The Handholders

Suppose you were organizing a group intending to take political action on some pressing local issue, like new development projects in your neighborhood; or suppose you were running a meeting of the local Democratic, even Green, political party.  What would happen if you opened the meeting with Yoga stretches or mindfulness breathing, or suggested, at some point, that everyone circle up, hold hands, and sing a song?  You’d probably lose at least half your room at that very moment.  At best, you would henceforth be treated as some dippy freak, but more likely as someone who was perverting the culture and the legitimacy of political action.

But perverting it with what?  Probably with something like faith, or gratitude, or love—or worse, with ceremony or some sort of deep, but ephemeral, construction of unity and connection.  Such things are fine, even encouraged, if “done” in private.  But in public?  In conjunction with politics?  While the negative response to the singing and handholding might be instinctive and unarticulated, like a primitive taboo, I would propose that it actually points towards a major philosophical and political issue.  Our political culture is rooted in some sort of rationality or empiricism, aiming to achieve measurable results, and the damage that a spiritual or emotional dimension (other than anger)[i] might do to it is real.  But the visceral reaction this sort of happy-clappy[ii] hippy stuff would likely elicit, is indeed a valid, if unarticulated, defense of a certain kind of secular political culture.  But what sort of damage is being done?  What is it about our culture and the subculture of political or social action within it that is allergic not only to ritual, but to worship and celebration, the invocation of a group spirituality?

The answer to these questions has its origin not only in Enlightenment Reason, but in the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment (modernist) rejection of a certain kind of emotional life or spiritual unity as unfit for, even dangerous to, public life.  Earth Church, in turn, implicitly challenges this view of public life and politics.

Our own Transition Group in Milwaukee, during its heyday, would have been roughly split between those who were apt to introduce singing and handholding into our gatherings and those who might have been sweaty, squeamish, and uncomfortable in its presence.  While much of this has to do with habit and expectations, this squeamish discomfort marks a potential cultural divide and helps us ask a very important question: what sorts of non-Enlightenment, non-modernist values should be allowed into our political culture?  The handholding singers, I would suggest, believe at some level that we need a drastic cultural shift and that reason and observation, alone, cannot solve our problems or be used to confront our massive challenges.  They (we) are suggesting, in effect, that the Enlightenment is dead—or, at the very least, it needs big dose of its “other.”  The Squeamish, on the other hand, may, in effect be arguing, whether they are aware of this or not, that our current culture of rational dialogue and technocratic problem solving-contains all the tools we need to confront our larger global challenges and that by making our politics spiritual, we are going to lose legitimacy and our own good common sense—or worse, violate some fundamental principles of Liberal Individualism.  To this, I would counter, Liberal Individualism is largely responsible for our current problems, so have no fear of violating its principles!  Only do so carefully, for previous violations have not gone so well.

There was a time, I should note, at which I would have been the first out of the trench over the hill in the Squeamish Brigade; now I am one of the founding handholders of Earth Church.   What happened?  As I promised (threatened) in my introduction to Earth Church, I would eventually explain how I came to the still shores of Lake Michigan in search of quiet commune and something sacred.

What happened to this former evangelical atheist, indeed?  The answer has a lot to do with my own thoughts on our broader culture and innumerable cultural practices, all of which are part of the ecology of our society, our ways of life, and the way we confront challenges or solve problems.  I could answer this question by addressing any number of our current cultural beliefs and practices and how they relate to the issues (I can connect nothing with nothing, after all).  But because I am a philosophically oriented person, and have changed my philosophical beliefs quite radically over the past eight years or so, I will look at the some of the philosophical views that reinforce or undermine the political practices in question. 

More specifically, I want to talk about my changing views about Enlightenment Reason and, more specifically, “The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity,” a discourse which I adopted as a virtual religion in my formative intellectual years, but have worked hard to reassess in terms of sustainability and the limits of growth.  Over the past five years, let me note in passing, almost all of my writings have had as their theme the inadequacy of political liberals and philosophical Liberalism, alike, to confront our collision with the limits of growth.  Earth Church is in this way a consecration of this theme. [iii]

I want, then, to tell a story about modernity and postmodernity, and why perhaps something like Earth Church comes next.  Much of my thought and efforts surrounding these issues have been influenced by the Pope’s recent Encyclical Letter, “On Care for our Common Home.”  This does not mean I agree with all of the Pope’s conclusions, especially his faith in a supernatural being who handed us timeless truths by way of a series of texts that only need some moderate interpretation.  At best, I can advocate some sort of vague and ambiguous natural supernaturalism, but have misgivings about that, as well. 

