Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Nature, Nurture, Nihilism

From early in the second volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard's real-time memoir-novel My Struggle:
"...somewhere about Bergman claiming that he would have been Bergman irrespective of where he had grown up, implying, in other words, that you are whoever you are whatever your surroundings. What shapes you is how you are toward your family rather than the family itself. When I was growing up I was taught to look for the explanation of all human qualities, actions, and phenomena in the environment in which they originated. Biological or genetic determinants, the givens, that is, barely existed as an option, and when they did they were viewed with suspicion. Such an attitude can at first sight appear humanistic, inasmuch as it is intimately bound up with the notion that all people are equal, but upon closer examination it could just as well be an expression of a mechanistic attitude to man, who, born empty, allows his life to be shaped by his surroundings. 
For a long time I took a purely theoretical standpoint on the issue, which is actually so fundamental that it can be used as a springboard for any debate--if environment is the operative factor, for example, if man at the outset is both equal and shape-able and the good man can be shaped by engineering his surroundings, hence my parents' generation's belief in the state, the education system and politics, hence their desire to reject everything that had been, and hence their new truth, which is not found within man's inner being, in his detached uniqueness, but on the contrary in areas external to his intrinsic self, in the universal and collective, perhaps expressed in its clearest form by Dag Solstad, who has always been the chronicler of his age, in a text from 1969 containing his famous statement "We won't give the coffee pot wings": out with spirituality, out with feeling, in with a new materialism, but it never struck them that the same attitude could lie behind the demolition of old parts of town to make way for roads and parking lots, which naturally the intellectual Left opposed, and perhaps it has not been possible to be aware of this until now, when the link between the idea of equality and capitalism, the welfare state and liberalism, Marxist materialism and the consumer society is obvious because the biggest equality creator of all is money, it levels all differences, money is the most natural shaper, and this gives rise to the fascination phenomenon whereby crowds of people assert their individuality and originality by shopping in an identical way while those who once ushered all this in with their affirmation of equality, their emphasis on material values and belief in change, are now inveighing against their own handiwork, which they believe the enemy created,  but like all simple reasoning this is not wholly true either, life is not a mathematical quantity, it has no theory, only practice, and though it is tempting to understand a generation's radical rethink of society as being based on its view of the relationship between heredity and environment, this temptation is literary and consists more in the pleasure of speculating, that is, of weaving one's thoughts through the most disparate areas of human activity, than in the pleasure of proclaiming the truth... 
It is not the case that we are born equal and that the conditions of life make our lives unequal, it is the opposite, we are born unequal, and the conditions of life make our lives more equal. 
A dimmer view is that now we are born unequal and the conditions of life make our lives more unequal. Laissez faire culture, like a laissez faire economy, magnifies inequality by removing barriers. Society is defined by barriers. Society, in one form or other, persists wherever there is more than one of us. If our whole system of law and custom vanished today a whole new regime would spring up, in all likelihood crueler and vastly more limiting. True chaos among people hasn't time to form before the strong impose their will.

Montaigne's On Vanity:
"...human society holds and is knit together at any cost whatever. Whatever position you set men in, they pile up and arrange themselves by moving and crowding together, just as dissimilar objects, put in a bag without order, find of themselves a way to unite and fall into place together, often better than they could have been arranged by art. King Philip collected a rabble of the most wicked and incorrigible men he could find, and settled them all in a city he had built for them, which bore their name. I judge that from their very vices they formed a political system among themselves and a workable and regular society.
Society is defined by the limits it places on us. We carry on as if we're arguing over the nature of the world, as if upon answering that question definitively all would fall into place, when all contention is really about what kind of world we want to live in. What kind of world should we strain to produce.
Over the nature and extent of the restraints we will place on ourselves. Until technology's grim promise of liberation from society and its constraints comes to fruition by leaving us universally atomized (and still not free, or with the dread awareness freedom without community is not all it's cracked up to be), this fight will go on. But a prejudice against rules leaves us with the misconception that the fewer the rules the freer the world.

Money is both a great equalizer and de-equalizer: with its acquisition the able, or at least cunning, man can level traditional barriers of class and possibility, but this process has left us more stratified than ever by wealth--and the liberty wealth buys. We have now, with the "one percent" a class of the transcendentally wealthy. Knausgaard's point about money above is that money allows us all to buy into a cultural equality. Money is liberty, in that sense, and it's a liberty we use to purchase a mediocre conformity.

 Liberty is the greatest de-equalizer of all: just for one example, freed of restraints of morality and marriage, the sexual landscape is shifting to one where alpha males monopolize women (made more submissive in their sexual liberation) and betas retreat to internet porn and video games. And liberty is also an equalizer in Knausgaard's sense that money is: witness how much those who see themselves expressing their individuality with tattoos and piercings become part of one gloomy mass, indistinguishable.

The relative immutability of our genetic nature--in which I believe--does not mean necessarily that Knausgaard's Bergman would have been Bergman wherever he had grown up. Bergman, more to the point the life-expression of Bergman with which we are concerned, his work, would have had to take the course determined by the limitations of his environment. Bergman born before film would be a very different Bergman, obviously, but there are countless other variations that might have been imposed by a different social environment. And it isn't just the great artists whose success we would have lost to an alternate world, it's the "great" artists, liberated and empowered in the world we have, that we could have been spared: would the lack of a thousand contemptuous, spitting rappers be truly a lack?

In this world of confusion--not just about the unequal weight of heredity and environment but about what it means--we have the absurdity of the anti-Trump resistance, funded by global capitalists, working through the CIA, preaching democracy while pulling out all the stops to subvert it. And it isn't clear that even those at the highest levels, orchestrating it all, are aware of the contradiction.

Society is going to bend us to its will, one way or the other. Our angst is the strain between our "natural" selves and our selves that society demands of us. We all seek to escape or lessen that strain however we can, without knowing it.

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