George Walford: Togetherness

I

The diagram known as the ideological pyramid, now appearing in each issue of IC, offers only a crude graphical memnonic for an immensely complex developmental process. Serious understanding of this has to start from a grasp of its beginnings, and here we look at a feature prominent in the first, expedient, stage of ideological life; the tendency to behave, in political and intellectual affairs, as a member of a group rather than an autonomous individual. (This tendency comes as one of a pair but here its partner, the tendency to behave as an autonomous individual in economic and material affairs, receives only an occasional mention).

People following the original way of life used to be known as hunters; with increasing knowledge, and fuller recognition of the part played by women, this has changed to hunter-gatherers, gatherer-hunters, foragers or occasionally collectors. The new terms, like the old, focus upon the way they get their food and they do this for the most part independently, each family group, if not each person, meeting their own needs. When a number of foragers cooperate it is usually for tasks which cannot well be performed otherwise; armed only with spears they can hardly kill elephant singlehanded, it takes a number of hunters to drive game and gathering, too, is often best performed in company. With few exceptions land remains open to all, but here again they have little choice; with the facilities available they hardly can establish exclusive control over the large areas needed for their nomadic life. Their tools and weapons, their other ‘means of production,’ they hold individually.

Nothing seriously comparable with modern warfare occurs, but bands do sometimes come into conflict and then each fighter acts for himself (women are seldom involved), taking part or wandering away as he prefers. In their food-gathering, in their actions upon the outside world, these people display a lively individualism.

The inner life of the foraging community displays the contrary tendency. Here they tend to act as and in a group, doing by themselves only what cannot well be done together. To the extent that activities within the community (such as education, entertainment, religion or administration) appear at all as distinct undertakings, they get performed less by separate people than by the whole band, or at least the appropriate sex- and age- group.

A question seldom asked: Why do foragers live in communities? Not, like the inhabitants of later societies, because they depend on each other for the means of life, for they hardly use division of labour except as it is forced upon them by differences of age and sex. So far as material needs go they would be likely to do better living as separate families, and in fact these communities often split up for a large part of the year for that reason. Rather than submitting to communal living under force of circumstance, they indulge in it when conditions permit. They show an inclination towards it.

Wherever people live together differences of opinion are likely to arise, and in more assertive societies these often take root and grow, with consequences ranging from the formation of parties to civil war. This tendency is largely absent from the foraging communities, and when dissension does arise it meets discouragement, the Inuit for example using a public song-duel to settle the issue. Foragers value humility, they frown upon self-assertion and suppress the would-be faction-leader like any other deviant. They do not have distinct coercive institutions, rather meeting unacceptable behaviour with a communal response such as disapproval or expulsion; only under extreme provocation will any individual take serious action against an offender. The absence of established government rules out political divisions (the classic ‘African Political Systems,’ by Fortes and Evans-Pritchard, speaks only of food-producing societies, not of foragers), and religious beliefs remain indefinite, offering little incitement to fragmentation. Established positions for individuals to occupy hardly appear, and costume offers little scope for the indication of distinctions. Knowledge beyond the practical skills of daily life comprises mainly myth and legend and ordinary members of the community, rather than any specialised group of trained professionals, undertake the performance of ritual. In their inner life, in their social, mental, spiritual and aesthetic activities, the foragers tend towards togetherness, and their economic independence enables them to follow their inclination. With each person or family attending, in the main, to their own material needs, they are free to live as an undivided community with neither competitiveness nor dependence to produce friction.

Andre Leroix-Gourhan has studied some of the paintings, drawings, engravings and occasional statues with which the early foragers of Lascaux and Altamira decorated their caves, and John Pfeiffer presents his results.[1] Leroix-Gourhan concludes that these works of art derive less from self-expression by individuals than from collective activity. They place figures and use space in a way that indicates adherence to an established tradition, they offer art intended to serve ceremony, belief and community. Social purpose predominates, the work shows intensive planning and collaboration by many participants, it played a part in the life of the community no less essential than subsistence and reproduction. These caves did not serve the function of an art gallery, catering to the specialised tastes of refined aesthetes, they rather helped with indoctrination, preparing people for traditional roles and thereby maintaining group solidarity:

‘The ceremonies of the Upper Paleolithic represent a unity which has gone, perhaps forever. For us things have differentiated, fragmented. There are individual institutions and, separated from them, individual arts – and, above all, individual human beings, each with personal idiosyncrasies and beliefs. For our prehistoric ancestors it was all one. Everything that happens now in churches, schools, town halls, and theaters happened concentrated and intense and all at once in the caves. It was the only way in those days to create a human unity, a body of conforming and obeying people. People who were individuals in the modern sense could never have survived.’ (Pfeiffer 190)

