Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Effort at Synthesis: Alienation, Tribalism, Inverse Operations


So. In spite of my efforts (best or otherwise), I'm still unemployed.

Money's tight. While I'm in not in any immediate danger of being rolled out into the street, I've all but declared a moratorium on checking account withdrawals for anything but rent, utilities, groceries, and the occasional cup of coffee. I don't eat out anymore. I don't have the disposable income to go to shows, bars, or the theatre, so the nightlife is off limits to me. I can't afford a rock gym membership, and I can't pay the admission price for the Philadelphia M:tG scene (though I'd be just asking for trouble anyway).

Not having any money is bad. Not having any obligations is worse. I can sleep until eleven, noon, two in the afternoon—and it makes no difference. There's nobody expecting me, asking about me, or depending on me. I have no business with anyone in this city, and nobody in this city has any business with me. I feel like J. Alfred Prufrock. Or maybe Waluigi.

On second thought, it's not true that nobody in this city has any business with me. I do have friends around town, and here at home. But for the most part they're widely dispersed throughout the city, and they all have jobs. By the time they punch out in the evening, I'm too emotionally and spiritually enervated from sitting in bed all day and reloading Craigslist between X-Files episodes to be very good company for anyone—and besides, it's often the case that when my friends get out of work, they'd not up for doing much but sitting at home by themselves and watching Netflix or playing video games to cleanse their psychic palates.

Several friends have told me they wish they had more personal time, shorter commutes, and a better work/life balance. It's funny: most people I know need vacations, and I need my fucking vacation to be over already.

But I'm not sure how happy a new job would make me. I seem to remember having two different jobs at two different places in 2015, and there were too many days when I went about my shifts with a cloud of invisible black luna moths flitting about my head whispering this is pointless, you are pointless pointless pointless

And then most evenings I'd go home and sit by myself. Or wander onto a bar patio and, well, sit by myself.

I know a lot of people who seem dissatisfied. They tell me they would love to spend their time more intentionally, more meaningfully. When I ask how, their answers usually involve volunteering in some capacity, or a vague yen to "get involved." To make a difference. To contribute to something; to be a part of something.

I wonder if that isn't an oblique way of articulating loneliness.

Maybe it's just city life. Philadelphia has a reputation as a friendly town, but the conviviality differential between cities is, I suspect, just varying degrees of coldness. You've got an aggregate of strangers with a conscientious disinterest in 99% of the people they encounter on a daily basis. Don't get involved is the inculcated credo of the urbanite. Mind your own business. Any assessment of the modern city would be incomplete without reference to the alienation and indifference typical of urban life, the prevalence of which isn't just a matter of personal anecdote.

Twentieth-century sociologist Louis Wirth dedicated much of his career to examining the peculiarities of the urban lifestyle. In "Urbanism as a Way of Life," he gets right to the crux of it:
For sociological purposes a city is a relatively large, dense, and permanent settlement of heterogeneous individuals. Large numbers account for individual variability, the relative absence of intimate personal acquaintanceship, the segmentilization of human relations which are largely anonymous, superficial, and transitory, and its associated characteristics. Density involves diversification and specialization, the coincidence of close physical contact and distant social relations, glaring contrasts, a complex pattern of segregation, the predominance of formal social control, and accentuated friction, among other phenomena. Heterogeneity tends to break down rigid social structures and to produce increased mobility, instability, and insecurity, and the affiliation of the individuals with a variety of intersecting and tangential social groups with a high rate of membership turnover.
That sounds about right. But: it seems to me this description is as germane to the suburbs of Maryland or Jersey as it is Washington DC or New York.

Wirth has an answer for this: urbanism is not confined to neighborhoods in the umbrae of skyscraper. Quite the contrary, actually:
The characterization of a community as urban on the basis of size alone is obviously arbitrary ... no definition of urbanism can hope to be completely satisfying as long as numbers are regarded as the sole criterion. Moreover, it is not difficult to demonstrate that communities of less than the arbitrarily set number of inhabitants lying within the range of influence of the metropolitan centers have greater claim to recognition as urban communities than do larger ones leading a more isolated existence in a predominately rural area...

As long as we identify urbanism with the physical entity of the city, viewing it merely as rigidly delimited in space, and proceed as if urban attributes abruptly ceased to be manifested beyond an arbitrary boundary line, we are not likely to arrive at any adequate conception of urbanism as a mode of life. The technological developments in transportation and communication which virtually mark a new epoch in human history have accentuated the role of cities as dominant elements in our civilization and have enormously extended the urban mode of living beyond the confines of the city itself...Urbanization no longer denotes merely the process by which persons are attracted to a place called the city and incorporated into its system of life. It refers also to that cumulative accentuation of the characteristics distinctive of the mode of life which is associated with the growth of cities, and finally to the changes in the direction of modes of life reorganized as urban which are apparent among people, wherever they may be, who have come under the spell of the influences which the city exerts by virtue of the power of its institutions and personalities operating through the means of communication and transportation.
Do note that when Wirth refers to "technological developments in transportation and communication," he does so as a man writing during the 1930s, before the Interstate Highway system, the television takeoff, and the invention of telephones with push-buttons (to say nothing of portability and internet access).

