Scars Etched in History Itself III: The Many Is So Different From the One, Research Time, 27/05/2015

Continued from last post . . . I mean, I think I'm going to try. I’ll at least get some speculations off the ground, say what it isn’t. Even just entertaining to speculate whether it's right to call a civilization or culture traumatized is flirting with the boundary of a world of hurt. 

I say this in general, and as someone who’s also engaging the most influential philosopher of liberal individualism in the last hundred years, Friedrich Hayek. Yes, Hayek, the radical individualist who saw most activity of government that required scientific planning as inherently totalitarian.* 

American peace activists on the run from the soldiers
of their own country.
* I have a friend from my time at McMaster who would advocate for John Rawls, but Rawls never founded a network of think tanks that influenced the fundamental economic policies of almost every major Western political party. Rawls influenced a lot of political philosophers at elite university institutions, but universities have been under fire from the political elite since the 1960s (sometimes literally) for fostering political radicalism.

Hayek articulated what would become the genesis of the new liberal opposition to using the state as a tool for public service and the correction of injustice. The socialist thinkers of the 19th and early 20th centuries conceived of society as a unified organism, and the state as its driving force. 

This subsumed the good of each individual in a society to the good of society as a whole, and allowed the kind of callous utilitarianism that would, for example, starve a significant portion of a country’s population to feed some segment that was more productive, obedient, or somehow moved along the government’s Five Year Plan better than otherwise. Just as a doctor, with his scientific knowledge of medicine, would cut off a limb or remove a thyroid or a breast to save a life. 

It’s a clearly Stalinist move. And its fundamental justification was the presumption that a society was a whole that subsumed its individual parts, just as an organism is a whole that subsumes its individual parts. 

This isn’t actually how we think anymore because Hayek was right to oppose it – thinking of a society as an individual that subsumes all its citizens into the whole is not how society works at all. 

Sometimes, Bergson had an annoying influence
on his followers, as when Gilles Deleuze, a
major influence on Ecology, Ethics, and the
Future of Humanity
, would draw these crude
yet amusing diagrams of massive systematic
Scientific knowledge of complex systems now correctly understand them under ecological frameworks of thought, not organismic ones. Systems affect each other as they relate, integrate, and come to depend on each other. All these processes come together in a massive machine, but the machine doesn’t somehow overwrite the purposes of all the individual parts. If it did, the machine itself would break down, because the autonomy of the parts all acting together keep the machine running as it does. 

These machines, whether they’re an ecosystem or a society, have no primal unity in their identity. They’re massive, plural, complex systems. Any stability in them is a product not of carefully planned and regulated activity, but of dynamic tensions that keep a set of flows (they could be matter, energy, information, money, concepts, or some combination of any of them) within a threshold limit. If the threshold is broken – if any processes spin out of control, die out, or begin to overpower the others – then the system flies or falls apart. 

Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity explains in more detail how this is the fundamental character of ecological relationships, and explores its implications for how we should understand the systems in which we all live. 

A society is one of these systems that emerge from the dynamic tension of its autonomous parts. So if I’m going to write about social and cultural traumas, they have to be very different in kind from traumas that happen to individual, those involuntary flashes of perception of a horrifying past event. A society has no mind, no self-consciousness, no self-identity.**

** These are, of course, different words for the same thing.

Is the trauma of a culture more terrifying than the
trauma of a single person? Not if we can see his face.
What could a trauma be for a culture? Cultures themselves don’t conceive of themselves as narratives built from our memories and knowledge. Cultures don’t think at all. Individuals do. 

Cultures are aggregates of affects, processes constantly in collision and tension. A radical change to these processes can destroy the entire system. But a system can also weather such a change, carrying on despite its scars deforming it from the best set of internal relations it could have to work smoothly. The system still functions, but the effects of the injury linger, and the affects of the injury spread throughout.

This is how we can understand trauma at the societal and cultural level. As a catastrophic event whose changes and effects drastically impair a system without allowing it to die. Unable to repair itself or completely break down in the hopes of forming some utterly new assemblage, it limps along as a twisted wreck.

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