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.