“[T]he chief matter . . . being now not the fruits of the earth, and the beasts that subsist on it, but the earth itself; as that which takes in, and carries with it all the rest.“
~ John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, 1689
“As long as we keep ourselves busy tilling the earth, there is no fear of any of us becoming wild.”
~ Michel Guillaume Jean de Crevecoeur, Letters From an American Farmer, 1782
“Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave …
And birds and trees and flowers without a name
I sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came.”
~ John Clare, The Mores, 1820
“Strangely enough they have a mind to till the soil and the love of possession is a disease with them. These people have made many rules that the rich may break but the poor may not. They take their tithes from the poor and weak to support the rich and those who rule.
“They claim this mother of ours, the earth, for their own and fence their neighbors away; they deface her with their buildings and their refuse. The nation is like a spring freshet that overruns its banks and destroys all that are in its path.”
~ Sitting Bull, Speech at the Powder River Council, 1877
“The time has arrived when we should definitely make up our minds to recognize the Indian as an individual and not as a member of a tribe. The General Allotment Act is a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass. It acts directly upon the family and the individual.“
~ Teddy Roosevelt, Address to Congress about Dawes Act, 1901
The early modern period saw the legal push for land enclosure, privatization, and consolidation. It became a powerful force in the 18th century, which destroyed the ancien regime, destabilized the social order, and precipitated revolts and eventually revolution. This was central to Enlightenment thought in the creation or exacerbation of Jaynesian consciousness, post-bicameral nostalgia, Platonic/Cartesian anxiety, atomistic individualism, capitalist realism, social Darwinism, and WEIRD culture. In a short period of time, land reform, agricultural improvements, and technological advancements led to the first dependable grain surpluses, particularly the increase of wheat production, the sudden availability and affordability of white flour, and the industrial development of the high-carb standard American diet (SAD). Also, with colonial trade, tobacco, tea and sugar replaced local smoking herbs and herb-infused beer. Heading into the 19th century and continuing into the next, all of this combined might have contributed to the disappearance of the fairies and the emergence of a crisis of identity, followed by moral panic along with the rise of widespread mental illness and drug addiction and other diseases of civilization, which continues to worsen, not to mention increasing rates of such things as autism — all of it central to what one could call the agricultural mind, exacerbated by mass urbanization, industrialization, and big ag.
This is an ongoing line of speculation, but the land enclosure angle is somewhat new. We’ve previously written about the enclosure movement, privatization and the loss of the Commons, as it obviously is one of the most central changes in recent history, arguably key to understanding nearly all other changes in modernity. It coincided not only with capitalism, corporatism, and industrialization but also colonial imperialism and its vast trade network. There really is no way of comphrehending what all the fuss was about, from the English Peasants’ Revolt to the English Civil War to the American Revolution, without knowing how feudalism was forcefully and violently dismantled not by the peasants and serfs but by aristocrats and monarchs. Other economic practices and systems were seen as more profitable or otherwse attractive. Eliminating the feudal system of parishes and commons, for example, eliminated all of the inconvenient social obligations and traditional roles of noblesse oblige that constrained power according to the authorizng precedence of living tradition and custom. Part of the complaint of some aristocrats, including the more radical-minded like Thomas Jefferson, was that the ancien regime was perceived as oppressively confining to everyone, including the aristocracy. But to destroy that old order meant creating something radically new in its place, which would involve new subjectivities, identities, and roles.
That was the self-enforced task set before the Enlightenment thinkers and later reformers. Individuality and independence was praised, but some at the time admitted to or hinted at the fact that these were not natural law and human birthright. They had to be artificially created. First off, let’s set down a distinction: “Like social constructionism, social constructivism states that people work together to construct artifacts. While social constructionism focuses on the artifacts that are created through the social interactions of a group, social constructivism focuses on an individual’s learning that takes place because of his or her interactions in a group” (Wikipedia). Another way of thinking about this was described by Richard M. Doyle: “The philosopher Louis Althusser used the language of “interpellation” to describe the function of ideology and its purchase on an individual subject to it, and he treats interpellation as precisely such a “calling out.” Rather than a vague overall system involving the repression of content or the production of illusion, ideology for Althusser functions through its ability to become an “interior” rhetorical force that is the very stuff of identity, at least any identity subject to being “hailed” by any authority it finds itself response-able to” (Darwin’s Pharmacy). A social artifact, once socially constructed, offers an affordance that unconsciously enforces the authorization of social constructivism through the interpellation of calling out a particular behavioral subjectivity we become identified with in responding. So, to give a concrete example, we are enacting the propertied self when, after seeing a no trespassing sign, we don’t cross a fence. We’ve been hailed by the authorization of an implicit ideological realism that makes a claim over us, constraining not only our behavior but more importantly our identity. But that response has to be taught, modeled, and internalized — fences and walls, like roads and sidewalks, become the infrastructure emblazoned upon the mind.
This civilizing process was more starkly apparent at the beginning of modernity because so much of what we take for granted, within this dominant ideological realism, did not yet exist. To establish private landholdings was necessary to form the structure for the propertied self, far beyond mere self-ownership in not being a slave (i.e., liberty). The danger, to the emerging capitalist class, was that there were competing structures of identity with the communal self and bundled mind that continued to assert itself. Consider the elite intellectual William Godwin (1756–1836) who saw “associations as constructing their members’ subjectivities, not merely directing their energies incorrectly,” writes Robert Anderson. “In this sense, then, associations are analagous to what Louis Althusser calls Ideological State Apparatuses which provide material rituals and practice, which subjects recognize themselves. Unlike Althusser’s state apparatuses, which hail subjects as individuals, political associations, in Godwin’s view, construct a “common mass” subject, in which subjects are undifferentiated one from another. Since, as Sayer and Corrigan argue, the construction of subjectivity is central to the success of a nation-state, this function of political associations is no trivial matter” (“Ruinous Mixture”: Godwin, Enclosure and the Associated Self). Those like Godwin thought collectivities were a bad thing, since individualistic propertied elites such as himself represented the ideal in his utopian ideology. During this same era, George Washington warned of the threat of politcal parties and one wonders if he had similar worries on his mind, considering his treatment of the collective action of Shays’ Rebellion. Robert Anderson explains what this entails:
“The Enclosure Movement, which yokes the realms of the subject and of property, gives some historical grounding for Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject, which describes the psychic imperatives that drive the subject to distinguish itself from a “common mass.” This force, I am suggesting, determines the movement towards the enclosure of both the commons and the “self.” It concerns an anxiety about the “clean and proper” (“le propre”) boundaries of the self (“le propre”). The subject is constructed through a process of exclusion and boudnary-defense which involves an attempt ot ensure the singularity and integrity of the self within its boundaries, and an attempt to protect those boundaries of the self—not merely the self, but the boundaries themselves. Abjection names the proces of “exclusion” through wich “‘I’ expell myself” from indifferentiation and wildness/animality. The abject, then, threatens to “engulf” the subject because it is a reminder of what it must push aside in order to live. We can se this at work in Young’s claim that enclosure transformed the country from “boundless wilds and uncultivated wastes” into “well-peopled” “inclosures . . . cultivated in a most husband-like manner . . . and yielding an hundred times times the produce.” It is to guard against the “ruinous Effects of a Mixture of opposite Interests” and the “untidiness” of common and use-rights, that enclosure takes place. It cleans and distinguishes le propre—the self, the property—from the “improper.” In his chapter on “The Principles of Property,” Godwin argues that property performs this very function. In spite of the great injustices it causes, the right to property is so “sacred” that no exertion or sacrifice to protect it can be too great (2.440-50). It creates an “essential” “sphere” which protects man from outside intervention, thereby freeing up a space for the operation of “private judgment,” which is necessary for the improvement of man” (2.433). This improvement is threatened if the self is not protected from being “resolve[d] . . . into one common mass” (1.289). Abjection, then, is the psychological engine for improvement.
“The history of enclosure bears out Kristeva’s argument that abjection is ultimately a reliance on the law, which “shapes the body into a territory protected by the “differentiations of proper-clean and improper-dirty” (72). Thompson reveals the extent to which “reasons of improvement” had acquired the status of legal terminology, in particular as a justification for the enclosure of the commons (“Custom” 134-60 passim). A. W. B. Simpson’s A History of Land Law articulates the historical change from “communal rights” of the commons to individual rights, which both made possible and were produced by the enclosure: “[t]he tenurial system converted the villagers [who used the land as common village property] into tenants, and the theory of the law placed the freehold of most of the lands of the manor in the lord. . . . Thus a theory of individual ownership supplants earlier more egalitarian notions” of property. And with this change, common rights came to be seen as having originated “in the grant of the lord,” rather than as a “customary rights associated with the communal system of agriculture practiced in primitive village communities.” In cases where enclosure was contested, however, court rulings often reversed the implicit chronology of “improvement” to suggest that enclosure was the natural state of property rather than an innovation.”
This demonstrates how the conservative authority of hierarchical individualism usurped the role of traditional authority of the ancestral commons, the latter a vestige of archaic authorization of the bicameral mind. The historical revisionism of the conservative project of individualistic privatization hints at the underlying reactionary mind that fuels the radical transformation through the invented tradition of ideological realism dressed up in robes from the wardrobe of moral imagination, proclaiming it has always been this way and putting a narratized spell of historical amnesia upon Jaynesian consciousness — and so individuality erases the evidence of its own origins, like the scaffolding removed from a cathedral after being built by thousands of laboerers over centuries. The threat of collective action of worker associations, labor unions, etc is not that they represent something radically and entirely new but that they are old impulses/habits carried over from the lingering habitus of the ancien regime and traditional communities that keep challenging the radical modernity of reactionary conservatism. The conservative counterrevolution is itself revolutionary, as it is also authoritarian. As noted many times before, the ideology of independence of hyper-individualism is inseparable from dependence of authoritarianism (as violently oppressive militarism, totalitarianism, imperialism, and statism) — concentrated and centralized power, concentrated and centralized land ownership, concentrated and centralized psychic energy (withdrawn form the common world-self and enclosed). It requires concerted political effort and monopolization of violence to break apart communal land and identity. The capitalist self of hyper-individualism began with the wealthy elite precisely because they were the initial beneficiaries of the enclosure movement. They were enclosing not only land but their own minds and selves from the ancient common mass of the lingering traces of the bicameral mind. Many were thinking about these issues.
Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine’s land reform proposals are as much, if not more, about selfhood and social identity as they are about economics (the elimination of entail and primogeniture was intended as a direct attack on aristocracy). Neither trusted an elite to control all land and all benefits from land but they (fatalistically?) accepted that the enclosure movement was irreversible or necessary for the society that was being created, even as they acknowledged the loss of freedom as demonstrated by Native Americans who could act freely precisely because they were acting within a commons (Benjamin Franklin also made such observations about the greater indigenous freedom and its attraction). These specific founders wanted to make all individuals either land owners (Jefferson’s yeoman farmers as republican citizens) or beneficiaries of land ownership (Paines’s citizens dividend), in both cases a response to the enclosure movement as it encroached in on the New World through land consolidation. Self-development had been limited to the elite, but what if self-development could be made available to all. The most radical challenge of Enlightenment thought was that all of humanity, even women and the poor and non-Europeans, shared a common human nature and that self-cultivated individuality was a universal potential, while others saw it as a necessary demand and obligation (develop an individual self or be punished). Like these two, Adam Smith thought inequality opposed a free society of individual citizens. And for this reason, Smith worried that, as opposed to agriculture, the new industrial labor might dumb down the population and so public education was necessary. Without land to cultivate as part of Jeffersonian republicanism, society would have to teach other methods of self-cultivation. Godwin likewise was concerned with education motivated by a belief that every individual should independently research, analyze, and assess everything for themselves; such deification of individualism being an impossible ideal, of course; but that apparently was of no great concern to him beause he was of a less practical bent, as opposed to Jefferson and Paine’s aspirations to offer real world solutions. From Godwin’s perspective, the point was to create and enforce individualism, including actively destroying collectivities, and then everything else would presumably fall into place.
Godwin opposed the commoners re-creating the ancient practice of the commons for the very reason it was such a natural and deeply entrenched impulse within the shared psyche. Later on, it would be the same reason collective adoptions had to be illegalized to destroy Shaker communities, collective land ownership had to be constrained to weaken Hutterite communities, and collective labor unions had to be busted to shatter working class communites. Individualism isn’t created only one time in the past but must be constantly re-created through the policies and actions of government, the punishment and coercion of law, and the encouragement of incentives and subsidies. Individualism is such a weak, unstable, and unnatural state that it would break apart without constantly being shored up and defended. The modern psyche is ever seeking to return to its origins in the bundled mind of bicameralism, animism, or some other variant. The inherent failure of individualism is regularly affirmed by how individualist realism is entirely dependent on collectivist institutions of state governments, state-created corporate charters, etc — such as giving greater rights, privileges, benefits, power, autonomy, and representation to corporate persons than to most individual humans. We are suffused with an authoritarian collectivism that is the actual system behind the charade of individualism. As with Edmund Burke, Godwin’s fear of combinations, mixings, and associations — the undifferentiated masses — expressed a fear of the impure and disorderly; like an obsessive-compulsive child forever lining up her toys and panicking whenever anyone touches them. This is the demand for principled consistency in the WEIRD mind, but the only principle is order for the sake of order, as demonstration of hierarchical power to assert the authority that authorizes ideological realism. It must be an enforced order because the ancient organic orders of tribe, kinship, village, commons, etc or the grassroots organizing of communities and workers can’t be trusted because it can’t be controlled hierarchically through centralized authority and concentrated power. When the last traces of bicameral voices have been silenced, conservatives see hierarchy as the only authority left to command authorization, be it the hierarchy of Klan, church, military, or something similar.
Hierarchy, though, can only accomplish this if it has been narratized and internalized, by way of the interpellation of symbolic conflation where an ideological realism recedes from consciousness in becoming the calcified frame of thought and perception. This was what made the enclosure movement essential in reifying an abstract ideology. It had to be imprinted upon not only the human psyche but the land itself, the literal ground of psyche as our embodied sense of place. The early land reforms rigidified boundaries, regimented land ownership, and systematized infrastructure — roads were straightened and waterways channelized. As the echoes of the living bicameral voices of ancestral spirits were transformed into the written word as the “dead hand” of corpses (i.e., widespread literacy), the soil became mere dust and land mere property with the earth being mapped and bounded. Some traditions such as Quaker living constitutionalism sought to hold onto the remnants, as part of the memory of a former British communalism. The living landscape invoked by Australian Aborigines maybe was not so different than the English practice of beating the bounds and wassailing that reinforced a collective enclosure of a shared subjectivity. Once the commons were gone, there were no bounds of the commons left to be ritually beat as a community nor communal lands inabited by spirits to be wassailed. Land reform was social reform and moral reform. Godwin’s described education of the mind like the cultivation of enclosed land, which reminds one that Lockean land rights were defined not merely by use but by cultivation or improvement of enclosed land (including John Locke’s consitutional defense of slavery; propertied self going hand in hand with the embodied self literally being property to be owned; though Locked suggested a vague qualification about how much could be enclosed, which meant the rich could accumulate vast tracts of land as long as theoretically somewhere there is still land available for others), wherease the pre-Lockean land rights of Roger Williams acknowledged that any use of even non-enclosed land proved (demonstrated and expressed) ownership, which might simply have been an invocation of the old Charter of the Forest, “guaranteeing the right to commoning (recovered in 1217), which in turn recognized subsistence rights, e.g., the right to widow’s estovers (wood needed for housing repairs, implements, etc.), and to subsistence usufructs (the temporary use of another person’s land)” (Carolyn Lesjak, 1750 to the Present: Acts of Enclosure and Their Afterlife); some of the practices continuing into 19th cenury American property law and still barely hanging on today in certain Western countries.
It is intriguing to think about how recent this happened, but first consider where it began. “In the Middle Ages, fifty per cent or more of the land was commons, accessible to everybody,” says Mark Vernon (Spiritual Commons). Then the enclosures began. “Overall, the pace of enclosure rose dramatically after the 1760s as landowners turned to parliament for the legitimization of their claims,” writes Nina Mcquown. “Michael Turner estimates that more than twenty percent of the area of England was enclosed by act of parliament between 1750 and 1819, the vast majority of these acts occurring after 1760 (32). A high concentration—twenty-one percent of the whole of acreage enclosed by parliament—was enclosed in the decades between 1770 and 1780 and in the years of high grain prices during the Napoleonic wars (Yelling 16).11 Although enclosure continued until the end of the nineteenth century, by 1815 only small and discontinuous patches of common fields remained” (“Rank Corpuscles”: Soil and Identity in Eighteenth Century Representations). Then some further details from Gary Snyder: “between 1709 and 1869 almost five million acres were transferred to private ownership, one acre in every seven. After 1869 there was a sudden reversal of sentiment called the ‘open space movement’ which ultimately halted enclosures and managed to preserve, via a spectacular lawsuit against the lords of fourteen manors, the Epping Forest.” To put that in context, following the Englsh Civil War, the Glorious Revoluion reinstated the monarchy in 1688, but there now was a powerful Parliament. That Parliament would be the agent of change, beginning to take strong actions in that next century. Not only were the commons privatized for the colonies were legally constructed as for-profit corporations, along with the creation of quasi-governmental corporations like the East India Company. This led to the complaints by the colonists in demanding the king stand up to Parliament, but the monarchy no longer held the reigns of power. Capitalism was now running the show.
Even then the Charter of the Forest as the founding document of the Commons, having been established in 1217, didn’t officially end until 1971. It almost made it to the end of the Cold War and a new millennia. One might suspect the Commons seemed too communist to be allowed to survive. If it had been maintained, the people might have gotten the wrong idea about who the country belonged to. Even as the politics of it is more than relevant, what made the enclosure movement a revolutionary moment was the transformation of the Western mind. The real issue was the enclosure of the common identity and moral imagination. That is why, as colonial imperialism took hold and expanded, the rhetoric so heavily focused on the symbolic ‘wilderness’ left remaining. Though the “percentage of wastelands—forests, fens, sheep walks, and moors—enclosed and improved during the period of parliamentary enclosure was relatively small,” writes Nina McQuown, they “loomed large in the imaginations of the propagandists responsible for encouraging the expansion of both enclosure and the innovative agricultural practice that it was thought to support.” Carolyn Lesjak writes that, “If enclosure in the 16th century was largely “by agreement” and, in fact, condemned by both the church and the government, who sided with the commoners’ claims regarding “common rights,” by the 1750s the government had taken the lead and over the course of the period from 1750-1830 passed over 4000 Acts of Enclosure, resulting in over 21% of the land (approximately 6.8 million acres) being enclosed (see Ellen Rosenman’s BRANCH essay on “Enclosure Acts and the Commons”). By the end of the century, virtually all the open fields in Britain were gone.” Everything had to be cultivated, even what was deemed useless. All material was to be fodder for improvement and progress, at least in the new mythos. “After the 1760s,” McQuown explains, as the “British improvers turned the logic and language of colonialism inward, towards the wastes,” they also turned inward to colonizing the uncultivated mind.
This makes one realize how false it is to blame everything on the later political revolutions and freethinking radicals. The enclosure movement actually began much earlier around the 14th century, around the time of the English Peasants’ Revolt. Even Parliaments’ legal justifications and enforcement happened generations before the Boston Massacre and Boston Tea Party. This reform of land, self, and mind unsurprisingly preceded and then overlapped with the early modern revolutions. John Adams famously wrote that, “What do We mean by the Revolution? The War? That was no part of the Revolution. It was only an Effect and Consequence of it. The Revolution was in the Minds of the People, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen Years before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington. The Records of thirteen Legislatures, the Pamphlets, Newspapers in all the Colonies ought be consulted, during that Period, to ascertain the Steps by which the public opinion was enlightened and informed concerning the Authority of Parliament over the Colonies.” His only error was limiting his scope to the colonies and not pushing it further back. Enclosure of land became reform of mind became revolution of society became rupture of history. The cultivation of farming that once followed astrological cycles of return (i.e., revolution) had ground down the bones of the dead into dust. Humanity was uprooted from the past and temporally dislocated in an abstract narrative, as cyclical time became linear and nostalgia became a disease. The colonists surely experienced this most clearly in how the early waves of colonists largely consisted of the most destitute landless peaseants, many recently evicted from the commons and feudal villages, often arriving as slave-like indentured servants and convict labor — one can imagine the desperation and despair they felt, as being sent to the early colonies was practically a death sentence.
The colonial era may seem like a distant time from the present, but we can sense how the world we now live in was shaped then. Most Westerners remain landless peasants. The commons that once defined a communal experience of reality only remain like the shadows of a nuclear blast, the traces of a living world that remains our ancient inheritance, however cut off we have become. It may seem the egoic boundaries of our individualism have toughened into place like scars, like the crust of parched earth. We feel tired and anxious from the constant effort of mainaintiaing the walls of our mind, to keep the self separate from the world. It takes only a moment’s lapse when our guard is let down before we begin to sense what we have lost. An aching tenderness remains below. We are so hungry for connection that simply stepping into the commons of a forested park can feel like a spiritual experience for many people today. Yet such moments are mere glimpses too often quickly forgotten again. We have no shared experience, no living memory to draw from. We have no solid ground to stand upon. And the path to a different world that existed in the past has been gated shut. Or so it seems. But is that true? Where else could we be but in the world? Nature knows no boundaries nor does the human psyche, if we root down deep enough into our own soil. There is no sense of self without a sense of place for we mould ourselves out of the clay, as we breathe the dust of our ancestors.
Landscape is memory, and memory in turn compresses to become the rich black seam that underlies our territory.Alan Moore, Coal Country, from Spirits of Place
Ever place has its own… proliferation of stories and every spatial practice constitutes a form of re-narrating or re-writing a place… Walking [into a place] affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects… haunted places are the only ones people can live in.Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life
* * *
Southern United States: An Environmental History
by Donald E. Davis, pp. 136-7
Without question, Kentucky’s early reputation as a hunter’s paradise influenced public opinion about all those residing in the uplands during the early settlement period. In a world that equated agricultural improvements with civilization, Native Americans living in the backcountry were seen by most Anglo-Europeans as representing the lowest evolutionary stage of human development—hunter. So needing a rationale for conquering and subdividing the largely forested frontier, Kentucky and other Ohio Valley Native Americans became hunters in the minds of most Europeans, even though they were also accomplished agriculturalists. Not surprisingly, after frontier settlers had later adopted many of the same subsistence techniques and hunting practices of their Shawnee, Creek, and Cherokee neighbors, they too were ridiculed by authorities for their “backward” and “primitive” ways. The British military commander for North America, Thomas Cage, was already of the opinion in 1772 that white backcountry settlers “differ little from Indians in their manner of life” [Davies 1972-1981, V. 203]. Perhaps more to the point is frontier historian Stephen Aron, who, in paraphrasing Cage’s letter to the Earl of Hillsborough, wrote that backcountry residents “dressed like Indians, comported themselves like Indians, and indiscriminately consorted with one another like Indians [Aron 1996, 14]. Hunting was blamed as the principal cause of the problem by both religious reformers and the ruling elite, who in their missionary visits and public appeals, tried to promote the latest agricultural reforms among the backwoods populace. Agreeing with the reformers, Crevecoeur, the celebrated author of Letters from an American Farmer, wrote that “as long as we keep ourselves busy tilling the earth, there is no fear of any of us becoming wild; it is the chase and the food it procures that have this strange effect” [Crevecoeur 1957, 215].
