The Impersonal is not the Apolitical
One could thus say that history is action in the realm of the imaginary, or even the spectacle that one gives oneself of an action. Conversely, action consults history, which teaches us, says Weber, certainly not what must be willed, but the true meaning of our volitions. (Merleau-Ponty, 1955:11).
Recently the activist slogan ‘the personal is the political’ has become well known to anyone who has attempted to identify themselves and thus their actions with a cause. This ‘volition’, this being-for-something, has a number of meanings as well as manifestations. And it is to its own history – the act that has been and not the action which will be – that we must look to find the pedigree of interconnected meanings which have accrued to this or that sensibility regarding our actions in the present. Weber is the first to thoroughly understand this relationship, which originates as an horizon of expectations and associated historical lenses in Vico by 1725. For it is in the distinction between finite goals and absolute values that we discover both action and act in tandem and as mutually imbricated.
Let us first examine our sense of what constitutes ‘the personal’. For the Greeks, the purely private person was termed the ‘idiot’, the one who turns his back upon not only his civic duties but sociality in general. We could, with perhaps a mere footnote, continue such a use of this term today. But other Greek terms are more expansive and collide more forcefully with our modern horizon of meaningful expectation. The person who flouts social custom and morality is the ‘moron’. Such a term is in scant use today, at least in polite circles, but its general meaning is well taken. Of course, yet more obscure now is the Greek’s term for the one who flouts the fates themselves; he is nothing less than the ‘hypermoron’. But we can safely dismiss this bold individual given the altered meaning of destiny in modernity. We do, however, still understand those who simply don’t seem to ‘get it’, whether the scene is civility, sociality, citizenship or yet domesticity or the work life, as being not merely abnormative culturally but also somehow beyond the social succor of mutual aid. ‘They don’t want to fit in’, is something we hear of such fellowmen, with the heavy ellipsis that we should, in our turn, feel no sympathy for them since, in their ‘moronic’ action they add to the stress and strain felt by the remainder of us who continue to labor for a sane society and a healthy humanity.
At the same time, we are aware of the tension between the individual and the group, the citizen and the state, the person and the polis. It seems to us a perennial one but in fact it is scarcely three centuries old. The ‘sovereign’ individual of the Enlightenment remains a Western ideal, even though personal rights are either questioned or yet limited in many places globally. But even in the West, we are shy of declaring the fullest range of human rights to the singular self simply because no society could exist without some certain set of limitations placed upon that same selfhood. These boundaries are under constant scrutiny and have been found to be most mutable, for better or for worse. And since the individual cannot ever be entirely free of obligation to the group, another modern distinction has come to the fore; that between public and private.
It is in Arendt that we find the deepest exposition of the relationships between the public life of a member of the polis and the privacy of that same person’s alternate domain. Mirroring in a kind of ‘material’ manner the much more ancient distinction between the life of contemplation and the life of action, the one today understood as personalist and even private – though not in the utter disregard for either the public life or its ‘action’ – and the other observed in the shared sphere of the ‘open space’ of the public. It is this further division between how others may or may not interact with the person who has committed her thoughts to the private sphere and equally been committed to her actions in the collective realm that gives us the impression that we have inevitably and necessarily divided ourselves into two patently differing parts. Psyche and Anthropos, soul and form, mind and body, person and persona and so on, all cleave to this contemporary sense – and is it not also a sensation? – that I am not one thing entire but rather two relatively discreet entities; my ‘truer’ self and what I show to the world.
Certainly at this point it can be gainsaid that both such conceptions of the self are ‘true’ in that they have both validity – a conceptual forcefulness and sensibility that includes both fact and value – and veridicity – that it is convincing enough to generate a portion of our worldview or social reality. When we casually, but regularly, tell someone that ‘this is a personal matter’, we are speaking over the divide that tells between these two major aspects of modern selfhood. In due course, much of what may have been occluded comes to wider light, whether in politics or in biography. This tells us that the personal is time sensitive. Something overfull with meaning at one point in our lives may even become devoid of relevant meaning later on. Each of us, having lived long enough, will experience many such transitions, which in turn tell us that the apparently discreet division between private and public, personal and impersonal, is at the least quite mobile and its discretions are liquid. Both of these characteristics impinge on any sense that in principle, ‘the personal is the political’, that is, always is so.
Clearly, in fact, it is not. Indeed, as vouchsafed by the vast majority of social media posts, what people take to be personal and yet are avidly interested in sharing with certain others is hardly political in nature and never will become so. Now one may argue, with Baudrillard for instance, that the oft perverse simulacra constructed by and through digital life is after all representative of a kind of politics, the oddly but fittingly also perverse ‘politics of the apolitical’, shall we say. This suggestion is not without merit, but it remains a distortion of the widely shared social meaning of that which the polis consists: the collective identity and obligation of a culture as made manifest by the members thereof. Insofar as digital pedantry documenting the innumerable and seemingly interminable quotidia of the daily round is neither collectively identified with – witness the digital cliques often in conflict with one another – nor is anyone obligated to pay any attention thereto, these ‘persona of personalism’ remain outside meaningful political thought and action alike.
