Juxtapose Our Solitude, Form Into Community

[Adam Greenfield’s most recent dispatch from London helps us think about the issue of practice that is so important to readers of this blog. Go here to subscribe to Adam Greenfield’s occasional dispatches.]



A Dispatch from Adam Greenfield*

As I so often do, I found myself in a bookstore the other day, this one a branch of Rizzoli tucked into a Somerset House hallway.

What did I find there? Books on hygge and books on lagom. Books on beekeeping and books on silence. Books on the Japanese art of decluttering. Books that told you just how and where to buy the furniture and accessories that would help you establish a mindful space in your home.

Books that promised to teach you the practice of mindful drawing, or singing. Mindful baking and mindful gardening.

Woodworking books. Pottery books. Books about making things. About craft, craftsmanship, craeft.

Books with photographs: of working-class communities now demolished, and the vanished lifeways that went with them; of moments in time when subversion was possible, and fun, and stylish, and crackling with libidinous charge. Books with photographs of brutalist ruins.

Books about slowness and simplicity.

And then of course the sad little books published by Alain de Botton’s School of Life, the ones that promise in their eighty or so tasteful pages to help you master Sex or Relationships, or even Reform Capitalism. (Perhaps most heartbreakingly of all, among these: a small book of Small Pleasures.)

It can’t just be me for whom an inventory like this is neon-sign-in-the-night blatant, right? The entire bookshop struck me as a single, extended, anguished cry for help. It could simply be an eversion of one Rizzoli buyer’s mind, I suppose. But that conclusion isn’t really supported by the fact that these books are available in the profusion and variety they are, that the market thinks this is what the market wants.

What’s so easily diagnosed in this particular selection of titles, the thing that’s so howlingly present in its negation, is the gnawing suspicion that we’re Doing It Wrong: that some group of people situated elsewhere in space and time knew how to do adulting better than we ourselves, and that by taking up their practices we can graft onto ourselves some measure of the balance, certainty and serenity we ascribe to them.

That’s what all the concern for “sparking joy” says to me — the increasingly desperate grasping after some displaced or vanished mindfulness, craft and coziness discernible in all the books I saw at Somerset House, and all the many others like them. These products are aimed squarely at the eternal, if deluded, optimist that lives in all of in us, the hopeful little homunculus that whispers, “Yes! Here, finally, is the thing that’s going to change my life. Buying this will transform me from the hot mess I am into the imperturbable urban bodhisattva I so dearly wish I were.”

Knowing that this process is at work hardly immunizes you against it, of course, nor am I above being roped in by it myself. Last year I bought a book called The Scottish Bothy Bible, with the idea that it’d help me plan a solo trek to one of these remote, rustic, communally-maintained, almost entirely unserviced shelters, to mark the occasion of my fiftieth birthday. The truth is, of course, that I can’t imagine actually doing any such thing the way my life is currently structured, certainly not in the dwindling store of weeks available to me before the birthday in question. And so the book sits there on a side table, its cover slowly fading in the low sunlight, serving mostly as a reminder that such things as solo treks to remote cabins are possible…in principle.

I imagine this is the fate of most such books. Where they promise us a golden land of escape waiting for us just past the edge of our obligations — a space and time in which to unclutter our souls, make a temple of our homes, and replace our neurotic squabbling families with tasteful Kinfolk limned in lambent candlelight — I’m willing to bet most just feed the dissatisfaction that sets in after the brief dopamine jolt of a consummated purchase wears off. And this, of course, triggers the cycle anew.

So how to step off of this rollercoaster, and come to actual peace with ourselves as we are? I wish I knew, obviously. (If I had any concrete idea, I’d be doing it, believe me.) But I do feel like I’ve managed to cobble together a few hints.

