A Postmodern Conservatism? Part IV

A Postmodern Conservatism? Part IV January 23, 2009

A Postmodern Conservatism? Part I
A Postmodern Conservatism? Part II
A Postmodern Conservatism? Part III

Previous considerations have stated that postmodernism need not abandon all attempts to find foundational meaning or truth (according to the philosopher Peter Lawler, postmodernism properly understood is a form of realism, and much of what passes for the term is actually “hyper-modernism,” a thought to be explored further at a later date). There is, in other words, recognition that philosophy has limits, and that rationalism – perhaps the most consistent underpinning of modernist projects – cannot very well address the inherent mysteries of existence. Following Edmund Burke and his chief American popularizer, Russell Kirk, I would like to expand upon this point.

Within a transcendent, religious context (a humble approach to an unseen order was viewed by Burke and Kirk viewed as foundational for the good life of the person and the community) I have previously suggested that incredulity toward “metanarratives” is directed toward the subjective and mediated understandings of, for example, salvation history (truth) presented as salvation history itself (Truth), or reducing “The Way, The Truth, and the Life” – which Catholic Christianity emphatically states refers to a historical person – to a totalizing series of propositions. This is a point that Kyle Cupp and the bloggers at Culture11 have made repeatedly.

This is why I have contended both postmodernism and the “Burkean” conservatism to which Kirk aspired possess important commonalities in a rejection of the autonomous self and in a reception of the social construction of life by tradition and custom, developing and perpetuating meaning through learned practices and the symbolisms of expression. What might be generalized of the cultural impact and communicative language that would allow for comparisons? In both of these large terms (postmodernism and conservatism) is an earnest epistemology – a critique countering themes of modernity – as well as an arch cultural schtick of persuasion, something less philosophically serious and more culturally aesthetic.

In these considerations of Kirk and postmodernism, his “moral imagination,” and postmodern rhetorical construction, I recognize that the term “postmodern” is a large and often confused one. Here I follow Bruce Gronbeck’s portrayal of postmodern rhetorical critique: the base of sociality is rhetorical and social relationships are constructed, maintained, repaired, and altered rhetorically, through systems of discourse that humans use to build reciprocal roles. He asserts, “without faith in discursivity, human bonds are destroyed,” and that “there are no foundations not only for institutional life – politics, education, economics, religion – but no fundament from which the idea of meaning itself can arise.” Life contains mutual influence grounded in “shared meaning structures, that is, grounded in rhetorical transactions.”

Thus a point made previously: a totalizing theorist, by contrast, partaking in the universalist and abstract, essentially rejects the incomprehensibility of the human creation through a determination to correct its ills by addressing the whole, and is less concerned with personal sin. The intersection of Kirk’s Catholic Christianity, his conservatism, and the postmodern rhetorical constructions is an understanding and acceptance of the unknowable, internalized so as to scorn promises to unlock the mysteries and uncertainties of life. These variations of conservatism and postmodernism recognize that humans are situated in time and place; and the products of time and place cannot be separated from temporality. The ideologies opposed by conservatives and the meta-narratives opposed by postmodernists turn the temporal into the eternal, the developing into the absolute, and truth into Truth. Kirk’s persuasion was a conservative sentiment anti-ideological in that it opposed making thought and practice – things intimately rooted in time and place – into bloodless abstractions uprooted from reality.

In Kirk’s concept of anti-ideology, there was embrace of an “intellectual openness toward reality”: the immediate realities of social, economic, and political relations, as well as the divine reality, all viewed through personal experiences and bias. Conservatives, like all others, cannot say much about themselves. Yet they must pretend no firm system of ideas about the means to deal with life’s troubles. This method was evident in Kirk’s construction of a conservative intellectual tradition. Using several well-known, well-respected historical figures, he evoked a past from which conservatives could draw their guiding principles and models. His books, essays, lectures, and mentorship contributed to the “future” and also “wrote” the past. The figures lionized in his work forged an “identity” capable of noteworthy rebellion against an ascendant post-war American liberalism. The books were works of “genealogy,” a “recovery” of figures and principles and a significant act of imaginative historical scholarship, accomplished through a deliberate attempt to dramatize the past. These were thinkers and actors who saw that the modern world’s intention to transform aspects of its disappointments – including, possibly, human nature itself – was a failure.