Before turning to our story of modernity and postmodernity, I want to put down on the page two lines from the Pope’s writing.  They were not written as summaries and are probably obscure at best.  But they when given resonance they sound the depths of the modern technocracy that the Pope would like to replace with an integral ecology—an integral ecology which, in turn, I would like to celebrate with Earth Church. 

                 “We have too many means and only a few insubstantial ends.” 

                “Sobriety and humility were not favourably regarded in the last century.”

The Postmodern Condition

In his famous book whose name I have used in my section heading, Jean-Francois Lyotard defines knowledge in postmodernity as “incredulity towards metanarratives.”

What does this mean?  Let’s examine each key term in turn.  “Incredulity” of course means disbelief, but it has important connotations that will become more clear once we look at modernity and the erosion of belief throughout modernity.  But for now, let us note that incredulity is seen as a sort of authenticity whereby one does not fall for myths and illusions.  The postmodern intellectual is in this way skeptical and disillusioned, and, according to a sort of cultural temperament, lacking in a certain sort of collective enthusiasm.  These are not the guys leading cheers at a pep rally, nor are they singing songs at their political meetings.

By Metanarratives Lyotard is referring to grand and explanatory stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, modernity’s version of the sort of originary myths held by indigenous peoples.  A metanarrative is a story that legitimizes a certain kind of knowledge, giving it practical and theoretical authority.  In modernity, these were historical accounts of the way humans had, or could emancipate themselves from a varying cast of oppressors (tradition, capitalists, empires, colonialism, phallocentrism, phalogocentrism, hegemony in general).  The example most present in Lyotard’s mind, that of a French Philosopher living in an era when Marxism, along with Psychoanalysis and Existentialism, was in high fashion, was the emancipatory story told by Marx, about the bourgeoisie freeing humans from religion and tyrants, and then the proletariat emancipating humanity from the alienated labor and oppressive working conditions of capitalism and bourgeois society. What makes this a metanarrative is not only its scale, but also its scope, its ability to explain-away competing narratives and play host to all sorts of sub-narratives about culture, politics, art, or economic theory, all of which received their terms and concepts from their metanarrative, which, in turn, they would dutifully support.

American readers are probably more familiar with our own grand metanarrative—that of the freedoms modeled and protected by America over the past two hundred years, and how these freedoms can create a world of liberated people, living prosperously without the threat of undue government coercion.  This metanarrative represents only a minor revision of the metanarratives of the European Enlightenment.  The European Enlightenment promises humanity un-ending progress if it would only free itself, as Emmanuel Kant put it, “from its self-incurred tutelage.”  If, in other words, we ceased taking things on authority and thought for ourselves, Enlightenment Philosophers believed, we could solve all the problems that had beset humans over the ages. 

Finally, although more allegorical than modernist metanarratives, Christianity is another familiar metanarrative, explaining humanities’ fall from grace and eventual redemption through faith.  Like modernist metanarratives, it sets out to explain every aspect of human experience, including its tendency to fall for other, false (or idolatrous) metanarratives, in precisely the way a psychoanalyst might explain the neurotic propensity of humans to believe in religions.

In postmodernity, at any rate, none of these metanarratives have the holding power that they once did, at least not for the critical intellectual.  We may employ parts of these narratives for their heuristic value or as a model used to explain something provisionally; but to adopt a single one with complete abandon and an absence of skepticism requires one to ignore all sorts of competing evidence, excluded voices, and equally viable (or similarly unviable) alternatives.  “Truth,” rather, is a performance within a “language game” that may have rules, based on social context or discipline (there are political language games, philosophical language games, scientific language games, and so on, each with its own set of rules), but that fails to have the overreaching power to create meaningful social bonds.

