The Conceptualization of the Collective in Modern Politics
World-Making and Determinism in Durkheim
By Pamela, Aldo, Monica, and Rami
Émile Durkheim’s The Elementary Forms of Religious Life posits the idea that religion and religious life is not just a form of social life, but the first true form of social life. Through his study of primitive religions, Durkheim hopes to understand religion and the role it plays in human life, and, through that, he extrapolates what is universal and fundamental about man. Living in the France during the times of the Third Republic, Durkheim bore witness to a distinctly Catholic society’s transition towards secularism, and as such became driven with the question of whether or not it could be true to state that religion and religious life were the basis for all social life and societal relationships, and if so, whether french society (and others moving in the same direction) would be capable of surviving secularization.
One of the main themes which resonates and is repeated throughout the text is the idea that the collective, or the group, is the societal system which defines the individual and, as such, the world. Unlike other authors such as Smith and Marx who emphasize some form of economic life (exchange and labor, respectively) as the center of their ideas of the human and the worlds they build, Durkheim claims that it is ultimately the collective and collective life which determines the person, and thus is what makes his world. As such, the conclusions he draws from his theories are quite different from these authors.
Part of this idea of world-making through the collective can be seen when Durkheim notes how even our basic concepts of space and time come as a result of social life. “…what if one tried to imagine what the notion of time would be, in absence of the methods we use to divide (…) a time which was not a succession of years, months, weeks, days, and hours?” (p.10) he asks. In the case of the Zuñi, a tribe which conceives of space as circular in the same way their camp is modeled (p.11). As the number of clans changed, so did the way they perceived of space; Durkheim is led to conclude that “far from being built into human nature, no idea exists, up to and including the distinction between right and left, that is not, in all probability, the product of religious, hence collective, representations” (pp.11-12). In other words, it is social life and the collective which determines how we as individuals conceptualize the world we live in.
These same definitions of space are particularly relevant today, notably regarding the well-reported demonstrations at Standing Rock. The Sioux tribe living in that area received incredible amounts of publicity surrounding their struggles with the Dakota Access Pipeline, a federal project which had been rerouted through the tribe’s land, reportedly exposing the Tribe’s water supply to contamination and disrupting their land. The disagreement became largely centered around the two collectives – Standing Rock native tradition and greater American culture – and how each of their notions of space and the world they live in cause confrontation. The land, according to the natives, is sacred: a space to be respected because of it’s religious significance. A native woman spoke out in protest, shouting “…Our future lies in the knowledge that we are all of one people; that this earth is our mother.” Because of the government and american culture’s lack of understanding and respect for Native understanding of space, the pipeline disrespected the natives’ collective.
One of the basis of all logical human thought is the principle of non-contradiction: if two statements are contradictory, they can never both be true in the same sense at the same time. Binary logic in this style is fundamental to human thought (and thus, the human) as a whole, says Durkheim. Throughout the text, Durkheim posits several irreducible dualities which are interlinked: for knowledge, he identifies empirical (individual, direct) and categorical (collective, imposed) knowledge; for man, his individual (body) and social (intellectual, moral) self; and for things/activities, their profane (material) and sacred (ideal, transcendent) identities. In fact, Durkheim notes that the division between these last two categories is so great, that it is forbidden for a man’s sacred and profane life to ever mix: “More generally, the typical actions of ordinary life are forbidden so long as those of religious life are in progress (…) For the same reason, all secular occupations are suspended when the great religious ceremonies take place” (p. 311). In this vein, Durkheim posits that this binary conception of logic that we humans share stems from our ability to differentiate between two contradictory dualities, such as the sacred and the profane. As such, this religious concept may be the source for human logical thought.
Yet these dualities are not unrelated from one another. For Durkheim, the collective itself is a sacred ideal, because it not only shapes our thoughts and interactions (and thus determines ourselves as persons), but because it infuses individuals with feelings which can only have a sacred quality ascribed to them. When an individual feels himself to be part of a true collective, a clan, he is filled with indescribable feelings and urges which are not found in everyday profane activity.
