"Without the ultrarational hopes and passions of religion no society will ever have the courage to conquer despair and attempt the impossible; for the vision of a just society is an impossible one, which can be approximated only by those who do not regard it as impossible."--Reinhold Niebuhr
Metaxis We are in-between beings whether we like it or not. We become substantive to the degree that we hold our opposite tendencies, especially the spirit vs. matter tension, in balance and to integrate them.
The Reasons for My Concern Comprehensive background statement that explains the historical cultural framework that informs the posts I put up on this blog.
How Liberalism Got Its Bad Name How the sixties put Liberals in an impossible situation, and were blamed for chickens come home to roost that were hatched from eggs laid in the 1870s.
Latent Authoritarians Talks about the role of the principle of susidiarity in combating the top-downism of the right and the left.
Believing What we believe shapes how we live, whether our beliefs are superficial or profound. Whatever narrative we ultimately choose opens up certain possibilities and closes off others; it shapes what we can see and what we are blind to.
The Hypertropied Eye Modernity and its eye centeredness created the conditions for the possibility of individualism and critical reflection, but it also led to the gradual disenchantment of the world which became reified.
Dying Traditions Living traditions survive in the U.S. only so long as they can resist acculturation into the larger modern American milieu. The economic pressures working to break down such subcultures are terrific.
As a side note It's interesting that Berkeley Heideggerian Bert Dreyfus's and his former student and now chair of Harvard Philosopy Sean Kelly's "All Things Shining" is making something of a splash in the zeitgeist. It's Heidegger for "masses", which is about attunement to Being through receptivity and gratitude. Jesus isn't the hero of their story, though--Homer and Melville are.
I'll have more to say about that book when I have more time.
"Was anybody else offended by...can you put your hand on your heart?" Beck said. "It's the national anthem!" He said he had shushed his son and told him to put his hand on his heart when Christina Aguilera was singing the song.
"I was really offended by the sports players that were just hanging on their jersey," Beck said.
"The country that gives them the ability to...pursue their happiness in peace and safety is not worth putting your hand on the heart." (Source)
In a secular age, it's hard for most cosmopolitan types to understand why Glenn Beck gets so upset at things like this. I think I get it, but I'm going to give one of my long-winded explanations to provide some context to explain what I think is going on. Doing so also gives me a platform to talk about a couple of other things as well. And in doing so I'm going to lean heavily on Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, chapter 12--"The Age of Mobilization".
In the pre-Reformation Europe, the world still had an enchantment about it--some things were sacred and some very much were not. But it was a rather vertical, static sense of the sacred. The sacred was experienced in special times during the cycle of the seasons, in sacred places, and in sacred ritual actions. The sacred was sharply distinguished from the profane, and profane behavior in a sacred time or place was more than a breach of decorum--it was sacrilegious.
. . . Virilio suggests that political economy cannot be subsumed under the political economy of wealth, with a comprehension of the management of the economy of the state being its general aim. Indeed, for him, the histories of socio-political institutions such as the military and artistic movements like Futurism show that war and the need for speed, rather than commerce and the urge for wealth, were the foundations of human society. . . .
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, then, Virilio's cultural theory is concerned with what he calls the third, or, the transplant revolution — the almost total collapse of the distinction between the human body and technology. Intimately linked to the technological enhancement and substitution of body-parts through the miniaturisation of technological objects, the third revolution is a revolution conducted by militarized technoscience against the human body through the promotion of what the Virilio calls 'neo-eugenics'. Such developments range across Virilio's criticisms of the work of Stelarc, the Australian cybernetic performance artist, to his concerns about the eventual fate of the jet-pilots in the Kosovo war. This is because, for Virilio, both Stelarc and the jet-pilot represent much the same thing: "the last man before automation takes command". Nevertheless, it should be stressed that Virilio's criticisms of automation are closely connected to the development of his concept of endo-colonization — what takes place when a political power like the state turns against its own people, or, as in the case of militarized technoscience, the human body.
I've had Paul Virilio's Information Bomb on my shelf for several years and finally got around to reading it. It's not a book you can enter into easily, so I started hunting around for articles to provide some context. The best I found was the one quoted from above by Brit John Armitage.
