On Cultivating a Personal Microculture, and the Complications Thereof
July 2, 2017 5:56 PM   Subscribe

Author William Gibson describes learning to write fiction as a matter of "a matter of a personal micro-culture." But developing a personal identity in such a piecemeal way has its challenges, writes Timothy Ray in "Rolling Your Own Culture and (Not) Finding Community," an essay for Ribbonfarm. "As cultures become atomized or nonexistent, our languages for communicating meaning to one another, for crafting meaning together, have a shrinking shared vocabulary....The more carefully you’ve planned your life, the fewer people you’ll find to plan it with."
posted by MonkeyToes (11 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
That second link identifies feelings of alienation I've felt for years. Thank you - I shared this widely
posted by thebotanyofsouls at 7:27 PM on July 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

This is a really interesting and important idea.

It's so interesting and important, actually, that I'm immediately wary when I see this mostly fascinating articulation of it peppered with a significant scattering of enormous cultural/ideological red flags. (Like no, if you are doing a tech startup please do not listen to Paul Graham).

But once you've ground through our civilization's long adolescence and clawed your way up past young adulthood to finally learn roughly who the fuck you are, you have to work out what you're actually going DO with that knowledge. And by "do" I mean literally how you are going to spend the hours you have left--what you hope to build in that time, and with whom, and with approximately what methodology, and to what ethical or moral end.

I really hope it's not just, like, Econlog readers thinking about this stuff.
posted by Sokka shot first at 7:32 PM on July 2, 2017 [6 favorites]

I only read the second link (so far) I really liked this bit:
One definition of a community is the place you can bring all of your self to, the kind of space held up as an ideal in Robert Putnam’s classic, Bowling Alone.

With a close friend, or at a traditional church, you can talk about your bad leg, your struggles or success at work, how your love life or lack thereof is going, and your newest hobby. There is no compartmentalization. That’s a community.

By contrast, industrialized or post-industrialized economies are systematic. You can talk about your strength training at your gym, your bad leg at your physical therapist’s, your emotional life at your psychologist’s, and your career with your mentor – assuming you are lucky enough to have some or all of these. Your self becomes splintered among these locations and communities.


The more carefully you’ve planned your life, the fewer people you’ll find to plan it with.
I really liked this bit.

I had to re-read and do some deeper diving to really get to a point where I thought I got this article, but I think I get it now.

We live in a society where "culture" is a la carte. You no longer are trapped by a monolithic definition of what to do in all situations of your life. But now we need to find those definitions for ourselves. This can be dangerous or time consuming, but the biggest problem is that there are vanishingly few other people who make all the same choices such that a group can form.

Therefore, the author concludes, a group of people who contextualize sub-culture norms and ideals will be able to form among themselves and around themselves a new culture where it doesn't matter what you read or who you follow, as long as you are also on a journey towards emotional maturity.

I donno. It sounds nice and all. Very interesting read, and I picked up a book to read more. But I am suspicious of ideas about reaching the next stage of humanity. It seems like turtles all the way up, to me. I think the author put it well when they said "Middle-class career professionals sometimes feel cold and calculating to family members due to conflicts between the fourth and third stages." The fifth stage seems... untethered, holier-than-thou, and.... Reckless.

Reckless to believe that you have actually reached a 5th level.

Was Plato not at that fifth level? Was Jefferson? Was Napoleon? Or did people of every era say "There should be something beyond this"?
posted by rebent at 7:37 PM on July 2, 2017 [7 favorites]

Parts of this resonated with me and parts of it felt like BS. I plan to re-read and think about it a bit more, so thanks MonkeyToes!
posted by Wretch729 at 7:56 PM on July 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

I was my happiest spending most of my time in an art studio that held 39 different spaces for artists to work, in many media. I loved going to work there. It was the best. Finding your thing, or your group, or that Karass that Vonnegut discussed, the friends who are a part of you, or working associates who share a vision that is more than the sum of its parts. Nice article, nicely articulated.
posted by Oyéah at 8:06 PM on July 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Bah, humbug. There's no inherent "maturity" to reach without a coherent society to be mature within. It's like arguing for a private language. The fragmentation of self described itself obviates any possibility of real progression toward maturity, unless you're a Platonist who believes in moral absolutes.

Maturing by definition is about maturing into a coherent adult social context that connects you with others in human society in a meaningful, mutually supportive way. The idea there's any possibility of progress to be made in a vacuum, or according only to some private code, is self contradictory. Increasingly, even our baseline realities are filtered in ways that undermine our ability to achieve a consensus reality, with individuals not necessarily even consciously aware they aren't getting the same view on reality as others in society and unable to recognize that's one of the root causes of our growing alienation from each other.

This is identity as commodity--something you shop for out of presorted bins without regard for the industrial production processes and real aims of the sellers, which have little to nothing to do with encouraging self improvement and human betterment, and everything to do with discovering marketing techniques and creating a broader cultural context that encourages compulsive consumption for certain values of fun and profit. This is just hyper individualist capitalism taken to its furthest logical extremes with a great big void in place of any shared human values that might connect us to any broader framework of meaning and value.

It's the culturally liberal counterpart to Objectivism, a rationalization and normalization of a way of thinking about self that misses the point completely. There's nothing left but dilletantism and personal preference in this approach. It's like trying to form a society on the basis of the narcissism of small differences. It creates and exacerbates social disconnects that cause an alienation that encourages compulsive identity shopping and self reinvention, which in practice, disrupts society at the grass roots, person to person level as individuals come to identity more and more aggressively and absolutely with their own arbitrary cultural and hedonic preferences and other less stable, more personal taste oriented modes of identifying.

