Isolation and Aggregation

I have just started reading Max Horkheimer’s Critique of Instrumental Reason, which arrived in my mailbox yesterday. It addresses contemporary issues of the human condition and prospect that we are familiar with from other observers — Jean Gebser, Rene Guenon, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Gabriel Marcel amongst them.

I am not very far along in the book so far, but Horkheimer quotes Theodor Adorno in a place that struck me as pertinent to other themes raised in The Chrysalis, but especially in respect of the last two posts — the question of whether the light of consciousness could be extinguished and the end of democracy as a viable political model in consequence.

“The isolated individual, the pure subject of self-preservation… embodies the innermost principle of society, but does so in unqualified contrast to society. The elements that are united in him, the elements that clash in him – his ‘properties’ – are simultaneously elements of the social whole. The isolated individual is a monad in the strict sense, that is, it reflects the whole with all its contradictions but it is not aware of the whole” — Theodor Adorno in Sociologica

But if this is so, then the “isolated individual” as monad or unit reflecting the whole, but which “is not aware of the whole”, cannot be aware of himself at all.

Horkheimer’s quote from Adorno follows his examination of the mechanisation of consciousness, an alternative way of describing his concern with “instrumental rationality” (which Jean Gebser likewise calls “deficient rationality”),

“Man indeed invented the machine, but this does not change the fact that the inventor’s intelligence itself is becoming more like the machine’s in that it must adapt itself to ever more precisely prescribed tasks. Every man becomes lonelier, for machines can calculate and work but they cannot get inspirations or identify themselves with other machines. Thus, for all their activity men are becoming more passive; for all their power over nature they are becoming more powerless in relation to society and themselves. Society acts upon the masses in their fragmented state, which is exactly the state dictators dream of.”

Horkheimer’s comments follow another quotation from Georges Duhamel that Horkheimer cites from Le Figaro, September 1955,

‘Let us not forget that if the machine is making its way up to an ever greater likeness to man, the stresses of modern civilisation tend to make man sink down to an ever greater likeness to the machine.”

This “sinking down” referred to — perhaps even to the level of the “subhuman” (Rene Guenon’s argument in The Reign of Quantity) — is likewise the warning we find in Jean Gebser’s The Ever-Present Origin and in Erich Kahler’s The Tower and the Abyss. I will repeat Gebser here in that regard, as cited in earlier posts,

The current situation manifests on the one hand an egocentric individualism exaggerated to extremes and desirous of possessing everything, while on the other it manifests an equally extreme collectivism that promises the total fulfillment of man’s being. In the latter instance we find the utter abnegation of the individual valued merely as an object in the human aggregate; in the former a hyper-valuation of the individual who, despite his limitations, is permitted everything. This deficient, that is destructive, antithesis divides the world into two warring camps, not just politically and ideologically, but in all areas of human endeavor.

Since these two ideologies are now pressing toward their limits we can assume that neither can prevail in the long run. When any movement tends to the extremes it leads away from the center or nucleus toward eventual destruction at the outer limits where the connections to the life-giving center finally are severed. It would seem that today the connections have already been broken, for it is increasingly evident that the individual is being driven into isolation while the collective degenerates into mere aggregation. These two conditions, isolation and aggregation, are in fact clear indications that individualism and collectivism have now become deficient” — Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin, 1949, p. 3.

“Isolation and aggregation” correspond to the private and the public, but at an even lower level of spiritual manifestation, which is to say, as the quantitative, which is the dualism of the individual and the collective, the self-contradiction of which was examined in Riesman’s book The Lonely Crowd.

If isolation and aggregation are the lowest level of spiritual manifestation, below even the higher duality or dialectic of private and public, then the higher manifestation of these values would be in the form of “personality and community”.  Personality and community, private and public, the individual and the mass, or the isolated and the aggregated, are NOT synonyms for each other, even though they are often misused in that way.  On the contrary, they describe the tragic results of reductionism and nihilism that Nietzsche foresaw: “All higher values devalue themselves”. They represent  descending orders or ranks of value realisation or manifestation. They describe the trajectory of Late Modern decadence from quality to quantification under the parental, societal, educational and institutional pressures of reductionism, instrumentalism, and fundamentalism.