Virilio is in that world of 'French Theory' with Baudrillard, Lyotard and other French postmodernist cultural theorists, but rejects 'postmondern' as a word that describes his work. He's a Christian, probably with more in common with guys like Jacques Ellul and Rene Girard--or even Marshall McLuhan--than the academic postmodernists. He's all about defending the 'human' against what appears to be an inevitable mechanomorphic transformation. In an interview Virilio says,
People agree to say that it is rationality and science which have eliminated what is called magic and religion. But ultimately, the ironic outcome of this techno-scientific development is a renewed need for the idea of God. Many people question their religious identity today, not necessarily by thinking of converting to Judaism or to Islam: it's just that technologies seriously challenge the status of the human being. All technologies converge toward the same spot, they all lead to a Deus ex Machina, a machine-God. In a way, technologies have negated the transcendental God in order to invent the machine-God. However, these two gods raise similar questions.
The machine God, to use a wobbly Star Wars analogy (since I've been rewatching those films recently), is the dark side of the force, and so it's a question whether there will be any kind of robust opposition from those who have any feel for the light side. In other words, the only stance from which human resistance to the machine God and its project to dominate the human is in some embrace of that which transcends the machine. We will have to chose at some point--if not already--between the seductiveness of the machine God and the freedom offered by the transcendent God.
But that's an issue for another day. I'm more interested today to discuss his idea of 'endo-colonialism', which formulates more precisely what in a more inchoate form I've been groping to articulate here in this blog, particularly when it comes to the disappointments I feel about the Obama administration.
We're seeing in Egypt now what happens when the people revolt against an endo-colonialist regime. But that kind of revolt could never take place in the U.S. because America has already in place the technologies and legal infrastructure that would enable the state to nip any such revolt in the bud. Those kinds of revolts are still only possible where governmental control is still rather primitive. It has become abundantly clear since Obama has taken over that he has no intention of retarding America's long-term trend toward becoming a tightly sealed cage, a surveillance state in which traditional civil liberties will be easily and legally disregarded in the name of national security.
The U.S. does not have currently an intolerably repressive endo-colonialist regime--and so no one except militia types on the far right are thinking about violent resistance. But here's the point: Should such a repressive regime assume power and with it control of these sophisticated technological surveillance and control tools, there's nothing the rest of us could do about it. This is where the anti-statists on the Right have a point. The rest of us are just hoping that the power elites in control are committed to a more enlightened despotic style that won't lead in twenty or thirty years to what we're currently witnessing in Egypt.
Virilio, of course, is not concerned about what happening in America, except insofar as it seems to be the society in which this technologically driven endo-colonialist impulse appears to be most advanced. As such it will be model to be emulated by those who can afford to do so. His concern rather is broader focused more on what is happening to us without our really being aware of it, how we are losing our grip on what the 'real' means, how we are slowly losing our grip on what 'human' means. His diagnosis of the disease is power lust rather than greed. His big picture narrative is that power-and control obsessed militarism is the real evil to be feared, and in its name--national security--the greatest evils ever committed and yet to be committed are justified.
Sorry, Wall Street, you're just the second string. Your greed is prodigious, but cannot come close to the destructive and dehumanizing impacts foisted on us by the paranoid, powermad folks over in the military-technology sector. And remember that those folks are obsessed with command and control, and the logic of their technologies is simply to increase their capacity for command and control. And it can be used--most especially on the nano-technological level--against American citizens who resist them as well as anybody abroad who resists them. Even ways now invade and colonize our bodies.
We all, if we're sane, are repulsed by the brutality and massive destructive power of chemical warfare--wait until they start dispersing nanobots for us all to inhale. It will be so much more humane, it will be argued. People won't even know why they've been turned into docile wetware obedient servants of the machine.
In the same interview quoted from above Virilio says,
Technologies first equipped the territorial body with bridges, aqueducts, railways, highways, airports, etc. Now that the most powerful technologies are becoming tiny--microtechnologies, all technologies can invade the body. These micro-machines will feed the body. Research is being conducted in order to create additional memory for instance. For the time being, technologies are colonizing our body through implants. We started with human implants, but research leads us to microtechnological implants.
The territorial body has been polluted by roads, elevators, etc. Similarly, our animal body starts being polluted. Ecology no longer deals with water, flora, wildlife and air only. It deals with the body itself as well. It is comparable with an invasion: technology is invading our body because of miniaturisation. (Referring to the interviewer's microphone: "next time you come you won't even ask - you'll just throw a bit of dust on the table!")
