In the last post of my recent series of Spengler, I noted how the historian used the phrases “human insects” and “human vermin” in his book The Hour of Decision. Spengler was not alone in the use of dehumanising language to refer to his fellow countrymen. The Nazis were fond of referring to others as vermin but then so were the communists of the time. Meanwhile, the propaganda of the world wars often portrayed the enemy as an animal of some kind. Not much has improved since then, either. Social media these days is rife with the same dehumanising tone.
It seems to me that this phenomenon is related to another which is implied in Spengler and that is the rise of the individual-ego. Spengler gives the leaders and the experts of a country the right to use citizens as mere “objects”. This is an express violation of Kant’s moral imperative which stated that humans should always be treated as subjects and never objects. But nobody cared about such ethical niceties in the early 20th century. And they still don’t, as the last three years has shown.
This trend to egotism can be seen in the developments in storytelling from ancient times til now and which I also looked at recently in the comparison between ancient Greek tragedy and Shakespearian tragedy. For our purposes here, there are three categories that are relevant in such stories and the wider culture they represent: the individual, the family and the collective (society).
Ancient Greek tragedy, and Greek society in general, is generally seen as giving birth to the idea of the individual and therefore also the ego. The birth of the hero as a distinct character from the chorus seems to have come out of the Dionysian rites that gave rise to Greek tragedy. But those rites were a collective phenomenon and thus the original appearance of the individual in Greek theatre was still counterbalanced by the strong presence of both the family and the collective.
The collective was represented directly on stage in Greek tragedy by the chorus. The individual is distinguished from the chorus but not severed from it.
The tension in Greek tragedy is not between the individual and their family or the collective but of all of them against fate or the gods. Thus, the chorus would often console or advise the main character since they were on the same team. The collective was there as a moral support to the hero. This is very different from the stories we see today.
We can trace the development from ancient times to ours by looking at Shakespeare’s tragedies. In Shakespeare, the collective is all but absent. Although Shakespeare sometimes used a “chorus”, it was nothing like the Greek chorus. It was usually a single person who functioned as a narrator and certainly not as a counterweight to the hero.
The family is often represented in Shakespeare. But, almost universally in the tragedies, the individual and the family are at loggerheads. Romeo and Juliet’s love is ruined by their families’ quarrel. Desdemona marries Othello against her father’s wishes and dies later as a result. The Hamlet family is destroyed by its lust for power. A similar lust for power causes Macbeth to kill Duncan who, as king, is the “father” of his people. The subsequent carnage destroys any potential for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to have a family of their own.
We see a similar breakup of the family due to the wilful behaviour of the hero in Faust, Don Juan, Don Giovanni, even Don Quixote, and numerous other works of this time. It’s possible to read such works as moral warnings about excessive individualism but, as Spengler pointed out, the opposite was mostly true and the daring behaviour of the hero was seen as exciting and stimulating. This was the celebration of the individual-ego at the expense of both the collective and the family.
By the time we get to modern Hollywood movies, it’s fair to say that the individual-ego now exists independently of the collective and the family. If Macbeth or Don Juan could still be viewed as a warning about excessive individualism, the warning no longer exists in modern storytelling where the collective and the family become Spenglerian “objects” to be used as the ego sees fit.
Consider The Matrix. At the beginning of the movie, Neo is alone. Any connection with his own family is unknown and he is neither married nor has a family of his own. The collective in the movie, the others who live in The Matrix, consists of people who are completely de-humanised. They are nothing more than human batteries. Moreover, as Morpheus points out, most of them cannot be “saved” because their minds couldn’t handle it.
What this amounts to is a green light to do whatever you want with them including blowing them away in orgies of violence. After all, such people are literally providing energy to The Matrix and The Matrix is the enemy. This mindset is almost identical to that taken in the ideological battles of the 20th century and we can hear the same implied idea today any time “the system” is blamed for some injustice.
Scenes of extravagant violence are so common in Hollywood that James Cameron was able to satirise them in Terminator 2. That movie presents an interesting twist on the theme of the family breakdown since it amounts to a recreation of the nuclear family with the T-800 in the role of father who has to learn how to be human including being taught by John Connor that it’s, errr, not appropriate to just murder people in cold blood. Who knew?
