Thursday, 3 January 2008

The Epoch of the Ant-Hill

A society that is subjected to the glare of sociology comes to be regarded, for the sake of understanding, as an example of an abstract system of relations and forces, rather than as an instance of the affairs of actually existing persons. In its scheme, men as persons no longer exist; there are only men as perfected type-individuals. Outside the dreams of sociologists, bureaucrats and other miscreants, such a society does not exist — as Margaret Thatcher notoriously and rightly indicated — but the great threat of its approximation looms whenever sociology finds its way into the minds of the powerful, wherewith — no longer merely descriptive but prescriptive — it tends to make a society in its image.
.....It is of great importance, therefore, to note the turn of thinking that has come with the monstrous presumption that society — that is to say, all those persons and associations conceptualised as a unity under the jurisdiction of the powerful — is something that can be run, not guided, not ruled, but run as if it were a machine-system; and yet, as it happens, it can be run, but only to the degree of the dissolution of the persons that are its actual constituents.
The age of great men is going; the epoch of the ant-hill, of life in multiplicity, is beginning. The century of individualism, if abstract equality triumphs, runs a great risk of seeing no more true individuals. . . . [S]ociety will become everything and man nothing. [1]
It is atomised individuals — stripped of character and personhood, place and belonging, and therein made equal to one another — who make the most perfect mass-men. Yet, imbued with a set of causes and crusades, and with a political moralism that strives for universality, they can become whole again — but not whole persons.
[1] Henri-Frédéric Amiel, 6th September 1851, Amiel’s Journal, tr. M.A. Ward (London: Dodo Press, 2006), p.52.


dearieme said...

I've just re-read Schama's "Citizens", his history of the French Revolution. He goes out of his way several times to emphasise the lack of sociological differences between the different murderous crews jockeying for power.

And a Happy New Year to you.

Deogolwulf said...

And to you!

Jonathan Young said...

What is the appropriate balance of power between individuals and collectives? Tip the balance too far either way, and you end up with tyranny, too many people either on their feet or on their knees.

Isn't this notion of perfect individuality a fantasy? Great men become great by serving the cause of social justice. If we're going to fetishize greatness for the sake of greatness, then what distinguishes Hitler from Lincoln? Different facial hair?

Deogolwulf said...

"Isn't this notion of perfect individuality a fantasy?"

In the sense of the realisation of abstract "perfected type-individuals", yes indeed.

Jonathan Young said...

Agreed. I still have quibble with the idea that prescriptive sociology is somehow oppressive. I think it might be liberating, in the sense that it clearly defines utility, which heretofore has been tied up, murkily enough, with teleology and mythology. The ant-hill analogy is just that: an analogy. It doesn't decribe the effect of prescriptive sociology so much as a fear about how it might be misused.

Of course, I might misunderstand what we mean to say by differentiating between descriptive and prescriptive sociology. How can sociology be descriptive of societal forces without inevitably suggesting organizational solutions? In order to escape such suggestions, we'd have to stop studying societal forces, and by extension, stop studying nature altogether. (This is not to suggest that sociology isn't 50 percent soft science, or that it doesn't involve at least a little sophistry.)

Bretwalda Edwin-Higham said...

The demise of the human being is a key issue in these coming days.