Uses of Disorder

Highlights from March 5th, 2021.

Men like Herbert Marcuse and Franz Fanon have arrived at a specific answer. They believe that the revolutionary passage ought to be an emotional experience that transcends ridding a society of tyrants; it should be an education accustoming men to accept a certain amount of anarchy and disorder in their lives.

For Fanon, the freedom inherent in making revolution can only live as long as the revolutionaries remain outside the confines of city life; he believed they must look at the city as a human settlement, a human community, hostile to the force of their own commitment.

Fanon believed that the necessity for bureaucracy in a city and the anonymous character of human contacts there were bound, in the end, to destroy the feeling of closeness, of men wanting to share a better, more just life for all.

This anti-urban bias of revolutionary leaders who are disturbed by what has transpired in Russia is deep-seated; it is to be seen in the glorification of the peasantry by Mao Tse-tung and Fidel Castro; it is to be seen in the theorists of guerrilla warfare who are increasingly giving up the cities as “hopeless” places in which to inflame widespread revolutionary ideals.

Avoiding city life may preserve the ardor of solidarity, but at the cost of enforcing a terrible simplicity, that of the tribe or small village, on the revolutionaries. The price of keeping the revolutionary spirit alive is thus a bondage of its own, a curb on the social diversity present when many different people live together in a dense, urban settlement.

Better tribal and intimate than impersonal and bureaucratic is a formula whose exercise is an admission of impotence to deal with and change bureaucratic structures of themselves.

I think men like Marcuse and Fanon are right when they say there is a need to learn a new context of disorder and diversity; the rules and routines necessary to survive in the face of economic scarcity are now out of place. But I have been moved in my own thinking to probe how dense, disorderly, overwhelming cities can become the tools to teach men to live with this new freedom.

To understand the community life of people freed from scarcity requires a sounding of the darker desires of men, desires for safe and secure slavery that people bring into their social relations.

The theme of this book is that there appears in adolescence a set of strengths and desires which can lead in themselves to a self-imposed slavery; that the current organization of city communities encourages men to enslave themselves in adolescent ways; that it is possible to break through this framework to achieve an adulthood whose freedom lies in its acceptance of disorder and painful dislocation; that the passage from adolescence to this new, possible adulthood depends on a structure of experience that can only take place in a dense, uncontrollable human settlement—in other words, in a city.

I believe the freedom to accept and to live in disorder represents the goal which this generation has aimed for, vaguely and inchoately, in its search for “community.”

Anna Freud has observed that the conflicts involved in an intimacy are evaded in adolescence by a rigid selective process; the young take a painful difference to be a proof that a particular partner is not “the” one.

We are beginning to see in certain social upheavals a familar and depressing character type, a new leader consumed by the desire for a more humane order yet who also reveals a terrible kind of inhumanity, a rigid, insatiable search for a life he can never achieve. The flowering of a pain-transcending, timeless ideal seems to push such leaders to act in ways that contradict the humanity and openness of the specific reforms they espouse.

Psychologists tend to view the forces creating this desire for purity, when it becomes totally fixed and dominant in a life, as a form of emotional illness.

That the adolescent process of making an identity of coherence has a social character can be seen in such areas as adolescent career choice, sexual identity, and the pretensions of emotionless competence. But a communal structure that is built out of desires for purity in adolescence means something more: when the purification desires of a large number of people succeed and become dominant in their lives, it would be only natural for these men to try to mold society in their own image, so that the structure of society would be organized to encourage and to codify this peculiar escape from painful disorder.

The “pathology” here is that, by codifying the desire for coherence in affluent communal life, men have found the means to impose a voluntary slavery upon themselves. It is this slavery their more sensitive children now are fleeing, it is this narrowness by choice that is prompting the young to search for a new kind of community life.

The feeling of community is fraternal, it involves something more than the recognition that men need each other materially. The bond of community is one of sensing common identity, a pleasure in recognizing “us” and “who we are.”

Is there a connection between this community by an act of will, this identity of a coherent “us,” and the tools generated in adolescents by which individuals acquire a purified “me,” resistant to new experience?

The image of the community is purified of all that might convey a feeling of difference, let alone conflict, in who “we” are. In this way the myth of community solidarity is a purification ritual.

Certain tools of avoidance used by a human being to deal with crises in his own growth patterns are subsequently transferred to the way he understands himself as a social being. This transfer of a skill learned in adolescence is how the myth of a purified community comes into being.

