The Colonization of the Lifeworld and the Destruction of Meaning
Tod S. Sloan
Social theorists have often analyzed the impact of social change on selfhood and personal experience in order to develop a critique of particular social institutions or movements. Prominent among such work is the critique of modernization, particularly of the capitalist variety. Marx, Durkheim, and Weber established the basic parameters for most subsequent analyses with their respective emphases on alienation, anomie, and the loss of meaning. Debates in theoretical sociology still stem in part from the different assumptions made by these three writers. Fortunately, thanks to the work of Jürgen Habermas, the major contemporary figure in the tradition known as the Frankfurt School, we now have access to a synthesis of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and others that preserves their core insights. In his The Theory of Communicative Action (1984, 1987), Habermas presents a general framework that attempts to explain, among other things, exactly how capitalist modernization produces social pathologies. My task here is to assess the validity of Habermasís model in accounting for psychopathology and in so doing to rethink the connection between social change, the subjective sense of meaningfulness, and mental health in modern society.
To tease out the core issues in this domain, the remainder of this essay is presented in the form of an argument between a fellow named Frank, an imaginary student of Habermas who also dabbles in the work of Herbert Marcuse and psychoanalytic object-relations theory and his equally imaginary friend Pomo, whose queries are inspired by a variety of themes in postmodern social theory.
Frank: Yes, I keep seeing pieces of it fall into place and then just when I think it holds together pretty well I lose the part I figured out before.
Pomo: Well, you know, the search for airtight, comprehensive systems has been pointless ever since Hegelís monumental failure. Why do you persist?
Frank: I just think we could reduce some of the suffering that is systematically produced by our social order if we had a better grasp of what is happening to us all. I mean, donít you think it would help if people had access to a better account of why we struggle with depression, boredom, or substance abuse? If we understood why shopping has become our major form of leisure, or why we have such trouble maintaining a sense of meaningfulness in what we do?
Pomo: I donít have any problem with shopping and Iím rarely depressed, but Iíll humor you. Tell me, in a nutshell, how you would account for all that.
Frank: Alright. As usual, I will lean heavily on Habermas here. He argues that social well-being depends on a critical balance between, on one hand, the social processes that reproduce cultural traditions, social integration, and personal identities and, on the other hand, activities related to economic/productive operations necessary for physical survival. In his view, capitalist modernization upsets the balance between the first realm--a background context, which he calls the lifeworld, in which we construct, maintain and refresh meanings --and the second, which he calls system. Lifeworld processes include forms of communication and practice aimed at identity development, the transmission of cultural knowledge, the resolution of disagreements about ethical and normative matters, and so forth. Ideally, these have priority over and serve to guide activities related to system operations. For example, a communityís conscious sense that a certain old tree is a cultural landmark would have priority over someoneís desire to cut it down for firewood.
Now, the advent of modernity can be marked by a shift in this priority of lifeworld over system. In modernity, directives from the system begin to outweigh those deriving from the lifeworld. Concerns such as profitability, productivity, efficiency, practicality, success, and economic growth -- in other words, the various essences of capitalism and industrialization -- gradually displace other interests related to the integrity of the lifeworld such as play, morals, self-expression, social norms. For example, an established urban neighborhood might be destroyed, rather than renovated, in order to build a more profitable shopping mall or industrial plant. The voices of the many who care about community and sense of place are drowned out by the few who perform the calculus of profit and practicality. Furthermore, the state and the church, which could potentially counterbalance the forces of the independent economy, end up doing little more than supporting the interests of the market upon which they depend.
Pomo: Youíre saying that what is rational to do comes to be defined in narrow terms related primarily to the accumulation of capital?
Frank: Exactly. An instrumental rationality, fueled by its link to profit making, takes precedence over forms of reasoning that take into account two neglected realms that are essential for the construction of meaning in life as well as for social harmony: the aesthetic and the ethical.
