Society, Culture, Values, and Choice, or none of the above

Society, Culture, Values, and Choice, or none of the above

‘There is no such thing as society, Each of us has to look out for ourselves, not expect “society” to take care of us.’ Margaret Thatcher in Woman’s Own in 1987. (full interview) What she specifically meant is somewhat open to debate, but there is certainly a strong indication that the individual is more important than any group that it is part of. That we first and foremost stand alone.

In the 1970s, to explain the United States to visitors from Europe, my mother would take them to a cereal aisle in the local supermarket, the choice was really quite overwhelming and – along with 24-hour-opening times – it could be quite upsetting to first-time visitors.

What does either of these decades-old anecdotes have to do with values and the self? In his dulcet tones, Martin Hoskins takes us through a bit of the history of The Self, ending in the post-industrial (though not according to Ha Joon Chang), digital era. Along the way, he recounts a number of discoveries that have led to fractures in local societies and culture.

If I and my community believe in god, I can blame any event on or outsource to God. If God made me in his image, well then, I guess that is who I am, but if there is no god, then what is the point of me? Who am I and what is my meaning in life? Nietzsche’s declaration of God being dead does not mean that there is no god, but that now anything can be God.

This is great for those worried about supply outpacing demand; such an ever-evolving world has unlimited, every changing needs based on expression or avatars, but also fear. If my values aren’t clear, maybe an object can fill that void. These are avatars of us and symbols of our lifestyle, a badge signifying a belonging. (maybe like Airbnb’s Bélo mark). Using objects and products to claim membership in a group or strata has been around since long before Bernays, but unlike Veblen goods, these products are available to (almost) any income bracket;

According to the economist Robert Reich, It was in a sense the triumph of the self it was the triumph of a certain Self Indulgence a view that everything in the world and all moral judgment was appropriately viewed through the lens of personal satisfaction indeed the ultimate ending point of that logic is that there is no Society there is only a bunch of individual people making individual choices to promote their own individual well-being.

Giddens, who was writing in the early 90s – long before Social Media – discusses Janette Rainwater and her notion of self-therapy, the one theme that sticks out is that The Self is seen as a reflective project for which the individual is responsible. That sounds empowering. But in a post-industrial world, when even reflexivity is open to reflection, it must lead to uncertainty. Our globalisation and standardisation have led to greater communication and collaboration, however, we are choosing real time over real space – we no longer have to be face-to-face for these interactions. This has also led to an erosion of social institutions on a local scale, the dynamism and speed of our current modernity are breaking down industrial society and giving rise to individualisation. Reflexivity – or the examination and reformation – of social practices is dissolving traditions and customs leaving us with an instruction manual on how to act.

Imagine you are a recent graduate, of which I know many, and you spend your days seeing your online friends’ activities, as well as dutifully following contemporary designers and design blogs. All of this information is having an impact on your conscious and unconscious self. Nature gave Kim Kardashian West certain physical attributes and nurture, along with plastic surgery gave her a bit more, now she is self-made – or has made her Self. So surely, while Kim K is an extreme example, the graduate might think, I too should be able to achieve some form of success on my own, after all, society and culture are no longer holding me back (-ish), I can be whatever I want to be online (or off) regardless of place. I just need to make the right choices and position myself my brand correctly.
Two things strike me here,
1. Is there an unhealthy merging of Self-Identity and brand identity?*
2. With it being my responsibility to make the correct choices, surely I am to blame for making the wrong ones when I don’t make it.

*Many Instagram users have what is called a Finsta, a Fake-Instagram, ironically it is here where they share a more unfiltered life mostly with their friends. This is partly in response to life’s highlight reel that is Instagram, showing a more behind-the-scenes content, but also a shrewd calculation of not wanting potential employers or clients seeing them engaged in activities or behaviours not considered salubrious. (I have never felt so old writing something)

As Renata Saleci says ‘In today’s times of post-industrial capitalism, choice, together with individual freedom and the idea of self-making, has been elevated to an ideal. Now, together with this, we also have a belief in endless progress. But the underside of this ideology has been an increase of anxiety, feelings of guilt, feelings of being inadequate, feeling that we are failing in our choices. Sadly, this ideology of individual choice has prevented us from thinking about social changes. It appears that this ideology was actually very efficient in pacifying us as political and social thinkers. Instead of making social critiques, we are more and more engaging in self-critique, sometimes to the point of self-destruction.’

I am not saying that every member of the Millennial and Gen-Z generation is trying to be famous, or that they are all suffering from anxiety, although anxiety levels – according to many sources are at an all-time high. And, of course, Social Media is not entirely to blame for this. 24-hour news cycles, gun crime, student debt, and environmental pollution to name but a few.

So if you are an individual with no traditions, culture, or society – a digital refugee – standing in an aisle of choices that are constantly changing, how can you remain sane, happy and define your meaning of life? Having values that are clearly defined and static (for the most part) would be helpful and lead to the courage needed to move forward.

Barry Schwartz believes that ‘the secret to happiness is low expectations.’ and the Philosopher Richard Gervais believes that humour can make you bulletproof.

Lastly, here is a pdf for a project on Jungian Archetypes that one of my students worked on a few years ago, should you be interested/have too much time on your hands

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