A Short Piece
Specificity helps us locate ourselves, so does that mean generality and duplication contribute to us feeling lost?
If I start talking about McDonald's, you will probably have no idea where I’m talking about: Mcdonald's is everywhere. But if I mention Café Du Monde, you’ll probably know I’m talking about New Orleans. Particularity entails situatedness, especially where there isn’t duplication. When talking about the Mona Lisa, we know we are talking about the Louvre — or maybe not. The original, yes, we associate with that famous museum, but now that the world is filled with copies and prints of the painting, perhaps I could be talking about “seeing the Mona Lisa” in my friend’s house. Due to duplication, it’s not so easy to know where we’re situated when talking about the famous painting.
If Walter Benjamin was correct that “mass production” threatened the “aura” of works of art — if because we could now see the Mona Lisa anywhere in the world, its ability to “strike” and “change” us dwindled — then there seems to be a relationship between “aura” and “situatedness.” Now, experiencing things is not easily tied to experiencing a whole location, way of life, etc. — for the sake of increasing access, transportation, etc., roots have been removed.
If we can’t be sure where a person was who “saw the Mona Lisa” due to duplication (if it’s not “givens,” to use language from “Belonging Again”), that means we can’t “know where the person was” and “where the art was.” And so it goes with us: we can’t experience the Mona Lisa and “know” where we are. Today, the experience of things often doesn’t help us feel less lost.
Obviously, I can look around and see I’m in my friend’s house, or I can see a Mcdonald's and know I’m in Bedford due to my GPS — what I mean is something more existential. When the world is full of duplication, specificity, situatedness, and location all lose their meaning. If every small town I visit entails a Mcdonald's, Walmart, and the same general set of stores, then though small towns are technically different, they won’t feel that different. Sure, there are still a few landmarks and stores that make it unique, but the more the town is taken over by “duplications,” the less meaningful those “signs of uniqueness” will feel and be to use — the less we’ll be able to feel that we really are somewhere.
When duplication and replication cause items to lose situatedness, we emotionally and existentially lose situatedness too — like art without a frame. When a work of art is hard to locate, we are hard to locate, for we cannot easily experience “things” that by experiencing we know where we are (it is not “given”). This can make the experience feel more arbitrary and less rooted, which can make it more existentially uncomfortable, but at the same time duplication makes it possible for people to see the Mona Lisa who could never visit Europe: with arbitrariness increases access, and what right due to “privileged” people have to complain about arbitrariness when, to make them happy, less privileged people would have to be denied sight of the Mona Lisa all together? The same logic could be applied to McDonald's, Walmart stores, etc.
Our brains naturally prefer categorization and duplication: it couldn’t handle seeing every tree as “one of one” (even if that would help us appreciate life and see it as more beautiful). In other words, our brains prefer seeing “trees” versus “that tree”: deeply observing particularity requires a lot of energy and focus, and, basically, our brains just want to survive. Before mass production and modern Capitalism, the physical world around us may have done a better job of forcing our brains not to overly categorize, generalize, etc., for we lived in towns that were necessarily more unique: the world was full of more Café Du Mondes over McDonald's, per se. Now though, we have a socioeconomic system that loves duplication for the sake of increasing efficiency and access, thus playing into the natural inclinations of our “lazy” brains. Perhaps this has made us out of balance and helps explain why we feel so lost — it’s as if our brains, to save energy, contribute to us feeling lost, which can cost us a ton of mental energy if existential anxiety overtakes us.
(Please note that I am not saying that it is never good to see the “one of one”-ness of a tree, for actually learning this is key to seeing “beauty” in the world: the point is only that we couldn’t do this all the time relative to everything in the world, that our brains create abstractions like categories and generalities so that we can function. But if we always “just” function and never experience moments of depths, that functionality can become meaningless and cease to function because we lose reason to will it to work.)
Modern Capitalism seeks to increase efficiency and production, and a great way to do that is by reducing complexity and particularity. Capitalism doesn’t want to build Café Du Mondes very much, each customer made for each specific town: Capitalism prefers a McDonald's franchise, with each store being basically the same. And who can blame them? Running a business is very hard, and a business model that isn’t simple is likely to fail. And do people really want to live in towns where the option of Mcdonald's isn’t present? Maybe, but I think the majority would prefer to have the option for a large fry than not, and fast food does help families with affordable food every now and then. It would be too easy to claim that the solution is getting rid of McDonald's: real thinking accepts tradeoffs. As we benefit from our brain generalizing and categorizing — we couldn’t live if our brains didn’t do this at all — so we benefit from mass production, franchises, and duplication. We have sacrificed depth for distance, the vertical for the horizontal, but it is not the case that we have gained nothing for this trade.
Reducing complexity and particularity increases efficiency and general access, but also reduced “situatedness” and “aura,” the loss of which can contribute to us feeling lost. We have more access to the Mona Lisa but now can struggle to know where we are when we see it. Access has paradoxically weakened our ability to feel located: Pluralism and Globalization have accelerated and, the world connected and combined, it’s increasingly hard to identify “the point” at which the world has been gathered.
