David Brooks on Interconnectedness

The New York Times columnist David Brooks today sounds a little Hegelian. Commenting on Douglas Hofstadter’s account (in his recent book, I Am A Strange Loop) of his connection to his late wife Carol, Brooks is taken by the interconnection that Hofstadter continues to feel with her. Looking at a picture of Carol, Hofstadter recounts, “I felt I was behind her eyes and all at once I found myself saying, as tears flowed, ‘That’s me. That’s me!'”

And those simple words brought back many thoughts that I had had before, about the fusion of our souls into one higher-level entity, about the fact that at the core of both our souls lay our identical hopes and dreams for our children, about the notion that those hopes were not separate or distinct hopes but were just one hope, one clear thing that defined us both, that wielded us into a unit…. I realized that though Carol had died, that core piece of her had not died at all, but that it had lived on very determinedly in my brain.

Clearly moved by Hofstadter’s account, Brooks writes that “Carol’s death brought home that when people communicate, they send out little flares into each other’s brains. Friends and lovers create feedback loops of ideas and habits and ways of seeing the world.” Though Carol was dead, her self lived on in her widow’s mind. Anyone who experiences or understands this phenomenon has to profoundly rethink the meaning of a self. A self is not an individual, isolated unit but something that “emerges from the conglomeration of all the flares, loops and perceptions that have been shared and developed with others.”

Brooks lays out the political effects of this alternative conception of the self:

  • “it emphasizes how profoundly we are shaped by relationships with others”
  • “it exposes the errors of those Ayn Rand individualists who think that success is something they achieve thorugh their own genius and willpower”
  • “it exposes the fallacy of the New Age narcissists who believe they can find their true, authentic self by burrowing down into their inner being”
  • “it explains why it’s so hard to tackle concentrated poverty” because, given that people are permeable, “the habits that are common in underclass areas get inside the brains of those who grow up there”
  • “it illuminates the dangers of believing that there is a universal hunger for liberty” because as “embedded creatures” the way we perceive such a value depends on the context”

As Brooks notes: “There is no self that exists before society.”

Spoken like a true Hegelian! And of that group, count me in.

What I find so interesting about this is that Brooks’s understanding is as compatible with his own neoconservatism as it is with my poststructuralist pragmatism. The usual distinction of liberal versus conservative just doesn’t make sense here. Many conservatives today are free-market individualists who barely heed our indebtedness and obligations to others. But free-marketeering is quintessentially a liberal (as in Lockean) phenomenon. Other conservatives, like Brooks as well as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, lament the modern era’s renunciation of ties of community and tradition — just as most avant-gard thinkers understand that there is no self prior to community.

We’re interconnected, and in a global society, more interconnected than ever. If you’re reading this blog, and you’ve never met me, Roger that one. This interconnection is not just due to new digital technologies. It goes all the way down. What scientists and scholars are finding, Brooks notes, “is a vast web of information — some contained in genes, some in brain structure, some in the flow of dinner conversation — that joins us to our ancestors and reminds the living of the presence of the dead.”

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


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