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Abstract

My dissertation presents an archive of mostly American thinkers, political activists, scholars, and writers and their work from the period of roughly 1945-1975, as they elaborated responses to what they perceived as a crisis of social experience. The figures I trace were personalists, in that they saw personal relationships, values, problems, experiences, hopes, and fears—the stuff of the private, traditionally speaking—as provisions for repairing what seemed a broken world. While not a new idea in the postwar period, this thesis of a world in crisis proliferated after World War Two quickly and took on wider implications. It became a key organizing metanarrative for U.S. cultural commentators across the political spectrum, linking a range of political, philosophical, cultural, aesthetic, social, scientific, and religious conversations. By the early 1960s, public discourse in a variety of fields—including orthodox and mystical theology, liberal philosophy, utopian technocracy, liberal humanism, and psychology—took this premise for granted, maintaining that the postwar world was plagued with loneliness and anomie, ruptured social networks, misplaced moral anchors, and existential drift. ,These postwar discourses indexed anxiety about a series of well-noted economic, social, and geographic transformations reorganizing the post-World War Two United States, especially the rise of both economic and social forms of massification. This growing presence of the mass in postwar U.S. culture clashed with the rhetoric advanced by Cold War containment politics: with individualism deeply entrenched as the U.S. grounds for thinking subjectivity—as the individual constituted the economic (self-interested, choice-making actor), the political (autonomous, rational actor), and the ethical (self-conscious moral actor) subject—mass culture seemed to point toward the threats of Soviet communism, ideological conformism, and scientific determinism. The prevailing response to such anxiety was mythologization of the self-sufficient, autonomous, and rational individual. ,This dissertation argues that that the personal emerged as a third alternative in this tension between the individual and the collective. It functioned as a negotiation of the forms of generality, impersonalism, and depersonalization widely understood to result from the reorganization of postindustrial U.S. society. Highlighting subjective experience and interpersonal relationships as means for social repair, personalists broke away from the vision of the monadic autonomous subject and instead distinguished the person, personal, and personality from the mass by emphasizing ethics, direct experiences, situational thinking, personal responsibility towards self, other, and world, and the idea that ordinary thoughts and practices held public significance. Some of the postwar personalists that appear in this dissertation are well-known; others are more obscure or field-specific. Chosen for their personalist orientations, not their conventional reputations, these figures are seldom put in dialogue. Yet Dwight MacDonald, Nicola Chiaromonte, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., Carl Rogers, Kenneth Keniston, Robert J. Lifton, Joyce Carol Oates, and Toni Cade Bambara represent a loose network of thinkers drawn toward the same concerns and modes of repair. ,The dissertation begins in 1945 with the politics of friendship that emerged from humanist intellectuals and cultural critics Dwight MacDonald and Nicola Chiaromonte, who looked to ethics and to small-group communities organized around shared values as foundations for political action. Chapter two moves away from this cosmopolitan intellectual milieu to take up U.S. religious personalism as a response to postwar desubjectification. It illuminates how Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr. framed the depersonalizing experiences of racism, violence, and poverty as indices of a world of damaged by its divorce from the divine. Alternatively, chapter three considers transformations of the psychological subject that emerged in postwar social science. Psychologists Carl Rogers, Kenneth Keniston, and Robert J. Lifton attempted to rethink what it might mean to offer personal experience as a shared space. Finally, chapter four positions personalism in relation to identity politics, using the short fiction of Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Cade Bambara to situate personalism in relation to the forms of identity politics conventionally associated with ‘the personal as political.’ The account of the American postwar the dissertation offers reveals personalism as a vernacular for articulating a reparative vision for social life that points to a tradition of political thinking constituted by both an entrenched skepticism of the nation’s mythology of individualism and an equally entrenched commitment to its mythology of consensus.

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