I’m rereading Habits of the Heart, a book which I first encountered early in my PhD and profoundly shaped how I see social life. In their introduction to a third edition published in 2007 (22 years after the original) the authors reflect on the ‘crisis of civic membership’ which has continued to grow:
What we mean by the crisis of civic membership is that there are, at every level of American life and in every significant group, temptations and pressures to disengage from the larger society. Two consequences follow from this: social capital (a term we will define in the next section) is depleted, and personal identity is threatened as well. The confident dent sense of selfhood that comes from membership in a society in which we believe, where we both trust and feel trusted, and to which we feel we securely belong: this is exactly what is threatened by a crisis of civic membership. It is not simply a matter of disillusionment with politics, though that is bad enough. It involves a more radical disengagement that is even more threatening to social coherence than alienation from politics alone would be.
I was struck when reading this how relevant it is to our present situation. In the last year we have been forced to disengage from the larger society, with so much of our emotional energy turning towards sustaining close relationships at a distance through the affordances of social platforms. Even when we’re ‘opening up’ the folk epidemiological self-consciousness of the last year can’t be wished away, with wider interactions (accurately) coded as vectors of transmission.
This leads to a destruction of social capital but it also denies us the pleasures which come from public life. It would be interesting to consider the growth of Nextdoor and neighbourhood WhatsApp groups in these term. They have a civic potential but they often degenerate into the individualised exchange of grievances. I’ve been thinking about this in terms of reconstruction and post-pandemic civics over the last year.
It feels to me like there’s something significant even in mundane acts of public interaction under these conditions, for example sharing space together when travelling. Not least of all because these experiences can be difficult such as disputes over masks when you’re sharing a confined space with strangers for hours.