The fear of “otherness,” of that which one does not know, is exactly of a piece with what men fear about themselves and their own powers when those powers ripen in adolescence. From adolescence people take a power for mythmaking into their adult community lives to blunt the conscious perception of “otherness.”

As Denis de Rougemont has so wisely remarked, the sharing that occurs in deep relations of intimacy grows out of loving the distinctiveness, the uniqueness of the other Person, not in the merging of selves into one homogenized being. But in the purification of a coherent community image, fear rather than love of men’s “otherness” prevails.

But the myth of a common “us” is an act of repression, not simply because it excludes outsiders or deviants from a particular community, but because of what it requires of those who are the elect, the included ones. The elect must give up complex or conflicting loyalties, and they want to do this, want to become slaves to each other, in order to avoid the strengths in themselves that would make them explorers beyond comfortable limits.

Essentially, communities whose people feel related to each other by virtue of their sameness are polarized. When issues within or without the community arise that cannot be settled by routine processes of bureaucratic administration, it seems that the whole fabric of the myth is in jeopardy because of an intractable issue or event that cannot be assimilated.

Individuals in the community have achieved a coherent sense of themselves precisely by avoiding painful experiences, disordered confrontations and experiments, in their own identity formation. Having, therefore, so little tolerance for disorder in their own lives, and having shut themselves off so that they have little experience of disorder as well, the eruption of social tension becomes a situation in which the ultimate methods of aggression, violent force and reprisal, seem to become not only justified, but life-preserving.

It is because men are uneasy and intolerant with ambiguity and discord in their own lives that they do not know how to deal with painful disorder in a social setting, and instead escalate disorder to the level of life or death struggle.

My thinking had no clarity until I realized that in the last decades the Family has appropriated the social functions and contacts that men once sought in the broader arena of the city. This appropriation by the Family of social “spaces” once felt inappropriate for the home has encouraged something perverse in the urban communal relations men have left, and in the Family itself. This perversity is a seeking after solidarity and a fear of experiences that might create complexity or disorder.

The collapsing of Family members to a state of equality often leads, in the same way, to a tragic self-limiting of the experience of Family members.

A few sociologists of the Family have recently been at pains to unravel a “guilt over conflict” syndrome. This syndrome appears in the attitudes of many intense-Family members toward their families. The syndrome is quite simple to state, and it is quite painful to the people caught in it: good families, upright families, are happy; happiness is usually associated with tranquillity; therefore, when conflicts or fights arise in a Family, the Family (and the fighter) must be no good, tarnished, and somehow a failure.

Put another way, this anxiety and guilt over Family conflict really expresses the wish that diversity and ineradicable differences should not exist in the home, for the sake of social order.

But suppression and avoidance of diversity along these lines is exactly of a piece with the desire for a purified, disorder-transcending identity that emerges in adolescence. The desire for coherent identity is exactly the search to avoid diversity and painful unknowns in the social arena for the sake of some secure order.

In the name of avoiding painful confusion, of establishing the “decencies” of life as regnant, the scope of human variety and freedom of expression is drastically restricted; this is, in broad urban terms, exactly the same pattern as is to be found in those revolutionary regimes where “the good life” is rigidly imposed as a life of discipline. The multiplicity of contact points is voluntarily reduced so that men do not lose their solidarity.

It is common for “slum romantics” to bemoan the loss of intimate social space and small scale in modern city life. But from the vantage point of what has been set forth here, the issue would appear to be the reverse. There has not been a loss of intimate small scale, per se, but rather a loss of multiple foci of small scale.

The new virtue, like the religious puritanism of old, is a ritual of purifying the self of diverse and conflicting avenues of experience. But where the first puritans engaged in this self-repression for the greater glory of God, the puritans of today repress themselves out of fear, fear of the unknown, the uncontrolled.

The metaphor of metropolitan planning is an expression of the technology by which modern machines are constructed. The parts of machines are different, to be sure, but these differences exist to create a single function; any conflict between the parts, or even the existence of parts working independently of the whole, would defeat the purpose of the machine. There is no reason for pain or confusion in it.

In planning cities on the machine model, an urbanist is trying to “integrate” these needs in a transcendent way, and for the purposes of this integration conflict and pain between the parts of the human city are viewed as bad, as qualities to be eliminated.

The actual, immediate experience of man, in all its possible freedom and diversity, is taken to be less important than the creation of a community that is conflict free; the sense of living in the present is violated for an ideal society in which men live in such harmony that one can never imagine them growing in ways that will violate the “correct” interrelations they have with each other.