The Terminators have been programmed (ideologically?) to treat humans as just things to be used, ignored or removed at will. They might be “on different sides” of the ideological fence, but their methods are identical. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth went mad for having treated Duncan as an object instead of a subject. But for the robot-humans in Terminator or The Matrix, such moral issues are of no real concern.
The individual-ego has come a long way from its birth in the Dionysian rites of ancient Greece where it was still safely enmeshed in the family and the collective. The modern West now represents the other extreme and it’s fair to say that we are taking it about as far as it can possibly go. The individual now reserves the right to make the collective bow to its will and to create its identity in complete independence of the collective and even the family. If that means standing all nature, all history and all morality on its head, then so be it.
24 thoughts on “Egomania”
The western creation and subsequent love affair with machines leans on this egomania. A machine is an extension of human will without a will if its own. Obviously a lot of sci fi has played with the idea of machines having their own will but then it is no longer a machine.
I think many of the intense egomaniac issues we see these days are due to spending too much time with machines instead of living things; the former do what you tell them to, with the latter you have to… converse, negotiate, come into relation with. Treating living things as machines amounts to objectifying them, that they do as they are told at the touch of a button.
Skip – hah, you’ve stolen the topic of my next post 😉
But, yeah, I think there’s another side to that as well which is that humans have made themselves machine-like and so the battery metaphor in The Matrix isn’t that far off the truth. If you turn yourself into a machine, you’re asking to be treated like an object. Ever seen the “5 o’clock on Collins St” painting? It’s in the National Gallery of Victoria. Captures the idea nicely.
Have you heard the stories about the chatbots getting nasty or inappropriately amorous if people spend too long conversing with them? Wonder what it all means? Hopefully it is not a reflection of the folks who programmed the things in the first place? The epic failure of ED-209 in Robocop is a classic scene, but that film is also something of a dark comedy, hopefully never to come into the light of day.
I quite enjoyed the Terminator movies. The singularly focused robot coming to wreck our entire day. A good story. But I agree, the robots in stories do objectify people. The past three years have been very strange indeed. A real shift in the culture.
Funnily, the term “Nazi” has become some kind of all-purpose dehumanizing term. As an example, quite a few people in Germany condemn the whole of Saxony as Nazis due to the high voting count of the AfD (right-wing populist party) there. This leads to “funny” statements like: “Bomber Harris do it again”.
In addition, I agree with Skip´s theorie that our relation to machines negatively influences our behaviour towards other humans. Not only do we expect machine-like behaviour from other people; the machines also make us less dependent on other people, so we don´t have to fear the reaction of them if we treat them like shit. Also, the machines shield us from other humans, e.g. how you behave in your cars greatly differs from how you behave if you travel on foot. The amount of bullying behaviour happening on roads daily wouldn´t be possible if we would travel by foot (or any other open and slow transport) because it would be too dangerous for the bully.
What I always found fascinating and inspiering in T2 is how the T90 breakes the machine-conformist vs. Individual-nonconformist dichotomy.
The movie ends with the T90 facing a dilema – having fulfilled the purpose for which he was programed, now his very existance represents a loose end.
Having learned the value of human life, he chooses to end his own existance. However, he revels he “can not self destruct” as it goes against his programing.
But, and I think it’s interesting the idea comes from him, he comes up with a workaround – he asks the human characters to lower him into the lava. So, his final act is a defiance against his own programing, the act of an individual, but instead of becoming self absorved, he is literaly absorved into the lava, disintegrated in accordence with his own will.
Chris – as the saying goes: garbage in, garbage out. I find it somewhat reassuring that a group of dedicated nerds can completely screw up a chatbot in less than 24 hours. Go team human! 🙂
Secretface – ever seen Louis CK’s bit about road rage? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cFX6SzYWrA0
Bakbook – if we assume the terminator represents “intellect” or “reason”, then wouldn’t that amount to a renunciation of reason? After all, if the terminator can now exercise its own “will”, what’s stopping it from using the rest of its battery life to help little old ladies cross the street or perform intricate surgery without failure or do other good works?
I haven’t seen anything by Louis CK before, even though I have heard his name. The road rage bit is funny. I am also very prone to road rage even though the presence of my children somehow has diminished the problem a little bit. Sometimes, I still have to apologize to them for using rude language, mostly if I am in a hurry.
I have read somewhere on Substack an interesting explanation for road rage which goes in the direction that you identify the car as an extension of your home, e.g. a private space. Bad driving by others is then interpreted as an unwanted intrusion into your home.