“Ruinous Mixture”: Godwin, Enclosure and the Associated Self
by Robert Anderson
In this argument, I turn on its head Godwin’s claim that the right to private property “flows from the very nature of man.” While Godwin argues that the right to property is “founded” on the “right of private judgment” which “flows from the very nature of man” (2.169-70), I will argue that this argument runs counter to his notion that private property “unavoidably suggests some species of law” to guarantee it (2.439). To be more specific, I argue that Godwin’s defense of the “sacred” and “essential” “sphere” surrounding the self (1.1.70, 1.257), which is necessary to potect it from being “resolved . . . into the common mass” (1.289), draws upon the conceptual framework which informs the rhetoric of the Enclosure Movement. In particular, I note his argument that cutting off the individual from the “common mass” is necessary for “improvement”—another term for enclosure. [….]
Part of his “extensive plan of freedom” involved the socialization of the self and (ideally) property and the rejection of all restraints on individual liberty; his “reprobation,” I argue, stems from this same defense of private judgment, which can be said to serve the conservative interests of the powers that be.
- The Subject of the Commons
Political associatons came of age in the latter part of the eighteenth century in response to the upheavals wrought by the industrial revoltion. Associations were contesting the state’s efforts to regulate subjectivites. Albert Goodwin recounts that in 1790 in the industrial center of Sheffeld, for example, “the master scissorsmiths,” apprehensive of the collective power of striking scissor grinders, “called a general meeting of the town’s merchants and manufacturers ‘to ooppose the unlawful combinations of the scissor grinders and the combinations of all other workmen.'” The same anxiety about the collective strength of the poor which led the Sheffield city leaders to oppose combinations also led to attempts to eradicate collective landholding arrangements by enclosing the commons. Following the passage of the Private Enclosure Act of 6 June 1791, in whch 6,000 acres of commons were redistrbuted among the wealthy “local land-holders, tithe-owners and large freeholders,” an angry mob, comprising both peasants and industrial laborers, rioted, threatening to destroy “the lives and properties of the freeholders who had approved the enclosure” (165-67). The fact that the mob opposing enclosure included industrial laborers as well as peasant farmers whose land was being appropriated reveals the close connections between enclosure and industrial capitalism. Sayer and Corrigan make the connecton between enclosure, capitalism, and subjectivity in this period more explicit.
“But the great catastrophe which above all pervades the eighteenth century is the acceleration of the great “freeing” of labour (and thus making labour-power) that divides wage-labouring from generalized poverty; the long movement from service to employment, from provision to production/consumption, from political theatre to the individualism . . . of the vote: enclosures.” (96)
As Marx argues, enclosure ensures that workers, expropriated from their means of subsistence, are thrust into relations of dependence on the capitalists.
Goodwin goes on to relate that the response of the commoners and laborers also took forms more organized and intellectual than rioting. “When ‘5 or 6 Mechanicks’ began to meet . . . to discuss ‘the enormous high prices of Provisions,'” they initiated the creation of political societies, associatons, for the (self-) education of the working classes (166). They attempted, in the words of one charter, “to persuade their benighted brethren to defend themselves against private and publiic exploitation by the assertion of their natural rights” (qtd. in Goodwin 167). Political societes provided laborers with an organized forum—an institution—to exert influence on the opinions of their fellow laborers, and by extension, on society at large. Godwin opposes political associations on just this account. The “interference of an organized society” to influence “opinion” is “pernicious” (2.2280. “[E]ach man must be taught to enquire and think for himself,” uninfluenced by either “sympahy or coercion,” guided only by “reason.” The “creeds” of politcal associations, on the other hand, encourage “each man to identify his creed with that of his neighbour” (1.288). He goes on to argue that sympathy, like a disease, is especially contagious among undisciplined laborers: “While the sympathy of opinion catches from man to man, especially among persons whose passions have been little used to the curb of judgment, actns may be determined upon, which the solitary reflections of all would have rejected” (1.294). Like the unenclosed commons, sympathy threatens the distinctions upone which general improvements is predicated: the “mind of one man is essentally diistinct from the mind of another. If each do not preserve his individuality, the judgment of all will be feeble, and the progress of our common understandng inexpressibly retarded” (1.236).
1790, the year the Sheffeld master scissorsmiths moved to oulaw the combinations of “grinders” and “workmen,” was also the year in which Edmund Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke reserved his greates hostility—and fear—for the “confusion” of the “swinish multitdude” (314). Reflections reveals the extent to which concerns about the collective power of the masses, the upheavals of the industrial revolution, and anxiety about the French Revolution are intertwined. The “French Revolution,” he argues, was brought about “by the most absurd and ridiculous . . . by the most contemptible instruments. Everything seems out of nature in this strange chaos of levity and ferocity, and all sorts of crimes jumbled together with all sorts of follies.” And further, it is a “monstrous tragi-comic scene, the most opposite passions necessarily succeeded, and sometimes mix with each other in the mind; alternate contempt and indignation; alternate laughter and tears; alternate scorn and horror.” Burke’s concern about the inappropriate mixture driving the French Revolution invokes a common rhetoric for disparaging forms of life among peasants and the laboring population. It appears, as I will argue, in condemnations of the “waste” and the “ruinous . . . Mixture of opposite Interests” in the subsistence economy of the commons, and in Godwin’s critique of the tumult of political associations—both of which are seen as threats to individual integrity and “progress.” It also appears in his analysis of the “mechanism of the human mind.”
“Rank Corpuscles”: Soil and Identity in Eighteenth Century Representations
by Nina Patricia Budabin McQuown
The teleology of improvement could even stretch towards man’s transcendence of matter itself. This idea is amply represented in a notorious reverie from Godwin’s first edition of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), where Godwin projects the complete domination of matter—not only the matter of the soil, but also and especially the matter of the body—as the eventual outcome of human progress, beginning with its progress in agriculture. His logic traces a line from improved agriculture to a human transcendence of appetite, illness, and death: “[t]hree fourths of the habitable globe is now uncultivated. The parts already cultivated are capable of immeasurable improvements” (2: 861), he offers, and if we can gain control “over all other matter,” Godwin suggests,
“why not over the matter of our own bodies? If over matter at ever so great a distance, why not over matter which . . . we always carry about with us, and which is in all cases the medium of communication between that principle and the external universe? In a word, why may not man one day be immortal?” (2: 862)
Godwin’s questions are only the most succinct statement of the radical hope that is at the center of late eighteenth-century bourgeois liberalism, which, as Kramnick has argued, linked agricultural improvement to “middle-class disdain for the past, for history, and for custom” (Kramnick, “Eighteenth-Century Science” 9). For reformist thinkers, in all areas of human ambition, improvement was articulated as a break with the past and an optimistic orientation towards the future.
Even so, reformers relied on an analogy between human self-ownership and landownership that draws on inherited parallels between human bodily-economy and the social system.5 Reformers saw an obvious parallel between agriculturally improved land and the human subject, who, cut off by self-reliance from the prejudice of contemporaries as well as the inherited prejudices of the past, could “cultivate” himself towards perfection, so that, as Robert Anderson puts it, “[t]he moral economy and political economy merge in the social and semantic fields covered by ‘improvement’” (630). In the works of both Godwin and Priestley, both subjectivity and soil are divided into discrete properties whose content is to be determined by one and only one owner, protected by the integrity of the individual conscience from absorption into the “common mass” of human thought and opinion (620).6 Enclosure of both self and soil meant divestment from the influence of history—those ancient patriarchs and their prejudices—as much as from the influence of the rights of commonage. If earlier authors imagined the soil as disseminating ownership of England’s past, bearing it physically into the bodies of nationals, later eighteenth-century reformist authors often render the soil as a failed medium for the transmission of historical experience and lingering subjectivities. Such failure is, paradoxically, reinscribed as improvement. Priestley destroys the “foundation” for the prejudicial thought of the past, and Charlotte Smith, as we will see in the conclusion to this chapter, insists on a failure of communication between the present and an incomprehensible past that is buried well below reach of the ploughshare, and is in any case unworthy of transmission. Smith and Priestley deny the relevance of the past to the present because both prefer to build on a different foundation.
This chapter examines late eighteenth-century reformist representations of the soil primarily in the field of agricultural writing. It offers an analysis, first, of Arthur Young’s writing in support of the enclosure of waste soils in several works of the 1770s and 1780s. In contrast to the revolutionary rhetoric of Priestley, Godwin, and Smith, Arthur Young is usually thought of as a political conservative for his response to the French Revolution.7 Yet to call Young a conservative is to fail to appreciate common ground he shared with the likes of progressives such as Godwin and Priestley in his advocacy for enclosure and against tithes and poor rates. Moreover, in the field of agriculture at least, Young was hardly an advocate for the careful and conservative restoration of the edifice of the past. For Young, the waste spaces of Britain must be rendered into an inviting blankness empty and available enough to rival the magnetism of America’s putatively untouched interior. We start by acknowledging the ways that his arguments for the enclosure of wastelands require the figuration of Britain as Locke’s tabula rasa, ripe for human improvement, and move on to a specific discussion of Young’s descriptions of moor soils as the prototypical waste, where we find him forcibly unearthing and dispersing the evidence of other histories and interests in the soil in order to make the past available for improvement towards a progressively more fertile future. In Young’s improvement and enclosure propaganda, we can see that eighteenth-century agricultural writing does not, like Dryden’s translation of the Georgics and Defoe’s Tour in this dissertation’s chapter two, simply mediate, reframe, or cover up relics that it cannot fit into an acceptable narrative of British history, or, like Powell and Philips, allow the concept of recirculation through the soil to provide an alternative, inarticulate, and immediate relation to the past. Nor does Young, like Smollett or Tull, suggest sequestration from the violating agency of decay. Instead, Young offers an improvement that actively un-earths the past. The coherence of Young’s improved Britain is based not on a hermeneutics of repression, where fragmented and conflicting histories are buried out of sight, but on the agricultural improver’s active recycling of the past into fertile soil that will produce a better future. His texts acknowledge the tangles of historical and legal relics and material and customary restraints in and on the soil in order to enact their exhumation and dispersal. By claiming and controlling the power of putrefaction to break down and disseminate relics, Young’s improver takes over the soil’s work of decay. He releases the value of the past for the production of future goods.
In fact, Young’s program—which became the program of the new Royal Agricultural Society in 1793—was so successful that by the end of the eighteenth century, the landscape of Britain was entirely changed. With private enclosures replacing open fields formerly held in common, it was divided into subdivisions set apart by hedgerows, ditches, walls, and straight(er) roads. Where Godwin imagined a mind that could be enclosed and cultivated like soil through improvements, the poet John Clare asserted that by the first decades of the nineteenth century, that the British landscape had indeed come to imitate the private boundaries of the individual conscience. In this poem on the enclosure of his native village in Northhamptonshire, “The Moors,” for example, Clare shows,
“Fence meeting fence in owners’ little bounds
Of field and meadow, large as garden grounds,
In little parcels little minds to please,
With men and flocks imprisoned, ill at ease.” (46-49)
For Clare as for others, the consonance of a private landscape and a private subjectivity came with a sense of loss, both of individual rights, and of continuity with the past, whose paths “are stopt—the rude philistine’s thrall / Is laid upon them and destroyed them all” (64-5). The sense that improvement had turned out to mean the parceling up of experience into discrete and discontinuous blocks led, for Godwin, to his eventual anxiety that the possibility of future progress had also been lost. How can men whose lives are so strongly separated engage in the communication that leads to human perfection? This anxiety motivates Godwin’s An Essay on Sepulchres (1809), a text in which Godwin ultimately abandons his advocacy for a historical soil, and proposes that dirt—literally the dust of the buried corpses of great men—could be the foundation of improvement by materializing cultural and historical continuity. Godwin’s Essay proposes a different kind of soil-fertility, land that fruits out in knowledge, experience, and sentiment instead of only food. Yet Godwin’s essay is unable to imagine an immediate and therefore openended relation between human bodies and the dust of the dead. He strives to secure stable access to corpses that are also subjects, with particular memories and ideas to represent to their living interlocutors. Intent on controlling the legacy that the past leaves for the future, Godwin can only approach the dead through the medium of their representations—both the texts they leave behind and the monuments he wants to erect at their gravesites. Ultimately, his Essay offers less a plan for the stable continuity of experience across generations, than a revelation of the limits of what representations and mediums can accomplish when they refuse the immediate agency of soil.
The Early Modern 99%
by Harry C. Merritt
Reverberations of battle are the soundtrack to developments in England at the time, where King Charles I would be executed the following year and his kingdom transformed into a commonwealth. During the course of the film, the educated and principled Whitehead is forced into labor together with the alcoholic Jacob and the simpleton Friend by O’Neill, a rogue Irishman seeking self-enrichment. […]
Not just England was in turmoil at this time — much of Europe and the growing number of territories it ruled across the globe experienced extraordinary upheaval during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Though the “General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century” thesis originally developed by Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm has since been challenged and amended, a number of broad themes can still be distilled. Religious dissent and political radicalism challenged the authority of both the Catholic Church and monarchs who ruled by the grace of God. Conflicts like the Thirty Years War descended into endless nihilistic pillage and slaughter before lending themselves to the creation of the modern state system. The ruthless quest for precious metals and profits fueled the conquest of Native American peoples and the establishment of the Atlantic slave trade.
Perhaps one of the most powerful conceptualizations of this period can be found in Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s book The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. According to Linebaugh and Rediker, the ruling classes imagined themselves to be the latter-day incarnation of Hercules, laboring to bring order to a chaotic world. The embodiment of their enemy was the mythological Hydra, whose many heads represented its multifarious elements: religious dissenters, radical commoners, rebellious African slaves, fiercely independent Native Americans, and freethinking women.
In the Americas and on the Atlantic, “the plebian commonism of the Old [World]” encountered “the primitive communism of the New World” and formed a hybrid, alternative vision that set itself against the emergent order of modernity. Late in A Field in England, a hallucinating Whitehead declares, “I am my own master”; this realization is precisely what the ruling classes feared most in the Hydra.
Despite its multitudes, the Hydra was ultimately unsuccessful at challenging the emerging capitalist, colonialist order of modernity. In the centuries since, it would be difficult to imagine a group that parallels the Hydra in its diversity, utopianism, and in the threat it poses to the ruling classes — that is, until today. The emergence of the 99% as a social grouping that has come to be dreaded and despised by members of the 1% reproduces the dynamics and the discourse of that era.
While a new era of globalization erodes the economic security of the vast majority of the US, the 1% and their political supporters insist that they work harder than the rest of us and thus their ownership of nearly half of the world’s wealth is for the greater good. Recently, we have been treated to numerous declarations from members of the 1% suggesting that they are under threat from the 99%.
These shrill cries about impending repression — invoking Nazism seems popular — reveal the degree to which the 1% identify with one another and fear the masses. Like the Hydra, the 99% is a rhetorical construction rather than a social formation with clear class consciousness. Its very diversity constitutes its greatest weakness. The repeated spread, defeat, and resurrection of movements like Occupy Wall Street and Spain’s indignados resemble the scattered but persistent revolts of the Hydra. Today’s Occupy activists should recall that a revolutionary conspiracy by a group of New York City laborers — black and white, slave and free — emerged in 1741 out of a waterfront tavern just blocks from today’s Zuccotti Park. With goals that are simultaneously utopian and practical, these movements appeal to both the basic needs and the deepest desires of common people around the globe. […]
Alain Badiou sees “the invariant features of every real mass movement: egalitarianism, mass democracy, the invention of slogans, bravery, the speed of reactions” embodied in both Thomas Müntzer’s movement of the 1500s and in Tahrir Square of the 2010s. As disparate groups occupy public spaces from Cairo to Madrid to New York, asserting their rights and presenting an alternative vision of their societies, we should not forget the members of the Hydra who fought against the exploitation of the ruling classes in favor of another world during the early modern period.
Some will argue that our present time is too distant to draw many practical lessons from this period. But that does not mean we cannot look to its events, personages, and symbols for inspiration. By coincidence, the rainbow flag used by today’s LGBT and peace activists bears a striking resemblance to the rainbow flag Thomas Müntzer once used to rally the German peasantry — a fitting symbol in any period for uniting a diverse coalition and insisting that another world is possible.
The Effect of Land Allotment on Native American Households During the Assimilation Era
by Christian Dippel and Dustin Frye
Toward the end of the 19th century, with the conclusion of the Indian Wars and the closing of the frontier, reformers and the U.S. government turned their attention towards the cultural assimilation of Native Americans, ninety percent of whom were living on the reservations created in the previous decades. This is signified by the famous 1892 quote: “kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”1 Assimilation efforts were centered on land allotment policies that broke up tribally owned reservation lands into individually owned homestead-sized land allotments. As the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) commissioner noted: “if there were no other reason [for allotment], the fact that individual ownership of property is the universal custom among civilized people of this country would be a sufficient reason for urging the handful of Indians to adopt it.” Allotment was the cornerstone of federal Indian policy beginning with the passing of the General Allotment (or ‘Dawes’) Act in 1887 until it ended with the passing of the Indian Reorganization (or ‘Howard-Wheeler’) Act (IRA) in 1934 (Carlson, 1981, p18).
When a reservation was opened for allotment, all families on the reservation were given allotments, and these allotments were held in a trust managed by the local Indian agent (the BIA’s local superintendents in charge of a reservation). Trust-status meant allottees could not sell or collateralize an allotment. In order to obtain full ‘fee-simple’ legal title for their allotment, allottees had to be declared “competent” by the BIA agent (Carlson, 1981; Banner, 2009; Otis, 2014). In short, Indian allotment was designed as a conditional transfer program aimed at cultural assimilation. The first ‘treatment arm’ was an unconditional transfer program: receiving an allotment gave the allottee the unconditional right to use the land for their own purposes, as well as the right to leasing rents. The second treatment arm was only obtained conditional on proving one’s “competence.” Allotment’s conditional transfer arm (full title) was worth almost 20 times annual per capita incomes in our data, orders of magnitude larger than modern-day conditional transfer programs. Our paper is an investigation into how individual households responded to the incentives created by this program.
We hypothesize that individual allottees responded to the allotment policy’s incentive structure by signalling cultural assimilation to the BIA agents in order to be able to obtain full property rights over their allotments. First evidence of this comes from an annual panel of reservation aggregate data from the BIA’s annual reports from 1911 to 1934. In addition to schooling, these data include very direct measures of assimilation or assimilation-signalling, namely the number of “church-going Indians” and of those “wearing civilized dress.” We combine these data with the universe of Indian allotments, which the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has digitized with geo-location and issuance year. In a within-reservation over-time comparison, we find that school-attendance, the number of church-going Indians and the number of those wearing civilized dress increased in lock-step with the expansion of allotment, even after controlling for potential changes in school and clerical infrastructure.
1 Quote from a speech by Capt. Richard Pratt, founder of the first Indian boarding school. Appendix-Figure A1 shows one of the many “before/after” pictures one finds in association with the Assimilation Era.
Metaphorical Space and Enclosure in Old English Poetry
by Benjamin S. Waller
A Language Older Than Words
by Derrick Jensen, pp. 101-6
Only recently—especially after teaching at a university for a few years— have I come to understand why the process of schooling takes so long. Even when I was young it seemed to me that most classroom material could be presented and assimilated in four, maybe five, years. After you learn fractions and negative numbers in first or second grade, what new principles are taught in math until algebra in junior high? It’s the same with science, art, history, reading, certainly writing. Nearly everything I learned those years—and this was true for my friends as well—was gleaned through books and conversations outside class. It’s true to the point of cliché that most of the “crap” we learn in high school, as Simon and Garfunkel put it, is a bland stew of names, dates, and platitudes to be stored up the night before each test, then forgotten the moment the test is handed in.
During high school, I believed the primary purpose of school was to break children of the habit of daydreaming. If you force them to sit still long enough, eventually they tire even of sinking turn-around fadeaways at the buzzer to win NBA championships. Having sat in the back of the class lining rockets over the left field fence for the better part of thirteen years, I was ready to move on.
I’ve since come to understand the reason school lasts thirteen years. It takes that long to sufficiently break a child’s will. It is not easy to disconnect children’s wills, to disconnect them from their own experiences of the world in preparation for the lives of painful employment they will have to endure. Less time wouldn’t do it, and in fact, those who are especially slow go to college. For the exceedingly obstinate child there is graduate school.
I have nothing against education; it’s just that education— from the Greek root educere, meaning to lead forth or draw out, and originally a midwife’s term meaning to be present at the birth of—is not the primary function of schooling. I’m not saying by all this that Mrs. Calloway, my first-grade teacher, was trying to murder the souls of her tiny charges, any more than I’ve been trying to say that individual scientists are necessarily hell-bent on destroying the planet or that individual Christians necessarily hate women and hate their bodies. The problem is much worse than that, it is not merely personal nor even institutional (although the institutions we’ve created do mirror the destructiveness of our culture). It is implicit in the processes, and therefore virtually transparent.
Take the notion of assigning grades in school. Like the wages for which people later slave—once they’ve entered “the real world”—the primary function of grades is to offer an external reinforcement to coerce people to perform tasks they’d rather not do. Did anyone grade you when you learned how to fish? What grades did you get for pretending, shooting hoops, playing pinball, reading good books, kissing (“I’m sorry, dear, but you receive a C”), riding horses, swimming in the ocean, having intense conversations with close friends? On the other hand, how often have you returned, simply for the joy of it, to not only peruse your high school history textbook, but to memorize names and dates, and, once again for the joy of it, to have a teacher mark, in bright red, your answers as incorrect?
Underlying tests as given in school are the presumptions not only that correct answers to specific questions exist, but that these answers are known to authority figures and can be found in books. Tests also generally discourage communal problem solving. Equally important is the presumption that a primary purpose of school is to deliver information to students. Never asked is the question of how this information makes us better people, or better kissers, for that matter. Systematically—inherent in the process—direct personal experience is subsumed to external authority, and at every turn creativity, critical thought, and the questioning of fundamental assumptions (such as, for example, the role of schooling on one’s socialization) are discouraged.
If you don’t believe me, pretend for a moment you’re once again in school. Pretend further that you have before you the final test for a final required class. If you fail this test, you fail the class. While you may have enjoyed the process of schooling, and may even have enjoyed this class, you enjoyed neither enough to warrant repetition. Pretend the test consists of one essay question, and pretend you know the instructor well enough to understand that if you mimic the instructor’s opinions you’ll get a higher grade. If you disagree with the instructor—pretend, finally, that you do— you’ll be held to a higher standard of proof. What do you do? Do you speak your mind? Do you lead with your heart? Do you take risks? Do you explore? Do you write the best damn essay the school has ever seen, then return next year to retake the class? Or do you join with thousands—if not millions—of students who face this dilemma daily and who astutely bullshit their way through, knowing, after all, that c stands for Credit?
Grades, as is true once again for wages in later life, are an implicit acknowledgment that the process of schooling is insufficiently rewarding on its own grounds for people to participate of their own volition. If I go fishing, the time on the water— listening to frogs, smelling the rich black scent of decaying cattails, holding long conversations with my fishing partner, watching osprey dive to emerge holding wriggling trout—serves me well enough to make me want to return. And even if I have a bad day fishing, which, as the bumper sticker proclaims, is supposed to be “better than a good day at work,” I still receive the reward of dinner. The process and product are their own primary rewards. I fish; I catch fish; I eat fish. I enjoy getting better at fishing. I enjoy eating fish. No grades nor dollars are required to convince me to do it. Only when essential rewards disappear does the need for grades and dollars arise.
It could be argued that I’m missing the point, that the product of the years of homework and papers and tests are not the physical artifacts, nor the grades, nor the bits of information, but instead the graduates themselves. But that’s my point exactly, and we must ask ourselves what sort of product is that, from what sort of process.
A primary purpose of school—and this is true for our culture’s science and religion as well—is to lead us away from our own experience. The process of schooling does not give birth to human beings—as education should but never will so long as it springs from the collective consciousness of our culture—but instead it teaches us to value abstract rewards at the expense of our autonomy, curiosity, interior lives, and time. This lesson is crucial to individual economic success (“I love art,” my students would say, “but I’ve got to make a living”), to the perpetuation of our economic system (What if all those who hated their jobs quit?), and it is crucial, as should be clear by now, to the rationale that causes all mass atrocities.
