Private and Public

In a few recent posts, including the last post on Dualism, on the breakdown of dialectical reason, and The Commonwealth, I made the argument that the evidence for what cultural philosopher Jean Gebser called our decline into “deficient rationality” in Late Modernity (and thus our disintegration) was most pronounced in the radical dichotomisation of what are true polarities into false antinomies, and thus into a state of enmity and hostility between things that are actually kin to each other and which are as essential to the meaning of each other as a husband and wife are to a real marriage.

One of the starkest of these dichotomisations is the divorce between private and public — or individual and society — terms which have been made to become virtually synonymous with the meanings of “right” and “left”, respectively. This was a theme recently taken up in an article by George Irvin entitled “When privatisation doesn’t work“, originally published in Social Europe Journal and now re-published in The Guardian.

Mr. Irvin makes many of the same points I raised in earlier articles about this pernicious dichotomisation of the private and public (or, in other terms, the citizen and the commonwealth) in the tendency of neo-liberal market fundamentalism to subordinate democracy and the provision of public goods to a narrow calculating economism. This dichotomisation was reflected in Margaret Thatcher’s pronouncement (so reminiscent of Nietzsche’s “death of God” statement) that “there is no such thing as society” and of her corollary pronouncement “there is no alternative”, equally reflected in Francis Fukuyama’s subsequent announcement of “the end of history”.

For all these reasons, I appreciate Mr. Irvin’s observations even if he hasn’t probed much deeper into the meaning of this dichotomisation of private and public as being an objective reflection of the “inner division of contemporary man” (Gebser) in the breakdown of dialectical consciousness into dualism, and of reason into mere rationalisation. This was also the significance of David Ehrenfeld’s important essay on “The Coming Collapse of the Age of Technology” (1999) first published in Tikkun Magazine, where “technology” actually should be interpreted as “rationality” — and the mental-rational structure of consciousness that produces the artifacts that comprise “technology”.

This dualism of private and public is also being reflected in the emerging polarisation of the political classes and civil society groups, or, of private interests and public goods.

If I did not mention it previously, there is a certain irony here, insofar as it was Christianity that earlier served as a bulwark against the corruption of reason by dualism when it denounced Manichean dualism as a heresy, since the Christian universe is fundamentally united by love, and cannot be divided against itself in a mutual, absolute enmity of its parts in the way dualism represents it. To this extent, then, we must acknowledge also that “post-modernity” and the attendant “culture of narcissism” is not only becoming post-democratic and post-Enlightenment, but also post-Christian, even if all its gestures, poses, and rhetoric noisily insist on the contrary.

The bizarre thing is that, at some level of functioning, most people apparently “know” that dualism is delusional, as the great wisdom traditions all teach, and yet choose to speak and act by some kind of “groupthink” contrary to the truth they do know implicitly and intuitively. This was even the deeper issue brought home in the Harry Enten article which I cited also from The Guardian  earlier, “Why Obama is a ‘Muslim‘”, the meaning of which I explored in the earlier post Disturbia, and which points to that disturbing “inner division of contemporary man” which Gebser highlighted as the disintegration of the modern self.

And, if anything, this breakdown would seem to be intensifying and accelerating.


3 responses to “Private and Public”

  1. LittleBigMan says :

    After all this time, I finally read “The Coming Collapse of the Age of Technology.” A remarkably clairvoyant essay, given the crash of 2008 and the natural and nuclear disasters in Japan. I’m a little bit sceptical about the “shadow structures” emerging as a pre-planned solution, though. I think the shadow organizations will happen rather spontaneously and as a reaction to the inevitable collapse of the existing structure rather than as a pre-emptive measure. At the same time, I have been hearing through colleagues and friends that here and there people are selling out in the city, and settling someplace rural with a few cattle on a one to ten acre farmland. Ironically, the trend in the developing or underdeveloped parts of the globe is the opposite. It’s all quite unsettling for sure.

    • Scott Preston says :

      I intended to respond to your comment earlier, but in the rush of things it slipped my mind.

      The thing that strikes me about Ehrenfeld’s article is that when he talks about the collapse of technology, this has the same meaning as Gebser’s “breakdown of the mental-rational structure of consciousness” into “deficient rationality”. Technology as Ehrenfeld speaks of it is only the objective manifestation or production of this structure of consciousness made visible reality. This is part of Seth’s “you create the reality you know”. So, in Ehrenfeld’s “collapse” we are really speaking Gebser’s language about the decay of the mental-rational and, of course, the implied meaning of “post-modern”.

      The key to that understanding of Ehrenfeld is one passage that I’ve flogged to death, perhaps, in discussing his essay, because the passage is not only about the state of our consciousness structure (the mental-rational), but also very much about the culture of narcissism that is a component of this breakdown and collapse,

      “One of the most serious challenges to our prevailing system is our catastrophic loss of ability to use self-criticism and feedback to correct our actions when they place us in danger or give bad results. We seem unable to look objectively at our own failures and to adjust the behavior that caused them.”

      That’s it in a nutshell, really. It is a succinct description of the breakdown of dialectical consciousness, which Ehrenfeld then discusses in terms of it’s objective, visible manifestation or articulation as “technology”. Technology is the self-articulation of the mental-rational, and can be read as such — as the artifact of this consciousness structure. That’s how one should also approach the works of Jacques Ellul, too, whose critique of the technological society and the technological system (including propaganda in a separate work by that title) is really about the same deficiency of the mental-rational.

      This is the same issue I raised in reference to Haroon Siddiqui’s editorial which I commented on below — how the relationship between public and private has come to be seen as an “either/or” question of social or individual supremacy. This dualism or bifurcation of logic indicates the disintegration of dialectical consciousness, and is equivalent to Ehrenfeld’s “collapse”. They are approaching the exact same thing — Gebser’s deficient rationality — albeit by different avenues.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    Apropos this theme of how public and private have degenerated into an “either/or” dualism, an editorial in today’s Toronto Star by Haroon Siddiqui addresses this very thing in the Canadian context and on the occasion of the anniversary of The Charter of Rights and Freedoms brought in by Pierre Trudeau.–siddiqui-is-the-charter-changing-canada-for-the-worse

    For a little context, Roy Romanow, mentioned in the article, was formerly the social democratic premier of Saskatchewan throughout the nineties, so he brings a socialist or “public goods” perspective to this issue. His observations, otherwise, are quite consistent with what others have remarked about the “culture of narcissism”.

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