The situation of any person is far more complicated than location in a material environment (being-there), although placement in a material environment is elemental. Every person is also situated within a human environment and the human environment is always in an historical drift. It is useful to pick out ‘cultural’ and ‘political’ aspects of that human environment, but political aspects are just particular features of the cultural situation. Considering both the human and material features of the environment, what any individual encounters outwardly is material determinism and cultural and political control. That is the context in which the question “How can freedom be possible?” has to be answered.
The Social Life of Intelligence
In general, any person seeks to maximize the experience of intelligence or personality through creating mutual reflections or resonances with other intelligent entities. Although questioning is peculiarly individual, we all have questioning, voice, and existence-in-time in common as intelligent entities. Culture is poorly understood, but builds from this: imitation communicates intelligence; rocks and bushes do not imitate. Imitation is a declaration of intelligence, an odd sort of self-declaration: “I can re-create from myself all that is external. As intelligence, I contain everything.” It is the beginning of the human social-nature. Imitation has such power just because rocks and bushes do not imitate. Imitation is an intelligent act, a communication of deliberative intelligence. That is the whole basis of culture. Conversation is an intelligence game, acts of clear repetition, but each with a relevant novelty thrown in as a personal contribution and as an invitation for a further collective movement. Music may focus the natural rhythms of the body, but it takes them into a game of abstract expectation and surprise, a conversation of pure intelligence. The experience of intelligence is a subjective value, that is, we keep wanting more.
In addition to forms of subjectivity such as curiosity, appetites, and expressive impulses, there is that force of mutual attachment which is neither gravitational, electro-magnetic, nor nuclear, but a force peculiar to intelligences. The force of mutual attachment has different aspects, including an orientation toward sources of attention, kisses, help, food, and the reflection of intelligence. We experience our nature best, in some ways, in resonance with other time-conscious entities, and so we come to absorb ourselves in relationships with and imitations of other people. An enlargement of the sense of intelligence is accomplished by imitating socially modeled activities: the way we live in our group, and that situates the imitating person as the medium needed by cultural forms to propagate through yet another generation. Mutual stimulation is natural to time-conscious entities, but the resulting attachments take forms which are imitated unconsciously, and take on an importance which is more enduring and more apparent than individuals.
The natural environment is almost completely mediated for humans by a social and cultural environment. We are social and cultural sponges who soak up, without being especially conscious of doing it, the forms of life, postures, gestures, language games, feuds, fads, fashions, and traditions acted out around us. People are not normally conscious of the degree to which our behaviour and thinking are determined by social and cultural influences. We can feel like individuals even when engaging in imitative culturally normative behaviour such as dressing/acting like a man or like a woman. The originality of adults is buried under decades of social conditioning. Although nature has some absolute givens and limitations for any organism, there is a great deal of the human environment which is merely customary and variable through political, commercial, and other human forces.
Although we might be born free, we have no choice about social participation. We need a caring social group to ferry us across infancy and childhood. That caring group itself needs others for mutual support in dealing with the indifferent environment. Both the immediate group and the larger one assign us objective categories such as boy or girl, good looking or not, strong or sickly, good or bad reader, good or bad athlete, good or bad singer, good or bad. Quite early these groups assign us tentative economic roles such as tinker, taylor, soldier, sailor, clergyman, teacher, driver, cook, cleaner. Those roles and categories have fixed characteristics. They have the face of objectivity and eternal validity as varieties of human nature. So individuals are objectified by social participation.
The Great Interconnectedness
Social interconnectedness is essential for humans, and in many ways the greatness of humanity resides in the web of our conscious interconnectedness as a collective creation. As isolated energies we are dramatically more restricted to a locality, less powerful, less expressed, less happy, and in many ways less free. We look at the world out of interconnectedness. The feat of visiting the moon was accomplished by a human interconnectedness, and not by a few individuals. The foundation of that interconnectedness is language. Learning a first language, accomplished in infancy, sets up habits of conversation, conversational skill, pleasure, and readiness to converse which enable a lifetime of personal connections and bring a vast collective sophistication to the individual. Culture generally is both product and mechanism of interconnectedness.
The interconnectedness of consciousness across multitudes of individuals is different from culture, and separately important. Every individual’s orientation toward news, gossip, stories, textbook presentations, or popular culture, in the family or village, at work, in the nation or the world, is part of the great interconnectedness. That orientation connects each single intelligence to all others with attention on the same range of information, as well as to the persons and themes about whom the stories and presentations report. It also connects each individual to the arc of information that has gone before and which is expected to go on being renewed and enlarged, and so watched routinely, refreshed routinely.
Isolated lives participate in producing the great interconnectedness of intelligences. For that, intelligence needs deliberation but also cooperative attachments with other lives. An individual’s knowledge is enabled to go beyond strictly personal acquaintance to include what an untold number of others have discovered, thought, doubted, and imagined, the projection of possibilities and probabilities, and it enables the integration of an unlimited number of points of view on the world and the prospects of a life. Individuals receive many gifts from the social interconnectedness that surrounds and nurtures us through infancy. In return, families, religions, communities, and states make claims on the energies, talents, ways of thinking, and emotional allegiance of individuals. In addition, there are disorders of the grand structures within the interconnectedness of people, and there are injuries from too great a submission of individual energy to the web of interconnection.
