De-Fragmenting Modernity

De-Fragmenting Modernity August 9, 2018

A couple of excellent passages from Paul Tyson’s De-Fragmenting Modernity.

First, this on how modernity’s “immanent frame” (Charles Taylor) not only prevents governments from addressing social problems, but actually creates conditions that cultivate the problem in the first place (2-3):

“At a policy level, we are more or less locked into seeing ‘mental health’ answers to the youth suicide problem, so we put psychologists at the front line of strategic planning to reverse the problem. But to do so is to define the limits of what ‘the problem’ can and cannot be, regardless of whether those limits actually define our real problem. . . . if youth suicide is at least in part symptomatic of a cultural and community malaise . . . treating self-harming individuals is not going to address the real problem. . . . If we define psychological ‘health’ as simply what is functionally normative to any given shared way of life . . .  there is something inherently misguided about pathologizing a ‘natural’ feature of that life-form without asking if the life-form itself is pathological.”

He brings in Durkheim’s early study of suicide for support: “Since Durkheim, sociologists have known that one of the characteristic features of structuring society around high levels of negative freedom is a certain background level of despair and anomia. That is, when modern liberal societies are set up so that individuals can please themselves and choose their own values and beliefs as much as possible . . . collective customs of appropriate behavior and common religious and ethical belief structures are seriously diluted. At a certain level of dilution, this dynamic dissolves the shared customary framework of a common way of living governed by shared beliefs about cosmic order. This renders power structures bleakly functional and impersonal, meaning subjective and insubstantial, and behavior norms . . . highly plastic and uncertain. This produces anomia and despair: confusion about cosmic order expressed as a debilitating existential anxiety about one’s own and other people’s intentions, identity, and significant.”

In short, “our policy makers may well be trying to solve the problem of youth suicide without seeing the problem as it really is.” They help youth adjust to the social norms of liberal society, which may have contributed to their suicidal tendencies in the first place.

In a later chapter, he examines the public character of belief. Early Christian belief was “highly political,” since it challenged the Lordship of Caesar that was “vital to the public cultus of the Roman Empire” (50). In liberal society, belief is privatized; only factual knowledge counts in public.

But secular liberalism doesn’t us free, as it claims, to believe as we like (51-2):

“Liberal secularism is itself a violent regulator of ‘private’ belief. You can believe whatever you like, provided you do not believe that your personal beliefs are actually objectively true, or matter in any public way. You can have whatever personal loyalties you like, provided you give uncompromising public loyalty to the state in which you are born, to the liberal and secular laws it mandates, and . . . accept its total power over coercive violence. . . . in reality, we have a single public cultus, and private cultus pluralism. . . . Because the realm of objectivity is tightly conceptually tied to mere facticity and mere instrumental efficacy, technology has increasingly displaced humanity in the arena of public power. The technologies of public-opinion manipulation that the mass media uses, and that politicians seek to harness, and that large corporations use with their staggeringly large lobbying, advertising, legal and accounting budgets, makes the public square anything but a realm that reflects the religious or moral values, or even the actual workplace and economic interests of the people that democratic government is meant to represent. So in reality, the cross-over from non-coerced personal beliefs into the public realm of civic debate and legal construction is powerfully shaped by the supposedly merely efficient and merely factual forces of what in fact highly interested and personally invasive political technologies. Our supposedly personal beliefs and values are relentlessly disciplined by advertising so as to promote an atomic self with our desires always directed toward personal satisfaction via must-have goods and services, and the financial means of attaining them. In fact, there are no hard boundaries between the personal and the public, but we are fed relentless solipsistic diet of myths and illusions such that our self is radically de-politicized and beliefs concerning all matters of final significance are radically interiorized and made passive in relation to the world we inhabit.”

An interior conception of belief, in short, aids and abets secular liberal order, an order interferes with those interior beliefs, even while claiming to protect our right to make up our own conception of reality.

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