Survival in Surfeit
How discipline fell out of favour and is now making a comeback
In early 2015 Marli Huijer was named Thinker Laureate. The title is a Dutch invention, a philosophical counterpart to the Poet Laureate. As such she was asked to reflect on current issues and to share her thoughts with the public. The honour fell to Huijer partly on the strength of her celebrated book Discipline, a stimulating philosophical discourse on contemporary humankind in a world of unprecedented opportunity.
In her clear and enjoyable book, and with great clarity, Huijer investigates attitudes to discipline over past decades, especially the 1960s, when many forms of authority were overthrown, when parental authority, binding social and sexual norms, and hierarchies in classrooms and workplaces were challenged. We are still plucking the fruits of the freedoms won in those years, but among the consequences were stress, obesity, alcoholism and indecision.
Freedom needs discipline. Based on the theories of such philosophers as Aristotle, Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault, Huijer discusses the interaction between
society and individual. She compares Catholic ideology with stricter Protestant structures, acknowledging the rise of capitalism to Protestant discipline. Nevertheless, with capitalism now dominant worldwide, there are renewed calls to discipline our desires. How are we to deal with an abundance of time, information, material goods, food and drink, and with the diversity of love affairs, family structures, education and work opportunities available to us? How are we to know what we want and abide by our choices?
Using intriguing examples – crowd discipline at pop concerts; order in the army and in child-rearing; self-control on a shopping trip – Huijer dissects different forms of discipline in changing times. She closes with an analysis of today’s circumstances, in which the disciplining of our urges is partly delegated to apps that guide our behaviour. Freedom continues to grow and we are expected to keep a grip on our impulses, which can be an immense challenge. Huijer shows how we have sought a new balance time and again, from one era to the next.