There is a great science-fiction short story, it's too bad I can't remember the name of its author, in which a camera has been invented which can be carried by flakes of snow. Cameras are inseminated into artificial snow which is dropped by planes, and when the snow falls, there are eyes everywhere. There is no blind spot left.
In the past week I've watched both Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris and Christopher Nolan's Inception. Both in very different ways try to grapple with the question: What is the human unconscious? First, a little riff on that question, and then maybe I'll get around to the movies.
We all heard when we were children that that the human brain is underutilized, that we humans are using only a minuscule percentage of its potential. I remember when I first heard that as a kid I thought that if I could just figure out how to increase capacity a little I could get my math homework done more quickly--I thought about it in terms of IQ and quickness. Later I wondered what it would mean to have !00% utilization, and I believe now that there is no 100%, that the brain has no content that can be measured in terms of whether it is being well or underused.
It is, rather, a mirror-like tool developed for human use so that Nature might become self-aware. But a mirror has no capacity of its own; it's empty and its value lies in its being in good working order: clear and clean rather than cracked, dirty, and distorting. Its content is completely dependent on what comes into view. And what comes into view is potentially limitless because it emerges out of the human unconscious, and the human unconscious is a fathomless, limitless sea of possibility.
So when people talk about how we humans use only a small capacity of our brains, I think they really mean to say that we humans are only conscious of a small percentage of reality, that most of reality is hidden from us--because it is unconscious. But the task is not to use more of the brain's capacity, but rather to find ways of bringing into view that which is now invisible because submerged in the limitless sea of unconsciousness. If we find ways to bring it out from where it is hidden, the brain as mirror will see it, remember it, and give the viewer something to think about.
The superwealthy always seem to win in the short run, but they and all the rest of us lose in the long run. The rich do what they do with a predictablility that is driven by the logic of greed, but the rest of us let them because deep down we want to be them because they are life's winners. They are successful, and everybody wants to be successful. People who care about more important things or define success in other terms, well that's their choice. But it's probably because they don't have the drive, the ambition, and the intelligence to get rich. They're really losers who don't want to admit it.
Americans glorify the greedy by calling them ambitious and spunky, and they perceive anyone who isn't as shiftless, lazy, and deserving whatever misfortune is his lot. And so these Americans, most of whom are not rich, cannot bring themselves to fight the rich because by some bizarre collective Stockholm syndrome they identify with those who hold them hostage. The rich are the winners, the successful ones. They, as hostages, are the losers. And so these Americans come to accept the viciousness of the rich as the virtue that they lack. No decent American would say it, but deep down, whether they consciously recognize it or not, they believe that "Greed is good."
And that perception of the nobility rather than the viciousness of the wealthy--these 'aristos', these 'optimates', these 'best people'--will continue until we devolve into the inevitable cycle of violent unrest and violent suppression that is the consequence of allowing logic of greed to drive our politics and define success.
When democratic political leaders go to college they tend to study things like political science, economics, law, and public policy. These fields tend to use a scientifically false theory of human reason -- Enlightenment reason. It posits that reason is conscious, that it can fit the world directly, that it is logical (in the sense of mathematical logic), that emotion gets in the way of reason, that reason is there to serve self-interest, and that language is neutral and applies directly to the world.
The brain and cognitive sciences have shown that every part of this is false. . . .
Conservatives who are savvy about marketing their ideas are closer to the way people really think than Democrats are, because people who teach marketing tend to be up on how the brain and language work. And over the past three decades they have not just built an effective message machine, but they repeated messages that have changed the brains of a great many Americans. . . .
Many people are "bi-conceptual," this is, they have both conservative and progressive moral systems and apply them in different issue areas. These are sometimes called "independents," "swing voters," moderates," "the center," etc. They are the crucial segment of the electorate to address. Each moral system is represented by a circuit in their brains. The more one circuit is activated and strengthened the more the other is weakened. Conservatives have moved them to the right by repeating conservative moral messages 24/7. The Democrats need to activate and strengthen the progressive moral circuitry in their brains. That means using only progressive language and progressive arguments, and not moving to the right or using the right's language. This is the opposite of "moving to the center." There is no ideology of the center, just combinations of progressive and conservative views. (George Lakoff: "Untellable Truths")
In classical rhetoric, the name for verbal representation that correlates with this brain circuitry is the "commonplace". The commonplace is part of a system of cliches and commonly accepted moral truths that a particular group accepts uncritically as describing the way things are or ought to be. A typical conservative commonplace is that people need to be independent, to stand on their own two feet, and should never take charity, much less government handouts, because governments in their essence are tyrannical, corrupt, and corrupting. The bigger they are, the more tyrannical, corrupt, and corrupting.