Pomo: Well, I am not especially interested in social harmony or in ethics, for that matter. But I do think that aesthetics is where the action is. Wouldnít you argue that capitalist development has created incredible new spaces for artistic endeavors? Oh, I almost forgot. You in the Frankfurt tradition have problems with the commodification of art and all that. Well, letís get back to your point about how capitalist industrialization produces problems at the psychological level.
Frank: Thanks. Letís see. As instrumental rationality is applied to more and more spheres of everyday life, subjecting everything in its path to management aiming at greater control and increased profits, we do get fascinating and powerful new technologies. But people themselves are not exempt from this will to objectify and control. We are subjected to bureaucratic social administration (as in policing, propaganda, social work, mass education) and social manipulation by the marketplace (as in advertising and commercial mass media).
Pomo: I agree, but there has always been some form of social control. Arenít these simply new arrangements. Are you saying that you would prefer tyrants and dictators or priestly ruling classes to the bureaucratic welfare state?
Frank: No, itís not that I long for the past. Instead, I am pushing for a present in which the social order reflects as much as possible the articulated needs of citizens. What we have now is a social order that systematically produces people who are limited in their capacities for reflection on their needs. Thatís what I was trying to get at just now. The extension of instrumental rationality into more and more spheres of life brings about what Habermas (1987) calls a colonization of the lifeworld. This affects several processes that serve to restore and renovate the lifeworld across the generations. It disrupts the transmission and critique of cultural knowledge and values, creating what Weber recognizes as a loss of meaning. It erodes the bases for social norms, solidarity, and sense of community, described by Durkheim as anomie. It subjects labor to the deformation Marx catalogued as alienation. Finally, it interferes with socialization processes related to the formation of personal identity and character, some of which were misrecognized by Freud as merely family pathology.
Pomo: If I understand you correctly, you want to attribute all that to the rise of scientific rationality and its extension into society through technological applications?!
Frank: I think so. In fact, I am almost convinced that the majority of contemporary identity issues and problems in living can be linked fairly directly to this colonization of the lifeworld. As you said, the play of power between social order and individual bodies has always been with us, but, in capitalist modernity, that struggle begins to shift from direct control of people through violence and threats of violence to more subtle forms of control related to the defense and expansion of profit-making by the capitalist class. The success of the system in providing for material wants of the large majority deflates most of the resistance that would stem from remaining gross inequalities. Also, as Marcuse argued, institutional sources of alternative visions of society have little chance in the face of the systemís near monopoly on the mass media. Thus, at the individual level, the superego is conflated with the ego -- it feels right to do what is rational and what is rational is defined as that which serves the reproduction of the system. Psyches are colonized and the bodies they inhabit do more or less what the colonial system requires.
Pomo: I like this. Youíre starting to sound like Michel Foucault with his ideas about how knowledge serves as a vehicle of power in the disciplining of bodies!
Frank: Yes, there is a similarity between Foucaultís concerns and those of Habermas, but neither of them provides a full account of the how the colonization of the lifeworld or the social administration of bodies interferes with emotional development. For that, we could turn, as Habermas does to some extent, to a psychoanalytic account of how both self-understanding and capacities for relatedness are disrupted as the system goes about its business.
Pomo: Why would you want focus on self-understanding and capacities for relatedness? Arenít there other things to worry about first, like economic exploitation, social isolation, or political apathy?
Frank: I think that when we are looking at the psychological level of impact, all these things are related. In particular, as I try to account for syndromes like depression and substance abuse, I canít help but see them as connected to economic, social and political arrangements that affect individuals and communities. Nevertheless, an important dimension of all this is often overlooked and that is the link between ideological processes and psychological states. By ideological processes I mean both practices and representations that sustain social arrangements characterized by domination and oppression (Thompson, 1984). And, in a nutshell, I would argue that the predominance of instrumental rationality associated with capitalist modernization is the primary vehicle for achieving ideological effects at the level of the individual.
