A 'felt sense of destiny', a 'historic sense of mission' -- these are emotions, attitudes, adverbs applied to the most immaterial of material nouns; they make, as Mark Danner points out well enough in the NYRB, a poor substitute for factual truth. Don't get me wrong -- I accredit immaterial nouns like 'honor', 'courage', and 'justice' with real ontological status. A world in which the only real nouns are present in the material world is an impoverished one. Yet just so it drives the human longing to recognize the reality of immaterial nouns inward, into the loony bin of the frustrated psyche. A conjured-up image of Iraq becomes a virtual symbol in a virtual pageant of History; Iraq gets invaded 'destinyishly', 'momentousishly'. These Frankenstein adverbs, monstrous attitudes which substitute emotional postures for fact-things like invasions as the hinge on which their qualitative character turns, become as decisive as they are vague and abstract.
The wrinkle here is that Bush as Master of Instrumental Adverbs is being translated into that language by people who either do not understand or despise convictions of faith as distinct from senses of history. Indeed, people get even more worried when they contemplate Bush as acting not from sort of a vague Hegelian notion of Spreading Freedom but from a conviction that he has been divinelyelected to carry out the Orders of God. And yet I really do think that if it were the latter going on only and not also the former, we'd have a different Bush on our hands. I'll leave it to a good paleo to flesh out the argument, but it seems to me someone could persuasively claim that it's Bush's departure from true Christian conviction that has made his foreign policy what it is. (And now I'm recalling that this is essentially the Pope's argument.)
Jack lies in bed, traumatized, eyes empty, staring at the ceiling. Tyler sits in a nearby chair.
TYLER In the world I see -- you're stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You will wear leather clothes that last you the rest of your life. You will climb the wrist- thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. You will see tiny figures pounding corn and laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of the ruins of a superhighway.
I wish I knew how this country could better deal with the problem of
Islamic extremism, but the longer this thing goes on, the more it seems
to me that it's something that simply has to be endured until Islam
makes the messy transition to modernity. I'm not saying that we have to
cease resisting it. By no means! What I am saying is that as we devise
strategies to keep ourselves safe from the convulsions of the Muslim
world, we should understand that the violent Muslim response to
modernity, and hatred of America as the chief exponent of modernity,
should be grappled with as a not unreasonable response to the threat modernity poses to traditional Islamic civilization. Roger Scruton was saying this five years ago, but nobody seems quite to have grasped the point.
There are three modernities at work here, each increasingly incorporeal. First, there's the modernity that gets spread by private-sector individuals -- enterprising folks engaging in Adam Smith-style truck and barter, and also, increasingly, the lifestyle branding and identertainment that corporations have turned to in order to make a killing in the feelings market and transcend the banality of selling goods on the basis of their practical usefulness. I don't want to get trapped in the semantics of how 'postmodern' identertainment is, because the foundations of it were clearly laid in the golden age of modernity, the 1950s. The integration of lifestyle pitches into marketing and consumption doesn't require a full-on trip down the rabbit hole of marketing psychology. Long before every product had a vibe, a philosophy, a catchphrase, and an image, the suburban lifestyle became a marketable aspiration; the real-world consequences of modern bourgeois individualism, in its urban and suburban varieties alike, are profound enough to trace this first kind of modernity, the one that Marx and Tocqueville talked about. This kind of modernity is the consequence of actual people doing deliberate things.
The second, more ghostly modernity is the one promoted as a matter of explicit US and international Western foreign policy. This modernity is the consequence of real but often disembodied and quasi-public institutions setting exchange rates and loan conditions. It blends politics and economics deliberately in order to spread and institutionalize the main features of the modern Western social order -- representative democracy, the rule of law, and politically stabilized flows of free capital. The way this kind of modernity sustains itself and spreads is less the consequence of many actual people doing what people do than it is the result of a few policy planners. But international organizations have pathologies of power, and in the upper reaches of the bureaucratic layer cake unaccountability and headlessness cause 'modernization' programs to interact with the real world of modernity v.1 in sometimes unpredictable and hard-to-control ways. Even when a currency crisis (1998, for example) can be accounted for as a level of risk, managing the damage caused by the actualization of that risk is another matter. Modernity v.2 is a self-conscious phenomenon actively constructed, whereas often the only individuals in Modernity 1 who are actively self-conscious about the phenomenology of what they are doing have their hands in Modernity 2. Corporate personhood, the component of the rule of law that holds modernity together structurally, works something like a farm league for graduates from Modernity 1 to Modernity 2. But it also, along with its public counterpart, Institutional personhood, distances people from their own actions. By working through corporations and institutions, people may shield their own individual selves from responsibility (liability) for their acts and policies; they may also increasingly understand the behavioral outputs of their corporations or institutions as the 'responsibility' of legal agents with no actual self. What corporations and institutions do -- even when they are yours -- seems ironically under self-conscious Modernity 2 to be less the product of conscious acts than the emanation of impersonal forces.
