Chapter Nine: The Idea-Object Dialectic
The cultural universe has a dynamic structure the successive aspects of which correspond to variable relations between its structured elements, namely objects, people and ideas. In the foregoing chapter, we tried to show the moments of crisis in a society as the equilibrium of its cultural universe undergoes a breakdown for the benefit of the despotism of one of its elements. As far as the other moments are concerned, they are interludes determined by the tendencies corresponding to the age of society and the stage of its civilization. An interlude is the threefold duel within the cultural universe, whereas a crisis is the culmination of that duel with the triumph of one of the three protagonists and the rise of a despot taking hold of power within the cultural universe.
We shall here focus on the interlude of the idea-object duel because of its particular sociological significance. This connection is not significant only with regard to Muslim society that at present faces chosisme and all its psycho-sociological consequences. It has also to be considered with respect to a civilized society as a means of analyzing its present situation from the psycho-sociological point of view. It is even more important since every idea developed in Europe, and concerning more or less directly our subject, may sometimes enlighten and enrich us even with its contradictions.
In fact, the problem has a twofold aspect. In an underdeveloped country, the "object" imposes its despotism by virtue of its scarcity. It thus generates a frustration complex and a tendency towards "accumulation" which becomes, on the economic level, a matter of mere wastage of means. In contrast, in a developed country and given its degree of development, the "object", due to its over-abundance, dominates by generating a saturation effect. It imposes the unbearable feeling of the "routinely seen" thus creating a tendency towards "escapism" which is a flight forward that pushes civilized man to frequently change his frame and fashion of life or to go to breathe air somewhere else. The system of paid leave is nothing but the price paid for this state of affairs, a painkiller for the disease of instability reigning in a consumer society.
Thus, a destitute society reacts under the obsession with the world of objects that it does not possess, whilst a saturated society reacts under its hallucinations. Yet, by these two reactions, they do face the same disease. They face the despotism of the object which, although experienced differently, generates the same psychological consequences. These consequences are manifested in the fact that the object chases the idea away from the city by driving it out of the consciences of both the satiated and the starving men.
In Muslim society, these effects sometimes take ludicrous forms when the object is naively substituted for the idea in order to constitute false solutions to its vital problems. This phenomenon is sometimes observed even in high levels of the newly independent states. It is tnanifested even at the level of the institutions of higher education, which are, however, supposed to determine the general trends of their intelligentsia. I shall here textually cite the following memoirs taken from a document pertaining to the management of the Algiers Dental School in 1965: "A significant indication of the present situation of the Dental School is the state of its technical material. In fact, 57 out of the 60 surgical wings have broken down at this moment (1965). This means that in budgetary terms about three hundred million old francs are frozen in a nonproductive investment".
It must be added that even the choice of that material was in principle wrongly made because it is unwise to give away a brace destined for use by a dentist to an inexperienced student who is still in the beginning of the process of teaming. In the dental schools of the developed countries, apprenticeship is done by means of inexpensive material, especially ordinary chairs. Moreover, it is worth mentioning that while there is (in this dental school) a plethora of fixed and costly material that is by no means necessary, there is a shortage of small and simple material that is indispensable for the practitioner and especially for the apprentice. Thus, the institute is finally nothing but a sort of material stall rather than a workshop and a learning laboratory.
Accordingly, education is in fact devoid of any scientific character, as if it were meant to merely train teeth extractors rather than dentists. For example, a professor of dentistry is entrusted with delivering a course in urology! The timetables are so chaotic that a teacher would choose any group of students to deliver his course at any time! The result is that at the end of the year, and because of this rampant disorder, the honest teacher does not know how to grade the students' work.
This simple administrative document manifestly points out the imbalance that may affect the "idea-object" relationship in an underdeveloped country even at the university level. This imbalance is so evident that its negative effects are manifested in the economic and educational levels as well. Yet, such effects can be calculated and controlled if there is an administrative board concerned about its good management. In the example given here, we have to deal with an imbalance that affects the relationship to the detriment of the idea thus amounting to the state of chosisme, that is to say the level of infantile primitive materialism.
