There remains a deep enigma at the heart of social and cultural reality. This is that the individual experience of life, of culture, of society and narrative or communication – this is where the reality of culture and society actually exists. If you were to remove all people (or at least, minds) from the world through some catastrophic conflict or other accident, everything we comprehend as intelligible and real ceases to exist. The world itself does not cease to exist as a fact or concrete reality but the human world, our culture and its meanings and values, our entire predicated reality at this point ceases to exist. There will be empty streets, buildings, towns and cities, drifting ships and innumerable signs, artefacts and other evidence of our having been here but the value and essential meaning of this reality is only what it is where it is held and comprehended in a human mind, or many minds. The logical consequences of this is that the culture, society and world-at-large of object-relations and value-statements, of ideologies and opinions – this is all actually in itself nothing beyond the individuals who all hold it in their minds. This is “cloud storage” par excellence – the whole of global culture is stored in some sense “holographically” across the global population of individuals and not contained in total in any one person, or group.
It may also be arguable that the individual that is in such a fundamental way composed of the accumulated thoughts, ideas and concepts available to them through whatever communications channels may exist – the individual actually represents a fundamental non-self. Buddhist psychology arrived at a similar conclusion a long time ago. What does exist and is unique to an individual is their capacity for creative and reflexive interaction with the world around them but almost the entire mental contents and psychological subjectivity of the individual is itself always derived from elsewhere. This leads to the conclusion that the psychological self is itself so deeply intertwined with the world from which it accumulates its ideas and opinions that it is in itself actually profoundly empty and void, not in any emotional sense negative but certainly insubstantial. The source of the great enigma here is that the collective self and cultural reality is itself nothing beyond the individuals of which it is composed but these individuals are also themselves almost nothing beyond the expression and storage of the collective, cultural self. Where I say “almost” in the previous sentence I have something very specific in mind: there is a subtle, simple and yet quite sophisticated duality of identity apparent in this systemic symmetry of self and culture. In the same sense that the individual may make creative choices from the range available to them, there is an emergent complexity of social and cultural or communications systems expressed as a creative drive or tendency in the global systems and culture of which individuals are a part. This creativity can be destructive, purely generative or anywhere in-between but it is regardless a result of the energy-flows, existential necessities and accelerating complexity of our cultural and technological world.
Despite many politically entrepreneurial and ideologically self-interested attempts to convince us otherwise, it is very likely that there is no one single way of resolving conflict or of best organising economies and societies or of organising the international society of nations. There may be irreducible causes and reasons for the patterns of conflict and cooperation in the world but by the time these dissonances and resonances have worked their way down through cultural narrative and global communications systems to the individual level, they can generate all manner of ill-health and sickness. A vast number of political and cultural ideologies and narratives may be demonstrated as the result of a poverty of rational thought or even may embody symptoms of mental illness; regardless – once all of these ideas and assumptions, axioms, generalisations, memes and narratives filter down into the individual mind – they do not just sit there as dormant facts or objects. The consequences of a poverty of rational thought and the perennially tribal conflict of this world inevitably finds itself implanted in the internal communications networks of the mind and it can, arguably, wreak havoc there.
Have you ever considered that the myriad sorrows and insecurities we all share are really not ours at all? While we remain relatively free to pick and choose from the menu of conceptual and ideological options that culture, society and communications networks provide us, we do not for the most part actually produce or generate the range of options available to us. We have free will to choose from within the spectrum of available options but we do not ourselves generate those options. There exists something of a network or field of culture and communication within which we find ourselves embedded and we learn to behave and think in ways largely determined by this cultural matrix. It may be an evolutionary necessity that an organism is defined by its context in this way. Our beliefs and convictions are generally not actually our own – they are our interpretation or learned translation of the statements and actions of other people in the world.
It is, however, not all existentially predestined doom and gloom – we are not purely and solely defined by the external world and it is in fact through each of our own individual minds’ creative aggregation, recombination, reinterpretation of existing concepts and ideas that we partially enervate and energise the cultural and material human world around us. Human beings in this regards represent “choice engines” of a sort who in their creative participation and reflexive recombination of narratives and concepts provide a (mostly positive) energy for the ongoing change and development of the world. Where the influence of any person or group can be shown in retrospect to have had far-reaching negative consequences, it is usually the case that there has been a strong selfish or self-interested drive to inform their ideology and action. This is not even vaguely related to concepts of individualism in Capitalism or collectivism in Socialism – as far as I am concerned these political ideologies have both demonstrated themselves to be unrepentant disasters devoid of enduring social utility, equity or value. As stated earlier, there is probably no “best way” of organising societies or economies and it is generally only those seeking to line their own pockets who perpetrate the fallacy that there is.
Ours is a world in which there exists immense and unremitting uncertainty and doubt. You might even consider uncertainty and the insecurity and sense of unease it brings to be a primary cause or selection pressure for the majority of evolutionary, social, political, economic, technological and cultural metamorphoses we have witnessed and benefited from. Conflict and competition between opposing groups within and between nations, between ideas and schools of thought or ideology – this is a central driving force of historical change. Dissonance, disagreement and conflict are deeply written into our cultural DNA, our myths and narratives of self- and group-identity. Conflict is itself not the only source of historical development or the discontinuous phase transitions of major paradigm change; cooperation and collaboration has also been a persistent historical presence and it is from such productive social interdependence that the majority of our great artistic, scientific and humanitarian achievements have emerged.
Individual human beings are inevitably products of their social and cultural contexts. The spectrum of ideas, symbols, generalised assumptions and axioms of an era, the communication and interaction of people and cultures – these all nourish the organic growth of some abstract and collective self-identity; we can call this “humanity” or perhaps, in the contemporary world – “global culture”. A consequence of this psychological and existential context is that we are all deeply, inextricably influenced by, and reflexively produced through, the cultures we participate in and inhabit.
The deeply incongruous dichotomies apparent in culture and its narrative communication systems find themselves played out on both macroscopic and the microscopic scales. The resonance and dissonance of collaboration and conflict find themselves not only expressed on the grand historical stages of nation states, politics and the great ideological differences and debates of our time – these patterns of collaboration and conflict find themselves expressed through social and group structures of varying magnitude and filter all the way down to the interpersonal and the mental states of individual people. At least partially and beyond neurochemical and genetic predisposition or the vagaries of any specific personal biographical history, individual psychological expressions of this conflict and collaboration manifest themselves in many ways – both healthy and unhealthy.