Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Colonizing the New Psychic World

As promised, nine more takeaways from How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity. Imagine that: the most important story ever -- at least horizontally speaking -- neglected!

However, "neglected" might not be the most accurate adjective. How about "abused." Or maybe "deconstructed." Or "tragic." Or "imperialistic." Neglect is far too passive a term. At best, the glorious story of our triumph has been abandoned. At the other end is frank condemnation. That's what you call academic diversity!

Note also the equation of "west" and "modernity" in the title. One could equally say: How Modernity Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of the West.

Another irony about the left is that they want their modernity -- at least parts of it -- but don't want to know about or have anything to do with the specific conditions that brought it about.

But there is a parallel stupidity on the "right" -- or whatever you want to call these folks -- in which they appropriately cherish the conditions that brought modernity about, while rejecting much of its dynamism and content (and not just the bad stuff). It is a battle of stupidities with which the Raccoon wants nothing to do, and up with which he will not put.

This cultural heteroparadox is discussed in an unintentionally related book called The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America's Politics and Culture. To extend the equation above, to say "west" is to say "modernity," which is to say prosperity and abundance. And you would think that to say the latter would be to say Happy Happy Joy Joy. But the majority of people do not say, let alone feel, this. Or so it seems.

So, what went -- and is going -- wrong? It is a genuine conundrum, because the majority of people in the modern west are living lives that were the literal dreams of past generations.

In fact, if not for those restless dreamers, the dream would never have come to pass. But the fulfillment of the dream hasn't made people happy. However, I disagree with the notion that the dream is actually a nightmare that makes people unhappy (i.e., "alienation," "false consciousness," and all those other diseases of the tenured).

Rather, the enslackened conditions of modernity simply allow people the time and space to indulge their misery, their conflict, their envy, their emptiness, whatever. For most of history, this was quite literally impossible, since it was a struggle just to obtain food to live another day. To the extent that neurosis existed, it was a luxury of the affluent 1% or less.

Because western history entered a quite novel space after World War II, people living through it have been unable to see it -- the fish being the last to know about water. Perhaps it will be more obvious to future generations, but it's really not that hard to see with your activated Coonvision.

As Lindsey writes, "In the years after World War II, America crossed a great historical threshold. In all prior civilizations and social orders, the vast bulk of humanity had been preoccupied with responding to basic material needs.... Concern with physical survival and security was now banished to the periphery of social life."

This "liberation from material necessity marks a fundamental change in the human condition, one that leaves no aspect of social existence unaffected."

In my opinion, this is the One Big Thing that ties together a diverse range of cultural, spiritual, political, and artistic phenomena, both good and bad. The fact is, we are in "uncharted territory," and every modern movement, from scientism to fundamentalism, is an attempt to deal with it.

When we say "uncharted territory," what do we mean? We mean first and foremost that a space has opened up as a result of freedom from necessity, and that mankind simply isn't accustomed to this space. As a result, all sorts of mischief and mayhem ensue from trying to fill the space with ideology, paranoia, acting out, sex, drugs, rock & roll, video games, vulgar politics, whatever.

Most people now have the opportunity to ask questions such as: who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose? What is the meaning of existence? Such questions are pointless when mere survival cannot be taken for granted, and one must toil all day just to subsist.

This space began opening up with the industrial revolution, but it didn't reach a critical mass until the mid 20th century. Consider: from the reign of Augustus to 1500 or so, "world output per head was essentially unchanged." To the extent that economic growth occurred, it was canceled out by increased population.

And although conditions were dramatically improving by the 19th century, you will be forgiven for failing to notice. "A typical farmhouse in early 19th century America was a cold and dark affair," providing "basic shelter from the elements" but little more. There was an intimate relationship between work and food: if you shirked the former, you missed out on the latter.

But don't despair. It was all over soon. "From 1800 to 1900, life expectancy for males registered almost no gain, inching upward from 45.5 to 46.3." Medical care? In 1900, just a little over a hundred years ago, Americans "spent nearly twice as much on funerals as on medicine." If Obama were around then, he's be campaigning for socialized mortuaries to bend down the cost-curve of death: Embalmacare.

By 1890, only 24% of American homes had running water. Who are you? Who are you? Easy. You're that guy or gal who lugs 9,000 gallons of water to the house, year in, year out. Now, stop asking stupid questions and get to it, so you can think about more important things such as gathering the wood.

Here is an example of a reality that people seemingly fail to appreciate: the first commercial radio broadcast was in 1920. Less than a century later, here we are instantaneously communicating with each other all over the world. It's difficult to even say this without sounding painfully clichéd, but there is something quite cosmically revolutionary beneath the cliché. I hope.

More telling stats: in 1900, "2 percent of Americans took vacations." In 1890, 3.5% of 17 year-olds were high school graduates. By 1950 that number was up to 57.4%.

The upshot is that the sorts of existential questions that were pointless in the past now confront everyone. And I'm not sure that big-box religion has fully kept up with the challenge of dealing with this new space and with these urgent questions. (There are also religious movements that do gear themselves to the new mentality, e.g., the New Age, but they go badly off the rails.)