A typical liberal commonplace is that we're all in this together, and that we have a responsibility to promote the common good, and good government and the political process are tools to accomplish that. For someone like Glenn Beck, the phrase "social justice" is code for socialism and dependency; for liberals it means making sure that the non-rich and and non-powerful get a fair shake. There was a time when the New Deal dominated Main Street American commonplace thinking; since the eighties Libertarian Social Darwinism with a Reaganite smile does.
How has this come to pass? Lakoff argues, and I agree, that sophisticated messaging by GOP communications strategists has changed the brain circuitry of many Americans. These Americans have come to accept as "commonplace" what Americans forty years ago rejected as extremist and nuts.
Americans have to be shrewd, too. And if they put the GOP back in the majority today, they clearly lack shrewdness. I understand the country's frustration with the feckless, corporate-owned Democrats, and I understand that the economy is bad. So has it come to just flailing at whoever's in office? Is that how mindlessly lost we have become?
Maybe. But after all we know at this point, it's unfathomable that any American, except those on the far right, should think giving Republicans a congressional majority again is a road to a solution. Are decent, sane independents and moderate Republicans being conned? Maybe. The Republicans are particularly good at it because they understand effective rhetorical technique, while the Dems haven't a clue. And Republicans use it to define themselves as the principled ones, the sane ones, the real Americans who, yes, are angry, justifiably angry, at what has become of us, and have convinced enough Americans that it's the Dems--those far-left extremists--who have destroyed what is good and beautiful about our country. How is it possible that enough Americans are conned into believing it to make Boehner--Boehner--our next Speaker.
So let's think out loud a little bit, shall we, about the rhetoric of the con artist.
I think that one of the biggest problems with the contemporary West lies in its inability to feel the sacred. And this lack of feeling makes it almost impossible to frame a plausible cosmology open to transcendence. We look at the starry sky above us and we feel something that science simply is inadequate to explain, and yet moderns feel silly if they discuss seriously ideas about the cosmos on terms different than those that Carl Sagan would approve of. And yet when we read about the cosmogonies of the ancients, we sense they were onto something that we have lost the capacity to appreciate. We want to retrieve it, but we are shy about it; we study these texts and other artifacts of premodern consciousness and talk about them in a kind of scholarly way so as not to let on that we think that maybe they knew something that we don't. But we dare not seriously their stories--safer to assume they are fanciful fictions.
Modern consciousness has squeezed out the mystery in things that naive premodern consciousness took for granted, and so, echoing Paul Ricoeur, I'd argue that we need to develop a new mindset that embraces a 'second naivete' that would once again be capable of experiencing what premoderns experienced and then tried to represent in their myths. The gospel tells us that unless we become like children, we cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. It does not mean to regress into childishness, but to open up the parts of the soul that we have closed down, the parts that are open to the enchantment in Being, to be adults but to also the recover something lost. That's what I understand second naivete to be.
In what I write here I assume that human consciousness as it is currently structured cognizes in its ordinary states only a small fraction of the full spectrum of Being. Second naivete, therefore, is open to the idea of a supersensible, supra-rational realm that is wrapped around us and interpenetrates what we experience in ordinary sense-centered consciousness. A second naivete is open to the idea that people in every generation have experiences in which clues, indicators, epiphanies are given concerning the existence of this supersensible, supra-rational realm. The difference between moderns and premoderns lies in that moderns think these people are crazy and premoderns thought they were shamans, initiates, or saints.
I think that the postmodern cultural paradigm that will arise in the coming decades will draw deeply from what the premoderns understood but which was rejected as incompatible with modern Enlightenment rationality. As we move further along into a globalizing world there is going to be enormous pressure for cultural fusion. One effect will be that as traditional societies absorb modern consciousness, modern societies will start once again to absorb elements of premodern consciousness. To take a fairly trivial example--look at how the martial arts of traditional Asia have come to dominate the action-movie genre. Some of this is nostalgia, but it doesn't have to be. Nostalgia is the desire to go native in the past, and that's not what I see going on there. It's rather that things moderns have filtered out are beginning to leak back in. A very interesting book that documents how this is happening all over the place is Erik Davis's Techgnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information.