If Wirth's assessment of urbanism and its proliferation are more or less accurate, it stand to reason that successive developments in communication and transportation have ramped up the range and radiant flux of the the metropolitan magnetic field, bringing areas more and more distant from the city limits into closer alignment with its cultural force lines.

Wirth cautions the reader not to conflate urbanism with modern capitalism—after all, people have been clustered in large cities since the days of the Sumerians. But the character and range of the urban lifestyle definitely hasn't remained constant across the world and through the centuries. Capitalism—the social relations on which it is predicated, and the two centuries of technological progress it has driven—are the context, if not the cause, of modern urbanism. Not the least because it's unimaginable that, without modern technology, the size and density of a modern metropolis could be achieved without routine problems of starvation and pestilence, but more to the point, environmental variations foster commensurate differences in human behavior and organization. The attitudes, routines, and social networks of the average resident of a post-industrial capitalist city must be very far removed from those of, say, a citizen of Plato's Athens or Hammurabi's Babylon, or Dr. Robotnik's Metropolis Zone.


Transportation and communications technology convey urbanism across the cultural geographical landscape; susceptibility to malaise and isolation are included in that package. Look: you know people are lonely, and not just in the cities. But just to be thorough: let's just ask Google about "modern isolation" (because communication has become so abstracted that we can semantically equate speaking to a listening member of living our species with interfacing with a software system, but you already knew that, too) and see what we find in the first few results. Just skim them to get the gist. I'll boldface stuff I think might be important to bear in mind.

From Psychology Today ("Social Isolation: A Modern Plague"):
The best research confirms it: Americans are now perilously isolated (link is external). In a recent comprehensive study by scientists at Duke University, researchers have observed a sharp decline in social connectedness over the past 20 years.

Remarkably, 25% of Americans have no meaningful social support at all - not a single person they can confide in. And over half of all Americans report having no close confidants or friends outside their immediate family. The situation today is much worse today than it was when similar data were gathered in 1985. (At that time, only 10% of Americans were completely alone).

How could this happen? It's hundreds of little things. You can probably think of several off the top of your head: the longer work hours, the Internet, the ubiquitous iPod . . . and don't forget all the time spent sitting in traffic. ...

But we're truly not designed to live like this. For the great majority of human history, people resided in small, intimate hunter-gatherer communities. And anthropologists who spend time with modern-day hunter-gatherer bands report that social isolation and loneliness are largely unknown among them: group members spend the bulk of their time - virtually all day, every day - in the company of friends and loved ones.

Even Americans of a few generations ago used to benefit from a richness of community life that has all but disappeared, as we've witnessed a long, slow retreat into the hermetically sealed comfort of our fortress-like homes . . . deep friendships replaced by screens, gadgets, and exhausted couch-potato stupor.

The toll? Increased vulnerability to mental illness. Social isolation is a huge risk factor for the onset of major depression (link is external), which has more than doubled in prevalence (link is external) over the past decade.  And there's growing evidence that isolation increases vulnerability to various forms of addiction (link is external), as well.
From The American Spectator ("The Loneliness of American Society"):
Other analysts see longer work days and longer commutes as sources of isolation. The Washington Post estimated that for every 10-minute increase in commuting time, there is a 10-percent decrease in time spent establishing and maintaining social ties. The number of people who indicated that they had a neighbor with whom they could confide has dropped more than half since 1985 — from around 19 percent to about eight percent. As both the work week and commutes have extended, those people who would ordinarily take the lead in developing and maintaining social structures — the well-educated and higher-earning people — are no longer available to mobilize efforts that build communities.

In short, with the growth of two-career and single-parent families, people have lost connection with neighbors and have little time or energy for groups or volunteerism. With the growth in “bedroom communities,” there aren’t enough moms available for field trips and community service projects that depend upon volunteerism. One of the most frequent complaints of home-schooling moms is that they are the only adults in their neighborhoods during the daytime.

In an era of instant communication via cell phone and e-mail, some would argue that it doesn’t make sense that people are lonely. Nevertheless, sharing — the antidote to loneliness — is not the same thing as talking. Chattering with another person can simply be a mask, a veil, a barrier, a poor substitute, and distraction from loneliness, similar to having the television on in the background to keep the house from seeming empty and barren, or to make it less obvious that the people inside are not interacting with each other.
From New Scientist ("Loneliness is a modern epidemic in need of treatment"):
Sadly, to date, attempts to reduce loneliness have met with limited success. A meta-analysis of different strategies studied in randomised controlled trials, showed they had only a small effect. Among the four types of interventions examined, talking therapy that focused on inappropriate thought processes – a lack of self-worth, a lack of perspective and a skewed idea of how trustworthy others are and how they perceive you – had the largest impact. Social skills training, social support and increased opportunities for social contact were much less effective.

This finding is consistent with the idea that perceived social isolation can still put us in self-preservation mode – a hangover from ancient times when isolation would have left us very vulnerable to attack – which can lead to harmful thought processes and behaviour that is at odds with thriving in a modern society.

Sadly, to date, attempts to reduce loneliness have met with limited success. A meta-analysis of different strategies studied in randomised controlled trials, showed they had only a small effect. Among the four types of interventions examined, talking therapy that focused on inappropriate thought processes – a lack of self-worth, a lack of perspective and a skewed idea of how trustworthy others are and how they perceive you – had the largest impact. Social skills training, social support and increased opportunities for social contact were much less effective.