In a developed country, the despotism of the object may be masked by much more misleading appearances. Thus, the imbalance is manifested at a higher cultural level. Being more latent, its effects are more or less perceptible indications of future ideological, indeed political crises. One can, however, read this between the lines of some current events. These signs do not, however, fail to attract the observer's attention in the capitalist and communist societies alike.
Ten years ago, a French analyst conducting an enquiry about the failure of socialism in England under the title "The Sociology of a Failure",' observed that the European country which counts the largest number of wage-earners has never given more than fifty percent of the votes to its socialist party because the goals the latter promised to realize for them have been secured by the conservatives. By defining the phenomenon on the political level, Edgar Morin does not provide sufficient explanation of the psychological development, which imperceptibly generates, in the English laborer's conscience, such a disloyalty to the socialist idea - which led their struggle during the heroic times of Jaures and Vandervelde - for the benefit of the material "object" promised by socialism.
Herein lies the crux of the problem in its psychological dimension, for it is the "object" that ultimately determines the polling operation in favor of the conservatives. The fact of passing over this essential point has led Edgar Morin to a dangerous, or at least risky, therapy which consists of curing one illness by another without being certain whether it is the "illness" that will ruin the ill or vice-versa. In fact, he first pointed out what he considered as frightening void, solitude and despair that are camouflaged by the civilization of welfare. He could also perceive with great lucidity the consequences of this situation, which he described as follows:
"But, if the developed societies pursue their race for progress, there will follow from that the irrationality of the rationalized existence, the atrophy of a life with no real communication with the other and no genuine and creative achievement, the alienation in the world of objects and appearances, a life submerged into the youth crisis of violence and existential torments of intellectuals."
What a prophetic vision it was! This was a perfect description of the events of May 1968 and the furies of youth that accompanied them, made ten years before they took place! It was an impeccable pathological diagnosis. But Edgar Morin drew from it a risky, or at least, incomplete therapy as he concluded with a decisive tone that "the civilization of welfare has to be lived deeply to the fullest, we should indulge thoroughly in the welfare civilization which has to be fully realized through the civilization of abundance so as to generate its own criticism as well as its own meta-order".
This pragmatic conclusion is both self-contradictory and self-defeating. After all, Edgar Morin seems not to have taken account, in his therapy, of the pathology since he suggests that the illness should be left to reach its ultimate end so as to generate its own remedy. Consequently, the "self-criticism" which would come about, as it happened in Paris in May 1968, would take the form of protests aimed not at establishing order, but at establishing disorder for its own sake. Neither would it be liberation nor disenchantment vis-a-vis the power of the object. Rather, it would only be an explosion of ideas in the city.
Before being social, the disease is of a psychological order. It does not lie in the degree of saturation of society because it consumes. Rather, the disease lies in the meaning of the "idea-object" relationship in its conscience, a meaning whereby that relationship IS either turned toward the idea or the object. It is the imbalance of this relationship for the benefit of the object that generates the state of malaise. This state is not, as far as the developed countries are concerned, peculiar to and characteristic of those saturated with things, but has also stretched out to those countries with a lower level of "consumption" such as the Soviet Union!
We know something about the latter's situation thanks to the open debate on "The spiritual World of Modern Man" conducted by the Komsomolskaia Pravda shortly before Morin's investigation! In 1959, the Soviet youth organization published the letters (probably not all) of the young men who had participated in that debate from which we can pick up two letters reflecting a gripping image of the malaise amongst the Soviet intelligentsia.
According to an engineer, "A society in which there would be so many engineers who would devote themselves exclusively to their task and a few people who would be scattered in search of a general culture will be stronger than that society in which there would be many humanists and a few technicians!"
In another letter, apparently a reply to the previous one, a student of philosophy wrote, "If people were living only to eat, then a society materially well provided and technologically advanced such as Sweden would constitute the example to follow. But if the essential goal of each society is to have the largest number of men devoted to their jobs, then the USA should be our ideal..."