Through the process of schooling, each fresh child is attenuated, muted, molded, made—like aluminum—malleable yet durable, and so prepared to compete in society, and ultimately to lead this society where it so obviously is headed. Schooling as it presently exists, like science before it and religion before that, is necessary to the continuation of our culture and to the spawning of a new species of human, ever more submissive to authority, ever more pliant, prepared, by thirteen years of sitting and receiving, sitting and regurgitating, sitting and waiting for the end, prepared for the rest of their lives to toil, to propagate, to never make waves, and to live each day with never an original thought nor even a shred of hope.
In Letters From an American Farmer, Michel Guillaume Jean de Crévecoeur noted: “There must be in the Indians’ social bond something singularly captivating, and far superior to be boasted of among us; for thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become Europeans.”
Benjamin Franklin was even more to the point: “No European who has tasted Savage Life can afterwards bear to live in our societies.” It was commonly noted that at prisoner exchanges, Indians ran joyously to their relatives while white captives had to be bound hand and foot to not run back to their captors.
It is small wonder, then, that from the beginning, whenever we have encountered an indigenous culture, we have had the Lord our God— replaced now by economic exigency—tell us that “thou shalt smite them; and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them.” What seems at first aggression is in fact self preservation, a practical staunching of what would otherwise be an unmanageable and embarrassing flow of desertions.
The same self-preservation motivated my father’s actions when I was a child. To preserve the person that he had become, he had to smite and utterly destroy all who reminded him of what could have been, and of the person he once was, far beyond conscious memory, before his parents, too, out of self-preservation destroyed him. So he lashed out with fist, foot, voice, penis, all so he could forget, all so we could never know, ourselves, that alternatives to fear existed. Had he been able to destroy the stars to so destroy me, he would have done it. Had he been able to destroy the stars, as even now we are destroying the seas and forests and grasslands and deserts, he would have succeeded, I am sure, in destroying me.
In the eighteenth century, de Crévecoeur wrote, “As long as we keep ourselves busy tilling the earth, there is no fear of any of us becoming wild.” Though the wild outside diminishes each day, as do intact cultural alternatives, the fear of these alternatives remains. The fear shall remain so long as we live the way we do, and so long as there are alternatives we must avoid. The alternatives shall remain so long as there is life. We should not be surprised, then, that our culture as a whole must destroy all life and that we as individuals must not dwell upon the horrors we visit not only upon others but upon ourselves, that we dwell instead upon the daily earning of our bread, and beyond that pile upon ourselves project after project to keep ourselves always occupied, always unconscious of the fact that we do not have to live this way, always blindered to alternatives. For if we looked we might see, if we saw we might act, and if we acted we might take responsibility for our own lives. If we did that, what then?
63 thoughts on “Enclosure of the Mind”
My senses tell me that everything is the commons. When any of us behaves as if this isn’t so, we are acting pathologically, not ‘crazy’, but in the sense of disease-promoting. Dis-ease. The people of the cities are not at ease. With so many people living so close by one another are not at ease, bad things happen. Nature will sort us out, eventually…
That seems to be true, in some fundamental sense within human nature. Going by the evidence, most cultures until quiite recently experienced identity and reality in various collective and communal ways. The bundled/bicameral/animistic self appears to be the norm, and individualism the aberration.
But that leaves us with explaining how we got to this point where we’ve lost contact with our own humanity. The argument followed in this post was that it required immense effort to socially construct it. Even then, it remains strange what motivated this, what caused the intial rupture that spread like a contagion. In the past, even most aristocrats and monarchs wouldn’t have thought of themselves as atomistically separate from the world around them.
Yet, the initial rupture does seem to have begun earlier, even if it hadn’t fully taken hold until modernity. As has been argued, the fracture of the self seems to have begun with the collapse of bicameral societies. Whether causing the crack or wedging it open, a major role was played by alphabetic writing, punctuation, and the moveable type printing press. Still, much of the bicameral sense of reality held on as long as the communal structures remained in place and those turned out to be harder to dismantle.
The enclosure movement was the death strike to the bicameral way of relating. It required a very systematic destruction and, even then, the bundled mind keeps trying to reassert itself every chance it gets. So, that is why we have such authoritarian systems of economics, laws, policing, armies, etc. to constantly enforce inidividualism. Think about how anyone who fails to comply with authoritarian individualism will be forced to do so by being isolated in a prison cell, an insane asylum, or homelessness.
But no amount of force can make it sustainable in the long term. I sometimes dream that humans will come back to their senses. If not, then maybe we’ll have another near total collapse like experienced with the Bronze Age civilizations. Then it will be like hitting a reset button. We can try again. Or maybe will simply go extinct, which will happen eventually, no matter what we do.
I did note your language, by the way. My ‘senses’ also tell me the same thing. It does come down to an intuive grasp and I feel confident that, other than psychopaths and such, this intuitive capacity is available to all of us. That is why people can feel something akin to a spiritual experience simply by going for a walk in a wooded park, the closest most of us get to a living commons. And, yep, I’m with you about it being a diseae in being not at ease. But it also involves plenty of actual diseases, mental and physical. No doubt it will be sorted out and, to that extent, I’ve gained a modicum of begrudging tolerance for the world we were born into, that all of this developed slowly and won’t end quickly.
Yet as a modern individual inflicted with the disease, I have much desire to understand it. And I see this knowledge as of practical value. That is why I do my personal experimentation: meditation, language, diet, etc. I’m not content being diseased and ill-at-ease. Nor do I have the patient personality (or wise insight?) to accept what some might believe cannot changed. I have felt less accepting as I get older. I’ve increasingly come around to a leftist perspective, specifically in seeing the world in terms of systems and structures. It’s occurred to me how intentionally and methodically our modern world has been built, from the Old Right’s enclosure movement to the New Right’s shadow network. This shapes us, but I’d like to think we still have some influence to seek alternatives in the present.
As often is the case, I woke up with thoughts rumbling in my head about the post I wrote the day before. And for some reason, I felt particularly dissatisfied with this post. The original purpose for writing it as simple enough. I came across the academic article by Robert Anderson. It was the first part quoted at the end that caught my attention:
“In this argument, I turn on its head Godwin’s claim that the right to private property “flows from the very nature of man.” While Godwin argues that the right to property is “founded” on the “right of private judgment” which “flows from the very nature of man” (2.169-70), I will argue that this argument runs counter to his notion that private property “unavoidably suggests some species of law” to guarantee it (2.439). To be more specific, I argue that Godwin’s defense of the “sacred” and “essential” “sphere” surrounding the self (1.1.70, 1.257), which is necessary to potect it from being “resolved . . . into the common mass” (1.289), draws upon the conceptual framework which informs the rhetoric of the Enclosure Movement. In particular, I note his argument that cutting off the individual from the “common mass” is necessary for “improvement”—another term for enclosure.”
For one thing, that demonstrates the schizoid mentality common with the modern individualistic extremes of Jaynesian consciounsness. There is the consciously stated belief, but then there is what undermines that belief — both openly stated without awareness of a conflict. If it was truly natural and inborn, and if Godwin fully believed that to be true, then legal force backed by violent force wouldn’t be necessary and yet he admits it is necessary. This is where we know we are in the territory of Jaynesian scholarship, although Anderson doesn’t mention Julian Jaynes or appear to realize the implications and significance of his own argument.
One of the most compelling pieces of evidence that Jaynes holds up is the appearance of written laws. Complex city-states and empires existed in the Bronze Age. That was when writing first appeared, but writing was used for 2-3,000 years before anyone used it to write down laws. The same period that laws did finally get written there was also the emergence of larger populations more widely spread out under the control of larger and more formal governments. Clear hierarchies were beginning to form and the power to enforce them, such as the first standing armies, but these new authoritarian governments were also more brutal in a way never seen before such as mass torture and executions of captured enemies.
The creation of laws always implies violent force. That is what makes the early bicameral societies so interesting. They seemed capable of maintaining social cohesion and social order without the need of this kind of hierarchy, law, and violence. That didn’t stop them from maintaining complex societies and accomplishing impressive feats. For example, there were trade networks that crossed continents and seas. Yet everything they did was in a loose manner. We now think of the early Egyptian kingdoms as if they were simply an archaic version of modern empires, but that is far from the truth. They barely had any kind of formal government, no infrastructure, and not much technology. Mostly they were a loose association of farmers who in the off-season got together to build immense stone structures. They did that without written laws or forced labor.
That changed when most of the Bronze Age empires collapsed, but in many ways humans maintained their communal ways of relating even as the communal voice-hearing became less common. Though less common, there was still a fair amount of voice-hearing going on and so the non-legalstic archaic authorization was able to continue operating at a minimal level. So, when the legalistiic Roman Empire later collapsed, most Western Europeans easily returned to more organic ways of communal living. There were laws in feudalism, but most of it operated by tradition and custom. Such things as beating the bounds and wassailing involved a lot of communal marching, dancing, and singing. Through the early Middle Ages, ecstatic dancing was still common in churches and ecstatic practices have the purpose of creating a communal identity, along with a more direct experience of the divine and hence archaic authorization.
Those feudal villages were in many ways closer to bicameral societies than to modern societies. I’m willing to bet there was a lot more voice-hearing going on in the early Middle Ages. Also, like the bicameral soceties, early feudalism had very little formal government and hierarchical structure, while also lacking much in the way of violent enforcement with no police departments or standing armies. It mostly operated by communal agreement and consent, in that the peasants so easily could overthrow the local aristocracy with little effort. Indeed, during the early Middle Ages, the peasant laborers would eat dinner together with their lords, on Sundays they went to the same church, and during festivals the aristocracy mingled with the commoners even sometimes with a lord wrestling a laborer to prove his strength.
As with tribal societies like the Piraha, mostly what held a feudal village together was simply a communal identity as built on living traditions. But during the Middle Ages something was changing the social order and weakening the remnants of bicameralism such as archaic authorization. This created an increasing need for legalistic and enforced social control, and that set the stage for the later enclosure movement. These changes were happening particularly in the church. A major one had to do with the ending of ecstatic dancing by putting pews in churches for the first time where people were expected to sit still. But most important might’ve been the centuries-long accumulation of every more restrictive marriage laws that broke apart kin networks. Also, the church was a thousand years old when it finally decreed in 1139 that priests had to be celibate, which also served to weaken local kinship ties which grounded the church clergy in their communities.
In a sense, the enclosure movement could be seen as much as an effect as a cause. Or, in another way, it could be thought of as the finaly breaking point of accumulated changes. The aristocracy, monarchy, and Parliament sought these land reform changes not only to enforce a change in identity but because their own identities had already changed. In Dancing in the Street, Barbara Ehrenreich mentions that in the later Middle Ages the aristocracy spent less time in their manors and more time at the king’s palace. They were becoming disconnected from their own communities. This was happening as power was becoming more centralized and as the old feudal kingdoms were moving toward imperialism. England was declared an empire in 1533, about a century before the English Civil War and about 2 centuries before the enclosure movement was taken up by Parliament.
But all in all, the underlying shift in mentality still probably has to be laid at the feet of writing. What happened before colonial imperialism took hold? Punctuation was introduced to texts in the 15th century, which allowed silent reading and the creation of an inner voice. So, even though bicameral voice-hearing had long been in serious decline, there was no competing inner voice that was common prior to punctuation. There were other methods for developing an inner voice or inner experience in general (e.g., meditation), but none quite as effective as punctuation and silent reading. And the first to experience this silent reading were the learned elite. So, the communal identity was eroding among the elite and eventually it was so weak that they no longer could appreciate what was the value of communal experience.
That brings us to those like Godwin who felt alienated from and fearful toward the commoners who still regularly acted collectively with a communal identity. And as an intellectual, Godwin probably spent immense amount of time involved in silent reading. And this is why he promoted education, which would mean increasing literacy, silent reading, and the inner voice. Without a visceral sense and lived experience of communal identity, the feudal commons no longer made any sense. It wasn’t any legal system, not even the Charter of the Forest, that maintained feudal villages but something closer to archaic authorization. The takeover of an inner voice as the dominant experience among the elite completely disrupted that communal archaic authorization that had managed to hang on as a major force for almost 3 millennia after the fully bicameral societies ended.
It wasn’t only the elite, of course. The moveable type printing press made written text cheap and widely available. All of this discussion of land reforms happened in writing before it happened in action. The literate mind simply thought in a different way. And with the Protestant Reformation, literacy was becoming more common. Without that change, there would not have been literate laborers like Thomas Paine to inspire revolutions. But even then, most Westerners were illliterate, such as those communal-minded laborers that Godwin and Burke saw as dangerous, similar to why the literate Plato was so terrified of the oral culture of the poet-singers because of the communal power of archaic authorization that they held in their voices. As Plato wanted to banish the poet-singers, Godwin and others wanted to banish the communal way of relating. Anywhere literacy took hold, the communal became feared and hated.
The irony is that, even as I lament this decline of the communal, I’m entirely a product of the highly literate WEIRD culture. Here I am writing with punctuation, along with a silent voice in my head running commentary in the background. The internet has made text more available than the moveable type printing press ever accomplished. On the other hand, new media has also made more available the countering force of imagery as a way of communication, expression, and thought. Also, text on the internet is less isolating than text in a book, since a writer such as a blogger can have an immediate response from a reader. Rather than a single voice in one’s head, the silent voices of readers also enter one’s head and so there becomes an odd community of silent voices. It’s not exactly the communal experience of feudalism, much less bicameralism or animism, but it maybe is shifting the balance back in that direction.
We can’t reverse the disease like walking back the steps taken down a wrong path. There is no going back. We have to push through the madness until the fever breaks or it kills us.
That is where one can sense another shift going on with new media, the results of which might only be appreciated with generations or centuries of hindsight. This modern period of hyper-individualism might be remembered as a blip in history, as new forms of the communal take hold within society again.
So, I’m cautiously hopeful or maybe simply curious about what any of these changes mean. But I do accept that change is inevitable, if not any given change being our fate.
It is a large superstructure we have built. It may take centuries to devolve to a less complicated state…
What a lovely picture! I’m feeling inspired with hope already. LOL Admittedly, it is one hell of a superstructure and one could imagine it might crash hard when it comes down.
Even something as simple as infrastructure, our water supply is dependent on electricity. If our electrical grid went down, a large part of the population would quickly die for lack of clean water.
As amazing is the technological wonders and societal complexity, it is a rather precarious thing we’ve built.
I can only give my bravo for the depth of your research and scope. But I’ve lived a far different experience in the city and that’s shaped me in too many ways to support your conclusions. 50% of people live in cities, the Civil Rights movement to my understanding began in Southern urban centers where the leadership organized, and despite my cynicism, the recent protests against police violence hold up a damning mirror to the right’s assertion of widespread chaos; with 10,000 peaceful protests, under 600 featured violence between civilians.
I could quote Socrates like I understand him, but as a guy who uses Conan avatars I’m expected to pull cultural elitism, so I’ll try to speak to the more personal sense. I’ve found all the culture that’s made my life better in cities. I don’t mean paying overpriced tickets to watch hacks re-create their golden years.
Granted, much of the grassroots cultural activity in cities is forged from the pressures of city life; more evidence that the city dweller is far from a hog fit only for slop. Not that I accuse you of saying that, but it’s a common trope in counter-cultural circles to righteously disdain urban life. Which is madness to a person who needs contact with culture as much as the trees and wild brooks. I mean every new folk form of music in the 20th century is a sound full of concrete, with lingering birdsong.
The city is — but here I’m writing even worse than usual. But I don’t see any hope for a left future that doesn’t embrace the city as the main site of change.
Here is what I suspect you’re picking up on. Those on the political left, like most people in general, are definitely conflicted and often confused. That is the default setting for the modern mind, as it is built into the modernizing and civilizing project. All of us discussing here in the comments are the products of urbanization and interacting through this urbanized infrastructure — infrastructure as the physicality of cities, suburbs, etc; infrastructure as internalized ideological realism; and infrastructure as the new media technology we are using here most specifically dwelling in cyberspace.
We are fully enclosed. None of this was planned out rationally, not even by the likes of Godwin. One can sense his own divisions, despite his greater bluntness of intentions or rationalizations. The whole scheme is a mess because it formed somewhat haphazardly over centuries, though it did broadly achieve it’s purpose — a radical individualism was created, enforced, and maintained. This is no small feat, whatever one thinks of it. It’s a colossal superstructure that has taken on a life of its own. We merely reside here temporarily to serve the ‘City’ as hyper-object that is beyond our comprehension. Heck, we don’t even understand what is the ego, our ultimate archonic overlord.
That is part of my point. None of us stands above it or can gain a vantage point outside of it. Even if we this very moment escaped into the wilderness and became hermits, we’d carry the ideological infrastructure with us. Our psyches and identities have already been hailed and ensnared. It’s too late for us. And, honestly, I don’t have a clear opinion on what that means. It just is what it is. Plus, I’m somewhat simply amusing myself. This is the only world I know. I’ve always lived in cities, including some large cities. My apartment is downtown, as is my job working for the city government, and that job is specifically in a parking ramp, the greatest of symbols of urban infrastructure.
I’m a city boy, through and through. It’s the same way I’m ‘white’, ‘American’, and an ‘individual’. I don’t know how to be anything else because that is what I was indoctrinated and enculturated to be, what continues to hail and shape me, and I keep on responding the hail. What else could I do?
When I work in my little parking ramp booth, I either stare out into the hulking concrete of the ramp itself or into a computer where I watch dozens of cameras. That is my job, to watch the comings and goings of the other city-dwellers around me. So, it puts me in a contemplative mood about what does a city represent. Large concrete structures haunt my imagination. The most amusing part is that I’ve worked more than 20 years in a parking ramp, I’ve served 100s of thousands of customers, and yet I’ve never owned a car myself. That is why I live right downtown. That is very urban of me.
I’m hyper-aware of being in an enclosed world and enclosed identity. It just seems obvious to me. That isn’t to say there aren’t benefits. I know the basic history. Cities are where Great Things happen. The Piraha never did anything great — Losers! They’ve never even had a civil rights movement. Nor have they had a Starbucks coffee. Then again, few of them probably even can read. As far as that goes, most Piraha still lack basic numeracy. This does limit their world quite a bit. But the point is their ‘backwards’ life is closer to the evolutionary norm. People like you and I are freaks. WEIRD culture is utterly freaking bizarre! But this bizarreness is all I know and there is a certain comfort to the familiar.
I’m the last person in the world to want to give up the pleasures and luxuries of urban life. I absolutely love libraries and bookstores. And damn! Think about all the time I spend reading, writing, commenting, watching videos, etc online. I’m absolutely dependent on urban infrastructure and lifestyle. I’m inseparable from it. Here I am, whatever it is that I am in this strange world. I’m not pretending to be anything else. I write about cities in the way I write about the liberals in this college town or about my conservative parents. Everything I write is personal, even when the overt personal details are removed.
All of that is sort of irrelevant, though. The grand civilizing project just chugs along because that is what it does. World war could decimate the world we know and likely some people would pick up the pieces to cobble it back together again. Maybe there will be another elite reform movement that purposely demolishes and dismantles this world, only to be replaced with yet another ideological infrastructure and identity. But I don’t really see anyone in control, not even the aspiring ruling elite. We are all being pushed and pulled by forces we barely sense, if we recognize them at all.
In this little corner of the internet, I simply occupy myself by pulling at loose threads and sometimes they keep unwinding until I end up with a pile of tangled and knotted thread. Then I feel like I’ve accomplished something. I don’t know. It’s just my hobby. It really comes down to curiosity. I find the world strange and fascinating. For whatever reason, I’ll come across something like that piece on Godwin and land reform. It captures my imagination and my mind goes round and round. This post isn’t essentially different from dozens of others similar to it. They all circle around the same drain.
A single post like this is a small set of thoughts. But it’s really inseparable from much else I’ve written. There are multiple major themes and threads running through this blog. I couldn’t exactly tell you what I’m arguing against, much less what I’m arguing for. Rather, I have this gut-level sense of the weirdness of the world we’ve inherited, all the more weird for having been born into it and immersed in it. I don’t which posts of mine you have and haven’t read, but this post maybe only makes full sense in context of other posts:
The Crisis of Identity, The Disease of Nostalgia, The Agricultural Mind, “Yes, tea banished the fairies.”, Autism and the Upper Crust, Moral Panic and Physical Degeneration, The Madness of Drugs, Bicameralism and Bilingualism, Who are we hearing and talking to?, Speaking Is Hearing, The Spell of Inner Speech, Voice and Perspective, The Great Weirding of New Media, Battle of Voices of Authorization in the World and in Ourselves. The Isolated Self Is Not Real
About this post, I take seriously land reform as moral reform, based on an understanding that ideological identity is built on ideological infrastructure. My critical analysis is not mere dismissive complaint or ideological attack. I have immense respect for what was created and how it was done, to whatever degree those involved really understood what they were doing and why or what would result. The world we live in is strange, not good or bad, just strange… and interesting. I enjoy walking through a neighborhood or driving down a street while contemplating urban infrastructure as modern songline. It amuses me.
But I really do struggle with what it means. You talk of the wonders of cities and that is fine. Still, that doesn’t really tell us anything. Cities also existed before the enclosure movement. Even the early feudalism involved people living close together in the smaller scale urbanization of villages and some cities. The new capitalist mass urbanization, though, had never before existed; or at least not as that kind of ideological project. Those like Godwin were being quite ambitious in wanting to radically transform humanity, although I sense they didn’t really comprehend what they were doing or what was daimonic force was possessing and compelling them.
To look back on what they dismantled, the feudal world really was different. That was true in early feudalism when there was maybe some post-Roman revival of the bicameral mind. But something odd emerged in late feudalism, from the peasant revolts all across Europe to the Renaissance and Reformation and English Civil War, there a restlessness that presaged or maybe even impelled the enclosure movement that first showed up after the Black Death. After the Catholic Church banished ecstatic communal dancing from services, dancing was forced out into public spaces. What erupted were dancing mania (AKA dancing plague, choreomania, St. John’s Dance, tarantism, & St. Vitus’ Dance). That relates to Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Dancing in the Streets; which I write in my post, Christians Dancing.
It wasn’t only about peasants revolting and labor organizing. The ruling elite decided to dismantle feudalism partly because they feared the ultimately uncontrollable nature of it all. The feudal mind still had strong elements of bicameral leveling that was not conducive to top-down authority. And, after the Black Death, a collective outrage and disarray could not be put back into order. Maybe that was always the nature of bicameralism, but the problem is the bicameral order only survived in some remnant forms such as social structure, whereas bicameral culture and voice-hearing systems had been decimated. It simply couldn’t hold together. Maybe feudalism was inevitably a mere transition.
“Transitional objects help form a transitional identity and worldview. Similar to how the pacifier replaces the breast, the emergent society is increasingly abstracted from the concrete, natural world. We’ve substituted a social construction, an imagined space separating and connecting an invented duality of’subjective’ experience and ‘objective’ reality. It is with the former, what Julian Jaynes considers a metaphorical inner space, that individualistic behaviors become possible. That is to say the pseudo-individual, based on a fantasized narrative, can act as if they were separate from the world. And that abstracted inner world, as a substitute for concrete lived experience, allows for exaggerated mental complexity that, through further technology, we can form into an increasingly complex society.”
A post like this isn’t necessarily a coherent argument. I really have an organic way of writing. I come across something, curiosity captures my imagination, research and contemplation follows, and my mind goes round and round. Then, after I get overwhelmed by it all, I try to consolidate it and order it, such that it might somehow be vaguely comprehensible to others. But inevitably many readers end up not resonating on the same wavelength. It’s hard for me to explain why I become so fascinated by something. Land reform? It sounds like such a boring topic and it normally would bore me.