This finding is consistent with the idea that perceived social isolation can still put us in self-preservation mode – a hangover from ancient times when isolation would have left us very vulnerable to attack – which can lead to harmful thought processes and behaviour that is at odds with thriving in a modern society.
From The Independent ("The Loneliness Epidemic"):
For those that experience loneliness for a long time, research has shown that this impacts on their health in a greater way than smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being obese. Loneliness has also been linked to poor mental health. In a survey by Mental Health Foundation, more than a third of people surveyed had felt depressed as a result of feeling lonely.
There are a number of myths regarding who experiences loneliness. Certainly all of us feel it from time to time, but it is commonly known that loneliness particularly affects the elderly who may be socially isolated due to decreased mobility and loss of friends and partners.  But it is not often acknowledged that loneliness also effects people at all ages, including children, and is particularly prevalent in the teenage years. Studies have shown that between 20 and 80 per cent of adolescents report feeling lonely often, which is compared to 40 to 50 per cent in an elderly population.
Another myth is that loneliness is typically associated with being alone, but it also effects [sic] people when they are surrounded by others and well-connected socially. This is because loneliness is about the quality rather than the quantity of relationships that we have, so a person may have a lot of friends but still find that their needs for social contact are not met.

What can we do to reduce loneliness? This question has not been an easy one for researchers to answer, as common sense approaches - such as increasing opportunities to make friends - do not always result in reducing a person's loneliness. Certainly where people feel lonely because they are social isolated, ways to reconnect, when found, can be used by the person to reduce their loneliness. In a recent study, loneliness was reduced in older people in residential care when they were given training in social media use so they could remain in contact with family and loved ones. But it seems that it is not as simple as this, because offering such opportunities does not uniformly reduce loneliness.
And on it goes, ad infium.


So modernity (our definitions of which are likely show strong correlations to Wirth's description of urbanism) would seem to be to blame: technology, career demands, and the breakdown of "traditional" community life and communication are all recurring themes in these pieces.

Nostalgia for the good old days is as old as human progress and imagination, and when it's tittered about with such regularity (especially among the vocal right wing of a given Western nation with a white majority) one may be forgiven for gainsaying encomia on lost ways and deprecated virtues on general principles. But to categorically deny that human progress is anything but linear is intellectually dishonest: after all, there was once a time in American history when someone wasn't strolling schools every other month and indiscriminately shooting people, and some of us are old enough to remember how nice it was that it wasn't happening all the fucking time. And I don't suppose there's anyone still with us who recalls when we weren't blithely pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and figuring we'd just slap together a plan for bailing out our submerged coastal cities when the time comes. Not that our forebears weren't guilty of much and ignorant of more, but we have to admit they did abstain from fucking things up in some of the ways we're fucking thing up. (Of course they did make it possible for us to fuck things up the way we're fucking them up, and that's what "progress" means.)

Sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies makes a compelling (thought somewhat romantic) case for the halcyon era prior to centralization and industrialization in his 1887 opus Community and Civil Society. Comparing the social formations of pre-industrial and late nineteenth-century Western societies, Tönnies proposes two dichotomous historical modes of human organization: Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (civil society).
We have on offer two contrasting systems of collective social order. One is based essentially on concord, on the fundamental harmony of wills, and is developed and cultivated by religion and custom. The other is based on convention, on a convergence or pooling of rational desires; it is guaranteed and protected by political legislation, while its policies and their ratification are derived from public opinion.
Furthermore, there are two contrasting legal systems. The first is a mutually binding system of positive law, of enforceable norms regulating the relationships of individuals one with another. It has its roots in family life and its concrete embodiment in the ownership of land. Its forms are basically determined by custom, which religion consecrates and transfigures, if not as divine will then as the will of wise rulers who interpret the divine will in trying to adapt and improve those forms. The second system is also a system of positive law which is devoted to upholding the separate identities of rational individuals in the midst of all their combinations and entanglements. It has its natural basis in the formal regulation of trade and similar business but attains superior validity and binding force only through the sovereign will and power of the state. Law of this kind becomes one of the most important instruments of policy; it is used to sustain, restrain or encourage social trends, and is publicly contested tested or upheld by public doctrine and public opinion, through which it is altered to become stricter or more lenient. Finally we must add the two contrasting conceptions of morality as a purely intellectual or non-material system of rules for living together. On the one side morality is essentially an expression and organ of religious ideas and forces, causally linked to the conditions and realities of custom and family spirit. On the other side it is entirely the product and tool of public opinion, and refers to all relations arising out of general social intercourse based on contracts and from political striving and ambition.
At one pole is Gemeinschaft, defined by kinship, mutual obligation, shared religious beliefs, communitarianism, and fluid (or richer and more multifaceted) social roles. Some familiar examples to us might be an indigenous Amazon tribe, an Amish village, a Hasidic enclave, "those small and extremely ancient Indian communities" Karl Marx describes in Capital, or Tazmily Village as seen in the first few chapters of MOTHER 3. Gesellschaft, on the other hand, is more recognizably urban and modern, where individuality, tenuous social relations and responsibilities, privacy and personal property, secularism, and compartmentalized roles are all normative. In Gesellschaft, people are "essentially detached;" they "remain separate in spite of everything that unites them."

