Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32, No. 23. September 24, 1969
Society as a Monster
Society as a Monster
Ontology: Let us imagine that even' particle in the universe, in general retreat from an original condition of chaos and dissolution, is now attempting to have intercourse as variously as possible with as many other particles as it can (the radical desire) and to sustain each interaction for as lone as possible (the conservative desire). Think of a universe in which every particle is eternally and intensely engaged in interaction with each and every of its fellow particles and is thus continuously realising every aspect of its individual being. Such a universe, where all is harmony and one, is Nature's goal. The primeval chaos we can call a state of 'ontological insecurity' and the ideal future oneness ontological security'; and the interactions of a particle (which constitute temporary defeat of the former and progress towards the later) can be called the 'ontological realisation' of the particle.
We can now conceive the things of Nature, as being islands of conquest in Nature's campaign against ontological insecurity; each individual thing having some relatively stable repertoire of interactions and representing in itself a microcosmic and imperfect approximation to Nature as a whole in its struggle towards ontological security. The autonomy which living things especially have, their relative independence and isolation from their environment, is just a ploy of Nature's—the rationale of an autonomy is essentially 'reculer pour mieux sauter'—and their freedom is only of value insofar as it serves the radical desire (to make a wider range of interactions possible) and the conservative desire (to make some modes of interaction permanent). The biological process of Evolution can be seen to be a mechanism by which more and more sophisticated and homeostatic autonomies can naturally arise —until finally there is Man. And in Man also we can see (if we turn on him the same metaphysical squint we directed at the universe) the same radical and conservative tendencies away from ontological insecurity towards ontological security. There are many natural barriers to the ontological further-realisation of Man (albeit far fewer than for the nearest higher animals) but there are also many barriers that are man-made.
Limitations of Society: Man evolved with Sufficient gregariousness and intelligence to develop certain cooperative, communal procedures (we can call them 'institutions' and their rough sum 'society') with which to speed his further-realisation, and there is no doubt at all that these institutions and societal organisation in general have done a tremendous job in this direction. As things have turned out however there do exist, to vitiate in small degree the magnificence of the main achievement, certain aspects of society (and by 'society' I mean, if anything, our own twentieth century 'western' society) which do place definite limitations on the further realisation of individual men and women. The chiefs of these may be listed as follows: (1) the often harsh and inefficient ancillary institutions such as prisons, schools, the police and mental hospitals; (2) the demanding working conditions to which many are subjected: (3) the fumes, incessant noise, and the habitational propinquity which urban dwellers suffer; (4) the society-determined mores whcih do nothing to aid or educate, and tar too much to preclude, the expression of those two most potent factors in Man's interaction repertoire—his creative and his sexual urges; and finally, (5) the piecemeal and irrevocable eradication of Nature (in the narrow sense of forests, rivers, bare hills, trees and feral animals). All these consequences of society, although they all have compensations, do limit us (some people more than others) in their various ways.
As well as these external or environmental restrictions there are certain insidious and no less limiting internal or psychological effects of living in society for the individual. These are chiefly: (6) a deep internal sense of bewilderment at having to submit to all the rules (and the starvations, e.g., sexual rationing) which societal living requires; (7) an inurement to interpersonal encounters and relationships that are only pragmatic or economical and which thus reduce and compromise our natural tendency to fuller interhuman meetings—often we must see each other and ourselves as mere means-to-ends or objects and not fellow human beings; (8) a socially expedient tendency to consider our moral problems in clear-cut black and white, or attitudinised' terms; and finally, (9) the individual's dependence for his own world view or 'mythology' on politically sanctioned and socially viable modes of thinking. Like the external limitations, all these internal limitations are inherent in the nature of society and each in its own way restricts the intellect and psychology of its individuals, and prevents their expansion into areas in which they could have mastery.
