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Illusions and delusions of a social networker

 article about Illusions and delusions of a social networker

This article belongs to Social Groups theme.


Phenomenological analysis of "social groups" must conclude that the concept of human social groups, if extended beyond the purely physical, is an illusion built upon a delusion. An illusion has an external referent, and the observer knows it. We pay to see the illusionist "saw the woman in half" knowing that she is not actually being sawn in half. A delusion is the combination of an external and an internal referent, and the observer does not know it. As we approach a group of talking people, they fall silent and resume talking and laughing after we pass by. The external referent is the behavior of the people; the internal referent is the assumption, within the observing self, that the behavior of the people is somehow connected to his presence. Synchronicity is assumed to be causal, not random.

The same ease of assumption is found in human communication. The psycho-linguist Noam Chomsky developed a framework known as Transformational Grammar. It posits a binary system of Deep Structure (feelings and meaning domains) and Surface Structure (the culturally provided lexicon and grammar). As Tor Norretranders explained in The User Illusion, when I experience a feeling it is filtered through a culturally erected structure, including the linguistic matrix described by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf in their Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity ("the proposition that language plays a fundamental role in shaping the way members of a society think and behave" Haviland), and it calls for quantification and qualification in my (Chomsky's) Deep Structure; I get a "gut feeling." I then search my Surface Structure for the culturally provided "words" and the culturally approved order into which to put them. I convey these words, through the cultural medium of language and syntax, orally or in written form. The person who hears these noises, or sees these marks on a page interprets them as an ordered code, to be "understood" by transformation from their (the person's) Surface Structure to their Deep Structure. They might then say something like, "I know what you mean."

Thus, I do not "share my feelings" with someone, as the commonly used social slogan goes. I attempt to encompass my feelings within a meaning domain in my Deep Structure, transform them into a language code in my Surface Structure, and pass them from my Surface Structure to another person. I have not shared feelings; I have passed a code. Since the listener can take in only the code (into his Surface Structure), and the various paralinguistic qualifiers I might add, the listener has not absorbed my feelings; he has heard the uttered code. Any good "Con Man" has mastered the art of arranging all the code components of credibility.

Herein lies the crux of the shared illusion/delusion. How can someone know what I mean? Indeed, how do I know what I mean? In structuring an utterance to be conveyed, I must first assume that I have completely and accurately circumscribed my feeling within the appropriate meaning domain (semantics) and have organized it appropriately (grammar and syntax); I'm saying what I mean, how I mean it. Second, I am reading the behavior of the other person (let's say the listener) and decoding the responsive utterance of that listener, through my Surface Structure, to my Deep Structure to get a feeling of having succeeded at communication. The potential for error, based upon casual assumption, is inherent in each and any of these steps to an enormous degree. Yet, an attempt to truly and deeply analyze this interpersonal transaction (if it can be graced with such a label) is often met with, "You're just arguing semantics." Well, yes, partly.

The ultimate outcome of any such analysis must be the conclusion that social behavior is, to the unusually aware participant, an illusion that is shared for some purpose which is not explicitly stated in the interaction. The dimly aware might put it, "To get along, you have to go along." This is also hinted at in our enculturation dictums such as, "At a party, never talk about religion or politics." Why not? Why should we not go into a church and nudge each congregant with the demand that each answer aloud to the question, "Who is God?" After all, are they not all there under the presumably homogenous title of their denomination, their social group?

Children acquiring language and building their lexicons often engage in a game in which they repeat a word quickly until, at some point, it seems to lose its meaning. As a society, did we not do this recently with the words "hero" and "patriotic?" This reminds one of the joke about long term prisoners who had heard each others jokes so often they numbered them and simply laughed when a number was called aloud.

Social group interactions are a kaleidoscopic babble of illusion and delusion metered through enculturated linguistic codes, and embedded within appropriate extra-linguistic indicators such as "proper" attire and garnished with paralinguistic behaviors such as grunts, sighs, modulations of volume and pitch and approved gestures. The conveyance and sharing of actual and complete meaning is a purpose which is secondary to the larger, and equally undefined purpose: Being there, sharing in some unquestioned sense of solidarity.

Perhaps the most meaningful question that one might ask of another at the conclusion of a social interaction is, "Was it good for you?" There being no way to objectify the event, any answer will be correct.

But, you know what I mean.


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