I am very interested to watch developments within Tibetan Buddhism, because theirs is a living tradition has maintained a very powerful and vital link to the premodern while not seeming to be particularly threatened by the modern. Tibetan Buddhists know who they are, and they are interested to integrate what the West knows with what they know, and so it will be interesting to see if they become absorbed into modernity as Protestant Christianity has done, or whether they will absorb modernity and use what they absorb to further develop their tradition.
While difficult to define, contemporary American conservatism seems to be shaped by a certain set of core commitments. While not exhaustive, among those characteristics one could confidently list: 1. Commitment to limited government as laid out by the Founders in the Constitution; 2. Support for Free Markets; 3. Strong National defense; 4. Individual responsibility and a suspicion toward collectivism; and 5. Defense of traditional values, particularly support for family. I’m sure there are many other characteristics we could agree upon, but these are several that seem to be core devotions of modern conservatism, and nearly anyone with passing knowledge of American politics could look at this list and agree that this would seem to reflect Conservative values. . . .
in his 1955 book The Liberal Tradition in America, in which he argued that America is a unique nation in the West precisely because it was founded exclusively on a liberal basis, and most explicitly on the basis of principles laid out in the philosophy of John Locke. Hartz argued that it was this liberal tradition that explained the absence both of a feudal tradition (which he regarded as the true source of a “conservative” or “reactionary” politics) and a socialist tradition in America. While he didn’t frame his argument in these terms, his argument suggests that the main current of American politics is split along a narrow range of political views, namely conservative liberalism and progressive liberalism. Yet the dominant American worldview is liberalism, and as such there is no real “conservative” tradition in America that exists independent of a more fundamental commitment to liberalism.
It’s true that “conservative liberalism” is more “conservative” than “progressive liberalism,” if we mean by that it takes at least some of its cues from an older, pre-liberal understanding of human beings and human nature. Still, its dominant liberal ethic – summed up in the five points I suggested at the outset – means that in nearly every respect, its official allegiances end up eviscerating residual pre-liberal conservative allegiances. In particular, it could be argued that conservative commitments 1-4 – that end by favoring consolidation (in spite of the claim to favor “limited” government), advancing imperial power and capitalism (i.e., why consolidation is finally necessary), and stressing individual liberty, are all actively hostile to commitment number 5 – the support for family and community. It is a rump commitment without a politics to support it, and one that daily undergoes attack by the two faces of contemporary liberalism, through the promotion of the Market by the so-called Right and the promotion of lifestyle autonomy by the Left. A true conservatism has few friends in today’s America. Deneen, "Is there a Conservative Tradition in America?"
I've always admired Deneen for being that rare kind of cultural conservative who understands that conservatism in America is really captured by a classical liberal mindset--that it's not conservative at all. He understands that market capitalism has been the greatest destructive force of traditional values, and he understands that conservative support of both traditional values and market capitalism is incoherent and contradictory.
Elsewhere in the article excerpted above, Deneen says
The false anthropology of liberalism – anathema to the deeper insights of a pre-liberal “conservative” tradition – spawns the perverse but inescapable progeny that it purports to despise, but which at every turn it fosters. Any conservative impulse is throttled by its more fundamental fealty to the liberal tradition.
I tend to agree with him that liberal anthropology (i.e., its understanding about what it means to be human) is inadequate for its unbalanced emphasis on the individual deracinated from community. But that deracination has been the price modern societies have paid for economic development. Individualism and cosmopolitan tolerance are adaptive values healthy people have made in a world in which traditional community life has been destroyed by the market capitalism and the tradition-killing new technologies political conservatives celebrate. Some thoughtful cultural conservatives--J.R.R. Tolkein was one of them--would like to destroy this dehumanizing machine. His story in Lord of the Rings was essentially a anti-modern, anti-technology parable. Wendell Berry is another, and Deneen comes pretty close to theirs in his attitude toward modernity.
Readers here might wonder why I spend so much time looking at a paleo-conservative like Deneen's work, and the reason is that, like Tolkien's and Berry's, I find much of his critique of modernity and American society valid. He's a clear, principled thinker who advances a defense of premodern values with which I feel a deep sympathy. We part company, though, when it comes to finding a way forward, because his rejection of modernity and its liberal, progressive mentality is so thoroughgoing I don't think the phrase "moving forward" has any positive content for him.