As a Catholic, Kirk affirmed that humanity does possess the ability to live well. He was influenced by “New Humanist” critics such as Irving Babbitt and Paul More; their contention that works of history and literature could serve as moral uplift was a lasting influence. And postmodernism, in its acceptance of the sentimental imagination as a conduit of appreciation for the inexpressible, laments that the altar of rationality and ideological construction too often work to separate humanity from historical existence, an existence that should be open to historical narrative as fictional construction. For Kirk, this was not an elevation of the arbitrary or a denunciation of fact and truth, but an incorporation of the concept of the good and the limits of knowledge into the conduct of life. He saw such a sentiment as a humbled acknowledgment of the mystery that dominates all stages of human existence. Ordered societal explanations of totality were to be avoided not only because humans cannot access them, but because it was not wise to human nature to try. The totalitarian temptation is too well established. Humans, Kirk communicated to his audience, cannot fulfill human desire.

He highlighted the importance of custom, deference to the habits formed through trial and error, as the expression of a people’s collective experience. There should be “that body of literature which helps us to form the normative consciousness of the rising generation: that is, to enliven the moral imagination.” Kirk describes himself as a “historian and diagnostician,” not as one who has labored to offer “facile remedies for our present bent condition.” This approach – “history as literature” – engages the language of a text by committing to an imagining of a world where certain declarations of significance are valued and others are not. Kirk’s use of language was an inherently ethical and political activity. He thought about the human condition, and those figures serving as positive (“men of vision”) or negative examples, by comparison to a greater good. A purpose of his writings about history and literature was to bequest a common culture, ethical and intellectual, so that readers might be united through the works of the mind. The language of reverence and mystery was a calling to a higher purpose, a challenge to look beyond the temporary and toward an order which holds things in their place. This variant of postmodernism was not an attack on truth, virtue, or a divine foundation but enticement to join a community to discuss truth, goodness, beauty, and all of the transcendent things that give life meaning. The truth of revelation inspires awe, reverence, and humility. There is a power of ethical perception beyond private experience and temporal, momentary events. Even so, there is no conceptual formula that reduces the reality of an unseen order gradually, partially revealed to a human nature properly attuned to it into a discursive syllogism.

To convey the notion to innovate is not to reform, and to reflect upon how a conservative critique of human nature and affairs might impact discussion about the role of government, Kirk from his earliest writings pondered underlying realities of human experiences (elusive and inexpressible as they were). Spiritual voids “addressed” by the fleeting pursuits of pleasure should be met, in his view, not by the variations of technical pursuit. The discipline of the mind, the instillation of prudence, the presentation of a coherent body of ordered knowledge across subjects, and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake better fulfilled human emptiness. And rising generations must be helped to make their way toward wisdom and virtue. “True freedom of the mind” abides by such aims.

In a detailing of such ethics, and by making their necessity explicit, Kirk constructed a way to talk, read, write, and live. To step back from the constant motion of seeking status and power, of always being “plugged in” to technology, of religious dogmatism in a political context, allows room to express the past and initiate a variety of imaginations: historical, poetic, prophetic, civic, moral. As modernism and liberalism exhaust, he wrote, it is proper to appeal to the emotional and imaginative resources humans can invest in place and personal history. These are essential components of individual and social self-identity. They give flesh to sentiments and anxieties, new and renewed, perhaps too inchoate to define but still appreciative of beauty, which is the “index to civilization.”

This can be achieved through a literary narrative. A “postmodern conservative” possesses concern for the imagery a society creates of what it admires and condemns, as people can participate in and change history. The constituted community of its language demands that the mysteries of free will, divine guidance, human agency, local, family-orientated choices, and the organic creations of historical custom be respected as cornerstones of a temperament in but not of the confusions of modern society. This is one way for the natural limits of personal and political power to be better understood. Kirk’s constituted community was in favor of the ingenuity of civil society; its narrative form, as opposed to the more strictly historical one, was conducive to providing lessons and examples of valuable meaning drawn from a human consciousness that transcends history. History, after all, is itself contained within the immanence of a mysterious nature. For Kirk, it was the ideologue and their planners who seek totality, not the seeker of inexpressible permanent things. The imagination assumes a central place in Kirk’s thought because a disorder of the imagination was an inevitable feature of a modern world filled by those who would impose their ideological totality. People search for individual identity in part through images, and many modern images are based either on the false science of materialism or a debased sensuality, which he termed the “diabolic imagination.” And so it fell to conservatives to fashion the appropriate images that convey a sense of mystery to each generation. His conservatism was reconstructive, a recognition that engagement of the sentiments through an imaginative “rendering” of history mattered just as much, if not more, as an appeal to reason.


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