Why, and How, the Social

For Nietzsche, so-called basic needs didn't come first for the Greeks. Beauty and function are not distinct terms.
Maslow's hierarchy is false and dangerous, just as Hobbes' social contract is.
If we begin from a different set of assumptions about the social, we create a different social.

What do we want from other people?

I like my solitude and so spend a tremendous amount of time alone. But I'm not a hermit. I don't live in a cave bereft of all social contact. I hear the cars and voices, honks and sirens, of this almost-city. The social is the very backdrop, the very condition, of my life. Of course. 

And, frankly, I crave some desire from others. Most of us know this desire in ourselves all too well: it's the glances in the streets we seek, the blinking light of the answering machine, the likes of a post, the rings and dings of the phone. 

So while I like being alone, I also want someone to want me not to be alone. I want someone to desire my company. I want my solitude but not just as a saying Yes but as a saying No. I want the best of all possible worlds (not in the Leibnizian sense): I want the peace of my own company and the desire of others. Which is a certain kind of sickness, as Nietzsche would have it — and I'm prone to agree. I am often not utterly and thoroughly content in my own company. There's the Groucho Marx joke in there somewhere which speaks to self-loathing, guilt, a sense of indebtedness to others — hence a sense of being incomplete, ill at ease, when alone.

When I am utterly, thoroughly content in my own company — for moments, nights, days at a time — I feel my very best. I feel life surging through me, with me. I feel I am the universe, or at least this moment of it.

But here I am writing this — on a blog, no less. These words are, at the very least, a ping in the pond of the social. I want my ripple, my Doppler effect (from my palace of solitude). 

What does the social offer? The Hobbesian argument is that we want agreements from others that we won't kill each other. I get that. I don't want to walk down the street fearing for my life from every person I pass. That'd suck, for sure.

But what a funny assumption Hobbes makes — that our first instinct is to kill each other, and as that's annoying, we agree with others not to kill one another. I don't think that's our first instinct. It's not mine, that's for sure. Which is not because I'm a good person, trust me. It's because killing someone else sounds icky, not to mention exhausting. There is not state of nature; no fundamental law of kill or be killed. Those things, like all things, are little created machines, engines that drive relations, laws, discourse, identities, desires. 

As a machine, I get the social contract thing: we all take care of things together that we share and need— roads and water treatment plants and plumbing of every sort. Why these aren't all government institutions is a different, if related, question. The point is: we all use this stuff so let's work together to build and maintain it. I get it. 

Needless to say, we don't always agree what stuff we need. Still, the basic idea of a social contract — my individuality vis-√†-vis the anonymous social — makes some sense. 

But it doesn't suffice. We want things from the social, seek things from the social, that exceed any contractual terms. Deleuze and Guattari argue that the social is not forged via a contract. A contract assumes that rational individuals already exist; Deleuze and Guattari argue that such things — individuals, rationality, contracts — are created. Culture produces itself along and with flows and orders rational and not, individual and not. For Deleuze and Guattari, we are always living within flows that have been hedged, stipulated, veered this was and that: within desiring-machines of which we are constitutive (and which are at once rational and irrational). 

And, rest assured, I don't think you complete me, Lacan-meets-Jerry Maguire style. Sure, we're ontologically interdependent. Yes, of course. But that tells me nothing of the mechanisms that drive, motivate, and create social dependencies and desires (beyond the utilitarian, which never suffices as an argument. Forget Maslow: that's a false, dangerous path. As Nietzsche argues about the Greeks, form and function, beauty and utility, art and survival need not be distinct or opposed; on the contrary, the healthiest wills will them together). 

Of course, there's the matter of sex. From one perspective, sex is no different than any other desire. I live, and am created and constituted, within a desiring-machine that we can alternately call culture, discourse, ideology that drives my drives (as it were — and which my drives, in turn, drive). There is no doubt that much of my desire for sex comes from the same slave ideology (to borrow Nietzsche's figure) that would have me needing others to confirm myself. That is to say, I often find myself pining for sex in which said pining is really just a desire to confirm my ego. I am wanted! This is part of the machine Burroughs calls the Orgasm Death Gimmick.  Sex and desire, then, not for pleasure per se or for seething vitality but to confirm my worst self. I should let that go just as I try to let my desire for page views to go.

And yet unlike the desire for the ringing, dinging phone, sex really does involve another person — and not necessarily to confirm my ego but to, well, touch me and be touched. I am not suggesting that the desire for sex is somehow more primal or instinctual; it is produced from the cutting of the flux as all desire is. But I am saying that the desire for sex operates with different mechanisms and along different trajectories (at least for me). 

