A State of Mind

8 06 2010

I recently saw this movie on the “Mass Games” in North Korea. I find stuff like this to be the strongest critique of modern individualism or Christian personalism. Is the height of civilization really the fact that I can get up at any time I want on the weekend and eat Pop Tarts? Is the apex of human endeavor that I can do whatever I want? This reminds me again of one of my favorite anecdotes from the life of Bertolt Brecht when he told of moving back to Soviet-occupied Germany. When asked by Western reporters whether he felt repressed because of the censorship of the Soviet regime, he replied that at least in this socialist society important government officials would set him aside for hours to talk to him about his work, when in the West they would simply ignore him.

Not that I want to go live in North Korea, but I feel that philosophical arguments in favor of human individualism are flimsy to the point of incredibility. Can it be said that my grandparents have a personality the same way I have a personality, that they have to express themselves the same way I do? What was a person’s sense of self back in the rancho, and why does it seem that they had a greater sense of collective duty than I have? And doesn’t Western consumerism just try to reduce us all to the same person anyway, and even religious institutions echo this trend?

I am the ultimate non-joiner. I don’t believe in conforming myself to something if I can help it. I just don’t find any intellectual explanations for my disposition to be satisfactory.


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11 responses

12 06 2010
Rick

I’m getting by just fine without even knowing what a Lady Gaga is.

10 06 2010
Louis

BTW, your sentence “Our society is just totalitarianism continued by other means” is an excellent observation.

10 06 2010
Louis

Arturo, you are quite right here. I think we often forget the verse which (paraphrased) says ‘Why do you ask we the former days were better. It is not out of wisdom that you ask this.’

That is my argument with the luddites too, for instance – at what point did technology become evil? The PC? The loom? The stone axe?

It is best to stand and observe, and understand. But to be damn sure one includes oneself in the observations. We are curious creatures, us humans.

10 06 2010
JCW

A pertinent read may be ‘The Velvet Prison : Artists under State Socialism’ by Miklós Haraszti (New York: Noonday Press/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1987).

9 06 2010
Michael Liccione

…the radical and the reactionary have the same enemy.

That certainly holds in the Catholic Church.

8 06 2010
Henry Karlson

The one major question and issue I had with this post is the confusion between individualism and personalism. Though it might, in a superficial way, seem as if personalism is individualism (and I initially thought it was such), personalism is really something far different — it is the understanding that no one is a mere individual, but one is always in relation, and that relation is what makes one a person. Without others, there is no person; without others, one is an individual.

8 06 2010
Arturo Vasquez

I didn’t necessarily intend this article to be a typical “rant against the machine”. To the contrary. Perhaps we are just the sum total of our consumer choices, just as our ancestors were the sum total of their superstitions, prejudices, and folklore. (I couldn’t say with all honesty that my grandparents have “more personality” than I have. That would just be dishonest.) Individual consciousness is a social construction. Even those of us who fancy ourselves educated are really just being manipulated in our own “mass markets”: whether I am on a gossip blog or reading First Things: my buttons are being pressed.

I was reading recently about the whole controversy of Facebook “recommending” various products to your screen based on other preferences and the preferences of your “friends”. “So-and-so like X. You should like X too.” Perhaps this was the reason I got off Facebook for the most part, though I keep the account because family members want me to, but if I check it once every couple of weeks, that is pretty often. But my abstention from such social media is not due to some noble protest by a learned loner, but rather to an intolerance for virtual noise. I get enough of it as it is without Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, etc.

Maybe it’s not such a bad thing. But maybe, just maybe, we should not look down on those poor dupes in totalitarian systems who look up mindlessly to the Great Leader. Our society is just totalitarianism continued by other means.

8 06 2010
The Western Confucian

“And doesn’t Western consumerism just try to reduce us all to the same person anyway, and even religious institutions echo this trend?”

José Ortega y Gasset would answer in the affirmative. When I bought The Revolt of the Masses from a mega-store in California, the young lady at the counter, who looked like a female Leon Trotsky (whose museum in Mexico City I once visited), gave me a wink and nod, and said somewhat flirtatiously, “Finally, someone who gets it.”

I don’t know if she was speaking of me or the author, but I didn’t have it in me to break it to her that I was buying a right-wing, not a left-wing book. If I had had more time, I might have tried to explain the the radical and the reactionary have the same enemy.

All that said, I’d say our grandparents had more personality than we do, with all our supposed “individualism.” I can only speak of my own grandparents. My own grandmother was an excommunicated Baptist from Mississippi. Do Baptists even bother excommunicating people anymore?

Our choices today come down to Coke or Pepsi. Of course, we can always be lulled into believing we are rebelling against the system by listening to Lady Gaga along with everyone else, just as those in control would have it.

8 06 2010
A Sinner

“Is the height of civilization really the fact that I can get up at any time I want on the weekend and eat Pop Tarts?”

In a certain real sense, yes. Whether “civilization” is in itself a good process is another question (it is usually built by the cities living off the countryside, the cores living off the peripheries, like parasites)…

But if you want a justification for individualism and personalism, I’d say the only one is that there is no such thing as The Collective being happy (nor suffering). Only individuals can be happy or suffer.

It’s why I’ve never been impressed by things like the Holocaust with their figures of 6 million. Who cares? To the individual who suffers…it doesn’t matter how many other people might be suffering at that moment (especially if they don’t know about it). Suffering isn’t additive, suffering isn’t collective. 6 million people suffering are six million irreducible individuals suffering individual suffering as bad for each of them as if they were suffering it alone. There is no such thing as a “six-million-person” suffering a “six-million-pain”…

8 06 2010
Michael

Pop Tarts are damn good though

8 06 2010
popery

In what remains one of my favorite courses in grad school, we talked about socialist realism in fine art, literature, film, and performance. Not surprisingly, most historiography has ignored novels, movies, paintings, and giant dances (not unlike the mesmerizing N. Korea ditty you posted) on the grounds that they were not even bad works of art; they were non-art productions. Illusions.

The critique leveled against aesthetic products of socialist realism was that it was statist, sub-par, uninteresting garbage. Art was a product of the individual, not of society, and demonstrated feats of insight and genius. Of course, it’s not surprising that the 20th century saw the development of an absurd art market, with minor works netting hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars.

The distinct achievement of the U.S. and its satellites, vis-a-vis the old Soviet Bloc, was the free[ish] market, and the reduction of the value a thing to a price, and the market continues to be a superbly hidden dictator which has made sure that everything looks the same precisely because nothing looks (feels, smells, sounds, tastes) the same.

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