Monday, 30 August 2010

The Conformist

To escape!  Is this what we want, to run away from the household tasks of hard thought and a sensitive conscience?  Is this why so many people not only endure but even like their paid work, even when it does not fulfil, and often aggravates…

To hide from a strange teacher, is that what we want; are we scared of Christa T.?

[as a teacher you] made such impractical demands.  – Just one example: you quoted a phrase to us from a book by some writer or other, I don’t recall who it was.  It was about the half-real and half-imaginary existence of human beings.  It really kept me thinking…  until I began studying….  Until I realized that, for me as a doctor, real existence would have to be enough….

…the essence of health is adaptation or conformity….  To survive… has always been man’s goal and always will be.  This means that at all times conformity is the means of survival: adaptation, conformity at any price.

… But you can’t upset me now as you used to, I’m not under your moralizing thumb any more…  The right thing would have been to focus on the realities themselves as the true standard and to measure your success by the degree of psychological robustness you have given your students to sustain them through life [because realities are always stronger than morality].

What were these realities?  The totalitarian state of East Germany.

A terrible irony here.  For what the medical student calls realities, is not reality at all, but only one part of a much bigger, complex universe.  Although, could we call them the objective conditions, in the language of the regime?  No, this is his creation.  He is the editor of his own world; reducing himself simply to his public role, to his engagement with the society’s institutions; which are themselves a human construction; made up of other people’s actions and ideas.   That is, he reduces himself to small slice of life and he calls it the real thing; thus he mistakes his one-bedroom flat for a large palace.  And he submits not to the historical process or evolution, but to other humans, just like himself.  He wants to be a prisoner in someone else’s jail!  Consciously he wants to become a piece of public property, or mass man, as he might have been called in the 1950s.  For him, to survive means to cast off one’s uniqueness or eccentricity (though it also suggests that those who want to conform are by nature conformists; they make a virtue of necessity). 

And the alternative is what?  What is the essence of the non-conformist or individualist?  It is their personality, of course, which is all bungled up with their thinking, their ability to think and act differently from society’s norms; and this depends on having ideas of one’s own; the very stuff, that along with language, makes us human.

The brain not only identifies [the raw material from our senses – noises, pressures, light and colour etc.] but relates them to each other and weaves them together into the measurelessly detailed, richly textured, multi-dimensional yet homogenous world that we experience in conscious perception…  [this] is what the brain is for in the same sense as the heart is for pumping blood.  It is called by Schopenhauer the understanding, and it is shared by us with the animal kingdom… In humans the brain has developed the additional and higher function of creating, storing and using abstract concepts which make thinking possible – the faculty of reason – and this has always been rightly held to be what differentiates man from the animals.  (Bryan Magee)

It seems a large sacrifice, to cast off our human qualities, to reduce ourselves to the level of lions and tigers.  The institutions and social life reduced to a jungle or savannah, which we inhabit unquestioningly, relying merely on our understanding, to use Schopenhauer’s term.  But our friend has alerted us to something very important, for this is exactly what the large institutions, the state and the corporation and their clients and colleagues, want us to do: they want us to conform to their standards, and to accept their values and institutional structures; they do not want us to question their meaning and purpose.  Although there is always a space for a few artists and the nuclear physicist, who cannot be so confined – they have to think; to enable the society to grow. 

It seems a terrible suicide of the human mind to give in to this, to accept it as natural, when indeed it is only a construct, created by other people, and for their particular needs and wants.  And it can be overturned, a conformist can become a critic; even a radical:

Worldly ambition inhibits true learning.  Ask me.  I know.  A young man in a hurry is nearly uneducable: He knows what he wants and where he’s headed; when it comes to looking back or entertaining heretical thoughts, he has neither the time nor the inclination.  All that counts is that he is going somewhere.  Only as ambition wanes does education become a possibility. (Andrew Bacevich)

It is interesting to compare this with the Magee quote.  What Bacevich describes is young men running around concentrating on the immediate task at hand.  That is, their understanding overwhelmingly predominates, with the faculty of reason merely its tool – it doesn’t have an independent life, and is probably not used to its full effect (that imaginary realm of the human mind).  Or if the medical student is right: the faculty of reason is hardly used at all; for the understanding, the synthesis of our perceptions, may only deal with our tasks and duties, with conventional wisdom and emails a kind of tree or weather system, which we negotiate as a cat negotiates a street or garden.  There isn’t time to stop and reflect; there is not space to allow for the mind to walk and wander; and this is old wisdom (They Didn’t Speak for Years). 

There isn’t time… busyness: the standard for our time?  It is a curious paradox: we are living within a manmade environment, which is returning us to the pre-modern natural world, where we live on our instincts, and on the daily grind, and where we have less time and energy to think and reflect – worn out after work we are encouraged to watch TV, play interactive games and shop… Work is a conveyer belt, and our leisure a theme park.  This was not what liberal progressives envisaged, even up to the 1960’s, where it was recognised that free time is essential to the good life:

I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous… 

In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be…  Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia.  The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion.  Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid….