The first derives from a point the Australian feminist and socialist Lynne Segal makes a number of times and a number of ways in her recent book Radical Happiness: that the only lasting or deeply meaningful joys are those we share with others. Consciously or otherwise, so many of the books at Rizzoli reproduce the neoliberal argument that while the way our society is structured may well have broken you, it’s your individual responsibility to fix yourself (ideally by spending money on books that tell you how to go about doing so, and the lifestyle accessories those books commend to you). Segal insists, by contrast, that while repair does happen through joy, joy can only fully come into being when it is experienced collectively.

As it happens, I’ve come to understand that I’m wired in such a way as to need deep draughts of solitude and silence simply to recover myself, to be able to be present for others or to do any useful work at all, and that this tendency is increasing over time. So it’s clearly not aloneness in and of itself that I’m objecting to. What I object to is the idea that the project of restoration whose contours are so vividly defined by all the books on sale at the Somerset House Rizzoli is one that can be meaningfully attempted alone.

The other pernicious idea that leaps out from these titles is the thought that a complete and realized life is something that happens elsewhere and to other people. For Rizzoli’s customers — New Yorkers or Londoners, for the most part, however cultivated and widely traveled — it evidently still works to project the desired state of being-in-the-world onto dreamscapes like Scandinavia or far-off Japan. But having spent my fair share of life time in the grim, tobacco-stained oppression of Tokyo offices and the frantic overload of Tokyo streets, I can tell you that hardly a soul you’ll meet there is an icon of living serenity, certainly not any more than any of the folks you encounter on Regent Street or the 6 train. Similarly, it isn’t like a single one of the people I’ve ever met in Oslo, Aarhus or Goteborg actually have their lives sorted just so, in the ways implied by the many, many volumes on hygge and its equivalents.

So there may indeed be a completeness to be found in this life, or a place where the pace, scale and ordering of the everyday environment are commensurate with the deepest needs of one’s soul, and I imagine that for some of us it may take some doing to locate them. But at least as far as I can tell, the qualities which make for serenity and purpose don’t seem to be deposited in fuller measure in any of the locales or cultures which are typically held up to us as exemplary of these things.

I’m probably missing the point, or overthinking it. What can I say? Leafing through the things I encountered in that bookstore made me a good deal sadder than I was when I walked through the door. Maybe the only good that came of it was taking away with me a far more acute diagnosis of the thing so many of us manifestly seem to be struggling with.

Maybe that’s useful in and of itself. Maybe it will have to be.

*Adam Greenfield is the founder and managing director of Urbanscale in New York City. He is a prominent and passionate advocate for the human-centered design of technological systems. Adam’s most recent book is Radical Technologies (Verso, 2017). The Guardian called it:

“A tremendously intelligent and stylish book on the ‘colonization of everyday life by information processing’ calls for resistance to rule by the tech elite… a landmark primer and spur to more informed and effective opposition.”

Adam is also the author of Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing (2006) and Urban Computing and its Discontents (2007, with Mark Shepard).


14 responses to “Juxtapose Our Solitude, Form Into Community”

  1. April Avatar

    I do not find this to be missing the point or overthinking at all. There is a felt sense here that I have also bumped into, as I have explored modern mindfulness/self-help and my own need for solitude and contact at the same time. Well, maybe not at the same time, but during he same span of time. The idea that happiness, bliss, satisfaction is the steady state and that we should be able to find it within ourselves, by ourselves (while guided by these book-gurus of course) has been contradictory to my own life experience. What is not contradictory to my experience is the “if you are unhappy, a pessimist, a realist, unable to sustain the face of always being alright, then you must be doing it wrong” judgment that is amassed in all directions. And yet, and yet, and yet, I have known moments of joy amidst the sadness and that has usually been when contact is afoot. By contact, I mean that (painfully empathetic) connection of community, or with another. I cannot stay in community all the time, I must also have solitude, but community has value to me. At least a community that can practice jouissance in place of the “tyranny of positivity.” Those people and places are indeed hard to find at the moment, but they are out there. Or perhaps I am, in the end, buying into exactly what you suggest….always a possibility.

