3, 2, 1…Let’s Jam

The graduate program in economics at George Mason University was a formal community of a very particular sort. As students, we had been granted membership in that community though a selective (or so I tell myself) admissions process, and kept it by paying out tuition and keeping a full course load (without failing out). We learned economics, yes, but we also learned a common language; the language of Hayek, of Ostrom, and above all, of Coase. In social gatherings among classmates, future spouses joked to one another that they were quite tired of hearing about this Coase fellow. Near the end of the program, some of us wondered out loud, “what are we going to do when we have to go out into the world and never be surrounded by so many people like us?”

We have all managed to survive, somehow. My career has had very little to do with what I learned there, and was probably only impacted in ways that (GMU econ professor) Bryan Caplan would appreciate.

But what I really came away from GMU with was a connection to their scene.

In 2008 when I started the Master’s program there, the department was fairly unique in the high number of professors writing on blogs or putting out podcasts. Part of my desire to enter the program stemmed from having followed these professors beforehand. But it wasn’t until after I started that I really dived in deep.

A scene is different from a community, though it is no less “imagined;” that is, the intersubjective product of games played among meaning-making individuals. In the online scene of which the GMU econ professors are still a part, they form a sort of center of gravity; one network cluster among a few, the boundaries of which are ill-defined and ever shifting. Where communities are shaped by membership and belonging, scenes are shaped by audience and participation.

A common audience forms the glue between GMU econ blogs and podcasts, Slate Star Codex, Modeled Behavior, and a constellation of sites and communities that form the scene I used to be an active participant in. This audience participates in shared experiences – in this case, most frequently shared experiences of media consumption. There was frequently a book of the moment, which everyone who was part of the scene either read or read about. Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation was an example that comes to mind, but the book does not necessarily have to be by someone in the scene, or even have much to do with the typical interests of the audience in that scene.

A coworker who follows the comedy scene closely gave me a good example of this recently. He said that a comedian’s wife had passed away and her book would be published posthumously, so the comedian was promoting it on comedy podcasts even though it had nothing to do with comedy. This coworker said that he decided to give the book a shot, if for no other reason than everyone else would be, and he wanted to get the jokes about it and other references to it. You don’t have to keep up with every new text embraced by the scene, but if you stop keeping up with any of them, you’re likely to find yourself falling out of its orbit.

Membership offers a formal boundary for communities, in relationality if not in geography. I don’t want to exaggerate the concreteness of communities; there is churn, there is overlap with other communities, and there’s substantial grey area. But the ebb and flow of scenes is of another order entirely. Participation, either in the audience or as the object of their attention, is more easily withdrawn than membership, which often requires some formal step. More to the point, it is far easier to dip your toes in. You can go to one metal concert without becoming a part of the metal scene. It’s a far bigger hurdle to become even a part time student at a university. And when you do, there is a paper trail to show it; the line between when you go from a casual concert-goer to a part of the metal scene is vague in the extreme.

Scenes are often called “communities” as in “the online economics community”, and that’s fine; that’s one way the word is used. I distinguish between communities and scenes here not to get at the essence of either word, but merely to observe that there is a distinction to be made. Formal community and scenes are two forms of meaningful existence in the modern world, where we have left the primordial village community of the Romantics’ fantasies far behind.

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The Really Real

“There is no ‘we’,” was a catchphrase among the GMU econ company I kept when I went to grad school there. The only really real things were individuals, who made choices, had preferences, and had blood running through their veins, by God! Groups are not really real. They are a myth, a superstition, an excuse for the strong to continue the exploitation of the weak that has gone on since the first social hierarchy was established.

Years later, I explored the communitarians. They seemed to say that there could be no individual at all, without community. I talked with Catholic leftists who would spit out the accusation of “Thatcherite!” at the mere mention of the word “individual.”

The communitarians seemed to have some powerful insights, but the community which glued it all together and made these insights work eluded me. Every time I thought I had my hands on it, it melted away and I had to start anew.

I asked, “what is community?” I kidnapped Dave away from his loving wife and children, at any hour of the night or day, to demand an answer of him. I asked and I asked.

Benedict Anderson, a Marxist, made his legacy on the claim that communities are imagined. But this was not the claim of my GMU mentors, who insisted on the unreality of “we.” Anderson’s communities were imagined only in as much as they were so large, we can never meet all of their members, even though we strongly believe that they are there, and that we stand in a meaningful relationship to them. Anderson did not deny groups in order to embrace only the “really real,” and criticized Marxists who did:

With a certain ferocity Gellner makes a comparable point when he rules that ‘Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.’ The drawback to this formulation, however, is that Gellner is so anxious to show that nationalism masquerades under false pretences that he assimilates ‘invention’ to ‘fabrication’ and ‘falsity’, rather than to ‘imagining’ and ‘creation’. In this way he implies that ‘true’ communities exist which can be advantageously juxtaposed to nations. In fact, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.

Examples of these “styles” include vast networks of kinship, Christendom, and Anderson’s primary subject matter, the nation.

By the time I began scratching my itch to understand community until I drew blood, I had already been lead to view things through the lens of intersubjective relationality; or the language-games of Wittgenstein and Gadamer. But a community is not a game. So what is it? The grounds of the game, in some abstract sense?

The metaphor of the game was one way of approaching the question of human relationality. But there are many types of relations. In the wee hours, as I interrogated him for some sign of how I might understand this question of community, Dave modestly suggested that membership might have something to do with it. It took quite some time for me to listen to what he was saying.

One thing that helped crystalize this for me was reading Michaele Ferguson’s book Sharing Democracy, in which she attempted to discuss imagined community as I might have, before my many conversations with Dave. Here is the relevant part of my review:

Intersubjective relations are a useful starting place, but relationality per se is not very informative. There are many types of relations, with different implications in different contexts. One important relation that is absent from Ferguson’s analysis is membership. This relation is not between individuals, but between an individual and an entity—an “imagined” entity, in Anderson’s sense, though this is misleading. When the conditions are right, such entities are no more or less imagined than money. Imagined social entities in which individuals are members are precisely the collective agencies that Ferguson mis-defines.

I could not see the entity for so long. But it’s there, often explicitly acknowledged in the ways we relate to one another. We play various roles in our social games, and these roles relate to our standing as members in some common group – or of rival groups, or of cooperating but nevertheless distinct groups. The way our imagined communities shape our relations to one another as individuals is as real as the way money influences our behavior. Free will is not subsumed; I can choose not to accept money. I can choose to walk away. But the reality of what I’m walking away from is not changed by this; I could have taken that money, and I could have used it to acquire possessions or hire people to render services.

So too with the group – it is precisely because I am a citizen of the United States of America, living within the territory of its sovereign body, that I expect to be able to use dollars and not pounds to acquire my possessions. It is because I am an employee of a company that I expect they will let me enter the building and go into the area outsiders are not allowed to wander through unescorted.

Anderson makes reference to “primordial villages of face-to-face contact” which he excepts, tentatively, from being “imagined.” This is a kernel of the Romantics, who judged modernity as false against the really real of the authentically primitive. In the mouth of a Romantic, just as in the mouth of an economic individualist, “imagined” is spat, much like “Thatcherite” in the mouth of a Catholic leftist. It is an epithet against that which is not really real.

Perhaps it is time we loosened our grip on the really real, and grew more comfortable with the reality of the imagined.