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Society

1 Why contemporary Western culture dislikes society

All our four dimensions are worth the same, and yet every culture favours some dimensions and dislikes others. In contemporary western culture, society is dislike candidate nr. 1. To explain this dislike we can start with the vast difference existing between pre- and post-industrial societies (contemporary western society is definitely 'post-'):

Pre-industrial societies: in pre-industrial societies,

  1. people led a precarious existence: the overpowering force of nature was strong and little understood, and the threat to physical well-being part of everyday-life in a way we can only imagine (death, for example, was omnipresent).
  2. human communities tended to be small, wherefore social bonds and obligations were much more firmly tied to a known 'you', rather than, as happens nowadays, to an unknown, abstract and institutionalised entity, an 'it'.

Given these circumstances, the need for individuals to feel part of a community with rules which sustained its members materially, morally, and affectively, and in which they played a role which sustained others was paramount, as was their necessity for metaphysical support. These same circumstances also made radical forms of individualism, or over-positive evaluations of nature senseless. There was thus a reason for society to exist and be experienced as not only positive, but downright natural.

Post-industrial societies: in contemporary modern societies we tend to feel there is no immediate physical threat to our existence. We experience that science and technology help us dominate nature. To the extent that this happens, our desire for individuality flourishes, and so does attention to our primary physical wants (our nature). On the other hand, our concern for metaphysics and our liking of society tends to diminish (as regards metaphysics, for example, neither are we born nor do we die in our bed. The mysteries of birth and death take place in an anonymous, sanitised environment). As regards society,

  1. its anonymity spreads, mainly in the following two ways: [1] human communities become larger, and increasingly desire privacy (see above); [2] society presents itself to the individual as an infrastructure, a set of institutions, an 'it' rather than a 'you'. We pay for it (with taxes) to offer the security that cannot be had through science and technology.
  2. the security it guarantees often limits our desire for freedom. The more security we are offered, the more freedom we want (see module 1.3).

The consequence of such a view of society is the following:

  • we do not feel affectively tied to social institutions
  • when something bad happens (e.g. a car accident), and beyond immediate causes (e.g. a mad driver piled in on me), responsibility is ultimately sought in the social institution which should prevent the disruptions of normal life (e.g. did the relevant ministry have or enact effective rules to prevent mad drivers' piling-in-activities?)
  • morality is experienced as part of the social 'it', and therefore as oppressively unnatural. It limits our desire for freedom.

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2 Darwin, Freud and society

Two of the most common lenses through which the world is currently looked at prove the distrust we harbour against society, and the value we place on nature. One is derived from Freud's findings at the beginning of the twentieth century, the other from Darwin's in 1859.

 

Freudian model
Darwinian model
We are natural hedonists, i.e. pleasure-seekers (preferably sex), from the moment we are born. As we mature, we find out that we cannot get everything we want, and so we develop compensatory strategies which result in social needs. Nature has evolved from the most simple and basic to the most complex. Nature, identified with instincts, is the animal substratum of human beings. Society is a late and open addition.

 

The two models were born more or less in the same cultural environment. Both are similar in that they posit nature as primordial, society as a later addition. The Freudian model is wholeheartedly suspicious towards society, for it sees it as merely compensatory. The Darwinian model, however, is more ambiguous: on the one hand, it has usually been used to strengthen the Freudian case, as it defines nature as more basic than society. On the other hand, being a result of the survival of the fittest, the social case allows for more positive interpretations.

Our society sides instinctively with the Freudian model. Where it grows out of proportion, the social easily takes on sinister traits and becomes a menace for our hedonistic identity. It acquires elements of omnipotence and unpredictability or machine-like behaviour which take it close to the metaphysical and natural dimensions (the latter often via the selfishness of the individual). George Orwell's 1984 is a classic example of a Freudian view of society. Click on the picture below to find a discussion of this work along Freudian lines.