Firstly, there is an urge to announce and solidify the feeling of belonging to the clan. This feeling is stronger than just the feeling of being in a group; there is a need to objectify it in physical form, to announce to the world that you are a part of this clan. This is where the totem comes from: it expresses a representation of the shared qualities of the collective and its sacredness. The concept of the totem transcends throughout history; it can be Catholic church; it can be the pursuit of liberty in French Revolution; and even today we see that it takes the form of the great American flag, in this example from Donald Trump’s inaugural address: “It is time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American Flag.” It is quite interesting that he uses the word “salute,” inferring that the flag has some sort of innate quality ascribed to it that demands respect. A modern day totem, the flag is an outward and physical sign of the idea of the American society.
Being part of the collective also carries with it a feeling that we carry part of the collective within ourselves. When a person is initiated into the clan and anointed with the clan’s totem, Durkheim claims, they not only feel that they are a part of the clan, but that the clan is a part of them as well. This is the idea of Force, or Mana – the combined influence of the collective causing individuals to act how they otherwise might not, for the good of the collective. In fact, actions taken under the influence of the collective Force, due to its social and sacred nature, tend to be powerful and contagious: this can be seen even today, such as on January 21st, 2017, when the Women’s March was held across the United States and even the world to protest against Donald Trump in favor of women’s rights. The number of people involved was greater than ever expected – the 250,000 people in the streets of Chicago and over 3 million across the world engaged in a manifest form of collective effervescence. They abandoned their everyday lives for a moment of kinship and solidarity to protect their rights and their society. It was not only women who marched: despite all of the female symbolism, there was more than pink at the rally. People (and creatures) of all kinds joined in this because the fight expanded beyond the title, beyond the cat ears, and beyond the pink. When people joined this march, they were no longer only themselves, they were in the movement fighting the discriminatory and derogatory actions and words that Trump committed and continues to commit. The strength and collective feeling of the March itself was an act caused by social forces.
This builds on to the idea of the soul; the fragmentation of this collective Force in the individual. As individuals, our experience is always limited, yet our soul, the part in us that contains the “collective forces” of universal consciousness, liberates us from the physical limitation of the body. Through the soul, we get to experience what the society experiences collectively. According to Durkheim, the idea of the soul comes as a result of this feeling of ‘not feeling like oneself’ that is brought about by the force of the collective, but more personal: it is your ‘inner voice’ that comes as a result of immersion in the collective, which guides your rituals, actions, and your morality. While the original reason for performing a certain ritual or being forbidden to perform a certain action or say a certain word (taboo) can be lost to time, the Force (and thus the soul) keep the practice going for generations and generations. Again an example from Trump’s inaugural address: “we are one nation — and their pain is our pain. Their dreams are our dreams; and their success will be our success. We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.” Here we are in a modern clan named the United States of America! And we share kinship with our ancestors, our founding fathers, with our fellow brothers and sisters, and even with our future generations. The universal consciousness of being a citizen in this nation and the force of acting morally according to the morality of the collective truly make us feel we are involved in something more mighty. Through the wholeness of which we call “our nation,” we and the society are intertwined together in this symbiotic relationship. Society asks the individual to sacrifice himself, be it figuratively (by going against the individual’s own self-interest) or literally (to die for it), and in doing so he gains a grand purpose of existence and moral uplift.
The idea of morality due to the soul also leads back to our previous discussion of the totem: the Force, or mana, is diffused in this tangible form, according to Durkheim’s theory. And the force has a morally imperative nature to perpetual people to fulfill their obligation to the group they are involved in. Going back to the example of the flag in Trump’s inauguration speech, we see how the flag, our modern day totem, functions as the source of our fellow Americans’ moral life. While obeying their societal cause, they feel lifted, as if living a higher life beyond their individual impulses. It also ties back to the idea of the duality of man: the individual feels like there is a second version of himself which compels him to act against his own self interest for the good of the collective – the conscience (in this case, the soul according to Durkheim).
As we can see, the world that Durkheim builds in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life is one centered around the collective, and how that determines social relationships and the individual. Through the study of religion and religious concepts, Durkheim claims to show how the collective not only determines the individual as such, but in doing so shapes the world and society.