Here it is already a question of the thesis and anti-thesis clearly manifested in the one-party country with its monolithic ideology, at a moment when the imbalance of the idea-object relationship is being experienced. This imbalance is assuming a counter-direction not in favor of the Marxist idea, but in favor of an idea that is not yet comprised in the present "order of things".
The student of philosophy is already on the borders of the Marxist ideology in his search for a certain synthesis still indefinable in another cultural universe. This is a critical moment in the Soviet culture, that is, a psychological moment in which the object becomes sacred as it clearly appears from the engineer's statement. It is worth mentioning that the latter does not derive the arguments of his thesis from the world of ideas but from that of the objects that make "the most powerful society"!
Moreover, it should be noted that the student of philosophy is not decisive in his contribution on behalf of a Marxist idea supposed to ensure the conditions of welfare and power of society as his elder countryman would have done a few decades ago. We see him groping about, putting one foot in the USA and the other in Sweden, to establish what at the end? Nothing except a spiritual void now reigning in the world of productivity and weighing on its conscience! He does not use jeopardizing words in the country of dialectical materialism. But one should consider his words in the context of the investigation on "The spiritual World of Modern Man" and trust the sense of timeliness of those who conducted this investigation.
Within this framework, the engineer's philosophy is that of the man who is possessed by the cult of power. Similarly, he belongs to a cultural universe in which the "objects" which constitute power are consecrated. On the contrary, the student of philosophy is already suffocating in this context. Thus, it is clear that his letter is an implicit reply to the former; it is an attempt to free himself from the object's despotism, to re-establish the balance of the "idea-object" relationship in favor of an idea that he cannot formulate or has not discovered yet. It is a search for a paradise not found yet, or maybe for a paradise already lost!
Accordingly, Soviet society no longer finds within itself those impressed notes which inspired the great moments of its edification during the time of Lenin and Stalin, nor does it find the mystical elan which propped it up at Stalingrad! By reaching its half-century, it has entered the second stage of civilization, the stage in which the basic notes start becoming illegible in the disc of its original cultural universe. At this stage, it undergoes the idea-object duel in which the chances, still shared between the two antagonists, are sometimes inclined towards one side, as the student of philosophy expresses his ideas, and sometimes towards the other, as the engineer expresses his.
In another communist society, Popular China, the duel was about to be decided at a certain moment in favor of the object, as was the case in the English labor class. Right in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, Liou Shaou Chi attempted to stop the great revolutionary wave by throwing one more bowl of rice and a better wage to the labor class. However, the Chinese proletariat was not fooled by this generosity, which would only deliver him to the power of the object.
Mao Tse-tung had only to pronounce a single word so as to re-restore the balance in favor of the idea. He then voiced the condemnation of economism and the Chinese people continued on their revolutionary march. He, in fact, had the great advantage to speak at a time when China was still singing the hymns of its birth, those hymns which the USA was to hear by China's first satellite as it passed through the American skies! Nonetheless, the Liou Shaou Chi episode has provided us an important lesson: all pseudo-revolutionaries do not fail to use the power and temptation of the objects against the ideas.
Today, these methods are being applied in the Arab world. Just at the moment when an idea sprang out with the Palestinian revolution standing a good chance of sweeping the entire Arab world in its wake, a small Liou Shaou Chi (named George Habache) has made use of the fascination with the object (for instance, hijacking an aircraft) both to captivate part of the revolutionary prestige and to bring to light a leftist deviation. The idea-object duel is sometimes the product of history in the process of a civilization just as it is sometimes the product of a political scheme as in the case of Liou Shaou Chi.
Muslim society had already made such a step annunciating the near breakdown in the heart of its cultural universe the day Aqil, the brother of Ali b. Abi Talib, announced: "Performing my prayer with Ali is better for my conscience and eating at Mu'awiyya's fare is better for my subsistence." This psychological dichotomy between the prayer and the fare was symptomatic of the fact that the idea-object duel had already started. Ever since, it had carried on its course such that when Imam al-Ghazali, four centuries later, was thinking of renewing the relationship of Muslim society with its cultural universe, it was already too late.