By Mark McConaghy
Human connection is often posited as the source of fundamental meaning in our lives. And indeed, it is: without our family, partners, and friends we would face nothing but the competition, loneliness, and anger of our market-driven professional lives. And yet what if just “being a good person” is not enough? What if providing for our loved ones, instead of being the ultimate source for ethical living, is in fact the very mechanism that drives us to complicity with socially destructive forces? It is not that the corporate lawyer and the investment banker are bad people- they often are as moral and human in their personal lives as anyone else, if not more so. It is simply that the social effects of their actions are repugnant. So what do we do when our individual desires and their social effects are completely at odds with one another? What if just “being a good person” is simply not enough to shield us from our complicity to violence? Where do we turn for an ethical framework when even the humanist dictum “only connect” fails us?
So far on this blog we have spoken of politics in high minded, abstract, and often philosophical terms. It is the curse of the intellectual- we spend our time thinking of complex ideas which often need dense forms of language to express. This is necessary at times, and I for one do not feel intellectuals need to apologize for writing long treatises in somewhat specialized language: it is a sign of our progress as a society that we have the cultural, intellectual, and personal resources to be able to create complex, interconnected, and subtle forms of thought.
But it can be alienating to readers for whom politics is something much more tangible than what can be described by words like dialectic, rhyzome, mediation, proletariat, and the like. And it is no doubt elitist- what good is a cultural or political text that is so dense that it cannot move the average person on the street? Everything we do- from film, writing, to research- should be designed to move that average street walker so as to change the way they think and act in the world.
What is politics to most people? Or, let us take a simpler question: what do most people care about? What is the driving desire behind their actions?
Before any discussion of politics can be had, you need to understand the things that people care most about, the ones that sustain and motivate them. Now of course, there are historical and cultural differences here: an 18 year old college freshman in China is not going to have the same desires as a 70 year old tribal elder in Afghanistan. So of course we need the comparative studies of different societies: we need to understand difference across geographical, national, and cultural spaces.
But, as for the societies I’ve had some close personal contact with, I would like to make a wager: if you asked most people what they love, the words friends and family would likely be part of the answer. This is not a universal answer per se- one can never so facilely assume that- but likely a kind of general response. Both the 18 year old Chinese undergraduate and the 70 year old tribesman would likely have some familial structure they are apart of and to which they have some sense of loyalty or commitment to.
Certainly, in late capitalist Toronto, the society I know best, you hear over and over again from people: “I love my friends; I love my family. That’s why I work.” The meaning of life, when it is contemplated, often mimics E.M Forster’s famous dictum: “Only connect…”
The sympathy of well-known bonds, the warmth of a partner’s body next to yours in the night, the familiar laugh of a group of friends telling jokes over some pints- these small, often intangible graces are for many the sites of true joy in life. If one is lucky, one will find warmth, grace, and acceptance at home, amongst friends, and in the workplace. Most people are lucky to have happiness in one or two of these realms; rarely do you get all three, particularly given the entrenched bitterness that so often dominates the institutions we spend most of our lives within: the corporation, the government bureau, the university, or the political party.
So if joy comes from connection, then an erosion of that connection, an attack on it, would then be something that people could scarcely abide by. That would get people mobilized in some way.
And yet we need to probe even more deeply: what is that mysterious “connection” we have between people that gives us so much meaning, and that we shall call friendship. How and why do we connect? What is friendship?
Last friday night, after a particularly exhausting day at the office, I went to Toronto’s best pub, The Harbord House, for a pint or two with two of my best friends. We spoke of nothing in particular- just shot the shit, told old jokes, had some laughs. In the process we touched on film, art, Venice, the death of our grandfathers, kids, Eminem, and the best bars in Istanbul. None of this was “important” from a social or historical perspective, none of this would be recorded in a newspaper or a history book- it was just three friends enjoying the flow of banter between them. And yet it possessed such grace and joy, such restorative warmth after the vicissitudes of professional competition, that one scarcely finds words to describe it.
How could I describe to you, dear reader, the irreducible particularity of my friends? How could I even attempt to give words to what these people mean to me, not to someone else, not to “society” or “history,” just to me: in their irreducible humanity. Not class subjects; not gendered subjects; not representatives of any larger abstract forces; just my friends, in all of their complex, corporeal limits.
This is the question Barthes was trying to answer in his masterful work Camera Lucida: how could he describe what old pictures of his mother meant to him? How could he describe her irreducible singularity, the particular and unique force she was in his life? How could he ever try to do justice to her in something so tarnished as a written language?
So friendship has to be, at the very least, something irreducibly meaningful to oneself, something that can’t be explained in a structural or social language that would abstract friendship into being an example of some larger overall process or force. Friendship is non-reductive, non-instrumental joy. An end in itself. The pints and the laughter.
