Friday, February 18, 2011

Autonomy In a Social Context

Revision to blog 2:

In Marcuse's introduction, he makes the assumption that “ a given society, specific possibilities exist for the amelioration of human life and specific ways and means of realizing these possibilities.” He also makes “the judgment that human life... can be an ought to be made worth living” (Marcuse xlii-xliii). This raises a question – if human life can be ameliorated and made worth living, how should this amelioration be achieved? The term “human life” implies both a level of individuality and a level of connection to others. In this way, the answer lies in the fluctuation of a balance between one's autonomy and their overlying social structure. More specifically, humans are successful when they are made happy on a primarily individual basis; established social structure inevitably restricts this happiness.

America's system of government is to some extent built around avoiding this restriction; our individual opinion is expressed through our right to vote, and the state and federal governments take our votes into account and accordingly make changes for the greater good of the country. Individual votes are combined into one entity, and the most popularly voted-for decision becomes reality. In elections for government officials, one person is put in power based on the desire expressed by the highest percentage of society. A new leader is appointed and considered to be responsible for the whole of their society. Of these people, Marcuse says “Those who identify themselves with the whole, who are installed as the leaders and defenders of the whole can make mistakes, but they cannot do wrong – they are not guilty” (Marcuse 83). Because these leaders, the president and congressmen, were elected by a majority, they speak for everyone. However, there is a problem inherent in this assumption; in elections there will always have been a limited amount of choices. There cannot be a candidate who is wholly appropriate for every voter; decisions cannot realistically be made without some degree of compromise. There is no objective choice; to an individual subject of the government, some part of the social structure will always go against their desired outcome. “The very notion of an objective substance, pitted against the subject, seems to disintegrate” (Marcuse 148). Realistically, some compromise might be acceptable by individuals in a population. People do realize that their world is not likely to be utopian. However, according to research done by social psychologists, “...individuals decide to leave a group and form a new sub-group when they conclude that other members have changed sufficiently that they can no longer be viewed as “we” – as falling within the boundaries of their extended self-concept” (Baron 340). In other words, individuals only feel they have autonomy and freedom within a group for as long as the group follows their own individual perception. According to Marcuse, “When the whole is at stake, there is no crime except that of rejecting the whole, or not defending it” (Marcuse 82). There will always be a looming breaking-point of sorts where a social structure infringes on the autonomy of enough of its subjects to cause that social structure to disintegrate. People feel a sense of friction and unrest; their society outwardly says it will listen to their desire, but it does not seem to do this in reality. For the most part this social disintegration seems to manifest itself in the form of general apathy in the face of a social structure that people feel they cannot control. Arguably, the modern American youth population is experiencing this process today. It could also, however, come in the form of revolution, as in France, Russia, England... almost any country that gained a large amount of world power at some point in history.

In Octavia Butler's novel Parable of the Sower, the community of Olivar is experiencing a failure of its social structure to respect individual freedom. A private institution called Kagimoto, Stamm, Frampton, and Company (KSF) has taken power in Olivar. KSF “intends to dominate farming and the selling of water and wind energy over much of the southwest” (Butler 119). They will give the citizens of Olivar jobs and security in exchange for cheap labor. For a while, Olivar will grow. This growth could even last a very long time; Olivar could become very strong. Marcuse remarks on the idea of industrial growth, “...essentially the power of the machine is only the stored-up and projected power of man. To the extent to which the work world is conceived of a machine and mechanized accordingly, it becomes the potential basis of a new freedom for man” (Marcuse 3). Olivar is become potentially free. However, the people of Olivar will eventually recognize a discordance between their desires and the desires of KSF. They will no longer consider KSF to “fall within the boundaries of their extended self-concept” (Baron 340). Readers of Butler's novel, removed from the necessity for growth that the people of Olivar feel, readily recognize this possibility. Lauren explicitly tells us of this danger, stating “Anyone KSF hired would have a hard time living on the salary offered. In not very much time, I think the new hires would be in debt to the company. That's an old company-town trick – get people into debt, hang on to them, and work them harder. Debt slavery” (Butler 121). The people working for KSF originally believe they are becoming independent, but soon realize they are indebted to the corporation. Marcuse says that “The purchase and use of [the people's] physical energy, under sub-human conditions, for the private appropriation of surplus-value entailed the revolting inhuman aspects of exploitation... This is the material, tangible element in wage slavery and alienation – the physiological and biological dimension of classical capitalism” (Marcuse 24). Soon the people of Olivar will feel a tension between their desire to grow and become members of a powerful social group in a dystopian landscape and their autonomic desire to remain outside the influence of the restrictive KSF. They will realize that they are subject to wage slavery. Their feelings of friction will result in a desire to, in Marcuse's terms, ameliorate their human condition. The people will attempt to revolt. The extent to which they are able to free themselves from their slavery will result in one of three things – freedom from KSF (and therein happiness,) a continuation of their misery, or a general apathy.