Conflict is conceived as a threat to some “better,” conflict-free city life.

Planners’ sights are on that urban “whole” instead; they are dreaming of a beautiful city that exists somewhere other than in the present, a beautiful city where people fit together in peace and harmony, a city so beautiful in fact, that ghetto people, Irish cops, aristocratic WASPS, hippies, students, clerks, and bookkeepers will close their eyes to what they cannot abide in each other, to the painful facts of their difference, and settle down to common happiness.

To make good use of affluence, we must create a set of social situations that will weaken, as a man matures, the desire for controlled, purified experience.

The terms of this possible adulthood may already be evident: a life with other people in which men learn to tolerate painful ambiguity and uncertainty. To counter the desire for slavery that grows strong in adolescence, men must subsequently grow to need the unknown, to feel incomplete without a certain anarchy in their lives, to learn, as Denis de Rougemont says, to love the “otherness” around them.

The great promise of city life is a new kind of confusion possible within its borders, an anarchy that will not destroy men, but make them richer and more mature.

In trying to enforce a vision of coherent order, the young person meets an immovable obstacle or social situation that is out of his control. The disorderly world defeats the dreams of coherence and solidarity.

Childhood curiosity about the immediate world is reborn. The desire to see, apart from the desire to see things in their proper place, is regenerated.

What kind of caring would exist independent of the desire for power, apart from a master and his willing slaves? This kind of caring I would call “caring about.” It is closely related to a simple, creature-like curiosity, but a curiosity about graspable images, that is, individualized images. The more individual, the more particular the thing or person cared about becomes, the more men are able and willing to care about it.

Because adult growth is additive rather than transformational, other elements of psychic reality are always present to intrude. For this reason interpersonal pain and disorder is inevitable; this regression forms the essence of the social reality never to be erased by any utopian arrangement of society.

The power of adolescence—and the power of even earlier stages of life to re-emerge in adulthood and so bring confusion and complexity into the lives of supposedly rational adults—affects the nature of care and concern itself.

The ills of the city are not mechanical ones of better transport, better financing, and the like; they are the human ones of providing a place where men can grow into adults, and where adults can continue to engage in truly social existence.

The bonds in the adult society I envision would be difficult. Care between individuals would exist only to the extent that mutual curiosity and specific personal bonds developed. There would be no expectation of human love, no community of affection, warm and comforting, laid down for the society as a whole.

Precisely because the community was on its own, because the people had to deal with each other in order to survive at all, some kind of uneasy truce between these hostile camps, these conflicting interests, would have to be arranged by the people themselves. And the act of participating in some sort of truce would force people to look at each other, if only to find areas in which some bond, tenuous and unloving as it would be, could be forged.

The feeling that “I live here and I count in this community’s life” would consist, not of a feeling of companionship, but of a feeling that something must be done in common to make this conflict bearable, to survive together.

Yet if men do not grow out of this denial, if men continue to believe that hostility between groups should be muted, not encouraged in its social expression, the cities will continue to burn, for nothing exists socially now to mediate hostility, to force people to look beyond their images of threatening outsiders to the actual outsiders themselves.

To assure tranquillity in advance is to revert to a dream of painless immunity, and ultimately, if we are to judge from some social revolutions of our own time, to bring on a totalitarian rigidity for the sake of the dream.

Really “decentralized” power, so that the individual has to deal with those around him, in a milieu of diversity, involves a change in the essence of communal control, that is, in the refusal to regulate conflict.

Among the greatest virtues of the Paris commune, to men like Proudhon, was its small-group character and tightness. Carr has pointed to the same desire for little, intimate communities in Bakunin’s beliefs and in those of his fellow countryman Kropotkin, who looked back to the village community of the late medieval period.

After the purging cataclysm of violent overthrow, the tight little band of believers—this is today Fanon’s dream as well. It is a millennial vision bound to decay, for such little communities permit the flourishing of desires for solidarity, and these desires in turn repress creative, disruptive innovations in life style and belief.

A growing minority of young adults, as they acquire Family responsibilities and children, are refusing to make the trek out to the suburbs, and are searching instead for ways to remain in the center of town. The reason for this is that they hope for something “richer” in social life than what the suburb offers.

These young people are refusing to be bored, refusing to accept the dead security in which they grew up.

Rather than face the full range of social experience possible to men, the communities of safe coherence cut off the amount of human material permitted into a man’s life, in order that no questions of discord, no issues of survival be raised at all.

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