After having whetted your appetites in the last two or three posts, I'm now in a quandary. It isn't that I don't know what to say, it's that I do not now have to hand the very book that I wanted to quote from as a justification for my proposals. (It is the most recent edition of Bauman's Modernity and the Holocaust.)
My dilemma amounts to this: Bauman not only described the process whereby a given national state government gulled its population into a sense of security and aspiration that it need not be concerned with the fate of "undesirables." In an earlier post I commented on Bauman's seeing this same process at work in the assumptions made by the European nations generally about the acceptability or non-acceptability of their citizens––a distinction that postulated the uselessness of some, and the superiority of others. In other words, Bauman proclaimed seeing the same kind of process at work in those European states as he had previously discerned as the dynamic fostered by the Nazi government during the second world war. He doesn't go quite so far as to assert that a similar kind of outcome as the Holocaust might result, but the implications of his analysis are that other kinds of dehumanization, such as those identified in his address to the social work students at the University of Amsterdam, and upon which I commented previously, will certainly foster disintegrative social processes. As he has also commented in relation to the 2011 riots in the UK, the explosive result is almost inevitably a breakdown of civil order.
In a similar vein, Norbert Elias, in Involvement and Detachment, argued that the We-I balance in all human societies was subject to the human tendency to believe that social problems themselves would simply need to respond to intellectual analytic processes that require detachment from the so-called "irrational" processes that being human necessitates, and that Suzanne K. Langer characterized as the "Feeling" element in human sensibility. As I've documented previously, Langer accorded human feeling equal status with the so-called "rational" processes of scientific evaluation. Elias is eloquent on our failure to identify the apparent conflict between pragmatic effectiveness (dependent on at least a degree of detachment) and belonging (much more untidily vulnerable to emotional processes), as I hope will have been amply obvious in the quote from him that appeared in the post before this one. Just as the Nazis enabled a whole population to withdraw their awareness from the specific activities of their national government, so, argues Elias, it is possible to disregard those aspects of our connectedness to others that seem to make our pragmatic decision-making so much more difficult. Ethical problems, as such, did not exist for Eichman and his like. My position in Making Sense of Us was of course that that very detachment of which he and others proved capable was a major dynamic both manipulated by the Nazi government, and fostered by the alienation from previous neighbours and friends occasioned by the ghetto-ization of the various undesirable groups. (And, no, I didn't specifically deal with the Holocaust, or, indeed the Nazi phenomenon, except tangentially. I was pursuing, independently of any knowledge of Elias's work, the idea that our survival as a species will depend on our becoming aware of ourselves as a species, dependent both on one another, and on our knowing unwillingness to betray the enormous potential of our symbolic sensibilities.) Again, that marvelous article by Carl R. Woese is relevant.
What Bauman's analysis adds significantly to this now historic scenario is his conviction that the major elements of that scenario are again being repeated. We do consciously alienate ourselves from one another in a psychological quest for the status in our societies that would enable us to feel accepted, and, indeed perhaps cherished. Our belonging has been indexed as dependent on our acquiescence in the predominant fallacies of "consumer" societies. (There are many other fallacious conglomerations of belief, of course!)
Many years ago, upon first arriving in the United States, and studying at the University of Chicago, I was struck by the almost routine disregard of the nature of "public" space. Is the behaviour of a millionaire who throws his cigar negligently out of his limousine into the public street, an indicator of his detachment from that public space . . . as significant as the similarly negligent expectoration into the street of an "upwardly mobile" executive proclaiming his superiority and immunity from civilized standards of concern for others? (I deliberately used the gender specific pronoun in that sentence . . . I've never seen a woman spit in the street, or, indeed, anywhere else.)
You can tell I haven't yet done what I actually set out to do in this post. I'll come back later with what I believe may be the actually crucial next step. In the meantime, I'd like to leave you with a couple of Elias's shatteringly relevant quotes (this time, also, from The Society of Individuals).
"Human beings at present [he is writing in 1987, but it is still true, I think] find themselves in an immense process of integration that not only goes hand in hand with many subordinate disintegrations, but can at any time give way to a dominant disintegrative process." (The evidence for that possible disintegration is everywhere about us.)
"What bearers of the human image of the We-less I appear to suffer from is the conflict between the desire for emotional relationships with other people and their own inability to satisfy this desire . . . [This is] a basic feature of the social personality structure of people in the modern age."
Those of you who have read Making Sense of Us may also remember my assertion that we make sense together. Somehow, we not only have to accommodate to that; we have to use it as the basis for a commitment to a process that honors each one of us a contributor to our common future. Not to do so, I believe, would likely lead to the disintegration of which Elias spoke. Shall I put it more bluntly? We can still destroy ourselves.
Again (of course!), more to come . . .
write a comment