The Big Chill

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One of the questions I believe is among the most important a cultural critic can ask is, “Whatever happened to the spirit of the sixties?” How, that is, did a generation who questioned the growing materialism and social inequities of their country end up participating in the creation of a society where those same inequities have widened to the dimensions of a veritable socioeconomic Grand Canyon, while their own conspicuous consumption has made that of their parents look like ascetic self-denial? In asking that question I am not looking down on that generation: I am of it myself, though I have been able to steer clear of what I see to be its excesses. Part of what has helped me to avoid the siren song of consumption has been my knowledge of and admiration for what was once a central American value. The colonial-era writer St. John de Crevecoeur called this value “competency”: that is, the achievement of an economic middle ground between luxury and poverty, comfort without excess. That, Crevecoeur opined in his Letters from an American Farmer, was what America was all about. The valuing of competency has collapsed in the decades since the sixties. The explanation for what caused this collapse lies far beyond the scope of this blog, but we can get an interesting glimpse from the 1983 film The Big Chill. Frankly, I didn’t like the movie much. I found its last-minute happy ending to be both contrived and unconvincing, and I didn’t even like the soundtrack. But the movie did point to a development that is an important part of what transformed the spirit of the sixties into a new Gilded Age. The plot of The Big Chill involves a reunion of a group of former college students who, though they remember their days of radical political fervor with nostalgia, have since become the leading edge of what in the 1970s were first rather derisively termed young urban professionals, or Yuppies. One character is a lawyer who expressed her social conscience by becoming a public defender, only to find herself appalled by the crimes committed by her clients and tempted by a lucrative offer from a corporate law firm, which she has accepted. Another is a doctor, whose husband has founded a successful running-shoe company, which is about to become more successful via an acquisition by a larger company (and he is not above sharing insider trading secrets with an old friend who has become a radio psychologist). There’s also an upper-middle-class housewife (married to a business executive) and a more or less upper-class actor. Only one of the old group remained true to his values,  and his suicide is the cause of the reunion. What I find most interesting in the film is its very accurate assessment of a social development that has only intensified in the three decades since its appearance: the rapid expansion of America’s upper middle class. This expansion has produced what is essentially a new class, one that I call “upper-class light,” that has prospered even as the traditional middle class has been under a continuous siege that has reduced many of its members to lower-middle and lower-class status. Indeed, when the Occupy Movement speaks of the 1%, it should be recognized that that 1% is not entirely made up of the upper class: much of it is upper middle, and its prosperity has come largely at the expense of the middle class. (I see something of this happening in the growing conflict between university administration, whose pay scale is upper-middle class, and faculty, especially at public colleges and universities, who are largely middle class, or lower-middle class if in the adjunct ranks; and it certainly happens when corporate upper management sacrifices middle management while preserving its own security.) This goes quite against the grain of classic Marxist theory, whereby the downfall of the bourgeoisie was supposed to be at the hands of the proletariat. Instead, the haute bourgeoisie are devouring the petit bourgeoisie. (It’s notable in this regard that Jeff Goldblum’s character in The Big Chill, which is identifiably middle rather than upper-middle class, is treated in a rather humiliating fashion in the movie by being given a child’s bed to sleep in and being refused the stock tips that are given out to William Hurt’s character.) The irony of all this goes back to that great Walt Kelly line from the comic strip Pogo: that is, as the middle class looks to discover just what has happened to it, it could well say, “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.