What We're Reading
If you were intrigued about our features on volume 82 about Philip Rieff and would like to know more about his ideas before committing to reading him, a pithy summary of Rieff's views by critic George Scialabba appeared in a recent issue of the Boston Review. The occasion for Scialabba's article is the posthumous book by Rieff called Charisma: The Gift of Grace and How It Has Been Taken Away from Us. Rieff draws on (and disputes) Max Weber's idea of charisma, which was in Weber's formulation a form of authority. Rieff insists that there can be no charisma in Weber's sense apart from some sense of sacred order, no charisma without creed is how Rieff summarizes his view.
Philip Rieff always maintained that the point of culture was to provide authority, to set limits against which individuals could come to understand the world and their place in it. But the crisis of modernity is specifically the loss of the plausibility of any authority. Rieff believed (in Scialabba's summary) that: For most educated (and even many uneducated) Westerners, however, all formerly unalterable authorities now lie in the dust, like Ozymandias. Science has banished the supernatural, technology has vanquished scarcity, and so, having lost its parents, ignorance and misery, morality is now an orphan. This is the triumphalist view of modernity, and Rieff shared it, only instead of a triumph, he thought it a catastrophe.
Scialabba's sympathy for Rieff's lament for the loss of religious moorings (and for similar concerns in the work of Christopher Lasch) are especially poignant in light of the fact that Scialabba himself would appear to be one of modernity's victims, as this profile explains.
A review essay of the anniversary edition of Rieff's The Triumph of the Therapeutic appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of The University Bookman. In the essay, James G. Poulos (who dubs Rieff America's most obscure critical genius) examines the question of how to best live in the present world. In a society where genuine community seems withered and perverted, and where the wisdom and habit of traditional culture is often repudiated by popular publicity, is the moral dissident to fight or flee? Put more specifically, is it our duty to struggle to engage a culture that has soured to our tastes, or are we better off abandoning, in Rieff's term, the anti-culture that surrounds us?
Full disclosure requires my acknowledgment that Mr. Poulos discusses the work of MARS HILL AUDIO as being influenced by Rieff, in our continuing effort to address (in Poulos's words) the dilemma of engaging the culture without being lost to it.
Posted by Ken Myers on 8/31/07
Just before the Independence Day holiday this year, Doubleday published David Gelernter's Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale and a frequent contributor to several magazines, often writing about the visual arts. His new book serves as a hearty rebuttal to the claim that America is the product of post-Christian and secularist ideas. . . .
Just before the Independence Day holiday this year, Doubleday published David Gelernter's Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion. Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale and a frequent contributor to several magazines, often writing about the visual arts. His new book serves as a hearty rebuttal to the claim that America is the product of post-Christian and secularist ideas. On the contrary, he insists, America is a "biblical republic," meaning at the very least that many of its social, cultural, and political commitments were pioneered and defended by thinkers haunted by the Bible. Americanism is a biblical religion although, Gelernter reminds his readers, it is not Christianity.
Moreover, being a religion "of the Book" does not render Americanism one of the great "monotheisms." Gelernter explains that "you can believe in Americanism without believing in God--so long as you believe in man." Despite the optional theism of this new religion, Gelernter insists that "Christians and Jews ought not to see Americanism as a blasphemous replacement for Christianity or Judaism." (Concerning this assurance, theologian Peter Leithart has appropriately mused whether belief in man without belief in God wasn't the original blasphemy.)
Americanism is sustained by two things: an "American Creed" and "American Zionism." By the first he means a set of beliefs that boil down to "liberty, democracy, and equality for all mankind." American Zionism he defines as "the community's closeness to God and its obligation to God and the whole world--Americans as a new chosen people, America as a new promised land" [p. 69, italics in the original].