Modernity 3, the most ghostly of all modernities, is this strange force that is dominating the discourse here with Gerecht, Obama, Romney, and others. Modernity 3 is like 'Globalization,' something that nobody is really responsible for, something that not even specific institutions are responsible for. Modernity is a world-historical movement, an inevitability of the development of the human species based on everything that has happened up until whenever the wheels of Modernity 1 were set in motion. Modernity is a phase, like being a teenager, something that, say, 'the Islamic world' (whatever that is) has to suffer through messily. I like Rod's analyses generally but I worry here that he accepts too uncritically the notion that there's a 'modern world' and a 'not yet modern world,' the modern world is spreading unstoppably and inevitably, and the not yet modern world has to deal with it. This is a crude representation of what is really going on, which is namely that specific institutions and individuals are deliberately penetrating those areas of the world not yet domesticated by modern political and economic order. The world is very much a four-dimensional virtual patchwork quilt in this respect. How can it make sense to discuss what's happening in 'the Middle East' (whatever that is) as if 'the Islamic world' were suffering through an acne-like rite of passage, complete with acting out and angst, when representative areas of that 'world' include Dubai, Baghdad, Cairo, Tehran, Mogadishu, Baku, and Kuwait City?
Rather than blaming Modernity 3 for our problems, let's work our way down. As a matter of public policy, we need to dial down the full-bore push for the globalization of Modernity 2 that did such a number on Russia (a reckoning we will only enjoy more of over the next 20 years) and is currently divvying up Serbia and has on balance a very poor record of success at even what it has tried to do, namely quasi-public institutional democratization and liberalization.
And as a matter of private policy, we need to be much less interested in trying to make large sums of money off of making strangers in foreign countries live more like we do. Certain improvements in medical technology aside, very little that enables 'modern lifestyles' is necessary to living a full, healthy, thriving life. We should stop kidding ourselves on this point. We should also stop kidding ourselves that whenever anyone in the world buys something, it must mean that they wanted it in some finally justifying sense, and that there is no need to investigate the significance of whether they would have wanted it otherwise.
The blowback that results from the large-scale psychological ailments of modern (not just 'modernizing') socities may be inevitable, but modernization is not; and neither is modernity, which can be experienced briefly, protractedly, or not at all, may be shortcutted around, and may, of course, be gotten beyond, before it manages to overwhelm the world.
So, my argument is that as we become more and more scientifically
literate, it's worth remembering that the fictions with which we
previously populated our world may have some function that it's worth
trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather
than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we
may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first
place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them,
or something like them, to be there. I suspect that as we move further
and further into the field of digital or artificial life we will find
more and more unexpected properties begin to emerge out of what we see
happening and that this is a precise parallel to the entities we create
around ourselves to inform and shape our lives and enable us to work
and live together. Therefore, I would argue that though there isn't an
actual god there is an artificial god and we should probably bear that
in mind. That is my debating point and you are now free to start
hurling the chairs around!
What jumped to mind for me immediately is the strange propensity of certain social scientists to insist that (a) many things, and the meaning of nearly all (if not all) things, is socially constructed and (b) the character and meaning of those things, despite their being socially constructed, is 'real'. 'Reality' describes that state of existence which, because there is no alternative ('objective', 'actual') state of existence, we treat as real, even if reality is highly malleable and contingent. So Rorty keeps the word 'truth', but calls truth 'whatever wins in a free and open encounter.' So ethnic group identity might not 'actually' correspond with human reality, but because it is socially constructed in ways that manifest themselves with consequence in the world, it is a source of and a descriptor of reality for its co-contributors. When it results in real wars or whatever, it is 'real' enough to be treated and studied as something real, as opposed to, say, a condition of 'parakeetness' with which certain jungle warriors claim to be imbued.