It’s not really intended as a critique of all urbanization, nor an attempt to set up “The City” as a target of derision to knocked about. I really have nothing against cities, either on principle or out of a personal distaste. Cities are simply one of those things I know well simply from familiarity. Sometimes, it jumps out at me that something odd is going on. The modern capitalist city is a recent phenomenon. In all the many millennia of city life, there has never been anything quite like it. Yet it’s hard to put one’s finger on it.
There is more to it than merely land reform as city planning. Sure, maybe cities often arose more organically in the past. And it must be admitted that the early modern land reform as moral reform was very much a totalizing ideological project, of the sort not possible in prior eras. It’s both the mentality that is intentionally created and the mentality that made possible that intention. Even the planning was a result of something deeper. In modernity, there did arise a new obsession with planning and ordering the world, if it existed in more limited forms earlier.
This is one of those topics one could go on and on about. Let me point to one thing. I mentioned that specifically the planning of this land reform would’ve begun in writing. That is what was taking over, the literate mind with rising literacy rates and an elite demand to enforce a literate worldview. Those like Godwin, maybe carrying forward the impulse of the Protestant Reformation, believed that the heathenish masses must have their souls saved by being made into individuals and it was often understood this would involve education (i.e., literacy).
That has been the issue at hand from the beginning of Jaynesian consciousness. When bicameral empires grew large and diverse, they became destabilized and the bicameral order no longer functioned as well. To compensate, they created more centralized hierarchy, maintained the first standing armies, and suddenly became brutal authoritarians in a way that apparently never before existed (according to all surviving records). The key change, though, was the appearance of written laws and legal systems. This was the ordering power of written language, whereas language before had played a minor role of accounting.
That literate impulse has increased over time. But during post-Roman feudalism there was maybe some regression to bicameral elements. That was problematic, as the bicameral order wasn’t fully in place to maintain it. The collapse of the Roman Empire may have decentralized and leveled society, but it remained a society ruled by the literate, if far more constrained. Out of that feudalism, the literate mind was taking on new forms and gaining a foothold. It was the last moment of major conflict of the bicameral mind attempting to push back for one last rallying. The elite response was to entirely crush it.
The result we got was the capitalist city. Look around any modern city, particularly in the West, and even more particularly in the United States. Everything is so obsessively planned, ordered, and coordinated. All of the streets and sidewalks, plots and parks, buildings and boundaries are carefully measured and demarcated. And Holy Hell! Signs are everywhere! Not all of the signs are written words, although many of them are. Talk about being hailed. But I’m also reminded of a Philip K. Dick novel where the protagonist, trapped in a fake city, sees pieces of paper where objects should be. On the pieces of paper were written words, such as “bench”. It was an amusing idea, as part of PKD’s gnostic worldview and expressing language as word magic.
Let me explain an impetus behind my thinking. What we are unconscious of becomes our fate. For the most part, we moderns have been unconscious of this ideological infrastructure that we have taken as ideological realism and hence ideological determinism. But, in interrogating it, we might realize there are other options in how we could create, implement, and inhabit such infrastructure. This would require us to pause before responding to old systems that make claims upon us in how ideologies hail us as subjects. If nothing else, this opens up a space for new imaginings and possibilities, unplanned behaviors and choices, maybe even temporary autonomous zones (TAZ).
A useful perspective is what Giorgio Agamben called a ‘gesture’. It is a way of sidestepping a hail for even to attempt to defy a hail is to assent to it’s existence as authority. That is an insight that goes back to the Axial Age prophets. The example we Westerners are most familiar with is that of Jesus, although Jesus was following the example of the Stoics and others. Also, there was the interesting parallel of two sets of texts, the Gospels of Jesus and the Life of Aesop, both following an old Greco-Roman literary genre referred to as ‘romances’. They could be taken as demonstrated how ‘gestures’ operate in response to ‘hails’ of authority.
With all of that said, I would emphasize that nothing in my post or comments appear to inherently conflict with your own stated views here or elsewhere, as far as I can tell; but correct me if you think I’m wrong. So, I’d be curious to hear more of your own take on what it might mean to live in a world that was created through enclosure, particularly the enclosed mind of the propertied self.
You stated that, “I’ve lived a far different experience in the city and that’s shaped me in too many ways to support your conclusions.” What has been your experience? And how do you think it’s been far different? I’m actually not quite certain what has been my experience. My writings are always informed by the personal, but I really wasn’t directly thinking about the personal while writing this. Maybe I should’ve been.
I left the house for a while. My mother and I went to the garden store. She has been in a planting mood and I also decided to plant a few things in my parents backyard, mostly some native plants at the edge of the neighbor’s wooded lot. That is to say I was enjoying the urban lifestyle, a bit suburban-like out here at the edge of Iowa city.
Being outside and driving to the store, it gave me an opportunity to assess what all of this means to me. It’s funny in how this particular post didn’t directly draw on my personal experience at all. Iowa City is actually a rather pleasant little college town with enough amenities to be supported by prosperity and outside money flowing in, as the University of Iowa here is a medical research center.
It’s actually represents my ideal of a small city. The population is somewhat diverse, moderately liberal, mostly Democratic, and middle class. But it very much has a Midwestern feel. Many of these New England style college towns, surrounded by farmland, were established in eastern Iowa and in other places across the Midwest. More than anything, this is what it means when I identify as a Midwesterner.
It’s a rather cultured town. Besides having one of the highest percentages of medical workers per capita in the country, it also has the oldest writers workshop in the world. Many famous writers have lived and taught here (e.g., Kurt Vonnegut). Helen Keller lived here as well. It’s a well known town for writers. Much has been written in Iowa City, but oddly little has been written with Iowa City as a setting.
I grew up here and those childhood years were quite happy. I’ve always considered this home. My best friend, someone I still visit with weekly, was also my best friend in elementary school. This town is filled with memories for me. And so it would be hard for me to feel any harsh criticism about much of anything. So, I’d have to give it some thought in how my personal experiences relate to the history of enclosure of the commons.
There are many things I could mention. On a larger scale, Iowa is the most planned and developed state in the country. When it was established, the government plotted the entire state before it was opened for settlement. All of the county roads are set in a gridwork and it was originally covered with railroads. The towns were partly established as the needed distance for railroad stops when steam engines needed to refill for water. And the county seats are all set precisely the distance it took someone to reach anywhere in a county within a day.
The state planned out in Washington DC by bureaucrats. It’s basically something the Chinese government would do. It was pure technocracy, and very much in the spirit of land reform as moral reform, in the hope of making good productive farmers and citizens. And there was a bit of the typical bloody history. The land on this side of the Mississippi River, was one of the last refuges of the remaining free tribes before they were defeated. A small park in Iowa City is named after Chief Black Hawk who led a fight against the US, which Abraham Lincoln served as an Indian Fighter. He surrendered a little South of here.
Iowa used to be 90% wetlands and it was almost entirely drained. It is the ultimate product of land management. Some of the first work done by FDR’s CCC and WPA was here in Iowa. They channeled rivers and water flow. They built damns and parks. Iowa was very much a major focus of the American enclosure movement. Everything was plotted out in precise neat square farm fields. Very little wilderness was left uncultivated or otherwise undeveloped.
Here in eastern Iowa, there also were many industrial and trade towns built along the Mississippi River. That is where urbanization concentrated. Iowa City, along with Cedar Rapids, is part of what is called the ‘Corridor’ that is connected by I-80 and links over to Chicago. The Iowa City ruling elite are rather paternalistic and include families that have lived here for generations. In the spirit of Iowa, the city council has been very controlling about city planning and everything is planned according to a particular vision. And as a literary town, Godwin would’ve loved this place.
In some other comments, I mentioned a bit of my experience growing up here. My family lived closer toward downtown on a quiet side road. It was typical of the older parts of Iowa City. Like the farmland, all of the blocks were plotted out in nice squares and the streets are lined with old trees. Also, alleys are everywhere and front porches are common, typically with the house set close to the sidewalk. It was a perfect town for a child. Besides good public transport, one can quickly get anywhere in this town by bike as it really isn’t that large and was even smaller back then.
Back in the 1980s of my childhood, there were still neighborhood schools, corner stores, and little churches all over the place. Small businesses could be found in many neighborhoods, as Iowa City law allows businesses to be operated in houses. As the University of Iowa is a state college, it draws in a certain mentality. So much of the population works for the university and professors are dime a dozen. It’s also one of the most highly educated populations in the country, at least per capita. Many people here with entry level jobs have college degrees. One of my coworkers, also a ramp cashier, has a PhD.
Living here, I have access to many bookstores, including the well known Prairie Lights, a nice public library, and multiple university libraries. And because it’s a literary college town, there is a constant influx of writers, intellectuals, etc who visit to give talks. A town this small wouldn’t typically draw such a variety of major figures. I think all of that is awesome. So, how could I possibly complain about modern urbanization?
Well, my attitude is nuanced. More than anything, I’m radical in imagination. I can envision how things might have been otherwise. There are other countries in the world that have done urbanization differently. But I don’t know well enough what those differences might mean. I don’t want to get rid of cities or even hate upon them. I’d just like for us to be more thoughtful about our ideological projects, maybe even more democratic as well.
From my perspective, your focus is more narrow than the frame I was offering in this post. The enclosure of the land and of the mind was far from limited to cities. In fact, the enclosure movement originally and primarily concerned itself with rural areas and wildlands where commons and open lands were located. Besides, not all of the peasants ended up in the city. Even though the razing of the villages made many peasants landless, plenty of peasants remained behind to pay for rent on the land that used to be theirs by right as commoners.
It was basically an early form of sharecropping. But a few successful former peasants managed to buy land. But, in all cases, enclosure became the norm — both the land as enclosed and the mind as enclosed. The propertied self became the legally-mandated and violently-enforced norm, including for the rural poor who had no property. Heck, slaves as well found themselves turned into propertied selves, if not owning themselves, but that then led to the aspiration to buy one’s freedom. Capitalist property redefined Germanic freedom as Latin liberty.
That is the fate of us all. We are born with the haunting echo of landless peasantry, indentured servitude, and slavery hanging over us and so we spend our lives trying to buy greater freedom, to demonstrate our worth on the social market. Yet none of us get fully free because everything has a price. That was the fear before the American Civil War. The reality of enslaved blacks pointed to the possibility that whites too could become wage slaves. That is what so many whites perceived in a future of industrialized capitalism. The end of the yeoman farmer would mean the end of freedom. And, in a sense, they were right.
There was a slow destruction of traditional rural communities. And, to the extent they remained, farming became more challenging and difficult as capitalism transformed the world. Rural life was less vital and mutual, more impoverished and oppressive. Your sense of city life as offering greater freedom was a product of this shift. Many rural folk, out of desperation, did flee to the cities in hope of a better life. It didn’t always work out for many, particularly early on, as millions of peasants died every year. But the alternative options were slim to none.
Nonetheless, city life has become more attractive, has come to offer more benefits. Sure, slums remain and desperate poverty continues to harm many. Yet, many others like you and I, have been shaped by the opportunities urbanization created. It’s a mixed bag. But the point in this post might be that such things are secondary. The enclosure movement didn’t begin in cities but in the countryside, at a time when most people were rural.
The modern city was a result of that land reform movement, part of a larger vision. As literate individuals and propertied selves, you and I represent the product of Godwin’s moral reform; and so, intentionally or not, your comment sings the praise of Godwin. The collective and communal self was dismantled and little of it remains. Even the faint echo heard in labor unions have been largely destroyed and made impotent. But just three generations before me, all of my family had been rural and mostly farmers.
The 1890s was the last time when a majority of Americans were still rural. During that decade, one of my great grandfathers was born in an abandoned rural village, property that had returned to an informal state of the commons. His family was squatting there. They owned nothing, not the land or the house they lived in. They were surviving on subsistence farming and odd labor jobs when available. It was a lingering trace of peasant farm life, the last generation to live at the margins of enclosure, as the enclosure movement took longer in the US.
That part of my family left that rural area for good reason. It was abandoned, after all, and they were the last to hang on to the bitter end. The entire rural economy had collapsed. So, the family sought out new opportunities in the city. My great grandfather got a job with the railroads and then, after an injury, meekly lived out his days on disability checks. Many of his children and grandchildren, having been born amidst urbanization and industrialization, aspired to the middle class lifestyle. Some even became college educated and cultured.
Yet rural life in America is still in living memory. That is what makes society here different from Europe where mass urbanization happened sometimes centuries earlier. The majority of black Americans didn’t move to the cities until the 1960s and 1970s. That means most of the black population was still rural during Civil Rights movement. Nearly all of those involved in those protests were either rural born or a single generation from rural life. The powerful capacity to organize was likely because they still had the rural habits of a culture of trust.
That is the thing that complicates the issue. American culture has been dependent on maintaining functioning social order through the social capital of those who carry rural values and behaviors into the cities. Even now, large numbers of rural people immigrate to the US. We have never had to create sustainable urban cultures because we’ve grown used to eating our seed corn and simply getting more seed corn as we go. But what will happen to American cities when the last tatters of social fabric produced in rural communities can no longer hold together?
I was talking to my parents tonight. They both went to Purdue. Like the University of Iowa here, Purdue is one of the land grant colleges that are found all across the Midwestern farm states. The federal policy to establish land grant colleges began under President Lincoln. Their purpose was to take all those rural hicks and promote a progressive vision of society, including improved farm techniques. Many of the state colleges to this day focus on agricultural education and research. But such higher education is also where is more fully taught the propertied self and proper capitalist behavior — how to conform and succeed. It’s part of the civilizing process.
It’s interesting to think about. In farm states like Iowa and Indiana, the enclosure movement was mostly about rural areas and rural populations. Urbanization happened much later in much of the Midwest, particularly in Iowa. It’s a farm state. Almost everything about Iowa is focused on farming or somehow serving the agricultural industry or processing its products. Even in this highly cultured college town, it is relatively small urban area and surrounded by a vast sea of farm fields. Maybe that juxtaposition of enclosed urban life and enclosed rural agriculture emphasizes the greater enclosure of culture and identity that extends across both.
The financial motivation of the enclosure movement was always about the increasing and concentrating the profits of rural lands. The pretty notions about moral reforms, as preached by the likes of Godwin, were mostly rationalizations after the fact. The enclosure movement was fully established and and roaring along by the time the ideological narratives were created for why it must continue and be sped up. Godwin was basically responding to the landless peasants after the enclosure movement had already leveled their feudal villages. His philosophizing was about what to do with all those landless peasants, how to control them and indoctrinate them.
While reading your piece I couldn’t help but think of multilevel marketing, as it concerns the first people who broke out of communal living to do their own individual thing, these people gained money and had a better lifestyle than their communal counterparts, so naturally 2 or more people broke off a little later to emulate the first person, and they also made money at the expense of their communal relationships, and so on like multilevel marketing or Ponzi (pyramid) schemes, once a critical mass of society moved in that direction, the ones left in communal living had a late start at their individual journey and its my guess that they fared a little worse than the earliest.
The Pharaohs literally built pyramids as their graves, the difference back then was that there were fewer layers as life was simpler, so you had the Pharaoh at the top as the literal god-king, then Korah (the aristocracy), and a wide base of slaves with jews at the bottom.
Back to my main point, I believe forgetting our commons relational heritage is a cause of deep human suffering, take North Korea and Syria for example, they are arguably the most oppressive authoritarian regimes since ancient Egypt, however the North Korean people cant have a revolution because they know no other way of living other than in the shadow of their dictator, that is they have no imagination beyond that point, I assume if the idea of revolution crosses the mind of an average NK citizen, they would imagine chaos and disorder. Unfortunately for Syria, that proved to be true, but not because of organic change, but because of the interference of major authoritarian world powers that don’t see beyond their immediate short-term interests. That is why sanctions don’t work, because sanctions don’t ignite moral imagination in an oppressed populous.
Sorry for the tangent, great work!
I could see that. These kinds of societal changes are vast, but they start with small accumulations of changes. The same was true of the so-called ‘collapse’ of the Bronze Age societies, which began with stresses, instability, and decline over many centuries before, in a vulnerable state, severe environmental catastrophes over decades (volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, floods, droughts, famines, refugee crises, etc) fractured and toppled the empires one after another. The same was true of the end of feudalism that was basically destroyed from within by the very people who most ruled and benefited from feudalism.
As you say, individuals acted in ways that were of immediate benefit to self-interest, but where the consequences weren’t immediately experienced. That wasn’t only true of the enclosures for the Church was also fundamentally transforming society in ways that were undermining the very conditions that made possible the Church’s power and authority. Enforcing priests to be celibate, for example, was a way of weakening local ties that could challenge clerical hierarchy and so helped consolidate power in the Vatican. Yet the loss of that local rootedness deteriorated the way the Church had been enmeshed in local community.
About who benefited most, I’m sure you are correct that often it was those who earliest cashed out of the feudal system. Partly that would be because only the most influential and powerful could have the opportunity, privilege, and power to take such actions. Most of the early enclosures were simply the aristocracy takng the land and kicking off the serfs. These elites were already well off compared to most. Destroying their feudal villages may have seemed like a small price to pay, even as it meant they eliminated the slave-like serfs that came with that inheritance. It would’ve been a demotion in aristocratic position, but it might’ve mean a tremendous increase of wealth through new uses of land such as the highly profitable sheep herding that requried few peasants.
Still, I’d wonder what precipiated this. The aristocracy, in theory, could have turned to sheep herding or whatever centuries earlier, but they didn’t because they couldn’t imagine doing so. The communal identty of the aristocracy had t first be weakened before they could think of acting contrary to that communal identity. That is likely where an important role was played by the spread of moveable type printing presses, cheaply available texts, literacy, punctuation, silent reading, and an inner voice. Also, there was the centralization of power with aristocracy no longer spendng as much tme at their manors and among the peasants. There would have been a corresponding decrease of identification with and felt-sense of noblesse oblige towars their local communities.
It wasn’t any one thing. It wasn’t only or primarily about the social and institutional structures of feudalism that were being altered, undermined, weakened, and eliminated. The psychological changes would’ve been profound. We now thnk of aristocracy as an elite, but in the early medieval period an aristcrat really wasn’t that far above a peasant in terms of daily experience. Following the fall of the Roman Empire, the early aristocracy was largely uneducated, illterate, and uncouth. The civiliizing process was slow to take hold. There also simply wasn’t an imperial or proto-imperial trade network until the late Middle Ages. So, the economic opportunities were limited with little advantage and incentive to destroy the feudal order and eliminate the commons.
Those early aristocrats had intentionally created the commons not to be generous to the peasants but because it was a way of maintaining their local power. The Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest were establishe a little over a century after the Norman Conquest that established the then new system of English monarchy and aristocracy. the culture at the time was still largely tribalistic and the postion of aristocracy was much weaker and precarious during that period. There was much stronger motivation to keep the peasants happy, as they outnmbered the aristocracy and there was no standing army to keep the peasants in their place. Communal identity was essential for a stable social order.
That was probably seeing less relevant to the 18th century aristcracy who lived in a powerful empire with immense military capacity. The peasants had no leverage in no longer posing a potential threat. Top-down authortarian control had become so much more absolute. Those late feudal aristocrats no longer were living among and focused on mere manors and parishes to rule over like petty tyrants. Their ambitions were growing as the opportunities were increasing. Ruling over a village of peasants hardly seemed all that exciting when colonial imperialism offered immense power and rewards in the growing bureacracy of government and the growing reach of colonial enterprises.
For these later aristocrats, the communal identity wasn’t even a faint memory. On the other hand, there were places where that memory was being kept alive. Interestingly, the closest to the early feudal villages were the slave plantations in the Virginia colony, somewhat of the backwoods of aristocratic society. Those Tidewater plantations tended to be smaller and demanded more direct supervision by the aristocrats themselves. Unlike in the Carolina colony, Virginia plantation owners lived on their plantations and had close relations with their slaves, as was notoriously true for Thomas Jefferson. Noblesse oblige survived much longer there, which could be why Jefferson for all his hypocrisy did have a more authentic concern for “the people” and so strangely found himself aligned with a working class radical like Thomas Paine who grew up in an old feudal village back in England.
One of the points that Julian Jaynes makes is that, as the organic social order of the bicameral mind weakened, what had to replace it was a never before seen legalistic, hierarchical, and brutal authoritarianism. That appeared in the late Bronze Age as the bicameral empires were growing too large and complex to fully function by the old ways of voice-hearing and archaic authorization. It was during that pre-collapse period of bicameral decline and authoritarian takeover that the Jews supposedly were enslaved in Egypt. At the earlier time when most of the major pyramids were built, there is no evidence that slave labor was being used. So, the emergence of large slave populations was another innovation to replace the loss of the organic communal order in the earlier small bicameral city-states.
This is relevant to the breakdown of feudalism as well, as post-Roman feudalism was in some ways a partial revival of bicameralism. And this also helps us to understand what made the Virginia aristocrats, like George Wasington, so more committed to noblesse oblige even as their fellow aristocrats elsewhere had often abandoned it. The smaller local nature of Tidewater plantations created a more informal intimacy and, indeed, it was more common for aristocrats to speak of their slaves as part of their family. These Tidewater aristocrats also were less violent and more tolerant of rebellion. They intentionally bought slaves of particular African ethnicities known for both their fierce rebelliousness and their fierce kinship loyalty because these particular slaves would bring with them a strong communal identity.
Carolina aristocrats, however, simply wanted obedience. Most of them didn’t live on their plantations but instead stayed in Charleston or London. They hired overseers to take care of their plantations in thier absence. These Carolina plantations were larger and more profitable operations. They were operated not in the fashion of an old feudal village but as a capitalist enterprise and so they used extreme violence to get as much work out of their slaves as possible. During the revolutionary period, the Carolina aristocrats wee the slowest to join the colonial fight as their loyalty was to centralized power of empire. Also, they had little concern about the enclosure movement.
But to someone like Jefferson, he was appalled by the enclosure movement in how it consolidated land and created destitute landless peasants. In visiting France, he would dress in cheap clothing and travel alone among poor laborers, even eating with them and sleeping in their lice-infested beds. No Carolina aristocrat would have acted in such a lowly fashion. Jefferson’s sympathy was genuine. His connection to his own slaves and to these French peasants was much more personal, which would’ve been closer to the experience of early feudal aristocrats. This made him also more sympatheitc to the democratic plea for the rights of Englishmen that were rooted in the old rights of the commoners and the commons. He had a more visceral sense of that surviving communal identity and how it informed populist outrage.
One of the complaints of both American colonists and French peasants was the rise of greater violent oppression. All around, the kind of feudal noblesse oblige from the ancien regime was becoming a rare attribute among the ruling class that was beginning to think of themselves as mere private power, as emerging capitalists. The ending of feudalism, as it was replaced with colonial imperialism and capitalist trade, involved centralized authoritarianism. This was a change particularly for the colonists who had gained a modicum of self-governance in the late colonial period. The American colonists, in a way, had a closer experience to a world where there was still a living commons in the availability of land and much of the feudal laws about land usage were still on the books.
With the growth of the British Empire, the colonists found themselves no longer having that more local and organic style of self-governance. That is what made the Boston Massacre such an outrage, even though the death count was extremely small. Any infringement of that kind was experienced as oppressive and intolerable. Those American colonists maybe maintained more of a living memory of a communal identity because of the small size of most American towns that largely depended on subsistence gardening, farming, hunting, trapping, and fishing — more similar to that of old feudal villages. That period was transitional where the new and old mixed together to various degrees. The revolutions during that historical moment were in a sense the last gasps of the feudalist-like communal identity still tangibly real among landless peasants.
North Korea is a complex topic to discuss. There really is nothing comparable to them in the world today. The experience of the average North Korean now is probably closer to the experience of an English peasant the 1500s-1600s, when England was still an insular culture and authority was parochial. The patriarchal dictator Kim Jong-un is more like a European monarch in the early Middle Ages before colonial imperialism. But the difference is that, in order to maintain such a social order in the modern world, a violent military state is necessary in a way that was not necessary or even possible during the early Middle Ages. It’s a strange example to consider with its enforced isolation. As for Syria, I don’t know anything about the history and culture of that country.