  2. Mal Avatar

    “communally-maintained” 🙂 I’ve spent a night in a Scottish bothys and there wasn’t much sign of maintenance. Litter everywhere, but at least it didn’t smell. At 50 you must surely know if camping is for you or not, and a bothy is really just a tent with thicker walls. I must admit, approaching 60, I’m giving up a lot of things I used to do that I thought I should like but, really, if I was honest with myself, I didn’t – and that includes hard solo trekking with a tent or a bothy. .

    “As it happens, I’ve come to understand that I’m wired in such a way as to need deep draughts of solitude and silence simply to recover myself, to be able to be present for others or to do any useful work at all, and that this tendency is increasing over time.”

    Yup, I think you are right about this increasing over time. I’m now an urban hermit, in permanent recovery, who can hardly ever be bothered being present for others or doing any useful work. (This post may be a rare exception! But is it really being present? Is it doing useful work?…)

    I quite liked “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: A simple, effective way to banish clutter forever” by Marie Kondo. Hardly any of my stuff “sparked joy”, so I got rid of of a lot of useless rubbish. She suggested holding all your books in turn and asking yourself if it sparks joy,.. if not get rid of it. I love the radical simplicity of this! But if I had held to this procedure I wouldn’t have one Buddhist book left in my collection. (I chickened out a bit and kept a lot of hard reading that sparks no joy… but “I think” might be of some use…)

    I love that Marie is not a book person at all, she shows (by accident) how life might be great without these strange objects. She keeps about ten books in her dress cupboard as a “hall of fame” of books (e.g., Alice in Wonderland… which I think is a strange and boring book… I gave my copy away…) She suggests that once you have read a book you might as well get rid of it, even if it sparks joy as you have already got the joy from the book. I wish I could be so confident that I could imbibe the total joy/meaning of any book and retain it after one read.

    I did read a book on hygge. I wasn’t impressed at all! Can’t remember anything useful from it. Sparked no joy.

    I think Kondo’s book could have been written by anyone, from any culture, there’s nothing specifically Japanese about it. She doesn’t go on about her “Zen master”. She just has an obsession with getting rid of clutter, and certainly doesn’t suggest that the Japanese are especially good at this. In fact, she has amusing anecdotes about family, friends, and customers with very cluttered houses.

    But after all the house clutter has gone, what then? You are still left with your self. How do you declutter your soul? It seems as impossible a task as decluttering Dante’s hell.

  3. wtpepper Avatar

    I have a question for Adam, if he happens to be reading and interested in discussion.
    What exactly do those “deep draughts of solitude and silence” consist of?
    Is it possible that this “solitude” is really another kind of social activity? Speaking for myself, sitting alone reading Hardy, or listening to Ashkenazy play Beethoven, is a kind of “solitude,” in one sense–but really it is very social, dependent on an elaborate social system and on the work and communication of others. I would argue that even the ultimate, textless and disconnected, solitude of a hermit in a cave is social–done in response to others, and carrying the whole social world with him in the language he thinks in.

    Maybe it’s just that our normal way of interacting in the world, inevitably orchestrated by the logic of capital as it is, is, well, not really social at all–at least not in the sense Lynne Segal seems to have in mind. Our normal “social” interaction is horribly objectifying, of both ourselves and others. We relate in socially orchestrated ways determined mostly by the power of money (even doing charity work is determined by the logic of exchange value and debt). So is retreat into solitude or a retreat from alienation?

    Maybe Segal has it right, and finding some group in which to undertake a collective project, even one we can’t hope to get paid for, preferably one we don’t have to pay for, is the way to some real kind of meaningful life. I think so.
    The hard part is finding even a few other people willing to undertake any task at all without the promise of payment in some form–to undertake a task where the goal is external to the individual, something other than finding deep bliss, a new sexual partner, or the “deepest needs of the soul.”

  4. AG Avatar

    Is it possible that this “solitude” is really another kind of social activity?
    No, I mean in the entirely conventional sense.

    If what you’re arguing is that every solitude inside late capitalism is predicated on the labor of others, in an Empire-has-no-outside sense: OK, we agree. But really I just mean being alone for a few hours, maybe in the course of a long walk through the side streets of the city, watching my thoughts come and go. Such moments are precious to me.