Tönnies makes no secret of where his personal compass points. It may not be ungenerous to observe that he glamorizes primitivism and feudalism in praising the loving inclusiveness and concord of Gemeinschaft, and is overzealous in his condemnation of Gesellschaft. In one of his more memorable invectives, he avers that the modern city "offers [the people] hearth and altar only in the shape of poorly heated lodgings at the top of a tenement block," plucks them from the village green and drops them onto "the pavements of a street where they have the privilege of gaping at glories beyond their reach," and bifurcates their lives "between two equally deformed versions of work and leisure—the misery of the factory, the joys of the pub." (Certainly the working conditions of nineteenth-century factory wage slaves were demonstrably more monstrous than those in a largely post-industrial economy like the United States; but it often doesn't seem like the modern worker has much to be happy about either, and Herman Melville was writing about the desolation of the urban office worker nearly a century before the invention of the cubicle.)

Modern urbanism, or Gesellschaft, Tönnies concludes, "is the death and ruin of the people." If that sounds hyperbolic, scroll back up to those excerpts about social isolation as a pandemic. That's what Tönnies denounces: the social conditions that make a city of dysphoric, disconnected, quietly desperate people not just possible, but unavoidable.


Most recollections of my good old days either take me back to college or to the two years when I lived and worked at the Quaker center. I doubt it's a coincidence that the times I was happiest were in communal settings: places where people lived and worked in very close proximity, sat down for group meals, enjoyed a common sense of purpose and a collective identity. And the times I've been most unhappy—which I'm sad to report have been during the last couple of years—correspond to the places and periods where I seem to pass through long tunnels of dissociation, where I sense no unity of purpose, ideals, or convictions of beauty with the people around me, where I'm feeling like an outcast: Silver Spring, St Thomas, and lately Philadelphia.

Altogether, this must have something to do with why I initially found Tönnies so persuasive. Why I read Walden Two perhaps a little too wistfully. Why my ideal living situation would be a commune. Why I abandon all judiciousness with the highlighter pen while reading Karl Marx passages pertaining to alienation.

Actually, what I didn't realize during my first reading of Community and Civil Society was just how heavily his treatise was influenced by Marx. Revisiting it now, after having plowed through Capital, Volume I, and seeing it refracted through a Marxian prism adds some extra depth to the text. But it's also being diffracted through the nebulae that Marshall McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy left in my thoughts—and in that context Community and Civil Society seems to take on an entirely new dimension.

At the conclusion of both Marx and McLuhan's historical narratives, what we end up with is a Western cultural landscape that matches the profiles sketched by Wirth and Tönnies. Marx's and McLuhan's accounts as to how we got there are as incongruous in their casts, plots, and foci as the Book of Genesis and the Epic of Gilgamesh—and, likewise, they exhibit striking concurrences.

Marx is concerned with how primitive accumulation and industrialization transformed feudal society into bourgeois society; McLuhan is interested in how the phonetic alphabet and printing press transformed tribal society into detribalized (or civil) society. In the interval 1500–1900 CE, the Western social order was turned on its head: capitalism exploded like a xenomorph chest-burster from the tissues of the feudal order; the guild system became the factory system, sustenance farmers and tradesmen became wage slaves, and agricultural tenants became slum tenants. Concomitantly, the interdependence, fluidity, and community spirit of the old oral/tribal culture was being gnawed away by the incentives towards individualism, objectivity, and specialism hatched by print technology as from so many termite eggs.

McLuhan astutely points out that the printing press, in the first place, provided the very template of mass reproduction that became the engine of capitalist manufacture. ("Printing was the first mechanization of an ancient handicraft and led easily to the further mechanization of all handicrafts.") Moreover, print culture in the West cultivated an intellectual milieu whose "enlightened" ideas about individuality and property were necessary for capitalist organization and production to take root:
This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all.
If you hadn't noticed, Karl was really one sarcastic son of a bitch.
On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the "Free-trader Vulgaris" with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but——a hiding.
With regard to print culture as a prerequisite for a capitalist marketplace, McLuhan posits:
Unless processed in a uniform way, it would be quite impossible to have delegation of functions and duties, and thus there could be no centralized national groupings such as came into existence after printing. Without similar uniform processing by literacy, there could be no market or price system, a factor which constrains "backward" countries to be "communist," or tribal. There is no known means of having our price and distribution system without long and extensive experience of literacy.
It is fascinating to observe the areas of overlap in Marx's and McLuhan's analyses, and there are some particularly striking convergences in Marx's explications of alienation and McLuhan's diagnosis of the literate human being, transformed and detribalized by "the uniformity, quiet privacy, and individualism" of print culture.

