Simon Critchley in a recent NYT piece:
Unlike the conversions that transfigure the born-again’s experience of the world in a lightning strike, this one occurred in stages: a postwar existentialist philosophy of personal liberation and “becoming who you are” fed into a 1960s counterculture that mutated into the most selfish conformism, disguising acquisitiveness under a patina of personal growth, mindfulness and compassion. Traditional forms of morality that required extensive social cooperation in relation to a hard reality defined by scarcity have largely collapsed and been replaced with this New Age therapeutic culture of well-being that does not require obedience or even faith — and certainly not feelings of guilt. Guilt must be shed; alienation, both of body and mind, must be eliminated, most notably through yoga practice after a long day of mind-numbing work.
In the gospel of authenticity, well-being has become the primary goal of human life. Rather than being the by-product of some collective project, some upbuilding of the New Jerusalem, well-being is an end in itself. The stroke of genius in the ideology of authenticity is that it doesn’t really require a belief in anything, and certainly not a belief in anything that might transcend the serene and contented living of one’s authentic life and baseline well-being. In this, one can claim to be beyond dogma.
Whereas the American dream used to be tied to external reality — say, America as the place where one can openly practice any religion, America as a safe haven from political oppression or America as the land of opportunity where one need not struggle as hard as one’s parents — now, the dream is one of pure psychological transformation.
This is the phenomenon that one might call, with an appreciative nod to Nietzsche, passive nihilism. Authenticity is its dominant contemporary expression.
I think this passage and the rest of the piece adds a layer to the discussion prompted in comments to my last post "Taking Offense". Louis CK and Eddie Murphy are hierophants in the cult of authenticity.
But the question remains: What is the alternative? Well I've been arguing that a shared sense of collective aspiration might be a good place to start. But you can't snap your fingers and say, "Let's do it." It has to emerge. Critchey is lamenting the loss of a time when we had it, but doesn't really suggest how to retrieve it.
I saw the Israeli film Fill the Void this weekend, and it seems connected to this discussion, but I'm not sure I can articulate why clearly yet. So a few preliminary thoughts.
The film explores the tension between traditional forms and genuine feeling by telling the story of 18-year-old Shira and the marriage match being made for her within her ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Tel Aviv. I came away from the movie thinking about how the forms filter out some feelings and cultivate others. There were times in the movie where the forms seemed mechanical and formulaic, but other times when they were saturated with life and genuine feeling. In the end, the important thing is feeling, not the form--but it has to be the right kind of feeling. There are some feelings you do not feed, and there are others that you encourage. That's what a living traditional culture does.
In the cult of authenticity, this would be regarded as repressive. but I'd argue that the forms create the possibility for genuine feeling that are impossible where these forms do not exist. The forms are like a trellis on which the capacity of the soul for a broader range of feeling grows. The problem lies when the forms become an end in themselves and no longer mediate feeling.
I am not someone who is at all attracted to the kind of life depicted in this film, but if given the choice of having to be stranded on a desert island with 100 Louis CKs, Eddie Murphys, Sarah Silvermans, etc., or 100 people from a Haredi Jewish community, without hesitation I would choose the latter. I don't doubt that living with the first group would be easier and more entertaining, but for me there is no question that the second group would create a life on that island that would provide the possibility for the richer, more nuanced, and more deeply human life.
The problem for us in America is that the trellis has been pulled down, it lies in shards, and now the American soul sprawls aimlessly along the ground rather that reaching up toward something worth reaching for. The traditional forms, when they worked, provided a way to reach for that, but they stopped working for an array of complex reasons. Now the challenge is to build something that works. It starts with sorting through the shards of the old, broken-down trellis, and finding something there that you can work with. So it seems to me.
See a related post: "Dying Traditions".