Although Leroix-Gourhan and Pfeiffer do not make the point (and seem not to be aware of it), a solidarity depending upon organised indoctrination is likely to be less complete and less secure than one arising unnoticed. Pfeiffer tells us that before the Upper Paleolithic evidence for the social role of art does not exist, and this suggests that up to this period the foraging communities simply lived the collective life. So long as it remained unchallenged, and therefore unobtrusive, it remained unnoticed and unrecorded; only when endangered did it attract attention, and around the Upper Paleolithic changes were appearing which may well have brought the original unquestioned unity under threat. The ‘neolithic revolution’ was not far away (as things then went) and there is some reason to believe that the hunting of large mammals had begun not long before, bringing a new need for co-operation and with it new stresses between people as hunters responded more or less well to the new demands; cave art certainly focuses upon game animals. Alternatively (or additionally) the development of speech and symbolic thinking may have reached a critical stage, making it easier to organise for the hunt but also encouraging mental individuation. It is perhaps worth noting that personal adornments first appear around this period. In their outward life children behave to a large extent as autonomous individuals. So far as their abilities permit they bring their material world under control

Change, particularly unwelcome change, tends to draw attention to features formerly unremarked, and the suggestion that undesired changes, resulting from the long ages of imperceptible development, started to appear in the late Upper Paleolithic, does not conflict with what evidence we have. Here change accelerated. Here it first became noticeable to those affected, and the art indicating and recording it seems to have been intended to combat it. Cave painting, I suggest, is best understood as marking less the creation of collective mental life than an effort, finally unsuccessful, to protect it from absorption into the more complex structures that appeared with the advent of cultivation and government.

II

In activities directed outwards, towards the natural and material worlds, the people of the first communities displayed independence; in their inner life, togetherness. With the transition to the next stage of social development these modes of behaviour came under serious restraint. Agriculture brought division of labour, replacing the independence of the allrounder with the reciprocal dependence of people in different occupations, and with government came political divisions to break up the unity of the unstructured foraging community. Restraint, however, does not amount to elimination; through the ten thousand years and more since this change occurred the original independence and togetherness have survived, reappearing with every new baby.

In their outward life children behave to a large extent as autonomous individuals. So far as their abilities permit they bring their material world under control, consuming parts of it, rearranging and reshaping it to suit themselves. They eat pins, tease the cat, handle the fire, swallow coins, spill the milk and generally create havoc. Active, enterprising and adventurous, they need physical restraint to prevent them hurting themselves. In the all-too-familiar phrase, you can’t leave them alone for a minute.

Their inner, mental life displays the contrary pattern; here they act compliantly. Instead of taking control and imposing themselves, they rather conform to what they find, developing beliefs and thoughts that fit with those of the people around them. They do not, to be sure, see their behaviour in anything like these terms, for that would imply the position of the cave-painters, sufficiently detached from the community to be conscious of it, while children show themselves to be more like the thousands of generations preceding that condition. Strongly attached to the family, emotionally dependent upon it and devastated should they lose it, young children show little awareness that it may sometimes need understanding or even support; they take it for granted. Ogden Nash’s couplet, that parents were created for children to ignore, strikes a chord with every mother and father.

Beginning life in complete dependence upon the mother the child grows into autonomy. For physical life the great step in this direction occurs at birth, for the inner life only with the adolescent assertion of independence from the parents; until then the young person lives, mentally and emotionally, largely as a symbiote. Here is one up-to-date summary of some relevant conclusions reached by developmental psychology: ‘cognitive work is done for the human infant for a long time before it begins to do it for itself. It is simple confusion to hold a picture of the infant as an autonomous fact-finder in an alien world. The mental life of the child is made up on its behalf by older members, and it becomes mentally autonomous as it acquires the proportional and other strategies afforded through its increasing grasp of language at the symbolic level… the inter-mental (essentially socio-cultural) precedes the intra-mental in human development.'[2]

Cognitive work is done for the human infant, its mental life made up on its behalf, and activities carried out together with other people precede the development of a mentality internal to the person. So far as inner life goes the childhood years are spent in membership of a collectivity, laying the ground on which later independence and individuality will rest. The inclination of children towards togetherness enables them to fit into new groups and make friends easily

W.P.Winnicott, psychoanalyst, speaks of the baby being at first merged in with the mother and later reaching the stage of separating out the mother from the self.[3] He goes on to note the infant’s continuing need of the mother although now under the new form of a separate phenomenon, the two coming to form, we may say, a group in place of the previous single entity. Whether praying together or not, members of families do tend not only to stay together but also to feel and think together.

