Last night I was walking my dog. It was one of those LA evenings, the sun was setting, the day had been filled with the lethargy brought about by the humidity and laziness only a desert can know… the humidity was still still lingering. It was the kind of evening in which the air feels like it’s on the cusp of bearable but, ever still so sticky.
The residue of the day hung like the smog of old a bad fiction novel. These evenings you imagine a line of grey blue sitting below tall buildings adding mystery to the skyline. It’s like expecting to see the beginning of Blade Runner as you open your eyes. Something about the evening remained bright.
Walking along the sidewalks of the Carthay area of Los Angeles houses were starting to light. You could see living rooms flicker in TV blue. Flat screens sat high on walls and CNN perched in 2nd floor Condos behind Spanish facades. Pruned lawns gave way to tidy interiors with the of the news in the homes of others. Every home on the street could have been tuned into the same station.
What was striking was the emptiness of the street. In a city full of people the doors were closed to the public. It was as if a bell tolled and people congregated to stare; waiting. It was if I, in that moment was the outsider looking in. Alone, I walked as the sun set. But, what struck me most was that each home on the street was engaged in the same way with the the world in front of them.
Inside those homes families lived as families. Each person’s experience individual, personal, their own. However, from the outside looking in the nuances of individuals was lost to this view. I can’t claim special position but, the perspective was hypnotic. For that moment I disengaged from their privacy and the immediacy of my home, I felt drawn into a perspective that wanted to understand what I was witnessing. At that moment every home was living their own version of the same action; it was time to switch off and tune in.
It seemed both obvious and surprising that people would switch their TVs rather than come together and experience the world simultaneously together; not through a glass lens into the world but, through eyes sharing in one space and not many. I felt a strong sense of juxtaposition; the world around me was collectively engaged in a single act, remotely.
People were tucked away and with the blue light and I was the only person outside, no one appeared joined except through the vehicle of CNN feeding a flow of information. The world seemed like it must be bigger to me than any world depicted by someone far away. Civilization was sat on a couch and its doors were closed the real expanse directly outside
It struck me that in this moment I was on the outside looking in. The lawns and road extended orthogonally away in a hue saturated by an expression of my sentiment. They weren’t a reflection of the world at all. The sharpness of dull color were mesmerizing.
As I was walking past the houses the sharp juxtaposition made an observer of me. Except that there was a threefold relation. I was observing myself observing myself observing the world. I was nothing and everything was what my experience seemed to be.
And so it struck me as I looked at the dusk as it covered the stucco around me. The world seemed isolated within walls that kept the experience of it out.
From this perspective people become an abstraction. No longer looking at faces, streets, cities; cultures become focal. Culture; the set of activities in common that focused this view. Chaos vanishes from this perspective in place of an order that ignores the details of life. I felt like a witness, a voyeur but, unlike in a looking at a Hopper painting and witnessing the intimacy of one person’s moment of reflection, the lack of intimacy was the salient object; more so than the people in the windows living their lives.
This is the view of a culture, a society in its shared activities and patterns. It is the view that many writers have tried to explain. The view of a thousand lives lived simultaneously living the same behaviors, it is what is what makes custom customary. Culture in this sense feels like a consequence. But, a consequence of what? Is it consequence or cause? What Was I Witnessing?
Freud, Culture & Civilization
I’d been reading Freud. Freud didn’t describe society as mechanical, as something that behaves like an algorithm following a set of rules or patterns, computed in an order (although the result of an algorithm can be said to be the consequence of its computation); Civilization for Freud is something penultimate and epiphenomenal; it is a dynamic consequence of the minds in a society. It is secondary. (Imagine the end of an argument, the result is determined by the words, feelings and gestures of three people, not a consequence of any logic analysed during the arguments duration.)
In Freud mind determines experience; it is the peripheral and implicit, not the explicit or direct; it is a force from which our experience and actions emerge. When I love or desire in Freud it is my feeling that is an objects meaning. It is the valence of words and objects to me that betray my mind to Freud, it is not the words we read or the objects we see, that Freud describes, it is their relevance.
Civilization is also an expression of Eros and Thanatos (Love and Death instincts in the mind). Art is love and death is aggression (both, a sublimation of impulses in our minds). In other words the lives we lead for Freud are collected impulses and desires
Was the object I witnessed the impulse of a street, a group, a society of individuals? In plain fact it was a weekday and we live life with regularity; necessary to survive.
But, for Freud society is also a force that controls the expression we have as individuals; deciding for the self the freedoms we have comes with constraints limited by a larger body of people within which we seek affection, recognition, kinship and belonging. In other words the people around me, for Freud could have been tuning in to find meaning and understanding within this body; to share in the common practice of sublimating to the whole.
