Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Warning to Anyone Still in Command of Their Possible Futures

I'm temporarily breaking up my series of dialogues. I'm hoping to resume them shortly: the Kirkmans are celebrating Saturnalia this week-end and the climactic series of discussions is intended to coincide with that event. For the moment, however, I am in training to receive a service dog for my son, who is autistic, and my computer access is therefore limited.

I've been reading three books this week: Marshal McLuhan's Understanding Media, Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue, and Charles Taylor's The Malaise of Modernity. One theme that has emerged consistently in all three is the problem of postmodernity's relationship with history. I'd like to consider this particularly with respect to conservative thought.

Postmodern conservativism is a strange phenomenon because it is simultaneously not conservative, while denying itself to be postmodern. It imagines itself to be in a position detached and divorced from the historical period which gives it birth, while strenuously exercising itself to reclaim the "lost" values and traditions of a previous era. Conservativism is thus blind to the fact that it actually proposes a new, distinctly contemporary ethic which has never been articulated or believed, much less practiced, in any previous age.
The consummate irony is that this backwards-fumbling desire to "reclaim," to construct a meaningful solution for the present out of a pastiche of older cultural forms, is quintessentially postmodern. The starry-eyed utopianism of the modern period is a relic of the past, and occurs in the present only in outlandish and fantastical fiction like "Star Trek." Distopianism has almost universally displaced it as the dominant mode of engagement with the present and the near future. The dire consequences of man's headlong rush into the mechanical jaws of "progress" are not a secret known only to those in conservative circles, but rather a constant cultural anxiety which animates all areas of discourse. The difference between those who identity as "conservative" and those who align themselves with other camps is largely a difference of opinion regarding which areas of life need to be restored to earlier forms, and which earlier forms they need to be restored to.

The books that I'm reading sketch a fascinating portrait of the possible responses to the problems facing postmodern man. MacIntire, with the delightful naivete of the conservative mind, seeks a solution in the restoration of the Aristotelean tradition of virtue. McLuhan demonstrates with superb clarity that such a restoration is impossible, that the technological extensions of contemporary man produce an alteration of such depth that older moral forms can be revived only as a futile exercise in creative anachronism. Taylor is the only one of the three who presents a feasible solution, proposing the formulation of a robust and profoundly moral ideal of authenticity in order to suggest, at least in outline, a means of constructing a moral framework commensurable with the conditions of postmodern existence.


  1. This postmodern conservatism sounds like neo-conservatism to me. I haven't read MacIntyre, but I would have pegged him as a paleo. Have you read anything by Morris Berman? Your mention of McLuhan made me think of Berman, as Berman quotes him and Postman quite a bit. Since you are Canadian, you might not have too much of an interest in The Twilight of American Culture and Why America Failed, but they are two of my favorite books by a social critic. Leslie

  2. Not having read the books, perhaps I should just admit that I don't know what you're talking about and refrain from commenting. But I will say that I find it startling to read that we can't restore the Aristotelian tradition of virtue. But perhaps what's at issue isn't so much saying what conduct is moral and what is immoral as figuring out how to demonstrate what is and isn't moral. Is authenticity so different from excellence?

  3. First I want to wish you well with your care for your son. That is indeed a challenge. It is truly marvelous what can be done with service dogs. I've said a prayer for you and him before beginning this response.

    I've not read the books either, though I've tried to read McLuhan and have found myself lost in an alien world. I'm afraid my head won't go the direction he leads, and I'm finding that discussions of modernism and postmodernism ultimately lead to a logical dither. Yes, things do change, but change does not produce something radially new. As Qoheleth says, "There is nothing new under the sun." As I see it, the Catholic Tradition is not a static body of prescriptions, nor something past to be reconstructed, but a living out in time of eternal, infinite, and ultimately incomprehensible verities. Time is not at the center of things at all, being merely an aspect of creation. God and His truth stand outside of time, and beyond the grasp of finite minds.

    I've never been happy with Aristotle, as he centers all his thinking around the proposition that man can figure things out, that logic establishes truth. On the contrary, logic crashes disastrously when it trues to deal with anything ultimate. God is infinite, we are not, and there's the problem.

    Where am I going with this? I'm not really sure that I know. All I can say is that I accept what is (including, and especially, the revealed truths of basic dogma) and do my best to understand it, knowing all the time that I really can't. I guess this is pretty much a form of mysticism -- but, you know, the more I look at the progress of modern science, the more I think that it too has become primarily mystical. Understanding always eludes the seeker.

  4. This is a great point and I think it is symptomatic of conservative movements for many centuries now.

    It looks to me like there are two types of conservative ways of life: 1) Traditional and cyclical, where children step into their parents shoes and continue on with the way things have been and THAT is seen as good; 2) movements forming in what they view as times hostile to their values, where they go back and grab something from the past - in the case of Christians, usually the 1st through the 4th centuries - and purport to reclaim them. Of course, it's never quite the same.

    Anyway, I am always a fan of blog posts with Pink Floyd reference sin the title. Thanks for this!

  5. Hey all! Thanks for the feedback.
    I realized that I didn't make it properly clear in my post that I draw a very sharp distinction between the Church and conservativism. Conservativism is a cultural movement particular to a specific historical context, and inseperable from that context. The Church is a person, the Bride of Christ, who matures and develops through Her encounter with history, but who none-the-less retains an inalienable identity regardless of historical circumstances. So, for example, while Aristoteleanism cannot be reasserted as the dominant cultural mode of ethical expression, its influence may be retained and refined through the Church in a form appropriate to the present situation -- in the same way that I am no longer a Kantian or a Kierkegaardian, but many elements of my personality and ethics are still substantially shaped by those thinkers.

  6. Oh...also meant to make clear, all three of these authors are Catholics :)

  7. 1. A lot of Postman's work seeks to show the depth of the alterations produced by the technological extensions of contemporary man. In this sense he provides a way to understand McLuhan (whom he called a Catholic prophet - http://tuckerteacher.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/neil-postmans-five-things-we-need-to-know-about-technological-change/).

    A small eclectic series of articles, letters and interviews titled "The Medium and the Light" collects some of McLuhan's thoughts and reflections on Catholic subjects and may provide some insight into his thought.

    2. The term 'postmodern conservatism' always sounds somewhat oxymoronic.

    3. I am looking forward to your subsequent posts on this

    John Ashley

  8. The use of "postmodern conservativism" has confused some people -- let me clarify: I mean the form of conservativism that exists within the postmodern world, as opposed to, say, the form of conservativism espoused by Burke.

  9. I am really glad to have, after years of wondering, an intelligent way of explaining (at the least to myself) what exactly I am, socially and (to a lesser extent) politically. I've long felt that I am not a conservative -- not only because I have significant sympathy with leftist and anarchist ideas, but because even those conservative ideas I sympathized with, I didn't find appealing on conservative grounds. Moreover, I found myself rather resembling T. S. Eliot in wanting to revive, or revisit, monarchist and hierarchical ideas, at least in certain aspects of life. Yet the resurrection of the past in a new way, and the eclectic nature of my views (if "views" is not too strong a word) does seem postmodern in the extreme -- while at the same time I could never simply call myself a postmodern, because there is one metanarrative, the Catholic (and generally Christian) idea of redemptive history, that I do accept categorically. Thanks for posting this; my head feels a good deal clearer now.


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