Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All
Friday, March 21, 2008
Us and Them
I realize that Pink Floyd is a rather obvious choice as accompaniment given the title of the post, but the images from 2001 made it irresistible. There's something a little odd about the displacement of the song's subject of the horrific politics of war and class war onto the topic of the scientific confrontation of humanity with the unknown here, but cosmic phantasmagoria are always appropriate at some deeper level with Pink Floyd so I suppose it's okay, and in any case the whole thing comes off as rather lovely and odd, come what may.
An Anonymous Commenter in the Moot points out that, "There are really no THEM. Not even 'bigoted fundamentalists' are THEM. They are you. And that's [what] really can scare you once it sinks in."
There's a real force in this comment for me.
I mean, of course there really is a THEM, indeed there are innumerable THEMs. But one discovers that our USes are no less riven by THEMs -- divided loyalties, temporary allies, openminded fellows, ambivalent members, sectarian disputes, heretics -- and also that, in the Freudian parlance "the ego is not master of his own house," that is to say, that even my I is riven by something like innumerable THEMs -- unconscious motives, irrational passions, evolutionary inheritances, fragments of authoritative influences, unexpected activations of discursive entailments that enable our agency while at once bedeviling it and so on.
And of course it is also true that there are organizations and social formations and communities of interpretation and identification that are discernible and describable as such, with legible boundaries (sure, ultimately porous, dynamic ones, but real boundaries nonetheless), with legible characteristics that differ from those of others. So too there are different factions (sure, ultimately only partial, contingent ones, but real factions nonetheless) in the context of historical social struggles to achieve collectively very different instrumental or ethical ends.
So, too, there is the basic alterity ("otherness") of instrumentally describable objects, as well as the importantly different alterity of subjects that compels responsiveness and responsibility in us whatever our intentions in the matter.
One needs a sense of the abiding force of THEMness to get at these things, even if it is also true that the THEM has the troubling tendency to fragment and sink inside US the closer one scrutinizes it.
I think it is important to grasp that rationality plays out in at least five different registers -- the instrumental, the moral, the aesthetic, the ethical, and the political -- that these registers indispensably (and also interdependently) substantiate wordly selfhood, and that beliefs are warranted in each according to different criteria and practices. I talk about this more here, but this is something about which I really need to write more, in greater depth.
Be that as it may, each of these registers also differently constitutes a THEM -- the object, the outsider, the audience, posterity, the peer -- that functions as something like a "constitutive outside" (as vulgar deconstructionism would have it) materializing our plural human subjecthood in history.
The long and the short of it is, you are right in what you say about THEM, but we cannot do without THEM, and once this sinks in, the already scary scarring reality you mentioned gets its even more appalling sequel.
By the way, to the extent that the Commenter is simply pointing out that however sanctimonious, however righteous, however careful, however attentive, however open, however critical we may be, there is in almost all of us a betrayed and traumatized passel of past persons we have been, all hungry for revenge and capable of anything whatever our best conscious intentions, that there is in almost all of us a trace of the face we seem most to abhor in those we anathemize, that we are all of us prone to error, vulnerable to corruption, oversensitive to abuse and overeager to rationalize our misconduct… well, yes, that is also quite true.
The price of liberty, as the saying goes, is eternal vigilance -- and one must direct that vigilance as much within as without. But as Arendt would say, no promises without forgivenesses. These realizations (which need not be quite so bleak and frumpy as it probably sounds) are part of the reason I do go on and on about the ineradicability of human finitude here all the time, and worry about the pinings after a transcendence of finitude I hear in many of my chief interlocutors, and, worse, the delusive reports of accomplishments of transcendent overcoming of finitude I hear from many of them, through True Belief, through adherence to parochial conceptions of The Way, whether in its conventional guises of fundamentalist religiosities or in the form of a reductive and at once over-encompassing priestly technoscience.