The unity of self and society

Twentieth-century society was conceived of as an impersonal mechanism defined by international division of labour, national bureaucracy and scientific laws understood only by experts. Not surprisingly, most people felt ignorant and impotent in the face of such a society. Yet, we have never been more conscious of ourselves as unique personalities who make a difference. That is why questions of identity are so central to politics today.

Money in capitalist societies stands for alienation, detachment, impersonal society, the outside; its origins lie beyond our control (the market). Relations marked by the absence of money are the model of personal integration and free association, of what we take to be familiar, the inside (home). This institutional dualism, forcing individuals to divide themselves, asks too much of us. People want to integrate division, to make some meaningful connection between themselves as subjects and society as an object. It helps that money, as well as being the means of separating public and domestic life, was always the main bridge between the two. That is why money must be central to any attempt to humanize society. Today it is both the principal source of our vulnerability in society and the main practical symbol allowing each of us to make an impersonal world meaningful.

How else can we repair this rupture between self and society? Mohandas K. Gandhi’s critique of the modern identification of society with the state was devastating. He believed that it disabled citizens, subjecting mind and body to the control of professional experts when the purpose of a civilization should be to enhance its members’ sense of their own self-reliance. He proposed instead that every human being is a unique personality and participates with the rest of humanity in an encompassing whole. Between these extremes lie proliferating associations of great variety. He settled on the village as the vehicle for Indians’ aspirations for self-organization; and this made him in many respects a typical twentieth-century nationalist. But what is most relevant to us is his existentialist project.

If the world of society and nature is devoid of meaning, each of us is left feeling small, isolated and vulnerable. How do we bridge the gap between a puny self and a vast, unknowable world? The answer is to scale down the world, to scale up the self or a combination of both, so that a meaningful relationship might be established between the two. Gandhi devoted a large part of his philosophy to building up the personal resources of individuals. Our task is to bring this project up to date.

Works of fiction -- novels, plays and movies -- allow us to span actual and possible worlds. They bring history down in scale to a familiar frame (the paperback, the screen) and audiences enter into that history subjectively on any terms their imagination permits. The sources of our alienation are commonplace. What interests me is resistance to alienation, whatever form it takes, religious or otherwise. How can we feel at home out there, in the restless turbulence of the modern world?

The digital revolution in is in part a response to this need. We feel at home in intimate, face-to-face relations; but we must engage in remote, often impersonal exchanges at distance. Improvements in telecommunications cannot stop until we replicate at distance the experience of face-to-face interaction. For the drive to overcome alienation is even more powerful than alienation itself. Social evolution has reached the point of establishing near-universal communications; now we must make world society in the image of our own humanity.

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Comment by Keith Hart on April 16, 2010 at 8:34am
I agree that the OAC is more fluid than academia, but its social forms still have to be worked out, otherwise energies will be dissipated, people will lose interest and go away. Take the problems with establishing the OAC Press as a case in point. Richard's contrast between the two kinds of monks is between two ideal types which are combined in practice everywhere, but with different emphasis. This may be good for thinking with, but I have an acute sense of the need for us to find more stable, if still fluid ways of interacting at the OAC, of which this Ning blog format is one. It would be great to devise others that could tap into the latent energies of a largely passive membership.
Comment by Huon Wardle on April 15, 2010 at 8:18pm
Does anybody here in OAC managed to move into him/herself further more than creating egocentric networks and relations, as Richard suggests ?

I liked Richard's analogy very much.Back in September, Nikos made a very perceptive observation that -

on OAC I agree that our site is like a transforming amoeba PROTEUS ...

We are assuming that 'egocentric' has a negative valuation but perhaps the real issue is that we have 'stumbled upon' a new method signalled by how the OAC works that hasn't been even minimally understood yet.
Comment by John McCreery on April 15, 2010 at 10:30am
The OAC is less than a year old. How long do you think it takes to build an institution, Nikos, and how can it be done initially other than by individuals trying to make society together?

Excellent point, Keith. Teething problems should not be mistaken for fatal diseases.
Comment by Keith Hart on April 15, 2010 at 7:45am
Does anybody here in OAC managed to move into him/herself further more than creating egocentric networks and relations, as Richard suggests ?

The OAC is less than a year old. How long do you think it takes to build an institution, Nikos, and how can it be done initially other than by individuals trying to make society together?

