Ostensibly, this is the Age of the Body. Your body is a temple, a resource, a celebration, a partner. Billboarded with representations of the way we should look, sound, feel, and smell, we faithfully comply and do our daily Hail Maries. Of course, all these images have been attentively exploited in the marketplace, dictating how to dress, how to eat, how to move, how to dance. While some bemoan its commercialization, it is an inescapable conclusion that today marks the high triumph of the body. And its triumph is yours. And mine. And everyone’s. Except ours…
The jubilee of the individual body stands in marked relief with the demise of the collective body. And this begs the question: ‘What happened to us?’ To me this was an innocuous text on a T-shirt that I used to wear. But as the colors faded with every washing, its message was beckoning louder and louder. Indeed, what has happened to us?
The history of the collective body captures most of human civilization, yet it is fairly recently that collective bodies are starting to dissolve: marriages, families, communities, cultures, nations all seem to be falling apart in the post WWII period. Of course, the demise of collective bodies has been noted before. In Bowling Alone, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam already noted the erosion of the social contract in contemporary America. Whilst his analysis is both important and insightful, there are two important aspects that are missing from its purview. First, Putnam sees ‘individualizing technology’ as one of the main drivers for the demise of collective bodies such as unions, boy scouts, sports clubs, etc. Whilst I agree that indeed ‘individualizing technology’ lies at the base of the plight of collective bodies, for reasons I will expound below, I do not share his view that these technologies are necessarily harnessed by entertainment devices like TV, video games, and the Internet as he puts forth. Second, while the basis of his analysis is the economic concept of ‘social capital’, Putnam largely brackets the functioning of economic systems by singling out leisure time (and not work time) for analyzing how collective bodies have evolved.
Yet, rather than using Putnam as a straw man, I would like to tip my hat to him and employ him to set the stage by directing attention to the loss of social fabric in today’s Western societies. Mainstream sociological theories typically approach collective bodies, like society, from a set theoretic perspective: social formations like baskets full of individual marbles. And these baskets can be overlapping, representing people’s membership of multiple social bodies. Think here of being part of a particular religious denomination, a particular culture, a particular nation. The erosion of the social contract would then be explained as if more marbles are bowling alone, as if the baskets that previously contained them have somehow disintegrated.
There are a number of things that are misleading with this explanation. First, the idea that society can be explained using set theory that allows for multiple membership of the same individual is spurious. Overlapping Ven diagrams mistakenly suggest that the same individual is contained within the intersecting space, falsely suggesting that individuals are formed independently of the social body that they are a member of. This has much to do with the semantics of the word ‘individual’, originally denoting that which is ‘one and indivisible’, often used in describing the Holy Trinity of God. What is lost in translation is the way in which the organs of collective bodies ‘individuate’, i.e. the performative nature by which collective bodies ‘make up people’ to paraphrase Ian Hacking.
Every collective body has a ‘technology of belonging’ and all partaking individuals are subjugated to its transformative powers that function not unlike a social membership fee. As such, social bodies are a stage and we are made to do their dance.
Traditionally, there was a limit or a cap to the number of dances that one had to perform. This was not so much because of the protesting and exhausted individual, but because of the territorializing nature of the social bodies. Precisely because they are overarching and expansive in nature, collective bodies had to coordinate among themselves how to govern the territory. As a result, states, cultures, churches, etc. typically coordinated their technologies of belonging. In other words, social bodies had to resonate together and if they didn’t, there would be grave consequences, typically resulting in major social upheaval like wars and civil unrest. The crux is that this coordination of the territory was conducted on the basis of the respective values that each prioritized; only if the values resonated together could the territory be governable and would the technologies of belonging act in concert to govern their subjects.
Fast forward to today. It is not the case that our dance card has become any less crowded. If we look at our everyday performances, we are constantly being mined by all the social bodies that preside over us. So what is new under the sun? The difference is that nowadays social bodies have become deterritorialised. What does this mean? The deterritorialisation – surely a slow process that has been steadily accelerating since the early days of international trade in the medieval ages – has reached such an advanced state that the natural coordination among social bodies through values has become unhinged. The consequence is that there is no ‘naturalized’ governance among social bodies. This has become one of the biggest challenges to modern states that were typically seen as the keepers of the social, who functioned as the meta-body in which all the other social bodies (corporations, religious organizations, educational institutes etc.) were nested.
All this nesting is no longer dependant on the coordination between social bodies on the basis of values, but it is done on the basis of price. It has become perfectly acceptable for a corporation to cite ‘efficiency’ or ‘investment climate’ to legitimize either strengthening their allegiance to a particular nation state or to sever it. Notions of ‘Australian’, ‘American’ or ‘German’ corporations are increasingly becoming hollow as values are being subordinated to price. How often have we not heard CEOs of Western corporations bemoan that as much as they identify culturally with the host nation, ‘business fundamentals (read price)’ implore them to act to the contrary, subsequently initiating an exodus of business to lower-cost countries.
But it is not only between but more fundamentally also within social bodies that the technologies of belonging are now being over-coded by price. Traditionally being a member of a social body meant that an individual secured membership by performing according to the technology specific to a particular social body. However, the unbridled advancement of globalization and the accompanying intensification of competition have brought about the commodification of the technologies of belonging, i.e. of performance metrics. This has not only meant that performance metrics became standardized, but the corollary was that they were no longer specific to a particular organization. Whilst on the one hand this has been celebrated as a victory of the market by emancipating us from potentially oppressive organizations and other social bodies, the flipside is that even if one performs well according to these commodified performance metrics, one only gains a passport – a heightened chance of entry – with which to enter another without belonging anywhere. So whilst we have always been individuated as (in)dividuals, in multiple and at times contradictory ways, we have been protected against having no place to go as long since social bodies remained territorialized, i.e. forced to come together in a specific local setting. However, now that they are increasingly deterritorialised and globalised we are quartered, if you will, by technologies of belonging and it turns out that individuals are in fact very dividual.
So what remains: how low can we go? The limbo that we are required to dance is no longer about whether or not we can harmonize the various sets of values associated with any of these technologies of ‘belonging’, but whether you can juggle them financially – be they KPIs or BMIs, ATFs or FICOs, etc. And to be sure, if you can, the sky is the limit; but if you don’t …
The whole concept of ‘we’ is now premised on the market. ‘We’ is no longer defined by our shared values, but by our by our shared capacity to relate via price. Want to be part of a family? Sorry Mum, we can no longer afford you no longer. Want to be part of a school? Sorry my son, we can afford you no longer. Want to be part of our community, our nation? Sorry to hear you can afford it no longer. But rest assured, our new Prime-Minister Malcolm Turnbull has solemnly sworn that his new government will be “committed to freedom, the individual, and the market”. So what is stopping us from embracing the best values?