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Not Only Revolutions: Sociology After Society

Amanda Elledge

How many centuries have we now traveled together; this race of ours, this civilization?

The eras we pass through do not burn around us as flames, blasting us into the future, but accumulate around our feet like mulching leaves as we walk through the lonely forest of history. As the seasons pass, decay and growth intermingle like twisting vines. All the while we stumble, like children in a fairy tale, searching for a way through, never growing older, never discovering a way home. We retrace our steps, follow the same path twice, fall upon new ways that lead us back in circles to where we started. In moments of loneliness and desperation, sometimes nature herself seems to speak to us, offering condolences, tantalizing us with an appearance of purpose, but it never takes long for such hallucinations to fade, no matter how forcefully at times we feel they speak to us.

Society inhabits not the realm of history but of archetype, of subterranean fairy tales. The characters of history are leaders, states, parties, armies, empires. Society is none of these things, but rather an abstraction possessing a different kind of reality, one belonging to the twilight domain of concepts, categories and ideas. It is this character we will now follow; it is his fate we anxiously observe, as he lumbers blindly through the petrified forest of civilization, as history changes like the seasons along his meandering and eternal journey toward self-consciousness.

Underlying the development of our concepts is the logic of psychic development, of Logos. The prehistory of every concept is lost in a haze where the category and the objects it categorizes are fused in a confused awareness. Our minds have not yet begun to work through them, to purify the concept from all the real things that fall under it. Gradually, upon reflection, the haze begins to clear, the mind turns upon the concept itself to try to discover its essence apart from reality. Whether this is possible, and to what extent, is a question perhaps beyond our reach for the time being.

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I begin with this metaphysical digression to illustrate that ‘Society’ is, like all concepts big and small — from virtue to ‘gamers,’ from history and nature to ‘grunge rock’ and ‘lolicons’ — a concept all the same. It undergoes a process of mental derivation and development into an independent object of purified mental reflection. This reification, though similar in every case, is by no means guaranteed to occur. Some concepts possess little use value and are quickly forgotten. Some exist, perhaps for centuries or even millennia in their initial prehistoric twilight before exploding forth to dominate human mental energies.

‘Society’ is one of these latter concepts. It towers over modern history, at times seeming to threaten to consume the whole of our mutual existence. Material circumstances, the progression of technology, the accumulation of wealth, the spread of printing and literacy, the regularization of roads and post services, the development of communications: telegraph, raKdio, television, the Internet; all these factors demanded a deeper examination of human unity and collectivity. It became necessary to seek to decentralize tribal or state authority in order to weave together wider networks of participants semi-harmoniously. Not physical organization, but mental and spiritual organization. A modern mind needed to be discovered, even invented.

We have created a character we named Society, whose perspective we are encouraged to assume. Literature, especially the modern novel, allows us to ‘try on’ different perspectives, and out of these, a kind of synthetic perspective emerges, a meta-perspective. In this reading, History becomes a novel, and Society becomes the protagonist. In judging our own actions, individuals may assume the perspective of this character, this Society, to discern not just how our actions appear to others, but how they appear judged against the Comtean social consensus.

This process is perfected in journal writing, which, as a practice, is the bedrock of the modern mind. In journals, people record their lives, assuming this character Society is watching them, that in a way he has become the narrator of their lives, weaving the cold matter of everyday existence into a novel in which Society comes to know and judge us. Thus, we impose this perspective upon ourselves to tailor our decisions and actions so that we may appear in a more favorable light to Mr. Society.

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Because we live in a world of physical causes and immediate needs, we have endowed this concept with real power, insisting that we are to respond out of necessity to ideas, that through belief and imposition, such ideas become more than a virtual cause for us, and seem to bind us with the chains of physical necessity. But this self-imposition of Society as binding force functions as a phenomenological process, and is therefore limited in certain key respects by those laws that govern our thought. Namely, to turn Society into an object, one with a perspective and history all its own, requires definition, and therefore limitation of the concept. Nothing can have any existence for us without first attaining some degree of definiteness.

Limitation is the essence of existence; concepts contain or stand for all potential particulars that may be judged under them. The absolutely pure concept is by its very nature infinite, and therefore does not and cannot exist for us. Only by weeding out some of these potentials, and clearing away some of the underbrush, does a concept become definite enough for us to stand as an object. Here is where the trouble begins, as Society is, as an absolutely unconditioned concept, truly universal. But we never make it that far, due to the fundamental limitations of our minds, which require us to limit concepts for them to become definite psychic objects. This is the divergence point of all sociologies.