Durkheim Culture & Civilization
Durkheim’s view is different. For him society is not entirely an epiphenomenon. For Durkheim man acts within and by virtue of of society. Durkheim sees society as an abstraction that has borders; a structure. Within these borders our behaviors and our beliefs are shaped; life is given meaning as a collection ideas and practices and these are causal forces giving significance to the things we do.
For Durkheim there is the phenomenon, the law, the historical and our personal attitudes towards the lives we lead (the ideology of the whole). Combined, they create the observable and experienced space in which we exist. Durkheim was describing the components of a sociology. But, in that moment I was witnessing a culture. For him this phenomenon was a practice shared across the street; consequential of the structure and boundaries of society; an activity shared as a practice. For Durkheim there was a unity between the walls of stucco.
Merleau-Ponty & The Individual
In Merleau-Ponty on the other hand we as are caught in relations with self, body, world and time. We are embedded in this collection and embodied within it. This set is a whole and that whole describes the structure of all that is thought, expected and understood from moment to moment. We are a subject and immersed in our experiences with decisions and moments predicated on us and yet also by us.
In Merleau-Ponty each person in each of those homes was experiencing, not as consequence or cause but, as an agent in a whole, embodied and related through their experience. What I was witnessing was not, for Merleau-Ponty a cultural experience but the individual experiences of people experiencing one another, themselves and the immediacy of the world around them. The world I know is in Merleau-Ponty no more or less than an immediate relation of experience with the world. Rather than being a self, or a thought, the sum total of being is immediate.
Bringing It All Together – Significance?
When I was 15 I was not atypical in my view of the world, that is in my attitude toward the world was typified by aspirations for high creativity and rebellion. I wasn’t depressed but, I was melancholy. I didn’t understand that I had fun; I took things seriously. I saw the world as unexciting, dull, monotonous and lifeless. I remember writing a poem about a guy in a cheap suit I saw on the train on my way from boarding school back home.
What I remember about that poem was a judgement of the life he led. I read the poem to my Dad when I got home and his reaction surprised and stuck with me. It was formative. He reacted immediately not the quality (or lack thereof) of the sentiment in the poem but, at the lack of empathy and understanding for a man who had an inner life. I was looking at a distance and he, on hearing my poem saw the distance and lack of understanding for a man sitting on a train with his own thoughts and reasons for wearing that suit.
On the one hand that man (like others on the train), was following a course that lacked an individuality and identity I desired. On the other hand, the immediate and personal reflections he had were individual and his own.Since then the relation between the personal, the social and the cultural have represented three perspectives whose juxtapositions needed to be reconciled.
Here I’ve only referenced three writers (except Merleau-Ponty) who give different views into the same phenomenon; what can be seen as common from the outside. For Freud the man on the train was sublimating; his desires were held deep.
Freud uses the metaphor of a planet orbiting the sun; it spins on its axis as an individual but, the spin is held constant by its trajectory around a larger force to which it is subject. The homes I saw are for him like a planet, each spinning on its own axis yet also orbiting a sun of social constant and pattern.
In Freud culture (that which is common) is the higher function that gives us position and meaning as agents, we ‘will’ but, our will is constrained by the role the sun (culture and society) play as factors that limit the expression of our will. Was there a will in those homes beyond the orbit they pass in order to seek the affection of the world in which they are embedded?
For Durkheim on the other hand there is a sense of historicism to the picture. The structure of our lives is shaped historically . From this perspective each home and the lives lived within those homes are representative of the structure that society has adopted for us to live our lives. We receive those norms, interact with them and collectively, through our interaction with them further frame the structure of our lives.
For Merleau-Ponty on the other hand any and all of this may be true but, what is important is the interconnection that we have as agents dynamically interacting with the moment. The world and the person are inter-dependent; each of the people at home, watching were part of a reality being brought forth and created for them and by them all at once impacting on the experiences and lives of those around them. Unlike Freud or Durkheim who see a larger whole being imposed (at some degree) on the lives of those homes for Merleau-Ponty would describe a reality brought forth for each individual by themselves and the others about them.
Much of the differences are differences in emphasis. There is a great deal of nuance and it’s clear that each writer had a different focus. Since these writers wrote much thinking has changed. But, at the distance from which I was looking what was clear was the gross exactness, it was one street in Los Angeles but, if I were in another city or country I would have experienced at that distance entirely different experiences; maybe a group sitting on park benches or people cavorting in restaurants and the experience and the quality of that moment for me as observer would have been entirely different as well.