In my previous Blog I referred to venerated composers — Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn — as “flunkies” at the mercy of patrons, such as emperors or noblemen. You may have been offended by my statement. It seemed so out of touch with the glorious music produced by these creative persons.
Behind my statement is this surprising feature of our life in Social Space: We can have a great deal of autonomy IN A PARTICULAR ZONE — WHILE WE HAVE VERY LITTLE AUTONOMY IN OTHER ZONES. In the case of the three venerated composers, their livelihood often depended on a patron, whose whims influenced their personal life. Yet that dependence on the patron would guarantee them a protected zone for their musicianship. Within that zone they were autonomous, where they were active and creative, enabling them to produce their extraordinary compositions. The patron, other than now and then demanding a new composition, rarely interfered with the actual content of their creative work. So, in exchange for a lack of autonomy in parts of their personal life — due to the power of the patron — they gained autonomy for their musicianship.
Many years ago I stumbled on a surprising feature about our life in Social Space (although at that time I did not call it “Social Space”). Namely, there can be zones of behavior where we have a great deal of autonomy, while we have very little autonomy in other zones of behavior but which, nonetheless, are also part of our life. It all depends on arrangements under which we fit into a Social Space. I first realized this in my study of medical pathologists in hospitals. There I found that, depending on their contractual relationship with their hospital, pathologists might have a great deal of autonomy to crack down on unnecessary surgery or, under a different contractual relationship with their hospital, they might have no autonomy at all to crack down on unnecessary surgery. (I described this in my book, “Autonomy and Organization: The Limits of Social Control.” New York: Random House, 1968)
Later I realized that autonomy can exist, and even be nurtured, in very unlikely places. For example, it can exist among prisoners in jail: Prisoners have virtually no autonomy in regard to their outside life and, within the jail, their everyday life is highly controlled by others. Seemingly, they have no autonomy. Yet there is a zone, in their life in jail, where they do have much autonomy. Within their life in jail they have the autonomy, with ample encouragement, to create a culture of hatred-for-the-system, and often do so in highly creative ways. Those ruling their everyday life, the guards –by their punitive measures –virtually plead with the prisoner: please hate us. They may relish the hatred they have engendered, allowing them to increase their own autonomy to be creatively punitive.
Autonomy in an entirely different context: I have been thinking about the paradigms — in science and the humanities — nurtured within research universities. There, for example, graduate students are apt to be indoctrinated in, and inducted into a particular paradigm under a professor’s research grant that gives the student a fellowship. Alongside the proffered paradigm one is apt to learn disdain and contempt for different, and possibly competing paradigms. The mentor’s paradigm may henceforth become the guiding zone for the student’s own life-long, autonomous creative work in science (or humanity) — where autonomy for participating in competing paradigms has been abandoned.
Autonomy in yet another context: The followers of an unscrupulous “savior,” a Hitler, tend to have autonomy to produce creative ways of venerating their “savior.” But they have no autonomy whatsoever to question the validity of the “savior’s” claims and demands. Concerning veneration of a “savior”, millions of Germans became enraptured followers of Hitler, creating a culture of hero-worship that was exuberant beyond compare. But questioning Hitler’s directives and legitimacy was simply outside their vocabulary. It was “unthinkable” to disobey orders backed by Hitler — here I am quoting a statement by a Nazi official during his trial in Nuremberg after the Second World War.
All of this demonstrates a fact-of-life for all of us living in Social Space: Our social niche within a Social Space can offer a zone of behavior were creative autonomy is nurtured and well within our grasp, while our life outside that zone may be very different, where autonomy and any sort of creative participation is prohibited.