Friday, June 30, 2006

Taylor on Modernity's Malaise

In The Malaise of Modernity, where the what is the 1991 Massey Lectures reprinted by the House of Anansi Press and the why is malaise /mu-LAYZ/: a vague sense of mental or moral ill-being, Charles Taylor, emeritus professor of political science at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, details three "features of our contemporary culture and society that people [fear are representative of] loss or a decline" these being individualism; the primacy of instrumental reason; and the danger of "soft despotism" (1). Let me say a little more about these.

Worry Number One: Individualism

Individualism is usually understood as one of the real achievements of Western civilization.

We live in a world where people have a right to choose for themselves their own pattern of life, to decide in conscience what convictions to espouse, to determine the shape of their lives in a whole host of ways that their ancestors couldn’t control. And these rights are generally defended by our legal systems. In principle, people are no longer sacrificed to the demands of supposedly sacred orders that transcend them.” (2)

Some go so far as to say there isn’t enough individualism--social, economic, and family hierarchies still confine personal freedom--but others see it differently. They worry that we’ve won our liberty-for-self at a great price. The great chain of being which once put everything in its proper (usually sacred) place in a weighted and even moral universe is irrevocably broken. Modern freedom required it, yes, but in requiring it, the givenness of living and the meaning that came with those cultural relationships is gone. This is what has been called the disenchantment of the world. Gone is a “heroic dimension to life. People no longer have a sense of a higher purpose, of something worth dying for.” There is “a loss of meaning, the fading of moral horizons . . . a centering on the self, which both flattens and narrows our lives, makes them poorer in meaning, and less concerned with others or society” (4). Taylor invokes Friedrich Nietzche’s “last man,” who has no aspirations left but “pitiable comfort.” So when it comes to individualism, many have found its cost historically and existentially regrettable.

Worry Number Two: The Primacy of Instrumental Reason

Instrumental reason is rationality aimed always at the bottom line. Instrumental reason aims at production. “Once the creatures that surround us lose the significance that accrued to their place in the chain of being, they are open to being treated as raw materials or instruments for our projects” (5).

The fear is that “things that ought to be determined by other criteria will be decided in terms of efficiency or “cost-benefit” analysis” (Ibid.). And this is no boundless anxiety. Every area of human life and thought is commonly quantified, measured, documented, and analyzed. Technology itself has come to dominate so many spheres of human living. Taylor talks about an “aura that surrounds technology and makes us believe that we should seek technological solutions even when something very different is called for.” The sick become research subjects, problems to be solved rather than people who should be cured. Per Karl Marx’s “all that is solid melts into air” we have long passed an age where craftsmanship and quality mattered. “Lasting, often expressive objects that served us in the past are being set aside for the quick, shoddy, replaceable commodities with which we now surround ourselves.” And, as Taylor continues, “powerful mechanisms of social life press us in this direction.”

Karl Marx, Max Weber, and other sociologists have noted and explored these impersonal mechanisms, Weber going so far as to call it “the iron cage.” Change in this area is difficult, but hopeless and fatalistic ennui is wrong. “Our degrees of freedom are not zero. There is a point to deliberating what ought to be our ends, and whether instrumental reason ought to have a lesser role in our lives than it does.” But any change will be hard going. “change in this domain will have to be institutional as well [as individual]” and “it cannot be as sweeping and total as the great theorists of revolution proposed” (8).

Worry Number Three: Soft Despotism

The two worries above, it is said, produce a kind of soft despotism. In the old days, political power was seized and enforced by terror and torture, oppression and suffocation. This kind of despotism, however, is sappy and silly. It is entertaining and benign. The hum of the political machine fades into the background of the whiz bang of a technologically-entranced, self-centered populace which, with each so-called election, loses ever more of its political influence. Government “covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd” (Tocqueville). The government takes care of everything, relieving its citizens of the bothersome and tiring weight of governance.

The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, until each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.” (Ibid.)

Soft despotism represents nothing less than a loss of freedom, or what Tocqueville called “political liberty.” “What is threatened here is our dignity as citizens” (10).

Taylor wants to tackle these problems head-on. They aren’t new problems--scholars of modernity have been talking about them for over a century--but they can be bewildering! Yet if we take the time to understand these worries, he says, we can begin to trace out a way of approaching them. “Our degrees of freedom are not zero,” he says. “The issue is not how much of a price in bad consequences you have to pay for the positive fruits [of modernity], but rather how to steer these developments towards their greatest promise and avoid the slide into their debased forms” (12).

Previous entries in this series are: Baudelaire is Melting.

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