My will to solitude, then, is not a will to solipsism. It's the will of a certain metabolism that needs time and space and quiet to regenerate. At my best, my desires to have sex, to touch and be touched, to love and be loved, are vital to my existence — as vital as food and shelter. 

I believe that the role of the social is not to agree to live without fear (that's clearly failed, anyway). Nor is it to complete me (fuck Lacan and his lack).  The role of the social is to bring out you — not the best you, forget that moral nonsense — but the you qua you. Friends and lovers are not there to console you; they're there to nourish you, fuel you, vitalize you, to touch you and be touched by you. It is an exchange and mingling of energy and vitality, not existential confirmation, emotional consolation, or the proffering of so-called basic needs. 

What would a society constructed along these lines look like? What would community come to mean? What kinds of discursive regimes might we build that would foster the fomenting of personal strength rather than playing on — and creating — our weakest, most ill-constituted selves? What might a society of individuals look like? I'm pretty sure it would include the non-human — ideas, clouds, books, moons, and cows. 



Owen Briggs said...

Yes, rather than one human being "completing" the other (euch!), we're a conversation having two people!

Regarding your last paragraph there, from 'The Book of the Subgenius':

"No, yes, SubGeniuses are merely The Chosen People - the class which
cannot be classified, those who are different not only from others but from each other. If any two are the same, ONE MUST GO! We band together only for strength, and only temporarily."

Brilliant book.

P.S. I came up with this kind of ethics of prosthetics (prosthethics!) which traces a more general case of the same idea:

Good prosthetics: We do what I can’t.
Bad prosthetics: You do so I don’t have to.

Everything becomes prosthetic in our interacting with it."

Daniel Alexander said...

You have a truly analytical mind and I see how it benefits you to categorize and label the motivations behind your social needs. It is an expression of you. I am very new to (the attempts) to read and digest philosophical offerings from the world. I picked up Kant, Hegel and Zizek to start and it is slow going. I have no background in the discipline but am fascinated with the puzzle.

However, early on I made the decision to not put any weight on being able to quote one or the other and thus refine the boxes into which I'm already placing people and experiences (not that I judge others adversely for doing so - it is a skill of which I am in awe!) i likely did this out of self preservation as I could give up easily with the mental crawling I perceive when in one of my books. But I enjoy the process so I am ahead in life.....according to me.

Commenting on your dual drives for solitude and social connections, I am the same way. I orbit the same binary sun. If I am too social I need a recharge from the other sun and vice versa but I stay in the aura of the solitary sun more than the social sun. I'm not on your level of being able to identify myself through advanced philosophical definitions but I feel I'm to the point where small talk is torture and that seems to be what most people are about when orbiting the social sun. I get bored. I need a puzzle to solve or one that makes me walk around it slowly intrigued in the possibilities.

I want to be stimulated. I know people that are completely stimulated and fulfilled with small talk and it isn't exactly alien to me - I can empathize that it fills a need for many others - but apart from initial interactions it does nothing for me. I want to know the true "you" or I am wasting my time. It sounds so callous. You wouldn't know this about me in meeting me. I'm told I'm the life of the party and "intensely interested" in others but that is just me digging for real knowledge, not just details on how you were cut off while driving today or how difficult Monday's continue to be for you. Mondays will never go away, I think when I hear about them. Why must you resist an arbitrary label created by us so we can mark the passage of time? Direct your resistance toward something with more substance and social reward! Huzzah!

Thanks for your stimulating posts.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Owen! Fucking love all of this. Is the SubGenius book worth reading? I assume by your enthusiasm that that's an emphatic yes.

Daniel: It's funny to think of myself as having an analytical mind; I tend towards blur where I imagine analytics tend towards specificity and categorization. On the other hand, these things are all relative.

I am academically trained, a bit to my chagrin. I don't like my academic propensity to quote and such; on the other hand, I love that I have this bevy of smartypants writers at my disposal, this arsenal of thinkers who've taught me how to think (but hopefully not what to think).

I, like you, have no patience for small talk. People in SF talk about restaurants. It's strange — and life numbingly boring. So, yes, I spend my time alone — except when I can find the fellow freak who'll surprise me. Although some of this is metabolic, not moral. I just burn intensely and then need lots of time to recover. That sounds like you, as well. I pass no judgment on the social; I just want to make my way best as I can in and amongst it. Which is one reason I'm obsessed with Curb Your Enthusiasm: Larry David negotiates social protocols with different degrees of success but always with an urge to shift, alter, break.

And thank you for your comments: a true pleasure.