Friday, January 02, 2009

The Dinner Party

For New Year's Eve, we got together with about ten friends for a dinner party at the family cottage. Everyone was asked to bring one dish, but otherwise there was no coordination whatsoever. You might expect that this would result in some sort of clusterfuck: either nobody cooking anything, everyone cooking the same thing, or a senseless conjunction of foods. And yet, it worked perfectly. How's that for spontaneous order? As Claire noted, without anyone organizing or directing the dinner party, it had functioned perfectly and produced the ideal feast.

Others have noted the same thing about dinner parties. In his writings, Peter Lamborn Wilson has revived the idea that the dinner party is the model of an ideal human society, and pointed the way to nineteenth-century texts arguing the same. As Stephen Pearl Andrews writes in ''The Science of Society'':

''The highest type of human society in the existing social order is found in the parlor. In the elegant and refined reunions of the aristocratic classes there is none of the impertinent interference of legislation. The Individuality of each is freely admitted. Intercourse, therefore, is perfectly free. Conversation is continuous, brilliant, and varied. Groups are formed according to attraction. They are continually broken up, and reformed through the operation of the same subtle and all-pervading influence. Mutual deference pervades all classes, and the most perfect harmony, ever yet obtained in complex human relations, prevails under precisely those circumstances which Legislators and Statesmen dread as the conditions of inevitable confusion and anarchy. If there are rules of etiquette at all, they are mere suggestions of principles admitted into and judged of for himself or
herself, by each individual mind.''

What is most fascinating about the dinner party is that is functions without any human legislation: chaos giving away to an instinctual, or at least unplanned, sort of order. Everyone eats what they want. Everyone talks to every other person in turn. People instinctively take turns and share. Somehow, all the work gets done without any one person guiding things.

One might argue however that it is the exclusivity of the dinner party that allows it to function. If the group let in everyone, it would be more susceptible to conflict and division. While this party was not explicitly exclusive, we did stick to inviting people that we knew. This creates something of a closed order. We might ask if a social order without hierarchy, laws, or administrators could really function with more than say ten to twenty people- or basically a tribe. It's hard to imagine that a mass dinner party wouldn't fall apart, so our ideal society is very tiny.

And yet, the appropriate response is so what. If a secret society is required, let's make the most of it! Maybe we can't run the world as a dinner party. But, at the least, we can try to incorporate as many friendly gatherings into our lives as possible, and let our group efforts function like dinner parties.

And, if the econolypse doesn't kill off globalization, it might at least be expected to create a space of legitimacy for tiny, convivial, non-hierarchical relationships to flourish. This could be a golden age for the renaissance of secret societies, tribes, orgies and dinner parties. They certainly work as well as any other human societies, and their failures are happier than those of states and corporations.

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