November 17, 2004

Thank you Sarah

Yesterday I was talking with Sarah, one of my delicious neighbours, and we started – casually – a little discussion about… well… about society, let's say that (actually the discussion started after watching Rambo. First Blood. For a good review, see link).
She said that society is a construction – and I completely agree(d).
Then she went on saying that, because of it, it doesn't exist.
I startled. It doesn't? Well, I can say that the Humanities building is a construction – and yet it exists: have you ever tried to hit it with a fist? It hurts.
Now I want to reflect a little on that discussion.
We know that "male" and "female" are constructions (if you are an essentialist, sorry, you won't like this), and that the same male/female distinction is a construction. But this doesn't mean that they don't exist (if you have problem with this, ask to some feminist activist – they're trying to destroy this distinction).
To be a "construction" simply means that things can be changed (but this means that they exist), that they are "not natural" of "fixed for ever and after".
The real point is: Are we willingly to change them? And: How can we actually change 'em? What can we possibly do?

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  1. My guess is that she has a different definition of existence from you. Presumeably, abstractions are excluded from it. Ie. a society is a collective state of mind, and so objectively does not exist.

    17 Nov 2004, 15:28

  2. I am sure she has! But how can you say that society is an abstraction? Your body (everyone's body) is entangled in it, like a fish in a net!
    And, talking of the "collective state of mind", well, it's like Mary Poppin's word "supercalifrajalisticexpialidocious". Everybody knows it, everydbody can understand where it comes from and what is related to it, BUT you cannot find it in the dictionary because, officially, "doesn't exist".
    If I am not wrong, in one of Freud's book – I cannot remember exactly which one – he wrote that the "fantasmatic reality" (what you imagine, what you interpret) is actual reality. So a (collective) state of mind is reality, even if you cannot touch it.

    17 Nov 2004, 15:39

  3. Your new blog title (so much for poor old Marcel) makes me think of Being John Malkovich – I wonder if people will be able to get inside your head!

    Even if one is not an essentialist, it does not follow that social-mental constructions can be "changed" (or the process of their creation influenced) in a purposive, predictable fashion. Indeed, stemming from Marx (and that saying about philosophers and changing the world) the greatest tyrannies. Nazis, Stalinists, Maoists, have all sought to change social structures – which in reality means coercing and killing individuals (something that is then justified in the name of the higher social good).

    If it is indeed accepted that "society", in any analytical, theoretical formulation is an abstraction, then there is less danger of embarking on socially tranformative tyranny. So why bother? I have to say, I really don't know. It seems like a game to me. Far better to engage with concrete reality empirically, which involves no coneptualisation of what society is or ought to be (and where has that "ought", which drives the desire to engage in social engineering, been drived from anyway?), and simply addresses the needs and wishes that people express, as mediated by political processes.

    17 Nov 2004, 15:57

  4. You're not totally right. If it's true that Hitler, Stalin and others used Nietzsche's and Marx's idea(l)s to create their personal tyranny (they used those ideas, but those ideas where NOT originally created to sustain or justify a tyranny), it is also true that other tyrants exist (and had existed in the past) without being sustained by ideas of social changes.
    So, don't blame the ideas and the desire for changings!
    The discourse of construction and change involves (the existence of) human freedom.
    Are we free – in the limits of someone alse's freedom – to be whatever we want/can? Or are we entangled in the "social net" in ways that we cannot even be aware of? Is my body free?
    Studiyng contemporary philosophy (Structuralism and Deconstructionism) together with psychoanalysis, anthropology, and feminist, gender and queer theories helped me to understand that we are not free – and we could.

    18 Nov 2004, 15:21

  5. I hope you find it interesting and useful to continue this debate. I don't want you to feel under attack, especially as it's much more fun to talk about photos of friends and make jokes, and so on.

    The reason for my comments was what you said about society. I would not have had any difficulty with your statements about individual liberty (or lack therof). The physical and psychic location of individuals within nexuses of relationships and structures of social order, and the interaction between them is a matter of some interest, and might form a guide to action, morals, and so on. (Nevertheless, it will be very speculative if the ideas about society are drawn from theory rather than empiricial.)

