One of the most remarkable observations about post-industrial America is alluded to in the amazing essay "Capitalism and Gay Identity" by John D'Emilio. It is essentially this: Industrial and post-industrial capitalism have weakened the utility of the nuclear family while at the same time idealizing it, targeting it as primary unit of consumption. As a result, heterosexuality and its relationship to the "family" has become ideological, another commodity to be bought and sold. Ancillary to this is the scapegoating of gay, lesbian, transgender and gender-nonconforming people by popular discourse—framing them as emblematizing the dark side of modern society, i.e. what happens when family values fail or when people have too much freedom (?!) This is nothing less than the pot calling the kettle black, because we are indeed all victims of capitalism—in its historic, psychological, and physical/architectural forms—whether we are gay or straight, and whether we are monogamous or not. What this is is the policing of freedom; only one kind of freedom is "okay" and acceptable in America: political and economic freedom, the kind of freedom that allows the little guy to get a nice healthy piece of the pie through a ruthless and often bordering on sociopathic discourse of individualism. But what about the kind of freedom that might allow him, because of historical changes in ways of living and working and socializing that our culture has undergone in the last 200 years, to love another man? No, that kind of freedom is not allowed. This is of course, the epitome of hypocrisy, made more sinister by the fact that those who fight for "traditional family values" are sucking on the teat of corrupt capitalism just as much if not more than anyone else, without any awareness that they are doing so.
As Jonathan Katz (essay: The Invention of Heterosexuality, I don't agree with all of it) and John D'Emilio show in his aforementioned essay, the historical transition of the nuclear family from self-sufficient producing unit (in a colonial economy) to consuming unit (in a capitalist free labor market) caused many changes in daily life that in turn reshaped sexual behavior and consciousness, and more precisely created new spaces and possibilities for those things that were not there before. As Katz notes, this economic shift to increased consumerism changed ideological notions of what one's body was for (is it for producing or consuming?), and in a more concrete sense created new possibilities for social and sexual activity, through the dislocation of workers from their homes as well as the sex segregation potentiated by the wartime economy for both men and women (during World War 2). In D'Emilio's essay we see that urbanization (and its relationship to the growth of industry) also played an important part in the creation of sexual identities and urban subcultures in America. This touches on the trans-historical phenomenon of city-building and its associated social ramifications, to which we should be careful not to ascribe a certain historicism. In other words: city-states have risen and fallen cyclically for thousands of years and there have been indeed "mini globalizations" that have similarly created ecologies of identity and social revolution. For example, the urban centers of the Late Roman Republic fomented liberationist ideologies (Christianity and other mystery cults) that ultimately reframed then-contemporary notions about identity and family. It is not just capitalism, but the urban environment that contributes to a different attitude toward the self and creates new possibilities for identity (of all sorts, not just sexual). Capital is then a new and efficient imperial medium. The relationship between sexual identity and capitalist urbanism indeed seems culturally and historically specific in America, but interestingly the phenomenon of urban culture serving to ideologically undermine or change notions of kinship and/or ideas about the self is not… it is as old as civilization.
