Belonging Again (Part 24)
Is it possible for us to freely externalize our subjective realities without conflict and meditating structures?
Where there is a lack of meaning, there tends to be a lack of identity, causing the existential anxiety that makes authoritarianism appealing (and keep in mind few if any realize they are supporting authoritarianism when they in deed are, to allude to Wittgenstein, notably because it will likely feel like “the right thing to do,” a feeling which hides the authoritarianism). At the same time, meaning must feel “robust,” “plausible,” and/or “given enough” if it is to sustain us, especially amid Pluralism, which is when we are not readily surrounded by others who affirm our meaning and identity (just in being themselves), causing us to suffer existentially, which means that (irreversible) Pluralism is necessarily ripe for authoritarianism. Identity and meaning must be ‘bestowed in acts of social recognition.’¹ ‘[We] may try desperately to hold on to [our meaning and identity], but in the absence of others in [our] immediate environment confirming [our] identity [we] will find it almost impossible to maintain it within [our] own consciousness.’² ‘Birds of the same feather flock together not as luxury but out of necessity’: if no “birds are flocking together” because they have all “turned inward” and there are no “plausibility structures” left to support them together, the consequences could be dire.³ This brings us to the topic of “mediating structures” and/or “plausibility structures,” the loss of which strongly contribute to why we don’t feel like we “belong.”
Every society must maintain “multiple realities” in a manner that keeps the “lack of fit” between any given subjectivity and the social reality from feeling too extreme. The society must maintain many “plausibility structures,” even though the very existence of multiple “plausibility structures” is a threat to every other one. To accomplish this, the society must give people a sense that they can extend their subjective realities into the society to some degree — they must have some degree of a sense of “yes” (to allude to Rieff), but not so much that it destabilizes others (and, for Moderns, not so much that it upsets the principle of how “it’s forbidden to forbid”). ‘[E]xternalization is at the core of people’s world-building activity,’ and if people feel as if their subjective reality cannot at all extend into the society, they will feel like they are in a prison.⁴ But now here’s the rub: especially in Pluralism, the more people externalize their subjective realities into society, the more they will “bump up against” other subject realities (the “scandal” of other self-consciousnesses, as Žižek discusses). The more this occurs, the more people will want to reduce the externalization of the other groups, and to accomplish this, they will likely turn to the powers of the State. If the State acts, this will increase the “lack of fit” between one group’s subjective reality and the social reality in which that group lives (in line with the thought of Conyers). This will cause a growth in the existential tension that can lead to Nazism or authoritarian uprisings (especially where there is a lack of understanding about this very sociological issue). Yet if there is no externalization at all, there will also be populist and authoritarian uprising. If there is too much “no” or too much “yes” — if the “conditioning” is improperly executed — the consequences will be dire.
How do we strike the right balance? This is where what Berger called “mediating structures” come into play. ‘Mediating structures are those institutions which stand between the individual in his private sphere and the large institutions of the public sphere’ — a gap which for Berger defines Modernity.⁵ “Mediating structures” are family structures, churches, voluntary associations, neighborhoods, and the like, associations which Robert Putnam has also written on brilliantly and extensively. Increasingly faced with ever-larger corporations, bureaucracies, States, economies, and the like, the private sphere increasingly feels ‘‘ ‘left over,’ as it were, by the large institutions.’⁶ Consequently, the private sphere is likely to weaken, leading to existential anxiety. ‘Without mediating structures, private life comes to be engulfed in a deepening anomie.’⁷ ‘[A]s long as private life is not anomic, the alienations of the megastructures are at least tolerable,’ and yet ‘[t]he very underinstitutionalization of private life […] makes it quite likely that my home will indeed be threatened by […] anomic disintegrations.’⁸ ‘The [Modern] situation becomes intolerable if ‘home,’ the refuge of stability and value in an alien world, ceases to be such a refuge […],’ and yet the very nature of Pluralism and Modernity is to weaken the private life, politically and psychologically, which is what makes Pluralism and Modernity existentially tolerable.⁹ ‘The mediating structures, then, are essential if private life is to remain ‘home.’ ’¹⁰ This doesn’t mean they have to be “traditional” or something — they can change — but they do have to be present and stable, which Pluralism and Modernity tend to assure doesn’t happen (as discussed regarding Conyers).