Gelernter's book corrects much of the revisionist history of the past two or three generations which has shoved American religious history down the memory hole. But his historical sketches are so selective and tendentious as to be of no real help to Christians attempting to come to terms in theologically responsible ways with the intertwining of political and religious experience in American history. His long and sympathetic discussion of the Puritans (whom he regards as the most significant factor in giving rise to both the American Creed and American Zionism) avoids asking whether the Puritans themselves would have approved of Americanism as espoused by Lincoln, Wilson, Reagan, or George W. Bush. To take the Puritan commitment to the idea of being a chosen and covenanted people and cut it off from its essential eschatological links with the work of Christ and the mission of the Church would surely have been regarded by all of the Puritans as a blasphemous deviance far worse than the disfigurements they rejected in the Church of England or in Rome. If they had known their lives and deaths were preparing a way in the wilderness for Americanism they might never have set sail from Southhampton.
In insisting that America is "a biblical republic" Gelernter is rejecting those historians and political philosophers who have insisted that the Founding is a project of the Enlightenment. He dismisses this claim rather glibly, repeatedly returning to the evidence of the biblical ideas undergirding the work of Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson, and others. I am reminded of the wise observation of C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man, that "in every mixed movement the efficacy comes from the good elements not from the bad. But the presence of the bad elements is not irrelevant to the direction the efficacy takes." To say that there were biblical themes present in the thought of architects of the American polity is not really saying very much at all. The question is whether the themes were developed well in conjunction with many other biblical themes, or whether ideas like "covenant" and "providence" were co-opted to serve ends incompatible with the religious vision of Isaiah or St. Paul.
One need not be anti-American to reject American Zionism, one need not regard America as the New Israel to love it and admire its commitments. I am worried that many patriotic Christians will read this book and not ask whether Americanism has become an alternative to the Christian religion in the lives of many who call themselves Christian. It is notable that there seems to be a correlation between a high view of America and a low view of the Church. One might begin by looking at Presidents Lincoln and Reagan, two high priests of Americanism, and ask what room there was in their belief system for ecclesiastical authority. One could continue by asking whether Independence Day or Pentecost is the more important holiday for the majority of American Christians. It is the Church of Jesus Christ, the living Stone, that has been and is being built into a spiritual house which is (in the words of the apostle Peter) "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God." There has never been a need for a third chosen nation, since the second one is still being assembled.
Gelernter's book is a helpful reminder of the religious, indeed, biblical sources of America's beliefs about itself, although it does little to invite any religiously grounded reflection on those beliefs. By denouncing the secularists and asserting the propriety of an unapologetically religious sense of civic life, he seems to assume that Christians will applaud his argument. But the Bible itself is not terribly sympathetic to religion as such, most of its pages, Old and New Testament, are devoted to denouncing false religion. For millennia, numerous belief systems have arisen which have their origins in the Bible, even in a reverent and often sincere submission to the Bible. For just as long, biblically based beliefs have been subjected to the Church's scrutiny, following St. Paul's example of exposing false gospels.
Another angle of approach in examining Gerlernter's assertion that Americanism is compatible with Christianity is to ask whether "Christianity" as we usually define it isn't already a construction re-tooled to make it more compatible with Americanism. If you read Gelernter's book (or even if you don't), I strongly recommend wrestling simultaneously with the deliberately prickly and provocative arguments made by Peter Leithart in his book Against Christianity (Canon Press, 2003). Leithart argues that the Bible does not present the goal of advancing an abstract set of ideas called "Christianity." The Bible is the story of God building the Church, which is a people, a community, a city. "The Church is God's society among human societies, a heavenly city invading the earthly city." And this means that "a territorial conflict is inevitable."
Posted 7/21/07 by Ken Myers
The name Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy shows up now and then in books and essays I read, but for a long time I knew nothing about him or his apparently brilliant ideas. . . .
The name Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy shows up now and then in books and essays I read, but for a long time I knew almost nothing about him or his apparently brilliant ideas.
Now Peter Leithart provides readers with a glimpse (summary isn't the right word for such a deliberately unsystematic thinker) of the fertile and generous ways of Rosenstock-Huessy's mind. In The Relevance of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, posted on the First Things blog, Leithart shows how Rosenstock-Huessy (1888-1973) anticipated various postmodern insights, in much the same way (it would seem) as did Michael Polanyi.