    I cannot stay in community all the time, I must also have solitude, but community has value to me.
    Enforced solitude is surely as hellish as enforced community. But the society we’ve built certainly seems to default to a being-together which is not quite community, and probably squeezes out opportunities for genuine connection every bit as much as it militates against being alone.

    At 50 you must surely know if camping is for you or not,
    The question isn’t whether camping is for me or not. It’s whether I have the time and freedom from obligation to do it. At the moment, I do not — for reasons that involve circumstances I’ve freely entered into, circumstances I’ve chosen from among a few more or less equally unpleasant options, and circumstances that were thrust upon me.

  5. Patrick jennings Avatar
    Patrick jennings

    In the good old days of my youth, when we called a spade a spade (but maybe we were being assholishly left-dogmatic or just plain stupid) we would have called a piece like this petty-bourgeois and dismissed it out of hand. The (simplistic?) idea was that the road to “fulfilment” or “self realisation” or plain happiness was bound up with the fate of others. There was no way of retrieving happiness from our individual or personal life, as if we could just squeeze our experience through a sieve and extract the elixir. Happiness was the self forgetfulness that resulted in labouring to realise a collective state of being and in the process put food in the mouths of the starving and clothing on their backs. Forgetfulness in that sense was not negation but a positive state of being, the effect (and affect) of an engagement with the project of building a love relationship inside a family inside a community inside a people inside a species inside an ecology.

    We used the term petty-bourgeois to denote the opposite state of individual alienation and illusory isolation and the modes of obsessive self-cultivation, the end result of a process of capitalist exchange in which all that was holy– the individual, the love relationship, the family the community, the people, the species the ecology, – “melted into air.”

    The way of self forgetting was expressed in a nutshell by my mother, a simple but not simplistic woman, who always had the same answer to our states of needy discontent — find something useful to do.

  6. wtpepper Avatar

    Yeah, sure, in capitalist society every solitidute is predicated on the labor of others…but I meant something more basic than that. Simply that the “thoughts [that] come and go” are always fundamentally social, because all language is social (there’s not private langauge and all that). So when we are “alone with our thoughts” we are actually just being “soical” in a less alienated and objectifying way. Prior to the ubiquity of capitalism, people seemed to know this (meditation was seeking the thought of the Big Other, not our deep secret private and purportedly non-socially constructed thoughts). It is still true for us, but we tend to make the mistake of believing we have some free, atomistic and unconstructed mind that is somehow generating these thoughts asocially. When we think we are being our most private, we are likely closest to being social in the best possible sense.

    Three or four people who understood this might just be capable of the kind of collective joy Segal seems to be interested in. But personally, I’ve met only three or four people in my whole life who do undersand it (although from things I’ve read there seem to be many more out there, somewhere).

    It’s a hard point to make clear in a comment, though, so…sorry I brought it up.

  7. wtpepper Avatar

    A foolhardy addendum: I think it is slightly absurd to believe that our society militates against being alone. I would say the opposite. We work from home, drive everywhere in individual cars, and go home and read, alone, books about how to make our lives better. When I walk into a classroom, I see twenty young adults all staring at their phones. They don’t know the names of their classmates even at the end of the semester, don’t know who lives in their hall, or sometimes even the last names of their roommates. All our “social” interaction must be done alone, over the phone, by text or tweet or on instagram or some social media, anything to avoid speaking to a person, or doing something with a person in the real world. The only thing we can do “together” is watch some form of video…unless alcohol or drugs are involved.

    Before my physcial condition got as bad as it is, when I could still sit at a desk, I used to volunteer for a charity that provides food to thousands of poor families in Connecticut. We were all in an office, together, but my mornings were spent sitting at a computer updating and proofreading databases, to facilitate solicitations for donation by mail and email. Even volunteer charity work is run through the circuit of profit, of databases and digital communication, avoiding all direct human contact. I found it horribly alienating, but it was what they needed to do to keep the organization operating, because over 50 thousand people we never saw or knew might not eat if those databases didn’t work properly.