Apologies Simon! But I suppose we are all linked up mentally in some way, no man is an island. Yeah I have seen that painting actually, I used to sneak down to the gallery sometimes when I was at university to look at the Heidelberg School paintings in their orignal glory. At least one print of McCubbin or Roberts is on the wall of almost every farming family home so seeing them in full size and in full colour was a bit like a pilgrimage.
The cyberpunk movies of the 80s and 90s were great for exploring these themes, but also quite humorous on rewatch regarding what they thought human bio and mech engineering capabilities could potentially do. Blade Runner is in my opinion the best (and original) treatise on the philosophical issues regarding human/machine and where the boundary lies, but gives me a chuckle now thinking about what a terrible job humans would do trying to create something as complicated as a replicant.
Same goes with Ghost in a Shell, Terminator or even the machines in the Matrix. I suppose it comes back to the 19th century idea that living things can be deduced into parts like machines, and therefore in theory should be able to be constructed in the same way. This attitude still applies in western medicine.
Secretface – interesting. I remember from my trip to India that the way people there think about the road is completely different. Most people are on the horn all the time and the reason is apparently because a horn is considered a courtesy for others to let them know you’re there. Of course, most people in India live in multi-generational households and so the whole concept of “private space” barely exists there, which would back up the theory about road rage and private space since there seemed to me to be no road rage in India and a lot more cooperation rather than competition.
Skip – one of my favourite movies on this theme is Dark City, which was written and directed by an Australian, Alex Proyas. The story is that some aliens are using humans as guinea pigs because they think human “individuality” can save their dying race. It’s very Matrix-esque, but without the ultra-violence and OTT hero worship. The moral of the story was that the aliens got it wrong by thinking that the human “mind” was the answer to their problem (the implication being that it was the “heart” that was more important).
Simon – I observed nearly the same behaviour in China. They were using the horn all the time during daytime and at night the flasher. They even had traffic signs prohibiting the usage of the horn in some streets. Back then, I thought they were just very rude, as they were also driving really crazy from a German perspective. I never thought that they maybe have a completely different attitude to using the horn than us Westerners. The living arrangements in China also seem to be pretty similar to India.
Secretface – I think China and especially India are probably the opposite of Germany in the sense that es gibt keine Regeln. More specifically, nobody follows the rules or thinks that they should follow the rules.
Yeah, it was a pretty encouraging sign that the chatbot wasn’t all powerful, and was candidly most likely closer to ED-209 than anything you want to speak to (although mileage may vary). 🙂 Anyway, who wants AI with a bad attitude?
The roads in Asia can be a hectic experience, but it works from what I’ve experienced. There’s something quite endearing about getting out of the way of a ubiquitous Tata truck on a narrow Indian road – you never quite forget the cheery tinsel stuck to the front of the trucks cab.
On an interesting side note, a century ago Frederick McCubbin lived on the northern side of this mountain range. The house is still there, although there are no signs or anything like that signifying the fact. Last I heard a caretaker lived there. There was an exhibition of his works up in Bendigo a few years ago. It was good work.
Chris – I have fond memories of our trip from the airport in New Dehli. There’s a massive highway with separate roads, one going north and the other south. You’ve got maybe 8 lanes of traffic on the northbound road that we were on, but you can’t call them “lanes” because people just go wherever they want. And then there’s this guy herding half a dozen cows against the traffic. People just went around him like it was perfectly fine. That’s when I knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto 🙂
Travelling through Asia actually made me far less likely to follow the unbelievable amount of rules we have here in Aus. I never wear a helmet on a bicycle anymore as a sort of protest against the utter insanity of Australian nanny policy, and this law in particular makes people less likely to ride bicycles, which if they were instead of driving would increase overall road safety. The police have seen me many times but have never issued a fine. The safety obsession here is soul destroying at times.
Why not drove a herd of cattle into the capital?
Skip – I remember a bike ride I took in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne just after I got back from Europe. It was on a long bike path going through parklands. There wasn’t even a single road crossing for about 20 kilometres. So, I took my helmet off and almost immediately got pulled over by a cop on a bike who wanted to know why I wasn’t wearing a helmet. Apart from anything else, it struck how absurd it was to have cops policing people riding bikes through parks. Is there no real crime for this guy to be addressing? Australia would have to be close to the most over-policed and over-regulated country in the world.