For Deneen modernity--everything in the West that followed upon the Renaissance and Reformation was a mistake--a kind of second Fall, and he wants to return to a pre-lapsarian, premodern status quo ante. I look at history as a more dynamic and dialectical process, which in a dumb, blind, painful, groping way is a movement out of darkness and toward light. And I would argue that the decadence we're experiencing now is not the fault of modernity so much as it is its being spent. We're at the end of a cycle. We're in that awkward phase which in the west we experienced as the classical Roman/Greek macronarrative broke down and the Christian narrative replaced it. Or similarly when the medieval Christian macronarrative broke down, and the modern, Renaissance/Enlightenment narrative asserted itself. We're in a historical cultural phase similar to the 200s A.D. or the 1300s. We're at slack tide, an in between time when there there's no movement, no energy to work with. It's just how history rolls.
My argument here over time has been that the postmodern, postsecular era into which we are now entering will synthesize essential elements of the Age of Faith with essential elements the Age of Reason. This synthesis will comprise a dynamic interaction of premodern, irrational/communal elements with modern critical thinking and individualism. Seems, contradictory? As I argued in my essay "Metaxis", the trick is not to be either this or that, but to live in the tension between what appears to be opposites. Such a synthesis of the premodern and its modern antithesis is the postmodern historical cultural task that lies before us. That's the basic conceptual frame that organizes this blog
Such syntheses are not interesting for conservatives like Deneen because they believe that modernity was a mistake, root and branch. In this view, the West lost its way with the coming of the Reformation and the shattering of Christendom and its culturally unifying cultural macronarrative. And reading between the lines in Deneen's article excerpted above, it's pretty clear, to me at least, that Deneen, had he lived in 1776, would have sided with the Tories because of their fealty to the vestiges of the premodern crown-and-altar narrative. Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison would have been way too hubristically liberal for him.
There's no going back, but our going forward does not require that we leave the most important treasures that the ancestors have bequeathed to us behind. The fundamental mistake conservatives make, in my opinion, is to think that you have to take the whole package. The trick is to know what is worth taking and what is an unnecessary burden, because if we are to move forward, we have to step nimbly and travel lightly.
Much madness is divinest sense To a discerning eye; Much sense the starkest madness. ’T is the majority In this, as all, prevails. Assent, and you are sane; Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous, And handled with a chain. (Emily Dickinson, "Much Madness")
Since One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, it's been something of a cliche that the crazy people are sane and the sane crazy-- but I do think there's a truth there that, as cliche as it has become, could be better understood. Because what makes us supposedly sane is a filtering system that blocks out the real, because none of us can bear too much reality. I am quite content to live in a consensus reality in which I, for instance, don't see or hear dead people. But I have no problem believing that some people do. Whether they're sane crazy or not depends on how they handle it.
Sanity has always been in large measure measured by one's capacity to accept and work within the consensus reality of one's time and place. Wisdom among the sane is that Tom Sawyerly ability to understand how the consensus reality works, to accept it for what it is without much thinking about it, and to work it to one's advantage. Mental illness is measured by one's incapacity to work within the consensus reality. I'm not here to tell you that there is some virtue in mental illness, but simply to acknowledge that the more ordinary syndromes we call mental illness--compulsive disorders, obsessive thinking, severe levels of anxiety and depression--are a function of breakdowns in the filtering system the consensus reality establishes, the psyche's freaked-out response to the leak, and its struggle to patch it for fear of the flood that will drown it.
I've believed for some time that the religious right is fighting an
enemy in secularism that is now a paper tiger. The culture war between
the religious right and the secular left has more to do with the past
than the future--it was a modern
battle, and we are no longer moderns. It seems to be a fight that
people who undertake it enjoy because it makes them feel as though they
stand for something, but it's as pointless as standing for monarchy. You
can make all the eloquent arguments you want about this position or
that, but it's all hot air unless it has some grounding in the spirit of
We are entering an era in which anything goes--we're already in it.
It's an era in which there will be no consensus about anything, and
believe pretty much whatever they want, whatever suits them. The human
mind is ingenious and
endlessly inventive. It can come up with the cleverest ways to justify
the most absurd ideas. All any argument needs is a splinter of truth,
and with it an elaborate fortress of delusion can be built.
And yet there is something in all of us that, despite our proclivity
toward delusion, knows the real thing when we find it. And we are more
likely than not to find the real thing in those elements in our culture
that, even if a little tattered and worse for wear, have withstood the
test of time.