Although those not immersed in the philosophical tradition that Lyotard and other postmodernists follow to these shared conclusions, it is not too difficult to find lots of examples of this sort of incredulity across our culture.  Knowledge is fragmented and fractured, while our lives do not have an integrated unity, but a series of “spheres” (like work, religion, political belief, recreation) which may be entirely incompatible with each other.   Art is a pastiche, often of the ugly or the same, a rejection of the myth of the sublime and the beautiful; novels and film play with the notion of reality, with multiple and shifting perspectives, music is often characterized by its “sampling,” or, with punk rock, the notion that anyone can play fast it, and should.  The old-fashioned rebel had a bumper-sticker that said, “Question Authority.”  But the keener postmodern critic knows that there is no authority and tells us, instead, to “Question Reality.”  That no one journalistic authority like Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite maintains near-universal credibility is part of this condition.  Instead, as it is easy to see, the news and the truths about our society are split into thousands of non-hierarchical competing sources each vying for its characteristic postmodern 15 minutes of fame, each with a separate vision of reality and a highly branded kind of “truthiness.” 

For many people living today, this seems like the natural and inevitable order of things, even to the extent that it may not seem noticeable.  Because skepticism and disbelief form the background of so many aspects of our culture, others are likely to notice insurgent and resurgent attempts to create new Metanarrative (like that of the Christian right) as the dominant feature of our culture.  But, as of yet, a new metanarrative has done little to upset our postmodern condition.  The story of Peak Oil, I should also note, forms a kind of metanarrative, as well.  It has been as successful in grabbing public attention for more than a fleeting moment (as gas prices may rise) as any other competing story about why things are the way they are.

The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity

By looking at postmodernity’s predecessor culture, it is possible to at once see our current incredulity more vividly and get a sense of where it came from.  The “Philosophical Discourse of Modernity” (PDM) is the name Jurgen Habermas has used to describe a tradition in philosophy and the social sciences that has, over the past two centuries, has responded to the Enlightenment challenge of freeing ourselves from tradition and using our own Reason to set ourselves free. 

In so doing, the PDM has set out to answer major questions facing humanity through reason and observation—questions like, how should we Iive?, how is morality defined?, how shall we organize ourselves politically? What are the criteria for a valid statement?  In the pre-modern period, or in indigenous societies, these questions were answered by way of revealed religion, traditional ways, stories and parables, or longstanding myths about origins and destiny.  Here, ceremony and the sacred have been integral to these questions and their answers.  Song, dance, the expression of sorrow and joy were a part of the way people addressed these “issues” (as we now call them) for most of human history.  In the modern period, in contrast, only cool Reason, aided by dispassionate observation are deemed a legitimate way to approach fundamental human questions. Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer famously described PDM as a tradition of demythologizing; following the Enlightenment, the Philosophical Discourse of Modernity was determined to remove the myths that people lived by. 

All this talk of Reason–which has initially promised clear vistas and what Thomas Jefferson optimistically referred to as an Empire of Liberty–is partially misleading.  One of the interesting features of PDM, is how quickly it began tripping over the challenges and difficulties inherent in grounding questions of morality or the good life in Reason.  Reason was not as pure as Descartes made it sound, while observation was not as foolproof as Francis Bacon or John Locke assumed.  Coming up with philosophically and scientifically defensible truths about human life, in other words, was no easy business.  It had to remain constantly on guard against false “truths.”  It is for this reason, then, that its start, PDM was as interested in the limits to reason as it was in the power of reason, of reason gone astray or that overstretched its limits.  This, after all, was the main point of Immanuel Kant’s magnum opus,  The Critique of Pure Reason, a response to the less troubled rationality and empiricism of his immediate predecessors (predecessors, we should note, who established the terms used to describe and defend Liberal democracies and free trade capitalism).

Although Kant was skeptical of the claims of people like Descartes or the British Empiricists that they had found ready access to complete and full rationality, Kant left his reader, and modern intellectual culture, with plenty of abundant and stable land upon which reason could still plant its flag.  Kant still believed we could pretty much crack the riddle of human life by way of Reason, as long as it was “critical reason,” reason that was guarded against its own excesses or too-easy conclusions.   But ever since Kant’s first modern analysis  of the limits of reason (in the name of a more trustworthy reason) Reason’s domain has shrunk and eroded, with rising waters of doubt and ambiguity lapping at the shrinking Island of Certainty’s shifting sandy shores.  What we can claim to know and say with certainty, in other words, has had to inhabit an increasingly narrow area within the broader expanse of “reality,” even as our technological prowess has increased unchecked, and uncheckable by any sort of philosophical proclamations about how we should live.

