I Am Spock
I found this post on Ann Althouse’s blog yesterday very interesting, because it cast a new light on something I think a lot about.
She’s reading The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, one of those books I have on the list of books I should probably read but in actual fact will never end up doing because such things rarely actually happen in life. The quote she pulls out steps off from Durkheim’s description of human beings as “‘homo duplex,’ or ‘two-level man.”
We are very good at being individuals pursuing our everyday goals (which Durkheim called the level of the ‘profane,’ or ordinary). But we also have the capacity to transition, temporarily, to a higher collective plane, which Durkheim called the level of the ‘sacred.’ He said that we have access to a set of emotions that we experience only when we are part of a collective — feelings like ‘collective effervescence,’ which Durkheim described as social ‘electricity’ generated when a group gathers and achieves a state of union. (You’ve probably felt this while doing things like playing a team sport or singing in a choir, or during religious worship.) People can move back and forth between these two levels throughout a single day, and it is the function of religious rituals to pull people up to the higher collective level, bind them to the group, and then return them to daily life with their group identity and loyalty strengthened. Rituals in which people sing or dance together or chant in unison are particularly powerful. A Durkheimian approach is particularly helpful when applied to sudden outbreaks of moralistic violence that are mystifying to outsiders….”
“You’ve probably felt this while doing things like playing a team sport or singing in a choir, or during religious worship…”
This gave me furiously to think, because while I am aware of the two planes, and have experience of the sacred/profane dichotomy, and while this topic interests me greatly, and while I have participated in many activities of the kind described — despite all that, I don’t believe I have ever experienced “collective effervescence.” Not even a little bit.
And, as you know if you’ve followed my writing about it, I am greatly troubled by the referenced “outbreaks of moral violence” associated with the madness of crowds, “the mob” and such. But even in the case of more benign manifestations of this so called collective social “electricity”, I tend to recoil. I stand off to the side, in as close to a state of isolation as I can manage. The “social electricity” puzzles me and vexes me, even when I quite like the thing that causes it (e.g., rock and roll concerts, religious ceremonies.) In other words, I suppose, I am Spock.
I was thinking about this out at the lake the other day, watching people do their hanging out at the lake thing. There is no conceivable circumstance under which I would place myself in a line of other people, positioned in a rank of such lines, and participate in a synchronized dance. There is no conceivable circumstance under which I can imagine myself joining a protest (even one I agreed with) and chanting “hey hey ho ho, whatever it is has got to go.” There is no conceivable circumstance in which I could ever get swept up in ecstasy over the victory of a sports team over another sports team, or feel suicidally demoralized when whatever team it is fails to make the requisite number of points to defeat whatever the other team is. I see this stuff in the world and it mystifies me.
And, though I truly love rock and roll, and while I do get pretty excited and amped up playing a show or seeing a show I really like, I have to admit — and it kind of pains me in this case, since the thing I lack is, as I fully acknowledge, an integral part of the matter — I don’t tend to get swept up in the crowd the way you’re supposed to. I don’t “join together with the band.” Instead I stand off the side, appreciating the band, digging the music and maybe even the “vibe,” but not going out of my brain with animal abandon. I don’t believe in much, but if I believe in anything it’s rock and roll, and God maybe, and in either case I am not fulfilling my end of the bargain and I can’t say I don’t regret it.
Now, I do experience heightened states of consciousness in various situations, a kind of aesthetic rapture usually, most often in response to art, particularly music. In fact I experience this quite often in my life. I am regularly moved to tears by songs, especially in the presence of songwriters singing them. But this is never “collective” in any way. In fact I find standing in a crowd while it happens to be rather irritating, the unfortunate price you have to pay to see, say, Kris Kristofferson sing and play in Golden Gate park. In such situations there’s a wall around me. The effervescence, when it occurs, bubbles up entirely within, with no more than a trace of moisture rolling down the granite surface, a mere hint of the roiling emotion inside. It would never occur to me to call up a group of fellow Kris Kristofferson enthusiasts and propose that we all get together for some synchronized weeping. Of course not. But some people do like that sort of thing. I’ve seen it.
It’s pretty challenging to sustain a state of quiet, solitary contemplation in the midst of a rowdy, claustrophobogenic, hooting crowd, but at least it is in my power. I couldn’t link arms with everyone and hoot and hollar and go “woo” at Kris Kristofferson if my life depended on it.
These disparate examples are all things I’ve thought about separately, and frequently. I usually categorize them, half-ironically, as misanthropy, or curmudgeonliness, or as just plain anti-social tendencies. And I’ve often joked about missing the “sports gene” — which is only a joke in the sense that there isn’t actually a “sports gene,” not in the sense of not having it, which I clearly don’t. But it wasn’t till reading Althouse’s post that it really dawned on me the degree to which these are all sub-manifestations under the same overarching category. It’s not the “sports gene” per se that I’m missing. It is the “collective effervescence” gene, in which all these other missing traits are subsumed, that I lack. I am part of many ad hoc collectives, or “communities” though I dislike that term, largely based on my interests and activities. But I always operate as an individual as against the collectivity, even when this subverts or perverts the very purpose and constitution of the enterprise in question. I regret it slightly, but I can’t imagine it being otherwise. Alienation from groups is just too ingrained in my temperament, not to say, my soul. It is, as the saying goes, what it is.
Althouse herself seems to be a Spock as well. She theorizes that she was “inoculated” against being pulled into the collective by a Frank Zappa experiment with crowd dynamics that she witnessed at the Fillmore East in 1969 — this show. That’s way cooler than any explanation I have to hand. I’m just an awkward guy. I don’t like crowds. I want my own planet. I don’t have an explanation for it.
I wonder, though, how many others there are like us. I feel there are not many. But maybe there are a whole lot of secret Spocks out there. And if so, maybe we should all get together in a field somewhere and compare notes, or more realistically, pointedly ignore each other, just to see what would happen. I’m just kidding, let’s definitely not do that.