That's where we find the ballast that keeps things on an even keel,
and one such invaluable source of ballast is the world's great
religious traditions, east and west. It doesn't matter what the
of these traditions say or how they try to control things, because they
cannot control the uncontrollable. Because the ecclesial management class has abused its power does not mean that the tradition that stands behind it is less worthy of our reverence. Everything we need is available to us
or is implied in these traditions; the question only remains whether we
have the will to undertake the quest to find there what will do us any
The definition of authority is
changing. Too great a proportion of the world's population is now and
will continue to be too well informed, to have too easy access to too
information. People will not consent be told what to believe, but they
hearken to those who have found a way to live deeply, authentically
from that which has been retrieved from that which sleeps in the
tradition. The new authorities will be those who live something that
demonstrates that a robust alternative exists which is plausible to the
resonant with conscience, and refreshing to the soul.
There will always be the people who want things in black and white,
and while they can cause a lot of trouble, they are not the future. Even
if their influence is strong for awhile, it will be short-lived.
They are not the ones who are searching out a way forward. The future
with others who can no longer be satisfied by the
rationalist/materialist straitjacket of the cultural left or the
dead, abstract fundamentalism/dogmatism of the cultural right. They will
demand something real, something that lives, that's intellectually
honest and yet warm and fertile.
The way forward requires that we look back with a second naivete.
This avoids the problems associated with Lot's Wife Syndrome, because it
is not motivated by a desire to retreat, to go native in the past. Rather it is motivated, as
was our father Abraham, by a longing to move forward into an unknowable
future yet trusting in a promise whose fulfillment lies in the far
distant future. We must travel lightly, but not without bringing along
essential gifts that were bequeathed to us from the ancestors.
We cannot live as the ancestors
lived, but the rationalist prejudices of the moderns caused much that
our premodern ancestors valued to be discredited and lost. Our job now
retrieve the lost gifts, and to adapt them to our life now lived in
circumstances unimaginable to the premoderns. And the place to
start is in a reverent recovery of much of that which modernity has
rejected in the great religious traditions, all of which have premodern
We no longer can maintain a "first naivete", which is the state of
the believer before critical consciousness. We must search out what has
been forgotten or lost with a second naivete, which is the attitude
toward the suprarational that is childlike in its receptivity, but,
because we must travel lightly, shrewd in its judgments about what is
necessary and what superfluous.
Secularism and the materialism that is associated with it is on its
last legs, but they will continue to have their partisans. Secularism/materialism was for a short time the spirit of the
age, and it excited those who were among the age's most influential
thinkers from the French philosophes through Marx, Darwin, Freud, and to their followers now on the cultural left.
I don't begrudge them their day in the sun; I learned much from them.
But their day is done.
[Ed. Like other posts this week, this is a repost from a piece written several years ago that I've revised somewhat for clarity and to make it fit into the flow of what I'm thinking now. There's clarifying and integrating value for me in lining these posts
up one after the other in this way. The idea is to builds, layer by layer, the basic
argument I'm trying to make here. I realize these are waters most people are not swimming in or care to, but I hope some readers find value
in it as well. And please do not hesitate to challenge me where I am unclear or just wrong. I have several other posts cued up to follow this one to
advance this line of thinking. ]
Modernity is, among other things, the story of the collapse of
meaning that is related to the gradual shriveling
up of a taken-for-granted sense of the “sacred” as a given in human
experience. The word 'sacred' is still in our vocabulary, but we moderns
have hardly any sense of the awe and often terror that typified the
experience of it for our premodern ancestors. In any event, the
common name used to describe this story of the shriveling of meaning is
'secularization', but that word
only scratches the surface of the significance of what has happened to
us in the last five hundred years.
My goal here is not to lament what we
have lost. The social conservatives are naive if they think we can
find a way to go back to an earlier form of consciousness just by
reintroducing sacred talk into our public practice. We are moving into a post-secular era, and this
movement into the future will require the retrieval of much from the
premodern era that was jettisoned during the Modern period. Retrieval and
nostalgia are not the same thing. Retrieval use the bricks of the forgotten or rejected past to build something new. Nostalgia wants to set up house in an abandoned ruin.
As anyone who's been reading ATF for awhile knows, I'm a big
proponent of the the power of mythic narratives. To live
without a narrative is to live without meaning, and even nihilists have
narratives. Who was a greater mythmaker with his Eternal Return and
Zarathustra stories than nihilist-in-chief, Friedrich Nietzsche. The
choice is not between believing in myths or not believing in them, but
in recognizing that some myths have quality and others have none.
