The Geometry of Innocence: Demeanor (essay)

This essay is available in German. Download it here.

What brings together men liberated from their local and national boundaries is also what pulls them apart. What requires a more profound rationality is also what nourishes the irrationality of hierarchic exploitation and repression. What creates the abstract power of society creates its concrete unfreedom.
Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle

The world is littered with the detritus of interpersonal and societal skirmishes. Inextricably caught in a matrix of causalities, we fight relentlessly to transform society into a workable form. As our lives travel an arc of growth and decay, we contribute to the shape of society and influence the demeanor of the world.

Hegemony; domination; control: through the course of time, through circumstance and ignorance, our lives are propelled and pounded. As we struggle against uncertainty and fear we turn to our communities for guidance. We create codes and tenets to guide us through the treacherous abyss of what lies ahead: implied and codified rules of engagement that conform to a sloppy mix of custom and the prevailing zeitgeist. Privately held, written by consensus, dictated by fashion or by fiat, these rules form the basis of social intercourse. In sympathy and in opposition to the status quo, we test these rules with our actions, sending shock waves through the social fabric.

Collectively, as we project ideas and images through a diversity of shifting social systems, a mutating social dynamic—the spectacle—erupts. Although it is impossible to make this moving spectacle concrete, we perpetually chase its image. The spectacle cannot be localized to anyone, anything or any moment. Nevertheless, fashion reifies certain aspects of the spectacle as commercial and cultural desires and projections. Trying to chase the mutating image-world that lies just beyond the tangible, trying to ride the ever-changing waves of culture, we get lost in the swirling eddies of our own aspirations. We confuse desire with need and image with reality. Billions of lives ricochet across the planet. Like gasses in the ether, societies emerge from chaos and continually form complex structures, fated to perpetual dissolution and reconfiguration. In this way we formulate guiding principles embodied in institutions that structure our society: governments, academies, religions, physical and virtual communities, corporate structures and social movements. As a social species we crave
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integration and immersion into something outside our selves. We build associations in the hope that we may assemble something lasting that will enrich us, protect us, perpetuate us and counter the uncertainty of life. As a condition of belonging, we subsume or sublimate purely personal goals to serve our associations’ goals. As our associations expand in form, function and constituency, they consolidate and institutionalize their power base, further broadening their sphere of influence. Further removed from the organizing principles under which they were shaped, they become hierarchical and totalitarian. Accumulating power, they are more fully able to compete for our attentions and allegiances but less flexible in meeting individual needs. The self-perpetuating associations, whose structures we form and participate in, thus control us. In our diverse culture, as we pick and choose from a slew of overlapping and competing interests, we build a fragmented society. As these competing value systems expand their power bases they tear into the prevailing fabric of society and we experience displacement, disenfranchisement and varying degrees of violence. Social order, in a changing, fragmented culture, ensures that the life of the individual will be in conflict.

The structure of society may appear to emanate from diffuse sources that feel distant and unchangeable. Yet it is primarily the interpretations of our roles—how we act and interact—that define the form of our communities. When we work within established institutions we legitimize their power and the control they have over us. Participation reinvests and expands the influence of vested groups within the prevailing culture. On the other hand, acts of dissonance, or what Nietzche called resentment, also play a powerful creative role in our society. Disenfranchised individuals and powerless groups transform the world through destructive and disruptive acts. Such acts are overt manifestations of a schism between institutions and the people they serve. From gang-banging to self-mutilation, from riots to civil disobedience, from pranks to subversion, destructive and disruptive acts have a profound impact on community. Acts of resentment challenge the validity of social stability. They disassociate individuals from a particular structure, group or class, and bond them to a new order. This leads to the redefinition or the formation of new social value systems, such as the creation of a new subculture. Acts of dissonance, which originally differentiated and stigmatized outcasts, slowly lose their rebellious status to become the totems

and identifiers of a new hierarchical system. These sub-cultural shifts appeal to adolescent and disenfranchised individuals and other “outsiders” who seek to differentiate themselves from the established order. The media, quick to add dissenting voices that pique interest, amplifies the spectacle.  In a capitalistic culture driven by the media, there is little time for these new subcultures to mature before they get co-opted and re-absorbed back into the main stream. What was once a political and social act of dissonance is transformed and emptied of meaning as its look and feel are appropriated for purely economic use. The “new thing,” instead of fomenting change, now performs a normative role as it is absorbed into the spectacle. While our preoccupation with spectacle allows new ideas and social and moral dilemmas to be disseminated and collectively debated—setting the stage for consensus building—the passivity and narcissism the spectacle encourages eventually leads to disenfranchisement and self-destructive behavior as citizens devolve into states of isolation. The pursuit of isolation in contemporary society is pernicious. The world is fragmented and resold back to us piecemeal. Our collective needs—which were “inefficiently” served in small  communities by a series of mutual exchanges—are now “efficiently” repackaged and marketed to us individually by anonymous “experts.” Isolated within our communities, we perform our duties of citizenship as passive consumers, buying into the newest technological model, acquiring the hottest status symbol, discussing the latest rage, mistaking consumption with community life and using it to replace political action. Our conspicuous consumption reinforces entrenched power structures while infantalizing us; limiting our creative potential and encouraging lives infused with fantasy and denial. New technologies and vastly more efficient distribution of information, entertainment and goods and services make the pace of life faster. As our lives become faster, as the overload of images and ideas becomes cacophonous, as we are exposed to more violence, as more prurient images mask the potential and depth of more meaningful encounters, as a sense of the past and concern for the future are erased by a more consuming present, as more numbing activities envelop the senses, we are further disengaged and separated from both ourselves and any thread of community which survives.

With the rise of the media and its corollary systems for information distribution over the last 150 years, first hand experience is being