In the epilogue of her book "The Way We Never Were", family historian Stephanie Coontz notes that sociobiologists and psychologists have offered theories to justify the social isolation felt by many in the wake of the "Second Gilded Age" (her term for the conservative and market-oriented 1980's) with its effects on socio-economic macro and micro structures, world view and individual morale. In her survey of the shifting political climates of the 60's, 70's and 80's, she describes the rising of a conservative religious right in the late 70's and early 80's, reacting to the achievements and zeitgeist of the civil rights and gay liberation movements. The new conservative movement championed the rhetoric of a return to traditional family values and, especially in the wake of the perceived "materialism" of the later 80's, the merits of a return to a simple, private family life. The notion arose in popular culture that private was better, and activism and public involvement futile, mis-guided, but also dangerously undermined the sanctity and integrity (and obviously, identity) of the heterosexual nuclear family. In the early 90's (preceding the publication of Coontz' book) certain sociobiologists offered the argument that humans only have limited energy for altruistic behavior, so the scope of collectivity and cooperation is (and must be) necessarily constrained to our family. Similarly, one Freudian psychologist claimed that humans are "instinctually" antisocial, and the family is the means by which the antisocial condition is kept in check. However, Coontz has demonstrated that the concept "family" (along with the connected concepts of "ideal" and non-ideal family), seemingly one of our most concrete ontological categories, is not irreducible, but a social construct that has fluctuated greatly in the last two hundred years. The views expressed by these particular "scientific" camps are capitalist apologies as well as "crap psychology", and poorly represent the illuminative potential of those fields. The cultural contributions of such sciences as evolutionary psych & sociobiology occupy contested space. This is because science (theoretically anyways) is a tool, and therefore neutral, but this is never usually the case because a tool is always held in someone's hand. In other words, the research questions, and moreover the ways that experiments are designed and the results framed, are always in danger of—and never completely immune to—the effects of the cultural narratives and social fabric which constrain the epistemologies of actual scientists. The theories that Coontz cites in the beginning of her epilogue are perfect examples of "science" justifying "how things are", as if they are "supposed" to be that way, which is part of the very pattern of tautological justification that Coontz has been demonstrating in her book! Politically questionable science often talks about the brain in terms of it being "hardwired", when really it is more like "soft-wired".
Coontz rightly insists though, that "we are social animals" (p. 284). Yet our propensity for solidarity and coalition building, because of the individualistic economic and civic environments we find ourselves in (where functional moral connections to the encompassing community and public are lacking) are recruited towards a detrimental sort of tribalism. To paraphrase one of my favorite scientists, the primatologist Frans de Waal, the definitive dilemma of our time is the globalization of a tribal species (us). "Tribalism" is not automatically negative, although the word is often used in a derogatory sense. "The tribe" is a method, and the important question that will truly allow us to appraise the success or failure of this method is: what is our sociality in service of? We are unequivocally social animals; we must next accept that such a nature is deeply plastic and our environments are its ultimate sculptors. A political problem that Coontz' work seems to suggest to me is that if coalitional behavior and needs for solidarity are met predominantly in an environment of mutual disenchantment and pessimism, then xenophobia and suspicion will come to be the dominant hermeneutics. As Coontz' work implies to me, (and as current sociobiological and evolutionary theory would corroborate), the desire to get politically and socially involved is connected to the intrinsic desire for working and problem-solving toward a common goal with a non-kin group of manageable cognitive size, and attaining the pleasure and meaning and motivation that one derives from that experience. The ability to effect change in one's proximal environment through the activity of coalitions and groups seems to be a critical way we form positive meanings about ourselves (for one thing). A powerful critique of the relationship between post-industrial capitalism and personal ethics comes from a statement by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation:
"In capitalism, it is difficult to construct a relationship of respect, even between two individuals, and that much more difficult in collectivity."Indeed. They continue, asserting
"the only real guarantee of individuality, of subjectivity, is the collective."In other words, maximally coherent identity is formed through the interaction within a collective and between an individual and that collective… when the subject is isolated from frames of references, paradoxically individual identity can fragment and disintegrate.
Lately I've been feeding my obsession with Constantinople/Istanbul by reading 1453, an amazingly woven together account of the fateful Ottoman capture of a Christian city that was seen as unconquerable, its walls unbreached by foreign armies for over a thousand years. From a geological and human ecological analysis, one finds that one primary reason for the longevity of Byzantium, if one could be located, is its location and proximity to various key natural resources. Eight out of twelve miles of perimeter were comprised by shoreline, an ideal combination of swift-moving deep waters plus the respite of a natural harbor afforded by the Great Horn. Then there was the formidable four mile land wall, built in the early 5th century under Theodosios, which was 100 feet high from moat to inner wall and 200 feet thick (including empty space), and represented the apotheosis of military defense in the age of medieval siege technology. Among other things this wonderfully written book, both meditative homily, historical analysis and adventure story, has just made me marvel at the specific architectural, political and economic strategies necessary to maintain the integrity of a fortified city, much less one that embodies the ultimate strategic position at the nexus of three continents, two seas, and crossroads of countless cultures. And it is not just the structural and political integrity that must be ensured, but at the same there must be enabled swift and safe flow of goods into and out this vast creature of stone, marble and smoke. The flesh of the Late Antique and Medieval city must be both permeable and impermeable, able to hermetically seal itself at a moment's notice. The management of such an organism is quite something to ponder, and if this seems formidable, how in the world can we hope to understand the ways in which nations are managed today? We can't, which is why so much of it takes place in the ethereal world of the semio-sphere, in transactions of data, distributed across hot server farms, running on oil and rare earth metals. We cannot see how anything works, and yes, I'm not afraid to admit, it's scary.
