We Are Our Boundaries


Whether the theme—being what is not while not being what is, is encountered in Sartre’s Being And Nothingness (the “hole” in my self-consciousness that permits human reality while remaining just outside the reach of this reality), or in Freud’s simultaneous attractive and repulsive forces, Eros and death wish, or in Thom’s definition of self, or in Simmel’s self as sociological category—the subject matter of this post, the effect is almost always immediate, a thoughtful person’s head start’s to spin (sometimes out of control).

Life Is A Process Of Continual Differentiation And Then Death- Dedifferentiation

Primitive Ambivalence-The Self Is, Only In Its Relation To What It Is Not, And, It Is Not, Only In Its Relation To What It Is

Thom (1984), in his book, The Human Nature of Social Discontent, raises the attractive (binding) and repulsive (destructive) forces of what Freud takes to be Eros and the death instinct to a new level of self-definition. Drawing upon various diverse literatures, for example, Schrodinger’s discussion of the nature of life, symbolic anthropology, Sartre’s “psychoanalysis of things,” and comparative religion, Thom understands the life process to be one of continual differentiation, while death becomes dedifferentiation. Life, for Tom, becomes associated with what is conscious and death becomes associated with the unconscious. In Thom’s definition of self, this conscious/unconscious distinction gets synthesized and expressed. Thom (1984: xi) defines the self as:

“…the symbolic union of the conscious and unconscious: the overcoming of the primitive ambivalence or opposition between the modes of difference and no difference. As such, it appears to reproduce its basic structure in every form it creates or observes, since every form can be expressed as some combination of difference and equality, dividing and making equal or identical. This is true of the most elementary distinction we might make, since any distinction not only establishes difference but also ‘makes identical’ both what it distinguishes and what it distinguishes from.”

Thus, for Thom, the relational structure of self is such that it is, only in its relation to what it is not, and, it is not, only in its relation to what it is. This ambivalence-self dichotomy becomes the self’s ontologically primary experience which must be continually overcome in a person’s day-to-day experience. In this way, the self, as a constructive process, accommodates life’s trials and travails as it is continually brought into existence, and, it is this condition, where, according to Thom, we find the seeds of alienation and anomie.

Ambivalence, as a subject for theoretical investigation, has its own history. Ambivalence has been described in literature dating at least as far back as the ancient Greeks, but it was not, specifically, coined as a word referring to various kinds of conflict until Bleuler (1910) coined the word around the turn of the century. Bleuler identified three types of ambivalence which, according to Merton (1976: 3), may be characterized as: “the emotional (or affective) type in which the same object arouses both positive and negative feelings, as in parent-child relations; the voluntary (or conative) type in which conflicting wishes make it difficult or impossible to decide how to act; and the intellectual (or cognitive) type, in which men hold contradictory ideas.” Ever since Bleuler, ambivalence has been an object for investigation by psychologists and, to a lesser extent, sociologists.

In sociological terms, Merton (1976: 7) analyzed ambivalence and located ambivalence in the social definitions that “deal with the processes through which social structures generate the circumstances in which ambivalence is embedded in particular statuses and status-sets together with their associated social roles.” As an example of this kind of ambivalence, Merton suggests that a doctor encounters ambivalence every time she/he is compelled to honestly inform the patient of her/his condition, even though this information may cause the patient’s suffering to increase. Merton believes psychological ambivalence originates from different types of socially induced encounters with ambivalence.

If we take the position that ambivalence is, at least to some extent, governable by what Angyal (1941: 118) calls the “narrower conscious of the symbolic self,” then, it seems to me, that a psychological approach to ambivalence becomes desirable. This debate, however, becomes mute in the thought of the man who affectively merged the psychological and sociological perspectives concerning ambivalence.

As Simmel Puts It: We Are Our Boundaries

The Individual Is A Sociological Category, In So Far As She/He Is A Stranger To The Category, And, The Individual Is A Stranger, In So Far As She/He Is A Sociological Category

Ambivalence: Interplay of Social/Psychological Dependencies

For Simmel (1918) the individual is simultaneously social and individual, social, in the form of the product of sociological categories, and individual, as the stranger existing outside of sociological categories. In this way, according to Thom (1983: 187), “Simmel inserts a conceptual wedge between the development and cultivation of individuals and the progress of objective culture. It is, then, within the range of penetration of this conceptual wedge, where an eruption of social/psychological ambivalence can be found.

Encountered in Simmel’s conception of man as a social animal we find the interplay of dependencies. The individual is a sociological category, in so far as she/he is a stranger to the category, and, the individual is a stranger, in so far as she/he is a sociological category. In this respect, the individual is neither social nor individual, she/he is the boundary that simultaneously separates the individual from society and joins the individual to society. As Thom (1982: 185) states:

“(T)he notion of ambivalence as a split between these two basic modes of being [gets reflected in Simmel’s] preoccupation with boundaries which mark and maintain differences. As Simmel puts it: we are our boundaries. We are also the reaching out across them. We are too ready to see one or the other faction as our essential being.”

Because of the way Simmel defines the “social animal,” the socialization process, for Simmel, is unique. The individual and society form a complex unit of interdependently woven parts. “Society,” says Simmel (1918/1971: 72), “in order to attain a determinate shape, needs some quantitative ratio of harmony and disharmony, of association and competition, of favorable and unfavorable tendencies.” From within this entanglement of circumstance society progresses from simple to more complex forms of organization and, accordingly, a proliferation of complex relations between people arise.

In this web of human interactions, the whole and the parts are, to paraphrase Aron, reciprocally opposed to each other; while at the same time they define a natural unity (Martindale, 1981: 233). The individual who constitutes society expresses this natural unity, but this expression is itself a result of the unifying experience of the social unit. It is in the framework of the social unit where the behavior of the individual gets realized and this realized behavior is itself a reflection of the many diverse group behaviors that constitute the social unit.

The socialization process, for Simmel, occurs within the unifying context of the social unit, which, in turn, may be understood in terms of conflict and ambivalence. Simmel (1908/1971: 71) states:

“[T]he individual does not attain the unity of his personality exclusively by an exhaustive harmonization, according to logical, objective, religious, or ethical norms of the contents of his personality. On the contrary, contradiction and conflict not only precede this unity but are operative in it at every moment of its existence. Just so, there probably exists no social unit in which convergent and divergent currents among its members are not inseparably interwoven.”

This relationship, where society and societal structures are composed of persons who are simultaneously inside and outside of them, where social integration becomes a consequence of polar opposite tendencies occurring between people, is understood by Simmel to be a consequence of what he calls the a priori of society. And, according to Martindale, the meaning of the a priori peculiar to society “is revealed in the fact that between individual and society the ‘within’ and ‘without’ are not two determinations, but rather they are properties of a unitary social being” (Martindale, 1981: 227).

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