Pomo: I guess something like that must be going on to produce apathetic citizens or consumers willing to go into debt to make unnecessary new purchases. But I still donít see why it is such a problem. People used to barter in the marketplace, now they work for a salary and pay for goods with credit cards. There used to be a class of slaves and now there is a class of minimum wage workers. Nothing has changed fundamentally.
Frank: I wouldnít agree, especially if we look at the subjective level. I doubt that slaves accepted the suggestion that being in slavery was their fault, whereas in capitalist society ideology works to convince the poor and the unemployed that they are inferior beings and personally responsible for their plight. The subjective realm is more fully infiltrated by the workings of power now. Marx adapted the concept of ideology in the first place to refer to exactly this supplementing of direct physical oppression with a more subtle process. But that is not even the core of the issue. . I sense that most of us living in advanced capitalist modernity, regardless of social class, experience a general process of socialization through which we are trained to adopt an instrumental and objectifying attitude toward our own psychic reality and emotional life. Combined with the usual complications of character development in childhood and youth, this seriously interferes with the establishment of full capacities for communicating our felt needs and other subjective states to others as well as with capacities for understanding others in turn. These two processes combine to interfere with the possibility of interactions characterized by mutuality, interdependence, and genuine dialogue. In their place, we find a continuum of problems in living: at one extreme, narcissistic manipulation, overt coercion, sociopathy and other power-seeking styles, and at the other extreme, depression, anxiety, fear, and a variety of states that sustain submissive postures.
Pomo: I still donít see the links between instrumental rationality, capitalism, and these psychological styles. How is the current scene any different from the simultaneously alienating and meaning-constructing effects of enculturation in any cultural group or historical era? Any social system will have its symbol system within which people organize their personal identities, and power will slip and slide through the various social positions that allow for the enactment of those identities. A thousand years ago, people might have organized their identities and emotional states around religious symbols relating to salvation and damnation, now we do the same in relation to consumerist symbols of social status, right?
Frank: You have helped me remember a piece of this that I keep forgetting. I told you it was very complicated! The missing piece is that symbolic life is not the same under capitalist modernity. The colonization of the lifeworld proceeds in part by deforming the symbolic process as it relates to individual emotional life. Under the reign of instrumental rationality, the subjective sphere of the lifeworld repeatedly undergoes what the psychoanalyst Alfred Lorenzer (1976) calls desymbolization. From the point of view I wish to defend, this desymbolization is the core psychological moment of the ideological process. In general, desymbolization is a defensive maneuver designed to manage intrapsychic conflict (which of course is always interpersonal as well). It entails a splitting of lived experience into two domains. On one hand, an intellectualized stance constituted by a sequence of signs drained of their life-historical significance, and on the other hand, complexes of affective intensity disconnected from their conscious referents. Desymbolization is at the heart of most defensive processes. It sets up a neutralized consciousness to fend off anxiety and other negative emotional states that would arise were complex interpersonal realities to be fully experienced or, to follow the terminology here, fully symbolized. The consequences are serious. Everyday action is impoverished by absence of full symbolization. The interplay of imagination and desire is cut short. Split-off affect emerges in impulsivity or compulsion in times of stress. Interpretation of oneís own needs to others is hindered and the resulting intellectualized train of thought is highly susceptible to external manipulation.
Pomo: Sounds like little more than the psychoanalytic theory of repression stated in linguistic and interpersonal rather than hydraulic terms!
Frank: Very clever! But as I was saying, this re-reading of Freud provides the crucial link to the incursion of instrumental rationality into lifeworld processes related to identity formation and personality development. This can be seen when we look at the types of interpersonal realities that foster desymbolization. I refer in particular to situations in which powerless individuals, especially children, are manipulated by powerful people, especially parents and teachers, as well as the media, into interpreting their lived experience in ways that serve the powerful. In these situations, the less powerful, in order to preserve idealized images of powerful others and to secure what approval and love they can from them, rush to take up the othersí definitions of their needs and feelings. These definitions are then used to manage the hostile or frustrated feelings they are not allowed or cannot permit themselves to express. An objectifying, external evaluative stance toward oneís own experience is taken up, usually because it is provided by the powerful (You are bad; You are going to be a star if you work harder; You are acceptable only if you wear Nike shoes). A cluster of related ideation and affect is split off and not expressed (It is you who are bad; I donít want to work harder, I just want to play; I resent being lied to by the media).
