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The follies of cultural elites Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Reclaim the Art of Drawing Boundaries by Frank Furedi

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  • 1 McGill University, , Canada
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Routledge2020202pp • £21.99 (paperback) • £19.79 (ebook) • ISBN: 9780367416829

I have not until this point studied Frank Furedi’s work, to my shame and loss, making this occasion to do so very welcome. This book gives great pleasure: it is a brilliant piece of cultural criticism, a very hostile account of the direction in which he believes advanced societies are moving. It must be said immediately that it has far less to do with borders between nations than the need to draw boundaries in daily social life – although a link between the two is claimed, as we will see later. The argument is deeply felt and beautifully written – and it is sure to attract attention, much of it likely to be negative. It may be useful to say immediately that the argument stands in line with those made at earlier times by Philip Rieff (1961; 1966), David Riesman (1950) and Christopher Lasch (1979), all of whom deplored what they felt to be the spinelessness and self-indulgence of contemporary culture.

A review symposium is often designed to produce fireworks, but I have to begin in a completely different way by stressing very substantial agreement. Two main considerations matter most, but some other points of agreement can at least be noted. The first major point of agreement concerns the dangers of destroying a sense of privacy, by making everything available publicly at all times. This is dreadful for all sorts of reasons, above all because it is only when protected that people can try on different masks, and so eventually, and with luck, develop a sense of identity of their own. I made exactly this point many years ago in ‘Sincerity and Politics: the “Existentialists” vs. Goffman and Proust’ (Hall, 1977). It is worth mentioning this not just to document agreement with Furedi, but to go a little further. Many elements of his critique of contemporary culture have their roots in the idea of authenticity, clearly present in Rousseau and with Sartre as its modern exemplar. This strand of thought famously lacks an ethics: someone can tell you on Monday that they cannot properly breathe in your presence because of a surfeit of love, only to announce on Friday that they can breathe again as they love another.

This brings me to the second consideration, that of relativism. Furedi notes the importance of cultural anthropology in fostering Pascal’s dictum that ‘truth is different on the other side of the Pyrenees’. Relativism is of course intellectually incoherent – if all truth is relative then why should we believe its central claim? But the greatest contribution made, at least in my view, by Ernest Gellner was to insist that anthropology depended on universal scientific knowledge (Hall, 2010: chapter 4). It was the very fact that a society held a belief that went against scientific knowledge – say that Jesus walked on water – that made it the subject of research, the need for inquiry as to how such a belief could be maintained. And Gellner made very similar points to those of Furedi when arguing against excessive ‘conceptual charity’ to differing belief systems, noting that beliefs sometimes change when reformers can be heard – the very opposite of handing over a culture to those who wish to control it in their own interests. Differently put, there are indeed dangers to tolerance.

Beyond these technical matters there is much sense in a series of points made in the book, all worth noting in staccato style. First, ‘judgementalism’ has indeed come to be seen in negative terms, absurdly in that making judgements is essential to living, and surely mandatory in universities. Second, the insistence on openness – thereby the challenge to nationalism – can become silly when it is stretched to a point imagining we can live without culture of any sort. More could have been said, however, on this point. The greatest advocate of openness was Popper, whose person and thought were very far from any form of sloppy self-indulgence. The call for openness had everything to do with a Jewish background, as the work of Malachi Hacohen has shown (Hacohen, 2000). The Austrian half of the Habsburg empire was non-national and so safe for those with Jewish backgrounds – backgrounds that came to the fore again and again when traditional Jews from Galicia arrived in Vienna, to the irritation of the Viennese Jew who thought they had been let in, leading them rather nastily to dub them as closed and tribal.