It's not the content that has to change, but I think one must be able to address people where they're coming from. Whether we like it or not, dogmatic and predigested answers will not satisfy, at least at first. Rather, I think such a person needs to... how to put it... experientially understand the truth of dogma within his own psychic space, and see how these time-tested answers comport to the deepest questions within. Or something like that. It's difficult to say without sounding painfully clichéd, at least this morning for some reason.

However, on a good day, it is one of the things we try to do here at One Cosmos. You know, teach an old dogma with some new tricks.

18 Comments:

Blogger ted said...

There are also religious movements that do gear themselves to the new mentality, e.g., the New Age, but they go badly off the rails.

Yes they do! So are we better off participating with the Big Box religions and hopefully influencing them over time, or just be a lonely Raccoon?

5/27/2014 10:48:00 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

Hmm, this post ties in nicely with this recent interview with Roger Scruton, in which he discusses his new book (a novel). If you skip to 10:50 and watch through 13:10, he describes the (paradoxical) loss with the gain of freedom/modernity in the Czech republic:

Notes from Underground

5/27/2014 10:50:00 AM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5/27/2014 12:31:00 PM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

" Another irony about the left is that they want their modernity -- at least parts of it -- but don't want to know about or have anything to do with the specific conditions that brought it about."

They want to have their modernity, but don't want to eat it too.

"... You know, teach an old dogma with some new tricks."

Woof. Woof.

5/27/2014 12:45:00 PM  
Blogger Brazentide said...

I'm not sure that big-box religion has fully kept up with the challenge of dealing with this new space and with these urgent questions.

Well put.

Pre-modern life was one of meaning, in search of comforts. Post modern life is one of comfort in search of meaning.

Sadly, many preachers still haven't figured this out.

5/27/2014 12:52:00 PM  
Blogger mushroom said...

It's a good thing we don't have to evolve to deal with slack -- not physically anyway. Some of us are more gifted than others in this regard.

In Heinlein's Glory Road, the protagonist talks about how a Frenchman could be happy "stacking coffee cups", but he wasn't able to do that.

Big Box religion makes me think "Church Depot" would be popular.

5/27/2014 01:47:00 PM  
Blogger Jack said...

Ted says: So are we better off participating with the Big Box religions and hopefully influencing them over time, or just be a lonely Raccoon?

This is something of a perennial question that I ask myself. It is easy to get stuck between the two options never really choosing either one. Thus opting for lonely raccoon by default.

I made two attempts at RCIA but I could never seem to make it across the divide.

p.s. "Big Box" Religion seems to be all to apt a description. Especially given some of the horrendous church architecture put up over the past 50 years or whatever. The main Catholic church here in my city reminds more of a spiritual bus station than a container of Ultimate Mystery. Oh well.

5/27/2014 03:57:00 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Jack:

You're not alone. Scoot to about 17 minutes in:

Why Beauty Matters

5/27/2014 04:42:00 PM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

Ted said "So are we better off participating with the Big Box religions and hopefully influencing them over time, or just be a lonely Raccoon?"

Isn't the obvious answer: Yes?

5/27/2014 05:26:00 PM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

Did Aquinas or Eckhart answer any differently?

5/27/2014 05:31:00 PM  
Blogger Jack said...

Van-

Most excellent answer... and helpful, as well.

5/27/2014 05:36:00 PM  
Blogger Jack said...

Rick-

Thank you for the link. I can only agree with Scruton on this. Though it seems obvious to me (as well as to others) it apparently isn't quite.

Most everyone I know thinks that this is something other than a monstrosity.

Though I did spend my four years of college at one of the last monuments to brutalist modernism. So I might have lost my stomach for such masterpieces.

Buildings like this and this.

Back in an 1981 article about the campus the ever reliable NYT's touted such misbegotten structures as reflecting the, and I quote, "innocence of the 60's". Yikes! No wonder I was depressed in college.

Anyway, I digress...

5/27/2014 06:03:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Reminds me of the new Catholic cathedral in Los Angeles. A one in a lifetime -- or longer -- chance to get it right, and they come up with this.

5/27/2014 06:27:00 PM  
Blogger Jack said...

Ouch.

5/27/2014 07:09:00 PM  
Blogger Van Harvey said...

Ugh, those are all so... not just soulless, but anti-soulful. Which is bad enough in a building, but in a cathedral - oh my God.

We mention the better known assaults in education, government, school, art, but often forget that some of the first real left hooks came from architecture. Both in building design and the redesign of neighborhoods - life was wrung out of them.

There really are no areas of our lives that haven't suffered the assaults of proRegressive corruption.

5/27/2014 09:01:00 PM  
Blogger Brazentide said...

Reminds me of the new Catholic cathedral in Los Angeles. A one in a lifetime -- or longer -- chance to get it right, and they come up with this.

Only in the shadow of that atrocity can the acquisition of the 'Crystal Cathedral' seem like a reasonable move.

Speaking of soul-crushing architecture, The St. Mary's Cathedral in Tokyo has all the charm of an interstellar trash compactor.

5/28/2014 08:57:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Wow. That is terrible.

5/28/2014 10:13:00 AM  
Blogger Joan of Argghh! said...

Not to mention modern Catholic music. Seriously, let's not talk about it.

5/30/2014 10:27:00 AM  

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