First, on alienation: a passage from Marx's Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, chiseled down as much as I can manage without leaving important details in the shavings pile.
In estranging from man (1) nature, and (2) himself, his own active functions, his life activity, estranged labor estranges the species from man. It changes for him the life of the species into a means of individual life. First it estranges the life of the species and individual life, and secondly it makes individual life in its abstract form the purpose of the life of the species, likewise in its abstract and estranged form.
For labor, life activity, productive life itself, appears to man in the first place merely as a means of satisfying a need – the need to maintain physical existence. Yet the productive life is the life of the species. It is life-engendering life. The whole character of a species, its species-character, is contained in the character of its life activity; and free, conscious activity is man’s species-character. Life itself appears only as a means to life. ...
In creating a world of objects by his personal activity, in his work upon inorganic nature, man proves himself a conscious species-being, i.e., as a being that treats the species as his own essential being, or that treats itself as a species-being. Admittedly animals also produce. They build themselves nests, dwellings, like the bees, beavers, ants, etc. But an animal only produces what it immediately needs for itself or its young. It produces one-sidedly, whilst man produces universally. It produces only under the dominion of immediate physical need, whilst man produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom. An animal produces only itself, whilst man reproduces the whole of nature. An animal’s product belongs immediately to its physical body, whilst man freely confronts his product.
 See also: the anthropized environment.
An animal forms only in accordance with the standard and the need of the species to which it belongs, whilst man knows how to produce in accordance with the standard of every species, and knows how to apply everywhere the inherent standard to the object. Man therefore also forms objects in accordance with the laws of beauty.

It is just in his work upon the objective world, therefore, that man really proves himself to be a species-being. This production is his active species-life. Through this production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labor is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species-life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he sees himself in a world that he has created. In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labor tears from him his species-life, his real objectivity as a member of the species and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him.

Similarly, in degrading spontaneous, free activity to a means, estranged labor makes man’s species-life a means to his physical existence.

The consciousness which man has of his species is thus transformed by estrangement in such a way that species[-life] becomes for him a means.

Estranged labor turns thus:

(3) Man’s species-being, both nature and his spiritual species-property, into a being alien to him, into a means of his individual existence. It estranges from man his own body, as well as external nature and his spiritual aspect, his human aspect.

(4) An immediate consequence of the fact that man is estranged from the product of his labor, from his life activity, from his species-being, is the estrangement of man from man. When man confronts himself, he confronts the other man. What applies to a man’s relation to his work, to the product of his labor and to himself, also holds of a man’s relation to the other man, and to the other man’s labor and object of labor.

In fact, the proposition that man’s species-nature is estranged from him means that one man is estranged from the other, as each of them is from man’s essential nature.

The estrangement of man, and in fact every relationship in which man [stands] to himself, is realized and expressed only in the relationship in which a man stands to other men.

Hence within the relationship of estranged labor each man views the other in accordance with the standard and the relationship in which he finds himself as a worker.
The preeminence of marketplace relationships over nearly every other social/interpersonal tie might not be obvious on a first glance. But consider the guy filling your gas tank. (This scenario places you in Jersey or Oregon; take your pick.) You don't confront him as another proud Jerseyite/Oregonian, community member, fellow American, fellow Spaceship Earth passenger, or fellow-anything. You're the paying customer; he's the guy who pumps your gas. Maybe he has a name, but you don't care what it is. To you he is a Sunoco uniform and a function. Most of the people around you are nothing but functions, as far as you're concerned—functions or peripheral occurrences. But don't feel too guilty: that's what you are to them, too.


To this we add some remarks from the Grundrisse:
It is, rather, the anticipation of ‘civil society’ [bürgerlichen Gesellschaft], in preparation since the sixteenth century and making giant strides towards maturity in the eighteenth. In this society of free competition, the individual appears detached from the natural bonds etc. which in earlier historical periods make him the accessory of a definite and limited human conglomerate...

The more deeply we go back into history, the more does the individual, and hence also the producing individual, appear as dependent, as belonging to a greater whole: in a still quite natural way in the family and in the family expanded into the clan; then later in the various forms of communal society arising out of the antitheses and fusions of the clan. Only in the eighteenth century, in ‘civil society’, do the various forms of social connectedness confront the individual as a mere means towards his private purposes, as external necessity.
Turning to McLuhan, we find an account that embarks from a different starting line and heads for a different destination, but passes through some queerly familiar neighborhoods:
Competitive individualism had become the scandal of a society long invested with corporate and collective values. The role played by print in instituting new patterns of culture is not unfamiliar. But one natural consequence of the specializing action of the new forms of knowledge was that all kinds of power took on a strongly centralist character. Whereas the role of the feudal monarch had been inclusive, the king actually including in himself all his subjects, the Renaissance prince tended to become an exclusive power centre surrounded by his individual subjects. And the result of such centralism, itself dependent on many new developments in roads and commerce, was the habit of delegation of powers and the specializing of many functions in separate areas and individuals. In King Lear, as in other plays, Shakespeare shows an utter clairvoyance concerning the social and personal consequences of denudation and stripping of attributes and functions for the sake of speed, precision, and increased power.
Marx has a lot to say—certainly more than you care you read—about what McLuhan describes in the last sentence.

Anyway, back to McLuhan:
[A] child in any Western milieu is surrounded by an abstract explicit visual technology of uniform time and uniform continuous space in which "cause" is efficient and sequential, and things move and happen on single planes and in successive order. But the African child lives in the implicit, magical world of the resonant oral word. He encounters not efficient causes but formal causes of configurational field such as any non-literate society cultivates. Carothers repeats again and again that "rural Africans live largely in a world of sound – a world loaded with direct personal significance for the hearer – whereas the Western European lives much more in a visual world which is on the whole indifferent to him."
As I'm just about to post this, I'm thinking I should email this passage to my friend Nickie—a Pennsylvania punk girl who lived in Benin during her Peace Corps stint and currently lives in Senegal with her husband Bamba and son Mohammed—and see what she thinks. I'll post her answer here when it comes.
But the technology and social effects of typography incline us to abstain from noting interplay and, as it were, "formal" causality, both in our inner and external lives. Print exists by virtue of the static separation of functions and fosters a mentality that gradually resists any but a separative and compartmentalizing or specialist outlook. ...

