In his famous symptomology of post-war US culture David Riesman developed three ‘character’ types: tradition-directed, inner-directed, and other-directed. Riesman’s three character types are interesting because of their processual nature; they are not innate traits, but capacities of subjectivity evident only through interaction. He moves away from (or, more correctly, anticipates the move towards) symbolic interactionist-type assertions regarding the identification of people with particular social classes in the broadest sense. Below are my two favourite passages from the book.
One way to see the structural differences that mark the three types is to see the differences in the emotional sanction or control in each type.
The tradition-directed person feels the impact of his culture as a unit, but it is nevertheless mediated through the specific, small number of individuals with whom he is in daily contact. These expect of him not so much that he be a certain type of person but that he behave in the approved way. Consequently the sanction for behavior tends to be the fear of being shamed.
The inner-directed person has early incorporated a psychic gyroscope which is set going by his parents and can receive signals later on from other authorities who resemble his parents. He goes through life less independent than he seems, obeying this internal piloting. Getting off course, whether in response to inner impulses or to the fluctuating voices of contemporaries, may lead to the feeling of guilt.
Since the direction to be taken in life has been learned in the privacy of the home from a small number of guides and since principles, rather than details of behavior, are internalized, the inner-directed person is capable of great stability. Especially so when it turns out that his fellows have gyroscopes too, spinning at the same speed and set in the same direction. But many inner-directed individuals can remain stable even when the reinforcement of social approval is not available â€” as in the upright life of the stock Englishman isolated in the tropics.
Contrasted with such a type as this, the other-directed person learns to respond to signals from a far wider circle than is constituted by his parents. The family is no longer a closely knit unit to which he belongs but merely part of a wider social environment to which he early becomes attentive. In these respects the other-directed person resembles the tradition-directed person: both live in a group milieu and lack the inner-directed person’s capacity to go it alone. The nature of this group milieu, however, differs radically in the two cases. The other-directed person is cosmopolitan.
For him the border between the familiar and the strange â€” a border clearly marked in the societies depending on tradition-direction â€” has broken down. As the family continuously absorbs the strange and reshapes itself, so the strange becomes familiar. While the inner-directed person could be “at home abroad” by virtue of his relative insensitivity to others, the other-directed person is, in a sense, at home everywhere and nowhere, capable of a rapid if sometimes superficial intimacy with and response to everyone.
The tradition-directed person takes his signals from others, but they come in a cultural monotone; he needs no complex receiving equipment to pick them up. The other-directed person must be able to receive signals from far and near; the sources are many, the changes rapid. What can be internalized, then, is not a code of behavior but the elaborate equipment needed to attend to such messages and occasionally to participate in their circulation. As against guilt-and-shame controls, though of course these survive, one prime psychological lever of the other-directed person is a diffuse anxiety. This control equipment, instead of being like a gyroscope, is like a radar. (24-25)
Though there is tremendous insecurity about how the game of sex should be played, there is little doubt as to whether it should be played or not. Even when we are consciously bored with sex, we must still obey its drive. Sex, therefore, provides a kind of defense against the threat of total apathy. This is one of the reasons why so much excitement is channeled into sex by the other-directed person. He looks to it for reassurance that he is alive. The inner-directed person, driven by his internal gyroscope and oriented toward the more external problems of production, did not need this evidence.
While the inner-directed acquisitive consumer could pursue the ever receding frontiers of material acquisition, these frontiers have lost much of their lure for the other-directed person. As we saw in Chapter III, the latter begins as a very young child to know his way around among available consumer goods. He travels, widely, to camp or with his family. He knows that the rich man’s car is only marginally, if at all, different from his own â€” a matter at best of a few additional horsepower. He knows anyway that next year’s model will be better than this year’s. Even if he has not been there, he knows what the night clubs are like; and he has seen television. Whereas the deprived inner-directed person often lusted for possessions as a goal whose glamour a wealthy adulthood could not dim, the other-directed person can scarcely conceive of a consumer good that can maintain for any length of time undisputed dominance over his imagination. Except perhaps sex.
For the consumption of love, despite all the efforts of the mass media, does remain hidden from public view. If someone else has a new Cadillac, the other-directed person knows what that is, and that he can duplicate the experience, more or less. But if someone else has a new lover, he cannot know what that means. Cadillacs have been democratized. So has sexual glamour, to a degree: without the mass production of good-looking, well-groomed youth, the American pattern of sexual competition could not exist. But there is a difference between Cadillacs and sexual partners in the degree of mystery. And with the loss or submergence of moral shame and inhibitions, but not completely of a certain unconscious innocence, the other-directed person has no defenses against his own envy. He is not ambitious to break the quantitative records of the acquisitive consumers of sex like Don Juan, but he does not want to miss, day in day out, the qualities of experience he tells himself the others are having.
In a way this development is paradoxical. For while cookbooks have become more glamorous with the era of other-direction, sex books have become less so. The older marriage manuals, such as that of Van der Velde (still popular, however), breathe an ecstatic tone; they are travelogues of the joy of love. The newer ones, including some high school sex manuals, are matter of fact, toneless, and hygienic â€” Boston Cooking School style. Nevertheless, much as young people may appear to take sex in stride along with their vitamins, it remains an era of competition and a locus of the search, never completely suppressed, for meaning and emotional response in life. The other-directed person looks to sex not for display but for a test of his or her ability to attract, his or her place in the “dating-rating” scale â€” and beyond that, in order to experience life and love. (146-147)
The inner-directed personage gets a bit of a bad rap in Riesman work. I think rightly so. Of course Riesman’s schema is far too simplistic to account for all facets of human existence; rather, he attempts to isolate a dinstinction between different types of people, and frame most of our existence in those terms. As my essay on Punch-Drunk Love attests I am strictly an other-directed kind of guy. In Riesman’s terms, Barry Egan moves from being an inner-directed character to producing an opening on the world. There is a central connection between travel in the film to capture the movement of inner and other-directed. Egan is not yet other-directed and probably will never be, but there has been a shift in tendency if not execution.
When different characters clash the result can be catastrophic, and the point of Punch-Drunk Love is that even if it turns out relatively well, there is an intrinsic violence to this clash. I know part of my bourgie predilection is because of the self-awareness born from an ‘other-directed’ character. There is nothing sexier than a woman who knows her place in the world. This does not mean she subjugates herself to patriarchal norms. Rather she uses that knowledge to orientate herself in creative and life-affirming ways. Normally this requires an infrastructure of education or the grace of intuition.
Sometimes the clash between characters exists in a single person. How to produce openings on the world that aren’t filtered through the tortured, guilt-ridden ‘gyroscope’ of the ‘inner-directed’ character? It requires so much work and patience. Sometimes too much. Sometimes it is necessary to give up and accept the fact that being ‘inner-directed’ produces a resource of a sort of strength, which is entirely destructive, but which at least allows the person to exist in the world and continue struggling in impossible situations. When all recourse is exhausted then it is terribly sad especially when beautiful and intelligent people lock away the world from themselves and will never know what it means to be part of something much larger. It is terribly sad when someone becomes this character, and cannot face the world.
Now I have learnt, as always, the hard way, that I am basically incompatible with ‘inner-directed’ types.