Anomie Today and Cultural Decay

“The former gods are growing old or dying, and others have not been born…. A day will come when our societies once again will know hours of creative effervescence during which new ideals will again spring forth and new formulas emerge to guide humanity for a time”

Émile Durkheim

Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), the French founder of sociology, studied deeply the fractures apparent in the then modern society of late fin-de-siecle Europe. He saw the conflicts, the urban poverty, disorderly crime, the fragmentation, the division of labour, the demoralisation and the apparent weakening ties of the society over the individual. He investigated suicide as the ultimate weakening of the bond between society and the individual. He discovered, despite his own progressive rationalism, the power of the sacred, and became intrigued by how the force and enthusiasm of the the collective totems of the social might be re-institutionalised in modern individualist society.

The concept he invented to describe the waning regulation of the individual by collective, social moral regulation was anomie. Anomie described absence of law in the sense of moral standards, and led to individuals being disconnected, exposed to anonymous and opaque market relationships, and drifting in lonely, futile lives without enthusiasm, bonds or purpose. Its ultimate effect was suicide, which Durkheim studied in his foundational study of sociology, Suicide (1897).

Durkheim did not despair about anomie, or perhaps not until he saw a fragile society descend into the collective enthusiasms of the Great War, World War One (1914-18), which destroyed his son in 1915 and led to the last two years of Durkheim’s life being a hell of devastating grief. At least until that point, Durkheim argued in his sociology that modern societies were generating their own new form of moral regulation to counter anomie and social breakdown. This new complex form of religious life was the cult of the individual, the inherited creed of the French Revolution – liberty, equality, fraternity. The cult of the individual celebrated the dignity of the individual, their rights, and their realisation through reason, free inquiry and disciplined work. These virtues were the social totems that the cult of the individual danced around, and ensured that the holy spirit of society still inhabited the otherwise anomic individual.

With the death of the Grand Illusion in the Great War, the explosion of mass communications and the consumer age from the 1920s, the victory by 1949 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the proliferation of individualism in politics, culture and economics for five to seven decades after the Second World War, Durkheim’s optimistic vision of a remoralised society, which could integrate extreme divisions of labour and overcome otherwise murderous social tensions, was indeed realised. But as the Radio Age, near to Durkheim’s death, cascaded into the Television Era, then into the Internet Age, and then into our own times of Religious War in antisocial media, this new form of religious life degenerated. Durkheim’s cult of the individual is being destroyed in the riots of a new iconoclastic cult of identity politics. Once again, we wonder today if the individual drifts without law and order in a deranged society and, even more profoundly, in a deracinated culture caught in a storm. If we think, after the great anthropologist Clifford Geertz, that cultures are an ensemble of ways, texts and performances to govern human behaviour, then is it a surprise that amidst both unrooted proliferation and deep cultural decay, the contemporary individual lives without laws, unregulated, futile and without purpose in a new kind of cultural anomie?

Durkheim also used the perhaps more poetic term of mal d’infini – the malady or illness of the infinite. Perhaps this term, the malady of the infinite, is the exact phrase to use for the cultural anomie we experience today, or at least that I experience today. Tradition and bounded communities are dissolved. Each person faces a sisyphean task to find themselves among the infinite array of cultural ensembles. We can never reach the end of our ever-expanding libraries. We can never preserve all the books of time from the flames engulfing our over-sized archive. With such proliferation of meaning, conversation collapses like the Tower of Babel – including the conversation between the past, present and future that occurs across time, space and strangeness, which we know variously as literature, history or even culture. We suffer despair and find the malady of the infinite, rather than participate in the infinite conversation.

But we also long for something more. We reach out into the screaming emptiness of space, and declaim a poem in the cherished dream that someone may hear it, someone might read it, one solitary stranger may begin a new faith.

“A philosophy may well be elaborated in the silence of the interior imagination, but not so a faith. For before all else, a faith is warmth, life, enthusiasm, the exaltation of the whole mental life, the raising of the individual above himself.”

Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912)

Durkheim teaches me that I cannot imprison myself in the magic fire of the interior imagination alone. To escape mal d’infini, I must find or even found faith. I must do more than merely stay sane. I must make this conversation endure in some school that can institutionalise, protect and preserve the ecstatic frenzy of shared mental life. I must find a way to some strong gods and stand in communion before them.

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