Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Alastair Roberts on Austen's Pride & Prejudice's Meryton as a collapsed social space


Many readers of Pride and Prejudice have fancied that Elizabeth represents a clear exception to this pattern, someone who thinks for herself and is no prisoner of convention or dupe of communal judgment. Yet, as Deresiewicz observes, Austen shows us that, rather than arriving at judgments independently, Elizabeth assumes them from her community. Elizabeth’s conviction concerning Darcy’s ‘pride’—a judgment that is pivotal for the plot—is one that moves from her community to her family, and which she accepts without real question. Her initial reaction to Darcy’s snub at the ball is to make light of it with her friends: it is her community that presses her to feel ‘mortified’ by it. ‘In short, while Elizabeth herself sends the story of Darcy’s snub out into the community, she gets her opinion and feeling about it handed back to her’ (508). Likewise, in her dealing with George Wickham, Elizabeth displays her conformity to her community’s manner of thinking, her unwillingness to ‘let the facts stand in the way of what she wants to believe’ and her uncritical dependence upon universal judgments (Wickham is a man of pleasant countenance; therefore Wickham must be amiable).

Elizabeth’s seeming unconventionality is nonetheless contained within the bounds of convention: ‘In a community that includes everyone by allowing each a slightly different role, the role it allows her—but it is only a role—is that of the person who is not fully included.’ Indeed, like her community, she is unable to cope with contradiction: ‘modification, not rejection, is her typical mode of response’ (514). This failing is most notably displayed in her conversation with Wickham about Darcy: ‘For all that she can play the gadfly, let it once become clear that she will hear only what confirms her own judgments, and she settles into a steady rhythm of assent’ (521). The result is a ‘positive feedback loop, a conversational form of circular reasoning.’ It is telling that Austen describes the characteristic of Wickham and Elizabeth’s conversation as ‘mutual satisfaction’. Such a conversational dynamic is encouraged by the character of the community: the intimacy of the group makes conflict quite unwelcome and encourages the use of modification rather than contradiction, smoothing differences over into ‘a semblance of concord’ (522). For the sake of social harmony, important differences are dissembled and contradiction cannot be admitted. The result is a suffocation of careful and critical thought and judgment.

Yes, Elizabeth can seem to an disengaged reader as someone who is feisty and self-governed but the small talk of the town and its prejudices become hers.  While Jane Austen has been described as the least romantic author to have written romance it might be more accurate to suggest that Austen wrote satires of manners in which the engine of the narrative was the customs of marriage in class categories. There's another essay over at Mere Orthodoxy about how Jane Austen and Fyodor Dostoevsky can be construed as having parallel concerns about the nature of philosophy and applied ethics but from vastly different cultural perspectives and with different senses of scale for their narrative settings. But you can go look that up on your own, dear readers.

The dynamic in which self-reinforcing judgments within a community are not carefully examined leading to a feedback loop of misunderstandings ... it gets Wenatchee The Hatchet thinking about what ribbon farm contributor Sarah Perry referred to as "preference falsification" and that reminds Wenatchee The Hatchet of how things seemed to be at Mars Hill.  For an old post ...

Roberts continues and WtH wants to highlight this:

What the Internet and the mobile phone make possible is the establishment of a new ‘saturated social environment’, which shares a number of common features with the society of Meryton as Deresiewicz described it. Modernity has rendered us more detached from each other and more disembedded from particular contexts, yet our communications technology offers us a way seemingly to overcome this social alienation, providing us with media with which to ‘connect’ to each other. Our lives are caught between this profound condition of alienation and a sort of ersatz state of hyper-connection that substitutes for what we lack in our offline existence. While some might have expected the Internet and mobile phones chiefly to be used for the communication of information, their primary significance in most people’s lives is their provision for the communication of presence. The Internet often feels a lot less like an ‘information superhighway’ and much more like a virtual village, where, through countless intertwined lines of relationship, everyone is minding everyone else’s business. - See more at: http://mereorthodoxy.com/twitter-is-like-elizabeth-bennets-meryton/#sthash.B08sfZlc.dpuf

Before Mars Hill became a virtual city it sometimes feels as though it was easier to stay truly connected to the social life of the place when social activity had to be physical rather than virtual. It's possible to maintain a sense of what Roberts might describe as social presence thanks to the internet but actual time spent together in conversation can precipitously decline. But on the other hand for those who lack vehicles or the bodily ability to just go "be" where a social scene is, the internet can be a remarkably powerful tool to facilitate connection. It's difficult to not reflexively propose that the people who complain most on social media about the shallowness of social media are the ones who 1) most benefit from this arrangement 2) most want that arrangement to stay as it is.  It may be a paradoxical humblebrag, the user of social media lamenting the lack of connection to "real" people when the whole point of social media (as an extension of broadcast media) can be for the mass, impersonal audience.  There can be an illusion of connection and also a reality of connection.  A great deal depends on what you intend to make of it and what you do with it.