As I read your response here I am reminded of the novel “The Leopard” by Tomasi Di Lampedusa. I wrote about it here: Virtual Princes, Virtual Wealth https://wp.me/prazu-1Rx
That is relevant. Part of the point of this post is the physical enclosures in the world intentionally involved enclosures of less tangible aspects of mind, culture, behavior, relationships, etc. As I was researching the topic, it was unsurprising that many connected the enclosures to the more recent history of copyright laws that restrict what is considered to be commonly held and commonly allowed for use.
For most of human existence, anyone could take a tune or a lyric and repurpose it because such cultural products were considered communal. The same was true for all the millions of inventions and innovations that accumulated as our common inheritance. A copyright is absolutely anti-traditional in every sense and yet conservatives claim to be for tradition defend it.
One could also argue that it suppresses progress and improvement. But I wonder if that was, to some degree, part of the intention. Even if we had maintained many communal practices or invented new ones to serve similar purposes, there is no reason to think that modern economics, trade, industrialization, and technological development still wouldn’t have happened. Quite possilbe, we’d now live in a far more advanced society.
The complaint Godwin had against working class collective organizations wasn’t necessarily that they were ineffective to their intended purpose or harmful to most people. I’m sure he understood that there were real problems that people were seeking to solve, such as the landless peasants crowded into cities trying to find ways to not be homeless, sick, and starving to death.
But Godwin probably wasn’t interested in bringing practical benefit to others, particularly to others who had lives entirely disconnected from his own. What he wanted was social and moral reform. It was maybe not unlike the Christian missionary who wants to save souls of the natives, even if it means destroying their way of life and killing them. The point was creating individuals which was seen as a benefit on its own, no matter how much harm and suffering had to be done to implement it.
I’ve made the argument that maybe the rich realize high inequality is also harmful to themselves but see the harm as worthwhile costs. The purpose was maybe always about social conrol and enforcement of rigid hierarchy. That is the argument Corey Robin makes about what defines the reationary project. We think of conservatism specifically as a reaction to the French Revolution. But the enclosure movment, having gone into full force in the prior generations, could be seen as a reaction to the English Civil War.
Consider Edmund Burke railing against the French Revolution, which maybe was simply a convenient stage upon which to project his own fearful fantasies. He wasn’t actually afraid of the distant regicide in a foreign country but the earlier regicidal revolt in his own country. With the English Civil War, the feudal order was seen as a failure to the reactionary mind and so, in order to ensure hierarchy, a new social order needed to be created. Plus, maybe there was some attitude of punishing the poor for having revolted.
To my viewpoint, there is no way to make sense of these changes from mere economic self-interest. Much of the actions people take like the enclosure movement don’t necessarily seem objectively rational. Rather, what changed was the very mentality that sought rationalizations. The feudal order was officially established in the 13th century but was a continuation of the practices in the frontier regions of the earlier Roman Empire. And in many ways it was the carryover of even more ancient communal identities and ways of social organizing.
Such traditionalism required no rationalization as it carried the force of custom and communal identity with some surviving element of archaic authorization, the ancestral voices of tradition rooted in land. But to force the enclosure of the commons was to completely overturn millennia of culture. It needed to be rationalized and the Enlightenment brought a new obsession of rationality. That was part of the point of capitalism, to enforce a ‘rational’ order. This rationality, however, was more simply about the demand for total control by the rationalizing egoic mind.
The rationalizing mind had to have already begun to take hold to make possible the imagining of a ‘rational’ order like capitalism. There are millions of possible things humans could do at any moment, but what we actually do is dependent on what we can imagine doing. There was no reason the privatization and consolidation of modern-like capitalism couldn’t have happened centuries or millennia earlier, other than it simply wasn’t in anyone’s awareness to create such a thing. First, the mind had to be altered through literacy and silent reading, or whatever.
That goes to your post. Once that change has taken hold in the mind and culture, it is unleashed to remake the world. In the rationalizing egoic mind that demands a perceived ‘rational’ order, we are ruled by reified abstractions and so those who rule our society are precisely those who rule the most abstract realms. Enclosure, right from the start, was always an abstraction and about the power of abstractions, who controls them and can enforce them onto others and onto the world. Our society has now simply pushed it to a further extreme.
You say you wonder what could’ve precipitated the shift to individuality away from communal living, in my overly simplistic view I see that it could’ve been pride, or the need to feel superior to others, or as Fukuyama terms it as “megalothymia”. And since people who broke off eventually became better off than the group, their philosophy was reaffirmed in their own minds as well as influenced the minds of others. That phenomenon couldn’t manifest itself before humanity reached a level of advancement by which exclusion from the group no longer necessarily meant certain death, and central organization ended up beating the archaic communal one.
Let me re-emphasize the point made in the above post. I can’t prove this line of thought is the correct interpretation and conclusion. But all I can say is that, personally, I find it compelling in taking a broad view of history and humanity, not limited to a single era but how mind and culture has developed across vast stretches of time. Going further back, one can observe aspects of thought, expressioon, and behavior that are strikingly alien to the modern mindset. It seems we can’t presume that people in the past were simply earlier versions of modern humans.
I tend to push things back several steps, trying to get to the earliest discernible link in a chain of causation. Something like ‘pride’ doesn’t feel like a satisfying explanation as a causal motivation because it is a response or expression of something else. That leaves us with issue of what caused that pride, as it can’t be assumed as an inherent first cause, so it seems to me. The perspecitve taken in this post is how our culture and identites are artificially created. In this case, I was taking my lead from Robert Anderson’s take on William Godwin.
Anderson makes the argument that Godwin’s reform proposals were social constructionist and social constructivist in seeking to shape, control, and enact a psychological mindset and ideological worldview. But Anderson stops short of looking into other fields of scholarship (social science, philology, consciousness studies, etc) to understand how such a project could be plausible and powerful. Nor does he consider what this project has actually accomplished and resulted in.
That is where I bring in the work of those who show how mentalitiies or even consciousness itself can be influenced and built from sociocultural factors, particularly as they form entire environmental conditions. The enclosure movement, as a reform project, seems like a clear example of this. In response to your comment, I’d note all of this equally applies to affects, as opposed to emotions. Pride, it could be argued, is an affect in the sense of being a cultural artifact.
So, we must then explain what creates the conditions of pride. Let me clarify with a related example. The opposite of pride is typically considered shame, dishonor (losing face), or guilt; but those three have distinct meanings which problematiizes what pride means in contradistinction. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict, in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, was the first to contrast shame culture and guilt culture. This influenced Eric R. Dodds’ The Greek and the Irrational who in turn influenced Julian Jaynes.
The latter two, Dodds and Jaynes, saw shame culture (AKA honor culture) and guilt culture as representing two starkly separate mentalities, specifically when used as a framework to understand the differences between archaic societies and what later emerged around the Axial Age. For our purposes here, it might be useful to use honor and pride as the corollary to shame and guilt; where honor has more to do with dividualism than individualism. The earliest uses of ‘pride’ are closer to what we mean by honor or else physical capacity, not inflated egotism of a psychological subjectivity.
So, we shouldn’t conflate communal honor (bicameral mind and semi-bicameral early feudalism) with individualistic pride (Jaynesian consciousness). With that in mind, we could argue that egoic pride hasn’t always existed. It is a relatively recent cultural artifact from the past few millennia. Even more importantly, as I was arguing here about the bicameral mind, the honor mentality and culture held on in significant ways through the Middle Ages. It’s true that proto-individualism first emerged in Western experience back in classical Greece and was further developed in the Roman Empire. But it was severely limited, restricted, and suppressed.
In a book about Galen in the Roman Empire, life was described as absolutely communal with rarely a moment spent alone. Even when going to the bathroom or to the doctor, it was a socal event involving family, friends, and neighbors. The initial ideas of emergent semi-individualism, though formulated in Greco-Roman thought and Christian theology (liberty, soul, etc), remained nebulous and with little relevance to social life and social identity of most people, much less the social order.
Then feudalism strengthened that communal identity even further by rolling back even the small amount of proto-individualism, particularly during the Dark Ages when Greco-Roman texts largely were lost in the West. Going by that context, it’s highly probable that early aristocrats, in the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, didn’t have strong and clear experiences of egoic pride, particularly not as subjetctive, interiorized, and atomistic individualism. Instead, their lives and sense of reality would’ve been dominated by honor with its social committments, responsibilitiies, and obligations (noblesse oblige).
This is why, one might argue, it simply never occurred to most early communally-oriented aristocrats to enclose, privatize, and consolidate land. It would’ve contradicted their very core of being and conflicted with their sense of reality, not to mention going against the inertia of the social order. It would not only been unimaginable but dishonorable. And dishonor in an honor culture is the worst fate possible, leading to either death (often suicide) or banishment (social death). In the Middle Ages, when more individualistic pride began to develop, it was often treated as dishonorable or dangerous (sinful as well, although at a time when even sin had a more communal sense as Adam’s Original Sin); whereas in our hyper-individualistic society we talk about protecting and developing self-esteem in children.
The early aristocrats not only didn’t have internal voices of individualism from silent reading because there was very little punctuation in text but also were mostly illiterate, and so a literary mindset was extremely uncommon. Early feudalism was essentially stiill an oral culture. The changes in media, as numerous scholars have argued (e.g., Marshall McLuhan), would only later more fully transform the human mind and culture. The later aristocrats who sought enclosure were radically different from their ancestors of a mere few centuries before (early feudalism was never fully legalistic and operated through systems of social roles and social relations). That is why they pushed a legalistic enclosure movment enforced by government and their ancestors did not.
Their extreme egoic individualism had cast them out of the Eden of communal identity. Indeed, by the early modern period, the literate upper classes, aristocracy and clergy, became obsessed with melancholy and acedia, private affects of the individual perceived as a disease (depression, anxiety, exhaustion, etc). In the 1600s, multiple observervers stated that melancholy had become an epidemic. Later, it was also the upper classes who first complained of nerves and neurasthenia. Our modern sense of egoic pride is more similar to these mental diseases of civilization than it is to a raw emotion like shame or anger.
Does that make sense? Or do you still think pride represents something more fundamental as a causal force in its own right? If so, what kind of pride are you speaking of? Where does it originate and out of what kind of self or social conditions? Why did megalothymia get expressed, manifested, and acted upon in that way during the early modern period and not before? Obviously, something had changed that allowed and incentivized these new identities and actions.
How Emotions are Made
by Lisa Feldman Barrett
“When scientists set aside the classical view and just look at the data, a radically different explanation for emotion comes to light. In short, we find that your emotions are not built-in but made from more basic parts. They are not universal but vary from culture to culture. They are not triggered; you create them. They emerge as a combination of the physical properties of your body, a flexible brain that wires itself to whatever environment it develops in, and your culture and upbringing, which provide that environment. Emotions are real, but not in the objective sense that molecules or neurons are real. They are real in the same sense that money is real— that is, hardly an illusion, but a product of human agreement.”
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
by Julian Jaynes, Afterword
“The physiological expression of shame or humiliation involves of course blushing, dropping of the eyes and of the head, and the behavioral one of simply hiding from the group. Unfortunately, nothing is known about its biochemical or neurological basis.
“If you wish to feel shame in its pure form, this stepping outside what is expected of you, simply stand out in a busy street and shout out the time in minutes and seconds over the heads of everyone who passes by, and do it for five minutes — or until you are taken away. This is shame, but not guilt, because you have done nothing your society has taught you to call wrong.
“And now consider what conscious reminiscence and imagery of the future bring to this affect. And particularly consider this in the milieu of ethical right and wrong that developed as markers for behavior after the breakdown of the bicameral mind with its certainty of gods’ directives. Wrongs, or by another word, sins, or indeed anything that would eject us from society if it were known or seem to eject us from society can be reminisced about out of the past and worried about for the future. And this we call guilt. No one before 1ooo B.C. ever felt guilt, even while shame was the way groups and societies were held together.
“To indicate the evidence that guilt as opposed to shame is a new emotion at this time, I would cite a single bit of evidence, and one that is well known.24 This is the story of Oedipus. It is referred to in two lines of the Iliad and two lines in the Odyssey which I think we can take as indicating the true story, as it came down from bicameral times. The story seems to be about a man who killed his father and then unwittingly married his mother and so became King of Thebes, proceeding to have several children-siblings by his mother, then discovering what he had done, certainly feeling shame since incest had always been a taboo, but evidently recovering from that shame, living a happy life thereafter with his wifemother, and dying with royal honors sometime later. This was written down around 800 B.C., but the story comes from several centuries before that.
“And then, only four hundred years later, we have the great trilogy of Sophocles on the subject, a play about unknown guilt, guilt so extreme that a whole city is in famine because of it, so convulsive that the culprit when he discovers his guilt is not worthy to look upon the world again and stabs his eyes into darkness with the brooches clutched from his mother-wife’s breasts, and is led away by his sister-daughters into a mystical death at Colonus.”
You do make sense, my argument mainly comes from a theological perspective rather than objective evidence, I contemplated of the story of Cain and Able when God accepted the latter’s sacrifice and not the former, so Cain committed the most individualistic crime of murder upon his brother, my explanation for that murder is that Cain felt more worthy of Gods love/acceptance, more worthy than his brother i.e. superior. So his defiance of Gods judgement kicked him out of the Eden of communal living to the relative Hell of individualism.
That same sense of superiority is what prompted the devil to defy God and humans by extension if we consider the human soul to be a part of Gods own soul.
I think the need to be loved and heard is essential for our spiritual wellbeing, that need was filled nicely in a community of equals early on, not so much today because of how disconnected we are from each others thoughts and feelings.
So my assumption in my earlier comment was that humans today have a natural tendency to demonstrate their superiority, whether that be in wealth accumulation, intellect, or whatever domain where one can shine, and all that is to subconsciously win over God’s love (of course if you don’t believe in God you can substitute God’s love for personal achievement and pride), and part of that achievement is having a way to demonstrate said achievement to your fellow humans to gain their love and acceptance as a proxy of Gods love and acceptance since God doesn’t literally manifest himself to us, maybe he did to the bicameral mind through voice hearing, I really don’t know as I feel like I’m punching above my weight class, and I still have a lot to learn.
In other words, I think we are like children fighting for the admiration of the same father, each with their own narrative.
A theological perspective is perfectly fine. I’m attracted to a theological-tinged approach myself. This has been demonstrated by my drawing upon religious language in some recent posts, partly as a response to studying the speeches given during the English Peasants’ Revolt. I like the raw moral potency of the early religious worldview. It is why early on in this blog I so often focused on early religion, particularly Christianity-Gnosticism, and the Axial Age prophets.
So, at the most fundamental level, I don’t require objective evidence. The appeal to deep values like egalitarianism don’t need to be justified and, as I argue, they fundamentally can never be rationalized or explained. They are so primal, so deeply rooted in human nature. We can see the objective evidence for this, such as the common tribal practice of shaming successful hunters and enforcing meat sharing. Egalitarianism is maintained through norm enforcement. And traditional tribal people do seem to lack the overwhelming anxiety, depression, and exhaustion that defines modern industrialized states. But such evidence has no visceral realism or moral punch.
About Cain’s killing Abel and Lucifer’s fall, I had never specifically thought of that as individualism vs the relational. But I suppose I get the gist of that interpretation. Like Adam’s Original Sin, it places the cause at the beginning of humanity or even earlier in Creation. That is my my main reluctance toward it, as I see the change as coming much later in civlization, a change not fully taking hold until quite recent history. Individualism, rather than being a sinul state or our inborn fallen nature, is an ideological aberration that has to be externally taught and enforced.
In this, I’m also departing a bit from those like Julian Jaynes, the philologists, and similar thinkers. There was a transformative change in human culture and psyche in the ancient world. But it seems to me that, for all the amazing impact it had, the older mentality couldn’t ever be actually eliminated and remained essentially dominant. The bicameral mind no longer fully functioned, but most of the elements of bicameral society remained in place until modernity.
Only now are we reaching the fullest extreme of Jaynesian consciousness. But that is the result of a long transitional period where someting like early feudalism might’ve been closer to archaic bicameralism than to modern individualism. Part of the point of this slant is that it emphasizes how recent is individualism and hence how precarious it is. Modern ideological realism has obscured this by creating the most powerful indoctrination system that has ever existed.
Still, the essential point you’re making gets at an important truth. Below all of the centuries of conflict and ideological abstractions, all of us can still feel that simple longing to feel at home in the world, to belong to a sense of community and place. Even with the distortions of individualistic rhetoric, the ancient meaning of ‘freedom’ points to this, as it is cognate with ‘friend’. Other than maybe psychopaths, we all have the capacity to sense this underlying human truth.
But, as another important detail, one might note that studies show that rates of psychopathy are higher among the elite. In fact, particular elites such as CEOs have higher rates than seen in some prison populations. What if individualism and psychopathy are essentially the same thing, just two ways of speaking of moderate and extreme expressions? And what if the extremes are getting more extreme over time?
Anyway, my concern with the last phase of the long transition out of bicameralism relates to understanding what finally pushed humanity over that ledge into individualis and psychopathy. Even in early modernity, individualism was still largely contained within and kepty in check by a shared communal inheritance. How quickly that changed when a systematic project was implemented to target all the old forms of the communal and how they lingered among the commoners. What continues to stand out in my mind is how individualism isn’t really about the individual but about a new collectivism.
That is where the religious interpretation falls short. We don’t have the conceptual terms to understand individualsitic collectivism and libertarian authoritarianism. And so we are left defenseless to what we can’t articulate and express, what we can’t grasp and publicly discuss. That oppressive project to enforce individualism is ongoing, everyday of our lives in this society in how the very landscape has been structured.
Your comments in this subject matter interest me very much. I need to read them all, slowly, to get my own perception of where they take me. It will take some time, for I have other things to do as well. More, later…
A lot of my thinking is half-baked, at best. There is something about pivotal points of change endlessly fascinate me. They are so hard to get one’s mind wrapped around. It’s maybe an impossible task to attempt to do so.
It remains unclear to me exactly what role the enclosure movement played. Was it more of a cause or an effect? Or was it simply a furthering of what was already ongoing? I’m not sure those questions can really be answered in a satisfactory way.
To my endlessly questioning mind, it’s not as if we are ever going to come to correct answer and final conclusion. That isn’t the point of grappling with these issues. More significant is finding a useful frame for talking about it.
That goes to my struggles with the left/right metaphor and false equivalency. I get annoyed because of what feels the opposite of useful. But I also get irritated by those who dismiss the issue as if by ignoring it they’ve solved the problem.
If nothing else, worrying away at the strangeness of it all makes for an entertaining hobby. One has to do something with one’s time. But I might be happier if I more often contemplated the commons while going for more walks in nature.
There is one reason pivotal eras are interesting. They are challenging to understand not only because so many complicatng factors came together in unpredictable ways. Interpreting what it all means is less straightforward because there were so much diverse rhetoric, metaphorical framings, and ideological narratives.
The people during that transitional period were struggling not only about what changes to make or not and how to make those changes but, more importantly, how to explain it. The victors would then not just get to enforce the social order and identites they’d prefer for they’d also get to write the history books to rationalize what they were doing and why.
We inherited their rationalizations as the ideological realism we are born into. Yet it’s not hard to unearth all of the alternative voices from back then that had very different notions of what was going and what it meant. But what is fascinating is that the competing sides were often rather open, sometimes even blunt, about their beliefs, motivations, and intentions.
I don’t understand why individualism has to be enforced, for example you have your (curious) cat as your picture, if you didnt have your individual identity you wouldn’t be able to unleash your intellectual curiosity as you would presumably have other priorities in your community setting, unless you would consider your curiosity as a coping mechanism to living in modern society, some window looking through trying to understand life.
What would your personality characteristics have been were you born in the axial age? Or is your entire personality shaped by your modern environment with little relationship to earlier humans? Couldn’t the agency we enjoy be a positive spin on human development?
Earlier humans were indeed closer to each other, however they were also closed off to other communities, closed off to new perspectives and ideas from the clan next over, people with widely different experiences.
Embracing individuality means that the wrongdoing of a single person doesn’t necessarily reflect on his entire race/gender/clan/tribe/neighbourhood, whereas if you identify too strongly with any specific group you would likely defend the wrongdoing of your brethren, effectively sharing their crime for a sense of belonging and friendship.
Unless you are talking about utopic communal relationships where whats right is right and whats wrong is wrong, it seems fairer to me to be an individual rather than blend in to a cult-like community where my full potential is under-utilized.
There are multiple components to my viewpoint. And they aren’t necessarily formed into a single coherent argument, absolute conclusion, and totalizing ideology. These are a diversity of thoughts, insights, observations, queries, doubts, criticisms, hopes, etc.
Part of it is simply being born into an ideological realism. I was born into individuality, liberalism, whitness, and much else. It’s as hard for me to imagine not being an individual as not being white. That isn’t necessarily good or bad, in a simplistic sense. First and foremost, it’s just an observation that is fodder for self-awareness and social inquiry.
Intellectually, I know whiteness is a cultural artifact and reified abstraction that was socially constructed over centuries. But on a personal level, everything about this society and my experience in it tells me I’m white. And that whiteness has been indoctrinated deep into my psyche. All of this has real consequences where some benefit and others are harmed.
That racial identity was built on violent force. It did not emerge, develop, and take hold organically as an inborn quality of human nature. It was an ideological project enacted by those with immense power. Could racial identity have been built without violence, oppression, and force? I suppose, in theory, that might be possible. But that isn’t the reality of this society.
The same goes for individuality. We could imagine an alternative history where the Axial Age prophets first giving voice to proto-individualism had never been used as justifications for authoritarian power (e.g., Jesus’ radicalism co-opted by the Catholic Church and later Protestantism). WEIRD culture, as the foundation to Western individualism, was primarily enforced by the Catholic Church through laws and punishment.
You and I, however, were born into a world where we’ve inherited the results of centuries and millennia of ideological projects. The living memory of all alternatives has almost been entirely obliterated through genocide and forced assimilation. Individualism is all we know. It’s near impossible for me to imagine who I’d be if not an individual, but I do try to intuit what exists in the deeper human psyche that some refer to as the bundled mind.
The basis of my argument isn’t that individualism is entirely bad or wrong. It simply contradicts our human nature, at least in the form it has been established according to the Enligtenment project of those like Godwin. But that isnt to merely dismiss individualism. Like anyone who was indoctrinated in individualism, it’s so much a part of who I Identity as. On a personal level, I have nothing to compare against.
Certainly, I enjoy much that exists in our society such as technology. I just suspect that we could’ve had similar or even greater advances by having maintained more elements of communal identity and relationships. Tribal communalism has its advantages such as general greater health and happiness. But, from a modern perspective, there are some downsides as well.
The point of interrogating the communal impulse within humanity is not to hold up anarcho-primitivism as an ideal. It’s simply to acknowledge that it represents something essential to our shared humanity. The reason we are presently committing mass suicide as a species (climate change, ecosystem destruction, pollution, mass extinction, etc) is partly because we’ve denied our own communal connection to the world. So, if we don’t come to terms with that, we are likely doomed.
If it’s not sustainable, then any of the benefits of modern society will be moot. But that was an inherent failure of the violent enforcement of individualism right from the start. Even so, I’m open to imagining individualistic cultures that aren’t as psychopathic as ours, but that requires a radical imagining that would acknoledge and incorporate our communal nature. My point is individuality never really escapes the collective. To pretend it does is psychotic and schizoid.
To imagine an individualism that doesn’t fall into this trap of mental illness would in a sense be to imagine something entirely new that would not be individualism as we recognize. Instead, by re-invoking the communal, we might be able to incorporate some of the better qualities and achievements of this individualistic society but put them into an entirely different context of understanding and identity. The point is that our present individualistic culture is already a cult. The question is how do we escape this cult to ensure survival of human civilization.
