Bring Me the ‘Head’ of Sergio Garcia

Bring me the ‘Head’ of Sergio Garcia (anomie and anonymity)

            Samuel Peckinpah’s 1974 low-budget pulp film ‘Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia’ has recently become somewhat of a cult classic. Pop culture references abound, perhaps inevitably, but truest to pedigree was the 1991 aborted attempt by the band Iron Prostate to record a song entitled ‘Bring me the head of Jerry Garcia’. Given the much more famous band the named person led, perhaps such an act would have been met with gratitude. Of course, we are not demanding the actual head of the professional golfer, but rather what is inside it. Why so?  Simply because he is an excellent example of someone who is a well enough known figure to have engendered a persona for himself. He, as with any athlete or entertainer, is someone who is both immediately recognizable and yet completely anonymous. More than this, he has publicly, earlier in his career, given fans and followers, detractors and disdainers alike, much fodder to believe that Garcia himself believes in another world which both influences this one, and yet is utterly impassive in its influence; in short, a manner in which to assuage or avoid anomie.

            Anomie is, in a word, subjective alienation. Garcia’s plaintiff, voiced especially after close shaves in major golf championships, that the ‘golf gods’ were out to get him and such-like, suggested that he was feeling anomic about his vocation, picked on, singled out. How many of us have had the same feeling, less publicly perhaps, but even so? Our very anonymity promotes it. ‘Who cares about us?’ We might well ask, on our way to work Monday mornings, along with ‘Another week killed’, on each corresponding Friday evening, but temporary relief aside, what is the meaning of it all? Emile Durkheim coined the term in his 1897 analysis of suicide, rather appropriately, and stated that according to known data at the time ‘anomic suicide’ was the most common form in European society. This contrasted with other forms, such as ‘altruistic’, where one sacrifices oneself for the group, or ‘egoistic’, where one is certain the a quick ‘goodbye cruel world’ is the best response to unfulfilled desires. Given that only about twelve percent of suicides leave notes, it is possible that this category may be under-reported, but however that may be, Durkheim found that his analysis had also generated an empty-set category, which I have elsewhere named ‘fatalistic’ to balance out his conceptions of the other three. A fatalistic suicide would be the kind to be found in an Ibsen play, for instance, or Romeo and Juliet, but in real life, they are exceedingly rare. The very opposite of the anomic, the fatalistic would occur if there were too many structures and strictures in place, prohibiting agency.

            But anomie, by contrast, implies the lack of community and thus responsibility or obligation in one’s life. It is alienation sourced in the absence of salient structures, but not in Marx’s directly structural sense where the person, especially the worker, is subjected to forces that are much more abstract, such as competition with other workers or the commodified reduction of the human being into his ‘labor power’. The anomic person loses her personhood through a lack of the looking-glass selfhood which tells her who she is to others and for others. It is a kind of externally enforced solipsism, and many young people today suffer from anomie, which is yet the leading cause of suicide for this demographic in our own time. The lack of connection, the absence of affection, the abyss of meaningfulness, all combine to threaten our sense of purpose in life. But when one does have that sense, and everything else is also in place, one can still be thwarted. And this is where the ‘gods’, golf fans or no, come in.

            Vindicated and no doubt also relieved, Garcia belatedly won the Masters in 2017. Ever since, he’s cut a different figure than in his youth. He rolls with it, even when the rock itself isn’t rolling. In a word, he has become a mature being, understanding that life is sometimes simply about ‘that’s life’, a song sung by Sinatra on behalf of everyone else who lives or who has ever lived. There has been no more talk of the ‘golf gods’, for example. All this is inherently public, and no one should claim to actually know who the professional athlete is. But personae also change over time, just as do social fact data like the suicide rate. In traditional social organizations, there was only one kind of suicide, that undertaken by the person on behalf of the collective, the one ceding ultimate moral precedence to the many who, collectively, were thought of as one thing in any case. But in modernity, the situation became more complex, and Durkheim was the first to investigate it. The first social science study to make use of statistics, Durkheim’s method-breaking analytics ultimately put forth a much more important idea than his list of categories of suicide; that of the ‘social fact’. Four years earlier, he had stated deadpan that there was ‘no other moral order than that of society’. Therefore, ‘moral’ facts, as they had been called by J.S. Mill and others, were innately social in nature, echoing Marx and Engel’s 1846 epigram, ‘consciousness itself is a social product’. But The German Ideology did not actually appear in print until 1932, so Durkheim had independently come to this similar conclusion through an inductive study, unlike Marx.