But what are these sociologies? Sociology is a discipline that possesses genuine merit, despite the tendency of so many to heap blame on its contemporary academic derivatives. What precisely sociology is, though, is difficult for many people to say. To put it simply, sociology is the study of the ‘spirit’ or ‘character’ of Society as an independent entity subject to analysis.

This study is the product of philosophical tendencies of the later 18th-century German idealist philosophy. It reflects the invention of the Weltgeist, the ‘world spirit,’ and the Zeitgeist, the ‘spirit of the age,’ terms which did not just encompass the relative material, economic and technological prosperity of a certain society. But more: its moral and philosophical outlook, its conscience, its ambitions, desires, preferences, norms and ideals. All these things taken together form a mental construct that can be dissected and anatomized.

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The rise of sociology in the wake of the emergence of the modern mind therefore seems natural and unavoidable. Sociology developed in the 19th century, following the ongoing process discussed above of the decentralization of social authority through the creation of ‘social perspective.’ Again, this is a result of the logical intellectual currents that underlay the development of a major concept like Society, as only when a concept is abstracted can it become self-conscious, through a theoretical comprehension of itself and its own ‘essence,’ whatever that may be.

It is at the precise moment when a concept reaches self-awareness that the infinite distance between pure concept and reality is felt. Human cognition is limited, requiring definition and limitation for something to be an object for our minds, but at the same time, final theoretical self-comprehension by the concept, of itself necessitates the grasping of the totally undefined essence of an idea.

This paradox is black uncertainty. Theory mounts higher and higher, trying to arrive at the most general, purely conceptual version of a thing, despairing in its inability to open its eyes wide enough to encompass the entire universe which dwells within each of our ideas. It is exactly when the theorist believes he has defined a thing upward enough to have arrived at the unconditioned version of it that he falls victim to our cognitive shortcomings. Namely, the belief that there are no such shortcomings.

All sociologies are thus doomed never to arrive at a proper object for their studies, and thus the field inevitably gives rise to schism over what factors truly constitute Society as a definite object. Occupation? Class? Blood? Soil? History? Each sociology must deal with all these factors, through the creation of an objective hierarchy, in which each believes it has discovered the fundamental essence of the pure and unconditioned concept of Society. It is in this proliferation that the nature of the problem is best illustrated. For every political ideology today there is a differently constituted Society, to which each believes we must all conform in order to achieve maximum social harmonization and organization. Each socio-ideology has diverged from the others at exactly the point described above.

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We see here as well the source of the revolutionary ambition of so many socio-ideologies, as each works to implant a specific conception of Society in the head of each citizen. In reality, this Society is a character, a construct, created as a perspective from which we can view ourselves in order to conform our behavior as public actors. Each man, like each theory, struggles at just the same point to constitute this perspective in a rational way, as conditioned by a hierarchy of physical and moral factors. It is this reality that the revolutionary finds most intolerable, and the purpose of every ideology, so conceived, is to mold the Society-Character we each aspire to conform to with a theoretically pre-established standard.

From this viewpoint, revolutionary terror assumes a horrific character of didacticism, as no body of law can mandate how the universal character to which the Society-perspective is attributed is mentally conceived by each individual. Only spiritual terror could ever hope to accomplish such a feat.

From the development of the concept of Society as a tool for the cultural organization of a majority-literate consuming public, to a study of scientific theory unto itself, to a source of revolutionary reorganization of human consciousness, Society has had a long and sordid career, a character of romances not unlike heroes such as Quixote or Gil Blas. But now the modern novel is drawing to a close. For thousands of pages it has kept us occupied and entertained, but Society is weak, is old, is frail, is delirious in bed with a fever and about to be written off the world-stage.

Some complain that Western civilization is doomed, others eagerly anticipate the imminent collapse of capitalism. But these perspectives are limited, ideological ones, ones that differ in the final purified conceptual Society around which they structure their own understanding of  social phenomena. It is fascinating that these disparate perspectives seem to agree that Society is coming to an end, while differing passionately over the meaning and value of that loss. More objectively, we might observe that it is the concept itself that is coming to an end, an end of its usefulness.

In what relation does Society stand to history? Is it something inexorably shaped by the multiplicity of factors which comprise the sum total of changes occurring constantly around us? Marx believed that through the ‘Revolution,’ the idea of society would become fully actualized and re-place the complex realities of existing social dynamics, to harmonize them completely. He believed that the material changes of history laid the foundation for this revolution, which he understood not as a physical one, but as a spiritual and mental transformation. The Idea of Society that he believed he had perfected in analysis would become the center of inter-subjectivity for the entire human race on a completely psychic level. The material accumulations of capitalism would make this change possible, but the spiritual revolution was ultimately an act of freedom on the part of humanity that they could choose to make or not make as it pleased them.