Here is a paragraph from Leithart's essay:
To take a more extended example: During the modern period, he writes in The Christian Future (1946), people believe that all large organizations are rational, legal, and mechanical as well as logical and systematic. At the center of modern institutions, there stands a typewriter (a machine, and specifically a machine for generating plans and reports). Moderns are puzzled by the perfectly unsystematic, irrational, antilogical institution, the poorest organization on earth but yet fully alive--the family, which to the modern mentality seems a colorful folly. At the center of the family is not a typewriter but a bed and a stove, the unquenchable illogicality of the family perturbs planners with a blueprint for the future.
Posted 6/29/07 by Ken Myers.
I first ran across the work of Richard DeGrandpre in an article he wrote for the magazine, AdBusters. That magazine's original editorial vision (which they seem to have forgotten in recent years) was to examine the ways in which the version of reality encouraged by advertising (and by other technically mediated forms of communication) promotes habits of profoundly distorted perception. . . .
I first ran across the work of Richard DeGrandpre in an article he wrote for the magazine, AdBusters. That magazine's original editorial vision (which they seem to have forgotten in recent years) was to examine the ways in which the version of reality encouraged by advertising (and by other technnlogically mediated forms of communication) promotes habits of profoundly distorted perception.
The article I read by DeGrandpre was called The Great Escape (published in the March/April 2001 issue), in which DeGrandpre described experiments done in the 1930s by perception psychologist James Gibson. People were given glasses that distorted their vision, making straight lines seem curved. The subjects gradually compensated for the distortion of the lenses, and eventually, the curved lines seemed to be straight ones. When the glasses were removed, straight lines were perceived to be curving in the other direction.
DeGrandpre related this to the so-called beauty myth. Young women, he observed, have millions of exemplars from which to judge the sizes and shapes of the female body, yet this vast pool of reality is somehow overridden by a narrow band of hyper-reality. It's a perfect match with the finding of Gibson's classic study. Many young women, presented with their own image, fail to 'see' what appears on their retinas. Instead, as researchers have now documented, they often perceive a distorted, 'fatter' version of themselves. Again, their sense of reality derives from cumulative experience with the goal of adapting to whatever reality appears to be most pressing, or 'valuable.' Unfortunately, for many women, this 'valued' reality happens to make them sick.
DeGrandpre's discussion was a helpful reminder of how much our perception of reality is conditioned by our cultural setting. This leads some postmodernists to insist that there is no reality, only socially constructed perceptions. An alternative reading, one which has many resonances in Scripture and the Christian tradition, is that there is a reality, and our cultural situatedness can either help us see it or deter us from seeing it. The glasses I am wearing right now enable me to see what the trees outside my window and the birds at my feeder actually do look like, they do not enable an arbitrary and entirely idiosyncratic view of the world. They put me in greater touch with reality.
Richard DeGrandpre was concerned in that article about the way in which virtual reality was becoming more attractive to people than real reality, a theme he pursued well in his 2001 book Digitopia: The Look of the New Digital You (Random House). As he wrote in his AdBusters article,
The mind isn't some kind of computer that remains unchanged as cultural software runs through its cerebral circuits. Conscious reality changes as the software of everyday life changes, and remains changed thereafter. Whether it's watching the tube, surfing the web, or viewing the latest special-effects flick, chronic exposure to simulated ideas, moods, and images conditions your sensibilities, albeit to different degrees, for how the real world should look, how fast it should go, and how you should feel when living in it. When a thousand points of light shine upon you in a commercial war for your thoughts, feelings, and wants, your mind adapts, accepts, and then, to feel stimulated, needs more. Kids twenty-five years ago forfeited their quarters to a video game called Pong. Pong is to Sony PlayStation 2 what a firecracker is to the atomic bomb. Virtual reality wires us for a virtual world. . . . As you adapt to the latest digital experiences, straying farther and farther from your home world of the here and now, that home world becomes less satisfying each time you return to it. Simply, the virtual becomes the only reality that counts.
Later in the article, DeGrandpre talks about how the use of psychotropic drugs mirrors the increasing levels of engagement with alternative-reality media. About one in ten Americans filter their life experiences through antidepressants. But with the increasing number of people using such drugs comes a novel social philosophy. As dubbed in Peter Kramer's best seller Listening to Prozac, this is 'cosmetic psychopharmacology.' The idea here is that new 'lifestyle drugs' are being synthesized not to make us well, but rather to make us, as Kramer puts it, 'better than well.'