There is then this great paradox of the Gutenberg era, that its seeming activism is cinematic in the strict movie sense. It is a consistent series of static shots or "fixed points of view" in homogeneous relationship. Homogenization of men and materials will become the great program of the Gutenberg era, the source of wealth and power unknown to any other time or technology.
Finally:
Given the phonetic alphabet with its abstraction of meaning from sound and the translation of sound into a visual code, and men were at grips with an experience that transformed them. No pictographic or ideogrammic or hieroglyphic mode of writing has the detribalizing power of the phonetic alphabet. No other kind of writing save the phonetic has ever translated man out of the possessive world of total interdependence and interrelation that is the auditory network. From that magical resonating world of simultaneous relations that is the oral and acoustic space there is only one route to the freedom and independence of detribalized man. That route is via the phonetic alphabet, which lands men at once in varying degrees of dualistic schizophrenia.
One manifestation of this schizophrenia—which McLuhan calls an inevitable consequence of print culture and the behaviors it germinates—are the tensions between our species-nature as pack animals and the inculcated conception of ourselves as unique, self-determining individuals with exclusive destinies. We're jerry-rigged to celebrate our autonomy and independence even as we crave communion and interdependence.

And we wonder why so many people report feeling like "something is missing."


There's a broad idea in sociology called the deprivation-compensation theory of religion. Incidentally, it was seeded by a few familiar remarks from Marx:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Essentially, the deprivation-compensation theory holds that religion—belief and belief-groups—are responses to and compensations for suffering and scarcity. More specifically, sects are born of deprivation: after all, religious, political, or countercultural movements tend to be catalyzed by outrage or disillusionment. (It should be emphasized that the word "religion" is practically interchangeable with "ideology." Most chapters in the Complete and Unabridged History of Human Ideology would consist of mythology, dogma, and moral injunctions purportedly delivered from on high rather than concepts of secular philosophy.)

In "The Role of Deprivation in the Origin and Evolution of Religious Groups," Charles Glock enumerates five different types of deprivation: economic, social, organismic, ethical, and psychic. Economic and social deprivation are similar and fairly self-explanatory: the former tends to be a function of social class, while the latter pertains to social status. (One means having no money; the other means having no friends.) Organismic deprivation is a derivative of health problems or disabilities. (Glock associates it with miracle healing; we might link it to secular conspiracies about suppressed cancer cures or vaccination side-effects.)

Glock places ethical and psychic deprivation in a separate category from the first three forms:
Ethical deprivation exists when the individual comes to feel that the dominant values of the society no longer provide him with a meaningful way of organizing his life, and that it is necessary for him to find an alternative....Ethical deprivation is relatively independent of other forms of deprivation; in fact, it is more likely to arise when other forms of deprivation are not present.
Here I shall once more recur to "Everything Is Problematic" and leave it at that.

And lastly:
Psychic deprivation is somewhat akin to ethical deprivation. Here, too, there is a concern with philosophical meaning, but in this case philosophy is sought for its own sake rather than a source of ethical prescriptions as to how one is to behave in relation to others. Psychic deprivation is primarily a consequence of severe and unresolved social deprivation. The individual is not missing the material advantages of life but has been denied it psychic rewards.
Urbanism—or Gesellschaft, or detribalization, or alienation, or the knotted confluence of them all—inflicts deprivation primarily of the psychic variety. We've already observed the symptoms. Depression. Addiction. Madness. To these Glock might interpolate a susceptibility to sectarianism.

Which is understandable: the isolated person wants to belong. The person who feels he's leading a pointless life wants meaning—and more often than not, we measure the meaningfulness of our actions vis-à-vis other human beings. We do not exist but in relation.

Deprivation serves as one motive (or condition) for retribalization. The simultaneity, omnipresence, and communal concourses (or their facsimiles?) of the digital network provide the vector—if we grant the verity of McLuhan's theories and prophecies. (There's plenty of circumstantial evidence in his favor.)

We needn't concern ourselves with the fragmentation of centralized nation-states into insular demographic/ideological regions (at least not anytime soon). But digital sectarianism abounds, in forms as innocuous as the passionate fandom, and as ferocious as a vindictive Tumblr mob. (Sometimes a sect can be both.) A tribe of geographically diverse but digitally connected individuals is certainly not identical to a village community, but the twenty-first century is coming to resemble Serial Experiments Lain: events in the wired world are ramified with the "real" world; the wired world is becoming inseparable from the real world. Online relationships are ceasing to be simulacra for "real" relationships, particularly when many of us have so few meaningful "real" relationships.


