Dramas of the Mind
by Kenneth Smith
The modern era is a dynamic age, injecting ever-greater forces of acceleration into its frantic pace of change. Its dynamism in fact is so enveloping and overwhelming that it has caused its lines of continuity with its past — even its own immediate modern past — to become attenuated and perhaps wholly dissevered. The modern age no longer understands the many ways it differs from its predecessors, no longer understands how it has come into being or where its most general directions have been taking it. The modern solvents, which have undone so many institutions and settled values, have turned out at last to be hallucinogenic: they have cost us our very ability to orient ourselves and to lay firm hands on the particular profile of what we have become, what we have lost our grasp on, and where, in spite of our explicit intentions, our epochal momentum seems to be carrying us. This inventory of general forces — the often unspoken forces by which modernity has been reorganizing all our lives — could of course be indefinitely extended and complicated.
(A) The modern era has seen the unresisted ascendancy of a formal or functional rationality, an amoral or merely technical mentality in bureaucracy, science, and business (the thesis of Weber and Mannheim): our distinctively modern institutions traffic in an abstractionist knowledge and manipulative understanding which are grounded in neither wisdom nor conscience. Structurally, this has been made possible by an unprecedented negligence of ethics/philosophy/religion and other forms of value-laden culture. This mechanical kind of rationality reproduces itself with virtually none of the impediments to interpretation that traditional value-laden understanding faced.
(B) The modern era is marked by an ever-growing atomistic or abstract individualism, a kind of moral isolationism or liberationism: in classical social theory, this was described as the decay of Gemeinschaft (organic community) into Gesellschaft (willful or contractual association). We now take for granted a kind of normalized dissociation, an arbitrarialization of relations that figures in everything from law to family to religion to education. We each seem to be independent nuclei to ourselves, and no longer members of a common corporate organism; not even relations in the family are able to override this tide of alienated and mutually repellent self-interest. Advancing the atomization are two radically heterogeneous ideologies, the ethics of rationalism and autonomous will founded by Kant, and the psychology of utilitarianism and appetitive drives founded by Bentham: these two forms of individualism converge in their revolt against all forms of authority per se, that is, any normative principle superior to individual judgment.
(C) Closely related to that atomism is a novel condition of anomie or amorality, a stabilized situation of public value-neutrality or moral anarchism. This anomie has been variously characterized as nihilism, subjectivism, eccentricity, a revolt (whether oblique or direct) against the objectivity of values per se. It has become a commonplace to speak of the collapse of traditional value-hierarchy into a licentious or fractious Babel, a cultural disintegration that necessarily gives public discourse the quality of conflict or negativity.
(D) Modern Society shows a distinctive monstrosity of economism, a tendency for the economy to arrogate more and more of our time and life, to make livelihood into virtually the whole purpose of living. By this imperial or totalitarian claim of the economy on every other kind of concern or activity, our interests have come to be privatized; under free-market ideology, the market and the kinds of appetites it can satisfy have been unleashed from moral and ethical restraints. The political domain, as a place for the pursuit of a rationally defined universal good, has been subverted by the divisive and irrational values of the economy. A regime of systemized materialism has resulted in promulgation of a new anthropology and psychology, a totalitarian ideology of self-interest and a concomitant rise in crass, naked, and unapologetic predation, the gospel of a new class whose values diffuse all throughout the society.
(E) The modern era prides itself on its powers of criticism: in art, religion, science, ethics, psychology, etc., it has introduced a climate of disillusionment and secularization, a form of life accommodated to a disenchanted, prosaic order. The prospect of transcendent (non-subjectivist, non-psychological) reference to values or to the sacred has been foreclosed upon by various modern ideologies. As in art, so in life: we signify only what we are — there is no depth behind us, only a surface to be taken literally.
(F) Wherever they occur, modern societies have targeted their residues of tradition for demolition: eventually they reduce themselves to a merely contemporaneous mentality, a decultured and ahistorical society living by improvisation or experimentalism. All cultural phenomena tend thus to become fashions, transient objects of ephemeralized interests. The dissolution of ethnic mores has the result of internationalizing economic taste, exchange, and mass culture.