The larger world of Nature: It goes without saying that basically a society is or should be only concerned with the material pragmatics of human existence and that outside this sphere there are many other areas which could and should be mastered by an individual. We can (all this world in which society is just a part 'the larger world of Nature'. Within this 'Nature' in the broad sense are not only natural objects and live things such as were mentioned earlier, but also such mysteries and phenomena as madness, death, sex, brotherhood, poetry,> music, solitude, the inner natures of other people, beauty, grief, the meaning of life, love, God. And it is mastery in these areas, it is the man who has come to his own understandings of these things and who lives his life by these understandings, that is truly ontologically secure—beside him the man who has spent his life in money and pragmatics is an ontological dwarf, a mere homuncule. The man who is alienated from the human realities of his own existence is a man alienated from himself, a man 'who knows not what nor where it is'. And how fragmentary and unsatisfying are many of our contacts with Nature—we go out fishing or surfing, go to a funeral, make at attempt at love, look at an art book with dull eyes, listen to a pop tune—and come away from the encounter none the [unclear: richer], without having in any real sense interacted or experienced at all.
Although a man may be helped, he must in the last resort face these larger things in his own way, he must 'create his own world' as an artist does, and live in it. He can be helped primarily by being educated in his childhood into the ability to construe things for himself, by being allowed to develop and strengthen the creativity vis a vis Nature that he was born with. He can be confirmed by others in an intellectual and emotional confidence and self-sufficiency which he can later use to cope with the larger realities he encounters. He must be taught to use his imagination. It can be done. And if it is, by proper education or by the individual's own brave efforts, the quality of the individual life, the range and subtlety of its interactions, can be immeasurably increased.
Any society requires a certain communal spirit in its members before it can function, but to support each individual in his larger and more dangerous life task of coming to grips with Nature, a much deeper feeling of communality, of being side by side in Nature, should be abroad in a community. It would require everyone to feel the validity of and sanction in others this attempt at ontological further-realisation at the individual level.
Society as a Monster: Let us now imagine that Society, contrived and instituted by individuals working together for their mutual benefit, does arrogate for itself a life of its own, and becomes itself an autonomous product of Evolution—having interests independent of those of the individuals who fabricated it. A sort of Frankenstein's monster in fact. Let us further imagine this new organism, this monster, feeling ontoíogieally insecure and resorting to the use of two devices to ensure its own continued existence. We could describe the first of these devices thus: Society persuades (by rumour which need never be spoken) its individuals that its institutions are on a par with the autonomies of Nature, are as real and pre-existent in the scheme of things as they are. Thus we explain the sociological phenomenon called 'reification' whereby a child and a man can regard an institution like a church or the law as a God-given fact of his environment, and not as the fabrication of individuals like himself. Such aggrandisement of its own constituents goes hand in hand with Society's playing down the importance of the realities of Nature—thus death is obfuscated by the institution of the Funeral, birth concealed by the Maternity Ward and greeting cards (the woman's husband even is rarely allowed to actually see the event), and the life of Christ is taken over by the Church. So that individuals are systematically fobbed off from the realities behind such institutions, are not 'allowed' to experience them except in the terms of the institution Society offers for the purpose. This complementary process to reification has been called 'mystification'. The other of the two security devices is this perhaps: since its (mystified) individuals need some sanctioned repertoire of activities to sustain their ontological security (to give them something to do, to be) Society carefully sanctions only those activities which minister to its own preservation. It doles out only roles which are useful to it, and there are plenty of people whose ontological indigence (ensured by their education away from Nature and into Society) demands that they accept.page 5
The two devices (reification-mystification and the rationing of roles to the ontologically hungry) both operate at the subconscious level, where the monster dwells, in the minds of its individuals. The conspiracy of Society is a silent one—communicated tacitly but effectively by gestures; by a frown in the right place, threat of guillotine, an approving smile. And its laws are enforced by its own secret police, our subconscious fears—of being different, of being thought anti-social, of not being approved. Understandably then Society fears the Artist, the person who has come to terms with Nature on his own, because his ontological security is not dependent on the roles Society has to offer. He has put himself in touch with a deeper and more satisfying reality. Society is concerned that such people do not become numerous, since they free to doubt the economic and political mythology which it is essential that the majority believe.