Basically, I don’t have any good answers to offer you. I’m here bringing questions and doubts to the answers that have been asserted as reality itself. I’m suggesting that, if those answers asserted as dogmatic faith aren’t reality and indeed might be contraray to reality, then where does that leave us? We are at the beginning point of this inquiry.
That is the purpose of looking to the last major pivotal era of identity transformation. In late feudalism to early modernity, there were many possibilities of identity being explored. The lower classes had their own ideological projects. They were seeking to take some of the communal identity of the past but apply it in new ways. But those other possibilities were violently destroyed as part of class war in enforcing pseudo-individuality that always was collectivist.
Looking back on that period is an attempt to return to first principles. It’s the taking several steps back to see what got us to where we are and determine if it could’ve been otherwise. I’m not much of a fan of ideological realism as ideological fatalism. And if this is the best of all possible world, we are in desperate trouble. It seems worthwhile to, at the very least, consider all our options.
We are in the middle of a moral panic and existential crisis. And for good reason. But I’ve been wondering if that is simply the disconnecting and destabilizing nature of hyper-individualism, particularly as capitalist realism and social Darwinism. Even something as simple as social democratic reforms could make a massive difference, if only as a starting point in bringing the communal back into the focus of public debate.
The more fundamental issue is the commons. This is not only about land and resources. As even some early enemies of the commons understood, this was always about who controls identity formation. Will we control our own identity or, as has been the case these past centuries, will identity be controlled for us? This is where it might be useul to revisit the distinction between shared freedom and authoritarian libertarianism.
The early landless peasants entering the modern world were aspiring to freely construct their own identities and many of them saw the communal instinct as being central to that project. Workers organizing for shared empowerment and benefit wasn’t merely about economics but a powerful expression of identity that was aligned with the deepest sense of humanity.
Rather than a conflict between communalism and individualism, one can sense some entirely other potential that got suppressed and forgotten in the reactionary backlash that followed. That is what interests me. But I can’t prove it is a valid potential, even as I can show immense evidence about communalism and egalitarianism being strongly associated with greater health and happiness. The question now, as it was then, is what might communalism and egalitarianism mean in the modern world not as a denial of individualism but simply as a divergent path of development.
I’m struggling here to give you a meaningful and satisfactory response. That might not be possible. But let me try to distill it down to its essence. The crux of the problem, as I see it, is not the individual vs the collective. That seems like a false duality and forced choice.
The problem is that individualism, if my interpretation is correct, never really escaped collectivism. It simply created a superficial facade and false narrative that had to be forced collectively. In that case, individualism isn’t actually an alternative to collectivism but simply one other variant of it.
Even if we are to focus on the problems of collectivism, we’d be wise to include the problems of individualism. To look for an alternative or solution to those problems compels us to first acknowledge them. But, of course, the point of conflict is disagreemnt over such interpretations according to conflicting ideological projects of identity formation.
As such, it’s quite likely that we’ll have to agree to disagree. It’s similar to the egalitarian impulse. The reason I’ve recently turned to religious language is because rationality and evidence, no matter how immense it may seem to me, is not compelling to those who, for whatever reason, don’t feel it or won’t acknowledge it. The point of conflict was never intellectual and so can’t be resolved intellectually.
I’m not sure I have the capacity to explain to you why individuality seems collectivist to me. My criticisms of individualism are ultimately because it isn’t really individualistic. In making an argument, I can point to Julian Jaynes’ work and such. And I can empasize the point with the cultural and etymological explorations of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’. On and on I can go. But either what I’m saying makes sense to you or it doesn’t.
This is where I’ve so often grown bored and tired with ‘debate’. And the reason I finally banned false equivalency from the blog. At some point, one realizes all one is doing is going around in circles and bashing one’s head against a wall. In the end, what I’m expressing here is a radical vision of humanity. I can’t prove it true nor do I feel overly motivated to try. Whatever humanity will become, assuming our species survives, is out of my hands.
Let me put it more simply, according to one of my main distinctions.
I’m seeking freedom but not necessarily liberty, although not non-liberty or anti-liberty either. Just simply freedom as distinct from liberty. That is to say I’m seeking freedom in, through, and toward relationship; and not ‘freedom’ from relationsip (i.e., liberty) that seems to inevitably or near inevitably end in collectivist authoritarianism.
I want actual freedom in lived experience and real world results, beyond merely a narrative of theoretical freedom as an idealistic possibility. Individualism as collectivism, like libertarianism as authoritarianism, is not judged for its promises but for not living up to its promises.
Part of the problem is that, even though we have a shared human nature and a shared world, much of our experience is not shared. The simple difference is apparently that ‘individuality’ feels more fully real to you but not to the same extent for me. It’s not only that I think the ideological realism of the individualistic project is false and deceptive. In my studies and observations, I have never discovered the mythical creature called the ‘individual’. Individuality seems like an illusion that can only look real when one doesn’t look too closely, albeit a powerful illusion.
I mean that literally. Decades of contemplation and meditation has shown no evidence that individuality actually exists. Upon close scrutiny, the seeming individualistic dissipates into a field of experience — this thought, that sensation, &c &c. This is the bundle theory of mind, as articulated by Buddists and certain Western thinkers: David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsce, Julian Jaynes, Iain McGilchrist, etc. And I’ve had enough experience with it to now find it compelling as a more accurate, useful, or interesting way of perceiving.
As for curiosity, it doesn’t need to be anything other than a basic human impulse like egalitarianism. Even non-individualistic cultures express curiosity. Some bicameral societies, in fact, developed complex knolwedge systems from systematic observations of the world. In terms of my blog, the curious cat in question is my childhood cat and animal spirit, Marmalade. Indeed, he was a creature of much curiosity, but he didn’t require individuality as Jaynesian consciousness and the propertied self. My own curiosity is a force of nature that impels me, not something I control or even necessarily identify with.
Now human development is where it gets interesting. We aren’t talking about only your development or mine but the collective development of society. But it also as to do with all the lines of development, as paths of progress and human potential, that were blocked and suppressed, destroyed and wasted. In this present social order, some have benefitted greatly while others have been harmed greatly. The American Empire oppresses, impoverishes, punishes, sickens, and kills millions of people every year. For those paying the costs for the benefits of others, it can be an immense cost. That is part of the (pseudo-)individualistic project.
This has always stood out to me because I’m one of those who doesn’t fit well into the prevailing order. From childhood, I had a mind that simply did not conform to American social norms, but not for a lack of trying. To be specific, I had a “learning disability” and relationship issues, maybe undiagnosed autism or something. But as I’ve grown older, it seems to me that most people don’t particularly fit all that well into this society, considering the plague of mental health issues, diseases of civilization, and social problems. To be honest, I don’t feel free in this society and it doesn’t seem most people are exhibiting a state of freedom, much less utilizing even a fraction of their potential.
Where does that leave us? Heck if I know. I’m not exactly or fully a pessimist. Or rather, I’m only cynical to the degree my idealism is frustrated. Some believe that human development must pass through ‘individualism’ and such people seem to limit individualism to the ideological project of Western Enlightenment that is unfortunately mixed up with centuries of reactionary backlash and authoritarianism. I do find some appeal in theories like Spiral Dynamics that promote integralism, but often such models seem too linear to my mind. Even if I accept individuality as the present state of our society, I hope we don’t get stuck in this maladaptive mode for too long.
Yet I definitely don’t want to come across as merely critical. The main reason I look to the past is to sense those moments when visions of hope, progress, and freedom captured public imagination. So, in that sense, my beef really isn’t with individualism per se. And I don’t have much to tell those inspired by individualism. All I can say, in response, is it makes no sense to me. I just don’t get it. My entire being is out of sync with hyper-individualism and the very thought of it is demoralizing. Something about our individualistic society feels profoundly wrong or off in some way and my very being bucks against it.
Maybe I’m just a weirdo. I get it that we live in a society where individualistic rhetoric and structures are everywhere in our experience. For most people, even if they’re not healthy and happy in this social order, even if it doesn’t live up to its promises, the possibility of questioning it is hard to imagine. That is how ideological realism works. And when younger, neither could I see outside of it all. But I was much more depressed and apathetic back then. To me, the ego-self that gets so praised is closer to an demiurgic demon or Gnostic archon possessing the collective human psyche, a false god that has usurped the true bundled self and declared itself sole authoritaran ruler — a monotheistic-like faith in centrlaized egoic power.
I don’t know what to tell you. Take it or leave it. There is no expectation that your experience should be like mine. Heck, there isn’t even an expectation that the experience of today should be like that of yesterday or that experience in one situation should be the same as another, at least according to the bundle theory of mind. We aren’t singular and self-contained, coherent and consistent — not in any simplistic sense. We are multitudes that overlpa and mingle with other multitudes. The psyche is a living swarm in and of the world. If nothing else, that is an amusing and wondrous way of experiencing the self and the world.
That might be a takeaway point. Specific kinds of selves as cultural artifacts are stories that are told. It’s best if we learn to hold identities lightly. Individuality is just a narrative, maybe sometimes useful but often not. Of course, this loose attitude is biased toward the bundled view of things. I too was raised in the ego theory of mind, but over time I simply found it less compelling and useful. It just didn’t really explain anything and ommitted much. Yet, even now, I have to admit I’m very much a product of WEIRD society that was built out of the individualistic project. I simultaneously feel stuck within individualistic ideology and feel uncomprehending toward it.
In my experience, the rigid and isolated ego structure is a confining and claustrophobic worldview. It is the self contained within the metaphor of container, with no way out as long as one continues using that metaphor. But these rhetorical structures are mind viruses that burrow deep. This psychological frame might never have been knocked free in my experience if not for psychedelics, more than meditation likely would’ve likely accomplised alone. Trip on some shrooms while in nature and then ponder the commons, egalitarianism, and the bundled mind — suddenly, it will all make sense… or not. LOL
Though somewhat joking, I mean that with utmost sincerity. It’s a key point in what I sense has changed in our society. Prior to modernity, psychedelics were more common and addictive stimulants were rare. Psilocybin mushrooms are seen in some older European art work. Also, mild psychoactive herbs were used in beer making in early England, before tea and sugar became more popular in the 1700s and became the national drink in the 1800s. This just so happened to coincide with the disappearance of fairies in common experience. Fairies could be thought of as one of the presiding spirits of the bundled mind.
The changes in diet and substance use was part of the ideological project, if maybe a less intentional part. Addictive stimulants became necessary with the rise of urbanization and industrialization in order to offset the stress, exhaustion, anxiety, and depression (or, in older terminology, melancholy, acedia, nerves, nostalgia, and neurasthenia). It’s possible our extreme hyper-individualism couldn’t be sustained for long without such drugs, along with the need of a constant sugar buzz, as sugar also became available to Westerners with international trade. This part off how the rigid boundaries of the ego relate to the rigid boundaries of land, as both have to do with capitalism and the propertied self.
Of course, you shouldn’t take my word for any of this. Have you used yourself as a guinea pig? Meditation, psychedelics, language changes, runner’s high, ecstatic dance, shamanic drumming/chanting, mind machines, sensory deprivation tanks, long-term fasting, stimulant abstinence, etc? If you have, maybe you’re familiar with what interests me so much about this kind of thing, whether or not your experience(s) matches my own.
Yet, for all my experimentation, the habitual patterns of ego-self have a tendency to reassert their force to some extent. But the ego boundaries get a bit looser, thinner, and more expansive over time in allowing more of a bundled mind perspecive. It’s hard, though, because we have no other pre-made identities to choose from. Constructing non-normative identities can be a lot of work. And if you talk about it, few people will understand. It’s why ‘I’ fall back on egoic language when talking to others because it avoids interpersonal complications.
An old song:
You’re a nobody till somebody loves you
You’re nobody till somebody cares
You may be king, you may possess the world and its gold
But gold won’t bring you happiness when you’re growin’ old
Also, why is solitary confinement the worst non-violent punishment? One can’t be an individual unless there is someone to at least observe one’s individuality.. “No man is an island”, etc.
So, ‘individuality’ is a word which means nothing.
Buddhism addresses the “I” that we perceive inside ourselves that is imaginary.
Individualism is imaginary.
Such are the thoughts that this conversation induces in ‘me’. Without you reading this (if anyone does) then nothing happened.
Let me acknowledge ‘your’ existence by responding. It would be sad to leave you hanging there in egoic non-existence. A fate worse than death in Western culture.
Your comment is a better way of putting it. It’s not that individuality is bad or wrong. It simply doesn’t exist. But it doesn’t exist in the way races don’t exist, even as the enforced and internalized consequences of racism and race realism do exist.
All of civilization is built on a complex system of social constructs. This is neither good nor bad, in general. It’s just the way the world operates. But there is immense benefit in finally coming to understand how the world actually operates, as opposed to how one was told it works.
There is a memory in our mind when we first observed that there was no ‘I’. It was disturbing because, of course, this society doesn’t support such an experience; and so it felt alienating. The thing is it’s not a hard experience to come to. All one has to do is shut up, sit still, and close one’s eyes for a few minutes. (Or have something that powerfully knocks one out of mental routines.)
If paying close attention, it quickly becomes apparent how there is no there there, nothing in the ‘mind’ holding it all together. When the egoic narrative is not constantly re-asserted, the ego dissipates and disaggregates into just so many thoughts, feelings and sensations. It’s like a pack of dogs that holds tightly together while running but then separates out when resting. The ego is a pack mentality.
These days, we can shift into this awareness almost instantly. But just as quickly the egoic perception can return. Still, as we’ve swtiched back and forth enough, the grip of the egoic identity loosens. It’s easier to see it as something that doesn’t exist in me and so that offers psychological distance. The ego can be watched like a character in a story.
That is why individualism doesn’t feel freeing because there is the awareness of how it’s constantly being enforced. Also, after looking for an ego and not finding it for the thousandth time, it stops being all that compelling of a narrative in that it can’t explain anything. That doesn’t change the social reality, though, in living in a social world of ‘individuals’, ‘races’, etc.
It is also a good point about solitary confinement. After a long enough period in social isolation, all social constructs lose their perceived reality. It’s similar to a sensory deprivation tank. Our mind-selves need feedback to construct a sense of reality. And that is even more true for social reality.
That is basically the purpose of certain spiritual practices: meditation, hermitage, vows of silence, etc. These are ways of cutting off everyday inputs of social identity. This can be used for various purposes. The breakdown of the ego can be done for seeking insight or even enlightenment, but it can always be used by religions and cults to then build another self in its place.
The process of modernization does the opposite in further reinforcing and entrenching identities of isolation and separation, in order to make them feel absolute and inescapable. Think about the dual process of the enclosure movement and mass urbanization. The commons was not only part of a communal experience of humans but also of nature, a space in which humans cohabited and co-existed with the non-human.
The elites were the first to be urbanized. Early aristocracy lived on manors in as part of parish villages. Then, as imperialism took hold, they began spending more time in the palace, in the capitol, and in other urban centers. Then later on, the enclosure movement created the landless peasants who were forced into the cities.
This was not only a loss of the feudal commons and the traditional communal identity but a disconnection from the lived experience of the non-human world, not only ‘nature’ in the scientific sense but also nature spirits and ancestral spirits of the land, the last remnants of the bicameral mind.
In the new urban life, one is kept constantly surrounded by human activity and kept constantly busy and distracted. That is even more true in the modern world with media technology and all the gadgets we are surrounded by. That is combined with the ideological restructuring of the entire landscape.
We never have to worry about seeing outside of it all. If anything, to attempt to psychologically escape the walls of our egoic confinement can require intentional focus and immense effort. Monks sometimes spent years in isolation in attempting to breakdown the ego or otherwise experience the divine other. We moderns are lucky to go more than a few seconds in either full isolation from other humans and their voices or full exposure to the non-human and their voices.
We became aware of this fact sittiing here at this computer in this room. Modern houses are so sealed up that few outdoor sounds of nature even are able to leak in through the window. Mostly what is heard is the movement of people in the other room, along with a tv running in the background. This condition is so normalized that we rarely notice it.
There is a dullness to the modern mind. We have little reason to pay much attention to the larger world, even when we aren’t physically closed off from it. Not that long ago, most humans had the common experience of being on high alert while outside for fear of predators, a constant attunment to the non-human other.
There is a family account from the late 1800s in Indiana. The person described waking up with a panther coming in through an open window. Back then, windows didn’t merely let the sounds of nature in. Even in a more basic sense, the majority of Americans could still rely on the informal commons as a source of food and natural resources as late as the Great Depression.
There is one simple experiment one can do that demonstrates how the mind works. It’s easy to do and kind of amusing or fascinating. Everything about the human identity, thought, and perception operates according to contrast. And the single most powerful contrast is movement. Our minds and senses are constantly active, if it happens mostly unconsciously. It’s the natural mode of experience.
Meditation is one practice that slows and settles the mind down. In doing so, it shifts experience itself. If one holds that attentional space long enough, the illusion of an ego disappears. That is because the ego, like the pack of dogs, only coherently exists in movement. The problem with meditation is most people find it hard. Humans have a natural resistance to non-movement. Our minds want activity and, in the modern world, that activity largely involves the inner voice chattering away or else the chattering of media voices, along with constant visual input from tv, computers, etc.
A more concrete experience can be helpful. This experiment only requires a room or some kind of space where there is no movement in the field of vision. Sit or stand still. Look at a specific point, don’t move your eyes, and don’t blink. It won’t take long before your vision will go black. You literally won’t be able to see anything. The human vision can’t function without movement. To see requires constant movement of the eye or constant movement in the environment. A healthy person will constantly be blinking and shifting their eyes around. This is one of the reasons staring narrowly focused at a computer screen for hours is unhealthy.
Anyway, the human mind is the same way. If you hold the mind still long enough, it will go blank. Movement is how the contrasts of background and foreground are differentiated, and this is how the self-other dichotomy is created. The kind of movement habits (of mind and body) determines the kind of identity. And, of course, the structured environments determines the possibilities (and impossibilities) of movement. As with the movement of vision and thought, movement through the world in walking on sidewalks, driving on streets, staying within the confines of walls/fences, etc creates a very specific egoic identity. A bicameral citizen, feudal peasant, and tribal hunter-gatherer also moved in their worlds but quite differently and so they had far different self-world experience.
Maybe that is why we can’t look to the Chinese as an alternative to the Western mind. Modernized and industrialized China has basically the same infrastructure system as Western countries. The Chinese resident moves through their constructed world more similar to the way does an American and far differently from a feudal peasant walking through the commons. This could offer another explanation for why the American Revolution happened. The colonies offered a far different constructed environment than what was existing in the increasingly enclosed and urbanized England during the 1700s. And so maybe it’s unsurprising that an Englishman like Thomas Paine could only imagne revolution when he came to the colonies.
Our environment shapes our identity, our percepton of the world, and the possibiltes we can imagine or not. But it’s precisely our embodied movement in an envirnment that might be the strongest influence. Though this maybe should be obvious, how rarely we give it any thought. We know of how important landscape and environment is to native cultures, such as the aboriginal songlines, but we forget that modern infrastructure is just another songline that invokes our world into existence each time we travel it.
This recently came up when our kitty escaped and was lost for 4 days. Cats don’t respect human social constructs like property lines. But in looking for her, we had to sometimes cross into other people’s privatized space. And it can be felt how much we internalize these boundaries. Crossing a property line is to infringe or even invade their propertied self. There is a clear sense of discomfort in doing so. Until moments like that, we often forget how constrained we are in the urban environment.
Talking about the recent cat search reminded us of our childhood. The cat that escaped was at our parents’ house. They live in what is the equivalent of the suburbs of Iowa City. It’s not bad. The city government was smart enough to put in some green spaces with multi-use trails which sort of is like a commons. A few years ago, they even finally put in two neighborhood parks on this side of town. But it still feels like suburban housing.
We grew up in various older working class neighborhoods, including here in Iowa City. They have a very different structure and give one a different feeling, maybe even a different identity. The houses and yards were smaller with barely any front yards at all. They typically had front porches set near the sidewalk. When the neighbors walked by, they might only be a few feet from where the family sat on the porch and so it encouraged neighborly meetings and chats.
The streets tended to be smaller too and lined with trees. Other things included were alleys, neighborhood parks, neighborhood schools, and often empty lots or patches of woods with a creek nearby. All of these things weren’t officially commons in the feudal sense, but they created a similar feeling to a commons. Adding to this close sense of community were also some surviving neighborhood stores and churches.
The ratio of privately enclosed space to public or open space was much lower. Things like alleys, in particular, created an intimate and welcoming feeling; and have always defined my sense of a real neighborhood as a community of people. Along these alleys, families relaxed and sometimes kept gardens. There was plenty of space in which to walk, ride bikes, play, climb trees, explore nature, and gather with neighbors. There were far fewer fenced-in yards back then as well.
To this day, when we visit one of those old-style neighborhoods, we feel relaxed and at home. In comparison, suburban-like neighborhoods are isolating and alienating. The yards are massive with great distance between houses and between the house and the sidewalk. Of course, front porches are nearly non-existent and everyone sits enclosed in their hermetically-sealed rooms. It goes without saying that neighbors rarely talk to one another, if they know each other at all.
The most prominent part of most houses in our parent’s neighborhood are the garages that stick out, which is why they’re called snout houses. People come home, drive directly into the garage, and possibly never step outside. Many of the people don’t even take care of their own lawns, which in the past all Midwesterners at least mowed their own grass, if nothing else. At least, suburbia less often has fences, but it’s not as if the large open grassy yards feel welcoming and neighborlly either. It all feels artificial and sterile with even the weeds not allowed in.
The enclosure movement didn’t only happen centuries ago. It’s still going on. From generation to generation, we become more and more enclosed. The once common public, shared, and communal spaces in neighborhoods are disappearing. Undeveloped land is also disappearing. The old neighorhoods almost always had some empty lots or wooded lots, but those are also becoming rare.
The same is true of farm fields. This suburban-like neighborhood of our parents was farmland when we were kids. Many of the farms along the edge of this smaller town were small family farms with nuerous wood lots and such. Even back in the 1980s, many farmers were also still leaving some grassy areas along the edge of fields that made for wilderness habitat, instead of farming from fence to fence. Space was dedicated to the non-human other.
There was a cultural habit until quite recently to leave a certain amount of land undeveloped. It was a mindset that wasn’t enforced by law or anything. People simply appreciated a certain amount of nature and wild animals in their vicinity. Maybe it was a carryover from the commons, a sense that not everything had to be dedicated to capitalist use and efficiency. it probably had much to do with families that owned small farms that were owned across multiple generations. Such property wasn’t only a business but a sense of place and home.
On a somewhat positive note, one might sense a slight shift in certain areas. With the local government here, they are being more careful about ensuring there are parks, greenspaces, multi-use trails, etc. Back in the 1970s, they built a pedestrian mall downtown and they are finally getting around to expanding it. That will turn some of the streets used for vehicles to be made for humans agains to walk safely upon. The downtown pedestrial mall does have a feeling of a park in the middle of town.
It’s not exactly a return of the commons. But it is a growing awareness that public space is important. Sadly, though, the pedestrian mall as a community space was decimated some years ago. The city, at the behest of the downtown business association, got very controlling about how it was used. They kicked out the homeless, removed a lot of the seating, and forced people to get permits to do the simplest of things like having a drum circle. So, it’s not clear that we are at a point of net gain.
When we were kids and even into the early Aughts, the pedestrial mall was a bustling place. Dozens of regulars would meet every morning in a particular seating area to talk, drink coffee, and maybe smoke cigarettes (smoking is now banned, of course). It actually felt like a community. In the late 1990s, I worked for Parks and Rec in cleaning up the pedestrian mall and so I got to know the regulars. It was also a time when I used to hackysack, as there was always a group of people gathered for such activities.
