Roszak, Theodore (1933 – ) American Social Critic

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Theodore Roszak (1933 )
American social critic

Perhaps most prominently associated with the counterculture movement in the 1960s, Roszak was born in 1933. He received his B.A. from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1955 and a Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1958. Roszak began his career as an instructor in history at Stanford University and is currently professor of history at California State University, Hayward. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1971.

Like his mentor Lewis Mumford, Roszak combines political and cultural criticism with a thoroughgoing critique of technology and technological society. Published in 1969, his first book was an effort to understand the counterculture movement. In The Making of a Counterculture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and its Youthful Opposition, Roszak criticizes consumer society, the military-industrial complex it supports, the increasing concentration of populations in unclean, unsafe, and ungovernable cities, and the technocratic and bureaucratic mentality that views such dilemmas as essentially technical problems with technical or scientific solutions. Roszak is highly critical of this rationalist point-of-view and argues that modern society should attempt to recover and return to a sense of the sacred and mysterious dimensions of human life.

In 1972, Roszak published Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Post-Industrial Society. Here, he offers an outline of what he terms a "visionary commonwealth," an alternative society that would check or eliminate the destructive tendencies of modern technocratic civilization. The commonwealth he describes is decentralized and small in scale. Politics is participatory, technology is appropriate and intermediate, and there is widespread experimentation with different forms of social, economic, and political organization. Roszak believes that resettling populations into such small-scale, economically self-sufficient, and politically self-governing communities cannot happen quickly. However, he contends that such a shift will happen and he argues that it should happen, if humans are to live spiritually rich and meaningful lives. Roszak maintains that the possibilities for this utopia are present as "springs" within the technocratic wasteland, waiting to be discovered and used to transform this spiritual desert into a humanly habitable garden of earthly delights. It is he says, "more humanly beautiful to risk failure in searching for the hidden springs than to resign to the futurelessness of the wasteland."

Published in 1978, Person/Planet expands on Roszak's vision of the future of humanity and continues his critique of modern society. Roszak argues that industrial society is disintegrating in a way that, he maintains, is creative. Large, complex institutions, including government itself, are failing to attract the loyalty and allegiance they need to maintain their authority, and Roszak believes their disintegration will make his utopian commonwealth possible. For him, the needs of the individual and the needs of the planet are identical. Both flourish in an atmosphere of authenticity, diversity, and respect, and he argues that these are things that large industrial institutions, with their emphasis on uniformity, linearity, and wastefulness, can neither comprehend nor tolerate.

Roszak has been criticized for his romanticism and his utopianism. His attacks on science and rationalism, in particular, have been frequently condemned as vague and imprecise, and he has been accused of confusing the methodology of science with the failings of the people who employ it. However, many admire Roszak not only for his passionate prose but also for his vision of human possibilities, and his books are still frequently consulted for their images of people living reverently and responsibly in harmony with the earth.

[Terence Ball ]



Roszak, Theodore. Person/Planet: The Creative Disintegration of Industrial Society. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978.

. The Gendered Atom: Reflections on the Sexual Psychology of Science. Conari Press, 1999.

. The Making of a Counterculture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and its Youthful Opposition. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969.

. The Voice of the Earth. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

. Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Postindustrial Society. New York: Doubleday, 1972.

. M. E. Gomes, and A. D. Kanner. Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1995.