 

1984

Example:

A Freudian view of society

From George Orwell's 1984

 

The positive evaluation of society which the Darwinian model allows has been expressed in various ways. Aristotle says that “it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal” (The Politics, 1253 a1-2). The awareness exists that human sociability may be our real nature, i.e. that society is nature. In the 19th century, Oscar Wilde opened new prospects and dangers for natural sociability when he said that “to understand others you must intensify your own individualism” (1966: 1033). Such a statement dissolves Riemann's antagonism between the demands of socialisation and those of individualisation. This blurring of boundaries is similar to the one between the private and social which is taking place in our own society, which encourages the public demonstrations of our inner selves: Big Brother is a case in hand, so is Tom Cruise going public about his love for Katie Holmes in the Ophra Winfrey Show, and Ben Elton has written a book about this (Blind Faith). These are signs that something has changed about the “The boundary between what we reveal and what we do not, and some control over that boundary, [which are] among the most important attributes of our humanity” (Nagel 1998). We should be aware of such a change of boundaries in our analysis of the representations of society.

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3 Horizontality & verticality

There is another fundamental way in which society and nature appear as antagonistic. At their most basic, social relationships are primarily hierarchical or democratic, vertical or horizontal. After all, social relationships are relationships between human beings, who can interact in terms of equality or in terms of inequality. As both these types of relationship exist in the higher vertebrates, they are natural, but are also located up the evolutionary ladder. Contemporary culture is all for the horizontal. In principle, however, both types of relationships exist, are good and necessary in real life. Few parents would like to see a kindergarden ruled horizontally, and democratic consent seems not to be much on the agenda of large corporations. Thus, parent-sibling, king-subject, or teacher-student relationships are as important and primary as relationships between friends, enemies, or colleagues, and form a great part of the raw material of the representation of society.

In modern representations, the antagonism of society as horizontal and vertical tends to mimic the antagonism of nature and society. We assume (wrongly) that nature is democratic and society aristocratic. For an interesting treatment of such a stereotype, click on the picture below:

 

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Example:

Verticality (society) vs horizontality (nature)

From Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream

 

What is important to bear in mind is that there are good and bad hierarchic relationships, good and bad democratic relationships, good and evil fathers and mothers, good and evil friends...part of the interest of a text is to find out which is which. Part of the answer will depend on the dimension hierarchy and democracy are assigned.

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4 Class, gender, and ethnicity

Curiously, although we distrust society, for the last three decades the most fashionable topics in literary theory have been social. This interest in things social paradoxically derives from our overriding concern with individuality (through freedom), and nature (in our distrust of any binding normative understanding of human nature beyond present feeling.* Natural norm is rejected as essentialising metaphysics (this also entails the rejection of metaphysics). This rejection has both a positive and a negative consequence:

  • positive: contemporary society has broadened its view to embrace a much greater variety of social bonds as vital as the traditional ones
  • negative: [1] in its attempt to broaden the spectrum, standard forms of human organization are neglected; [2] society finds it difficult to distinguish acceptable from non-acceptable social bonds, since every bond appears as natural, based as it is on the free accord of individuals (see module 3.3)

The most that can be said from a non-evaluative position is that the majority probably sees the contemporary social glass either half-full or half-empty, and that both have good reasons for doing so (some also see it filled to the brim or drained to the dregs).

If you look at handbooks of literary theory, you will find that prep-work for literary discussion centres around three great social issues. The three great issues are

  • class
  • gender
  • ethnicity

Each of these categories is a social category. The last two are, however, not indifferent to the natural dimension: gender has an added biological component (gender becomes sex then); and ethnicity can also have one in practical terms (it then becomes race).

The biological differences are very often irrelevant, and where they become interesting, as is sometimes the case between women and men, a fundamental problem has arisen: it has proven very difficult to talk about these biological differences in terms of differences, for tragically these differences are too often understood in terms of plus and minus, and have been misused to socially marginalise women and non-whites. In addition, where these differences exist, they combine with so many other factors that to define men and women solely by reaching back to these differences is very reductive. This is what is called 'essentialism'.