            Induction, Sherlock Holmes’ actual method pace Conan-Doyle’s terminological error, proceeds from observations netted into facts of experience. ‘I can’t make bricks without clay’ Holmes testily editorializes to Watson. Quite so, Garcia’s experience in major championships provided a bounty of clay for him to reason, perhaps gratuitously but even so, that there was another force at work, denying him his due results. For those of you who have no interest in golf per se, a bumper sticker I once saw puts it best: ‘As if life weren’t hard enough, I play golf.’ Yet I don’t think we can judge whatever was in the golfer’s mind too severely, because as stated, we have to ask ourselves how many times we might have come to a similar conclusion through this guise of induction; ‘I should have had it, made it, got it, owned it, (or him or her et al), so why didn’t I?’ The social facts that may have leaned up against our individual desires are sometimes obscure, potentially requiring, on the one hand, a full-blown scientific analysis of the kind in which Durkheim excelled. On the other, we are also sometime loathe to admit that we, as individuals, most often do not have ‘what it takes’ to beat the world at its own game. And by the world, we mean of course the very social reality in which we are enveloped from birth until death.

            It is an aspect of adolescent angst to begin to discover this swathe of social facts, mostly ranged against us given the presence of so many others in this our shared world. Before this, parents and others try to give children almost anything they might self-interestedly desire and demand. But this kind of thing can’t go on forever. Indeed, the egotist as adult who keeps faith only in his desire is at risk for suicide, because the world cannot – or in this person’s mind, will not – provide as parents once may have done. So, we hear of ‘common sense’ parenting techniques that suggest weaning one’s child away from directly met demands at the earliest age possible. Yet this is not at all a sense derived from custom and innate sensibility, but rather from none other than induction, a process of logic and reflective reasoning. Adults know from experience that most of life in mass society will be anonymous, fraught with the ever-present problem of anomie. Children must be gradually, and gently, introduced to such a world, one to be their own just as it is already ours. It is not simply a matter of a parent not wishing their child to ‘make the same mistakes’, but rather a more abstract understanding that, while it cannot pinpoint exact contexts or moments in a life that will end in frustration and even loss, nevertheless knows that such moments will occur, other things being equal. One’s singular will, no matter how assertive and confident, cannot match itself each time to that of the world’s.

            For the one who yet imagines themselves larger than life, suicide is one outcome. But homicide may well be another, such acts perpetrated by those who imagine that their will really is, after all, stronger than the world’s and that they will prove this to be so by murdering the very others who have the unmitigated gall to stand in their way, for whatever reason. This yet darker path has no apparent limits, given historical precedents such as the Holocaust and other genocides. Seen in this wider light, the suicide is by far the more ethical person; as an egotist, he wants to die, as an altruist, she dies for those who remain, but as an ‘anomist’, this person truly sees no way out and in this, he is in ethical error. Still, such a mistaken act is far better than murder, and in this induction has also played a role. In its heartfelt attempt to overcome anonymity, observation and experience combine to tell the anomic person not so much of his impending fate, but rather the way life could, even should, be lived by human beings. It is, therefore, not that the alienated individual in our time feels nothing, but rather that she understands precisely what she lacks yet does not see a way in getting it. The fates, as it were, are ranged against her. One of the lesser attributes of calling out the golf gods is, of course, that golf is a trivial pursuit in and of itself, while social anomie is a very serious condition. Garcia has no doubt realized this over time, no differently than the rest of us are compelled to do. Entertainment ‘culture’ provides for us formulaic salves, whereupon we, equally formulaically, react with a ‘you think you’ve got problems!’ after viewing this or that melodrama, fact or fancy. Just so, the artificial relief of contemporary anomie is a major function of entertainment, sport or otherwise. Part voyeurism, part ressentiment-inducing, but majority anomie-reducing, popular culture sashays ever onward simply because the relations of production in our version of social organization do not themselves change.