A myth that has quality is not a head trip the way ideology functions in that way, and it does not function to meet the infantile need for security. It is complex and multivalent, and works in soul depths.
So ultimately we don't ever really have a battle of ideas; we have
instead a battle of narratives or myths. Mythos does not answer all the
questions, but it provides a context within which we search for answers
using Logos. And we can only fruitfully argue with one another within
the context of a shared Mythos. The contemporary culture war is 'war'
because because argument on the level of Logos is an impossibility if
there is no shared Mythos. Even the things both left and right
supposedly share, like a reverence for the constitution and Bill of
Rights are interpreted in radically different ways because the there is
no common ground on the level of Mythos.
[Editor's Note: This is a repost from October 2007 slightly revised. It's a reminder for me about the task I established this blog to think about. I got too sidetracked by the crisis in the political sphere, and the truth is that now I can no longer bring myself to pay attention to what is going on there at any level of seriousness. It's just so tediously predictable once you understand the depressingly crude logic by which the Beltway game is played. It's essentially a closed system until something significant and new breaks into it from outside. Obama made things interesting for awhile for leading some of us to believe that he was bringing something new into this closed system, but it's clear now he is not. He's made it clear that he has no interest in becoming an interesting president if by 'interesting' we mean transformative like Roosevelt and Reagan were. He may surprise us yet, but it's highly unlikely.
So if anything "interesting" happens, drop me a line, but in the meanwhile I'm going to plow in other fields. American history and culture, i.e., the unfolding of the American soul or the American mind, interests me--and our politics have been and will be a part of that, but not the most important part, and its current facetiously retrograde politics will play out the way they will play out. It's not a matter of short-term unconcern to me--I'm at an age now when the short term is the long term--but the forces shaping our long-term future lie elsewhere.]
I've been reading in philosopher of religion Charles Taylor's new book, A Secular Age,
which explores the monumental cultural shift over the last 500 years
from having the "social imaginary" of premoderns to that of moderns. By
social imaginary he means a culture's collective representation of
reality. The medieval peasant in France has more in common with his
medieval peasant counterpart in China than than he would with a French worker
living today. The greater divide is not between the medieval Frenchman
and Chinaman, but between the Frenchman with premodern consciousness and
the Frenchman with modern consciousness.
It's not just about the
cultural differences. It's about the reality differences because the
premodern social imaginary shapes one's consciousness of reality in a profoundly different way from the modern social imaginary. And we're living in interesting times now, because as the modern imaginary is breaking down, we're in the process of developing yet another social imaginary, which we've been calling postmodern for want of a better name--because it's whatever comes after the modern. Philosophers like Jean Gebser call it the "aperspectival". But more on that another time.
The interesting thing for Taylor is not that the world changed
because of scientific discoveries, but that the imagination of the world
changed during the modern era in such a way that an ordered, meaningful
"cosmos" morphed into a vast, empty, disenchanted "universe". In other
words, he seeks to describe how and why we have become secularized
moderns. And without diminishing all the important advantages that come
with our having become moderns, he challenges us to recognize what has
been lost and the price we have paid for those advantages. He is not a conservative lamenting our cultural degradation. He's a philosopher--and a Christian believer-- trying to understand what happened to us and what' its implications are.
People in Red America are in pain, and it's deeper than just economic. I'd argue that a good deal of the pain comes from the disjunction between its mindset and the real world in which Red America lives. The world no longer makes sense for a mindset that was developed in the early 19th century. Rapid change and disruption have been normative in America at least since the 1860s, and the rhetoric we hear from the cultural right is rooted in ante-bellum commonplaces. But as Gordon Wood points out in his book The Radicalism of the American Revolution, even ante-bellum Americans were already highly mobile, individualistic, restless, and commerce driven--there was never a time when Americans were content Hobbits living in their respective Edenic Shires.
In my post from which this quote is excerpted "What's the Matter with Connecticut?", I responded to an article by Patrick Deneen in he which plays with two well-known books on America's class driven politics--Tom Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas and Christopher Lasch's Revolt of the Elites. Since then I noticed that a the topic is also being explored at Sullivan's Dish in this post entitled "Elites and the Tea Party." I want here first to challenge the idea that, except to some degree in the South, there ever was a traditional America in the post-Revolutionary era. If there is anything "traditional" about America it's its restless, uprooted, unruly drive to get ahead.