This is a profoundly cybernetic ideology: the progressive abandonment of concern over real-world causes of despair and dysfunction in favor of symptom-specific individual solutions. The better-than-well ideology marks not scientific progress—-several thousand compounds were tested by Eli Lilly before Prozac was stumbled upon—-but social regress. It urges you not to think about or pursue social change, but to seek out technological and consumer-based fixes to what are not individual problems.
Of course this cyborg ideology of more human than human couples perfectly with the postmodern ethos of the digital age. Both tap in to the same utopian technological spirit, both function as technologies of the self, and both help you accommodate your nervous system to a dying and dysfunctional social realm. As unplugged reality gets worse, the cyborg solution is to constantly upgrade and improve the self. By helping us cope in the middle years of today—-living neither as the socioborgs of times past nor as the true cyborgs of times future—-drugs like Prozac affirm our cultural direction. They are part of the great escape.
This article raised many of the same issues about happiness and society addressed in Carl Elliott's book Better than Well: American Medicine Meets the American Dream.
Richard DeGrandpre had written an earlier book called Ritalin Nation: Rapid-fire Culture and the Transformation of Human Consciousness (W. W. Norton, 1999), in which he examined ways in which popular psychotropic drugs alter the brain and its expectations. Most recently he has written The Cult of Pharmacology: How America Became the World's Most Troubled Drug Culture (Duke University Press, 2006), which examines the complicated reasons (few of them scientific) why some drugs are regarded as bad and outlawed while others are deemed to be good and encouraged by large marketing campaigns.
Posted 6/21/07 by Ken Myers
Chantal Delsol, The Unlearned Lessons of the Twentieth Century: An Essay on Late Modernity trans. by Robin Dick (ISI Books, 2006)
"Hope for the future rests on the double certitude of man's frailty as well as his promise. These two certainties are interwoven opposites. To deny man's frailty leads to utopia. To deny his promise makes the certainty of his frailty lead to cynicism or inflexibility. A humanity that is marked by its failings can cling to hope only if it also carries within itself potentialities that are yet to be achieved." . . .
Hope for the future rests on the double certitude of man's frailty as well as his promise. These two certainties are interwoven opposites. To deny man's frailty leads to utopia. To deny his promise makes the certainty of his frailty lead to cynicism or inflexibility. A humanity that is marked by its failings can cling to hope only if it also carries within itself potentialities that are yet to be achieved. Chantal Delsol, The Unlearned Lessons of the Twentieth Century
In The Unlearned Lessons of the Twentieth Century: An Essay on Late Modernity, French philosopher Chantal Delsol describes the spirit of the age, what the age has inherited from modernity, and wherein lies hope for the future. Delsol notes that modernity, the age of totalitarian regimes, has left man with little hope for the future and little hope in institutions. It has left man clinging to the certainty that individuals have dignity, but without a framework for establishing why man has dignity or in what his dignity is found. She describes why totalitarian regimes came to dominate the political and social spheres, how they have failed and what remains of their attitude towards man, and what needs to be recovered or emphasized for a new era to be born out of late modernity. She writes: "To ward off totalitarianism, it is not enough to dismiss it; totalitarianism must be replaced. The question of hope then ceases to be an academic debate. If we still have the value of personal dignity to defend, it becomes a question of responsibility: what must we become in order to safeguard that principle? Who is the person-subject, possessor of dignity, and what kind of common world can guarantee his existence?" (p. 9)
Before the age of totalitarian regimes, man found meaning for life and the cosmos in the cultures and institutions in which he was embedded. His sense of dignity came from the reality of his being distinct from other living beings, from his ability to confer meaning on the world and its happenings. Eventually, however, man rejected the idea that meaning was conveyed to him from the outside and tried, instead, to internalize it. When the weight of meaning and existence became too much to bear, man looked for help to regimes which promised to care for him, to give him meaning, and to provide hope for the future. Thus was born the age of totalitarian regimes and hope in progress for the future. These regimes, however, did not understand human