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Rundle on Susan Pinker's The Village Effect

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You can still visit The Farm if you want. The venerable commune in Colorado is still going, though numbers are down from the high point in the 1970s, when some thousands of people had come to live in different networks and arrangements growing their own food, making their own clothes. There were different levels of self-sufficiency, according to taste and inclination, and there were factions and some pretty bitter divisions. By the early 1970s there were thousands of communes across the US, and down the east coast of Australia and everywhere else. But a mere five years later most of them were vanished, or had reverted to personally owned farms and houses, while some recrudesced towards religious or spiritual cults.
At the time the commune movement appeared to be a natural and inevitable outgrowth of the social revolutions of the 1960s, and one that would lead to a whole alternative order within social life, a countervailing power. Communalism came from many sources flowing into the ’60s social revolution, but the prompting to it came from within the white heat of the movement itself, and a series of political impasses that it faced.
The most prominent of these was the May ’68 uprising in Paris, and the prospect that the weeks of occupation of the streets might burst into something larger with the support of the Communist Party, and roll on into full-scale revolution. That didn’t happen, and nor was there any sort of urban uprising of any size in the US. Thousands took to heart the idea that such revolutions were now no longer possible in the city, in the urban centres of power. Going to the country was based in part on Mao’s dictum that the cities of world needed to be surrounded by the country of the world, and to wage revolution from there.

But it was also about something more than that — about a restoration of qualities that had been lost in the modern world. The impersonal suburban world that had grown up in the post-war era had generated its own opposition almost immediately, with a slew of books about the new and alienated world — many of which were all but consumed in the reaction.

Books such as Riesman’s Faces In The Crowd established the idea that something had gone very fundamentally wrong with modern life. Through that people dug back further — to the civilisational critique in the notebooks of the early Marx, which was a thundering attack on the whole of alienated civilisation and to American traditions such as those of Henry David Thoreau and his return to nature book Walden, and much more.

The final part of the equation was the findings of an anthropology that was now thoroughly relativised, finding the hidden complexity of what had hitherto been assumed to be simple lives (one such footsoldier in such was Katherine Dunham, aka the mother of Barack Obama, doing field work in Indonesia).

This return not merely to the commune, to the village, but to the working village, with everyone intermeshed together and to a degree closed from the outside world, was met with bewilderment, especially from those who had only left their villages to get to the city a few decades earlier. The wave that took people back was an expression of faith in a unitary idea of the human, of the hole and complete being, and of the idea that such dwelt within everyone and could be released by throwing off oppressive systems, held to be entirely external to a purified existence.

In the lead up to the ’60s, that is in modernity, from the 1830s onwards, the idea of the human had been expressed through various different means — through the radical autonomy of art, the counterfeit religion of spiritualism, and finally the radical commitment to revolutionary politics  — before reaching its apogee with the commune movement. And then its near simultaneous collapse. When it went, two dynamic forces flowered in the wasteland — radical capitalism and radical technology, vis the coming of Thatcherism, and the personal computer.

The latter had been one outgrowth of communalism, with communes like the Whole Earth store in San Francisco pioneering The Well, an early form of networked computer bulletin boards in the early 1970s. But when the personal computer was eventually pioneered the networked and communal element had gone, and the PC that sat on the desk from the ’70s onwards —  the original Apple — was an isolate box, privatised and alienated.

The sequence is not without its piquancy, for as Susan Pinker (pictured above) makes clear in her book The Village Effect:Why Face-To-Face Contact Makes Us Truly Human on the necessity of human connection in an intimate and focused fashion — the village effect —  many people have now simply taken ‘social; to refer to online connection, and network to the media within which it occurs. Whatever the naivetes of the commune movement —  and it can essentially be seen as a mistake about how human selfhood is constituted, and a social movement built thereon — it was matched by an equal and opposite naivete as regards the capacity of abstracted media to carry pure and total presence without any loss.

Since the creation of the web and the expansion of the internet to become a carrier of all potential sociation there has been a series of utopian ideals projected upon it —  first as the new frontier, then as the alternative society, and then as a picture of the new utopia — and each time it has been co-opted to private purposes. By now it is clear to many that everything the internet promises at one level it removes at a deeper one — social media has become an anti-social individuating device dissolving place, focus and connection.

By now, no-one is fooled by its promises. And in Susan Pinker’s exhaustive rundown of the beneficial effects of close connection an face to face living the potential disasters of living the exclusively online life are made clear in umpteen chapters on physical health, mental health, well being etc. Pinker is arguing for something that is cutting against the grain of the texture of our lives, and against the dominant force of the market. Ostensibly this is a revival of some aspects of communalist notions, in the face of what has been off-limits for some decades —  the idea that there may be limits to our capacity to float free of any context.

Yet as a genuine form of civilisational critique the book is a bizarre and apparently unknowing concession to the worst aspects of the culture it seeks to contest, enumerating the individualised health, mental andhyper-individual benefits of the ‘village effect’. The civilisation critique that formed the actual village effect  —  the return to The Farm — has not yet been revived. Pinker’s book is a way station on the way to it, a reminder that the full human catastrophe of the online revolution —  or of its celebration as utopia — has not yet begun to be visible in its true character much less critiqued.

[box]The Village Effect was published in Canada and the US in 2014, and is being published in the UK, Korea, China, Turkey and Poland in 2015.[/box]

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