Atomized Conformity and the Temple of Self

We are continually told to judge people “as individuals”, irrespective of group identity. This, after all, is a truism of any (small-“l”) liberal system. Yet contradictions are quick to manifest in the landscape around us: what is big data? What is statistical inference? These, the very engines of the glorious new “information economy”, are things that by their nature aim to generalize people from their groups, or even to invent groups as explanatory variables (for instance, the recent ballyhooed “Hidden Tribes” study) whenever necessary—the game being to ascribe to the individual whatever properties have been previously found in some group judged somehow similar.

“Identity politics” and hence most “social justice” are really mostly continuations of such thought: the dictum being that we judge people as individuals unless we find out they are part of some designated “aggrieved group”, at which point their individuality (and possibly that of everyone else outside that group) becomes obsolete, its mention a solecism. From the moment the dictum is invoked, all parties are required to treat purely on the basis of group identities (assigned or assumed).

Differentiation and homogenization are not strict opposites, then, but often go hand-in-hand. Big data aims to differentiate us into algorithmically constructed sub-groups based on whatever data Corporation Y or Agency X has been able to gather about us; but in the same movement it homogenizes us by consigning us to the same treatment as the rest of our sub-group.

This movement—of differentiating individuals into “bins” based on some handily available information, and then treating the members of each bin as roughly equivalent—is, in its essential nature, no different from the movement that creates racism. However there is something extra at work. In the age of the technocratic, now digitally-enhanced forms of “humanism”, there lies something that was not apparent even in the rise of racism—a possibly far profounder act of homogenization, one might say, by which the differentiation into political or marketing-based groups is purchased, so to speak, by a far larger increase in the interchangeability of all individuals, regardless of group…

***

Allan Bloom and also Ernest Becker saw into the heart of the matter: it is not so much about nature or nurture, but a third element, Self—namely the longing for Self-as-Creator, or even better, Self-as-Self-Creator. Evidence from either nature or nurture will be marshaled as needed to support the demands of the Self-Creator—that irreproachable hermaphroditic marvel—and if evidence from either or both goes against the will of the Self-Creator, then it will be suppressed and berated.

…And yet does the Self-Creator, in its whirling narcissism, ever suspect that it itself is a servant, a plaything? That it is a means to an end—just as evidence is, for its own goals, a means to an end under “post-truth” conditions? Dare we inquire what this end might be, and why it has remained so invisible to us?

In “The Closing of the American Mind”, p. 200, Bloom gives a hint, as he writes of the consequences of dismantling shared sources of meaning, of moving through “stops” ranging from universal commonality to complete solipsism/nihilism, whereupon:

“…At the next stop there turns out to be no stop, and the descent is breathtaking. If one finds anything at all, it is strictly one’s own, what Nietzsche calls one’s fatum, a stubborn, strong ass that has nothing to say for itself other than that it is. One finds, at best, oneself; and it is incommunicable and isolates each from all others, rather than uniting them.”

Later (p. 247), Bloom adds:
“The paradoxical result of the liberation of reason [brought about by democracy] is greater reliance on public opinion for guidance, a weakening of independence.”

It is in this simultaneous unmooring of all shared meaning in the blind hunt for “Self”, on the one hand, and the paradoxical “weakening of independence” brought about by a degraded, mass-dominated democratic culture, on the other, that atomized conformity is born.

***

The endpoint of this seems to be the recrudescence of man (and woman) not as genuine individuals at all, not even as sub-groups, but as the constituents of a regime of atomized conformity: as standardized tokens of “human worth”, readily exchangeable and interchangeable, equipped with obedience to the dictates of a technological, “progressive” mass-organization absolutely assumed and beyond question. Differences of sub-group become lucrative for targeted advertising, or politically useful for maintaining social control in other ways, but are otherwise (by design) powerless. This is the strange fruit of the marriage of liberalism and social constructivism into the realm of isolated Self: an incipient new racism, and an incipient new slavery, both invisible in plain sight.

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