An early early advocate for the beneficent potential of the online community was Howard Rheingold. In his 1993 book A Slice of My Life in a Virtual Community, he offers a layman's explanation of what was then a novel (even revolutionary) concept:
A virtual community is a group of people who may or may not meet one another face to face, and who exchange words and ideas through the mediation of computer bulletin boards and networks. In cyberspace, we chat and argue, engage in intellectual intercourse, perform acts of commerce, exchange knowledge, share emotional support, make plans, brainstorm, gossip, feud, fall in love, find friends and lose them, play games and metagames, flirt, create a little high art and a lot of idle talk. We do everything people do when people get together, but we do it with words on computer screens, leaving our bodies behind. Millions of us have already built communities where our identities commingle and interact electronically, independent of local time or location. The way a few of us live now might be the way a larger population will live, decades hence.
He adds: "If the use of virtual communities turns out to answer a deep and compelling need in people" (and he suspects it will), "today's small online enclaves may grow into much larger networks over the next twenty years."

And isn't that a good thing? Western culture estranges people from one another; electronic technology offers a historically unprecedented way of connecting people to people. Electronic media allows us to share, participate, and enjoy mutually validating expressions of identity and acknowledgement with communities of likeminded peers who, in many cases, are more real and meaningful to us than our coworkers, the clerks in the stores we visit, the other passengers on our morning train ride, or the people who live in our building to whom we have no reason to speak; to whom we are more than a workday function, a transactional history, or a cosmic stage extra.

For our final set of block quotes, we turn now to The Psychology of Religious Behavior, Belief and Experience by Michael Argyle and Benjamin Breit-Hallmi for a recap of some familiar ideas:
Is there a need for identity? Is the unconscious need for group identification and support a significant motive for religious faith? Burton (1990) suggested a list of universal needs, which include identity, bonding, security, and meaning. They supersede cultural requirements, and always demand satisfaction. It is obvious that the need for identity and belonging is often quite conscious as well. The need for identity and meaning within a culture becomes most pressing at life's turning points. Indeed, it is religion which provides rites of passage in most cultures.
Again, we can substitute "religion" throughout with "ideology." (The sweet sixteen, for instance, is a secular analog for a religious ritual of recognition and affirmation.)
Lewin's (1948) conception of group identity focuses on in-group solidarity, group boundaries, and intergroup relations. An individual's identity, denoting group membership, is a background determinant of individual behavior in many settings. The structure and the content of identity are determined by forces external to the individual and are not tied or related to personality dynamics. Zavalloni (1975) listed the following elements in a 'social identity cluster': sex, nation, religious origin, political ideology, social class, family situation, age group, and profession. Tajifel (1981, p. 255) defined social identity as 'that part of the individual's self-concept which derives from his knowledge of his membership of a social group together with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership.'
The work by Tajifel (1978, 1981) showed that social categorization based on minimal similarity is a sufficient condition for in-group solidarity and discriminatory social behavior. The simplest dichotomization into 'we' and 'they' creates a division of our social world into one in-group and at least one out-group. The reality of our social categorization, whether in the case of religion or other identities, leads to various cognitive distortions in deductions about the self and others such as out-group homogeneity bias, in-group favoritism, and stereotyping (Fiske and Taylor, 1991). Social categorization is accompanied by evaluation, an intimately tied to the management of self-esteem. Individuals express an overvaluation of the in-group, thereby enhancing their self-esteem, and a parallel systematic under evaluation of the out-group. The result may even be described as in-group narcissism. The imperatives of insecurity and self-enhancement, individual and social, may lead to conflicts which are identity-inspired and automatic.
Religion has 'identity functions' in being a source of legitimation for group identity and for individual self-esteem (Rosenberg, 1979). Bellah (1967) stated that religion provides a sense of identity for individuals and groups, i.e. a definition of self as well as environment. Belonging to a religious community is often tied to the experience of belonging to one's family. Group identity is connected to personal identity and self-esteem. Any slight to the collective identity is an insult to the self, and thus a most powerful attachment is formed. 'Faith and family, blood and belief, are what people identify with and what they will die for' (Huntingdon, 1993, p. 190).
Tönnies was more or less mum on this dimension of Gemeinschaft. (Whether he overlooked it completely or omitted it for the sake of making a coherent case is anyone's guess.) He extols the joys and benefits of community life, of the loving in-group, but has very little to say about the blessed community's usual relationship to out-groups—or to dissidents, particularly those who differ with the community's sacred beliefs or ideological keystones.


I've typed all of this, copied and pasted all these excerpts, stacked these walls of text just to circumscribe a contradiction that's been troubling me lately.

On the one hand I believe that human beings are communal or tribal creatures; social isolation is a systemic malady of our age, capitalist social organization is largely to blame, and humanity would be better off returning to or reinventing a communal lifestyle. But I also believe in freedom of belief and expression—which is a euphemism for license to believe and say unpopular things, to express the conclusions to which one is led by his personal intellectual/moral compass, even if the majority finds them disturbing or blasphemous.

What I fear is that these beliefs are as incompatible as a serious commitment to the extenuation of climate change and a diet that includes meat.

Our culture is founded on the safe distance and on the individual (as in "the rugged" and "the rights of the"). It is our tenuous detribalized social ties that permits us freedom of thought, the freedom to respectfully (or disrespectfully) take exception to sacred beliefs of others; our estrangement permits us the latitude for deviation. When the only agreements between residents on your block is that nobody harms, steals from, or actively bothers anyone else, it's a safe bet that the neighborhood doesn't really care what you're doing in the privacy of your home, what you're reading, who you're voting for, or what gods you are or aren't praying to. Without the live-and-let-live interpersonal detachment of urbanism/Gesellschaft, nonconformity is perfidy.