One of Mauss’s key modifications to his uncle’s legacy was to conceive of society as a historical project of humanity whose limits were extended to become ever more inclusive. The point of The Gift is that society cannot be taken for granted as a pre-existent form. It must be made and remade, sometimes from scratch. How do we behave on a first date or on a diplomatic mission? We make gifts. The moiety systems described in the first chapter are going nowhere. But heroic gift-exchange is designed to push the limits of society outwards. They are “liberal” in a similar sense to the “free market”, except that generosity powers the exchange, self-interested for sure, but not in the way associated with homo economicus. Malinowski’s account of the kula ring is the contested origin for Mauss’s discussion. “The whole intertribal kula is merely the extreme case…of a more general system. This takes the tribe itself, in its entirety, out of the narrow sphere of its physical boundaries and even of its interests and rights.” No society is ever economically self-sufficient, least of all these Melanesian islands. So to the need for establishing local limits on social action must always be added the means of extending a community’s reach abroad.

Thanks, John.
Comment by John McCreery on April 15, 2010 at 6:02am
Richard Irvine

We are all stuck together in this world, like it or not. But the egocentric networks we form online can all to easily become a way of maneuvering around this reality without ever really having to move beyond ourselves.

Nikos Gousgounis

Does anybody here in OAC managed to move into him/herself further more than creating egocentric networks and relations, as Richard suggests ?

My most important social move this year has been offline. I have joined a 99% Japanese men's chorus, most of whose members are around my age. Practices every Wednesday night, extra practices on weekends, parties, performances--a real social life. What makes it real? A shared interest (the singing), eating and drinking together (commensality rocks), uncontaminated by doing business together (lots of our connections are business acquaintances), more permanent seeming (the people we get to like at the foreigner-oriented to which we belong tend to disappear every two or three years.

I can't recall ever meeting anyone who finds online-only relationships very satisfying. Is this a generational thing?
Comment by John McCreery on April 15, 2010 at 2:44am
Richard, thanks for the intervention. Keith, no problem. I've been very grumpy myself for the last couple of weeks. I agree entirely with your statement that,

For me the ability to achieve some practical synthesis of stability and movement is the prime challenge of living in this world.

You are right, moreover, that my responses to your initiatives have become caricatured. That makes me doubly glad that Richard has intervened.
Comment by Keith Hart on April 14, 2010 at 11:18pm
Thanks for this, Richard. You raise several issues which may not be lined up to form the paired sets you postulate, but the pair are sure good to think with.

For me the ability to achieve some practical synthesis of stability and movement is the prime challenge of living in this world. When I had ambitions to become a popular writer, I sold a book to a famous New York literary agent. It was called Still Moving and was about how we have to hold some things to be necessary in order to be free in other respects. We have to achieve zones of stability in order to move at all. This is an existential question, but it applies to the organization of mobility itself. We need the fixed places like airports and bus stations in order to travel. My own family is incredibly mobile, but the fixed points of our shared life are essential and these are not just places, but rituals, sometimes both. I freak out if domestic decor is changed. I once had a partner who liked to rearrange the furniture for fun. I was horrified to come back to a new living room, when all I wanted was to reconnect to the familiar.

Institutions and networks in some ways are the opposite of each other, but communities are usually networks of a particular kind. So here too I would not consider stable units and egocentric networks, virtual or otherwise, to be opposed concepts. In order to be human we must be both self-reliant and belong to others. Being individual and being mutual are sometimes represented as being incompatible, but unless we can unify them, we will be sunk.

You are right to pick me up on my intemperate outburst in response to John. But this was not because I expect this place to be the mirror image of myself. I wouldn't be here if it were not for the sociality. John and I have a relationship that is is longstanding as the OAC. I felt that our exchanges were sliding into a caricature and that he took the lead in being dismissive of me. This is all very subjective. But the point at issue was the social form and secondarily the content of our conversation, not my desire, as both he and you have implied, to hear myself spouting in a void.

There's a lot more to chew on in your post. But what I would contest most strongly is the way you have set up these paired oppositions, both of which, I would hold, need to brought into some active relationship. I fully accept responsibility for getting it wrong in this and other occasions. On the most basic issue, I would say that we cannot afford to stand on one leg in this world. We need to move, but it sure helps to to have stable points of reference.

One of my favourite movie clips is early on in Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence and a guide arrive at a well in th desert. A black figure riding a camel appears on the horizon (Omar Sharif in his first screen role). The guide panics and races to jump on his camel, but he shot dead frm a long distance by Omar's rifle. Lawrence is apopleptic, you barbarian etc. Omatr says, he knew it was our well.
Comment by Richard Irvine on April 14, 2010 at 1:04pm
While I am interested in the role of intermediary institutions, and the problem of how to bridge the gulf between these two worlds of self and society, I think that I see a limitation in the use of digital communications that is, in fact, hinted at in both of your posts.