The problem that Kant first sensed, and that has been expanded upon by those such as Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, to name just a few,  is that every time reason thought it had dealt with and overcome all possible sources of skepticism a new one emerged, and often from within.  Every attempt to find solid ground for truth claims or for empirical facts about human sociability, politics, and commerce, ended up constructing a new kind of mythology, which the next generation would then have to “deconstruct” in order to emancipate itself into an ever-hazier and dim twilight of Reason.   Thus did Marx demystify bourgeois economic freedom, but create the myth of the proletariat as the true subject of history.  Thus did Freud demystify the sovereignty of consciousness, but create a new myth of interpretation and the master-interpreter.   Thus did Nietzsche show that “the truth” was never disinterested and almost always a mask trying to hide will and power, while spawning a quarrelsome family of new myths which settled across the political spectrum. 

Sometimes these new myths were clearly hazardous; others seemed rather benign, whether we’re talking about the quest for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” or the search for the “authentic self” of various existentialisms starting with Nietzsche’s or Kierkegaard’s.   But there were always “externalized voices” in these schemes, Reason’s other, Heidegger’s  inauthentic “they.”  Real lives, to put it in practical terms, were deemed acceptable collateral damage in the march of progress or in the white male pursuit of happiness (and property), or in the pronouncement of authentic being.  And, as a constant blow to philosophy, the mere existence and constant reemergence of the Other showed that the latest “ultimate vision of reality” had not, as it claimed, finally solved human problems, an observation supported by wars, empires, and oppression now performed on a global and industrial scale.

The mother of all myths–the one which highlighted the myth-making potential of modern reason for Adorno and Horkheimer–gave birth to Hitler’s Reich.  True, Nazism appeared as the rejections of reason; but it employed tools conceived in the modernist quest for the authentic self, and it relied upon a precise technocratic kind of organization and logistics that represents a pinnacle of instrumental Rationality.  As Francis Bacon put it, “knowledge is power.”  The Nazis of course were history’s “bad guys.”  But, we should note, at the very same time, (empirically-minded) British leaders had no question about veracity of the “White Man’s Burden.”  Winston Churchill, that great lion of democracy, thought it ludicrous that dark skinned people might be able to govern themselves, and the British Empire, like the American, has a much bloodier history than we are apt to remember and was justified with the same sort of post-Enlightenment myth-making.  

The Birth of the ISelf

By the middle of the last century, at any rate, modernity had begun to give way to postmodernity.  What does this mean?  It was becoming widely apparent to those who had studied these things intently, that nearly every claim to reason, truth, or logic suffered from at least one instance of a related species of problems:  at best it was really an expression of someone’s time and place despite all claims of timelessness and universality.  More often, though, such claims reflected someone’s immediate economic interests, a national psychopathology, the unwillingness to see some members of our species as true humans, an indifference to limitations imposed by race, gender, class, or sexuality.   Once Reason and criticism had been unleashed in place of god, and then upon its own internal failings, there was no god’s eye view left to be found—just one, and another, and another, perspective that was human, all too human.   Every claim, “this is how we should live,” seemed to legitimize violence, or oppression at least, on those who lived in other ways. 

Around the end of World War II, then, Adorno, Horkheimer, and others, agreed that the emperor of Reason had no clothes.  But the atrocities and the terrors of unreason seen in recent history demanded that a critical position grounded in Reason somehow be maintained, or so many would argue.  One could not simply throw up one’s hands and abandon oneself to myths, whatever their origin, for that’s what the Nazis has appeared to have done.  Reason led to myth, but only Reason could still identify these myths.  Reason must therefore guard against itself.  As Michel Foucault pointed out, we can neither avoid nor answer the question, “What is Enlightenment?”

This critical position of reason against itself, locked in serious battle, describes most European philosophy of the second half of the twentieth century.  Much of this philosophy, with some merit, but also a lot of ignorance, is lumped together as “deconstruction.”  Many thinkers working at the end of the Philosophical Discourse of Modernity often seemed unnecessarily abstruse as they attempted to find a way to say something not already discredited by the PDM, looking for a critical stance that could not be readily transformed into a lethal myth.  But I read them like great poets, in a sense, whose density and difficulty is at once a symptom of and an elucidation of the limits of reason and a society that remains in the grips both of reason’s myths and its demythologizing predisposition. 