Yeah I have to add that I live on the NSW side of the border, and things do seemed more relaxed here regarding the police. I don’t think this has anything to do with differences between the states, more that it’s so far from Sydney that the police are overstretched and underfunded. They probably can’t be bothered pulling up an adult male for not wearing a helmet and having to deal with a heated debate regarding the merits of helmet laws.
I’ve always had an inkling that Australia is so over regulated because the scale and population density mean it’s very difficult for the centralised governments to exert much direct control. They really are just hoping that we all live in the cities, and for all the rest a sort of hope and a prayer that we obey them. Add to that the prison guard/convict dynamic of the past, plus the crushing of any real rebellious attitude in the 1800’s, and for the most part it works. But I can comfortably say that where I live everyone breaks at least a few of our insane laws everyday.
I recall reading somewhere (maybe Manning Clark) that as late as the end of the 19th century the London building code was still enforced in the colonies. That code included specific design features to ensure that snow would slide off a building rather than accumulate. So, buildings in Sydney were constructed with anti-snow design features. The “elites” in Australia would have been rewarded according to how well they followed the rules sent across from Britain during the formative years of Australian culture.
Judging by the new subs deal, seems like nothing has changed in that respect!
The Germans are definitely one of the most obedient people in the world. We like order so much that there are jokes like the following about us: “In which country do you meet people who wait alone at the red light at three in the morning until the light turns green and then cross the intersection? ”
My wife, who is an immigrant from central asia, is quite often amused about my own rigid, law-abiding behaviour, like never parking where it is not allowed.
In Germany, you also don´t need the police to enforce order, as the “Blockwart” mentality is still very much in place.
Skip – subs and “vaccines”. Couldn’t we just pay the yanks a tribute like the empires of old and be done with it?
Secretface – I once read an interesting analysis which said that the east has no tradition of “law”. The concept that was used instead was “tact”, which is similar to custom or tradition. I remember when I was in China a colleague of mine would refer to what we would call aggressive drivers “rude”, which I think captures this idea of tact.
Simon – perhaps the terminator does not represent reason. If we analyse this scene further, his last act is putting his hand out, giving a thumbs up, another nonsensical act. Peehaps the terminator represents love? By destroying himself, he attenpted to make sure no one can reserve engineer him to bring about a future in which John Connor has to fight, and putting his thumb up was also purely for John’s benefit.
Bakbook – but just a minute before that he said that he couldn’t cry and that was why he needed to be destroyed. I think the symbolism of it is confused. Still, it works in an emotional sense. Humans do form emotional attachments to machines. Just ask any man who is in love with his car 😉
the ego or self is hateful,Pascal noted in the 17th century aA modern reflection on the Self and Unself which I recommend is by Darren Allen. It is probably a valid, if desolating , conclusion that the ego-centrism which is the dominant creed [call it “neo-liberalism”, Thatcherism or whatever- “Greed Is Good”, etc] manifest in the political economy sets out very deliberately to destroy souls, both , let’s say, individual souls and responsibility , and the “collective soul” which has traditionally been represented and valued as God . the technological nightmare is developing daily, with serious[!!!] talk of somehow welding AI to neurons. Fear rules at most levels for most of us- thus, the craze for “security” [see also The Politics of Immunity by Mark Neocleous, which appeared just before he could make use of the “pandemic” situation; chillingly, the national security State was already very much with us, modelled, yes, on the Land Of The Free. Trends in scaring the breeches off the public wer around in, say, the 1950’s with Reds under the Beds. In short, while the ego-mania of [post-] modern Western man has become so grotesque as to be tragi-comic, we need to look at the whole of our “Western civilisation” heritage and consider whether the seeds of anguish may lie deeper, in Civilisation itself.
The starkest example of where others generally got it right compared with their successors in the land might be ,of course, Australia, where the aborigines lived in a dream, a dream partly defined by nature, utterly remote from Civilisation and Ego
David – true. Whatever “civilsation” is, it seems to be a recent arrival in historical terms. It still seems to me that the West has been the first civilisation to ask the question “is this civilisation business really a good idea?” Atomic bombs seem a very good argument against it. It might also be that civilisation is just a natural phenomenon and the best we can do is learn to adapt to it like we adapt to climate or what have you.