Third, Furedi is excellent when describing the problems with the politics of recognition. If you say you recognise me, it is quite likely that I will respond by noting how easy such a statement was for you. So, do you really, really recognise me? There is no end to the infinite regress that ensues. Fourth, he is quite right to say that those who dislike national boundaries do often distrust the people, as ignorant and misguided. We certainly know in this area that patriotism tends to increase the further down the social scale one moves. This is scarcely surprising: the caged have nothing but their nation state, members of the elite have the world. Finally, he is again entirely correct to point to a large measure of hypocrisy among those wishing to remove symbolic boundaries in society. The wish to remove some goes hand in hand with the erection of many more – of things that cannot be said, and of safe places where they cannot be said. I am wholly at one with him in this whole area, perhaps especially when it comes to the question of cultural appropriation. Of course, this can be insensitive, just as the private sphere can and does hide injustice. But I refuse to believe that Tolstoy’s account of the feelings of Kitty after visiting Anna and Vronsky in the countryside late in Anna Karenina are anything other than brilliant, even though written by a man – while every academic surely knows the accuracy of George Eliot’s portrait of Casaubon in Middlemarch.

There are one or two places where one can demur that are worth mentioning before turning to two elements of negative critique. First, it is not the case that borders between states have, so to speak, always been solid. The work of Owen Lattimore on China’s inner Asian frontier is exemplary in showing the very different zones of integration characteristic of the pre-modern world (Lattimore, 1940). Second, Furedi seems to stand close in general to the world of David Riesman, regretting a move from a principled, inner-directed world to the vagaries of our other-directed situation (Riesman et al, 1950). But Adam Smith wanted other-direction, regarding it as the core of morality and commercial sociability (Smith, 1759). Matters are, in different words, more complex than Furedi allows – as is also the case once one realises that much that he dislikes was present, as noted, in Rousseau, the original prophet of authenticity. Third, I am not as sure as he is that binary thinking always needs to be defended, even though the ability to draw distinctions and make judgements is crucial. There is nothing sacred, despite the claim of Levi-Strauss, about the number two (Levi-Strauss, 1964). Certainly, the division in Durkheim between mechanical and organic solidarity is completely misleading: the great agrarian civilisations had very complex divisions of labour (Durkheim, 1893). Finally, in relation to nationalism there is a very great deal to be said in favour – descriptively as well as normatively – of the idea of multiple identities. Further, softness when dealing with nationalism – that is, going beyond binary politics – often makes sense. Albert Hirschman’s categories apply: giving voice creates sufficient loyalty to prevent exit (Hirschman, 1978).

Every element of the negative critique to complement the positive one rests on a simple premise: cultural critique in itself is not sociology, or, if you prefer, ideas themselves do not make the world go round. The first point to be made can be reached by remembering (I hope correctly) the occasion when Eileen Barker, the distinguished sociologist of religion at the London School of Economics, was interviewed on the radio on the release of her book on the Moonies – then the subject of a frenzied moral panic (Barker, 1984). She calmly replied to the interviewer seeking scandal and condemnation that her research showed the Moonies to have great merits and few threats. The confused young found support from the movement, and there was little evidence that they were caged therein, unable to escape. One point to be made here is to ask whether some of the cultural excrescences Furedi describes really amount to an unremitting trend, rather than distasteful cultural entertainment. I remember in this regard Denmark in the late 1960s, filled with much that Furedi would have disliked. It has all gone, a new sobriety achieved. We need to question Furedi a little further here. Do we really know that large numbers of people follow the latest cultural trends, and have their lives diminished as a result? A distinction surely needs to be drawn between a cultural elite and more mundane realities – or, at least one should and can draw this distinction in the absence of empirical research showing its falsity. This raises the second point. What are we to do in the face of much nonsense? We can scarcely go back, to tighter and more disciplined worlds, as Furedi worryingly seems to want. And in any case our national cultures are fairly spotty affairs, so it is often best to hold them with a deep sense of irony. In general, I stand with Montesquieu’s Persian Letters: absolute universalism in a very few matters, above all because everyone can feel fear, combined with a good deal of relativism elsewhere, not least perhaps because sex is, after all, ridiculous however one does it (Montesquieu, [1721] 1973). The great French theorist trusted the people to manage complexity, unlike Rousseau and, later, Durkheim, who called for the imposition of stringent standards. Again, I agree: we should deal with cultural nonsense with humour and studied inattention as well as with criticism.