Generally speaking, representations of class, gender and ethnic belonging follow divisions into the following stereotypes (+ means a positive evaluation, - a negative evaluation):

 

class
gender
ethnicity
upper class -
men +
white +
middle class +
women -
non-white -
lower class -

 

Generally speaking, the terms which appear with a plus have been evaluated in more positive terms throughout history than those which appear with a minus, although things have also changed at different periods in time.

  • The categories associated with a minus have often been seen as representing brute, wild and unthinking nature, occasionally joined by metaphysics in the guise of primitive superstition or the numinous
  • The categories associated with a plus have been represented as moving away from that brutality, and towards a rationality and civilised behaviour which is associated with society.

Class does not admit an easy division into nature and society, since it consists of three terms. Different possibilities emerge:

  • Often the term middle class functions as a middle way between a radically brute and unthinking nature (the lower classes, they are reduced to nature because they are supposed to be uneducated), and a society which has been denaturalised (the aristocracy).
  • Dissatisfaction with several aspects of middle class life, such as its individualism, placid materialism, or lack of metaphysical concerns, often lead to representing the middle classes as lacking vital social, natural and metaphysical sensibilities. This may well result in a positive evaluation of the other two classes.

These are obviously stereotypes, and any other kind of representation is possible, but they are very common stereotypes, and should be used as expectations when we first meet a text. Click on the following picture for an example:

 

Gender and ethnicity

A classic account of sexism and racism in a good classic:

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness

 

 

There are of course other social categories which could theoretically find their place in literary analysis. In a process of increasing abstraction, the 'I' moves towards the term 'society' by passing through the 'you' (e.g. friends, family), the 'he/she' and the 'it' (e.g. nationalities, institutions). Family and age (especially at the very beginning and end of the spectrum of human life) are two such, less well-known groups. They also represent traditional losers of contemporary Western society, sometimes unacknowledged ones. As society's others, they also suffer from being stereotyped: in the case of children or old people, that stereotype often leads to nature and metaphysics (old people are also often stereotyped along social coordinates) in such pervasive ways as is the case with women, the lower classes and non-whites.

The case of children is particularly clear, and has powerful precedents: Jesus places children nearest to the kingdom of God (Mk 10, 14-15) and thus defines them as naturally metaphysical, a tradition followed by Romanticism and Transcendentalism and straddling both sides of 1800 and the Atlantic (see Blake's "Introduction" to his Songs of Innocence, Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality" (ll. 59-108) or Emerson's "Nature" [chapter 1, 4th paragraph]).

The legitimate urgency that is felt to lie behind concerns relating to class, gender and ethnicity can make of these less well represented areas of social interaction blind spots of our cultural perception: the undoubtedly positive entry of women in the labor-market, for example, is one among a number of factors which has weakened the function of the familiy as a cohesive social unit offering material and affective support to the very young and old (although it was often the case that the possibility of such support was restricted to well-off families). Legitimate concern for the lot of women has thus resulted in neglect of the young and old.

The solution cannot be a simple return to a 'better' past which never existed in absolute terms, but ways have to be found to reconcile both women's, children's, old people's and families' needs. At the level of introducing students to literary and cultural analysis, the valuable interest in class, gender and ethnicity should be accompanied by an increased sensitivity towards the less fashionable areas of social interaction.

works cited (or referred to):

Aristotle. The Politics. Ed. Stephen Everson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.

Nagel, Thomas. “Concealment and Exposure”. 15 January 2008. 1998. http://www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/philo/faculty/nagel/papers/exposure.html

Wilde, Oscar. “The Critic as Artist”. Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. London: Collins, 1966: 1009-59.

 

acknowledgment of pictures:

 

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daniel.candel@uah.es | ©2008 Daniel Candel Bormann