Basically, this reduces self to a machine for buying things with no regard for what those choices mean, in any larger sense. It's the total destruction of the possibility of achieving maturity and progressing toward any lasting improvement in the general human condition.

You might as well just sit in a dark closet, pedaling a stationary bike, plugged into a simulation of a big, highly competitive bike race. Train for them all you want, all the actual races have been cancelled, there's no context for your individual efforts to mean anything, so every human activity or interest is reduced to a kind of idiosyncratic, pathological habit with no greater goal than self soothing and self satisfaction.

That path can never lead to any form of liberation or enhanced freedom with any permanence, but only a form of imprisonment within an artificially limited, solipsistic conception of selfhood. The trivializing of all human hopes and ambitions to a point of hopeless farce and absurdity.

Selves are socially constructed. Maturity and self betterment are social context dependent. You can't have either without a broader social context of relatively stable shared values that can give those concepts some kind of meaning anymore than evolution has a definite direction toward some kind of absolute goal of producing a perfect species, without regard for the selective pressures unique to a particular environment. There's no inherent purposefulness to any human interest or activity beyond survival and self-amusement in the absence of whatever common social meanings we might construct and negotiate.

If this is the future of selfhood, it's a racket, not a path to self actualization. Blech.
posted by saulgoodman at 4:13 AM on July 3, 2017 [11 favorites]

You might as well just sit in a dark closet, pedaling a stationary bike, plugged into a simulation of a big, highly competitive bike race. Train for them all you want, all the actual races have been cancelled, there's no context for your individual efforts to mean anything, so every human activity or interest is reduced to a kind of idiosyncratic, pathological habit with no greater goal than self soothing and self satisfaction.

Sounds like 2017 to me.

But maybe I just spend too much time on Twitter. (And, I suppose, Metafilter…)
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 4:49 AM on July 3, 2017

There was an article a while back about how churchgoing Americans are, generally, more tolerant of minorities and different political opinions, and then pinning the decline in church attendance to the rising partisan rancor in America. I don't disagree with the data, but I do disagree with the conclusion. As noted upthread and in the link, a lot of the Social Structures in America are on the decline, not just churches, but social groups. The atomization of our Real World social groups into text-based social media posts isn't giving us what our brains require.
posted by SansPoint at 7:02 AM on July 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

People contain multitudes. No other person will contain the same multitudes as you. You need to find different people for all of your different interests. What is the complaint here? I should be forcing a biking buddy to listen to me rant on about crochet if he's not interested?
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:01 PM on July 3, 2017

You need to find different people for all of your different interests.

Yes, and the question is how much fracturing can you do? What happens when you can't bring your whole self to anyone? What happens to a self when you become so tailored that fragmentary relationships are your ways of relating? What happens when you can't make meaning together?

I'm not wild about the entirety of this essay, but it has been nagging at me since I read it a few months ago. Where I live, the Anabaptist tradition is both a historical/cultural memory as well as a living practice. The Amish and others have their various Ordnung, a sort of localized recipe for life and worship. That is how they live, and the expectation is that this is a shared way to be, a common and comprehensive framework in which to make meaning in community; rolling your own is a foreign concept in this context. I see a version of Ordnung in my small county, where there are templates for acceptable community standards and behavior (and it is hard for people who did not grow up in these traditions to fit in; I'm thinking specifically of how long-rooted residents often speak of immigrants). The teachers have spoken: From Away is not to be trusted. Actively seeking gurus From Away? Hand to God, five years ago I talked with a Mennonite woman whose congregational leader discouraged having an internet connection in the house because of the bad ideas that would then be flowing into homes. It's a deep and plain, and yet very subtle, commitment to a particular set of appropriate ways to understand the world: church, our community, our values.

To roll my own here is difficult. I have to hide myself--to pass--and pursue my interests in fragments, in fragmentary relationships. I cannot bring my whole self to any of these acquaintances, and I often alk away from conversations feeling like I just ate fast food--I took in calories, but I don't have satiety. I can do all o the reading I please, with books by all kinds of gurus, but it's difficult to not have a community for discussion. I'm struggling with this bolted-together way of being, like the ugliest quilt the Amish ladies have ever seen. And I don't have people here to talk about that with. I can talk about crochet. Or quilting. Or biking! But that's a flattening of relationship. "A “true community,” where you bring all of your self, forms in the overlapping portion of the Venn diagram of many cultural modules. Traditional communities propagate themselves and preserve themselves precisely by maintaining that overlapping region. As that Venn center shrinks, so does the number of “true communities.”"

Which is where I find myself, 4.5. Who can I craft meaning with in a wider way? "Reaching a fluid state of emotional and cognitive maturity, accomplished through emotional work which is best performed in community, matters not only to us individually, but also to society." Woman does not live by conversation about hog panel alone (I mean, I can talk with the ag store guys about this kind of stuff for a while, and it's useful to me, but it's not adding to my personal growth.) How am I ever going to get to the multitudes within my community members when their belief system categorizes me as among the hell-bound? Not exactly conducive to creating culture and community and new understandings of how to live.

The From Away communities exist side-by-side with the generationally-established community, but there's not a lot of outreach or overlap, and failure to connect is plain. How do we go forward on common issues together? I wish I knew. It seems dangerous to me to rule out problem-solving together because of incompatible meaning-making, but here we are, arguing locally about who gets to use which bathroom and why and not being able to get to policy because of such radically different ways of arriving at an opinion about this.

All by way of saying--a very imperfect essay, I agree, but one that raises some interesting questions. (And yes, rolling my own certainly includes this place. Thanks, MeFites.)
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:40 PM on July 4, 2017 [4 favorites]

now that this thread has quieted down, i just want to say that i was really hoping this would be about gut flora hacking.
posted by rebent at 4:36 PM on July 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

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