The Conformist Non-Conformist

In yesterday’s post I had quoted W. H. Auden‘s review of  David Luke‘s translation of Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger and Other Stories in responding to his acid assessment of a reductionist impulse in art criticism.  Today, I quote him again, on a topic that is of similarly perennial interest, the problem of conformism as a hallmark of non-conformity:

In all technologically ‘advanced countries, fashion has replaced tradition, so that involuntary membership in a society can no longer provide a feeling of community. (The family, perhaps, can still provide it, but families are temporary societies which dissolve when the children grow up.)

In consequence, the word ‘normal’ has ceased to have any meaning. Community still means what it always has, a group of persons united by a love of something other than themselves, be it racehorses and poetry, but today such a love has to be discovered by each person for himself; it cannot be acquired socially. Society can only teach conformity to the momentary fashion, either of the majority or of its mirror-image, the rebellious minority. To belong to either is to be a member, not of a community, but if a ‘public’ in the Kierkegaardian sense. Today, all visible and therefore social signs of agreement are suspect. What a pleasant surprise it would be to meet a crew-cut hippie or a company director with hair down to his shoulders.

Auden’s observations should ring true to us. We have now become accustomed to the sight of the rebellious, the fringe, the ‘outsiders’, all too often, dressing and behaving lock and step in conformity with their chosen cohort. This isn’t surprising: having placed ourselves outside one group, we quickly seek another. True exiles, the hermits of the social sphere, are exceedingly rare. And in the quest for membership in a new group, visible signs of identification are very useful . These are the secret handshakes by which we enter the inner councils and proclaim our bona-fides. (Incidentally, Auden’s latter demand would appear to have been taken care of by the phenomenon of, most recently, the Internet start-up, some of whose directors are indeed long-haired and considerably more unkempt than the standard businessman.) Once inside the group, we seek to avoid summary excommunication by speaking and behaving alike. A ‘local’ vernacular or colloquial mode is quickly picked up as are standard expressions and targets of approval and disapproval. The overt adoption of these is necessary to continue and sustain the distancing from the older ‘normal.’

Such wholesale adoption of the trappings of the new group–especially speech forms and ideological commitments– require too, constant maintenance. This is best facilitated by persistent, frequent and sometimes, in extreme cases, exclusive, contact with other members of the new group. These interactions facilitate the upkeep of the new garb; they enable an inspection of slight changes in fashion that may need urgent responding to if membership is to continue.

The problem then, as Auden highlights it, is that the rebel only learns how to reject and leave a group; he does not learn how to live outside of one.

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