Individuals as Traitors: The operation of the two devices, which secure the continued monstrous existence of Society, is carried out by individuals—by individuals who are in the process betraying the cause of their personal ontological further-realisation. The betrayal is subconcious and so safely out of moral reach, but we can try to understand, if not excuse, the motives of the traitors:
With regard to the first device, reification-mystification, their enemy is boredom. This boredom (which may aspire to Anguish) is simply the felt ontological insecurity of those aspects of themselves which have been frustrated from interaction with the deeper realities of Nature. An institutionalised life, one defined entirely by Society, is basically an utter bore. And having not been equipped with the intellectual and emotional wherewithal to cope with Nature at large, the boredom is tinged with fear. To preserve their feeling of ontological security therefore, these individuals must prevent themselves from feeling this boredom too acutely—even if it means the psychological self-euthanasia of those aspects of their being which would override Society. More often however their escape from boredom, their freedom from the fear of freedom, is achieved not by psychic self-slaughter nor by turning bravely to face Nature how they can, but rather by a distracting plunging back into socially defined activities. Devotion to The Firm, gossip, buying luxury goods and commodities, social climbing, going out to dinner or to cocketail parties; all serve to keep at bay the terrible boredom. Many victims also take a dive into those activities (such as gambling, fornication, drug-taking, petty theft, betrayal of responsibility, alcoholism) which seem to oppose Society (and thus placate the small antipathy to Society that the boredom and the fear give birth to) but which do not in fact, being comfortably controlled and catered for by various tacit and eyebrow-raising, knowingly-winking ancillary conspiracies.
The success of the second device is again quite understandable; the fear of the Artist that is current in Society and the envy which the contemplation of his richer life arouses, marry in the individual to produce this aggressive little subconscious rationale: "If our very existences consist in ministering to Society ..." they think "... the possibility of an alternative, more valid kind of life would make our own appear limited and absurd, would make us feel ontologically insecure in fact, and so any manifestation of this in others, or indeed in ourselves, must be disapproved, ignored, and otherwise disconfirmed."
Education for Social Living: In advancing towards a solution of 'The Problem Of Society and the Individual' we can now breathe normally, desist from fancying Society as a Monster, and begin regarding societal procedures in their true light, as human products or fabrications devised by individuals for their mutual benefit. This is how they should be taught to children. In this way, by introducing children to all the facticity and contingency of institutions, their essentially circumscribed usefulness, and their unprovability, then tendency towards subconscious reification of institutions, towards institutionalisation, should be obviated. The existence of the conventions and procedures could then be justified to the children on the pragmatic and utilitarian grounds on which they certainly can be justified (possibly excepting such institutions as Politics and War) since they are founded on the rock of practical necessity, and the 'ontological security' of 'Society' will then cease to depend on the currency of some subconscious myth as to its God-givenness and immutability. Socialisation can be a rational process, and almost certainly the children will understand it better and more quickly so. I mean that rational socialisation—where the child is led to an intellectual appreciation of the fittingness of a societal rule or procedure, and of the necessity of adhering to it—will be more effective and more lasting, more 'beneficial to society', than the subconscious-myth-instilling variety. For one thing, the truly philanthropic character of Work will become apparent.
If a society is understood in this sophisticated way by its individuals then they will naturally have to look elsewhere for a foundation for their individual ontological security. One cannot, in all metaphysical honesty, subsume one's being to that of a machine which one has contrived to ensure one's continued material welfare. So people must be educated, as I said earlier, into a capacity to come to Nature on their own terms—on their own terms but not necessarily alone. They will then no longer be subject to the ontological involvement in the pragmatics of a society, that deep lack of disinterest, which has in the past ruined the best of both the Individual and Society.
If the community does not or cannot undertake this mature kind of education then it is up to the Individual, his duty to the memory of such as Shakespeare, Jesus Christ, Beethoven, Socrates, to wage creative guerrilla war on his own account, to be his own Artist vis a vis Nature. I don't mean attempt or speculate destruction of established institutions—this only serves to exercise society's harsher ancillaries, and doesn't advance the further-realisation of the Individual at all.