The second negative point concerns the claim that the desire to destroy national borders very much part of the more general world in which standards and boundaries are no longer sacrosanct. Here is one example (pp 35–6) of Furedi’s argument:

The adoption of globalization as an all-purpose explanation for diverse forms of cultural and social developments leads to deterministic and objectivist conclusions that invariably minimise the significance of developments in the domain of morality. The loss of authority of judgment and society’s estrangement from drawing boundaries are reinforced by current global trends but are not the result of them.

There is a good deal to question here. It may be – probably is – the case that some members of the cultural elite at the centre of Furedi’s book join together rejection of all standard symbolic boundaries with dislike of national borders. But the larger truth that is somehow hidden by his conjunction he seeks to make remains that the drivers of globalisation have nothing in common with the cultural elite – in the American case they include manufacturers such as Boeing, banks like Goldman Sachs and the great insurance agency American International Group, Inc., all of them interested in markets and cheap labour. We need much more empirical research at this point, but we should at least note initial research about the new American upper class, probably represented by these industries. This class does not spend its money on idle fripperies; it has become puritanical, concentrating its efforts on the education of its children, thereby likely to consolidate its position more than at any other time in American history. Here too there is a gap between the cultural elite and society, on this occasion less – at least perhaps – with the majority than with the power brokers.

A final summary point suggests itself. We tend to see culture as reflecting and representing social reality, acting as a harbinger of things to come. This presupposition may not be true. We live in a complex society, with all sorts of divisions. The cultural elite may reflect its own concerns, not those of society as a whole.

References

  • Barker, E. (1984) The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing?, Oxford: Blackwell.

  • Durkheim, E. (1893) De la Division du Travail Social, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

  • Hacohen, M. (2000) Karl Popper: The Formative Years, 1902–1945; Politics and Philosophy in Interwar Vienna, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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  • Hall, J.A. (1977) Sincerity and politics: the ‘Existentialists’ vs. Goffman and Proust, Sociological Review, 25(3): 53551.

  • Hall, J.A. (2010) Ernest Gellner: An Intellectual Biography, London: Verso.

  • Hirschman, A. (1978) Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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  • Lasch, C. (1979) The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, New York: Norton.

  • Lattimore, O. (1940) Inner Asian Frontiers of China, Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

  • Levi-Strauss, C. (1964) Mythologiques 1: Le Cru et le Cuit, Paris: Plon.

  • Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat ([1721] 1973) Persian Letters, translated by C.J. Betts, London: Penguin.

  • Rieff, P. (1961) Freud: The Mind of a Moralist, New York: Anchor.

  • Rieff, P. (1966) The Triumph of the Therapeutic, New York: Harper and Row.

  • Riesman, D., Nathan, G. and Reuel, D. (1950) The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Smith, A. (1759) The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Printed for A. Miller in the Strand and A. Kincaid and J. Bell in Edinburgh.

  • Barker, E. (1984) The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing?, Oxford: Blackwell.

  • Durkheim, E. (1893) De la Division du Travail Social, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

  • Hacohen, M. (2000) Karl Popper: The Formative Years, 1902–1945; Politics and Philosophy in Interwar Vienna, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hall, J.A. (1977) Sincerity and politics: the ‘Existentialists’ vs. Goffman and Proust, Sociological Review, 25(3): 53551.

  • Hall, J.A. (2010) Ernest Gellner: An Intellectual Biography, London: Verso.

  • Hirschman, A. (1978) Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lasch, C. (1979) The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, New York: Norton.

  • Lattimore, O. (1940) Inner Asian Frontiers of China, Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

  • Levi-Strauss, C. (1964) Mythologiques 1: Le Cru et le Cuit, Paris: Plon.

  • Montesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat ([1721] 1973) Persian Letters, translated by C.J. Betts, London: Penguin.

  • Rieff, P. (1961) Freud: The Mind of a Moralist, New York: Anchor.

  • Rieff, P. (1966) The Triumph of the Therapeutic, New York: Harper and Row.

  • Riesman, D., Nathan, G. and Reuel, D. (1950) The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Smith, A. (1759) The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Printed for A. Miller in the Strand and A. Kincaid and J. Bell in Edinburgh.

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