Austen insightfully recognized the manner in which our delight in tight-knit, pleasant, and agreeable communities—and in conversations marked by ‘mutual satisfaction’—renders us susceptible to deep distortions of communal discourse, knowledge, and judgment.  When we are all so relationally cosy with each other, we will shrink back from criticizing people in the way that we ought, voluntarily muting disagreement, and will shut out external criticism, reassuring and reaffirming anyone exposed to it. In such contexts, a cloying closeness stifles the expression of difference and conversations take on a character akin to the ‘positive feedback loop’ that existed in Wickham and Elizabeth’s conversation, where affirmation and assent merely reinforced existing prejudices. In such contexts, communities become insular (a tendency that can be exacerbated by algorithms), echo chambers of accepted opinion, closed to opposing voices.

Wow, that DOES seem familiar, doesn't it!  That dynamic is more benign in a Jane Austen novel than it was at Mars Hill.  Her novels are small and quotidian in focus but the potential harm in letting the social dynamics Roberts describes in her works aren't so small in real life. 

It's feeling weird to realize that in the years before I shifted out of Mars Hill I was on a little bit of a Jane Austen binge.

Roberts, as usual, has quite a bit more to say.  The observation that one of the dangers of the online village is that there are rarely occasions for the kind of isolation in which a person will readily if steadily arrive at his or her own actual view of things is a useful one.

Particularly illuminating is the observation that Elizabeth Bennett's mind about Mr. Darcy begins to change when she's away from her hometown. She isn't able to begin shaking off not only her own prejudice but that prejudice which has been shared with her by her community until she's literally and figuratively in a different place.

A critical turning point in the plot occurs when Elizabeth receives Darcy’s letter. It is significant that she receives the letter while away from her community, without recourse to its communal processes of judgment. Had she been at home in Longbourn, she would have talked over the letter’s contents with Jane, potentially defusing it in the process. Elizabeth later remarks of her situation that she was ‘with no one to speak to of what I felt, no Jane to comfort me and say that I had not been so very weak and vain and nonsensical as I knew I had.’ Her characteristic judgment and coping mechanism of talking things over in intimate and affirming community not being open to her, Elizabeth had no excuse but to engage in the painful and unsettling introspection that her highly affirming friends and family members had hitherto discouraged. Admitting the voice of contradiction required a non-social space and time, it required being forced to think self-critically, rather than receiving an affirming judgment from her community.

Now Wenatchee The Hatchet can only surmise at this point but it has been interesting over the last four or five years to hear from a handful of people who were once at Mars Hill that reading blogs and websites alone, whether Warren Throckmorton's or Joyful Exiles or others, played a role in the decision to either transition away from Mars Hill or to begin voicing some concern inside the community about how things were being handled.  To take up Roberts' observation, there seems to have been a need for solitude, for wrestling with contradictions and problems that were being too readily smoothed over within the social confines of the community itself.

Roberts describes a community in which there is a high level of social saturation.  In family therapy jargon a comparable term could be the undifferentiated ego mass. A developmental/social challenge in such a context is threading the needle, finding a balance between differentiation and belonging.

Yet this establishment of distance neither entails pure rejection nor abandonment.

There could be a lot to unpack from such a sentence.  There was some inspiration to revisit an Atlantic piece about Joan Didion recently, another favorite author of Wenatchee The Hatchet.  Her beautifully icy detached literary style has been a touchstone.  Maybe there's some poetic justness to Wenatchee The Hatchet, having written so much about Mark Driscoll and his strange ideals of manhood being a fan of Joan Didion and Jane Austen.  It's certainly quaint to observe that this year marks the 20th anniversary of Mark Driscoll's much-loved Braveheart and Wenatchee The Hatchet's much-loved Toy Story. I would firmly propose the cartoon had the less cartoonish understanding of masculinity ... but it feels like there's been enough words typed for the evening. We can stop here.

1 comment:

Mike said...

My experiences as an elder in a small-scale version of Mars Hill were similar. While our herd instinct is a good thing in that it preserves civilization, it can be a very bad thing when it shuts down individual conscience. Cultic organizations only thrive in an atmosphere of insularity where that individual conscience can be overcome. If you're not familiar with them, look up the Asch Experiments or their more demonic cousins the Milgrim Experiments. Normal, decent people can be convinced to say up is down and black is white or even in some circumstances kill under the pressure of authority and community.

Some of my friends (in retrospect, virtually none of them were friends) in the church were in full blown Milgrim mode, with a far off look in their eyes, robotically repeating phrases like mantras that had been spoken from the pulpit--had the pastor advocated violence, they'd have followed. The majority were in Asch mode, willing to ignore their consciences and twist their brains round to accepting what they initially knew to be untrue if that's what it took to have community. Even the ones who never wavered from the truth, knowing the difference between it and what was being preached and done in the name of God, were more likely to shoot the messenger who told the truth than to stand up to the ones who were the bad actors. The third category bothered me most of all, the ones who'd say "Sure, Pastor X is a bully, sure he contradicts himself a half dozen times in the average sermon, sure he does some abusive things, but where's forgiveness? Why so judgmental? What's the matter with you?

The handful of us who never bought in were slandered and removed. We're still persona non grata after several years, even after the church fell apart and everything we'd been saying was proven true. Meant nothing. Sometimes being a whistleblower comes at so great a price people aren't willing to bother.