But Clifford Geertz did take precisely 'parakeetness' to be 'real' enough to be studied, and he did, and fit it in as part of his discussion of the social science of religion. I think Geertz moreover demonstrated, or at least made it possible to suggest, that the Rortyan/pragmatist/humanist strain of liberalism that loves progress and wants to do away with religion and eventually the biological family cannot prevent the 'absurdity' of religion from popping up in public. As much as Rorty's notion of privatized ironies and public solidarity can take hold in the right kind of bourgeois society, the interest human beings appear to have in publicly creating metaphysical meaning together seems extraordinarily difficult to quash -- especially in a free society. This holds all the more true in a creative, expressive, free liberal society, where socially constructed meanings regularly are afforded the respect of 'real' creations that embody 'real' feelings, emotions, hopes, beliefs, and so on. There is no reason and no way that the creative expression of, say, God can be walled out of this kind of society, even if God has been 'agreed' by the intellectual class to be an absurdity. Because absurdity cannot be walled out of this kind of society either, and in fact is regularly celebrated just as such.
So if I pointed to such things as 'courage' or 'heroism' or 'faith' or even 'love' and I asked after the ontological status of these things, I could plausibly claim that they are both real and socially constructed. And then I could go on to suggest that things like virtues, which have the character of incorporeal verities that are real but do not exist in the world without doing so through the people who embody and express them, seem nonetheless to continue to 'exist' 'offstage' in some fashion because even when they fall out of use they may be recovered in nearly identical form. Certainly the longer the lapse the harder the case; 'bravery' in ancient Greece does not quite resemble what we think of today as 'bravery.' But even there, major ontological overlaps continue to exist. Where all this is going is that someone could assert that God 'works' in the same way: present in the world only through the creative expressions of human beings in shared conviction of the verity of God. In other words if human beings abandon God and allow God to fall into disuse and disappear from the world, to that degree it can be said that God is 'existing' that much less. And that if all humanity forgot about God then God would be dead. But my earlier talk of Rorty's difficulty preventing the spontaneous rise of the publicly absurd realization of incorporeal verities suggests that God would always eventually pop back into the world.
And in that sort of way I think Douglas Adams is groping toward but somewhat missing the point, which is that talking about the 'actual' God that doesn't 'really' exist and the 'artificial' God that 'actually' does confuses us as to the real power of our 'artificial' expressions of divinity and its verities. I don't want to turn this into a discussion about the scientifically verifiable power of prayer or Gambian president Yahya Jammeh's magical AIDS cure. I do want to suggest that the difference between an 'artificial' God and a 'real' God, speaking in social science terms, is a matter of faith in the verity of the God in question, and that maxing out such faith does not, as commonly understood, entail denying the artificiality of the God in question but rather acknowledging it as a necessary portion, and condition, of divinity.
Postmodern conservatism it's not, but we're all kidding ourselves if we think birth control and even feminism can be kept eternally from contributing to the soft eugenics of family planning. What's most intriguing is how there're 'left-wing' and 'right-wing' reasons to despise Advanced Sangerism...and reasons on both sides to long for it, as well.
Particularly in the event of a zombie apocalypse. As is well known, I have a deep and abiding love for zombies -- in the abstract, anyway. Thanks to Maximum Leader, first I ran the numbers using real-life data -- who I am, what skills I have, where I live, how many bags of quik-mix Thai soup are in the kitchen:
You can, and probably should, go here and send a letter just like this:
Kaja Brix, National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA NMFS P.O. Box 21668 Juneau, AK 99802
Dear Administrator Brix,
I strongly support your proposal to list the Cook Inlet beluga whale as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. With only 300 whales remaining, this tiny population is extremely vulnerable and in danger of extinction.
Beautiful and charming, our belugas dwindle to Thermopylan stock levels while the world is overrun with hideous flies and burgers on legs. This is far too crude and practical a world to endure without putting the ESA to what should seem strictly by the numbers to be the use for which it, and any Act like it, would be intended.
As a white, smiling mammal, I urge you to act at once to secure our belugas.