When people consider the totality of what is going on around them, they’re really considering three contexts: the context of their own lifespan (up until now), the context their parents lived in, and the context their grandparents lived in. Think of these generations as concentric circles: the further you go out, the less influence that will have on your perspective, as you go from experiencing to merely hearing. The human lifespan is only roughly around 100 years, typically three generations will exist at the same time, especially in public/professional life.
Anything that is mostly constant across this hundred-year timespan, irrespective of whether or not it existed in times before, is taken to be inherent to human nature. Just as a goldfish’s whole world is its past three seconds, so our world is what our memory allows us. Modernity and its institutions (capitalism, the nuclear household, democracy, etc.) have existed for multiple centuries, since well before any man alive can remember.
What separates man from goldfish though is that men have the capacity to create, and create things which last well beyond their own lifespans. A system of government and its logic, a system of production and its logic, a culture and its reproduction: all of these things grow and mutate on multi-generational timescales, out of any one person’s purview. And that which is out of our immediate control, we ascribe to nature. But just because the timescales these systems operate on larger timescales than we can intuitively recognize does not mean they are eternal. Just as the human mind doesn’t have capacity for infinite understanding, so the 100 years we’re confined to do not equal eternity.
The definition of reification is to ascribe the social to the natural, to mistake history for human nature. To us the strict division between spheres of production and consumption is natural, despite it being alien to any pre-industrial people. We speak of an “eternal feminine nature” when all the characteristics we ascribe to women primarily sprung up through 19th century Romantics and the logic of the suburban household (which only came into force around the 50s).
It was in the suburbs, much more than in the city, that women became full-time mothers and homemakers. The traditional family, so called, where the husband goes out to work and the wife stays home with the children, was not traditional at all. It was a mid-twentieth-century innovation, the product of a growing impatience with external obligations and constraints, of the equation of freedom with choice, and of tumultuous world events that made the dream of a private refuge in the suburbs more and more appealing. The idea that domestic life would provide such a refuge had a longer history, of course, but it was only in the postwar suburbs that it came close to realization. (Lasch 1997, 105)
Human nature is above all else adaptable: we are the product of a process of evolution, both genetically and intellectually. The very same force which allows us to survive in the most spartan conditions when push comes to shove is also the force which allows us to languish in passive consumption where it proves the path of least resistance.
To quote Frankl:
The medical men among us learned first of all: “Textbooks tell lies!” Somewhere it is said that man cannot exist without sleep for more than a stated number of hours. Quite wrongl I had been convinced that there were certain things I just could not do: I could not sleep without this or I could not live with that or the other. The first night in Auschwitz we slept in beds which were constructed in tiers. On each tier (measuring about six-and-a-half to eight feet) slept nine men, directly on the boards. Two blankets were shared by each nine men. We could, of course, lie only on our sides, crowded and huddled against each other, which had some advantages because of the bitter cold. Though it was forbidden to take shoes up to the bunks, some people did use them secretly as pillows in spite of the fact that they were caked with mud. Otherwise one’s head had to rest on the crook of an almost dislocated arm. And yet sleep came and brought oblivion and relief from pain for a few hours. I would like to mention a few similar surprises on how much we could endure: we were unable to clean our teeth, and yet, in spite of that and a severe vitamin deficiency, we had healthier gums than ever before. We had to wear the same shirts for half a year, until they had lost all appearance of being shirts. For days we were unable to wash, even partially, because of frozen water-pipes, and yet the\
sores and abrasions on hands which were dirty from work in the soil did not suppurate (that is, unless there was frostbite). Or for instance, a light sleeper, who used to be disturbed by the slightest noise in the next room, now found himself lying pressed against a comrade who snored loudly a few inches from his ear and yet slept quite soundly through the noise.
If someone now asked of us the truth of Dostoevski’s statement that flatly defines man as a being who can get used to anything, we would reply, “Yes, a man can get used to anything, but do not ask us how. (Frankl 1959, 30)
The upside of this though is that because our creations are multigenerational, so are our records. History does not reset with each generation, even if it is forgotten by many. In my view this is the value of studying history, not to “learn from mistakes” but as a continual reminder that nothing in this world lasts forever. The very same forces of decay which continually threaten to erode our monuments and accomplishments also eat away at the prison bars which stretch past our memory.
Lasch, Christopher and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn. 1997. Women and the Common Life : Love Marriage and Feminism. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton.
Frankl, Viktor E. Helen Pisano Ilse Lasch Harold S Kushner and William J Winslade. 2014. Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston Massachusetts: Beacon Press.
Evangelical Christian, Marxist, and a bit of a Luddite. I run this blog as a way to compile my various theories and arguments spanning a wide variety of subjects from technology to politics.