None of that happens anymore. They even replaced a fancy fountain with a much simpler one that no longer attracts the crowds of kids it once did. There still is a playground, though, that is always covered with children at play. And it’s right next to the public library that is normally popular, though it’s been closed down because of Covid. I’m hoping that the recent gentrification might be finally coming to a stop so that normal humans can being to repair the decimated community space that had been turned into the front yard for expensive highrises.
The city government is being somewhat thoughtful about it all, even if there ideas aren’t always perfect. They’re in the middle of an infrastructure assessment. They want to eliminate much of the downtown parking and increasing public transportation, bike lanes, pedestrian areas, and ride-sharing services. One could take it as a sign of potential hope. It does make one wonder about how altering infrastructure might alter the experience of people living here and how they identify, behave, and relate.
There is a lot of interestng research that shows how powerfully environment affects people. For example, studies show that people are more likely to walk in areas that have wide sidewalks, berms, and trees. A book that discusses some of this is The Secret Life of Your Microbiome by Alan C. Logan and Susan L. Prescott. It would be nice if such knowledge became more commonly understood, appreciated, and applied.
Your comment here is very interesting. Solitary confinement would actually be undermining of individualism. Without an social observer, there could be no individualism as a social performance of identity. That really is brilliant.
Maybe that is why it’s not merely enclosure but what it leads to. The enclosure of the commons didn’t only make the peasants landless but forced most of them into becoming highly concentrated urban labor. In a way, modern individualism requires an extremely social society where people are rarely alone.
As our world has become ever more enclosed, the poplation has simultaneously become ever more concentrated. More and more people live in cities and suburbs. And among those, increasing numbers are living in close housing like apartments and duplexes.
Meanwhile, mental illness is increasing, such as psychosis. It reminds one of the rat experiment where they crowded rats together until they became aggressive and violent. I bet they also became more territorial. Maybe in some sense individualism is the heightened territoriality that is exacerbated by over-crowding.
If so, how more enclosed, concentrated, and crowded can our world get? Is there a breaking point? And if we survive that breaking point, will the human psyche re-constellate around some new social identiy formation? Maybe individualism is a temporary reaction to present stressful conditions during a transitional period of civilization, not necessarily the end result.
We’ll throw out some more related thoughts.
China may have started with a more communal culture and more collectivist intentions with Maoism. But if they simply copy modern Western-style infrastructure and housing, they may unintentionally end up wth modern Western-like identities and social behavior.
It would have a different cultural slant. But it could be more ‘individualistic’, whether or not exactly like the propertied self, and demand ever greater authortarianism to counteract it. Or else it could slowly give way to a different kind of society.
Ideologies aren’t mere abstract systems of ideas, values, etc. That is a superficial and misleading interpretation. Instead, ideologies as societal projects are baked into infrastructure, landscape, and environment — the sociocultural ordering of space.
Without understanding this, we become victims of unintended consequences. It would be like a mind virus that hijacks the brain by altering the physiology of the entire body. One suspects some have understood this and intentionally sought to architecturally engineer mind and society
But it’s doubtful many realize what they’ve been creating when they planned out our present urban environments. And that would’ve been even more true for those who centuries ago reshaped the landscape so dramatically with the enclosure movement, land reforms, and agricultural improvements.
Could we become more conscious and intentional in what we do on this collective level?
It seems likely that communal identities, maybe even to make possible functional social democracies, requires some combination of smaller populations, less urban concentration, more numerous public spaces (town squares, pedestrian malls, parks, greenspaces, etc), and larger open lands nearby, maybe within walking distance.
Even if this were proven and acknowledged as true, do we have the public demand and political will to implement it? Once a hyper-individualistic infrastructure, culture and identity is established, the very concern for and motivation toward the public good is already crippled or even paralyzed.
How does one treat one’s own disease when the disease disconnects one from the reality of what health would look like?
Let’s return one more to your thought that has been on my mind, that: “One can’t be an individual unless there is someone to at least observe one’s individuality.” Individuality is a narratized self that needs to be scripted, staged, and performed for an audience. That really is key and it brings us back to Julian Jaynes. He saw that as a defining feature of Jaynesian consciousness. The temporal element creates a central narratizing and the inner space acts as a stage to imagine narratized actions.
But you bring in an additional emphasis with a required observer/audience. This is seen not only with individuality as a social performance, such as enacting the enclosed propertied self within the enclosed property of land, house, vehicle, etc. The schizoid split between ‘I’ and ‘me’ is also important, the boundary dividing the self. This relates to self-ownership, a slave-master model of selfhood — in which case some part of us is enslaved to the egoic master and subserviently follows its commands, no less than how bicameral humans followed archaic authorization.
In self-consciousness, we observe ourselves. So, we are both performer and audience, as with being master and slave. The propertied self is a bounded space. But we aren’t merely what is inside the boundaries for our actual perspective is the boundary itself that determines both the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer’, self and other. But we can’t see the boundary in this way because it is the point where we stand, the ground we inhabit. From this boundary, we look ‘in’ or look ‘out’. The reality, though, is there is no ‘inner’ or ‘outer’, and so there is no actual boundary dividing anything. It’s simply an imagined metaporical stage to play out the narratized self.
Following through on the post “Let’s return one more to your thought that has been on my mind, that: “One can’t be an individual unless there is someone to at least observe one’s individuality.”
I get the whiff of quantum mechanics/physics where (I hope I’m stating correctly) an event isn’t an event unless there is an observer.
Quantum mechanics/physics wasn’t specifically on the mind. But one could easily suspect that our present scientific understandings are severely lacking. It’s strange that we can know that the world operates according to quantum mechanics/physics and yet go on acting as if this reality doesn’t apply to the human body, psyche, and society. Yet more schizoid divide in human experience.
On a related note, one might be reminded of the theory that (self-)’consciousness’ might not so much located in the enclosed brain or merely the enclosed body in general but is an experience of the electromagnetic field that extends beyond both, which can be measured. When tribal people perceive their sense of self as overlapping with the immediate sensory environment surrounding them, maybe they are expressing an idea that is more scientifically accurate than our own obsession with the brain.
What that might or might not have to do with quantum anything is another matter. But, if nothing else, it indicates that our folk psychology might be based on out-of-date scientific theory. And it does lead to interesting and maybe fruitful thinking. One easily drawn into thinking we aren’t what we think we are, even that we are more than we think we are. Such suggestions radically challenge the enclosed self and the enclosed society. If true, it really does mean we can’t rationally and sanely go on pretending we are separeate from the world and isolated from others.
There is the argument that individualism is morally wrong or a failure, inadequate or incorect. But you made the simple point that the ‘individual’, in a more basic sense, simply does not exist. Or rather, it only exists as an observation to an observer.
It’s phenomenal, not substantial. That would be true from a quantum perspective, as our perception of separate objects does not conform to our best scientific knowledge. Even ignoring that, what has seemed obvious is how, in our individualistic society, people don’t act as if individualism is real.
That is telling. Individualism may be the narrative structure of self and social order. But it isn’t actually all that compelling in terms of how we act. It doesn’t really explain anything, not even our own behavior and motivations.
This might not exactly be related to your last comment, but it’s all mixing together. We’ll try to tie it in, as well as is possible. We’ll do so with a question. About observers, who is observing what?
The thought here is motivated by the idea of narcissism. We typically think of this as self-obsession. But classically, narcissism meant to not differentiate between self and world, where the self usurps the world or becomes conflated with it, as in Narcissus staring at his reflection in the water. It’s non-differentiation or false differentiation.
In a sense, maybe the enclosed self built on the enclosed world is more akin to this. We become lost in reflections, and so lose sight of meaningful discernment. What is observed is a reflection, as observing is an act of reflecting. But in the complexifying and dizzying divisions of a schizoid self, it becomes reflections reflecting reflections.
The point of individualism is that it doesn’t exist, despite it creating the illusion of existing. There is no actual observer. Just the process of observing, the perspective from the boundary. It’s interesting that quantum science includes the scientist as observer but doesn’t directly study the observer and what is represented by observing. It’s taken as a given without need for explanation.
There is another view on narcissism, as defined in social science. It also doesn’t fit the common usage. In one study, the other-oriented Japanese were measured as more narcissistic than self-oriented Americans. That is because, in that the Japanese don’t have a culture of talking about themselves, they end up privately and hence narcissistaclly obsessing over their own personal problems.
This doesn’t happen for Americans because we are encouraged to speak about ourselves. Our individuality is a constant social performance for the sake of others. But this demands that we also acknowledge and respect others in socially peforming their own individualism. Indeed, Americans have a cultural expectation of social norms in not only speaking about ourselves but listening to others speak about themselves. It’s mutual.
This American individualism is always a shared and collaborative experience that couldn’t exist outside of a highly social sphere of collective practice. We Americans are a highly collectivist society, in this sense. That is confirmed by how our enclosed self is dependent on the collective creation, maintenance, and enforcement of an enclosed world, of landscape and infrastructure. Hence, this is why the enclosure movement was so important.
Narcissism is private. But individualism is public. The narcissistic Japanese have less of a public forum to socially perform individuality, far less thant the extent that is true in the West, particularly Anglo-American society. It’s unclear what that exactly means for our discussion here. It’s just something interesting to note.
Japanese; narcissism–we seem to be in a self-reflecting loop which we cannot objectively observe, but make inferences from what we can see from the inside about what it may look from the outside, if there is an outside.
This understanding of narcissism could also explain why the East has more contemplative religious practices involving non-individualistic and non-anthropomorphic senses of reality and truth: emptiness, Tao, etc. As the Japanese are more narcissistic in not socially performing individuality in the style and to the extent of Westerners, so they have more ease and familiarity with keeping their own counsel, watching their own thoughts.
We Westerners, on the other hand, have more of a practice of even socially performing individuality for an individualistic God. In our most private moments before the divine, we are taught that it’s a social event of relationship, of one individual to another. This includes the ultimate mediating force being that of Jesus (Second Adam) as the ultimate individual godman; and, of course, Adam’s individual sin is our own collective sin we are born with. That is particularly true within Protestantism and, of course, American culture is highly Protestant.
As your last comment indicates, it’s of the enclosed and bounded self that is so perplexed by inside vs outside, subjective vs objective, self vs other. These demarcations are psychologically absolutist and epistemologically totalitarian. They are taken as reality itself. That is the default cultural framework of self-reflecting mind as a specific extreme manifestation of Jaynesian consciousness. This claustrophobic ideological realism doesn’t allow for a lot of space in which to move and maneuver. The enclosure of the modern WEIRD mind is like the enclosure the calf is locked in to produce tender veal. LOL
Here is another thought to toss out. Despite the dominance of enclosure as social reality and mental metaphor, the West has always maintained some sense of an alternative, if sometimes only as a faint memory or inkling. Those feudal serfs and early modern landless peasants naturally kept turning back to communal identities, collective ways of organizing and acting. This was carried forward with the leftist tradition that focuses on not only the collective but also the systemic, holistic, and integral; the common, shared, and universal. Every protest movement is an irrepressible expression of this deep impulse for actively belonging.
So, even as we can speak of an enclosed self for modern WEIRD individuals, we aren’t all equally enclosed and equally attached to being enclosed. Many of us are constantly bucking against it, whether or not we understand what it is that is constricting us and chafing at our identity. Ernest Hartmann has the boundary model of self. Some people have relatvely thicker psychic boundareis and others thinner. It’s maybe unsurprising that the research shows that conservatives tend toward the thicker and liberals toward the thinner.
This is indicated in other research as well. Liberals tend to be more aware of, responsive to, and affected by what is in their environment. It’s much easier for conservatives to shut things out of their conscious perception. An example of this was a study where something like a nude picture was made to appear in the visual field of a subject. Conservatives were less likely than liberals to look at the nude picture or acknowledge it. But they indirectly showed that they had seen it in their peripheral (and less conscious) vision because their eyes would look all around the nude picture.
Therefore, it’s unsurprising that conservatives have so much more strongly identified with the propertied self and taken up capitalism realism as a central ideological pillar of their worldview. At a personal level, the strongly conservative-minded simply experience everything as being enclosed and bounded. It is hard for them to imagine anything else. This is why they are obsessed not only with hyper-individualism but also property, boundaries, and borders.
Property damage scares and enrages a conservative more than killing innocent children because property is the key metaphor. Individuals can be killed without risk to the social order, as along as the social order of individualism is maintained. Property is everything in this mindset. Property can exist even when people are killed but the individual loses all meaning, as does the entire social order, if property is eliminated. This is why conservatives can go ape shit over even the suggestion of ‘redistribution’.
The thinner and looser boundaries of the liberal mind seem dangerous. It is challenging the very self-reality that is enclosed, bounded, and propertied. So, when liberals show empathy toward blacks being brutalized by police, Iraqi children being killed by US soldiers, etc, this opening of the boundaries of self to include others in the circle of moral concern is a direct threat to maintaining group boundaries. That is what was so radical for someone like Thomas Paine to call himself a citizen of the world.
Paine stated that, “Independence is my happiness, and I view things as they are, without regard to place or person; my country is the world, and my religion is to do good.” His idea of ‘independence’ not only included others but necessitated the inclusion of others. That sense of ‘independence’ as Germanic ‘freedom’ is alien to the modern conservative mind. To emphasize his point, consider the response to Benjamin Franklin’s remark that, “Where liberty is, there is my country.” Paine replied, “Where liberty is not, there is mine.” To the thin boundary mind, self is defined by other.
You might recall the post where it was half-jokingly concluded that, we are all white liberals now. One of the points made was that, for the first time known in human existence, there is a large demographic with a pro-outgroup bias. Not only does the (white) liberal self include the other but defines itself by the other, where those different from the self are held qualitatively above those who are like the self. Damn! That is far beyond mere thin boundaries. The boundaries are so fraying as to become less clear. This is probably because the white liberal demographic has been so fully, intimately, and constantly immersed in the new media that creates a powerful experience of other within daily experience.
The self is becoming a complex topic. And the battles over defining it and controlling it will intensify. There are always boundaries to the self. But what is meant by thin and thick might have more to do with how large and expansive are those boundaries versus how narrow and restricted. The younger generation have higher rates of immigration, international travel, and foreign media consumption. The idea that the rest of the world is part of one’s identity comes more naturally to them. Still, there are always boundaries. Even in feudalism, there are boundaries as the commons was precisely defined by boundaries.
The question is what kind of boundaries. The traditional boundares of commons, tribal territory, etc were, of course, far from being boundless. Yet, in being communal and larger, they had a more natural openness even when they were clearly demarcated. Maybe they also made the self more easily seen and recognized. There was no rigid ego-consciousness to get trapped in a self-reflecting loop that cannot be seen out of, a claustrophibic inside that excludes the possibility of experience that outside that is excluded to the point that an ‘outside’ becomes a hypothetical social construct.
Like it or not, we are moving back toward more communal identities. Give it a generation or two or three. This will become the new norm and then conservatives will defend it as the then dominant ideological realism that will be perceived like it always existed. As done before, the reactionary mind will co-opt the rhetoric, invent traditions, and push revisionist history. One can predict that the strict propertied self was a mere point of transition. It simply was never stable and sustainable. But those of us born right in the middle of that brief moment can’t easily gain perspective on our situation. The outside perspective is not for us to have.
I think this is where the issue of missing concepts or “hypo cognition” becomes apparent as you point out in one of your posts, and since hyper-individualism is enforced in a collectivist way, the question becomes is this phenomenon an aberration of western culture and WEIRDly specific, or is it a natural next step in human development, because you have other competing collectivist narratives especially the one coming from China, or could the Chineses narrative be described as simply authoritarian with nothing new or interesting to offer the world.
I agree that we are committing slow mass suicide as a planet because of the greed and carelessness of a few at the top, while the moral majority doesn’t have the awareness of its collectivist existence, but rather its individuals embrace their separation from the group as their identity, when it is simply not possible to be an individual without a collectivist framework, we are like ants in our enclosed world predictably following the contours of what was constructed for us.
I’m not familiar enough with China to know. But nearly all societies in the modern world have been Westernized to some extent. That is the situation where radical imagination has been crippled. Any alternatives that haven’t been entirely genocided or assimilated have typically been to varying degrees Westernized.
China seems to basically be another capitalist society at this point with a growing middle class and increasing individualism, if maybe a bit more along the lines of fascism. Large societies as exist now seem to necessitate complex collectivities. That is the irony of individualism as an ideal, since it is precisely collectivism that has increased as the dominant order.
But I do think there is something potentially real and valid within individualism. It isn’t merely a superficial identity bult on rhetoric and force. The recent book out on WEIRD societies does show some interesting patterns in genuine individualism or something akin to it, even if the individualistic rhetoric doesn’t fully capture what it actually is.
For example, the ego theory of mind posits a singular self that is consistent and coherent. The social science research does indicate that WEIRD people have internalized this ideology and to a greater degree act accordingly. In most societies, most people change their behavior depending on the situation. But WEIRD people are more likely to act the same way, no matter the situation or who they are relating to.
So, in a sense, they are really acting like individuals. And I must admit that I’ve internalized this ideology. I was taught/indoctrinated from a young age that to be inconsistent is to be hypocritical, morally weak, or somehow to be a failure or have a character flaw. It’s a demanding ideology and a bit strange. Many tribal people will entirely change their identities at times and across their lives.
Is this rigid self-control and unchanging consistency beneficial? It’s one of those attributes that comes at a high cost because maintaining those rigid boundaries is very exhausting. So, we compensate by drugging ourselves up with caffeine, nicotine, sugar, Ritalin, cocaine, meth, etc. But with these costs we gain a particular kind of self that is highly focused and productive, along with a certain kind of innovativeness.
Is this the only way to achieve such benefits? That is where it’s not clear to me. Or if not these benefits, maybe there are other benefits we are forfeiting. I get the sense that we gain one kind of innovativeness by crippling other areas of innovativeness. The rigid and authoritarian ideological realism shuts down radical imagination. We operate within extreme constraints. Our innovations, if impressive in some ways, are narrowly determined.
The problem is we don’t have much to compare against. There is no major surviving alternative that hasn’t been influenced by Western culture and isn’t tied into Western capitalism. But that was intentional, the desruction of all alternatives out of fear that something else might threaten the dominant paradigm. It wasn’t enough for Godwin to advocate individualism for he felt that those who preferred communalism should be punished restricted, and criminalized.
I’d be fine if individualism was simply one experiment among others. But individualism inherited it’s basic ideology from monotheism. There can only be one God, one self, one ideology — one ring to rule them all. That is the disease of this mentality, as opposed to the polytheistic style of the bundled mind that can allow multiple viewpoints simultaneously. The pagan Roman Empire, for example, prior to Christian dominance tolerated thousands of religions.
Hyper-individualism as psychological monotheism is problematic simply because it is so destructive. And once it destroys all alternatives, not only is there nothing left to compare against for there then is no escape. It’s ideological totalitarianism. And I’m not sure that even China has been able to maintain an alternative in its drive to become part of Western industrialized capitalism.
For whatever reason, there is something about individualism and the ego theory of mind that can’t allow for and tolerate any fundamental differences that are deemed a threat. Any alternative that holds itself aloof or becomes too successful has to be somehow destroyed, banned, or crippled. The communalist Hutterites are an example of this.
The Hutterites operate collective farms and have been among the most successful farmers in North America. But their individualistic farming neighbors feared their success and were jealous. So, they passed laws to limit how much land they could collectively own. Their more successful farming practices were effectively weakened to ensure their less effective neighbors could make more profit.
That same pattern has also been seen at the global level. I have a post about how the Cold War started. Stalin had no capacity or desire to attack the West, much less invade it and try to take over. In fact, he hoped to remain trading partners with Western countries after WWII. The CIA and other intelligence agencies knew the Soviets posed no threat, but there were Western elites who wanted to destroy the Soviets simply because they offered an alternative they perceived as an ideological threat.
There is a really ugly side to this. They forced the hand of Stalin by treating him as an enemy, even though he didn’t want to be one. Western powers early on decided they would amass a great number of nuclear weapons and genocidally wipe out the Soviets. It was going to be a total nuclear blitzkrieg. But the Soviets got nuclear technology and tested their own bombs. This stopped the Western attack. And so we had a long Cold War instead.
That is the whole history of the individualistic West. Unions must be busted or so restricted by laws as to be powerless. Native tribes must be forced to assimilate or be wiped from the face of the earth. Non-English languages of ethnic communities must be banned. Over and over again. It’s not that the ruling ‘individualists’ collectively attack and sometimes viciously destroy these communalist projects for failing but because they often succeed.
By the way, one might make another kind of distinction. Inividualism as the propertied self, abstract mind, and monotheistic psychology of extreme Jaynesian consciousness is a very specific and narrow kind of identity. Whether one sees the self as potentially developing or transforming, one isn’t limited to a choice between post-bicameral individualism and primitive group-mindedness. There is Carl Jung’s individuation and it is not the same as individualism, even sometimes interpreted as the death of the egoic self.
Then there are various integral theories of a different kind of self that might be possible that often draw upon both Western psychology and Eastern spirituality. Jean Gebser wrote of a transparent self, but I don’t fully understand what he meant by it. Ken Wilber, using Spiral Dynamics, refers to second tier and it has drawn much debate among integralists. One important point Wilber made was not confusing pre-consciousness with trans-consciousness, but that hardly clarifies in lived experience what that might mean in terms of a new self construct in society.
Wilber has briefly noted Julian Jaynes theory of the bicameral mind and the emergence of J-consciousness. Another integralist, William Irwin Thompson, has discussed Jaynes in greater detail along with E.R. Dodds, Eric Havelock, Marshall McLuhan, etc. Thompson is more of a bricoleur in his style, as opposed to Wilber’s systematizing of a grand theory of everything (TOE). But all these kinds of thinkers are pointing in similar directions about possible non-individualistic or trans-individualistic selves. Maybe there isn’t now and never was a single set of possibilities or a single line of development.
I’m reluctant to dismiss individualism as mere maldevelopment, mental illness, or whatever. But I’m also reluctant to hold it up as inherent to human nature, essential to society as we know it, and/or necessary as part of a path of progress and development. I see human nature as not a singular thing but as immense potential that can manifest in numerous ways. Individualism is the society we now have, whether or not it was an inevitability. So, one way or another, in this society, we have to accept it as our cultural inheritance and work from there.
The main advantage to individualism as Jaynesian consciousness is it does allow for a certain kind of flexible imagination and experimental attitude. After all, all of this talk we are doing right now is happening within Jaynesian consciousness. It also has its limits. But we have to work with it. Even if other kinds of selves and social orders had been possible at an earlier time in Western society, they were mostly obliterated and resurrecting them as possibilities won’t be easy. Our best option is to understand this Jaynesian consciousness from inside it to understand what it is not and what potentials within us it denies.
Yet, we should learn from Jaynesian consciousness what we can. There might be aspects of individualism that can be salvaged and repurposed toward new communal identies that are more integral and inclusive, more expansive and adaptive, not to mention happier and healthier. Even if the costs were high and maybe not always a fair exchange, much less sustainable, we did gain some scientific knowledge within that psycho-social project. I might argue our scientific might’ve been even greater if there had been allowed more tolerance of diverse approaches instead of totalitarian individualism, but nonetheless it’s the knowledge we got and we have to work with it. So, where might we go from here?
I added some text from another article. It’s actually the one that got me thinking about some of this even earlier, although it’s not about enclosure. The author focuses more on the general tumult of that era combined with an analysis of how it has been portrayed in modern media, specifically film and tv. Also, there is discussion about what relevance does it have to us now.
Here is one thing the author mentions in passing: “Sir Felim O’Neill, an Irish noblemen responsible for massacres of English and Scottish colonists during the Irish Rebellion of 1641. […] this period coincides with the peak of witch hunting in England.” That thought occurred to me independently and I had considered including it in the post somehow, but the post was already long and compolicated enough. Killing witches was likely the elimination of the last traditional bicameral voice-hearers from European society, a tradition that might have had an unbroken line going back to the tribal age of bicameralism and/or animism.