Allow me to make an rather extended analogy with one of my own fields of study. Hopefully my point will emerge at some stage! One of the key principles on which Benedictine monastic identity rests is the commitment to stability, and the last century of Benedictine history, in England particularly, but also elsewhere, has been a time of revolution by tradition where monks have been called back towards this principle of stability. To enter a Benedictine monastery is to SETTLE within a corporate body, and to share in all aspects of life with that body; (I'm quoting a late 19th/early 20th century monk here) “acting only through it, sharing in all the joys and sorrows of its members, giving and receiving that help, comfort and strength which come from mutual counsel... the monks... are bound together by ties which are particularly close. They are truly said to form a family” . Stability is the condition under which such family ties are able to develop, because people aren't continually creating and dissolving social networks by way of movement and continual social recognition. So what we see is a very specific way of resolving this gap between the isolated self and wider reality (which, in a Durkheimian mode, I think we can understand as both social and divine). So the individual binds himself to a pre-existing and enduring social unit in the hope of reaching out beyond himself.

The distinctiveness of this emphasis upon stability is well demonstrated by Stanley Tambiah in his comparison of monastic networks in medieval Europe with networks of Theravada Buddhist monasteries in contemporary Thailand. He writes that “The Thai monk... knows little or none of that attachment to the first monastery as implied by the vow of stability, which Benedict championed as a necessary adjunct to the achievement of an ordered settled community in the face of vagrancy and anarchy” . Tambiah traces a network of movement from village monasteries, to monasteries in the provincial capitals, to monasteries in the national capital, through which Thai Buddhist monks pursue opportunities for learning and advancing in their ambitions. The dynamic and diachronic nature of the relationships established through the monks’ movement means that the ‘active’ ties of the past give way to newly established ties throughout a monastic career. So here we have a contrast between the network of movement between Thai monasteries, and the stasis of the Benedictine monk’s enduring relationship to his monastery of profession. What we see in Tambiah’s description is the dynamic nature of the Thai monastic network; it is “a potential circuit, parts of which are activated essentially by individuals”.

I find this contrast very interesting, because it illustrates an important contrast in the networks formed; the Thai Buddhist network is egocentric and dynamic, continually formed and reformed around the mobile monk - the Benedictine network is, broadly speaking, communocentric and static, having scaled society down to manageable, kinship-group-like chunks.

Why have I taken you on this detour? I think that the kind of social relationship that John describes here has far more in common with the egocentric and dynamic networks formed by Thai monks - he is an individual character navigating around "personal relationships". Facebook is an excellent example of a social networking medium which is based on this very model of relationship. When we join facebook, we are creating using a potential circuit, but activiating a web of associations around ourselves. Although there are groups, etc., there has been a shift away from the idea that there were networks that represented this particular University, workplace, or city, and towards the idea that we are each the architect of our own networks. Now Keith, although you speak of what John is saying about personal relationships as an 'opposed perspective', if you are talking aboput "making world society in the image of our own humanity", it seems that all too often what we do online is that we activate egocentric networks as a substitute for social communication. Rather than taking the step away from the self and towards a commitment to a wider social reality, we construct our own social reality in our own image. Which, I would argue, doesn't bridge the gap between self and society. It just allows us to dodge the question.

Stability is a different kind of social reality altogether. It is a recognition of the need to root ourselves in pre-existing institutions and places. What this means is that we are forced into interactions with others who are part of those institutions, who live in those places. We might not agree with those people. We might not like those people. But we sure as hell have to live with those people.

The internet has generated wonderful opportunities for interaction. It has been a wonderful experience, over the past decade, to form a social network based on my own interests and activities. But I wonder if this has been at the expense of stability. My social relations have become shaped by my identity. But how can I connect with those with different identities, those who have formed different networks? How can I ever share a social world with the stranger in the street? With the person of differing views and interests? We are all stuck together in this world, like it or not. But the egocentric networks we form online can all to easily become a way of maneuvering around this reality without ever really having to move beyond ourselves.
Comment by John McCreery on April 12, 2010 at 1:39pm
Keith, the floor is yours. I hope someone else joins in. Adieu.
Comment by Keith Hart on April 12, 2010 at 8:05am
Look John. How much longer are we going on like this? I post an item on my blog. You reply as soon as you get up. It is always the same thing. Yes, but... No real engagement with what I have to say, but apparently you feel you have to put in an opposed perspective. Every time. If there are any onlookers, they will just assume it is a private non-conversation between us, two people talking past each other. Could you please leave some space for others to participate, rather than endlessly repeat your distaste for the level at which I pitch my ideas? As it happens, I have another argument about the importance of cultural particulars, but I chose to put this one forward first because I think it touches on something important that I would like to share with readers. Apart from anyhting else, I thought it was a standard convention of polite conversation to engage with someone before proposing an alternative.

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