This was 150 years ago. It may be hard to accept, but the material transformation of capitalism has run its course. The Marxist revolutionary moment has completely passed. No revolution occurred. Only social democracy. We live in a socialist world, not a capitalist one, and that transformation transpired perhaps in much the same way that 19th-century socialists thought it would. Capitalism produced abundance, and the people created extensive democratic institutions to manage the investment of the surplus into publicly provided services and support. From a 19th-century perspective, outwardly, communism may have already happened. But what no one can deny is that it didn’t happen inwardly, that the spiritual transformation never got going.

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For Marx the abolition of private property and the division of labor was not the completion of socialism; the completion of socialism was the implantation of his logically perfected model of Society as a universal mental arbitrator employed by all mankind. There would simply be no social distinctions, or ranks, or discord. It would be impossible. Everyone would have the universal rule-set imprinted in their souls. Everyone would observe themselves through the eyes of a society that had come into complete self-comprehension. Because there would no longer be confusion about what Society would say in any given situation, conflict would wither away all by itself.

The concept of Society would be perfected into a universal traffic director that would objectively mitigate competing interests so that they would cease to exist, as all would assent to its perspective as a consequence of the rational perfection which had been scientifically achieved in the formation of a final hierarchy of factors and values. Private property would not be abolished, it would become obsolete, and material wealth as accumulated capital would form the basis of a completely free society where everyone become completely reconciled to Society’s perspective on them.

But what is all this to say? Since 1789, the concept of revolution has presupposed a mental process by which man attempted to arrive at the logical working out of his concept of Society, just as it was becoming more and more central to governing the enlarged public dynamics of emerging global capitalism. The deficiency of his cognition demands revolution and rupture so as to create the necessary ‘gap’ where thought might make its final infinite leap towards the illusory essence of an idea. As this concept of Society diminishes in importance and centrality, the revolution necessitated by this ‘praxeological’ epistemology of sociological cognition is becoming increasingly anachronistic.

This is now the second time I’ve spoken of the obsolescence of Society, but you may rightly ask, “how can this be so?” The role that the concept of Society has played for us over the past several centuries is proving unable to adapt to material conditions now outpacing the wildest dreams of 19th Century theorists regarding future technological progress and material accumulation. A new sphere is emerging, one whose conditions are being laid by technology and history. The Sphere of the Online is coming to dominate our entire public-cultural dynamic.

In fact, we can now understand precisely why online speech has become such a tense point of divergence for so many people. Previously there had been a public and a private self. A social self, on the one hand, whose public actions, statements and appearances had to be moderated according to how Mr. Society would hypothetically view them. And a private, domestic self on the other, where older forms of human social organization (tribe, family, religion) still prevailed. These two spheres have been collapsed in the crematorium of suburbia into an undifferentiated particulate of synthesized ash. What emerges opposed to them is a new digital sphere, rapidly growing around us to encompass a world of global communication, commercial space travel and unlimited connectivity to information.

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The eye of society struggles to extend into the shadows of the online. When people log into their profiles and assume anonymous or pseudonymous identities, they no longer assume the perspective of society to determine how what they do might appear. This is a source of extreme consternation to those professionally still submerged in the rusting and decaying Public Sphere of yesteryear, especially members of the conventional journalistic media. A negative remark becomes an outrage easily when it is no longer clear whether any society anymore keeping watch over people’s activity.

Today we may still be writing a new collective overseer for the future that seems to be finally happening. A new perspective is still emerging, and it’s even possible someone might at long last succeed in automating a panoptical view of society with an artificial intelligence or adaptive algorithm. (On this point I’m doubtful.)

Still, today, the anachronistic revolution of the social leftists and rightists can no longer be a revolution of Society, but is doomed to become a revolution of the as-yet unborn character of post-society. There’s no longer much of a working class to rally; only a humongous and undifferentiated mass of un-productive service workers amusing themselves with increasingly miraculous technology. If the revolution were to happen, it would be the revolution of this class, and the post-society perspective that governs them.

The task at hand then is not to revolutionize Society into being, but to develop a replacement of Society to better organize our novel spheres of interaction and communication. We should perhaps count ourselves lucky that this is the task of our generation, as in the same way that the Enlightenment created Society and the sociologists wrung their hands at trying to round off their understanding of it, our successors will be left with the task of logically completing their understanding of what we today come up with.