    So, isolation, solitude, becomes just a way to escape these alienating social conditions, to allow the “thoughts in my head” to reveal something to me, unsilenced by the strictures of playing stultifying and dishonest social roles. Contrary the typical American obsession with trying hard not to think, or to beieve our thoughts are just inconsequential opinions, I try, like Socrates, to hear the voices in my head and learn from them. That’s one of the few forms of real “social” and honest engagement we have available to us. (I would say the task of mindfulness is to blot out even this, to bring alienation even into our solitude…but that’s another point)

  8. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    That’s a very interesting comment, Tom. I, too, am about to walk into a classroom of thirty young people staring silently at their phones. When I walk in, though, they will put them away. On the first day of class I explained that when I see someone staring at his phone in public, it is, to my mind, no different than if he were picking his nose. I explained that when I see them staring at their phones, they look to me like idiots. Worse, they look like automatons or mindless puppets.

    One of the motivating factors for creating Incite Seminars was this condition of isolation and alienation that you are naming. It’s just a group of people sitting around a table intently discussing a topic. I thought that the very human quality of it, the attempt to form, however, fleetingly, into a community, would be attractive enough in this time of sad alienation. Add to that the fact that we would be discussing serious and relevant matters. I have heard, however, that it is precisely this raw form of the seminars that keeps people from signing up. Apparently, sitting around a table with other human beings and talking about some “real” matter is utterly terrifying. Also, there still the unfortunate necessity of being caught in the “circuit of profit” or at least of money. I am trying to get funding to reduce costs to participants. But I am wondering if the issue of the intimidating other, of the thinking, living human across the table, is going to continue to make it difficult to attract people. We don’t want to be alone. And we don’t want to talk only about the inane issues permitted socially. But when offered an antidote, very few are showing up. If I were to offer a meditation group that helps people feel better about themselves and their lives, no matter how vacuous and illusory that “help” might be, it would be a completely different story.

  9. wtpepper Avatar

    Yes, I also require that they put away phones during class, and ask them to leave if they can’t do it. It is very stressful for young people to turn their iphone off!

    The problem you are having with the Incite Seminars is common in higher education generally. Most students, particularly graduate students, prefer “online” classes, where they can avoid discussion or being in the presence of other people. This is common now in psychology grad programs, where most classes for therapists can be done from home on your laptop in your own time—no personal contact at all. Where I am currently teaching, there is constant pressure to have more classes become online classes, to eliminate teachers and reduce the need for classroom space. An acquaintance of mine teaches seven “online” composition classses every semester at two schools, for about forty thousand a year—never has to meet his students!

    The question is why, right? I suspect it is because this kind of education allows for a simple “cut and paste” appraoch—copy something from a digital text into a little box on the course’s Blackboard site, and you’re done, no need for any intervening comprehension or debate! The problem with the kind of seminar you propose is they need to get the knowledge into their heads first (they can’t copy it from anywhere) and then they have to debate it. What does this do? Well, it changes them, in a very literal sense. They have to risk becoming a very different kind of subject, with new knowledge, with an altered symbolic system. What people want is to stay just like they are, but with more stuff!

  10. Patrick jennings Avatar
    Patrick jennings

    “One of the motivating factors for creating Incite Seminars was this condition of isolation and alienation that you are naming. It’s just a group of people sitting around a table intently discussing a topic. I thought that the very human quality of it, the attempt to form, however, fleetingly, into a community, would be attractive enough in this time of sad alienation”.

    It will be very hard to persuade people to do as you ask. The vast majority are not interested in radical ideas for reasons spelled out here many times. Those who are access them online or by reading books and talking among their friends.

    I think you are wrong about people not wanting to associate. They do , of course, but in micro versions of community fragmented into various social niches, — work, school, music, hobbies and pastimes, politics, religious practice, charity work, and, of course, the extended family– these are the only form of community viable under the extremes of neo-liberal free market economics. The overall sense of community and tradition has, as Marx predicted, melted into air.

