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.