These problems–the fact that our society desperately needs a critical philosophy, but has no Truths upon which it might be safely grounded–are those that keep the postmodern critical intellectual awake at night.  We are children of the Enlightenment with an immersive education in the way humans create illusions to control each other.  We cannot turn readily towards revealed religion or ancient myths, for our ethnologists clearly show the way these were human constructions designed to control each other or themselves.  But Reason has also turned in on itself, revealing its own limitation.  The best we could hope for, at some level, was to free ourselves from illusions, but with nowhere to turn, this left us literally and figuratively disillusioned.  The black clothes, heavy smoking, celebration of kitsch and artificiality was but one cultural manifestation visible not only in some corners of intellectual culture near the end of the twentieth century, but also in art, music, fashion, and film.  This was the vested spearhead of a culture that could only dismantle and deconstruct.  Sincerity was dead and authenticity a sham.  That left only irony. 

And yet tor most people, even intellectually oriented activists, this seemed like too much high-seriousness on the part of a self-enchained Sisyphus, all in the name of some pointless stand-off, whose origin in the fields of The Somme or the gas chambers of Auschwitz seemed increasingly remote from current events.  Fast forward, then, to the turn of this century.  The post-Hegelian dog-tricks of avant-garde French philosophers seemed increasingly tiresome.  Disillusioned graduate students may have started families and even begun jogging.  After all, free-trade capitalism has no real rivals or alternatives and a “radical” philosophy seemed unnecessary as women and minorities were able to begin, at least, to sit equally at the table of prosperity and influence, appealing only to basic principles of fairness.  Prosperity seems to be on the rise while major international conflicts may be in decline.  Technology, education, and a shot at a modest and reasonable middle class life, it is generally assumed by educated elites, is not only the right of all the Earth’s peoples, but may be within its grasp.  What if reason standing only meekly against itself, no one ever pushing too hard, was a perfectly fine end point for modernity and its philosophical discourse.  Perhaps history, in the grand sense, was over.  Perhaps we don’t need philosophy, for philosophy always turns itself into religion, and only the religious kill their enemies.

The solution to this, the postmodern conditions?  Keep philosophy simple and pragmatic.  Give philosophy the tools to put out brushfires, but keep it free from the desires to set the entire globe ablaze in the name of some new truth or authentic being.  As Richard Rorty argued, we need campaigns, not movements—efforts to spot obvious injustices and extinguish them through dialogue and investment and stories of compassion.  We don’t need a new theory of humans and their relationship to truth and meaning, or to historical destiny; we just need to use our reason to solve problems.  We don’t need wise sages; we need good managers, a smarter planet.  To the disillusioned artist or intellectual the message is: you can still have your irony, just don’t make yourselves or other miserable with it.  Live a little.  Buy yourself a nice SUV if you get a cushy academic job.   Travel.  Drink fine wine.  Become a good liberal.

In some of its versions, and in this vein, deconstruction had already freed itself from Adorno and Horkheimer’s serious, post-war vigilance, abandoning itself to play and jouissance.  Reason against itself and its myth-making tendencies didn’t need to be so grave some suggested; it might dance joyfully in the ruins of reason, yet happy to salvage a useful tool to employ against any upstarts taking their new beliefs too seriously.   Like our commerce, truths (with a small “t”) might be given a sort of “exchange value,” to be employed in Lyotard’s “language games.”  If we could not get rid of myths once and for all, what if our culture could keep them small and unambitious, contained within the fantasy life of a bourgeois consumer, aesthete, or activist alike?  From within this culture, just as late modernists philosophers have described it, there is no place of leverage against this culture that is not another expression of the same culture, now the culture of the ISelf.   If there was no god’s eye view that might tell us how to live, as the Philosophical Discourse of Modernity had painfully and arduously revealed, step by erosive step, then let us revel in our human wants and desires whatever they are, as long as they don’t reach too far outside of one’s private life.

This frees us from the need to answers to the question “how should we live?”, at least in any grand manner.   Each individual is free to create his or her own self, and then recreate it, buy, trade, or sell it, and then recreate another again.  “You” recall, were Time Magazine’s Person of the Year less than a decade ago, what with your IPhone, IPad, and IPod, My Documents, My Pictures, My Space, my face, that I put on to meet the friends that I meet, on Facebook.  We don’t need to ground our lives in reason or truth (and certainly not in tradition or revelation); rather, creative imagining, along with a billion bits of data, is all we need.  God is not dead, he’s your personal trainer, investment advisor, or career coach; he’s your most enthusiastic Facebook friend.  This, in a word, is the basis of Liberalism—neutrality towards differing versions of the good life, as Bert Van Den Brink would put it.

