Alexander M. Wegner
Companionship in an Age of Strangers
AMID THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY, both distance and time are clothed in attire of relativity. Communications and transport technology have veiled the former, while the subsuming character of market-commerce has led man to undervalue the time at his disposal. Scientific advances, coupled with an Enlightenment derived certainty about the feasibility of improvement, enable man to analyze and assess the world within which he is; while this allows man to illuminate the extrinsic, he remains a stranger to himself.
Indeed, the world of man–configured as such–represents a playground of those soaked in the hollowness of cosmopolitan sentiment. Social media enables man to virtually interact with anyone, anywhere at anytime; so called ‘friends,’ thus, span into the hundreds or thousands. Information, too, flood the mind of man, and competition for the presentation of those, typically coupled with commentary on–or rather opining about–them, prevails among those in a virtual universe of the selfie- and self-loving.
Problematically, this culture of shallow sympathy and convenient intercourse directs man ever more toward himself; the higher his virtual prestige, resembled by the volume of friends accumulated, the number of likes collected and the string of sound-bites crafted, the more solitary his existence. The virtual universe is a sphere of its own, no less demanding than the the world of face-to-face encounters, in their uncomfortable awkwardness. The nobility of social media is but the peasantry of unsettled egos.
Of course, the implications of social media are not exclusively adverse. Incidents that would previously have gone unnoticed, or may not have been shared with an extensive audience, can now be recorded and reported instantly. Thus, the public can be alerted no less to the virtuous and noble than to the disgraceful. The authenticity and accuracy of information, dispersed by way of social media, can, however, not be guaranteed, so that the democratization of social media may very well come to serve niche interests.
Attributes of social media–shallow sympathy, convenient intercourse and instant access–are no longer exclusive to the virtual sphere; on the contrary, they have entered the world of face-to-face relations. Marriage was once deemed sacrosanct as the basis for intimacy between the sexes, not least as intimacy inevitably translated into mother- and fatherhood. Yet modern means of contraception have separated such intimacy from the responsibility it formerly induced, which has triggered an ‘all you can eat’ mentality.
While early exposure to intimacy between the sexes can, of course, facilitate responsible conduct, it is prone to transform an act that used to serve the purpose of reproduction, into a mere component of hedonism. The very inter-sex relations that intimacy presupposes, are, thus, commercialized; in other words, they turn into readily accessible consumer goods. Curiously, the idea of romance, a late addition to intimacy as a requirement for reproduction, looms large but is elusive, as breadth, not depth, prevails.
The culture inherent in, and reinforced by social media, and its influence on face-to-face encounters, adversely affects the prospects of communities–from the family to the nation–to flourish, and undermines both the intimate and civic relations that the liberal as well as the democratic project necessitate. The notion that the disintegration of such communities merely marks the transition toward cosmopolitanism and world governance is dubious, as a really divine world cannot be navigated in aggregate.
Similarly, amid this culture, man is condemned to remain a stranger to himself; how could he even begin to understand himself through the soliloquy for which social media allows and in, as Tocqueville noted, “the solitude of his own heart?” Yet unless man strives to comprehend himself, though he will never fully succeed therein, he is unlikely to ever be capable of understanding the world within which he is, as this world is no less a product of his imagination than embodiment of what has always-already been.
Companionship is, therefore, the cradle of liberal democracy. It is through company that man senses the values that are dear to him, that man perceives his character from a vantage point that is extrinsic to himself, that man gradually turns modest in the face of the breadth and depth of knowledge possessed by his counterparts, that he comes to be at ease with himself through the acceptance of others, and that he begins to acknowledge his own significance in the extent and complexity of his web of relations.
It is through companionship that man learns to feel for, and to accommodate others, while at the same time knowing himself sufficiently well, to defend what ought not to be comprised. And it is through companionship that man discovers the might of the collective, and recognizes that self-interest is not best pursued at the expense of that which is collectively sought after. In fact, not those who flirt with their own ingenuity tend to excel, but those who work toward realizing a vision that is beyond themselves.
Such companionship not solely forms the pillar for the friendly relations upon which liberal democracy is built, but extends into the inter-sex relations that intimacy presupposes. Indeed, the loved one must first be, and always remain, a companion; how could the loving intimately engage with one another in the absence of the trust that companionship demands? How could anyone claim to love, without having cultivated the trust out of which love can grow, and prior to which companionship must reign?
These, of course, are the perils of progressive sentiments. Not the longing for liberty and progress characteristic of progressives, but the subjugation of both to equality are perilous. Liberty must come first, and can then allow for equity–as the accessibility of information, identification of opportunity, and access to the resources that the pursuit of opportunities necessitates. So long as equality is given precedence, liberty will succumb to the will-to-power, however noble its aims may be, and however uncertain its effects.
The presently prevalent culture of shallow sympathy, convenient intercourse and instant access is unlikely to be reversed, but must be mitigated through a retrieval of companionship, in all its forms. Once man finds himself amid companions, he may rediscover the true value of time, and the actual significance of distance. Once he finds himself amid companions, he can begin to understand himself, and thereby turn toward wealth of the past and wonders of the present, while preserving hope in the future.
Amid strangers, and strange to himself, man floats within a translucent space, deprived of gravity, striving to grasp the match beyond reach.