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.