But even in this less serious and more pragmatic post-modernism religion remains off-limits or at most a personal lifestyle choice.  Like the Paris Climate Agreement, religion (like morality?) is at best aspirational, with no real binding demands on the ISelf.  A binding, serious religion, in contrast is the most ambitious myth or metanarrative, whether in the hands of fundamentalist Christians or Muslims, or overly zealous climate activists and doctrinaire Marxists waging guerilla offensives, no one having told them the war had been over for years.  Note the way modern, Liberal culture can dismiss without further explanation any sort of appeal that may limit freedom and consumption or that attempts to create emotional unity as “religious.”  “You’re being religious” is the ultimate insult to the liberal and radical alike.  To be religious in your approach is, like our Handholders, to violate some equally fundamental rules of contemporary political culture and public life—a place where nothing can be sacred, for sacred means untouchable and therefore unavailable for consumption or amusement .  The sacred, if taken seriously, trumps individual want.  It says, “no, you can’t have that.”  In their scorn towards “being religious,” the liberal reformer is at one with the Marxist or Nietzschean critic.  This prohibition stand at the heart of modernist culture even as it has turned itself into dust.

I am not by any means the first to notice how the deconstruction of Reason into language games and instrumental truths fits so neatly with contemporary consumer culture and the basic precepts of Liberal Individualism.  Here, society—and now religions and philosophy—are not supposed to tell us what we should demand and desire.  The very same discourse that modernist philosophy had dismantled was precisely the discourse that might suggest that these desires were constructed by an ideology or were party to some far reaching form of repression or inauthenticity, or were denuded of some essential human quality.  The conclusion is the same: there is no philosophically valid way to tell people how they should live.  Therefore all we can do is leave them to their own devices and set up some limited laws to keep everyone from stepping on each other’s toes.

Lots of Means but No Ends

This liberal and post-modern credo of self-actualization, where morality is a “life-style” and religion is selected at the all you can eat buffet (unless you want to leave room for just desert)—this isn’t the worst way to live.  Or at least it isn’t if you have enough to eat, the promise of security, choices and options, and enough surplus to exercise such options.  One of the liberal, end of history, myths is that most people live like this, or could if they adopted our laws and form of commerce—one of many such myths, of course. [iv] And even then, all of this ignores the spectre of climate change and ecological destruction, and the depletion of key non-renewable resources.  Like WWII and the Holocaust, the coming climate crisis and all the displacement and violence it is likely to precipitate is just the sort of event to knock truth-as-language-game off its feet, and give rise to movements, perhaps revolutions, rather than campaigns.  The recent resurgence of the negative grandiosity of Adorno and Horkheimer is no coincidence, as critical intellectuals try to roll-back the Philosophical Discourse of Modernity to a place where some leverage, or at least gravity, might be found.

It is in this same environment, moreover, that Pope Francis has found his opportunity and achieved his ascendancy.[v]  In the face of a cataclysm, one caused in large part by the unrestrained desires of the ISelf, it is anything but surprising to witness a resurgent longing for a new metanarrative (peak oil is one such metanarrative) or for a god’s eye view of things.  And when it comes to finding a god’s eye view, the Pope has a leg up on the rest of us, whether or not we accept his conclusions.

One of the most interesting contributions of Pope Francis, for me, is his assessment of modernity and, by association, its Philosophical Discourse.  Although the Pope is careful not to overstate the case against modernity (in large part for political rather than ideological or theological reasons by my interpretation) there is also a sense in which he wraps the whole period into a unified whole and ties it together, packed for history’s dustbin, with a definition that includes the Enlightenment, Liberal Individualism as well as  Modernism and Postmodernism and its ironic discontents,: “technocracy.”  Technocracy refers to the dominance of radical anthropomorphism and the attempted self-removal of humans from nature.  In valuing the individual above all else, technocracy unleashes waves of destructive wants, desires, and demands, at once fragmenting community, the self, knowledge and belief, and the ecology in which all must be sustained.  Knowledge, in modernity, becomes overwhelmingly calculative and pragmatic.  This is all that is left, Francis would say, after the inevitable erosion of the Enlightenment project of replacing God with Reason.  He would agree with my interpretation of PDM, that the Enlightenment project was, as the great Alisdair MacIntyre has argued, destined to fail and erode into the triumph of the ISelf.  The Pope’s solution, is to toss out the whole discourse and return to the Revelation and ancient wisdom that the Enlightenment attempted to usurp.[vi]