            But what is the upshot of all of this? One, we have the means within our own heads to utilize a logical process through which we gain a better self-understanding of both alienation and anonymity at the level of the person. Two, Anomie is not something that is inevitable, as Durkheim himself noted. Three, anonymity has its up side, for who of us, aside from the true narcissist, would want to be known by all? Given the fashionable anxiety about the erosion of privacy in modern life, anonymity may well become a kind of precious value in the day to day. Four, we know by now that ‘fate’, though still not of our individual making all of the time, is nonetheless historically conjured, and does not appear in an irruptive manner. There are no golf gods after all. Just bad shots and sometimes some bad luck as well. Given all of this, taking our own shots when best we can will go some way in inducing within our experiences the sensibility that not only can we pick our battles, we don’t need to care all that much what others think or do not think of us, as long as we support their right to try and live a human life. Our relative anonymity vouchsafes the first, our inductive sense testifies to the second. If there is anything somewhat fishy about Durkheim’s analytic, it may be that anomie is itself a kind of nostalgic category, perhaps assuming that the collective life, or even having generous and compassionate community around one at all times, is the better way to live. If so, the authentically modern person must embrace, along with her newfound sense of radical freedom, the understanding that she is by her superior character able to in fact be alone in life, and that this is, for such a person, the new godhead after all.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 56 books in ethics, education, health, social theory and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Neo-Conservative Thought

Neo-Conservative Thought

            Revelations are necessarily mythical and sub-rational; they express natural forces and human interests in a groping way, before the advent of science. To stick in them, when something more honest and explicit is available, is inconsistent with caring for attainable welfare or understanding the world. It is to be stubborn under the cloak of religion. These prejudices are a drag on progress, moral no less than material; and the sensitive conservatism that fears they may be indispensible is entangled in a pathetic delusion. It is conservatism in a shipwreck. (Santayana, 1954:484 [1906]).

                Half the world looks backward. The fact that the past can be known only incompletely allows me to fill in what is unknown with my desires. The future, by definition, should be the fuller home of the imagination, rather than the past, but because it cannot be known at all, at least ahead of time, dampens my enthusiasm for self-projection. At some further point, I shall no longer exist; I shall become a part of the past. Could the penchant for backward-looking in our time be an expression of an auto-memorial, a way in which to preserve the selfhood of what I am, a preparation for ‘mine ownmost death’?

            In Mannheim’s famous essay, ‘Conservative Thought’, he suggests that the recent history of rationalization has made the present into a series of functions, almost autonomic, and that quite literally. These ‘self-naming’ processes in fact have no precise names. The poet of the past suddenly speaks to the experience of the present. I suffer the ‘insolence of officials’ in Weber’s bureaucratic organizations, for instance. I endure the ‘slings and arrows’ in romance and in the casino, perhaps. And I am myself more outraged than fortune is itself outrageous. Mannheim explains that the ‘one-sided emphasis upon rationalism’, while it ‘repudiates concrete and vital forms of thought by no means’ extinguishes them (1953:87), and that these forms have not ‘sunk into the past’ but have rather been ‘preserved’ in some occlusive manner. But for Mannheim, simply defining conservatism as being part of a tradition and holding to certain precepts thereof is not enough, for this is something characteristic of every human being (ibid:95). Instead, ‘being conservative’ both partakes of this basal layer of consciousness, not entirely conscious of itself and certainly not usually questioned in the action of everyday life, as well as taking concrete action in an entirely new way, concomitant with our own times (ibid:94). By making myself a part of a social action in the present I reach far beyond mere tradition, even though I might be accused of reproducing something of it, either in part or, insofar as it can be known, being both a relic and reliquary, out of whole cloth (ibid:97). In doing so, I may be semi-consciously ‘retarding’ progressive social change or even retrogressing it (ibid:99). On top of this, my action of this sort in the social world depends upon my social location in a steeply hierarchical culture: “In a word – traditionalism can only become conservatism in a society in which change occurs through the medium of class conflict – in a class society.” (ibid:101, italics the text’s).

            It is by now old hat to identify conservative action among the polar bookends of hierarchical or stratified society; the elites desire to ensure the ongoingness of their status, the marginal simply desire to have a voice. Yet is this enough to fully understand the pressing political penury that conservative persons state they ‘feel’ or ‘experience’ in modern culture? An openly retrogressive movement seeks to return to a past that has been historically lived at one time or another and thus can be more or less documented as having been part of the species experience. That such an identification can be made entails that the period in question not be temporally too far afield or chronologically distant from either our present-day understandings and sensibilities. Conservative thinking demands a reckoning with the disjunction between past and present, but at least it is not making things up as it goes along.