(G) Modern science and technology work to disenchant the natural order: ancient or Christian concepts of teleology (nature constructed by intelligent design, driven by purpose) yields to the mechanistic or bio-chemical reductionism of scientific explanation. Normative natural law, any natural basis for values, and human nature as any sort of norm are invalidated by a merely factual-descriptive perspective on nature. In more contemporary circumstances, mechanistic determinism is displaced by accidentalism (random or statistical perspectives, a worldview from the fundamental principle of Chance which C.S. Pierce termed "Tychism"): in the social sciences, this kind of accidentalism seems singularly appropriate to mass-scale phenomena.
(H) Politically and morally as well as economically, the modern era brings on a consistent program of revolutionism, a systematic mode of instability, variability, reversibility. The virtue of constancy is construed to be nothing more than the vice of stagnation: dynamism becomes a categorical imperative, and all thinking, belief, and values are obliged to keep up-to-date or be judged irrational and eccentric. Culture and politics become the scene of ephemeral fashion, oscillating patterns of obsession, rapidly obsolescent regimes.
(I) The modern era sets the stage for the rise of ideologies, massified thought structures, depersonalized or totalitarian idea-systems. Mass passivity is vulnerable to megalomaniacal exploitation, all the moreso as philosophy and critical intelligence capitulate to a cloistered academic environment and abandon the public arena to popular delusion.
(J) The special energies and demands of culture decline into barbarism and philistinism: a moral-philosophical illiteracy and provincialism proliferate, and a novel mass-resentment against elitism, aristocracy, classical-moral individualism. Even Marx described as pathological ("crude communism") the homogenization of intellectual resources favored by a leveling egalitarianism. Mass society by design demoralizes and penalizes all forms of creativity that have no entertainment value.
(K) The modern era shows in the broadest possible dimensions the rise of quantitative-mathematical media: versus ancient qualitative science, modern science distinguishes itself as a mathematical reasoning and a measuring observation. A sort of numerology that at one time was merely eccentric mysticism or an article of irrational faith has come to be an indispensable part of a vast interlocking engine of experimentation, accounting, taxation, planning, and communication. Modern economy developed a special mathematicized sphere (the world of monetarized exchange-value, added above the traditional economy of natural use-value) in which the radically mathematical and abstract principle of capital could take root and thrive, and eventually install its own dynamism toward extremes of wealth and poverty.
(L) Modern society assails and dissolves traditional-aristocratic class-structure into a morally and ethically undifferentiated mass: exceptional codes of honor (noblesse oblige) get undermined by a generic morality of self-interest, by which the poorest as well as the wealthiest, the weakest as well as the more powerful are marked. The specific structures of morale and differential values, as well as the institutions and traditions they sustained, become extinct.
(M) Synoptic strategies of thinking and living get disintegrated by modern culture into a lifestyle of ad hoc experimentalism: the individual becomes the victim of his own episodic life, a manipulator of random occasions that present no overall meaningful order but only discrete opportunities for enjoyment or exploitation. Perspectives on both the past and future are lost, and time horizons are shrunken down to the narrow contemporaneity of carpe diem, the myopia and loss of transcendent reference that characterize the Last Man's cultural onanism. Egocentric self-indulgence and economistic consumer-society make up a civilizational format obliging individuals to live life solely for one's own sake; the intergenerational bonds are broken, the duty of sustaining and transmitting an enduring human world is reneged on. Transience and vanity describe a life from which the whole meaning of eternity — of life lived sub specie aeternitatis — is lost.
(N) The public order decays in modern circumstances into privatized particles: civic ethics is neutralized, moral commonwealth becomes a presumptive absurdity. In this way politics declines into economics, ethics into psychology, nobility into baseness, obligation into motivation, values into self-interest. The means, the media for self-expression — as well as the motivation — degenerate into a kind of pathetic introspectiveness or loneliness, an introversion that becomes inarticulate about the most monumental issues and obtuse about its own real circumstances of existence.
