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July 21 2012 7 21 /07 /July /2012 20:50

After recently reading Peter Singer's excellent appraisal of the ideas of Hegel and Marx in the "very short introductions" series published by Oxford University Press, I became acutely aware of the assumptions that the particular style of thinking of both authors unknowingly encourages. Both thinkers, of course, engage consciously in considering the great scheme of things, but they do so in a manner that stresses the evolution of societies, rather than that of our species. In so doing, they perpetuate the belief that survival depends on conflict between groups competing for access to resources, and not necessarily only material ones; they disregard the manner in which different modes of interdependence affect the trajectory of humankind as a whole.


Further, in reading Norbert Elias's The Society of Individuals, and accepting, albeit with some provisos, the limitations of an analysis that is curtailed by its having been written before the Gaia hypothesis was adequately understood, our tendency to define ourselves in opposition to, and in dissociation from the total matrix constituting all existence can be seen clearly. Elias was himself trying to break free from the parochialist modes of thought that are almost inevitably characteristic of particular disciplines as they reflect particular moments in their own historical evolution. It is indeed a feature of the circumstances in which they were written, I suspect, that the work of  Elias and Bauman, both Europeans with, in Elias's terms, a habitus, a "second nature" that is profoundly affected by their socialization, should itself be reflective of a life-long attempt to find an identity for themselves in relation to the theories of social order that victimized them both. If we can in thought accept the usefulness of the idea that there are conceptually three different levels of social interaction––macro, micro, and mezzo––then the preoccupations of both authors can be seen as concerned primarily with mezzo processes, rather than with macro or micro ones; or, perhaps, concerned with micro or macro processes only insofar as they can be shown to affect mezzo ones. 


This is, perhaps necessarily, an inadequate conceptualization of the almost infinitely complex network of possible relationship factors, but it does have the advantage of suggesting the ways in which that complexity has hitherto influenced the manner in which any of us has been able to think about it. Our "second natures" steer us into a consideration of the interactions that seem to affect our lives most immediately . . . that is, the network of relationships fostered and enabled by the different societies in which we live. A consequence of this in the works of both Bauman and Elias is that their preoccupations can in the first instance be traced to their not dissimilar encounters with the social situations into which they were born. In the writings of both there is undoubtedly a very "European" tinge, even though both did (and do, in the case of Bauman) try to take account of that kind of prediliction.


I'm not at all sure that I (or anyone else!) can yet do justice to the deft intellectual footwork required of themselves by both authors, but it is certainly possible to identify (or at least hypothesize about) the manner in which each has attempted to break free of the constraints of prior habits of thinking.


Because I am myself currently more attuned to Elias's work, I'll for the moment set that of Bauman aside (although I shall return to it later).


I am nevertheless in a quandary about how to comment meaningfully on what I believe to be Elias's major contribution, since any commentary must necessarily for its full effectiveness depend on the reader's prior knowledge of the main thrust of Elias's work. Accordingly, I'm going to cheat more than a little, at least in this present post; I'm simply going to present what to me are the most incisive of Elias's concerns in his own words, albeit knowing that I am unlikely to represent them adequately, with the objective of returning to their wider significance in a later post. My chosen source for what follows is the final section of the 1987 segment of the book for which in 1988 Elias received the European Amalfi Prize for Sociology and the Social Sciences, The Society of Individuals.


Although present convention may well accept that copyright is not infringed by selected brief quotations, I am trusting that my intent in relation to what follows does indeed constitute "fair use." I shall, in effect, be extrapolating from Elias to justify ascribing a very specific connection with my own thinking, particularly that expressed in the last three chapters of MSOU. Fortunately, although such a connection is only likely to be fully understood by those who are already familiar with the final chapters of MSOU, the central thrust of Elias's concern is unlikely to be misundertood.


In the final third of The Society of Individuals, Elias suggests a direction for humankind that is derived from his awareness that the present human situation transcends the preoccupations that were a feature of the evolving processes that led to the absorption of particular "We" identity groups into larger groupings that emphasized concern with "I" identity matters: namely, states and nations. The dynamics of those processes are discussed most effectively in the early parts of the book and only briefly in the final pages, but  Elias's concluding insight, and the one to which I attach the greatest importance, is, just as in my own book, expressed tersely, and without further development, in the final sections. His concluding insight was expressed as follows:


On close examination, we see clearly that the welfare or otherwise of the citizens of a single state, including the Soviet Union and the United States [He is writing in 1987, remember], no longer depends on the protection which this state –– or even a potential state like Europe –– can afford them. Even today the chances of survival depend largely on what happens on the global plane. It is the whole of mankind which now constitutes the last effective survival unit.


I spoke earlier of the increasing impermanence, interchangeability and voluntariness of many we-relationships, including, within certain limits, national status. Only the highest level of integration, membership of humanity, has remained permanent and inescapable. But our ties to this all-embracing we-unit are so loose that very few people, it seems, are aware of them as social bonds. (pp.226-7 in the Blackwell's edition. The emphasis is mine)


And, further, this:


The consciences of people, particularly the leading politicians, officers and businessmen throughout the world, are almost exclusively preoccupied with their own individual states. The sense of responsibility for imperilled humanity is minimal. (p.228 Again, my emphasis.)


And this:


The concept of humanity still has undertones of sentimental idealism. (p.232)


And the book's final sentence (The first word, a conjunction, is omitted):

Freedom from the use and threat of violence may so far have received too little attention as one of the rights which, in the course of time –– and against the opposing tendencies of the state –– will have to be asserted for the individual in the name of mankind. (p.233)


In retrospect, I think that all I have actually managed here is to whet your appetites, particularly since there are subtleties in Elias's overall approach that have eluded my selected excerpts. Even more troubling is that my choice of the final sentence seems to shortchange many of the concerns that Bauman has already identified for us––particularly the stifling of we-identifications brought about by the disempowering, humiliating and marginalizing of large segments of humankind. Lots more to open up! There's no "end" to this! Stay tuned . . .





P.S. Elias's book is very expensive in North America. It is, however, readily available at a 20% discount from its current publisher, the excellent University College of Dublin Press. It should be noted, however, that the UCD version of the book is paginated differently than the Polity edition from which I have quoted. The formal text of the Polity edition ends on p. 233, as referenced above. The formal text of the UCD edition ends on p. 208. J.




















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