Where people don’t feel “home,” whether Liberal or Conservative, authoritarianism is likely to grow in appeal. If one side gives into that temptation, it is likely the other side will react with its own manifestations of authoritarianism, creating a horrible feedback loop. ‘Totalitarianism promises to resolve the dichotomy of private and public; it keeps the promise in a perverse way, by so politicizing the private that it is absorbed in the public.’¹¹ But “the public” can absorb and manifest generally only one “private,” and those who feel left out will suffer even worse existential anxiety that is likely to lead to an authoritarian backlash. And the waltz will go on. Hence, this “tempting” method isn’t the right way to solve the problem of Pluralism: what is needed are “mediating structures” (as perhaps people subconsciously realize, hence all the “online communities” which are forming, however imperfectly). Suggesting a possible need for a “Secretary for Mediating Structures,” Berger wrote:¹²
‘There is […] a specifically American tradition of balancing universalism and particularity, of pluralism, of combining the power of the modern state with the energies of voluntary associations. The concept of mediating structures, as applied to public policy in this country, may be one way of revitalizing an American political heritage that seems all the more precious as, every day, it seems more in peril.’¹³
‘Without these deep structures, certain political institutions and practices simply do not make any sense.’¹⁴ They cannot be “fit” into the subjective realities of the citizens: they have no role other than controlling and oppressing; society can only be understood as a threat. ‘These institutions meditate between megastructures and the individual, providing plausibility structures for the lives of individuals, on the one hand, and moral sustenance, on the other hand, to megastructures which would otherwise be experienced as hostile, alien forces without legitimacy.’¹⁵ ‘Berger maintained that modernization has unleashed social dynamics that have weakened mediating structures and created anomie at both the objective and subjective levels — a situation which he sees as fraught with dangers.’¹⁶ ‘Looming large on the horizon of this discussion of mediating structures is the threat of totalitarianism. With nothing between them and the state to provide meaning for their lives, anomic individuals turn to totalitarian political structures,’ which is to say that “meditating structures” help release some of the existential pressures of Modernity, as if a pressure valve, without which pressure can only build until it’s too much for people to take.¹⁷ To allude to thought discussed earlier in this work, it would seem that the loss of the community which makes character possible might be a loss of one way “the banality of evil” manifests but not every possible way.
‘[A]lienating megastructures must respect and strengthen the mediating structures that provide both plausibility structures for the meanings of individual lives and the moral foundation upon which their own legitimacy rests.’¹⁸ Why is morality and its legitimization so important? Unfortunately, we often think of morality only in terms of subjectivity, religion, and even oppression, believing morals keep us from doing what we want to do (and for ultimately no good reason). For one, everyone must ascribe to some morality (even if “the only morality is that there is no morality”), regardless how absurd or immoral others may find it, and for reasons explored in Missing Axioms by Samuel Barns, mainly that it is impossible for us to act without implying values (if we do x, it means we believe it is right to do x). For a society, rightly or wrongly, to fail to support a given person’s morality is for the ethic to lose “plausibility” and “givenness” to the person, which has existential consequences identical to the weakening of a worldview. And though morality can be used by dictators and authoritarians to oppress, morality can also be “anti-authoritarian,” in that a moral society is one that can be freer and that doesn’t have to be forced by the State to act morally. This argument is expounded upon in “On Kafka, Character, and Law” by O.G. Rose: here, it will only be noted that though ethics can be used to both liberate and oppress, a society without ethics — where it is “forbidden to forbid,” per se — is a society that will likely fall into the existential anxiety in which authoritarianism becomes appealing.
‘The social contract cannot be renegotiated every day by millions of individual ‘consenting adults,’ not unless society is to lapse into intermittent chaos.’¹⁹ Consent requires choice, and choice means responsibility and existential tension: the problem with “an ethic of consent” can be that it forces average people to constantly “bear the burden of The Real” without mediation or assistance (not to mention all while reducing the likelihood of “shared intelligibility”), which will “probabilistically” prove to be too much for most people (though not everyone, such as “Deleuzian individuals,” as described in “Beauty Saves” by O.G. Rose). A morality which lessens “renegotiation” will “practically” prove needed and necessary: it is arguably the very “social contract” according to which a society is organized and possible. Where morality is lacking, there isn’t much “social contract,” and then the only way for the society to be held together is likely with State force, law, and coercion (keep in mind that “legal” and “moral” aren’t similes, though they may overlap). For a society to change its morality is for a society to rewrite its “social contract,” and where no morality feels plausible (or “given”), or where morality feels too “renegotiable,” no “social contract” will feel “real.” Unfortunately, where there are no “mediating structures” — no voluntary associations, no communal centers, etc. — it is doubtful any morality will feel “plausible” enough to provide existential stability.
