the financial world and reading Greg Smith’s piece in the NY Times about the culture of Goldman Sachs, I think that a new individualist subtype has become prevalent: the salesman. Whereas Bellah, et al. focus more on these as languages, I think the salesman is often more of a style. It may not even have its own language, but it is an approach to life. It is one that instrumentalizes all relationships in order to maximize preferences that are monetary.
Although, Smith’s piece describes those salesman that take use the language of manager, there are also those who use the language of the therapist. I encountered the latter in working with many people from the real estate and mortgage industries. There are various educational programs for people in these industries that involve “lead generation” or the ability to bring new people in, take advantage of social networks, etc. in order to increase sales. Interestingly, however, such tactics are often wrapped in the language of self-realization, self-help, and meaningful relationships.
But such a style is not limited to the financial world. It pervades much of our culture, we are constantly encouraged to “sell ourselves” or “market ourselves” in the new economy. Such advice seems like “common sense.” Yet, it’s also often mixed with notions about “being oneself.” One only need to watch an episode of “What Not to Wear” to see how so many people “become themselves” by wearing a more marketable uniform of “who they really are.”
Maybe this is why, “Death of a Salesman” is still so popular?
Finally, the gender-specific “man” in salesman, I think is appropriate as well. Much of this type of style, especially, as expressed by Smith about Goldman Sachs fits all to well into a stereotype of patriarchal culture run amok. Although this could be nuanced, you get the point.
As it stands, this is all just thinking “out loud” or “on line,” but I believe there is something to this American style of individualism. After all, marketing and sales are part of the water we constantly swim in–how could it not shape who we are?