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Durkheim on bounding variety

There’s an interesting parallel between Durkheim’s conception of social regulation and what Archer calls ‘bounding variety’ and Cybernetics describes as ‘attenuating variety’. As Durkheim writes on pg 300 in a discussion of marriage and divorce, “One cannot avoid looking outside the place where one is when one no longer feels the ground to be solid beneath one’s feet.” When there is less certainty about the enduring quality of marriage, when there are few normative penalties to its dissolution, the moral psychology of it changes. Behind the social conservatism which can sound jarring to the contemporary ear, there’s a sophisticated micro-sociology here which tends to neglected in the orthodox recounting of the founding fathers. This comes across very clearly in a discussion on pg 299 of the moral psychology of the bachelor:

The bachelor’s situation is quite different. As he can legitimately attach himself to whatever he wants, he aspires to everything and nothing satisfies him. This disease of the infinite which anomie always brings with it can just as well attack that part of our consciousness as any other: it often takes the sexual form that Musset has described.*5 As soon as there is nothing to stop us, we cannot stop ourselves. Beyond the pleasures that we have experienced, we imagine and yearn for others, and if one should happen to have more or less exhausted the realm of the possible, one dreams of the impossible–one thirsts for what is not.†6 How can the sensibility do otherwise than drive itself to desperation in this unending quest? To reach this point, one does not need to have enjoyed an infinity of amorous experiences or lived as a Don Juan. The humdrum existence of the ordinary bachelor is enough, with its endless new experiments raising hopes that are dashed and leaving behind them a feeling of weariness and disenchantment. In any case, how could desire settle on something when it is not sure that it will be able to keep what attracts it? For anomie is twofold. Just as the subject never gives himself definitely, so he possesses nothing definitely. Uncertainty about the future, together with his own indecisiveness, thus condemns him to perpetual motion. Hence a state of unease, agitation and discontent that inevitably increases the possibility of suicide.

This reminds me of Ian Craib‘s The Importance of Disappointment. He diagnoses a contemporary inability to accept the downsides of a recalcitrant reality, leaving us perpetually attuned to the (non-disappointing) reality we imagine lurking just around the corner. In this sense I read Durkheim as exploring the interface between the existential challenge of shaping a life, as Archer would put it, and the normative regulation of the choices we make in doing so.

Categories: Archive Becoming Who We Are

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