Tribes are unforgiving of apostates: in the media we've observed feminism devouring itself, the perpetual ideological litmus test to which every conservative politician in the United States is subjected by the right-wing base, and the Jewish congressmen who was likened to a Nazi collaborator for his support of the the Iran accord. And in some cases they are aggressive in punishing affronts to their sacred beliefs committed by people outside their own groups—like when Gamergaters harass female critics for criticizing sexism (they probably call it pushing an agenda) in video games. Pluralism is a difficult proposition in Gemeinschaft. The depth and richness of the in-group experience is proportionate to that group's otherizing of its out-group.

The risk and likelihood of loneliness is the price of a culture of individuality: groupthink and animosity of the Other is corollary to the gratification of community. It is like the old dilemma of the chilly porcupines: if they huddle too closely together for warmth, they stab each other. If they stand at too far a distance, they freeze to death. As a metaphor for a total and involute social system, this is an oversimplification: a more realistic analogy would involve thirteen-dimensional porcupines in a space where every differential of a given axis is a dependent variable of one or more of the other twelve axes.

It is disheartening to the extent of humanity's lousy track record in discerning and maintaining Golden Means.


One last word from Dr. McLuhan:
In our long striving to recover for the Western world a unity of sensibility and of thought and feeling we have no more been prepared to accept the tribal consequences of such unity than we were ready for the fragmentation of the human psyche by print culture.

6 comments:

  1. The contradiction that you mention towards the end, the benefits of a life in community being at odds with the benefits of freedom of expression, reminded me of an interesting dilemma I continuously entertained in my mind growing as a Christian teenager:

    The often misused "Dilemma of Evil" posits that since God would be an omnipotent creator, he'd be charged with the creation and continuous existence of "evil" (which the dilemma treats as some sort of objectively observable substance); and, since evil is an anti-thesis of what God is supposed to be, it is possible to conclude that God doesn't exist.

    However, that is a ridiculous claim that ignores the most basic understanding of human nature: Evil comes from the human will. Every single act of evil can be traced to a human source that profited from it, even if only in amusement value. And yet... by giving humans the capacity of doing evil, should God still be held responsible?

    This "capacity of doing evil", also know as "free will", if it is truly a God-given trait (and if God indeed does exist) represents an interesting binary choice taken at some point. He'd either allow free will or disallow it. A humanity without free will would be the perfect community of your contradiction. Working together in ever increasing peace and prosperity, the most excellent course of action that benefits the community the most automatically taken without hesitation or consideration. However, such a community would completely disallow the development of individuality. Moreover, there would be no merit or worth or virtue. Humanity would merely be a "sim" game in which God takes all decisions.

    On the other hand, introducing free will would allow the development of individuality, the capability of choice, and with it, of merit and virtue. Individuality would beget diversity and diversity would allow unpredictability and growth beyond the initial template. However, it would also introduce selfishness and the possibility of choosing an accelerated improvement of one's circumstance at the expense of other people. Evil. However however, that'd allow the rise of the most Godlike attribute of freedom of will: the capacity of loving /in spite of/.

    Your community-freedom of speech contradiction runs on the same principles. There are undeniable benefits to be an accepted (and complying) member of a tribe, including perhaps most importantly, emotional validation. This however comes at the personal cost of having to "play nice", follow rules and conform; in other words, repressing one's individuality. Choosing to follow your own path and exercising your freedom of belief and speech, on the other hand, will provide self-validation and boundless potential but will likely make you a pariah to the community, an "evil-doer" that commits the unforgivable sin of non-conformism. This will bring isolation... loneliness.

    Worse, trying to maintain a balance is also looked down upon, this time by advocates of both lifestyles. You are said to be either "wearing a mask" or "selling out" depending on the point of view. We really cannot possibly win here.

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    1. You've touched on one of the main reasons why my Episcopalian faith was dead in the water by the time I turned fifteen. The more I scrutinized the moral blueprints of the Christian universe, the more they seemed to correspond to a structure resembling some architectural tesseract out of MC Escher's imagination.

      And you're right: we can't win here. It's fantastically unlikely that human beings will ever enjoy any kind of ideal equilibrium where any of our affairs are concerned. Lately I've taken to saying that life on Earth has been pretty much grapes up ever since the first microbes began working towards mutually exclusive interests.

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  2. Excellent piece.

    We can't win because humans didn't evolve to live socially and psychologically perfect lives. We evolved to consistently live long enough to reproduce. Anything that comes beyond that is a happy accident or a cruel joke (I swear that sounded more positive in my head).

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    1. Whoa! It's been a minute. How's things?

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  3. Huh. I guess that image is pretty distinctive...

    Things are fine. I'm just not very talkative. I'm more comfortable lurking in the shadows, silently watching, plotting. You should ignore that last part.

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  4. This is all I think about, only my thoughts are not nearly so well substantiated by expert analysis and research. I need to read this post again, carefully, a bunch of times. I spend a lot of time these days feeling isolated, being "emotionally and spiritually enervated," and reading the internet. So I should be able to squeeze that in.

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