These professional observations validate everyday experience; the human being starts mental life as a member of a collectivity. At first comprising only child and mother, this comes to embrace the immediate family, then the more extended family, later on the school community and neighbours, the child taking on the mental features of each successive group. It is not that the capacity for independent thinking is wholly absent; rather that the child disvalues it, preferring ready-made mental structures that carry the stamp of group approval. One of my daughters described a crossroads as a tangly road, a dustpan-and-brush as a brushpan, and called a suspender-belt a bangabout. Apricots were abimcots and raspberries, given her the next day, abim-no-cots. James Joyce won a reputation with inventions not very different, but to the tiny girl these were failures, open attention to them likely to bring tears; once aware of the ‘proper’ words the child hurriedly adopts these. (A special vocabulary for use inside the family sometimes arises but this, too, shows adaptation to the group). Young children emulate those around, partly the peer group (hence the dominance of fashion in toys) but predominantly adults, at first those of the immediate family, later teachers and others in authority; it is largely this tendency that makes them so teachable.

Only after a stable base of communal knowledge and responses has been built does the task of turning oneself into an autonomous individual begin (Winnicott notes the impossibility of being original except on a basis of tradition)[4] and the outcome is not always in every sense wholly desirable. The inclination of children towards togetherness enables them to fit into new groups and make friends easily, while the harder and sometimes spiky outlines of the developed individual account for much loneliness.

III

Shortly after the appearance of cave art (shortly, that is, as things went then) the undivided communities of the foraging epoch were succeeded by structured societies using agriculture and government. These did not eliminate togetherness, rather incorporating it as a main element in their organisation, and through all the change, the progress, regression and upheaval that has taken place since, this tendency has persisted, continuing into our world of high technology as a powerful and pervasive influence.

Through the years of childhood and early adolescence the new human beings have for their principal task the absorption of thinking predigested for them by successively wider groups. The child ‘learns,’ or ‘is taught,’ one indication of progress being replacement of the independent creativity that often appears in early childhood; the drawing, spelling and arithmetic of young children often show an originality that in later years gets abandoned for imitation of ‘correct’ models. The change has its tragic side, but in no other way can mental and spiritual maturity be achieved; the adult has to surrender the charms of babyhood.

Togetherness produces the compliance that enables these successive adaptations, and when maturity brings emergence into the general social world it continues in full activity. Young adults newly entered into general society repeat the behaviour-pattern displayed by children within the family; they too have their cognitive work done for them, adopt a mental life which has been made up on their behalf, and carry out activities together with other people before developing an internal mentality. The young adult begins general social life as, mentally, a member of a collectivity. In a less formal and less directly regulated way the communications media continue the work of the educational system

Membership of this whole does not rule out inclusion in the smaller groups which go to make it up; young adults emerging from the family cocoon commonly use their new freedom less to assert autonomy than for merging themselves in other groups: clubs, teams, corner-gangs, fan-clubs and the like. Formal or informal, enduring or transient, these all presuppose and foster togetherness, and they also have another feature in common; they are ways of carrying on the national life rather than means of changing it. Movements and organisations which set out to change the life of the nation or its people, such as churches and political parties, are a different matter and we shall come to them shortly.

Social life being for the most part public one can often watch the mental life of adults being made up. In a less formal and less directly regulated way the communications media continue the work of the educational system, helping to ensure that all citizens have access to the same information and receive inducements to think about it in the same way. Few members of society make any creative contribution to the general stock of ideas, the great majority accepting without question the songs, tales, dances, theories, principles, formulae, practices, rules, customs, traditions and laws that have been prepared for them; for the most part mental life follows a beaten path. So much so that coercive institutions need to deal, and are able to deal, with only a small minority of deviants. Although adaptation takes time, new members of any group often showing an imperfection of ‘fit’ that causes disturbance, this seldom produces serious effects, and the disorder notoriously connected with young people remains for the most part trivial. In the main they peacefully emulate their elders, going punctually to their jobs, forming orderly queues at the social security counters, finding partners and enjoying (nearly always in groups) the entertainments provided for them. This compliance often persists throughout life, and it does much to produce the largest, most influential and most cohesive of the major ideological groups, the one mainly responsible for social stability (or social inertia, according to the observer’s viewpoint).