The same cannot be said for the impersonal. Let us now turn to this obverse concept. If the ‘personal’ cannot be either ‘idiocy’ or ‘publicity’, and we have suggested it cannot in principle and by definition as well be the political, the ‘impersonal’ appears to escape all of these limitations in one stroke. One, the impersonal is manifest not in individuals at all but rather in social institutions, such as the church, the state, and the modern state’s minions; the education system, the various governmental ministries, the civil service, and the military. This is not to say that the effects of the presence of such sets of institutions might not be personally felt by individuals, it is merely to state that the institutions themselves can never be thought of as either personal or private. The so-called ‘private sector’ remains public and impersonal no matter whether or not the state invests in it, and indeed in our time, most such organizations are ‘public/private’ hybrids, leading to a host of other conflicts, the most scandalous of which in any democracy is the two-tiered education system. In any case, the impersonal now appears to be larger than life, if such is only defined biographically or from the perspective of a smaller community of shared interest and action.
For Weber, modern rational organizations were anonymous, both in that very sense of ‘being impersonal’ and in their freedom from individual suasion and thus also obligation. Such an institution was part of his ‘ideal types’ analysis, wherein absolute values were shunned and finite goals structured all action. The very notion of the ’act’, as both historical and visionary, the one providing a kind of testament to the other’s cosmogonical birth, could not be part of any rationally self-defining organization, whether ‘public’ or ‘private’ sector. Just so, the modern rational individual – who is both private and public and participates almost equally in both self-defining ‘sectors’ in the more base sense of where the money comes from and who has sanctioned access to it – finds herself possessed by finite goals and is placed at a fair distance from any vision of an absolute value. Peter Berger, following upon Weber, has reiterated that what used to be understood as cosmic in both scope and import has oddly become what is most intimate and personal for us today; the religious vision is perhaps only the most obvious example of this transfiguration of ideals. Today, one can hang one’s hat upon a personalist religious sensibility and this makes one all the more unique, the singular soldier of a Christianity that is about your soul and no other, for instance. In no other historically known period could this make any sense.
Similarly, the impersonality of modern institutions, however they may depart from Weber’s ideal rationality and impunity from private interest, declaim their symbolic frontages as capable only within the realm of the cultural imaginary. That is, a state governs a people only insofar as it can convince the latter that it does not truly exist without them. In reality, modern government appears to exist in precisely this fashion, giving those who labor within it, elected or hired or appointed, the equally distanciated sense that though they are ‘public servants’, neither such a public, nor hence their service to it, in actuality exists.
So if we take the personal to be the space wherein action is contemplated in the privacy of one’s own individual musings, wherein ‘projects of action’ are worked out in a speculative, ‘phantasmatic’ fashion, and within which one can decline any real social responsibility – thoughts are yet ‘free’, as is said – at once we must deny the activist’s ideal. Instead, the personal is not necessarily, not yet, or yet never, the political. But we have seen it is otherwise with the impersonal. Though it strives, in its most rational and ideal form, to be apolitical, in reality and in history it is ever cleaving to this or that politics of the day. This is especially the case in nations where the civil service occupies a great proportion of institutional roles, such as in education or governmentality or health care. Only in the judiciary may we expect a strenuous public disavowal of the political, even though, once again, we know that the laws of today and indeed, on the ground, how any such set of laws is actually enforced and upon whom, are very much political in their origin.
What advantage does this discussion hold out for the individual who, on the one hand, must balance her private selfhood, her desires, her anxieties, her prostrate fears and visionary hopes, with her public persona and its singular ambitions, collective responsibilities, reciprocal obligations and loyalist duties, and on the other hand, that same person’s efforts to translate thought into action without ever the sense that such ensuing action be either complete or yet completely fulfilled in its intended meaning? I think first of all that a clarification of what is meant by the term ‘personal’ is to our advantage. One, we no longer need guard it with such stentorian status; the personal is mostly just that, undeserving of much consideration from others, and so mutable as to dislocate our too-pious loyalty thereto. At the same time, two, the impersonal is laid more open to a general critique, some of which must emanate from a personalist perspective – in that I am affected sometimes intimately by anonymous actions originating in impersonal spaces; the stock market is perhaps the most obvious but also egregious day-to-day example – and the remainder of which must hail from the hallows of history and as well advance from the actions of the culture at large. Three, if there is a dialectic at hand, it can only be envisioned not as some ‘life/work balance’, some other ‘financial freedom’, or yet an ‘holistic health’, to name a few casual catchphrases which likely construe a vulgar politics of their own. No, such an apex, such a synthesis, will only be achieved through the constant and consistent critical stance applied by an effective ethical consciousness that in itself has already understood itself as being neither personal nor political but rather historical through and through. For history is the answer to morality, the saboteur of ideology, the humanity in the organization, the humaneness in the individual. We are in our essence nothing other than historical beings, and our local divisions, our divided selfhoods, are within it once again united in concert within its deontological embrace.
G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, social theory, aesthetics and health, as well as more recently, fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.