Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Craving for Particularity

Time for another one of those very introspective posts which are often surprisingly popular.

In every person's life, I imagine, there are beliefs and attitudes which change, while there are others which remain immutable. A man might pass through any number of social and political positions while remaining rooted in the deep-down convictions, the foundational dispositions which are almost as native to him as the colour of his eyes or his hair.

At least, such has been my own experience. In my time I have been a socialist, an agnostic, a nationalist, an anti-nationalist, a nationalist again, and many other things. But all through my life, I have some loyalties which are so much a part of me that the word "belief" doesn't do them justice. "Yearning" or "craving" might be closer the mark.

One of these is the craving for particularity, for specificity.

For as long as I remember, I have yearned for distinctiveness in time and place-- special times and special places, if you will.

But not just time and space. I have yearned for distinctiveness in all things. I want everything (or at least, a great many things) to be special. To the argument that specialness by its very nature must be limited, I would respond: any number of things can be special in different ways.

I wonder how such cravings begin? I cannot even imagine seeing the world any other way.

The idea of writing this blog post came to me today when I was musing on one my many, many mad ideas-- the idea of getting in touch with the English Literary Society in UCD and suggesting to them that they develop a distinctive literary style for UCD. Or perhaps even a distinctive literary format!

The idea (one I would never actually pursue) pleases me greatly. What could be more wonderful than a university having a particular literary style associated with it? Or, to look at it another way, what could be more wonderful than a particular literary style being associated with a particular university?

Corresponding with this delight in the specific, is its reverse-- a dread of homogenization, of standardisation, of sameness. This dread, also, has afflicted me for as long as I can remember, even back to my childhood.

I wonder if it is a rational fear. It's easy to find evidence of homogenization in this or that, if you go looking for it. For instance, the number of languages spoken in the world is undeniably diminishing.

But how can we ever tell whether the world is becoming more homogenous in general? Might it be the case that diversification and homogenization are always occurring in tandem, the world becoming more diverse in some ways but more homogenous in others?

For instance: it seems clear that the internet, along with cable and satellite TV, has brought about a tremendous diversification in the subject matter of electronic media (and hence, of society and culture in general). Every interest group, no matter how obscure, now has its websites and forums and chat rooms. Personally, I think this is a huge improvement on the days when most people would be tuned in to one of a handful of television channels. However, I have heard many people lament the "balkanization" of the TV audience, and wax nostalgic for the days when the whole family would gather around the gogglebox, and the whole country would be talking about a particular TV show.

Homogeneity is sometimes good. For instance, I am one of those people who believes that it is beneficial for a country to be relatively homogenous in its culture. And, although I am not a Latin Mass Catholic (I refuse to concede the term "traditionalist"), I can sympathise with those Catholics who regret the days when the liturgy was more or less the same all over the Latin rite world.

But, in most cases, I would argue that diversity is better than homogeneity. It makes the world more interesting. You could even say it makes the world bigger, more.

So-- is the world becoming more homogenous? I don't know. But it would seem to be becoming more homogenous in terms of national cultures and ways of life, and that grieves me immensely. I can't remember a time I didn't worry about it. It's rather surprising to me to see it become a burning issue in country after country, with the rise of populism, since I've been worrying about it since I was a little kid.

Another memory swims to the surface of my mind, as I type this-- I remember that I used to feel sad at the lack of countries left to explore, since I loved reading stories about explorers (like The Lost World or Journey to the Centre of the Earth). I also used to worry that all the tunes would run out, that there would be no more songs left to be written. This might not exactly come under the heading of "diversity", but it's something similar. It's a fear of the world being contracted.

When I come to think of it, I chose the word "particularity" for the blog title, rather than "diversity", because it's not just diversity I crave. Diversity in itself, raw diversity, is interesting, but not that interesting. Raw diversity is chaos. Particularity is when one sort of diversity is matched with another-- for instance, a particular place has a particular cuisine. It's a pattern of diversity, rather than random diversity. And it's this, more than anything else, I've always yearned for.

The formula that can describe what I've yearned for is this: X has its own Y. A city has its own accent, or a town has its own newspaper, or a school has its own game, or a family has its own recipe, and so on.

Most of my readers know that I work in the library of University College Dublin. Recently I sent an email to the President of the University, Andrew Deeks, suggesting that UCD should try to develop its own unique sport. I framed this as a form of branding for the university, since branding is one of the latest buzzwords in the university sector. But I wasn't really suggesting it for the sake of branding. I was suggesting it for the sake of reducing homogeneity, and increasing particularity.

("Branding" itself might be a response to homogenization. It's ironic that the very people who, in their working lives, are urging universities and other entities to "brand" themselves, are almost certainly advocates of homogenizaton and globalization when it comes to politics and culture-- "breaking down barriers", "transcending boundaries", etc. etc.)

I think genre fiction may be one of the sources of my love of specialness. In science-fiction or fantasy, the hero travels to a world or a country that is very distinctive, that is marked by very particular characteristics-- Rivendell or Narnia or Krypton. The same is true of horror-- the protagonist comes to a town or village which is clannish, suspicious of outsiders, and harbours some terrible secret. It has a character all its own, its own identity. I think this motif goes back to mythology and folklore, although I'm not well-versed enough to give any examples from my own reading. But ultimately, I think the yearning for special times and places is rooted in human nature, in the human desire to find patterns and meaning. At any rate, I can't believe I "got it" from anywhere in particular-- I believe it's part of my very constitution.

I thought this blog post would be longer than it is, but I feel I have explained the idea sufficiently now. It's a simple concept, but it pervades everything I do and write and think. Perhaps I will revisit it another time.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.