The existential origin of social determinism



The Weltanschauung (worldview) in which everything is socially determined is the Weltanschauung of maximal anxiety.  Those who choose to believe that everything is socially determined do not do so because there is sufficient scientific evidence to prove that everything is socially determined (there isn't).  They choose to believe this, because they desire to live in a world of maximum anxiety, maximum dread.

To get a feeling of this world, listen to Joy Division's "Day of the Lords," with careful attention to the lyrics.

Social determinism is not a scientific theory, or even a logically coherent concept - that is not the goal of those who seek to live the social deterministic Weltanschauung.  What they are seeking is a life of maximum anxiety - an essentially aesthetic choice.  Therefore it is pointless to debate them, because they are not good faith interlocutors.  De gustibus non est disputandum, as the old saying goes - there is no arguing in matters of taste.  You cannot logically convince someone to enjoy what they don't enjoy, or to cease enjoying what they enjoy.

So my point here is not to try to argue against social determinism, but to try to understand the aesthetic of social determinism, to learn to appreciate it, and also to situate the development of this taste historically - to see the way in which social determination was, itself, socially determined.

I'll take it for granted that everyone has experienced social anxiety at some point in their lives.  Sometimes you can't stand being around other people - you need to get away, have some alone time, take a walk outside.  Social determinism is the name of a feeling, and it is the feeling that you can't get away.  It is the feeling that, even if you go off and live by yourself in a cabin in the woods, your mind will still be infected, indeed utterly determined, by the culture from which you came.  There's no way out.

Social determinism, is, as I've already indicated, not a logically coherent concept.  It is a paradox, and a delicious paradox - most importantly, it is a paradoxical feeling, a kind of strange, tragicomic feeling.  It achieves perfect anxiety by maintaining hopeful despair.  If it were a despair without hope, the anxiety would disappear, and eventually become dejection, abjection, resignation, surrender, even ultimately a kind of acceptance.  For instance, if a person were utterly fatalistic, and had a feeling of ultimate, inescapable doom, she might steel herself for it as something merely to bear and to withstand.  This is a feeling that can no longer be considered anxiety and barely can even be called dread.  There is a kind of dignity to such acceptance of suffering - it might be called fortitude, resilience, or self-sacrifice.  There have been some Buddhists who have achieved something like this.  But the aesthetic of maximal anxiety is utterly opposed to such grace and poise.

To maintain and maximize anxiety, therefore, requires one to simultaneously feel both despair and hope, so that this hope can be perpetually disappointed.  But how can hope and despair coexist?  

Social determinism provides the key to this puzzle.  The deterministic part of social determinism provides the despair, the sense of the inescapable, the feeling of imminent terror, like the feeling of being strapped into a roller coaster that is locked into a one-way track, slowly climbing to the top of the first hill... but never getting there.  Eternally ascending.

The song "No Escape," particularly as it was performed by Cabaret Voltaire, also gives a good sense of the feeling we're going for here.

But if the determinism originated in nature - for instance, in our genetic makeup, perhaps - or in the supernatural - say, astrology - this would, again, feel too fatalistic for maximizing anxiety.  If your destiny were completely the result of something "inborn" in this sense, set in stone since before your first memories, then this would grant a kind of absolution - it would feel like "it isn't your fault." It would feel like you have no say in the matter - almost as if you aren't involved.  The social part of social determinism - the idea that your life could be determined by "soft" conditions such as language, custom, habit, received ideas, concepts, categories, perceptions, practices, institutions, social structures - is what provides the "hope" - but an elusive hope, a hope that is never present or clearly perceived or even thought through in any kind of consistent, rigorous way.  It's not even vividly imagined.  And this ensures that the subject will feel not only incapable of changing the course of their life, but magically also at the same time will feel guilty, implicated in the situation and its presumed missed opportunities.  

Of course, this doesn't make any logical sense.  If social constructions are "soft" enough to be malleable, to make real change possible, then there is no determinism.  If not, then to feel any guilt about this is merely absurd.  There are no missed opportunities, because nothing could have ever been done differently.  (Then again, perhaps it has been forever determined that you would feel guilt about this, even if you don't deserve it....)  You can't have it both ways, logically.  But logic is beside the point, here.  What matters is the feeling being evoked, even if this feeling is irrational.

The goal of the aesthetic of social determinism is to maximize this sense of total suffocation in the social.  It brings with it a sense of utter responsibility, as total as it is impossible - to change that which cannot be changed.  Its essence is a hope that is never felt - a tantalizing hope, just outside of any grasp - it is a hope that hurts, a hope that haunts.  One can only feel it negatively, as a missed chance.

What culture evokes this horror, and gives us the opportunity to indulge in this feeling?  I've already mentioned new wave / post-punk / industrial bands, such as Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire, to which we could add Come On and Fad Gadget and Gary Numan and Parquet Courts and many others - that spastic, neurotic sound.  Outside of music, an obvious point of departure is Jean-Paul Sartre's entire oeuvre - especially his play, "No Exit," but really all of his philosophy, whose aim is to maximize his audience's sense of responsibility.  Perhaps Sartre did not go far enough in creating this feeling, though, especially in his early work, like Barionà, written when he still believed in free will.  But the point is that throughout his entire literary career, the very purpose of all of his writing was to engender within the reader a feeling of overwhelming responsibility.  And as time would go on, Sartre's own output would become darker, more pessimistic, more socially oriented, and more deterministic, and others would go even further - notably his partner, Simone de Beauvoir, but more so the structuralists.  This intense feeling, which paradoxically and incongruously combines inescapability with culpability, ("like a caustic acrostic, spelling out your name," as Fugazi puts it) can also be found in other work: the plays of Samuel Beckett and Henrik Ibsen, the art of Edvard Munch, and later the films of Ingmar Bergman, for instance.  One can develop a taste for it.

