Outline For A Diagnosis Of Late Modernity: Part 1

After the Las Vegas shooting, I noted that when I was a boy guns were a common and unremarkable part of normal American life:

I grew up in a rural area of west-central New Jersey. When I was a boy, all the households around me had a gun or two. We boys used to stack up hay-bales and put targets on them (a charcoal briquette was a favorite choice) to shoot at with a .22. Schools and scout-troops often had rifle ranges; I myself got a marksmanship Merit Badge while at summer camp with the Boy Scouts. I don’t recall being aware of any gun laws at all; you could buy ammo at the general store. (Gun safety was a big deal, though, and kids were taught to handle firearms carefully and respectfully.)

This was the state of normal (non-urban, middle-class, predominantly white) American culture half a century ago. Guns were an unexceptional part of that bygone world, and were easily accessible to all of us (you could order pretty much any gun you liked through the mail, by sending cash in an envelope!). Somehow, though, we hardly ever murdered each other, and mass shootings were very, very rare.

Something, I said, had changed, and it clearly isn’t access to guns.

What is it, then? Why does the life of our society seem so degraded, and life itself so much emptier, even as our material conditions have improved? This question is better suited to a book than a blog-post, but a blog-post will serve, at least, as a place-holder for a survey of the problems and their symptoms, and pointers to further questions. In this and subsequent posts I want to look at, in no particular order, of some of the symptoms I’ve noticed in my sixty-one years. (I hope the reader will forgive me if I make liberal use of excerpts from earlier posts.)

1) One factor has been the secularization, and encryption, of religion. While a secularized crypto-religion can retain much of its form and function, the removal of the actually transcendent, and its replacement with worldly substitutes, places the apex of the cosmic hierarchy down among us, instead of above us. This not a difference in degree: it is a qualitative difference, and it leads to a disruptive change in the effect of religion on human societies.

From April of last year:

The religious impulse, the need for sacred objects, and the hunger for salvation will always find some form of social expression…

Religion wants a “skyhook”: something above us upon which we can depend, and with which we can make a kind of contract. In return for our faith, and for a promise of effort and self-sacrifice in the required virtuous forms, we are given protection, or even salvation.

As children, we trust in the protection of our fathers and mothers, and we submit to their authority in return. But even as adults, the world around us is still chaotic and merciless, and to have so many things beyond our control is frightening and stressful. We know that as adults we must make our way somehow in the material world — but we are finite, and we know in our bones that the mysterium tremendum is not. Dwarfed by this infinitude, we seek to attach ourselves to something transcendent; salvation in God is our warrant against that great chaos.

When the supernatural basis for all of this is removed — when God dies — we’ve lost our skyhook; the warranty is void. But we are no less overborne by the chaos and mystery we face. We continue to seek the transcendent, but the sky is now empty, and the heavens have lowered. Having sliced off the apex of the sacred pyramid — the unifying presence of God — we are left with a truncated, frustrated hierarchy. God had been the Absolute from which both the natural world, and all human agency, emanated, but now the roots of both Nature and the soul of Man are exposed and disconnected.

We have not, however, lost our sense of awe, and of transcendent beauty and mystery, when we contemplate the natural world — and so in our new, sawed-off religion, we preserve Nature as a sacred object. (Indeed, with God now departed, many of us now promote Nature to fill his place.) And having lost God as the agent and guarantor of our protection and salvation, we must set our sights, and pin our hopes, upon the only thing we can still discern above us: the State.

The State! It is a low and shabby God, but it’s all that’s left. Needs must, when the Devil drives.

2) Among the casualties of the truncation of the transcendent hierarchy is a belief in any foundation for natural categories. If the human mind is not an emanation of divine order — if there is in fact nothing above us — then the world we find ourselves in is just a brute fact, a contingent jumble of phenomena. We yearn to make sense of it, but in doing so we now have nobody, and nothing, to consult but ourselves. If we begin to doubt, there is nothing beneath us but the abyss. If God is dead, then we must be God to ourselves — we must become our own Creators.

This is a terrifying and lonely responsibility, and it is understandable that many would seek to distract themselves from it with anything they can find. If you are trying to understand why culture seems shallower and shallower all the time, why our attention-spans are becoming shorter and shorter, and why so many lives dissolve into drugs, pornography, and the moment-to-moment flicker of little screens, this would be a good place to start digging.

3) The consequence of this need for constant distraction and stimulation is like the “tolerance” of habitual drug-users: we need more and more of it, faster and faster, just to maintain the same effect. This has a crushing effect on our sense of time: because memory cannot compete with the vividness of our artificial stimulation, the past vanishes, while our hunger for immediate distraction drives out any thought of the future. We find ourselves living more and more narrowly in the present — but unlike the attentive being-in-the-moment that is at the root of all esoteric disciplines, our new and pathological presentism is one in which we are not really “present” at all.

4) Amplifying the effect of our dwindling control of attention has been the sudden collapse of the effective size of the human world. Modern communication (in particular, social media) has brought each node of the global human network into direct and immediate contact with every other. Not only has the volume of the world-system shrunk effectively to zero, but it has flattened as well; every incoming datum, from a family member’s text-message to news of a catastrophe a continent away, is just another “ping”, another sensory twitch. (I have written about this at length, here.)

5) This disruptive discontinuity in the social habitat of the human species has happened in almost no time at all. Suddenly, the frame is completely changed. Throughout all of human history, humans have lived their lives in a limited and local social context of connections, obligations, and responsibilities. This embedding in family, extended family, and local community was the base of every society’s organic structure. All natural checks on human behavior arose in this local and personal context. Suddenly, in a single tick of history’s clock, all of that is gone: the local, and more importantly, the personal. is dwarfed, overwhelmed, by a rushing flood of impulses from every corner of the world. The web of personal obligations and responsibilities is swept away — and with it, the interlocking system of direct, proximate and permanent relations that are what, in a thousand ways, give shape and definition to our very selves. We become atoms in a fog of human particles, colliding and impinging and ricocheting off one another — but with the death of the local and persistent, we easily lose all distinction between foreground and background. We lose, perhaps above all, accountability.

That’s enough for tonight, I think. This partial list is, of course, just the beginning of this outline, but I want to take my time. I’ll pick it up again in the days and weeks ahead.

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One Comment

  1. Whitewall says

    About the nothing above and nothing below us…John Lennon sang those lyrics in his anti cultural hymn “Imagine”. Well, we no longer have to ‘imagine’, its ugly results are running our world.

    Posted October 10, 2017 at 7:09 am | Permalink

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