nature and justice and ended up stripping man of his dignity and slaughtering their citizens by the thousands. In the wake of these regimes, man is left with no sense of hope for the future, no cultures or institutions from which to gather meaning, and a sense of dignity but no structure to support it. The time is ripe, notes Delsol, for man to grow up. To take responsibility for his circumstances, to commit to imperfect relationships even though they will be problematic, to commit to communities and cultures from which he can draw meaning, and to begin to transmit his culture to the next generation. It is time for man to acknowledge both the frailty and promise in subject-persons and to begin to nurture them for the sake of society. It is time for him to "risk being" in an objective, imperfect order, knowing that he is equipped with the tools for navigating his way. Delsol writes: "The future belongs to those who will work to promote the excellence of beings. Everything that nurtures the subject will also nurture society. The converse is no more than a farce drenched in blood." (p. 198)
The Unlearned Lessons of the Twentieth Century consists of sixteen chapters, notes, and an index. Chapter titles are: "Introduction"; "The Insularity of the Human Species"; "The Unalterable Human Form, or the Lessons of the Twentieth Century"; "Derision and Revolt"; "The Traces of a Wounded Animal"; "Insufficiency and the Human World"; "Must the Subject Be Saved?"; "The Modern Subject, or Incomplete Certitudes"; "The Figure of the Witness"; "Common Values as Language"; "Economics as Religion and the Paradoxes of Materialism"; "Human Rights, Body and Soul"; "The Universal as Promise"; "The Ubiquity of Evil"; "Interiority and Eternity"; and "Conclusion."
Delsol's emphasis on the importance of the person and his relationship to other people and institutions outside of himself resonates with the work of several scholars in an anthology edited by Wilfred McClay, titled Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Person in the American Past, published by William B. Eerdmans in 2007. Several of the writers discussed their essays on the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal; guests include Eugene McCarraher, Christopher Shannon, Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, and Eric Miller. The anthology studies the history of personhood and the self in America. It advocates a definition of personhood that honors individuals as subjects defined in part through their limitations and various moral obligations. The wisdom from this collection begins to answer Delsol's questions of: what sort of being is a subject-person; from whence comes his dignity; and how might he best be nurtured?
Delsol's Unlearned Lessons of the Twentieth Century is a sequel to her earlier work Icarus Fallen: The Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World, which ISI Books published in 2003. Icarus Fallen is a lucent and poetic description of man's condition in the modern world, which claims that meaning is not inherent in man or the cosmos, and that man can define himself as he sees fit. She writes that man in the modern world is as Icarus would have been if, instead of dying, he would have crashed back to the earth after flying too close to the sun: wounded, confused, not sure about how to go on with life in light of the fact that he cannot do or be whatever he wishes, in light of the fact that the cosmos is not his to contrive. The existence of man signifies the existence of God, she writes, and even if he denies that reality and the truth about his relationship to God and the world, those realities still exist and tug at him.
Icarus Fallen comprises a forward, a translator's preface, an author's preface to the English edition, an introduction, four parts (divided into nineteen chapters), a conclusion, notes, and an index. Part one, titled "A Condition Deprived of Meaning," consists of chapters one through four, titled: "Existence as Sign"; "The Rejection of the Figures of Existence"; "Black Markets"; and "The Danger of a Return to Essentialism." Part two, titled "The Revelations of the Devil," includes chapters five through eight, titled: "The Good without the True"; "The Morality of Complacency"; "A Morality of Emotion and Indignation"; and "The Clandestine Ideology of Our Time." Part three, titled "The Urgent Need for a New Anthropology," includes chapters nine through fourteen, titled: "Is Democracy Unsurpassable?"; "The Rejection of Worldviews"; "The Fear of Decision-Making"; "The Sacralization of Rights"; "Utopian Equality"; and "Production and Care-Giving." Part four, titled "Mastering the World in a Different Way," consists of chapters fifteen through nineteen, titled: "Fallen from the Heights"; "Fragmented Existence"; "God in Exile"; "The Return of an Uncertain World"; and "On Vigilance." [Posted March 2007, ALG]