I live in Los Angeles right now, which itself represents a pinnacle, or at least a particular apogee of a civilization. But one big different between LA and Constantinople is that there are no city walls here. Everything is just open… or at least it looks that way to the eye. But where are the walls? Where did they go? They must have gone somewhere. I suppose the easy answer is that they are the U.S. borders, the one to the north and the one to the south, and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. But that can't be all. Today each person, in a way, has become a fortified city. In our urban studio apartments, little cross stitches on a sprawling carpet of concrete that drapes the landscape, we recapitulate the architecture of the city-state in our domestic lives. Not that it's our fault—it's not. No one is at fault. It's more complicated than that, and I won't take the easy way out and "blame the victim". (That would be a misunderstanding of Marxism.) But again, just like in ancient Rome, the household is a microcosm of empire, and could it ever be any other way? Has it ever, truly, since the dawn of civilization, or does the appearance merely change? As above so below… is that the rule, true no matter what is "above" or "below"? Should we actually live in a fortified city, or embody one? Which is safer? Which will prolong death longer? And if it does, will it do so at the expense of purpose?
Because of the expectations pressing on us in today's world as both worker and consumer, sociality has come to be associated with leisure, which is deeply problematic, one effect of the commodification and division of time. But if the social is integral to human attitudes, and more specifically to human optimism, then sociality must have multiple functions, including ones fundamental to municipal citizenship and local community. Sociality must have pragmatic and utilitarian benefits that firmly anchor it into a coupled relationship with local economic and political activity. This is indeed just the sort of politics that Murray Bookchin (author of "The Ecology of Freedom") proposes. As the feminist battle cry goes, "the personal is political"… that may be true, but until we live in environments whose invisible and physical structures are actually built with that in mind, we will be fighting a frustrating uphill battle.
I think there's an important distinction to make when critiquing this particular socio-economic/political system. I do not see the problem as being within the jurisdiction nor responsibility of the "end-user" (consumer) to solve. I.e. the premise that "we" (you and I) continually create the problem of capitalism by consuming is false, and I'm not one of those people who's like "the problem is us! Look how much we consume, it's disgusting!". Maybe that claim has its place somewhere, but I'm certain that we cannot "consume" our way out of the problem (i.e. through a mere shift to a 'greener' or green-washed economy). Therefore agency as consumer is actually, against all appearances, severely limited, and resembles nothing I would describe using the words "freedom" or "liberty", which I try not to use anyways. The consumer is neither sinner not savior. The problem is systemic and it outsources its symptoms onto the consumer. The consumer is one half of a coupled phenomenon, that of the producer-consumer relation. Therefore the consumer can not be at sole fault, nor can it be implicated as an isolated or autonomous node or step on a causal chain without considering that which forms its ecological (dare I use that word?) habitat. Truly, the ecological is everywhere, even where you don't see "nature". Ecology is the true matrix of reality. That said, I'm not afraid to admit that I don't know exactly how to "solve" these systemic problems. But I think that open-ended discourse about it, keeping an ethic of humility and cooperation and more emphasis on questions than answers, is the way forward.
*One observation that adds a twist to a discussion about the radical overhaul of society and public and private space that is the legacy of industrial capitalism is the possibility that social media and telecommunication technology are shifting the domain of public space. What IS public space today, and how does this crisis of definition effect the 'dichotomy' of public vs private agency?