Misinterpretations of self provided by powerful others begin to form the core of oneís conscious identity. Soon one feels and knows that to be acceptable and to get ahead in life one must do what various sorts of authoritative messages command, whether these come from parents, the boss, commercial advertisements, or the official propaganda. Remember how I said ideology makes us feel good doing exactly what the system needs us to do? The corollary is that we feel like failures and get depressed, become alcoholics, or develop phobias and anxieties when we sense that our lives do not match the prescribed external definitions in some way. Now, to close this long loop, just think of all the things we linked to instrumental rationality earlier: productivity, efficiency, practicality. These attitudes translate at the personal level into success, attractiveness, marketability -- all of which are attained through the careful external administration of personal lifestyle through an objectifying stance toward oneself, from physical fitness and grooming to work habits to leisure activities.
Pomo: Aagh! I feel like I am being desymbolized! All this sounds on track, but I have to remind you that you forgot to explain why this happens in a particularly noxious way under specifically capitalist manifestations of instrumental rationality.
Frank: I suppose that explains why I am talking to you. It is one of the hardest parts to nail down. Donít Deleuze and Guattari (1983) propose a concept parallel to desymbolization, something like decoding or deterritorialization?
Pomo: Sure. They use it to refer to what happens as a new sociocultural order breaks down the symbolic codes of the previous one and sets free energies or flows of desire that are then recaptured in a new coding system. They point out that under capitalism there occurs a kind of leveling or equating of meanings due to the shift from use value to exchange value. Things are valued according to their value on the market and not so much for their direct useability. So a painting equals a home run which equals a car or a personís time. Meanings of the sort that people feel and experience fully tend to erode in such a system. People began to relate to surfaces and parts, rather than substances. Subjective life becomes more fragmented and people also become more isolated. We witness a dissipation of shared alternative values around which resistance movements might form. So, you see, capitalism and individual neurosis go hand in hand. Think about it. With the crumbling of monarchic and clerical power to encode flows of desire, we saw the emergence of the coding system we call the Oedipus complex, with all its manifestations as romantic love, depression, jealousy, and castration anxiety. The Oedipal coding system worked for a century or so and then also began to dissipate as what youíre calling the colonization of the lifeworld proceeded even further and began to dominate even very early socialization processes that used to be under the control of the family. It seems that the collapse of the superego that Marcuse described as one-dimensionality really marks the end of modernity and the beginning of postmodernity.
Frank: So, it sounds like the crisis of meaning is more a feature of postmodernity than modernity. I mean, maybe the theorists anticipated it around the turn of the century, but people didnít start to feel it until the extended and nuclear families had been further colonized.
Pomo: Maybe. But I prefer to focus on the interesting possibilities that flow from not being locked into one identity, to play with the fragments of my self as well as new products, roll with the changes. Youíve got to lighten up. All your worrying isnít going to change anything.
Frank: It certainly wonít if you and your friends donít find a way out of your hedonistic nihilism and relativism. But frankly, I have a hard time resisting those temptations myself. Honestly, I am sort of stuck. I canít pin this down.
Deleuze, G. and Guatarri, F. (1983). Anti-Oedipus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Habermas, J. (1984, 1987). The theory of communicative action. Vols. 1 and 2. Boston: Beacon.
Lorenzer, A. (1976). Symbols and stereotypes. In J. Connerton (Ed.), Critical sociology (pp. 134-152). NewYork: Penguin.
Thompson, J. (1984). Studies in the theory of ideology. Berkeley: University of California Press.