Posted: December 26, 2010 in Blogosphere, Culture, Debate, Philosophy

Longstanding tensions between the most perfect freedom of the individual and restraints on him or her for the good of society are the subject of a long philosophical and political history. At some of the blogs I read, debates have sparked considerable participation, but the perspectives are not drawn from the sociological and political realms. Instead, perspectives draw strongly on technology, media forms, and to a lesser degree, aesthetics. So while strictly political debate rages in other fora (which typically churn the waters but settle nothing), those to which I attend appear to be interested in understanding ourselves, even if only provisionally.

A most interesting discussion occurred at Text Patterns where the blogger has written a series of posts examining Clay Shirky’s various assertions, the principal ones being about the Wiki effect, crowd sourcing, and the wisdom of crowds, all of which are techno-Utopian and collectivist in character. Neither the blogger nor the commentators have really settled the matter, but there are many interesting contributions.

In contrast, at Vulgar Morality, where I have been a frequent commentator, the blogger frames, reframes, then states and restates his central thesis that the sovereignty of the individual with respect to self-determination and free agency is the central feature of moral philosophy. He frequently paints the proverbial everyman in valiant struggle against elites of one stripe or another who seek to exploit and/or control everyone not already within the oligarchical class.

I stumbled across the issue in my nonfiction reading as well, such as in the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu and in The Age of Oprah by Janice Peck. Taoist philosophy is beautiful in its understatedness and balance, whereas postmodern individualism is crass and banal. For example, Ch. 19, para. 1 (and elsewhere) of the Tao Te Ching exhorts the follower of the Tao to eschew wisdom and learnedness to avoid causing others embarrassment by inadvertent comparison. This mindfulness of one’s influence on others and the social good derived from downplaying one’s own erudition stands in start contrast to the very modern notion of creating a personal brand and networking the hell out of everyone in ongoing, brazen self-promotion. Seeing how Taoism is borne of a peasant society and naturalist worldview that no longer exist, we are all stuck (for now) with postmodern individualism.

In The Age of Oprah, Peck’s historical synopsis of the therapeutic enterprise in Ch. 2 offers that ever since the development of psychology in the late 1800s, various forms of therapy for supposed mental dysfunction have arisen and been replaced with newer forms as culture and scientific research update and refine notions of mental health. The importance of changing cultural influence might surprise some. According to the author, Oprah coopted a wave of New Age, self-help gurus from the 1980s and early 90s when she changed the emphasis of her talk show from being one of the so-called Trash Pack to being one of neofeminist therapy, self-help, and uplift.

Although Peck does not say this, the really interesting thing to me is that while the therapeutic enterprise from its beginnings promised various types of self-actualization, freedom, and individualism, the underlying impulse was always normative, which is to say, collectivist. What passes for effective individualism is to be subsumed into the dominant culture, mostly as an effective unit of productivity and consumption (a worker and consumer, no longer a citizen). Certain outliers who achieve success through adept manipulations and a large dose of luck are granted true freedom by virtue of their iconoclasm, financial power, and celebrity, but the rest of us succeed only insofar as we avoid attracting too much attention to ourselves and our uniqueness. After all, everyone knows that the powers that be can turn our lives into a world of hurt through arbitrary, baseless accusations and disinformation campaigns, or if we’re really unlucky, being reclassified as domestic terrorists for our temerarious thought-crimes.

  1. SleeplessB0x says:

    Excellent, I re-blogged this and saved a copy to a local file on my computer. You speak of things that I have often thought about, yet until I read your post I had no idea that my ideas aren’t mine. I did not glean them from other people or from another source, my only thought is they are commonsense and instinctual; for those of us that are not so modernized we can no longer hear the whisper of our own subconscious.

    There is a lot to consider, more to elaborate on, and a ton to swallow. I look forward to your future posts and I have made it my mission to be able to write as eloquently as you do.

    With so much to say and no idea how to say it — it’s almost as if I need someone to speak for me or translate my vague Neuroquantisential Philosophy into something that other people who have no interest in expanding the mind, learning, knowledge. Can not only grasp, but something that grasps them and allows them to consider the possible choices they DO have, instead of living out the one choice forced on them for lack of obvious alternative.

    You should check out my blog, sadly I am not motivated to write every day or I have an idea write half of it and then blank. But it’s an attempt — I want to reach people, help them realize there is far more to life than the narrow scope withing which most of us live. That and spelling and grammatically it’s probably horrid. But I am sure I make some points that are at the very least thought provoking.

    It was a pleasure reading your post, thank you. Good Journey

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your generous comment. I don’t usually get raves and admiration. Those responses usually go to blogs of famous people with lots of traffic. But hey, I’ll take it.

      The experience of hearing/reading someone else give voice to thoughts and ideas I thought I originated is pretty familiar. We are part of a philosophical and sociological continuity whether we admit or recognize it, so many of the same themes and ideas spring from multiple sources. Somebody almost always gets to the good stuff before you or me, so don’t fret.

      My intellectual and philosophical preoccupations are many, but the principal one is mind, soul, identity, consciousness, or whatever the kids are calling it these days. Some believe they have it all figured out but I insist no one does. We’re all still groping in the dark about it, though some of us can perhaps shed some light on a few corners.

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