To close this section, is it possible for something which has lost “givenness” to ever regain it? If we have lost “plausibility structures” and “mediating structures,” is it possible for them to ever be restored (without something like war forcing us to restore them to win and survive)? If it is the case that we don’t feel like we “belong” precisely because we lack these structures, perhaps restoring belonging is like ‘trying to repair a spider’s web with your bare hands.’²⁰ ²¹ Once people know something is “just another worldview” among many, it seems very unlikely that the worldview could ever again be “given.” If this is the case, even if perhaps a more just world, it would seem once the damage is done, social uprisings like Nazism and Trump are unavoidable. Unless that is people can learn to live without “givenness” — unless that is everyday people can become Deleuzian and like Philosopher Kings, a possibility which might be tied to the topic of “intrinsic motivation” — but that is another subject for another time (though “How Does Anyone Leave Plato’s Cave?” might be a good place to start).
¹Berger, Peter L. Invitation to Sociology. New York: First Anchor Books Edition, 1963: 99.
²Berger, Peter L. Invitation to Sociology. New York: First Anchor Books Edition, 1963: 100.
³Berger, Peter L. Invitation to Sociology. New York: First Anchor Books Edition, 1963: 102.
⁴Making Sense of Modern Times. Edited by James Davison Hunter and Stephen C. Ainlay. The Encounter with Phenomenology by Stephen C. Ainlay. New York, NY: Routledge & Kegan Paul Inc., 1986: 41.
⁵Berger, Peter L. Facing Up to Modernity. New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1977: 132.
⁶Berger, Peter L. Facing Up to Modernity. New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1977: 133.
⁷Berger, Peter L. Facing Up to Modernity. New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1977: 135.
⁸Berger, Peter L. Facing Up to Modernity. New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1977: 134.
⁹Berger, Peter L. Facing Up to Modernity. New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1977: 134.
¹⁰Berger, Peter L. Facing Up to Modernity. New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1977: 134.
¹¹Berger, Peter L. Facing Up to Modernity. New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1977: 135.
¹²Berger, Peter L. Facing Up to Modernity. New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1977: 139.
¹³Berger, Peter L. Facing Up to Modernity. New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1977: 141.
¹⁴Hunter, Davison James and Alan Wolfe. Is There a Culture War? Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2006: 91.
¹⁵Making Sense of Modern Times. Edited by James Davison Hunter and Stephen C. Ainlay. Excursus: The Problem of Freedom by Donald L. Redfoot. New York, NY: Routledge & Kegan Paul Inc., 1986: 107.
¹⁶Making Sense of Modern Times. Edited by James Davison Hunter and Stephen C. Ainlay. Excursus: The Problem of Freedom by Donald L. Redfoot. New York, NY: Routledge & Kegan Paul Inc., 1986: 107.
¹⁷Making Sense of Modern Times. Edited by James Davison Hunter and Stephen C. Ainlay. Excursus: The Problem of Freedom by Donald L. Redfoot. New York, NY: Routledge & Kegan Paul Inc., 1986: 107.
¹⁸Making Sense of Modern Times. Edited by James Davison Hunter and Stephen C. Ainlay. Excursus: The Problem of Freedom by Donald L. Redfoot. New York, NY: Routledge & Kegan Paul Inc., 1986: 110.
¹⁹Berger, Peter L. Facing Up to Modernity. New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1977: 135.
²⁰Scruton, Roger. “Is Sex Necessary?”. First Things, December 2014:
²¹As discussed in “Collective Consciousness and Trust” by O.G. Rose, considering how difficult it is for us to maintain trust in our internet age, and considering how likely it is that people will do and say horrible things when faced with the existential anxiety resulting from a loss of “givens,” it seems very likely that society will tear itself apart.