Friday, October 26, 2012

Something of limited size

Here is another passage from Lewis Hyde's The Gift:
These stories, at any rate, from Anabaptist to anarchist, reflect a felt and acted-upon belief that life is somehow diminished by the codification of contract and debt. The opposition has been not only to those codified debts that secure the position of class, but to any codification that encourages the separation of thing and spirit by abandoning total social phenomena to a supposedly primitive past and thereby enervating felt contract. The burning of written debt instruments is a move to preserve the ambiguity and inexactness that make gift exchange social. Seen in this way, their burning is not an antisocial act. It is a move to free gratitude as a spiritual feeling and social binder. If gratitude is, as Georg Simmel once put it, "the moral memory of mankind," then it is a move to refreshen that memory which grows dull whenever our debts are transformed into obligations and servitudes, whenever the palpable and embodied unions of the heart—entered into out of desire, preserved in gratitude, and quit at will—are replaced by an invisible government of merely statutory connections.

I should now state directly a limitation that has been implicit for some time, that is, that gift exchange is an economy of small groups. When emotional ties are the glue that holds a community together, its size has an upper limit. The kinship network Carol Stack described in the Flats numbered about a hundred people. A group formed on ties of affection, could, perhaps, be as large as a thousand people, but one thousand must begin to approach the limit. Our feelings close down when the numbers get too big. Strangers passing on the street in big cities avoid each other's eyes not to show disdain by to keep from being overwhelmed by excessive human contact. When we speak of communities developed and maintained through an emotional commerce like that of gifts, we are therefore speaking of something of limited size. It remains an unsolved dilemma of the modern world, one to which anarchists have repeatedly addressed themselves, as to how we are to preserve true community in a mass society, one whose dominant value is exchange value and one whose morality has been codified into law.
This unsolved dilemma of the modern world: perhaps it is a false dilemma, or rather, perhaps it's simply unsolvable. Perhaps it's simply not possible to maintain/preserve/regain "true community in a mass society". But we have a mass society, and yet we desperately need true community (defining the elements that might make up this true community will have to wait for other posts). What are we to do? Beats me, frankly. It seems to me that on some basic level we need to recognize that the "mass society" does not work (indeed, is not intended to "work"), is incapable of giving us so much of what we need. And yet we justifiably desire to maintain certain features that were very likely not possible before the onset of mass society. Could an anarchism emerge that took seriously the need for small groups—took seriously concepts like Dunbar's number—while balancing that tension between the need for rootedness and the desire for mobility? (In a previous post, I touched on this tension in the context of a perceived opposition between Heidegger and Blanchot.) Perhaps finding a balance, but maintaining the tension, not favoring either, perhaps this is possible? But is there time?


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