Fashions in clothing may now change more rapidly than they used to do, but at any one time the great majority both of men and of women in Britain are wearing similar styles. They also tend to limit themselves to the same few television programmes and to the same small part of the wide range of music available. These uniformities often get blamed on those responsible for manufacture and supply, and indeed not many shops stock anything very different from the fashion of the day. In accounting for this, however, we need to recall the economic imperatives of capitalism. Were the customers to demand each their own unique style, so that ‘one-offs’ showed the greater profit, industry would have to work that way. In fact, even of those who can afford personal tailoring and high fashion few depart noticeably from the style of the time and place, and this cohesion did not start with mass-production. Differences that seem large to contemporaries tend to disappear in historical perspective; an expert in the history of costume can usually date a garment to the decade, and whether mass-produced or handmade makes little difference. Uniformity rules, showing a general inclination towards togetherness.

In addition to providing food, warmth and shelter, material goods also meet the need for self-definition, and the narrow range of demand shows the strength of the impulse towards defining oneself as a member of the general group. The effects of fashion extend far beyond the trend-setters and those who try to keep up with them; they diffuse downwards from this peak, governing the choices also of the great majority, those who limit their stylistic ambitions to the avoidance of anything that would attract attention by its departure from the norm. Goods offending against the rules of a narrow orthodoxy remain unsold and the suppliers who best fit their product to the preferences of the great numbers make the bigger profits. A modern economy is mainly customer-controlled. Advertisers demand a mass audience, and this means that the message offered has to suit the preferences of the real numbers; any medium of mass communication wishing to retain this status has to remain within their limits of acquiescence.

Much the same holds for entertainment, the formation of public opinion and those carefully shaped and selected presentations, sometimes hardly distinguishable from outright fiction, known as the news. Critics of magazines, television, radio and newspapers often accuse them of striving to please their advertisers. Doubtless they do; they also have to remember that advertisers demand a mass audience, and this means that the message offered has to suit the preferences of the great numbers; any medium of mass communication wishing to retain this status has to remain within their limits of acquiescence. The tiny minority which exercises day-to-day control of the media (nearly all its members as dependent on their earnings as the greater part of their audience) operates within limits set by the majority. A message becomes more effective as it is better adapted, in form and content, to its intended audience, and the mass media have to appeal to the mass. Newspaper proprietors and directors of television stations have less independent power than sometimes appears; they retain their positions just so long as their product conforms to the requirements (commonly unformulated) of their audience. The media, too, are mainly customer-controlled.

Togetherness appears in the petty exchanges of everyday life as ordinary courtesy, the routine, almost unthought tendency to avoid giving offence that might break the easy cohesion of the group. People bound on enjoyment tend to congregate. Theatre, cinema and spectator-sports all derive much of their popularity from the opportunities they offer for gathering together and even television, on the face of it a medium for the solitary, is usually watched in company. ‘Together’ carries a ring of mutual support, warmth, comfort, enjoyment, relaxation, while ‘solitary’ stands closely akin to misery.

Pfeiffer gives the impression that the collective mental and emotional life enjoyed by the early foragers has disappeared. He sees around him today distinct groups engaged in distinct activities, individual institutions, individual arts and individual people; no general collectivity at all. Other thinkers complain that, on the contrary, modern life subordinates the individual to the mass. Both views can be supported; a comprehensive approach recognises that from about the time of the cave-paintings onward individuation has been developing, but within a society constituted, held together and stabilised by collectivistic tendencies which affect all its members and govern the behaviour of very large numbers. Even the most sophisticated of fine art is far from being a wholly individual creation; the artists who produce it are themselves produced by the art schools, and full appreciation of their work requires knowledge of the tradition from which it derives and against which it reacts. The greater part of the graphic material now produced, printed or electronic, serves purposes similar to those of the cave-paintings; presentation of identical images to vast numbers tends to satisfy, confirm and encourage togetherness. Much the same holds for the literary and performing arts. Advances in mass communication, although often expected to encourage individuation (as universal education and general literacy were expected to do when they first appeared) have rather helped to consolidate the group. Let us not speak as if these things were done against the will or to the disadvantage of the people they affect. Television, above all, is a mass medium, and the mass audience has only to indicate a lack of interest in the message to get it changed. Togetherness needs neither encouragement nor defence. It is what comes naturally, it is convenient, expedient, the easy option.

