Conditions

by CarlD

Marx was the master of conditioning imagery — the dead generations weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living, and so on — but Kant was no slouch:

“The light dove, cleaving the air in her free flight and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space” (Introduction, Critique of Pure Reason).

He refers here to Plato trying to dispense with the senses as the supporting ground of our understanding. So unreliable, yet so indispensable, our senses. The quote has a different resonance for me when I’m dealing with the sorts of radical individualism produced by modern societies. The idea that society oppresses us and holds us back is a common theme of what I’ve been calling entitlement; but as I suggested in the G.H. Mead post, there is no I, me, or us without society. It is the air in which we fly. The tension between the flight society enables and the resistance it creates is a fundamental theme of modern experience as such, so often explored and enacted in art.

I was again struck by this whilst watching Ken Burns’ documentary on Frank Lloyd Wright (listen to an interview with Burns here). Burns chronicles Wright’s creative genius but/and also his arrogant disregard for any order of things other than his own. He rejected any outside control while thinking nothing of creating environments designed completely to control the people in them. Like any cult leader he used his considerable charisma to surround himself with people who made themselves the instruments of his will, the means to his ends.

Burns captures Wright’s narcissism but completely misses his underlying anxiety, the unfillable void of anomie that Durkheim predicted for the socially disconnected modern individual. The first is evident in Wright’s posture and pronouncements, the latter in his shifty approval-seeking gaze. As Goffman said, the theater of the self requires an audience.

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4 Comments to “Conditions”

  1. It’s so hard to make the argument, in this time and place anyway, that individuals are products of society as much as the other way around (or, as I put it somewhere, that individuals are not ontologically prior to the social). What method or tactic or examples do you use to try and make the argument? The senses really do form part of the problem in that argument too, as people often fall back onto biology as the counter to the socially-produced individual – i.e. individuals, unlike society, have a biology (of course, individuals don’t, humans-as-animals do, but that’s another tricky distinction).

    Also, your post remind me of a constant refrain that I see in people talking about social structures, especially in the economic sphere – structure or society or culture as constraint. It’s as if there is an infinite field of possibilities, one of which would be best, but culture only lets us see some of them, and thus we choose something suboptimal. If only we could see all the possibilities (with echoes of Althusser’s fruitlss search for a place outside of ideology) we could reach the magical land of the optimal. As if, somehow, the preference relationship or the choice set could make sense ‘outside’ of social structure or culture. It’s a very frustrating argument, but one I want to find the right way out of without just invoking Foucault unconvincingly.

  2. As for Kant’s brilliant imagery, don’t forget his talk of the nomads, “who abhor all permanent cultivation of the soil.” How memorable would Deleuze be without that one? (Well, ok, he’d still have the rhizomes to cultivate…)

  3. Hi Dan! Thanks for visiting and for your densely packed comment. You point to a classic problem for the ‘sociological imagination’. Even within sociology the appeal of methodological individualism is strong — even apart from the formal advocates of that view I’ve known many sociologists who default to individualism in their understandings of their own lives and interactions. Our own agency is the hardest to examine.

    I too am frustrated by the vulgar structure/agency binary that seems to force us utopically to choose the latter and reject the former or become mere slaves of despotic heteronomy. Apparently the point that society is constructively ‘within us’ is not persuasive, nor should we expect it to be given what we know about how the socialization of the modern individual goes. I’ve tried to get over my ‘enlightenment’ tendency to be missionary about this, but watching people flounder miserably to understand ordinary things while rejecting the kinds of explanations that would actually help is hard to take.

    It’s illuminating to watch Bourdieu struggle with this. He was better at analyzing and explaining the interplay of structure and agency than anyone. But he was also systematically and insistently misunderstood on these points, and his blind spot seems to have been why. All he had to offer was reasoned argument and demonstration, which according to the logic of his own analysis he should have known would not be decisive. Yet his frustration regularly breaks through, and that too is to be expected.

    So basically, I don’t know what to say. I throw the good stuff out there and see what kinds of reactions I get. Some people get it, and some people don’t. You can lead the horse to culture, but you can’t make it think. For some people big obvious examples are illuminating: why are most of the people in this part of the world Christian and most in that part Muslim — how do we explain that clustering of individual choices? For others, more micro examples can help — why do you play golf, not Mayan handball? Why is it merely ‘courteous’ to hold the door for women, but for men it’s nearly an insult? Etc.

    Without rambling on too long in all the avenues you open up, I’m also fascinated by the sort of double-move that economic and other individualisms have to make. It LOOKS like society is an abstraction, whereas individuals are real and concrete. But economics is helpless to explore the actual makeup and motivations of individuals because they’re simply posited as idealized rationalizers. There’s nothing more abstract than ‘the individual’ in this sense.

  4. Roman, I’d not noted that one. Thanks! My Deleuze is deficient, I’m afraid, although from what I gather he’d be congenial — albeit in a more philosophical mode than I generally find worth the trouble of unpacking. Once you’ve seen forty-seven guys spending most of their careers clearing their throats of the phlegmy nightmare of the dead generations of the philosophical tradition, the forty-eighth looks like surplus. (Sorry, I’m on a bit of a kick about philosophy at the moment, which you may recognize as a form of self-critique.)

    I enjoyed your current post on antagonistic feminism. I agree with you in principle; I’ll try to make it over to kibitz soon.

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