With Marx’s alienation, Weber’s disenchantment, and Durkheim’s anomie, sociology began. Each explained how individuals were liberated from complex structures of social debt and responsibility, only to stumble headlong into the traps of European modernity: a loss of control over the conditions of their working lives, an endless negotiation with the cages of bureaucracies, and an aimless wandering in the desert of purpose after the loss of communally enforced visions of the good life.
Each figure linked individual psychological states to their social milieus. They sought to describe a phenomenon that cultural evolutionist Joseph Henrich and colleagues, seeking to account for biases in social science methodology, have called WEIRD societies — Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. These kinds of individuals might be some of the least representative populations from which to generalize about the human condition. They are indelibly marked by their cultures, making them outliers in their moral reasoning, their motivations, their cooperation and fairness, their inferential conclusions and reasoning styles.
A century after the emergence of sociology, global WEIRDing has accelerated. Individual passions of the WEIRD kind have been unleashed on a planetary scale to be monitored, optimized, and feedbacked in accelerating cycles. Infrastructure mobilizes them to seek out, confess, and activate their desires, as though they revealed the truth about themselves, as though their sense of meaning was readymade if only one dosed sufficient amounts of honesty and candor to confront it. Unmet needs targeted through business, voice represented in politics, and domesticated recognition achieved through partnership.
We’re living ‘after the orgy,’ as Baudrillard puts it. We’ve freed each sphere from its traditional social constraints — political, sexual, economic, unconscious, and artistic, to be pursued by individuals as they see fit. If the 20th century was a frenzied pursuit to overcome these barriers, today any attempt at liberating or transgressing constraints can only appear in the guise of parody or simulation. We already ate our way to the utopia of passions, and stimulation of the transgressive drive decreases on the margin. Who wants to clean up?
As fragmentation continues, two signals in the last few years give us alternative trajectories. The first, published in 2017 by Christian commentator Rod Dreher, is The Benedict Option. Tracing an unexpected causal path from William of Ockham and the rise of nominalism in the 14th century to the present-day culture wars, Dreher sees the European trajectory of religious decline as responsible for the ills of our age. Religion should bind us into collectives, providing us systems of belief and practice through which identity and purpose are expressed. When those go, we’re left with what Alasdair MacIntyre, an influence of Dreher’s, calls ‘emotivism’ — the idea that all moral choices are expressions of what an individual feels is right. With the onus on the individual, all social responsibilities, community, and religiously or culturally binding narratives remain a scaffold without foundation.
For Dreher, the war against emotivism is already lost. But he offers a prescription: exit the mainstream, and build alternatives on the margins. Just as Saint Benedict did in the 6th century, responding to the irreparable corruption and moral decadence of Rome, Christians today should seek to build a parallel society that interacts as little as possible with the mainstream, in order to outlive it and provide future civilizations a purposeful foundation. These communities should offer rules for practical guidance, ascetic ways individual passions can be disciplined and kept in check so that higher collective dynamics can emerge, and with them a more systematic sense of meaning and purpose. From Alaska to Maryland to New York, small villages and communities have been taking up the Option with increasing frequency.
If Dreher and his call for religious exit are driven by a desire to roll back individualism, German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk points us in the other direction, with a call to radicalize and transform it, a spin on a well-known Spinozist theme — ‘we don’t know what an individual can be.’ You Must Change Your Life, published in 2009 but translated into English in 2013, engages with many of the same references and themes as Dreher, but variations in diagnosis and prescription cumulate in a position entirely at odds with Dreher. The premise is familiar: individual passions have been unleashed as the means and ends of society, culminating in a fake potlatch of mass consumption and insurance. Malls, from this perspective, become the original safe spaces to indulge in the things that makes us us.
But finding a dead-end in the confluence of securitized passions, Sloterdijk shifts the focus to the cultivation of habit. Habits emerge through training and discipline. Their models can be inherited or self-imposed — a process of cultural evolution accelerated through ascetic exit. The call to change your life can’t be passively purchased or consumed, but comes from a vertical imposition — a call to train yourself to become different, to want differently, rather than accepting the given. From the Presocratics to contemporary artists and athletes, Sloterdijk brings to light practices and disciplines whose end isn’t to authoritatively impose their values on others a la Dreher, but to demonstrate their potential through example — athletic feats, artistic works, political acts, and others. Training regimes intensify human potential through self-imposed discipline and constraint, rather than being plucked half-price from plots grown by others.
Yet for as long as there has been human evolution there have been vacillating responses to innovation and the cultivation of the new, which threatens the mimetic transmission of established cultural arrangements and pushes the call for change to the margins. With the acceleration imposed by techniques of tertiary transmission — that is, oral, written, and other technologies for transmitting techniques across time and place — humans have had to react to the disruptive force of the new within their lifetimes. Caught between rejection and fascination with innovation, cultures have developed codes of dealing with the new. Luckily or not, there is no return to a golden age of ascetic or innovative tolerance for Sloterdijk, no model that stands above the others to emulate. Instead, starting from the possibilities of the here and now, there’s a call to accept the full price of transformation rather than the comforts of discounted consumer equality.
The diagnoses of both Dreher and Sloterdijk signal to us that a frictionless society, one in which individual passions are designed to be indulged, is one devoid of meaning. Too much comfort and not enough prohibition, in the one case, or effort and discipline, on the other, lead to decline. But in their opposed prescriptions for how to remedy the ills, they highlight alternative trajectories for fragmentation: sacred collectivities or transformative individuations.
Valdis Silins is a researcher and foresight practitioner based in Toronto.