Social Existence in Life’s Territory

Earlier posts in this series had sketched out a sporting metaphor, where life and death are like two teams trying to gain control of parts of the playing field, or like two sides in a tug-of-war contest. But then, in something of a departure, the immediately preceding post identified three key forces in human experience, not two: in addition to life and death, there was also a social propensity in various living things, notably humans.

The sporting metaphors are useful for visualizing interactions between life and death, but they don’t leave much room for the social force. Accordingly, the present post develops a different metaphor, that of the battlefield.

As noted in the preceding post, life and death are the consummate forces in human experience, but our encounters with those forces tend to be socially mediated. In other words, the attempt to enjoy life’s opportunities for growth and strength tends to be facilitated in some ways, and restricted in other ways, by our group memberships (by e.g., one’s family, job, community, and local government). Likewise for the risk of death, and of derivative conditions threatening death: a given group can provide safety from mental and physical deterioration and injury, but that same group can also ridicule, ostracize, expel, or otherwise attack, punish, and harm a disfavored member.

On the battlefield of life and death, we observe the front lines, where opposing forces struggle back and forth, variously seizing and surrendering bits of desperately defended turf. Medical treatments and other ways of improving and prolonging life seize territory formerly held by death; then again, plagues and other catastrophes occasionally send the force of death raging across spaces previously considered safe.

We do not see beyond the frontier: we have no firm knowledge of what, if anything, might be happening on death’s side. But on life’s side, within our years of existence, we find that civilians – humans and other living things – tend to take up residence, settle down, and develop their various cultures. Or instead of the battlefield, one could think of the process of building a house: once you get the walls up and the roof on, you can begin to bring in the furniture and decorate the place; but you know that cold or hot air, mold, earthquakes, and thieves will forever exploit ways, bold or subtle, to intrude.

Not to overdo the impression of a barrier: in fact, houses have windows and doors, intended to admit some of what lies outside, and battlefields have their moments of confusion and fraternization, their traitors, their generals who unwittingly help the enemy by clinging to mistaken impressions. What serves us can also serve our adversary, be it death or the merest mold spore.

And so it is with the social force. Just as a belligerent nation’s merchants may secretly aspire to do business on both sides of the battlefield, the social force that serves life simultaneously maintains communications with death. We experience the social force as a life-based phenomenon; and yet, as noted above, the social force is also prepared to indulge hostility, treachery, and other threats to growth and strength. Indeed, the social force is useful, for purposes of steering life’s energies, precisely because it brings death into life – because, that is, it threatens and, if necessary, delivers death and its derivative aspects (e.g., privation, exclusion, injury) to those who violate a group’s expectations.

Basically, if you want to steer and shape the life force, you use the death force; and since the people whose life force you want to control tend to be persons other than yourself, this sort of thing typically takes place, not in solitary existence, but in the social space that accounts for most of human life experience. The social force unfolds within life, and yet it reaches out beyond life. Like a parasite, it thrives within its host, and yet pursues its own agenda: the social force would not benefit from an end to life, but it is certainly willing to countenance an end to some lives, for the benefit of others.  Like a merchant or emissary that has carved out latitude to deal on both sides in wartime, the social force is tolerated for the benefits it brings, which is not the same as saying that its results are always lovely.

The force of life, like a great army, is as dangerous as an earlier post suggested: it will do anything to secure survival and growth. War is too important to be left to the generals, and life too is a raw drive that we generally prefer to see channeled in socially determined directions.  Hence the social force, despite its downsides, has become a refinement without which human existence would be virtually unbearable.

The social force exists, not as a fundamental reality like life and death, but as an experience-based invention that has come to permeate our thoughts, words, and actions.  By this point, when people talk about life, what they invariably mean is life as shaped by the social force.  This terminological confusion can lead them to look askance on, for instance, that earlier post that was so critical of life:  what people typically mean by “life” is a highly social matter, polished with the judicious use of death and destruction, to convert the bare-bones life force into a kind of social existence.

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