The celebration of youth and adolescence. The demand for autonomy. The terror of death. The alienation we all feel. All of these phenomena are connected. My thesis is simple:
Our celebration of autonomy demands we "liberate" ourselves from the contexts we are embedded in without our consent
The resulting alienation generates an "ahistorical" subject: the measure of man is reduced to individual potentiality
If we wish to recover Balance in our lives, between room for the safe exploration of our own subjectivities and a social structure that fosters belonging and community, we have to re-affirm the contexts we are embedded in alongside affirming our own individuality.
How Autonomy Demands "Liberation" (aka Commodification, Objectification, and Alienation)
Autonomy demands atomization because any bond that is not chosen represents a limitation on one's free actions. I have been forced into accepting some situation. We see variants of this belief in calls for family abolition and "collectivizing" the youth: "They don't belong to anyone!!!" Furthermore, in the same way that one doesn't choose what family one is born into or what race one is, these things cannot have meaning if autonomy is our most core value. And if they cannot have meaning, we cannot identify with them, since (as Charles Taylor explains) how we identify/what we identify with, reflects the values we hold and what we perceive is meaningful. Any bonds that are not chosen must be dissolved. To identify with them is to appeal to some value outside of autonomy that must (at least in some case) overrule autonomy. And this cannot stand.
An interesting (and perhaps tragic) association with this is the "catching feelings" crowd. Effectively, "feelings" are seen as external to the Self, who is autonomous and must therefore remain detached from, and disengaged with, the world and the sentiments that arise upon contact with the world. Is it any surprise that the "don't catch feelings" crowd overlaps 100% with this Left/Liberal worship of "autonomy"? It shouldn't be. These two go hand in hand. This is the end result of holding autonomy as your chief good.
When we hear about a focus on "consent" or "choice", what we are referring to is two alienated individuals deciding to establish a bond that may be revoked at any moment by one or the other, and which has no deeper significance than the desire of those two (or more) people. 99.9% of the "self-care" industry (lol) is effectively just a way to placate the inner emptiness of your heart when you lose those deep relationships with others and/or when relationships place demands on you that don't let you "have it all" and you become angry you were sold a lie (or assume your relationships are bad).
It is ironic that it is the marxists themselves who have brought to fruition Marx's famous claim:
*All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.*
How Autonomy Generates an Ahistorical Subject
I've talked plenty about why alienation is bad, and I'll delve into another aspect of that later in this piece. But for now, I want to discuss a "mechanistic" outcome of autonomy. When we enter the world, we are "thrown" into a context. We have a family and, by extension, ancestors. Our family has a History. Our community has a History. We are shaped by the particular Histories, the particular context, we are thrown into. We do not choose these. Souls are not sitting up in heaven going "hmmm...I want that family."
Autonomy must liberate the individual from the history they have been thrown into. The Past becomes an instrument to be wielded strategically only to maximize present and future autonomy. Reparations for slavery are supported to boost the financial position of Black people and thereby grant them greater autonomy. But no one (besides GOP "they're the real racists!" losers) is bringing up the legitimately racist origins of Planned Parenthood. That narrative might put abortion rights at risk, and that would be a clear violation on Autonomy (of the Right People, at least). History has always been a realm of storytelling; the question has always been, what's the point of the story you aim to tell? What used to be a substantive story, deriving meaning from our ancestors and projecting that meaning into the future (working for our descendants as our ancestors worked for us - and expecting our descendants to revere us as we revere our ancestors), has now become an instrument to be wielded to maximize present and future autonomy.
This leads to two consequences:
Our disdain for/neglect of our ancestors is mirrored (perhaps subconsciously) into a fear our children will not care for us. Our horizon ends with ourselves.
The meaning of our lives becomes measured in potentiality.
The second is far more important.
The Measure of Man is His Potential
The problem that emerges when one has no History is, "how does one measure meaning?" The meaning of our lives lies in potentiality. Here is where we see the obsession with youth and terror of old age collide.
It is our obsession with the future, with possibilities it entails, that drives us. "Opportunity," "The American Dream," "Entrepreneurship," "Risk," etc. Our orientation for the future entails a constant and perhaps eternal striving. Perhaps there is a connection between Oswald Spengler's characterization of the modern West, of "Faustian" culture, as one lusting after infinite/boundless space and Jens Beckert's note, citing the work of Pierre Bourdieu and his studies of the Kabyle people in Algeria, that one of the critical building blocs of the transition to capitalism was a shift in "temporal horizon" among its subjects:
Actors must integrate new temporal orientations in order to achieve economic success in a capitalist economy. These new temporal orientations uproot traditional ways of life in which the future is seen mostly as a circular repetition of events from the past. This perception is based in practical experiences on the circular movements of nature: what has been will come again; what will come in the future has existed before. The future is closed, in other words. In the capitalist economy, by contrast, actors no longer understand the future as a continuation of a present informed by the past; rather, the future is an unending disruption of the present, a "restless" (Sewell 2008; Wagner-Pacifici 2010) social formation in which actors may refer to several possible futures to select their course of action.
The difference in temporal orientation does not mean traditional societies are indifferent to the future...[they plan] for what Bourdieu calls "direct goods"; that is, goods that provide intrinsic satisfaction in the future and conform to an inherited "logic of honor" prevalent in the community.
The economic future is thus connected to the present as a single organic entity, and consists largely of products "forthcoming" from the next harvest, and positions of honor and prestige to be secured within the social order.
This assessment of the future contrasts greatly with the emerging capitalist economy Bourdieu observed, a new economic formation that "presupposes the constitution of a mediated, abstract future" (Bourdieu 1979:10). The capitalist future is based on calculations of distant future states of the world that form "an absent, imaginary vanishing point" (7)
(from Beckert's Imagined Futures)
Of course, a man can always get more money. The one thing a man cannot recover, is time. The "faustian" bargain in this case is not Western Man selling his soul for the pursuit of knowledge and power via technics, but rather the case of Man severing himself from his History in order to maximize his Autonomy.
The Pursuit of Balance
So what do we do? I've discussed similar issues of autonomy-maximization with regards to Travel before, and I've talked about "recovering Adventure" from those infected with wanderlust. So let's discuss what needs to be balanced in this scenario:
Our Individuality: our own subjectivities and inner depths that speak to us, and demand expression.
Our Context: the community that we are embedded in
Why must these two be balanced? Self-awareness and individuality is good, but it is our Contexts that make individuality possible in the first place. A Diversity of Persons is truly only possible given a Diversity of Contexts. A monoculture will pump out NPCs.
So we want a Context that gives us room, a safe space, to explore our own subjectivities, but we also need that Context to be strong and stable and for each individual to do their part to maintain it. That doesn't mean being conformist. But it does mean not purposefully obliterating institutions in the name of Autonomy.
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(Cover Image from John Fox Bershof)