Informality Is Not Enough

For a long time now formality has been treated as outdated, artificial, rigid and unauthentic. By contrast informality has been elevated almost into a universal good, denoting authenticity, spontaneity, flexibility and naturalness. What is wrong with this? It is suggested that you first read "The School of Life".

The Ascendancy of the Informal

One of the key themes of "Man+Woman Magazine" is the necessity of adopting an intentional approach to building community and culture. However, building community and culture means giving more form to social relations and cultural expressions. The last fifty years or so have seen a relentless drive in the other direction - towards more informality. There are now only vestiges of formality in our social and cultural life.

We have absorbed the notion that informal is good, and formal is bad.

'Formal' has become associated with stuffiness, rigidity, artificiality, lack of authenticity, impersonality. 'Informal' has become associated with natural, authentic, spontaneous, personal, flexible, cool. So no one wants to appear formal, or dress up, or use honorific titles, or make gestures highlighting masculinity or femininity. Or if they do these things they are simultaneously downplayed so as not to seem to claim any cultural authority for them.

But where does this come from? It is easy enough to imagine the downside of too much formality. We don't want form to become mere artifice. We don't want symbols to become empty signs. But informality has no meaning on its own. It cannot be a 'stand alone' concept. It only has meaning in relation to formality.

The difficulty we have now is not informality as such, but a lack of balance. It comes from misunderstanding the nature of social relations. If you push informality too far it actually becomes another kind of formality. It becomes an empty sign. So if manner of dress is always pushed towards the informal it doesn't actually result in everything becoming merely plain, or even slovenly.

The Informally Formal

There will always be those who want to accentuate form. So fashions develop in ways such as brand new 'distressed' clothing. Jeans ripped in advance. Clothes that look like they could be worn by a mechanic, or a farmer, but stylish, so that no one really mistakes them for the real thing. They mimic authenticity. They are pretenses at informality. They unlink the expression from the reality. So informal becomes formal.

Someone might ague, but isn't that just a different kind of form? Up to a point yes. But in order for subtle 'ironic' forms to work they need the backdrop of an actual loss of form or a mere aggregate of forms lacking substance. They depend on an elite of taste-shapers, fashion-makers and style-gurus constantly wrong-footing the mass of ordinary people. This whole approach is essentially non-egalitarian. It is inherently elitist. It takes the creation of culture out of the hands of ordinary people, and away from their traditions.

In order for the creation of culture to be egalitarian, to be something 'of the people', there needs to be overt formality.

There needs to be an unselfconscious celebration of traditional forms. When new forms need to be created or rediscovered, it is important not to treat them as just another ephemeral style option. Even when, due to necessity, this process has to be intentional, the locus of authority needs to be local. You are not 'asking permission' from the cultural 'powers that be', or looking for their approval.

Youth Culture and Genuine Freedom

These matters need to be faced in any attempt to transform 'youth culture' into a richer reality that actually serves the good of young people themselves. Integral to this effort is 'dethroning' the self-appointed arbiters of culture. This cannot be done in the abstract, but needs to come from self-directed efforts by groups of young people themselves. Importantly, they are not aiming to form another youth sub-culture, but, in the case being examined here, to give form to their hopes for a more elevated experience of relations between men and women.

The turning point will come when young people actually feel a loss of deference to the high-gloss media arbiters of youth culture.

It will come through young people turning away from those 'authorities' - not as another 'rebellion' - but as establishing a different kind of measure, a new invigoration of tradition as a possession of the actual people whose lives are shaped by it. It means stepping off the merry-go-round of ever-changing 'style options' that spin off into ever more differentiated sub-cultures. It means coming to self awareness as the founders and sustainers of a tradition.

It is important to grasp that this is a different kind of process. It is not a further fragmentation of culture into ever smaller pieces. It is the restoration of the principle of unity in culture as such. It is rediscovering the dynamic and the power to be at the foundations of a culture, not mere importers of cultural fragments. It is the dynamic that draws things together.

Freedom is constantly presented as being about informality, individuality and doing your own thing. Anything that would produce sameness is reprobated. And yet this is only artifice. 'Youth culture' is not about freedom at all. It is about constantly destabilising the very things that make freedom possible. It casts youth in the role of eternal rebels. The funny thing is, this has now shaped the whole culture, not just that of youth. Now no one wants to grow up. Everyone wants to be a rebel. You can't gain cultural traction by invoking tradition, authority or foundations. Even traditionalists have to cast themselves as the 'new rebels'.

However, tradition is the democracy of culture.

Education as Handing on a Tradition

In the article "The School of Life" we began by considering a school with no curriculum and no structure, just an empty form. The main purpose of a school is to hand on a tradition. It is a community wanting to share with its young members those things it values.

Yet this vision of schooling has been undermined in many ways. It has been reconceived as 'preparing individuals for life'. This has come about due to a loss of confidence in culture, and lack of agreement in the community about fundamental values. This has been a loss of community and culture. Community and culture have fragmented.

This has been defended as a proper pluralism.

But pluralism is not a stand-alone value. It exists only in relation to unity.

There needs to be a balance of unity and plurality. They only make sense in relation to each other. These are big themes, which we can't go into here in detail. The relevant point here is this: just as there are two principles, so too there are two sets of practices and attitudes that foster them.

This parallels the two aspects of formality and informality. These represent in cultural expression the tendencies to unity and plurality. Formality is conducive to unity because cultural expression is a 'language'. In order to understand it and be part of it you need to understand the language. A language is a conventional agreement about the link between meaning and expression. The less agreement there is the less communication there will be.

Formality is the 'grammar' of cultural expression. Informality is the space in which this language can be creative. But when informality becomes the grammar, the language is taken over by special interests at the expense of the whole. If this process continues the language itself either breaks down into different languages, so that people don't understand each other, or it loses its substance and can only express 'dumbed down' meanings.

Accentuating Masculinity and Femininity

Expressions of masculinity and femininity are at the core of culture. They provide one of its key foundations. To downplay them is to dumb down the culture. By removing that distinction it gives the 'language of culture' much less to say. The sexes no longer communicate much to each other, or if they do it is mainly complaint or disconnection. Too little remains that is special or elevated. Too much becomes drab. Or it goes to extremes just to be 'heard'. So you get caricatures of masculinity and femininity.

If a distinction has become caricatured it is no solution to abolish the distinction. The solution is to accentuate the proper form of the distinction. It is no solution to deny that there is any such thing as masculine and feminine. Rather, we need to identify more clearly and attractively what they really are. And this does not mean making them one more thing that is relativised, as if a 'style option', or just one more fragment of an aggregate of cultural meanings.

Being foundational to humanity as such, masculinity and femininity are properly expressed in traditional cultural forms.

Clarifying and reasserting this in practice is foundational to the project of communal and cultural development. They are essential elements in the 'grammar' of culture as common language.