Lauren's thought and discussion of God directly depicts this idea of social structure infringing upon autonomy. Lauren sees the Christian god as a similar figure to powerful government officials; people invest their faith in God hoping that he will ease their pain and give them a purpose in life, but Lauren sees them as inevitably to be disappointed by their God, because he cannot possibly make every life truly happy. She explains, “Maybe God is kind of a big kid, playing with his toys. If he is, what difference does it make if 700 people get killed in a hurricane – or if seven kids go to church and get dipped in a big tank of expensive water” (Butler 16)? This disillusionment, this realization of God's inability to care for every individual, calls back to the phenomenon of becoming disillusioned from a social structure that does not match their extended self-concept. Lauren goes on to say, “But what if all that is wrong? What if God is something else altogether” (Butler 16)? Lauren's Earthseed god is an attempt to encapsulate the entire process of social structure being repeatedly established and dissolved. She labels her God to be equivalent to Change. In this way, Lauren shows that she considers the revolution process to be inevitable and necessary for life. Her Earthseed verse at the opening of Chapter 14 exemplifies this belief. “In order to rise / From its own ashes / A phoenix / first / must / burn.” Lauren sees that for society to become utopian, it must first become dystopian.

According to both Marcuse and Butler, a social structure may be appealing at first, with promise of growth and the apparent freedom of the democratic process. However, this can only last for so long. Marcuse and Butler both believe that society needs to be constantly evaluated and critiqued with an attempt to better the social structure. Social disillusionment is a necessary and inevitable part of any society that attempts to call itself free.

Works Cited

Baron, Robert A., Donn Erwin. Byrne, and Nyla R. Branscombe. Mastering Social Psychology. Boston: Pearson Allyn & Bacon, 2007. Print.

Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower. New York: Warner, 2000. Print.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon, 1991.

1 comment:

  1. You had my full attention throughout, and I was too busy reading to really do much criticizing along the way (the fact that you're #15 today might have something to do with it). As I read, I assumed I'd really need to focus my final views, good or bad, around what you actually finally said that applied to Butler.

    So let's look at this line: "Lauren's Earthseed god is an attempt to encapsulate the entire process of social structure being repeatedly established and dissolved." I hope I remember this line - I wouldn't mind remembering it word for word, actually. Not because it's *the* right way of reading the novel, but because it is a strong, individual (autonomous?) way of understanding it through an obviously relevant discipline.

    It works especially well because Lauren is not creating a religion which causes a social revolution, or which emerges from a social revolution - she's trying to create a religion which is suitable for a world characterized by ongoing social revolutions. You did this very well.

    I'm skeptical of the structure of this essay. I think you did a lot of discovering as you wrote, and that it could have benefited greatly from one more revision, especially of the beginning, simply to let us know that you're headed toward a redefinition of what Earthseed. It reads, in other words, like a highly sophisticated draft.

    On the other hand, I've read everything that has been written on Octavia Butler, and published three essays on her, and I think this is a reading which is new, interesting, and legitimate.