Without the leisure class [that small group of the rich and privileged which the author wants to extend to everyone], mankind would never have emerged from barbarism.  (Bertrand Russell)

Why circumstances have made this vision seem no longer credible is a difficult question.  Leaving aside the 30 years of reaction, that have witnessed the hegemony of the corporate world, one large scale historical trend, which may in part explain this rise, could be the relaxation of tensions inherent in the transformation of the pre-modern world into the industrial-scientific society; so that only one form of culture, one overarching ideology now prevails (see Art and Life for some analysis; and The Power and the Glory).

What is striking about the student’s comments is his happy surrender of his mind’s complexities; which must be reduced simply to a tool (and he wants his life to be used by someone else; like some hacksaw or elevator).  Although the mistake, which this character doesn’t make, he is too self-conscious, perhaps too intelligent, is to think that this reduced conception of life, is actually life itself; a purely functional existence.  This dichotomy, between the complex world and our simplified idea of it, can usually live in harmony until some striking event, as described by Bacevich, occurs….

This conversation could be repeated today, but with a different social spin – how many people in the West preach conformity?  It shows what happens when an idea in one field, biology in this case, is employed more generally, and becomes a myth, which in turn is translated into reality.  In her book The Battle for God Helen Armstrong shows how modernisation has distorted our understanding of religious metaphors and myths, narrowing them down into historical scenarios that are to be tested against empirical facts; and in the case of the religious fundamentalists turning a parable into a real historical event, which must be believed in, absolutely. 

Though even the scientific experts can be blind to their own myths.  Take natural selection, a term used to describe that complex interaction through which evolution takes place:

Nothing creates more misunderstanding of the results of scientific research than scientists’ use of metaphors. It is not only the general public that they confuse, but their own understanding of nature that is led astray. The most famous and influential example is Darwin’s invention of the term “natural selection,” which, he wrote in On the Origin of Species,

    is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, 
     every variation, even the slightest; 
     rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good….

Darwin, quite explicitly, derived this understanding of the motivating force underlying evolution from the actions of plant and animal breeders who consciously choose variant individuals with desirable properties to breed for future generations. “Natural” selection is human selection writ large. But of course, whatever “nature” may be, it is not a sentient creature with a will, and any attempt to understand the actual operation of evolutionary processes must be freed of its metaphorical baggage. Unfortunately, even modern evolutionary biologists, as well as theorists of human social and psychological phenomena who have used organic evolution as a model for general theories of their own subjects, are not always conscious of the dangers of the metaphor. Alfred Russel Wallace, the coinventor of our understanding of evolution, wrote to Darwin in July 1866 warning him that even “intelligent persons” were taking the metaphor literally.  (Richard Lewontin)

Returning to our medical student: although we can see the societal pressures that cause him to think in this way; we can also see the absurdity of trying to adjust one's life to a metaphor (a novel by simplifying complex matters can help us clarify them).  To take one example: he assumes he knows what the realities are.  Does he? 

It’s 1980, and he chooses a career path.  He decides the career that offers the best prospects, and allows him to conform most closely to the ideological and administrative demands of the regime, is with the Stasi.  Since most bureaucrats, even secret policemen, tend to remain in bureaucracies for a long time, it almost certain he would still be there when the wall fell in 1989.  Within days the environment has changed, almost completely, wiping out the value of his previous conformity, his previous adaptation to realities.  It is certain he would survive in the new Germany, but would he achieve the same prominence and respectability (which is what he actually means when he talks about survival - even East German dissidents didn’t starve)?  This is a relatively minor example, of course.  A catastrophic example of adaptability and conformity is the Jewish assimilation into the German speaking world in the 19th and 20th centuries.

And then there is the “imaginary existence”.  The mind, of which we know so little – is that not part of reality?  But the student puts it well: ‘It really kept me thinking…’  None of us can do this for too long – to doubt our existence and its meaning is too painful and disorientating (David Hume’s description of this is justly famous).  Thus we have to work out a modus operandi, one way is the teacher’s way: to incorporate this uncertainty, and this imaginary realm, into your life and your ideas, be alive to the world around you; though living a relatively ordinary existence (and to accept the difficulties that thereby arise).  The other way is to chop it off, and pretend it doesn’t exist.  Remove you mind and its doubts, just be and do, and follow orders, and reduce the rich organic life to staid routine and a dead idea; which like old leaves on the ground, or the rubble of the Berlin Wall, are waiting to be shovelled up and thrown away. 

But when on the morning he loses his job, will he still speak of conformity and adaptation, or will be criticise the “system” and its leaders, and coruscate the new Germany; its unfairness and injustice?  Will he live again, and think and think and think….  Although badly, and in a somewhat confused way… Or will he accept his diminished status, and quietly without any fuss, become a security guard on a reclamation site?  Will he?  Will he conform?  Will he now?

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