    By contrast, the idea that society as a whole can be characterised theoretically, and change in that society achieved to bring about objectives derived from theory, is a perfect recipe for extreme and unlimited tyranny. If the people fail to deliver the social goals, if they do not change and thereby create collective transformation, it is they (and not the social theory) that is held to be at fault. There is thus no limit to what the state may do to people in the name of their own happiness (defined as a better society).

    There had never been comprehensive social tyrannies like Nazism, Communism (Stalinism and Maoism) before, because no tyrant had ever aspired to more than power based on concrete understanding of existing social structures. The C20 tyrants and their parties worked from ideologies that placed achievement of social structures before any individual variation. Such ideas ultimately destroy civil society and substitute the rule of ideologically empowered thugs (as in the Cultural Revolution in China). As a result tens of millions of individuals were killed in the name of "society".

    18 Nov 2004, 16:19

  6. I like this "debate", and I don't feel attacked, so we can go on.
    Well, You are re-stating what you've already written: theories of social changing CAN be used as means to achieve personal power or CAN cause the prosecution (and death) of undefined amounts of people. I use CAN because this is a possibility (unless you can prove that EVERY theory of social change has brought death and prosecutions).
    Are there social theories that, put in practice, can generate not death but social improvements?

    18 Nov 2004, 18:51

  7. Well, that's difficult because the claim to beneficial construction of society has been attempted without constraint in only a few (very large) instances. There is a current attempt, I know, to rehabilitate the Castro regime in Cuba, but it is not one that I am convinced by.

    I suppose that you could characterise laissez faire economic theory developed from the work of Adam Smith as social theory, in which case I would acknowledge the enormous good that has resulted in following its often theoretical formulations. Likewise republican democracy as established in the United States Constitution on the basis of the social theory of the Federalist Papers (1787) by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay. But both Smith and the Federalist Papers are essentially negative, explaining why the state should take no part in, or be lehally prevented from interfering with, particular social processes. As a result, for example, the US Constitution was properly understood to prohibit redistributive taxation, and income tax was only added to federal powers by constitutional amendment in the early years of the C20.

    To the extent that social engineering based on social theory has entered the mainstream of welfare societies like those of Western Europe, it is only prevalent in social care arms of the state, and even then has tended to take a statistical rather than a theoretical form. Further, even where social engineering has been adopted, extensive safeguards for individuals have been maintained or adopted, and these have prevented excessive harm.

    I find it hard to provide examples of good – the best that I can say is that social engineering has been limited to causing waste, demoralisation and dependency. The National Health Service (NHS) is thus a prime example of the misery created by social theory (equality) erected over technical, managerial, and rational administrative imperatives.

    There was a case in Scotland recently where social workers, completely in trall to social theory, became convinced that a large number of parents were
    involved in abuse of their childen as a part of satanic sex acts and devil worship. They sustained these charges for years, took children into care, destroyed families and lives, and showed no remorse. Many people were affected, who continuously maintained their innocence. The things they said (whatever they said) were construed by the social workers as confirmattion of the charges of satanic child abuse. When their conduct was finally subjected to external
    independent examination, no basis in fact was ever found for their claims. They rested entirely on social theory (which was beyond the reach of any empirical validation) and the way in which children should be treated in relation to their families (also theoretical). Fortunately, even in this terrible case of hallucinatory self-righteous interference, there were, eventually, processes that rectified the temporary take-over of state agencies. Without such safeguards (and if social theory is allowed to reign, why would they be needed?) these families would have been permanently destroyed.

    This has nothing to do with the free decisions of individuals to enter into any relationship they so desire, based on any intellectual foundation or belief. Social theory and religion are the same in my mind. Protecting people's freedom to practice it is an essential part of a free society. It must simply be prevented from acquiring power through political structures.

    19 Nov 2004, 13:02

  8. That's just perfect, so I can still go on thinking how I can change society.
    Thank you, Charles!

    21 Nov 2004, 15:45

  9. Was your tongue in your cheek, so to speak, when you wrote that last comment? I do hope you didn't mind the long diatribe. I only bother if someone seems interesting!

    Why don't you devote a blog to projection: how critiicsm of society is actually the externalisation of psychic processes and emotions? You could then move freely betweem theoretical speculation, personal experience and wild ranting.

    21 Nov 2004, 17:31

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