Privatism, Idiotism, “Atomism”: Modern Isolationism

Posted by on December 3rd, 2009 at 12:01 AM

Decades ago, I heard my first penetrating, apt and enduring general characterization of the reigning delusions of the modern world:  moderns are witlessly afflicted with a self-flattering but morally and spiritually chilling preconception that their basic mode of existence is an “atomistic individualism,” a condition of Cartesian insularity and Kantian autonomy also known as “mutual alienation.”  Moderns yearn so desperately to “belong” precisely because, more profoundly, they truly belong nowhere (as “strangers in a strange land,” i.e. anomalies in all the natural world):  as John Muir observed, “Most people are on the world, not in it.”  We are eminently, obligatorily, detachable creatures:  it is a point of profoundest faith (what was once called mythos) that we are utterly self-possessed, self-purposing, self-interested, i.e. “egos” that morally speaking are grounded in and directed and gratified by nothing other than themselves.  Our culture of supposed “autonomy” more truly verges on something like autism.

“The human” is experienced or interpreted by moderns in direct contrariety to the deterministically bound-in “natural,” because we are basally “of another kind altogether” from all that is natural and all that science can understand strictly causally.  Just because we are moderns we have no “unified field theory” of how the human can be meaningfully a “subset” or specification of the natural.  Sartre calls our metaphysical plight a being “fated to be free,” but the actuality of the matter—pardon my bluntness, the “truth”—is that this is per se not “metaphysical” or “existential” at all but rather a matter of acculturation, more aptly a dyscultural or ideological coercion or uniformitarianism, an imperative but utterly artificial “a priori” defining for us our acceptable mindforms.  Unlike the denizens of more reflective, more philosophical cultures, moderns in their “objectivity” can little comprehend the ways their mentalities are congenitally bound in by the tacit organism of culture.

—We are born “isolated” from others, we live and learn and make decisions in our “private” or inner seclusion from others, every judgment and act is generated out of and for ourselves alone, every crisis-episode or “extreme situation” merely makes our moral-psychic solitude all that much more acute, and we die in a final surge of incommunicable privatism—these are the generally fatuous and demonstrably falsifying theses typical of most twentieth-century “existentialism” (all, in one way or another, contested by the vastly more profound and more existential existentialists of the nineteenth century).  All of ancient culture from Hellenism to Judaism, to Confucianism and Christianity etc., understood this “privatizing” or “isolating” perspective as the natural encumbrance of how idiots or narcissists/infantilists are predisposed to see life and the world.  The most extreme forms of philosophical retardation of one epoch turn thus into the highest “ultimate truths” of another.

“Modern Man” gloats over his techno-scientific prowess at having split the “unsplittable” a-tomos, and he crows also at his “self-revelation” of having emancipated himself from “tradition” and “community” and entered an age of free “association,” thus making decisively explicit his own “true” and “ultimate” existential reality as a kind of “atom” himself, an internally sovereign but incommunicant and encapsulated hermit-crab.  The truth—but why should any licentious modern feel bound by such a thing as that?—which is utterly incomprehensible to culturally blighted, modernized mentalities, is that their isolationism is the self-fulfilling prophecy of an ideology that is not just asocial but positively antisocial, a blitheringly stupefying “anarchism” that promulgates barbarism without even the least trace of self-consciousness of what moderns have been conditioned to presuppose.  A seclusive idiotism, a viral vice promoted as if it were a virtue, is carried out as the indubitable dogma of a “critical” culture and the “ultimate” faith of a self-blindered “secularized” era.  It occurs to virtually no moderns at all that this “metaphysical isolationism” is merely the way an abstractivizing and imperializing scientistico-capitalist ideology divides its human populace from all resources of reason, culture and conscience the more profoundly to conquer it.

In the US, this dissolutive or mutually alienative ideology has anathematized all profound traditional thinkers about the principles of social, historical, and cultural modes of existence (“Socialisme, quelle horreur!”).  In spite of the actuality that no one who is not extraordinarily cultured can even begin to think for himself, and Americans are not even remotely cultured personalities; and in spite of the actuality that marriages, families, religions, languages, public funds, public schools and libraries and post offices and clinics and even corporations and mass-media are all forms of “communism,” Americans take “mind control” and “communism” as the horror of all horrors (witness the cyclical crusades of Red Scares, the ever-piquant Invasion of the Body Snatchers, etc.).  But in spite of such a phobia against losing proprietary control of their “own” minds, Americans are one of the most cult-prone, mass-organized and –manipulable collectivities that has ever existed, as abject and pathos-besotted conformists down to their slavish toenails.  In the early nineteenth century De Tocqueville already observed this striking phobia among Americans against standing alone and thinking for oneself.  The bonds of subrational control over us are more potent than ever precisely because the critical culture, the “know thyself” that would make such controls accessible to conscious evaluation, has withered to nothing, eaten away by democratist fear of “elitist” critical intelligence and proprietarist neglect of and contempt for public education.

Ironically of course, the more “internalized” or monological the mental life of moderns becomes, the feebler and more naïve it grows in its defenses against insidious and subliminal forms of manipulation.  And the less of a truly active mind it exercises, the more of a pathetic mentality it manifests.

[©2009 Kenneth Smith]

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One Response to “Privatism, Idiotism, “Atomism”: Modern Isolationism”

  1. […] finally come online as Kenneth Smith has begun to blog at with a breezy little squib called Privatism, Idiotism, “Atomism”: Modern Isolationism. A philosopher/artist who did some covers for Eerie and Creepy back in the day, with a […]