The Ego-Avatar Constructed for Social Attachment
There are very few times or activities which do not involve social supervision. Childhood and formal education are almost entirely training in dependence on a supervised system of incentives and rewards. Any work for pay is supervised. Any act for spiritual salvation is supervised. Any society with a focus on religion or on work for pay is a supervising cultural matrix. Supervision normally involves an incentive and reward system, even if the reward is only praise or approval from an authority figure such as a teacher.
Organizations and informal groups exert influence on any individual in sight, sound, and touch of them in a number of ways. 1) There are norms, customs, feuds and fashions, ways of standing, walking, talking, playing, getting food, dressing, topics of conversation, menus of attitudes to express in conversations, menus of moves in the current conversation game. 2) Collectives have organized structures of productive work or effort into which individuals can fit and earn a place as well as vital rewards. 3) A big group ‘personality’ is a safe and powerful collective intelligence to meld with. The myriad social micro-patterns relate us to macro-entities: playing a category such as man or woman, for example, is training for belonging within the economic and political arrangements of a nation, city, family, or religion. Customs and norms are imitated more or less unconsciously, for intelligent invisibility within the herd-system, but when ignored they are enforced. We choose ‘the way we live in our group’ rather than exile into a wilderness of isolation and uncertainty.
There is a social construct, the ego-avatar, which is different from the subjective person. The ego is a display of tags of status and dignity, or lack of them, a schema to display a gravitas score, to display placement on a culturally defined scale of worth, the trophies of social competitions. This has much in common with Freud’s “superego”, a mental internalization of public authority figures or role models, which then act as a restraint on merely personal impulses. In the alpha dominated world of big brittle egos in pageants of competition, egoistic aggrandizement is a social and historical creation. Intelligence creates and builds ego-avatars but is not limited to avatars or to any particular avatar.
The force of mutual attachment is rewarding enough to challenge all other impulses and rewards, but cultural formations also manage to take on a force of their own by inspiring loyalty and personal identification in many people. From that emerges a custom of social control and enforcement based on intentional injury to people who do not conform. Basic inter-personal attachments shape an individual’s voice to what being-together with others will permit. It is easy to assume that a personal relationship is entirely the product of the participants, but not all bearings are direct from the pre-cultural self. The self also pretends, learns roles and avatars, and imitates. If anyone is bringing learned behaviour such as language to the ways in which being together is practiced, they are incorporating social pageantry and value assignments. We live in an environment of cultural value assignments, narratives, explanations, and rhetorical defenses of social collectives and the function-roles that structure them.
No individual has much control over the evolutionary momentum of big cultural entities such as states, cities, religions, industries, or institutions such as armies and war, universities and literacy. A lifetime is barely enough to get a sense of what they are. We behold them for a heartbeat, a blink. In that way they are similar to biological evolution. Our lives are expressed in bodies which are at some moment in an arc of species mutation already in progress for millions of years. We live the gifts and limitations of our moment in that long arc of mutation. The dead ‘momentum’ of social forms soon separates us from awareness of the originality of our personal intelligence.
It makes a crucial difference that innocent, pre-cultural, individual impulses are of the nature of curiosity and creative impulses to mark the world. The social nature of people brings with it a default cultural hegemony and a resulting alienation of innocent creativity. However, individual rationality in actual behaviour or practice does not require the social and cultural constraint, nor any occult congruence between knowledge, nature, and language. Nothing prevents even innocent individuals from appreciating the needs of others. In fact people do that easily and so are enabled to establish human attachments and learn spoken language in the first place. (Please see posting 11, November 10, 2011, Nature: Ground and Sky.)
People have a natural, innate, or innocent gift for spontaneously creating social attachments. Acquisition of spoken language is part of that talent. It is a robust gift and a very early accomplishment for ordinary people. Social attachments are not unnatural in any way and do not require leadership, supervision, religious revelations, visions of heaven or hell, gods or demons, codes of law, threats of insult, injury, or death, or any other special intervention or extraordinary circumstances. There is no social contract and no need for one because social attachment is a casual accomplishment for ordinary people. Social attachments are based on deliberate acts of imitation as expressions of intelligence. Although imitative culture is not unnatural, it is not preordained or “hard-wired” either. Culture is largely accident and spur of the moment invention, ad hoc, and provisional. It is software, updating continuously in patches. The ways of life, language games, and ways-of-being practiced in any group have a strong force of attraction as models to be imitated as a way of attaching with a clear and distinct manifestation of intelligence. Since ‘objective reality’ is approached from within some such cultural narrative, it is edited, selected, and interpreted to serve that narrative. Experience is profoundly conditioned or qualified by cultural influences in ways which are easy to misidentify. Social attachments embed individuals in sets of imitative activities which constitute cultures. Adults generally are sufficiently embedded to be almost entirely determined by cultural influences. The menu of life narratives and scripts made available by a particular culture has a determining influence on how an individual understands and relates to his or her environment.
Beyond Groupthink: Innocence
All this being said, we do not need to experience intelligence only in collectives. Self as innocent questioning, voice, and existence-in-time is already self-subsisting intelligence. We are blocked from that experience by our early involvement in collective intelligence. The sweet kick we get from bouncing off the voices of other time-conscious entities, is compromised by the bitterness of having intelligence confined, blocked, and forced to repeat endlessly its least powerful functions. A stronger experience of intelligence is available in deliberative self-possession, in reclaimed innocence. The normal absorption of individual intelligence within cultural forms makes sense of a project to reclaim innocence, to recognize pre-cultural intelligence and to re-think personal orientation to include that recognition.
(Note: The three graces are: nature, subjective intelligence, and culture.)
Copyright © 2012 Sandy MacDonald. The moral right of the author is asserted.