Note: The word “boring” is the first word in the header; if you read this and are bored, you have only yourself to blame!
For practical shorthand we treat groups as if they had coherent singular wills. A political group navigates a terrain—distinct and external to itself, ostensibly—that it finds itself situated within, in order to achieve its goals. Clear on these goals, the group navigates the terrain like an obstacle course or a map that leads to X. Terrains are not stable things, however, and with shifts in the terrain, we see not only shifts in the group’s goals but shifts in the very composition of the group. The group is problematic as a thing. It is neither neatly bounded nor fully homogenous in composition and will. The group is itself a terrain of contestation, whose ideologies, ideas, goals, priorities, strategies, tactics, and leaderships push and pull, congeal and dissipate, shifting the definitions, parameters, and active participants of the group, as well as the group’s relation to the broader external political terrain.
Shifting our analytic gaze then from the group level to the individual level, we can conceive of a preliminary hegemonic contest of leadership between individuals within the group that is waged and won prior to—or alongside—the group’s contest within the broader political context. Conceptually, this may serve us as a tool for apprehending certain parts or stages of dynamic political reality. For example, rather than just stating that “churches joined the civil rights movement”, we might examine whether politicization of pre-existing religious organizations was internally contentious, and what factors led to successful or unsuccessful activation.
However, our analytical gaze must also always focus on both more micro and more macro levels. More micro than the individual? Yes, because within every individual mind is the internalized map of the full external terrain of the group and beyond — even including internalized versions of the opponents’ ideas. The individual can only be described as having a singular will for practical shorthand purposes, as there is a contest within the contingent terrain of every individual mind. What then is our unit of analysis? Ideas themselves? As if ideas could be free-floating things existing in a cloud prior to their embodiment? Yes, we can use this as a unit of analysis, but again, only for practical shorthand, rife with additional analytical traps. Indeed, there are traps and severe limitations within each level of analysis when we attempt to neatly separate messy interactive units and levels. Thus we can never settle on any particular one—whether society, group, individual, or ideas in individuals’ heads—except on a temporary basis, as one among many lenses through which to assess a context and situation.
Let us momentarily suspend doubt to entertain this picture of disembodied ideas in a cloud, themselves possessing an expansionary or colonizing will. Now we can analyze how ideas as subjective agents might navigate, stoke, channel, or graft onto different faculties and processes of the individual mind and body (in interaction with other minds and bodies in a group). Ideas order and can reorder emotions, memories, primal drives, and relationships, aligning these for the purpose of the ascendency or spread of the idea. We need not believe that an idea can achieve full autonomy from a carrier or host to entertain a notion of symbiosis wherein the idea is no longer seen as fully organic and integral to the organism of the individual (or group), but as a kind of foreign agent, possessing its own “DNA”, finding a home, gaining a foothold, etc.
Thanks to Tej for this roundup of analyses re: Mandela.
From Norbert Elias’ The Civilizing Process. Useful re: group functioning and individual psychological processes of shame. Apologies for the gender exclusive pronouns.
The feeling of shame is a specific excitation, a kind of anxiety which is automatically reproduced in the individual on certain occasions by force of habit. Considered superficially, it is fear of social degradation or, more generally, of other people’s gestures of superiority. But it is a form of displeasure or fear which arises characteristically on those occasions when a person who fears lapsing into inferiority can avert this danger neither by direct physical means nor by any other form of attack. This defencelessness against the superiority of others, this total exposure to them does not arise directly from a threat from the physical superiority of others actually present, although it doubtless has its origins in physical compulsion, in the bodily inferiority of the child in face of its parents or teachers. In adults, however, this defencelessness results from the fact that the people whose superiority one fears are in accord with one’s own super-ego, with the agency of self-constraint implanted in the individual by others on whom he was dependent, who possessed power and superiority over him. In keeping with this, the anxiety that we call “shame” is heavily veiled to the sight of others; however strong it may be, it is never directly expressed in noisy gestures. Shame takes on its particular coloration from the fact that the person feeling it has done or is about to do something through which he comes into contradiction with people to whom he is bound in one form or another, and with himself, with the sector of his consciousness by which he controls himself. The conflict expressed in shame-fear is not merely a conflict of the individual with prevalent social opinion; the individual’s behavior has brought him into conflict with the part of himself that represents this social opinion. It is a conflict within his own personality; he himself recognizes himself as inferior. He fears the loss of the love or respect of others, to which he attaches or has attached value. Their attitude has precipitated an attitude within him that he automatically adopts towards himself. This is what makes him so defenceless against gestures of superiority by others which somehow trigger off this automatism within him.