In other words, they describe the perverse trajectory of an era (and a consciousness) on course for the subhuman.


11 responses to “Isolation and Aggregation”

  1. LittleBigMan says :

    I’m not sure, at least given my experiences and thinking, if Adorno’s “isolated individual” really exists. I’m not sure if “isolation” figures anywhere within the design and possibilities of the universal intent either. My thoughts, feelings, and dreams seems to be connected to all these things that I understand very little.

  2. alex jay says :

    Here are some additional thoughts on the subject matter — unfortunately, the insights expressed go beyond solely an American problem: i.e. the insanity is global …

    • Scott Preston says :

      Yes.. surprising that Giroux, although American, takes such an Americo-centric view of matters when he’s teaching at a Canadian university — McMaster. He must surely be witnessing much the same things here as he sees happening in the country of his birth.

      Why this narrow, constricted view of things? Surely the obvious should suggest itself — it is the decay of an era, not just of some particular branch of the Modern era. The decay Giroux describes in America is just as evident in other jurisdictions.

      In other words, the breakdown, fragmentation and disintegration of a particular structure of consciousness — the Modern consciousness structure — as Gebser described it. Only that fact alone can account for the epidemic of double-dealing, double-talk, double-think, double-standard, and ultimately double-bind.

      • alex jay says :

        “Surely the obvious should suggest itself — it is the decay of an era, not just of some particular branch of the Modern era.”

        Interesting that you should see the current situation as a time issue – era, age, epoch etc. Personally, I’ve always had an open mind, indeed an attraction, towards an astrotheological interpretation of our human biography (refined by Gebser of course – magical, mythical, rational etc.). Therefore it is curious to note that we are leaving the Age of Pisces and entering the Age of Aquarius (applying the Platonic calculation of 2160 years for an “age”, era and so on). These calculations had a tremendous impact on the cosciousness of our forebearers as evidenced by the worship – symbolically that is – of the bull, the ram and the fish progressively in ancient religious rites. Indeed, it was in the Acts of the Apostles (if my memory serves) that Jesus before his departure instructed his Apostles to go seek out a man carrying a water jug (Aquarius).

        Breakdowns, fragmentations etc.of particular consciouness structures tend to occur mysteriously along our planet’s journey through the zodiacal cycle only for new ages of consciouness to emerge. The ancients believed it and it is still worth pondering?

  3. abdul monem says :

    I sometime feel assured that the perverse trajectory is the end path of all dishonest culture, that is culture of cruelty and lie. Mechanical rationality is a clear indication of the misdirection of consciousness. consciousness does go out it digress. let us be honest and respect the planner of life and death throughout the now ,the then and the coming time. the one that nothing evades his attention. the one that is with everyone of us all the time, the one that keeps record of everyone. alas only if the human does not deny that he is the beautiful design of a grand master who gives him eyes to see ,ears to hear and heart to think, the one that sees without eyes ,hear without ears and have thoughts without brain, because he is the hearing , the seeing and the thoughts.

  4. abdul monem says :

    Consciousness does not go out it digresses, history is replete with such ugly examples.

  5. abdul monem says :

    We leave our print on the tableau of time. Exchange is our tool to clarify the path. The two intertwined modes offered to the human are the instinctive rational mode and the intuitive rational mode and the question is how to keep the balance . It is a path of know-how .We are physically close but psychically a part. We denied that we are charged with the responsibility of faith in the universe and good deed on earth.

    • LittleBigMan says :

      Those are good words, Abdul Monem. I’m not sure if I understand the meaning of it all, but it makes me feel good reading them 🙂

      • LittleBigMan says :

        Oh, by the way, that’s why I have always found Scott’s commentary and thoughts most extraordinary. His thoughts and essays and comments are such that they are quite uplifting even when they are meant as a critique. They make you feel great as you read and learn from them. Most remarkable, it is 🙂

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