That was a period of witch-hunting and the destruction of the survivng practces of paganism with the end of Shakespeare’s Merry Olde England of the Elizabethan era. There were the ongoing effects of the Protestant Reformation, intrduction of punctuation in text, invention of moveable type printing presses, increasing literacy, and emergence of silent reading. As with the rest of Europe, much instability, conflict, violence, and radicalism erupted. Even in Britain, the English Civil War was just one of several during that century, sometimes referred to as Wars of the Three Kingdoms or simply the British Civil Wars.
The Glorious Revolution brought the monarchy back but asserted a new more powerful and centralized government that finally made the British Empire a serious player. The core of this new system of power was Parliament. But the new social order created in the 18th century couldn’t have happened if not for how the events and actions of the 17th century utterly decimated the old world and all that made it function. When ‘conservatism’ finally appeared in the post-revolutionary 19th century, there was barely anyone left to have the slightest living memory of tradtional culture, communites, and communal identity.
So, the reactonary minded pulled invented traditions out of their asses and dressed them up in modern rhetoric of the propertied self. But even then, it requred a very systematic cultural genocde of the lingering communal traditionalism that refused to stay dead. The bundled mind still keeps erupting back from the repressed to this very day, albeit so often in dysfunctional and fearful forms. We live in a time where enough of the populations stll remembers growing up in tight-knit rural communities (e.g., most black Americans were only majorty urbanized in the 1960s-1970s).
But once even that livng memory is gone, there will be less remaining to hold it all together. And the attraction to communal action like protests and riots will become stronger, since people will have fewer and fewer outlets for the communal impulse. If Americans don’t manage to find healthy ways to give this form, we risk becoming vulnerable to ever more dangerous demagogues and social dominators.
The witch hunting is not unlike the enclosure movement. They are various ways of eliminating the residual expressions and forms of the bicameral mind, voice-hearing, and archaic authorization. That was true going way back. Bicameral societies didn’t merely end at a single point to be replaced by something entirely different. Bicameralism lingered and, every time it was suppressed, it kept popping back up. The Old Testament has numerous passages describing the killing off of voice-hearers, either seeking them out to be gathered up and mass eliminated or even commanding parents to kill their own children if they heard voices. It was systematic and brutal.
The destruction of the bicameral mind didn’t happen once but was systematically ripped apart across several millennia, until we came to the point now that the bundled mind in any form seems alien to the modern individual. That is an almost awe-inspiring accomplishment. It’s probably the same reason Western powers repeatedly committed genocide and violently forced assimilation of indigenous people, as they represented still living proof of the bundled mind and communal identity. Even the smallest surviving tatter of a fading memory of that primal way of being and relating was a threat to be eliminated. The social construction and maintainance of the ideological realism of individualism is endless work and immensely tiresome, as Jaynes suggested, in how rigid ego boundaries require a lot of psychc energy —- leaving us modern individuals stressed, anxious, and depressed; always on edge and ready to attack every shadow as a potential enemy.
It’s so strange. One is forced to fall back on interpreting individualism as a mind virus, like rabies that compels the infected to attack and infect new victims in an endless victimization cycle of transgenerational trauma. What else could motivate people to afflict themselves and their loved ones with this unhappy state of affairs? There are huge costs to the modern individuality of the WEIRD extreme of Jaynesian consciousness. What do we get for all our efforts? A constant sense of debiltating mental dis-ease, overwhelming moral panic, and paranoid existential crisis that requires us to find sacrificial scapegoats to carry the load of psychic pain we can’t handle. This is why I’ve been feeling particularly intolerant toward false equivalence, in asserting there is no difference between those who defend the system of authoritarian violence and those who fight against it, since in both cases it almost inevitably results in violence because the whole society is built on violence.
I must say that, as typically is the case, part of me is motivated by pure intellectual curiosity. Take away the piercing critcisms and harsh condemnations. The topic taken from a neutral perspective remains just as compelling. It’s not hard to imagine the view from a distant future historian or a visiting alien anthropologist. There is something plain amazing about how social constructonism/constructivism works in a real world example like this. But what really makes it so fascinating is that those early thinkers were so open about their agenda. They directly spoke of their plan to reshape society and identity, in a way no present conservative would ever admit to.
The first time I became interested in this kind of thing was in reading Corey Robin’s take on Edmund Burke. Early modern figures like Godwin and Burke are useful, partly because they show how closely linked are revolution and counterrevlution, progressive and reactionary. Both of them were generally interested in reform in their aspirations to dramatically change the world, but they also expressed proto-conservatism. They demonstrate how conservatism had a radical edge right from the start. In looking at these founding texts of modern ideological thought, we can see certain impulse and patterns in a more raw form, not yet so dressed up and disguised. Reactionary rhetoric was initially more blunt and honest, less saavy and clever.
It does seem strange that all of this gets so little attention. Few historians, political scientists, economists, social scientists, etc look deeply into these original texts — not only dig into them deeply but take them at face value and then dissect the detals, partcularly the seemng inconsistencies or gaps. That is what attracted me to Robert Anderson’s article. He was trying to make sense of Godwin’s reform project, as a serious endeavor that made sense within the context of the time and what was going on. His repeated use of land, farming, and property metaphors was not accidental or incidental, not merely pretty words. It represented the rhetorical framing of a totalizing ideological worldview that was meant to be enacted.
My dissatisfaction is that, however worthy is the work of those like Anderson and Robin, they lack broader knowledge in not bringing in other angles and insights from anthropology, linguistic relativity, philology, consciousness studies, etc. That is what makes Jaynes more impressive as he brought so much together, but the scholarship of others is also powerful: E. R. Dodds, Bruno Snell, Eric Havelock, Walter J. Ong, and Marshall McLuhan. The opposite problem is true for those scholars, though, in that they rarely, if ever, link their studies to the modern world. The only one of them that does succeed in that manner is McLuhan, although some of the others may have work I’m not familiar with.
For all they get dismissed, some of the postmodernist thinkers do offer briliant insight to the world that has developed. I’m specifically thinking of Michel Foucault’s biopolitics. He shows how structural and ideological systems are developed, altered, and repurposed. An example of that was the plague houses that, as plague receded, became insane asylums. The structures were already built and, instead of abandoning them, they needed to be given an alternative rationalization. Foucault, similarly but differently from Karl Marx, understood how controllng the physical world and sociaopolitical institutions allowed for control of mind, behavior, and identity. But as far as I know, Foucault didn’t see how all of it connected back to the ancient and archaic worlds.
I want to make these connections, but it can be a lot of work. I see this whole other field of study with diet and nutrition as it relates to mental illness and diseases of civilization, besides metabolic syndrome (obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc), such as increasing rates of schizophrenia, psychosis, autism, mood disorders, etc. Then there is the whole psychoactive substance topic, not only hard drugs but also how simple things like caffeine and refined sugar when heavily used over a lifetime iight be able to alter thought, perception, and behavior. I wish there were more people bringing all of this together.
How can more people, including scholars, not see this webbed pattern of connections? There is no way individualism could’ve been possible without numerous factors that forcefully restructure the human psyche and physiology, not to mention restructuring the entire world around us. Individuality simply could not operate without carefully constructed conditions. So much investment and effort goes into this collective project and yet it’s treated as if invisible, uninteresting, or even non-existent. Yet it’s all around us in every area of our lives and experience. Most of us are completely blind to how weird it all is because it’s all we’ve ever known and because we lack the conceptual terminology (hypocognition) to comprehend it and talk about it.
That is why I turned to some technical terms in this piece. I realied they could be a bit offputting. And I also reallize I may be using them imperfectly. These are things I only know about from my own reading, not having studied any of itin college or whatever. I pick up such words as they seem useful and I try to grasp their meaning. There is one word I used that I felt less confident in using in this context was ‘affordance’. I was wondering if these socially constructed artifacts can, once social constructivism has created the expected behavioral-identity patterns, be treated as affordances. A natural affordance is how a squirrel doesn’t see a tree but simply a way up. The squirrel doesn’t need to understand abstract treeness nor have any complex notion of object constancy.
But artificial things can be affordances as well. We humans rarely see the door handles we grab and the doors we walk through. All we perceive is a way out. This seems to speak to the automatic behavior of consciousness that Jaynes and others talk about. The extension of that thought is what if entire structured environments can act like affordances. Think of the planned out network of streets, sidewalks, etc. We rarely see these things as we use them for we are so focused on simply getting somewhere and paying attention to everything else around us. The interesting part to consider is every time we drive down a street and walk down a sidewalk, the pattern of behavior becomes a pattern of thought that we carry with us and carry over into other activities.
An example of this are the Australian Aboriginal Songlines. They are part of the natural structure of the landscape but have become built into the superstructure of culture, behavior, relationships, knowledge, mythology, psychological states, and on and on. The whole system as a hyper-object becomes an affordance. There is no requirement to think about any of it while invoking and enacting the ideological worldview. It becomes part of one’s entire identity. This is demonstrated by how Aborigines can travel these Songlines in imagination alone, by their soul traveling the mythological system. The Songlines become a space in which thought can happen, differently than the internalized space of Jaynesian consciousness but maybe serving related purposes.
When land is enclosed and bounded, all those patterns of thought, cultue, and identity are disrupted. And after a few generations, the living memory is gone and they are permanently destroyed. The way of being necessitates these socially constructed artifacts as ideological affordances. So, that was a thought I had or something like that, but I’m not entirely sure about it. I don’t know how far the conceptual term of ‘affordances’ can be stretched in this manner. It is an interesting way of thinking and seems useful. Anyway, it points to how we humans actually operate in the world may be very differently than is explained by our ideological belief systems and folk psychology.
Our own motivations are largely opaque within our own minds and perception. All social constructions, affordances or otherwise, are powerful because they are rarely seen. That is the whole point of what conservatives call moral imagination and what I’ve explored through symbolic conflation. The power of a spirit in possessing us is in it not being named. But that is precisely what I want to do, to go around handing out names, to identify the ruling archons of our age and bind them with an opposing word magic, to break the spell. I want to analytically rip the clothing from Burke’s imaginary queen and peer upon her nakedness — the horror of horrors! That is my humble aspiration.
“The core of [J.J.] Gibson’s theory of perception is that we don’t perceive objects and don’t operate cognitively in terms of representations. What we perceive, what any animal perceives, are what Gibson terms affordances.
“Squirrels don’t see trees, represent them internally, and calculate how to climb them. What they see is something more immediate and more action-oriented than that. They see a way up. That way up, the thing Gibson says they really see, isn’t an object, but an affordance.
“We don’t see a door hinge to the right, a knob, and calculate that we can get out of the room by turning the knob. We see something much more immediate and much more action-oriented than that. We see a way out. That way out isn’t an object, but an affordance. For Gibson, a mind in the world operates in terms of those performances…”
From the last link in the above comment, I forgot much of what I wrote there. It does fit into my thoughts in this post. There are a bunch of posts like these where I keep coming at the the same set of themes but from slightly new direction each time and adding further links. My blogging project is a large and growing thought-web. Anyway, here is the beginning from that post, “…just order themselves” — in spite of our human complexity, we act like ants in our enclosed world predictably following the contours of what was constructed for us:
“Crespo then points to a passage (from The Sciences of the Artificial), ending with this conclusion: “We watch an ant make his laborious way across a wind- and wave-molded beach. He moves ahead, angles to the right to ease his climb up a steep dune let, detours around a pebble, stops for a moment to exchange information with a compatriot. […] It is a sequence of irregular, angular segments — not quite a random walk, for it has an underlying sense of direction, of aiming toward a goal. […] He has a general sense of where home lies, but he cannot foresee all the obstacles between. He must adapt his course repeatedly to the difficulties he encounters and often detour uncrossable barriers. His horizons are very close, so that he deals with each obstacle as he comes to it; he probes for ways around or over it, without much thought for future obstacles. It is easy to trap him into deep detours. Viewed as a geometric figure, the ant’s path is irregular, complex, hard to describe. But its complexity is really a complexity in the surface of the beach, not a complexity in the ant.” That is to say behavior exists within environmental constraints. A simple but profound observation. And often forgotten.”
It occurred to me where my own intellectual project fits in the best. In the end, I’m essentially an integral theorist.
I have read a lot of Ken wiilber’s work. And I’m also somewhat familiar with other integralists like Jean Gebser. But my wide range of interests and loose bricoleur style of making connections (strong MBTI Ne: Extraverted iNtutition) puts me more in comparison to William Irwin Thompson.
It’s maybe unsurprising that Thompson is the only integralist I’m aware of who has shown any detailed appreciation for the scholarly crowd of Jaynes, Dodds, Snell, Mcluhan, etc. Maybe I need to read more of Thompson’s work, as he has several books and many other published witings. I’ve only so far sampled a small part of his oeuvre.
I was just now reading again about the 1381 English Peasants’ Revolt. It reminded me of how pivotal was that moment. There had been the Hundreds Year War that led to increased taxes and Black Death that killed a third of the population. To worsen things, there was famine, the leadership in London was weakened, and there was much instability. So many laborers had died that large numbers of villages were abandoned.
The sudden demand for labor gave peasants increased freedom and bargaining power. But it generally wasn’t a happy time and the masses were restless. When it was attempted to force payment of taxes, revolt was incited. The peasants challenged near-slavery serfdom and villeinage, demanded rent control, refused to pay poll taxes, and sought higher wages or in some cases wages at all.
One could see that as a point of rupture, the death knell of feudalism, even if it would take centuries longer to fully end. That was the same century when began the first enclosures, probably related to all of the abandoned lands, but there was no enclosure movement at the time and the government certainly wasn’t encouraging enclosure. Feudalism was still fully established.
Maybe everything could have settled back to normal if not for the increasing use of punctuation already going on, the 1450 invention of the movable type printing press, and the Protestant Reformation of the early 1500s, combined with the Renaissance. Maybe the communal identity had already been mortally wounded at that point. The peasants would never again be as submissve as they once were after they had a taste of class war and radical ideology.
In response, the ruling elite realized the feudal order was precarious, ever threatening potential revolt. Then the English Civil War essentally was a second peasants revolt and far worse than the last one. To have the king captured and beheaded would’ve shaken faith in feudalism to maintain social order to benefit those in power. Increasing individualism and capitalism was maybe a wedge into an already fracturing society.
If we consider the centuries of preceding social conflict, class war, and political radicalism, how did feudalism have any chance at survival. Still, the communal identity was so deeply embedded within the human psyche, going back millennia. How did individualism manage to gain such a powerful foothold for the first time in human existence at that precise moment if it wasn’t caused by literacy and silent reading?
I’m stiill trying to understand why dd it happen right then and not before? There had been many points of conflict and challenge over the centuries and millennia. It’s like looking at the severe environmental destruction in the late Bronze Age. Would those empires have collapsed like dominoes if their social structure wasn’t already weakened and impaired because the bicameral system wasn’t designed for such large, complex societies?
The 1300s was also the beginning of the Little Ice Age as part of what some call the longue durée. That caused major shifts and consequences. But it just seems like no single factor alone could explain such totalizing transformation in a few centuries. Was it a perfect storm of conditions where no single factor alone might have been significant enough to have a major impact?
After all that, heading into early modernity, why were elites like William Godwin so determined to enforce individualism? He had nothing personal to gain from it. But the idea of individualism had possessed elite thinkers like him. Just because the social order had been destabilized doesn’t explain why specifically hyper-individualistic capitalism was seen as the replacement for feudalism. There were numerous possibilities for a new social order. Why did those specific ideas take hold? Was there something about them that made them particularly infectious mind viruses?
Fascinating. Thank you.
It is fascinating. Some speak of the General Crisis during the 17th and 18th centuries. Yet consider that the Little Ice Age lasted from 1303 to 1860. As an alternative to the American Revolution, some describe the English Civil War (British Civil Wars, War of Three Kingdoms) as the first modern revolution, but others instead suggest the English Peasants Revolt with the first signs of not only radical politics and egalitarian rhetoric but class war and labor organizing. All of those candidates for the first modern revolution happened during the Little Ice Age. Maybe the General Crisis should be broadened and the starting point pushed back by a few centuries.
It’s probably not a coincidence that modern individualism was arising at the same time as modern class identity. That goes to show us that these weren’t mere changes being forced from above by elites. During the English Civil War, the peasants were already making explicit demands for ‘liberty’, more than 4 centuries before the American Revolution. Listening to the words of those early radicals and failed revolutionaries, one can clearly discern a proto-liberalism and proto-leftism, and it was surprisingly well articulated and even blunt at times if incohate as ideological systems. Still, throwing out these historical factoids and descriptions feels like a non-explanation, similar to rationalizing away the enclosure movement as mere greed.
One might argue that, in some ways, all of this was simply the continuing reverberations of the Axial Age resulting from the collapse of Bronze Age civilization and the breakdown of the bicameral mind. It’s true that the precursor of so much that later developed can be found in the Axial Age. Our entire civilization was founded in that historical moment. But is that really that is all that’s going on? If the general pattern had already been initiated about 3 millennia ago, why did it suddenly erupt with such fierceness in late feudalism in unleashing the totalizing transformation that we now refer to as ‘modernity’? There had been many previous periods of violence, conflict, instability, etc that didn’t elicit such mass changes. Even punctuation had been introduced far earlier, if it took a while to gain wide usage and wasn’t standardized until the movable type printing press. So, the potential conditions for the development of an inner voice had been taking shape for a while, but obviously it didn’t become common and take hold until that later period.
Sure, the Little Ice Age probably helped push things along. Yet, unlike in the late Bronze Age, it didn’t cause collapse. Quite the opposite, it impelled what came to be thought of as ‘progress’ and helped create an obsession with ‘progress’. Not that it felt much like progress to most people, even during the early Enlightenment. Nonetheless, there was a demand for change. Those 14th century pesants were not satisfied with the status quo. But even then, they weren’t seeking to destroy the communal identity, as all or at least most of their demands could be perceived as communal in nature, which is what gives their rhetoric such a leftist flavor. It wasn’t until the Enlightenment that there was explicit advocacy of individualism. And it wasn’t until shortly after that when elites like Godwin were pushing individualism as socio-political project through an intentional and active plan to destroy, decimate, and dismnatle the old communal identities and any communal impulse, particularly among the plebeians and proletariat.
As another possible framework, one could point to the development of colonial empires. That changed the context of everything. But isn’t it strange that the colonial empires only took form specifically when the Little Ice Age was at it’s height? Why didn’t the new global trade networks of colonial imperialism develop in early feudalism? Why didn’t the enclosure movement gain full aristocratic and government support in early feudalism? Why did no class-based peasants’ revolts with radical rhetoric happen in early feudalism? Stating that something happened at a particular time and in a particular order compared to other things doesn’t explain why it happened then and in that way, much less explain why it resulted in another particular ideological system. We live in a world of immense possibilities. Why this result and not another? Or are we reading too much into it all? Are such events random agents of uncertainty that so easily could’ve tipped in numerous other directions if, at any number of pivotal points, the winds had been blowing slightly different that day?
I had another related thought. I mentioned that modern individualism and modern class identity were taking shape during the same period of the Long General Crisis framed by the Little Ice Age. But that is also when developed other large identities such as race and ethno-nationalism. The only psychologically compelling larger identity that existed in early feudalism was religion.
Prior to modernity, the elite (aristocracy and monarchy) typically identified with other elite, even those from other countries (as defined by ancestral descent and marriage), as opposed to identifying with their own countrymen. And the lower classes tended to have very localized identities related to their village, parish, region, etc. Class distinctions were concretely perceived as separate breeding populations of different species or even different animals. It was a proto-racism in the form of a caste system where everyone was defined by the condition into which they were born.
All of these are more abstract identities, although incipient class identity obviously kept much of the communal dirt on its roots. Even to this day, oftentimes class identity in real world experience and practice gets defined by organic social relationsips, such as the labor organizing in specific communities, particularly as seen among the tight-knit ethnic communities during the heyday of early 20th century leftist politics. And that has been what has made class-based populism so easily manipulated with racism and xenophobia.
About the abstract part of modern identities, that was one of the many things that first popped up in the Axial Age. There was the emergence of abstract thought was simply not seen before that time. But abstract thought remained an attribute of the educated elite and was even relatively rare among them. What some consider ancient proto-racism was not perceived by modern ideas of genetics but environment, such that anyone growng up in the same environment would presumably develop the same traits, no matter one’s ancestry.
Once abstract thought became common enough to form large collective identities, they still tended to carry forward large parts of the former concrete communal identities. But individualism was different in being the most abstract identity and the only one that was directly anti-communal. The odd part about individualism as a sociopolitical project was that it only could be enforced collectively through government, church, and other large institutions of power.
Individualism is not only a product of extreme abstraction for, in the egoic-mind, it has become abstracted from its own origins. It initially tells the story of pulling itself up by its own bootstraps, and then it throws the bootstraps away and claims it has always been floating in the air through its own superior volition. This is the essentially schizoid nature of the modern egoic-mind and so what makes it easy prey for the reactionary and demagogic.
This ideological realism comes to rationalize our modern society that is more collectivist and totalitarian than traditional communal cultures. Individualism is collectivism, as libertarianism is authoritarianism. Maybe the threat Godwin, Burke, etc saw in the communalism, group organizing, and eollective actions of the landless peasants was precisely that they were arising organically rather than being enforced and controlled from above by abstract ideology.
For all his complaints, maybe Burke was never against abstract ideology. As I’ve suggested, he might’ve been projecting his own tendencies onto others, such as the French Revolutionaries. Whatever one thinks of the Jacobins like Robespierre, one could argue that Burke was more similar to them than different. Both Burke and Robespierre descended from the upper classes, whereas Thomas Paine as an enemy of both was raised in the laboring class. Burke may have wanted to hide his preferred abstractions with moral imagination, but he was no friend of the older communal identities that persisted among the commoners.
All of this demonstrates a difference that makes a difference. Class identity was abstract to a degree as well, but it was maintaining a continuation to the traditional past. Capitalist individualism (as propertied self, possessive subjectivity), on the other hand, was a complete refutation of traditionalism and a complete rupture from the past. So, what the emerging new communal ways of relating and organizing were demonstrating was that the abstract mind, as it took hold, didn’t have to treat the past as an enemy to be destroyed but could build upon it.
If that was true, then the total decimation of the commons through the enclosure movement was not an inevitability. We could imagine a modernity having developed that had all the advantages of the abstract mind but moderated it by maintaining the communal impulse and redirectng it. That has basically been the aspiration of leftism ever since the English Peasants’ Revolt, the attempt to reimagine communalism for large complex societies and so to remake communalism according to the egalitarian values that first appeared in the Axial Age.
That then leaves the challenge of elitism. As noted, even during feudalism, the aristocracy and monarchy came to increasingly see themselves as separate from the peasants, although early feudal elite had been more identified with local places and people. What caused the elite to grow so disconnected. That is still the problem we face today, as the lower classes are forced to deal with the problems at the local level that are created by elites at the national and international levels.
The elite talk about individual responsibility while being the greatest beneficiaries of collectivism. The fact of the matter is that, one can easily argue, capitalism is more collectivist than was feudalism. So, for all of the high-minded ideological projects of destroying the communal in order to replace it with the individual, the fundamental change has been superficial in terms of identity. The elite continue to think and act collectively, but its a distorted and dysfunctional collectivism. The enclosure movement simply replaced the organically communal with the abstractly collective.
The elite, however, can’t see this. Are we simply to treat this as a mental disease? Like in the past, such diseases of civilization take old among the elite first. But the rest of us can’t simply scapegoat the rich because, as history proves, the diseases of the rich trickle down. We are all increasingly being inected by the mind virus of collectivist individualism and so increasingly falling under the power of libertarian authoritarianism. It’s a real mindfuck! That is all the more reason to grasp what was going on with the enclosure movement. Much is at stake in our attempt to understand.