The same logic applied here to items, stores, works of art, and things applies just as well to people. Capitalism tends to make people similar, for people are shaped by their environments, and Capitalism tends to iron out the differences between environments (especially when it is lacking a strong artifex class, as discussed in “The Creative Concord” by O.G. Rose). The more similar people become though, and the more their differences are “flattened out” or made “arbitrary” (more touristy and nonessential, to allude to the work of James Hunter), the more difficult it will be to feel like we “know where we are” when we encounter certain people. (This may also hint at why the loss of religion has corresponded with feelings of being lost, not only because of the loss of the possibility of “Objective and Transcendent grounding,” but also because religion is arguably the main shaper of cultural differences, and once religion is gone, cultures start becoming very similar, like duplicates, lessening their capacity to provide a feeling of “situatedness.”)
Though groups and cultures might be losing their meaningful differences due to Capitalism, individuals could still be sources of particularity. The more I know an individual, and the more of an individual that person is — the more he or she has worked to be “a work of art,” per se, resisting easy social scripts and being passive in self-formation — the more I know where I am when I encounter that individual. Additionally, the more I am a work of art, the more others know where they are when they see me. Through working to be particular and an individual, the more we can help provide others with existential grounding, reducing feelings of “being lost,” which increases feelings of “being free” (for we do not feel free where we feel lost even if are free, say in a desert — our lostness is a burden). Between friends, spouses, coworking, and even strangers, we can be gifts.
However, particularity brings a price. The more specific we become, the more incomprehensible we become to those outside our particularity: particularity increases the need for intimacy. As a person becomes more unique, more depth is required to grasp that uniqueness, but depth takes time and energy. Granted, it can be worth it, but it also means our “reach” will likely be reduced: the more unique we become, the less people who can probably know us, but those who do know us will likely really know us. Paradoxically, though we don’t feel lost, this can make us feel alone — there is a tradeoff between “lost” and “alone,” both of which can cause existential anxiety (which, to allude to “Belonging Again,” can make totalitarianism appealing, “lostness” being corrected by “givens” while hurting freedom and uniqueness).
Granted, we can feel alone too when we have a million friends if none of them “really” know us, so a few “close friends” can make us feel more “seen” than all the friends in the world. Thus, a balance between “depth” and “numbers” has to be reached, between the horizontal and vertical, but there is also the tradeoff between “the number of people we know” and “unique opportunities for unique experiences based on each individual,” a tradeoff that can weigh on us (though we really know the few people who are close to us, we can wonder what we’re missing by not being close to other people out there). Tradeoffs and learning to manage these trade-offs cannot be avoided.
At a point of ultimate specificity and situatedness, the only way to understand something is to directly experience it, which will not be possible for everyone. At the same time, there is an “aura,” something profound, about things that can only be known through experience, that abstraction can not even begin to capture (arguably, we feel more “known” the less we can be known and/or “approached” abstractly: concreteness increases “feeling known” but also risks “feeling alone”). This applies to people and to places, but to witness this profundity, we will have to fight our brains, which prefer categories and generalities. If we are standing in the presence of radical particularity and situatedness, which could be a gift to us, we will not necessarily see it if we don’t fight our own minds to respect and observe what is before us.
But assuming we do overcome our minds, we still must pay the tradeoffs of “depth for distance,” “aurora for access” — is there a way to get the best of both worlds? Frankly, it’s wishful thinking to believe we can get rid of duplicates and franchises, products of Capitalism, as it might be wishful thinking to believe religion could return and help reestablish “essential differences.” So, what should we do?
Well, I think the key is to realize that even duplicates are “one of one,” that technically everything is a “one of one”: difference is all (Deleuze was correct). Even if there are lots of McDonald's, there is only one McDonalds that will be “that McDonalds” on Wards Road. And then not to compare — comparison can be the thief of joy, as Roosevelt said. Now, comparison has key functions for survival, improving skills, etc., but if the question here is now to maintain a sense of uniqueness in a world of duplication, comparison should be effaced more often than not.
But not comparing “a tree” with “trees,” it is easy to see “that tree” and to appreciate its “one of one”-ness — same goes with a McDonalds. Now, we can’t survive seeing every tree as “that tree,” per se, but it’s critical we have moments where we really and deeply see that-ness, to live in a dialectical state of reminding ourselves that we live in a world of particularities even if we must treat it as a world of generalities to function and survive. Moments of that-ness — mystical and/or Heideggerian visions in which the power of being breaks through everydayness — are critical for us to experience and carry with us through our “everyday” lives so that our everydayness feel effused with light and meaning. But after a “moment of that-ness” and weeks of everydayness, the beatific moment can become a memory and the feeling of mundanity take over again, at which point another experience of that-ness is needed. And on and on, dialectically, a balance between the vertical and the horizontal, the particular and the general, the original and the duplicate — where life is found.