30 December 2015

Social Alienation

(This is now my fifth post prompted by TNT's American Revolution-themed post-apocalyptic alien invasion family drama, Falling Skies.  I guess I've enjoyed writing about it.  This post is based on thoughts related to Ben Mason, the middle son.  More about the connection in a subsequent post.)

1.  In Division One of his great work Being and Time, Martin Heidegger sets out a phenomenology of human intersubjectivity.  "Phenomenology" in Heidegger's philosophy is an analysis of the way we experience and observe things: the experiential ground level on top of which all the relationships and distinctions of life are superimposed.  "Intersubjectivity" is just a fancy word for the fact that individual humans relate to each other as fellow persons, and (most importantly) communicate with each other, so that the interior life of each is known (to some extent) to others, and individuals live in a network of social relationships.

2.  Heidegger points out that much of our socialization happens in the context of an anonymous super-person, "das Man" (normally translated "the they", as in "they say"), which functions as a regulative idea about what is to be done or not done, what is expected, what is reasonable, etc.  Just as the orientation of a workshop toward a set of goals determines the significance and placement of tools in the workshop, and the understanding of behavior within the workshop, in a similar way our understanding of "das Man" determines the significance of different gestures and behaviors, and establishes a set of expectations surrounding ourselves and other people.

3.  This underlying sense of what "people" are like in general, or what "society" expects, or what "everyone" thinks, functions not as a discrete concept, but as a (generally unexamined) "horizon" which surrounds and frames our experiences of people, and guides our interpretation of them (including ourselves).

4.  The notion of "das Man" and the hermeneutical dimension of human intersubjectivity (or "being-with", as Heidegger calls it) — the way social expectations and regulative ideas about "people" affect communication and relationships — has generated a lot of philosophical and sociological literature.  Emmanuel Levinas famously sets up the whole notion of being-with against Heidegger and calls for an ethics of radical alterity, in which the personhood of others is allowed to remain distant without being subsumed under a horizon of (individual or communal) social expectations.  (Then again, maybe this isn't what Levinas is about — I never really understood what he was saying.)

5.  I mention all this stuff about phenomenology and intersubjectivity because I want to talk about an interesting aspect of human self-understanding.  I wrote something a few years ago:
The craftsman experiences the consumption and use of his produce as a kind of love: by loving what he has made, people indirectly love him (since his likeness is in the works of his art, however indirectly). It follows that commerce can be a kind of friendship.
There the connection between commerce and friendship was made by way of the analogy that exists between an artisan and the objects of his craft.  But there's a more obvious point to be made here, which is implied in Aristotle's notion of the "useful friendship".  In relationships of commercial exchange both parties perceive the actions of the other as somehow beneficial to themselves. Thus the relationship takes on the nature of a friendship, which is characterized by mutual goodwill.   This is always true, even if there is a lack of equity in the perceived benefit, and even when the goodwill is minimal.  The result is that, in a society dominated by commercial exchange, where economic relationships are the most universal and most widespread kind of social bond, those who have no place in that web of economic relationships, and do not participate in commercial exchange (whether through labor or trade), experience a kind of social alienation.

6.  If Heidegger is right about the way social expectations form a contextual horizon within which which we understand ourselves, others, and human relationships (and of course he is), this applies not just to manners and habits of communication, not even just to moral standards, but also to the construction of each person's understanding of himself, in relation to das Man.  A sense of worthlessness tends to infect people who are unemployed, regardless of their objective accomplishments or good habits, simply because of the way their understanding of personal worth relates to the network of economic relationships in which most people participate.  I believe new mothers sometimes struggle with this experience.  Participation in the network of commerce imparts value.  Removal from that network removes value.  These are not facts in themselves, but features of our self-understanding based on the common notion of "society" (das Man) against which we judge ourselves.

7.  One of the great moral themes of the past two centuries has been the Courage of the Outsider.  We love seeing figures who suffer because of their voluntary exclusion from the fold, for the sake of their own sense of mission or morality.  In the past two decades, a new theme has swept in, parallel and opposite: the rule that no one should need to be an outsider.  The conflict of these two closely held moral principles creates a cultural paradox: we want there to be courageous outsiders who flaunt social norms and expectations, but we want to eliminate the cultural resistance which makes outsiders courageous figures.  So we end up with a large number of people who treat flaunting cultural expectations as a hip identity trait, without real social cost, and therefore without any real moral distinction.

8.  The fact that marginal or outsider status has become both a privileged moral position and a clarion call for the rectification of the injustice of being an outsider, has created an incentive for individuals and groups to identify themselves as marginal and exploit the moral high-ground for the achievement of their political/social aims.  This maneuver doesn't work for everyone, though, and here is an interesting point: in a culture that celebrates outsiders and considers outsider status unjust, the only people who can authentically inhabit the space of the post-Enlightenment Heroic Outsider (in its traditional form) are marginal figures who are not recognized as deserving marginal status.

There's more to be said on this topic, but I'd like to pause here for now.