Although he elaborates on the failings of technocratic society, fragmented thinking, and instrumental reason at length, I think he captures the whole of it about as well as is possible in the phrase I cited above:  “We have too many means and only a few insubstantial ends.”  Liberalism in a nutshell, with its ban on telling people how to live, offering them only the technologies to live the way they choose better, or, rather, with greater quantities.  Modernity in nutshell, with the erosion of a discourse able to say how we should live, but at the same time an explosion in technological power.  Our ecological predicament in a nutshell, with our power to do, but a lack of any bearing telling us where or how we might best do it.  We can do, make, and have more than any other people in all of history, but we have no idea how to control or direct it.  Our foot is on the accelerator, but we have no steering wheel: that would be “too religious.”  Or as Francis elaborates on it, “This paradigm leads people to believe that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. But those really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power. Amid this confusion, postmodern humanity has not yet achieved a new self-awareness capable of offering guidance and direction, and this lack of identity is a source of anxiety. We have too many means and only a few insubstantial ends.”

Charity, Chastity, Prudence, and Hope[vii]

I want to bring this back to Earth Church, handholding and singing, and my admittedly desperate stab at a new way forward, by way of the other phrase I quoted above.  Reflecting upon modernity and its principled irreverence and irony, Francis remarks, “Sobriety and humility were not favourably regarded in the last century.”  Nor was reverence.  Nor a sense of the sacred.  Nor limits.  For all of these implied limits on consumption, on our monomania of more, on the flaunting of our potent means.  Like thoughtful ends, such virtues are not cool.  The troubled cool of modernity has been replaced by the ubiquitous and untroubled cool of postmodernity, which has been all about cool, about having a good time, all the time… no worries, dude; it’s all good.  When it is not flaunting the power of positive thinking and the prosperity that will follow, even religion has tried to become cool, with its bearded and tattooed youth ministers, bringing along a little pot and looking away while everyone enjoys their first hand-job.  But now our planet has becoming too hot for us to remain cool.[viii]

None of what I am discussing appears in any philosophical doctrines, which is why it is difficult to describe.  Modernism was not, of course, the first tradition to maintain guarded emotions.  But the way in which modernists guarded them is worth considering.  To put it somewhat allegorically, it has not guarded its emotions with sobriety and humility—rather, just the opposite.  Piety and reverence have been clear indications of a lack of awareness about the myth-making power of modern discourse: they suggest that one has fallen for a false solution or cheap illusion.  Better to maintain some distance, remain uncommitted, stand at the perimeter with arms folded, not unlike the future intellectuals who remain unmoved, if not embarrassed, by their high school pep rallies and their call for compulsory enthusiasm.  To join, to celebrate with earnestness was to lack discrimination; and the demands of Reason (or criticism) in an unreasonable world require precisely this discrimination, this irony, this diffidence, this disillusionment  I am not suggesting that irony wasn’t the best available response to modern myths. 

Perhaps the grip has loosened.  For our world is yet more complicated than that of the postmodern era.  Or perhaps different things are merely at stake.  Irony may help one avoid a terrible illusion, as well, more realistically, as a few distinct excesses of consumer capitalism (while enjoying some others).  But it is mainly useless in the face of our climate crisis.  This, at any rate, represents my understanding of our predicament.  The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity offers little equipment for living and no tools for curtailment.  It unleashes our greatest anthropomorphic beasts in the name of  drunken hubris. 

If one is a born believer, the Pope may offer a legitimate solution.   But what about those of us who are unwilling to turn our irony into unquestioning acceptance of two-thousand year old desert poetry or any of the other revelations among which we must choose, and choose according to some criteria?  I, for one, am increasingly bereft of any of the intellectual tools which I have inherited.  True, I cannot help, at times, but roll-back the unfolding Philosophical Discourse of Modernity to one of its places of higher ground, drawing on Adorno or Marx to make a point about history or agency.   And yes, I can gain insight from indigenous ways and try to incorporate some of its wisdom into my life without gross appropriation.  But this hardly offers a complete roadmap for the curtailment activist living in post-peak, post-industrial, consumption-driven America.