    None of the forms of community will mitigate against the experience of alienation— they are the very forms of alienation. No amount of “communication” across a table will do so either. At best such interaction will communicate information and abstract philosophical concepts or systems of concepts.

    You seem to imply that there is something innately valuable in communication at the level of abstract concepts in the context of face to face dialogue, some genuinely “Socratic” process that could engender an experience of coming to understand a truth in the context of an experience of group cohesion as an antidote to “sad alienation”.”

    At the risk of sounding crass, that idea is as dead in the water as the idea of some form of secularised version of Buddhist group meditation practice. It smacks of self-realisation by way of authentic group dynamic and dialogue advocated by those in the “self realisation community” who propose a therapeutic approach to the experience of alienation and existential meaninglessness.

    Abstract ideas, concepts, systems of concepts are not the site of individual “realisation” or a sense of “community”. The communication of abstract concepts, no matter how intense the emotion accompanying debate or the rawness and honesty of the interaction, adds nothing to the truth of the concepts. In fact it distracts from the truth by contextualising the debate in an overarching concept of individual subjective authenticity and a concept of the cathartic value of group interaction.

    Such communication, no matter how honest it tries to be, will never engender a sense of community. It could, possibly, engender the illusion of community- that very “charisma” of group identification and cultist behaviour critiqued by non-buddhism. A more “protestant” secularised version, processing academic concepts and systems of concepts in forms of group debate, is not a community either and will, at best, only engender a momentary sense of community.

    You seem disillusioned with academia. Again, at the risk of sounding crass, this is an old story with radical intellectuals, who lament the academy’s estrangement from ordinary people, the commodification of knowledge, the extreme specialisation etc. not to mention the sense of alienating futility one experiences in having to function within such a structure. But this is the very condition for the advancement of knowledge under capitalism.

    Despite such experiences workers continue to work and professors continue to think, or some of them anyway. When the time comes for change, and how can it not come given the impending ecological collapse, the contradictions within capitalism and the furious pace of technological change, people will once again interest themselves in radical ideas, precisely because the old ideas have becomes transparently inadequate. We are not yet living in such a time. Until then I hope professors continue to think and workers continue to work. The ark needs to be kept afloat until we can fashion a new one.

    The academy, despite, it estrangement and commodification, is still the place of “rhetorical peace” where the conditions exist for the manufacture of abstract ideas, the raw material for new worlds. If that involves professors living in estrangement from the ordinary man so be it. Its the abstract ideas we need and who else can produce them?

    All professors can do in the mean time is disseminate their ideas in the way best suited to the dissemination of abstract ideas – via books, academic teaching positions, public lectures, the internet and forms of outreach such as your incite seminars.

    What we need, most of all, is rational, ideologically inspired but principled public debate from what used to be known as “public intellectuals”. The best thing radical professors can do is produce ideas and try to debate them in public with other professors in a principled way, and not with “ordinary” people untrained in either the production or debate of philosophical concepts. Such ideas have a way of trickling down and becoming useful to the “ordinary” man and woman when the time comes for action.Unless, of course, you want to wish away the division of labour imposed on us by the structure of capitalist social relations and try to teach the ordinary man to become a professor. Wish away!

  11. Glenn Wallis Avatar

    You and I have extremely different ideas about education, communication, and whatever it is you’re calling “abstract” ideas. All of these modes do offer “rational, ideologically inspired but principled public debate.” You don’t have to operate with hidden practices of some ideal “community” or curative fantasies of self-realization in order to catalyze whatever potency might be available in these forms. As this blog should amply exemplify, I do not believe in the “public intellectual”/”ordinary person” distinction that you do. Exactly where, outside of elitist notions of “The Academy,” is the warrant for this intellectual “division of labor” that you mention?