But the question remains: why would someone want to feel this anxiety, to feel this despair?  Digging into the history of the development of this aesthetic, the answer becomes abundantly clear: the motivation is fundamentally religious in origin.  This is a very European phenomenon, rooted in the great European tradition, but it took centuries to develop and really only blossomed in the modern period.  Perhaps the classical work of this genre is the corpus of Søren Kierkegaard, whose work embodies the Protestant side of the development of this aesthetic: dry, cold, pale, bloodless, Puritanical, Nordic, prototypically Danish.  One can trace the feeling of Munch, Ibsen, Bergman, etc. - the party of anti-fun - back to Kierkegaard and his fetishization of anxiety.  

In "The Concept of Anxiety" ("Begrebet Angest" in the original Danish), Kierkegaard argues that anxiety, or "dread" as it is also translated (cognate of the German term "Angst" which is used by Hegel and other writers) precedes the concepts of sin, evil, guilt, and shame.  His argument is fundamentally Christian and explicitly scriptural, referring to Adam in the Garden of Eden, before tasting the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  At this point, Adam would not have a concept of evil, but he would have a sense of the dread of the power of God, and anxiety for the consequences of disobeying Him.  Did Adam have any choice, any free will, in biting into the fruit?  In a sense, this is beside the point - for even if he did not have free will, even if his actions were predestined by God, he nonetheless still had the anxiety of the choice, and both psychologically and morally, this is what is important for Kierkegaard.  Indeed, it is prior to morality.  Thus anxiety takes on a special, indeed cosmic importance for Kierkegaard.  Anxiety has a kind of positive value - it is anxiety and precisely anxiety that gives our lives meaning.  And for Kierkegaard, this all comes back around at the end of the story, in the crucial moment "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"  It is precisely when anxiety is (paradoxically) pushed all the way to despair that it attains its salvific power.

This is what Kierkegaard & co were into.  They got off on it.  Heidegger wrote that the fundamental mood of Dasein is Angst.  Sartre, explicitly following Kierkegaard, And, a century later, the creation of the social determinist oeuvre is the completion of the angst-ridden Kierkegaardian aesthetic.

*     *     *

Another side of the religious origin of this aesthetic of anxiety - one that I respect a thousand times more than I respect its Kierkegaardian side - is exemplified in Kafka, who represented a specifically Jewish way of aestheticizing anxiety.  Unlike the Protestants, Kafka is fun.  He also has a much better sense of humor than Kierkegaard.  He doesn't have to announce: "I'M BEING IRONIC NOW!  GUYS, THIS IS IRONY!  GET IT?  HAHAHAHA!" the way Kierkegaard does.  But we still get to enjoy lost hope and missed chances, as in the famous short story, with its punchline:

Once upon a time, a man from the countryside wanted to get access to the law. The access was through a guarded door. Every time he was trying to get in, the doorkeeper was telling him he cannot let him in just yet. Months passed, then years, but the door remained closed.

The man started bribing the doorkeeper and he spent everything he had just to be able to return to the gate with an ever higher bribe. The man got old. Just before dying, he asked the doorkeeper why he never saw anybody else trying to enter through that door, since all people seem to be seeking the law. The doorkeeper replied:

“No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

Even Althusser is religious in his inspiration, as I have discussed in a previous essay.  Indeed, the entire French structuralist movement can be understood fundamentally as a religious movement.  Althusser was deeply Catholic, but from the long French academic cultural tradition that has many characteristics in common with Protestantism, yet remains distinct from it.

It should be underlined: the origin of the aesthetic choice of social determinism is not science - neither the "hard" sciences such as physics, chemistry, and biology, nor the "soft" sciences such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology.  It's not even clear that scientific evidence for social determinism is possible.  It may be an unfalsifiable contention.  To use Wolfgang Pauli's famous phrase, social determinism may be one of those things that is "not even wrong."  It does not even rise to the level of a hypothesis.  

If anything, social determinism is historically rooted not in the findings of scientists but in the critique of science.  This, too, should be underlined: Althusser and his followers critiqued the human sciences not because they were too deterministic but because, from the perspective of thinkers like Althusser, the science wasn't deterministic enough.  It wasn't deterministic enough to suit the aesthetics of these connoisseurs of anxiety.

Freud was important to many of these people as well, but only a distorted, contorted, disemboweled Freud.  Freud was interesting to them only because he wrote about anxiety, and thus reinterpreting Freud gave them a chance to secularize Kierkegaard.  Anything remotely scientific about the psychoanalytic movement was forever banned.  This is why Lacan had to replace the substantialist interpretation of Freud's theory of desire with a purely formal, linguistic ontology.  Not because Freud's fluid, biological, mechanistic model was too rigid but precisely because it wasn't rigid enough.  The Lacanians wanted an anxious, alienated, divided subject that was utterly inescapable and could be derived as certainly as a mathematical formula, as unavoidably as 2+2=4.  This way we could ensure our guilt.

What the social determinists wanted was original sin.  Our only response to them can be Blake's: "All that we saw was owing to your metaphysics...."


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