IV

Looking back now at the life of the original foragers as pictured by anthropologists one can hardly imagine anything more enjoyable, and many thinkers from Engels onwards have come close to holding it up as a model we should try to copy. Yet it must have had disadvantages, or why did they ever depart from it? They cannot have been compelled to do so by rulers or coercive forces since they had none, and even if they remained unaware of what was happening until the new form of society with its rulers, armies and punishments had appeared (the very long span of time involved makes this likely), there must still have been some influence inclining them in that direction to begin with. These first communities already included the seeds of change, and later events have fostered them. Society never has been able to provide full security and complete satisfaction for all its members; each solution produces new problems, and although great numbers remain immersed in togetherness and compliance, ignoring society’s difficulties and the voices calling attention to them, others come to an awareness that their status, security and customary expectations are under threat. To this the first response is the defensive one of the cave painters: an assertion, formerly unnecessary, of group unity. This appears as a high valuation of institutions and practices tending to ensure and strengthen national security and solidarity; the monarchy, the church, the law, the armed forces, the familiar economic and social structure and all that goes with tradition and convention.

Togetherness appears in the petty exchanges of everyday life as ordinary courtesy, the routine, almost unthought avoidance of whatever might cause dissension. Only when under threat does it come to notice, and then the first response is defensive. Among people gathered for social conversation topics likely to cause dissension, notably religion and politics, come under a ban, while stronger threats bring positive measures to reinforce the unity; many of the ‘age-old’ traditions now serving as foci for national life, from tartan kilts to coronation ceremonies, were invented during the nineteenth century or even later. Even when repressed in the course of development togetherness persists as an influence upon behaviour, till powerful although submerged and disvalued.

It comes to be recognised that the general social group, up till now accepted unquestioningly, can present dangers, for some of the threats to security come from within. It is no longer enough simply to comply with each authoritative voice, for the devil can quote scripture. The transition from unthinking acceptance of the group to assertion of its value brings an ambivalence which also recognises its imperfections.

This detachment does not come as a wholly individual achievement and it does not lead to isolation. The person effecting it moves to a more distinctive group, joining the church, the police, the army, the Conservative Party, the legal system, or merely the wider group that affirms the value of these institutions. These efforts to defend and maintain the solidarity of the polity do not succeed completely, and further developments lead on through a succession of more radical stages: attempts to make it exactly what it ought to be, to carry out radical reform, to revolutionise and eventually to repudiate it. Weakening at each step, togetherness never entirely disappears. Only the first, unstructured, group remains wholly undivided but the members of any one of the more definite and individualistic groups emerging from it still tend to support each other rather than outsiders. Even when repressed in the course of development togetherness persists as an influence upon behaviour, still powerful although submerged and disvalued; however far our ideological development gets carried, we never do show complete personal independence, moving rather through a succession of groups increasingly distinct from the general social group and each other. This process does lead eventually to repudiation of all existing groups and assertion of the autonomous individual, but just at that point togetherness comes back, stronger than ever, for these autonomous individuals are assumed to constitute the true society. Below all the struggle, the suppression and cruelty around us there is, it is now believed, a true unity, liberal and egalitarian, waiting to appear, the original collectivity again but now free of the divisive tendencies that led to its subjection.

While these changes in togetherness have been taking place, the original unquestioning acceptance of independence in material things has also been weakening, gradually being replaced by insistence on the advantages of cooperation; only this, it comes to be believed, can bring economic freedom. In its full development this movement, also, attains completion with the acceptance of its contrary, with the recognition that complete economic freedom has to comprise freedom to practise both cooperation and any preferred degree of individualism. The eventual outcome we can already see, although in theoretical outline rather than social practice: a society affording scope for every preferred degree of both independence and togetherness, in both material and in mental life, both outer and inner activity. A society, that is to say, offering full scope for the expression, in theory and in practice, of all the ideologies.

References
1.Pfeiffer John E. 1982 The Creative Explosion; an inquiry into the origins of art and religion Ithaca NY: Cornell UP
2.Noble W. in MAN Volume 27 No.3, September 1992, 641.
3.Winnicott W.P. 1971 Playing and Reality London: Tavistock Publications 107.
4. Winnicott D.W. 1971 The Child, the Family and the Outside World, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 99.

MILTON’S Areopagitica gets extolled as a trumpet-call for free expression. Philip Ziegler reminds us that it urges the eradication of popery: ‘that also which is impious or evil absolutely against faith or manners, no law can possibly permit.’

from Ideological Commentary 59, February 1993.