  12. Patrick jennings Avatar
    Patrick jennings

    I mean abstract as opposed to concrete but with the distinction made here by Ray Brazzier:

    “Capitalism is a system of real abstractions: commodity, value, labour, money, exchange, et al. In contrast to thought abstractions generated through intellection (such as humanity, right, justice, beauty, etc.), real abstractions are generated through social practices. Where the unity of thought abstractions defies spatiotemporal localization because it is that of transcendent generality, the unity of real abstractions defies localization because it is spread out across space and time. Real abstractions are immanent without being particular, abstract without being transcendent. Thus money, for example, is represented by ostensible particulars (whether coins, notes, or digital encryptions) but is not itself an ostensible particular. Yet it is not a conceptual artifact; its
    attributes and functioning do not depend on intellection. It is concrete but not ostensible.”

    As far as the academy is concerned this is complex since we can distinguish between the concrete or real or socially generated abstractions arising out of the collective practice of those who are “working” in the academy and the abstractions generated by a form of intellection as the products of the work of the academy— books, lectures, texts, etc –- all of which become exchangeable commodities or what Brassier calls artifacts of intellection.

    There is not an elitism between the academy and the ordinary man, only a division of labour within the academy, for example between students and teachers, professors and non-professors etc. The relation between the academy and everyone else is the same as the relation between google and everyone else. We purchase it products and services because of their use-value. That is, we buy them if we consider them to be necessary to our well being.

    I will, if I can afford it, buy your forthcoming book and use the abstract ideas to formulate discursive stances, exactly because, in this society, the discursive is valued over other forms of communication and learning. What I cannot buy is the social practice of which the book is a consequence, that remains concrete or real and is exactly what is missing from the book as a form of abstract intellection.

    “Exactly where, outside of elitist notions of “The Academy,” is the warrant for this intellectual “division of labor” that you mention?”

    To call the academy elitist is to point to the relation of the work of intellection in relation to manual work and try to equate them when they are ostensibly not of equal value in real terms, but only in ideal terms. Division of labour needs no warrant. It is a given, although certain abstract discourses will try to impose a warrant in the form of an appeal to democracy, brotherhood, equality etc, abstract generalities which are exactly the products of intellection.

    We need the intellectual or abstract products of the academy for the same reason we need any commodity, to sustain us. We sustain ourselves intellectually by consuming the products of intellectuals, which, in this society we have to buy from academic presses or in the form of lectures, classes etc. The irony is that we can also buy radical concepts -concepts that express the real abstractions underlying the forms of social relation, but only in times of social peace. See how intellectuals and their radical products fare when radical ideas are a danger to the existing organisation of society.

  13. Patrick jennings Avatar
    Patrick jennings

    Just one more point. My comment about group dynamic had to do with the language you use here:

    “I thought that the very human quality of it, the attempt to form, however, fleetingly, into a community, would be attractive enough in this time of sad alienation”.

    To me this speaks of some quality innate to the group you envisage over and above the “ordinary” experience of existing communities – love relations, work, neighbourhoods, leisure interaction, extended family etc.-that something more is needed to counteract our experience of “sad alienation”.

    We are free to build new communal forms- groups, clubs, communes, projects – but none of these formations will “cure” alienation because alienation is not a sickness but an outcome of the organisation of social relations— the work-wage-commodity-exchange-money complex.

    Maybe I misunderstood you on the basis of the words you used.

    For me the most useful group is the one that tries to communicate radical ideas about the concrete abstractions listed above. The communication of such ideas requires a sort of training in them, a training which is still only available in the academy, under the regime of its division of labour. That division—into professors, teachers students etc– is the best form we have for the creation of intellectual abstractions that point to the concrete abstractions underlying our social relations, including the relations imposed by the structure of the academy.

    The more people are exposed to radical ideas the more it becomes likely that in periods of instability people will use those ideas to form discursive stances of opposition and radical overturning.

    The object of such a group is not a community, no matter how fleeting, but the dissemination of ideas concerning the overturning of the existing forms of community, a necessity made clear by the process of capitalist economy which exposes the chasm between its ideal and it’s real forms.

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