Friday, September 08, 2006

Please reframe

Two sources of the malaise of modernity remain: the runaway ubiquity of instrumental reason and the potential for soft depostism as a result of political fragmentation. And though Charles Taylor spends the remaining two chapters of his book on them, I only want to touch on a few main points. Perhaps my own reading betrays a too-tight grip on anthropocentricism, but I haven’t found this material as interesting. On the other hand, if one approaches it from the Schaefferian question, “How should we then live?” I can see this could impact interest and retention in a positive way.

Instrumental Reason

Instrumental reason is market thinking applied everywhere. This point was well made in Bergman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (see the series on this blog, ending “Baudelaire is Melting”), and it is difficult to make more of it than it is.

Whether we leave our society to “invisible hand” mechanisms like the market, or try to manage it collectively, we are forced to operate to some degree according to the demands of modern rationality, whether or not it suits our own moral outlook. The only alternative seems to be a kind of inner exile, a self-marginalization. Instrumental rationality seems to be able to lay its demands on us coming and going. (97 emphasis mine)

No matter what religious or ideological background you come from, you are swept up in market thinking. Instrumental reason puts its barcode on you. Instrumental reason knows no Thou, there is only statistical evaluation on graphs of demand and supply.
Modernity is characterized by grandeur as well as by misère. Only a view that embraces both can give us the undistorted insight into our era that we need to rise to its greatest challenge.
The temptation is to simply give up and give in—even where our own moral outlook is involved (and the very real tragedy of this is why I emphasized that material in the above quotation). But it doesn’t have to be this way. “We have real choice here,” writes Taylor, “even if we tend to be blind to the options open to us” (98).

Taylor’s method, as we saw in his investigation of the arguments surrounding the ideal of authenticity, is to critique the players in the argument. These he calls the “boomers” and the “knockers,” and it is his contention that both sides flatten almost conspiratorially the depth of the issue debated in an attempt to win the argument. That is why he says “we face a continuing struggle to realize higher and fuller modes of authenticity against the resistance of the flatter and shallower forms” (94). “Against them,” he continues,

we need to do a work of retrieval, in order to get a fruitful struggle going in our culture and society. . . . We don’t want to exaggerate our degrees of freedom. But they are not zero. And that means that coming to understand the moral sources of our civilization can make a difference, in so far as it can contribute to a new common understanding. We are not, indeed, locked in. (96, 100-101)

Taylor believes that we can dig down into the moral and ideological sources that got us where we are and bring those out again for purposes of critique. And, turning to technology, he sees a few of those sources that deserve such treatment, not least the ideal of self-determining freedom (discussed in previous blogs on this topic) and, my favorite, the disengaged model of the human subject—the binary anthropology of Descartes’ sublime Meditations. Taylor's rebuttal makes me proud, shooting back with ammunition Heidegger built in his essay, “The Question Concerning Technology.” (He also references Albert Borgman (Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984) of which he says, “Borgman seems to echo Nietzche’s picture of the 'last men' when he argues that the original liberating promise of technology can degenerate into ‘the procurement of frivolous comfort.' ”) Allow me to quote Taylor at length:

What we are looking for here is an alternative enframing of technology. Instead of seeing it purely in the context of an enterprise of ever-increasing control, of an ever-receding frontier of resistant nature, perhaps animated by a sense of power and freedom, we have to come to understand it as well in the moral frame of the ethic of practical benevolence [re: technology as a means for making people’s lives better], which is also one of the sources in our culture from which instrumental reason has acquired its salient importance for us. [Francis Bacon] But we have to place this benevolence in turn in the framework of a proper understanding of human agency, not in relation to the disembodied ghost of disengaged reason, inhabiting an objectified machine. We have to relate technology as well to the very ideal of disengaged reason, but now as an ideal, rather than as a distorted picture of the human essence. Technology in the service of an ethic of benevolence towards real flesh and blood people; technological, calculative thinking as a rare and admirable achievement of a being who lives in the medium of a quite different kind of thinking: to live instrumental reason from out of these frameworks would be to live our technology very differently. The issue I am putting here in terms of alternative modes of enframing is sometimes posed in terms of control: does our technology run away with us, or do we control it, put it to our purposes? But the problem with this formulation should be obvious. It remains entirely within the frame of domination, and doesn’t allow for a quite different placing of technology in our lives. Getting on top of technology implies taking an instrumental stance to it, as we through it do everything else. It doesn’t open the possibility of placing technology within a non-instrumental stance, as we see, for instance, an ethic of care, or a cultivation of our capacity for pure thought. (106-07, 133n55)

Soft Despotism

As above, market mechanisms are part of the apparatus necessary to enjoy the benefits of living in a modern, industrial society. The market and the bureaucratic state are givens, and this is largely the reason for modernity's culture of continuous struggle and change. Our situation is masticated by the massive and competing force exerted by nation states, multi-national corporations, bureaucratic agencies, and political agendas, micro and macro. Between these, individuals struggle for personal and political authenticity--for family, tribe, and culture--against the eroding tide of atomism and discrete (if not selfish) individualism. This struggle is why we moderns face constantly the threat of soft despotism due to chronic social and political fragmentation; “when people come to see themselves more and more atomistically, as less and less bound to the fellow citizens in common projects and allegiances” (112). Taylor's solution is to struggle harder. (It suggests, too, since "struggle" in Arabic is “jihad,” that 9/11 may have been as much a sign of modernity's real arrival in the Middle East as it was a product of growing Islamic fundamentalism.)

What our situation seems to call for is a complex, many-leveled struggle, intellectual, spiritual, and political, in which the debates in the public arena interlink with those in a host of institutional settings, like hospitals and schools, where the issues of enframing technology are being lived through in concrete form; and where these disputes in turn both feed and are fed by the various attempts to define in theoretical terms the place of technology and the demands of authenticity, and beyond that, the shape of human life and relation to the cosmos. (120)

Previous entries in this series are:
The split between manner and matter.


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