            Not so neo-conservative thought. Its ‘enactmentality’ is not retrogressive but rather simply regressive, as it seeks a ‘return’ to a time which is wholly imaginary and never did exist at any known historical time period. That it can define itself as desiring a time out of time, either as the primordial utopia of the Garden or as a revelatory millennialism of the coming judgment, clears its conscience when it must confront the problem of otherness. Not all can be saved. Not all will be saved. Conservative thought takes action on behalf of all of us, for each of us is a product of this or that tradition, the vast majority of which is, once again by definition, both unthought – if not unthinkable given historical precedent – and relatively unconscious. There will always be something or other in a cultural tradition that appeals to me, something known and in its own day perhaps as ‘progressive’ as the forces and actions I may, in my sense of the future, take in my own time. Conservative thinking is thus wholly historical, and it only differs from even the most radical of future-oriented poses and positions because it emphasizes a wider slice of the tradition which all of us share and from which all of us gain the basic self-understanding of the present. But neo-conservative thought needs neither history nor thinking. The one is a burden upon the imagination; the neo-conservative person is moral and not historical, for history trumps morality and in all cases. The second because mythical time is unthinking, both of itself and of history; indeed, any sense of change at all has ceased to exist. When Marx differentiates his ‘atheism’ from that of Feuerbach he declares that ‘for the communist man, the question of God does not exist’, meaning that it is not the mere existence of a divinity that is proposed but the very concept thereof. In neo-conservative thought the question of history does not exist.

            This vanishing act is convenient on at least two counts: one, the future as an unknown factor can be summarily dismissed. The future is something that I am uncomfortable with; I face it with some trepidation, if not outright fear. It is the very expression of the problem change presents to me if I am intent on maintaining anything I have created or gained during my brief existence. I already know that entire civilizations have been erased from the historical record, reduced to archaeological fragments and literary figments. What am I, as a singular person, in the face of such a trans-temporal scourge? Two, change is itself expunged. If there is no history I am left only with time, a kind of inexistence or life that, in its stolid and staid counterpoint to living, needs no longer pose any existential questions of or to itself: Why am I here? Why is there something rather than nothing? Is there a meaning to my presence beyond what I can myself fathom or ferret out? Life without living, time without history, the present without presence, each of these in turn can fortify the regressive interpretation my harried haruspex requires of me. But in denying history I also deny the other.

            Even if the soteriological suasions of the newer agrarian period religions were all-encompassing – all are to be saved, come as you are – nevertheless there is a boundary to be constructed between the self-appointed gnostic and the one who appears content to live on both blithely and blindly, at once ignorant of one’s specific fate and unknowing of fate in general. It is this second absence that brands me as a person without faith and thus also without wisdom. For the neo-conservative, shrouding his own equally human senses not in the cast-off cloak of conservative thought but rather in the technicolor triage of draconian dreamcoat, a ‘modernist’ such as myself is purely earthbound, trapped in a history not of my own making and running headlong into not merely death but also damnation. And if conservative thinking raises its eyebrows at the LGBTQ2+ presence in our historically and factually diverse society-as-it-is, neo-conservative thought denies its very right to existence. And it must do so, for such otherness that cannot be so readily identified in either primordial time or paradisiacal timelessness is a threat to the inexistential imagination. At once, however, we must allow for the humanity of the neo-conservative to remain as present as possible; like myself who is future-oriented, the one who closes off his own perception of the world in favor of an otherworld, ahistorical and also non-historical, inexistential and transcendental, is expressing the basic human will to life which all of us share.

            In saying this, I am not in any way intending to shore up neo-conservative fantasy. At the same time, it courts both irony and even hypocrisy to deny the humanity of the neo-conservative simply because he has denied his own. Indeed, the duty presented by neo-conservative thought to the rest of us is to help the deluded person back into reality as it can be known. In this, we ourselves must admit that because not all of what is taken to be real can be rationally and factually evidenced in a way satisfactory to science, for instance, that we ourselves should remain open to certain aspects of the tradition out of which neo-conservative thought has extended itself. And it is in the acting and wholly historical space of conservativism that we must encounter the neo-conservative, and we must take upon ourselves that equally historical task simply because the narrowed imagination that desires the end of history presents an existential question to our shared species-essence. But framed by neo-conservatism, it is a false question, presented as a choice between morality and history. While it is the case that no single morality survives historical change, it is a much more open question as to the character of morality itself, which would include the concept of the sacred as Durkheim has defined it, and the presence or absence of Entzauberung, as Weber has defined it. All of us experience alienation in modern life, relatively few of us regress into the stunted stilted stenochoria of stale fairy-tale. The more authentic question, ‘how is morality relevant today?’ is perhaps the most pressing discussion that must take place amongst all persons, since it, with as well a more authentic irony, defines much of our understanding of our own historical epoch.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of fifty-five books in ethics, education, social theory, aesthetics and health, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.