Why can’t we approach social questions with the human empathy of friendliness in mind? To build a society that seeks to nurture joy, to take care of the fallen, and to have empathy built into our institutions- is this not the task at hand?
Most critically is the question of individual consciousness itself: how can everyone strip themselves of their pettiness, their material jealousies, their envies and their angers, and embrace an empathy that would, at the very least, strive for the end of violence and suffering in this world?
No dead bodies.
Yet we can’t be naive about of all this: friendship is everything and yet it is nothing, at least in the face of larger overall social forces that render the individual and his particular joy into something less than even a measly footnote in a history textbook.
What do I mean by that?
When it comes to social violence, it is not that people are bad or evil to begin with. A person may take care of their family, enjoy pints with their friends, volunteer at their local hospice. Yet it is that person’s place in a larger overall structure- in our current moment we would call it capitalism, or a hostile market of individual competition- that forces them into committing destructive and selfish acts. And they do this, not out of some innate malice, but out of that very same friendliness we have been discussing here: to provide a good life for their families. To have the financial security to be able to go for pints with their friends.
Thus, for example, before the 2008 credit crisis, the investment bankers who did so much to promote and spread toxic sub-prime mortgage backed securities would have told you: they were just doing their job. They were creating value for their firms, who got healthy profits as middle men in the securities transactions. That they were putting the health of the entire global financial system at risk was the effect of their action, clearly an unethical and destructive one. Yet the aim of their action, their subjective relationship to it, was much more benign: they were simply doing the jobs that their firm asked them to do, no doubt to provide a good life for themselves, their children, and their families. Thus the social effects of their actions and their own individual relationship to them are totally at odds with one another. The former is parasitic and destructive; the latter is warm, loving, and diligently sacrificial (“to provide for the family”).
What are we to do in the face of such a contradiction?
Thus the question of structure, of class, of social role is re-introduced back into my particular joy, my irreducible community, my role as friend, brother, and husband. From this perspective, it seems friendship is simply not enough: you can be a great person to those you love, the best and most caring friend in the world, and you can still do destructive things on the larger level of the social structure itself.
I’m sure people went for pints and had many laughs in Nazi Germany when the camps and the executions were but a couple hundred miles away.
The bourgeois dream of friendship- can’t we all just get along through “connection”- is revealed to be fraudulent if it is without a larger overall sense of social structure and historical perspective. And yet social structure is not where we find joy: we find that in the pint, the hearty laugh, the late-night cuddle, the warmth of our living rooms away from the cold throng of social life outside.
Thus we are faced with a truly shocking problem: the things that give us the most meaning in life may not be enough to save ourselves from being co-opted into violence. Indeed, personal happiness can even be a mask by which we are made blind to our own complicity with violence. And yet our friends, our loves, our sense of connection is all we have: if even that can’t save us then what can?
This is why the television show Breaking Bad is such a fundamental cultural document for our times. Walter White is a good person, doing his best to provide for his family in the face of an American society that offers no relief to the middle class when they face crises of health, education, and labor. He has to provide anyway he can, and this is to use the only skills he has: to cook meth. So he does it, and he is proud of his ability to earn money in a society that has provided nothing to him. He has fulfilled the bonds of friendship to his wife and child, and yet he has pumped poison into the heart of his community to do it. So is he a cold-hearted criminal or a loving father trying to do his best?
The dialectical answer: he is both and at the same time. In fact, he can’t be one without being the other.
His bourgeois dream of providing turns out to be a social nightmare of suffering, but for others, the meth addicts, who are away from the space of his home. The show thus forces us to ask the question: what happens when our bonds to our friends and family is the very force that drives us to comply with larger overall processes of violence in the social body?
We can be great friends and parents, but that is hardly a shield to protect us from feeding violent social processes that stretch well beyond us. Thus the answer to the meaning of life that we so often here- “only connect”- contains within it a sinister underside that we have rarely if ever acknowledged.
And yet I for one would not do away with connection as the ultimate ground for ethical thought. I love my friends, my partner, my family: without them, nothing but immiseration, the acrid venom of the institution and the office.
But how do we take our own individual sense of connection with those we love and ensure it becomes universalized on the level of the social structure as a whole?
How do we move beyond a binary in which the personal is the true realm of joy and the social is at best alienating and at worse violently repressive?
This is the truly utopic question, and the first step in thinking the impossible.
For my fear is this: even when we are good we are all actually just breaking bad. For when we judge our actions from the perspective of social effect rather than individual experience we may find that we are involved in deeply unethical social processes that stretch well beyond our own ability to intervene in them.
In fact, you could even say it really doesn’t matter how much fun Friday night pints are with those we love. What matters is what we do- how we labor- in order to capture the financial resources which enable that quotidian joy we treasure so deeply.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century. An avid cinephile, he also reviews films for the Toronto Review of Books. At the moment, he is actively thinking of ways to integrate his political interests into a variety of aesthetic projects, spanning from poetry to experimental film.