But perhaps we can accept the Pope’s suggestion of humility and sobriety without his god’s eye view.  What happens if we accept our vulnerability, become openly stricken by the way of life which we can only partially abandon?  Undone by loss, skeptical of Reason, God, and even of the power of skepticism, what can we do with each moment of our lives?  Perhaps, now, a song, and a hug.  A belief in something more than ourselves as we listen to the waves and the birds, and therefore a belief that everything is not ours for the taking.  Perhaps a circle of friends, being together without doing anything but being, and listening.  Perhaps we can only love till we’ve loved it away.  Running to the woods, as did that other great critic of improved means to an unimproved end, is not a viable solution today; but we can still gather around some trees and work and hope, and hope that our dreams bind our work to our play.[ix]

Is Earth Church, like prayer, the last refuge of the doomed?  Perhaps.  But it is a beautiful place to live, and die, as one day we all must.   And suppose you were organizing a group to confront, maybe even try to heal, the sorrow of a world that has lost its way, and lost all its valid guidebooks as well?  Perhaps a new development project that we don’t need is being planned in your neighborhood that offers convenience and bargain-priced goods in exchange for some remaining woodland.  You might begin your meeting simply by breathing, feeling the shared air go in and go out.  You might want to draw close to your friends and feel their warmth and love.  Now let’s take each other’s hands and sing.  How is everyone feeling?, we go around the circle and say a word or two, maybe more.   Someone may shed a tear.  Everyone else listens intently and hears.   Now, perhaps, we are ready to go and do something.


[i] The safe emotion

[ii] ; )

[iii] It might be suggested that Earth Church represents as coherent an anti-rationalism as the one tested by “hippy” peace and love movements, but with less reasonable life expectancy.  Perhaps.   Reason has always spawned its Romantics as a sort of counter-culture, as early as Wordsworth’s response to the Enlightenment.  But, as I later suggest, events on the ground (and literally this time in our atmosphere) may make this burst of eros and mythos more significant.

[iv] Consider the way liberalism and Reason founders on its own shales.  This is even true when the only dictum left standing is “be tolerant of others,” a problem visible today in the European debate over Burkas.  At the best, Reason will always end up in an embarrassing position of limiting freedom in the name of freedom, of being intolerant to promote a culture of tolerance; in this process it will turn to old myths, or create new ones, of national self-hood or of the free modern consumer-citizen threatened by traditional vestiges, or a rational market hampered only be regulation.

[v] The Pope’s writing suggests sound acquaintance with Adorno and Horkheimer, and the rest of the Frankfurt School, as well as Alisdair MacIntyre, who I mention later.

[vi] This is an overstatement, for Francis does maintain many Enlightenment values.  He does not, however, present a convincing epistemology according to which we might synthesize diverse traditions.  Though at this point, neither can I.  Epistemological ambiguity and confusion, however, may be a legitimate response to the failure of epistemology.  But, as someone like Derrida would argue, ignoring this defining discourse may, on the other hand, be merely to reinhabit it naively.  Time will tell which and to what extent.

[vii] Minneapolis in the 80s  . . . I can’t help myself.

[viii] I have long wanted to do a genealogy of “cool,” a ubiquitous and universal, and entirely unquestioned, term of approbation that nevertheless has unmistakable connotations of technology, emotional invulnerability, consumption, hedonistic license, and indifference to consequences.   That one of my four and a half year old boys recently told me that I am not cool, let alone the very fact that he can grasp its import, redoubles this intention.   Explosions are cool; Thomas the Train and Daniel Tiger are not.  As a footnote to this endnote, one could easily divide the cannon of Western philosophy into the cool and uncool.  Nietzsche, of course, is the coolest, Kant one of the most uncool.  Derrida and Foucault, no doubt, are cool; their hapless critics, like John Searle, are clearly uncool as were all the priggish traditionalists who wanted to ban French Philosophy from departments of English and Comparative Literature in the name of sacred reverence for Jane Austin and E.M. Forster.  Moralists are uncool; rebels, cause or not, are cool.

[ix] Thank you Bob Franke


Photo credit: By Ildar Sagdejev (Specious) – Own work, GFDL,