(O) One of the most powerful reigning modern ideologies is abstractionism, an attitude systematically blinded to the concrete metabolism of real life. The coordinating media that keep us social and correlate our interactions with one another (language, law, science, economy, etc.) have become so abstract under the regime of quantitative order as to become invisible. One is particularly seduced into a blind and passive parasitism, a mindless dependency on precisely the forces that dominate one's values and possibilities: individual critical intelligence and philosophical virtuosity are now naively supposed to be obsolete and superfluous. Intellectualism and academicism rise, just because of this prevailing ideology of abstractionism, to become unprecedented concentrations of authority, esoteric and self-accountable fraternities. Technical terminology and methodology constitute not just a proprietary jargon but also a field of exclusionary privilege.
(P) Modernity is a uniquely technocratic era: we take for granted the dominion of a systematic apparatus of means, the rise of technology as a pervasive medium (for communication, transportation, exchange, production, etc.) and an artificial system for life- and work-support. The very flexibility and variability of this system facilitate the atomism already described as well as new latitudes of arbitrary decision, but this is only true at a retail level: taken wholesale, the system of technology overall evolves according to non-human and purpose-free imperative.
(Q) The totalitarian program, however similar to classical despotism, is an unprecedented and megalomaniacal form of control admitting no residue of private discretionary judgment. All individual resources for self-conduct and political opinion are to be purged, partisan or factional interests to be abolished, and values and beliefs homogenized throughout a mass-population. Totalitarianism is an attempted mass-cure of anomie, atomistic individualism, economism, ahistoricism, functional rationality, and virtually all other currents of modernization described: on these grounds, totalitarianism appears radically anti-modern. But it relies utterly on the modern apparatus of persuasion, the militaristic-bureaucratic chain of organizational command, the scientific-technocratic program of total control and total design, the functional-rationalistic hope of purging the polyglot-perspectives of ethnic and dissonant values. Totalitarianism is a monopolistic scheme of thinking intended to restore a sense of destiny, purpose, and coherence en masse to a people; it seeks to overcome disintegration of the cultural order and the impasse of fractious interest-groups.
(R) Modern economy and politics have been indelibly marked by the growth of the sciences of persuasion, public relations, and motivational research. These new disciplines of social control and exploitation seek to condition and shape public belief and response through advertising, image-mongering, etc., as forms of rhetorical manipulation and scientific demagogy — a novel form of benevolent despotism. There is a correlative advance of psychologism as an ersatz-religion, -ethics, or -philosophy, and the proliferation of a new personality-type tailored to the conceptions and presuppositions of modern psychology, engendering a manipulable-behavioral mass with no desire or capacity for classical political-moral action.
(S) The scale of organization is unprecedented. These mass-scale structures and institutions carry concomitant economies of scale to enforce their generic formats and values, which is to say they add a new economic dynamic on top of previous social forces to encourage majoritarian domination and an ethos of conformism.
(T) One of the immediate moral-psychological consequences of modern economism is our increasing dependency on the market (in the absence of cultural-philosophical resources) to define our needs for us and meet them. In the midst of an unprecedented ideology of atomistic individualism, moderns have ironically become more dependent than any previous society on an external matrix of supply and demand: we are far from having the intellectual or judgmental resources to be self-directed, and far from mastering our burgeoning luxurious appetites to be self-sufficient. In its advanced stages, capitalism (like its variant, communism) subverts altogether the independence of the sphere of use-value and displaces it by exchange value, by the autonomous mechanisms, laws, and criteria of the market-system, advanced from being a means to being a norm.
(U) Naive no less than sophisticated psychology in modern society is strongly colored by intellectualism: under the impact of science, individuals tend to identify predominantly with only their consciousness (self, ego, decisionistic will). This is likely to be true of artists and writers — who regularly harvest their preconscious imagination — as of psychologists, who know in theory about the extra-conscious reaches of subjectivity but no more identify with the functions of the Id or preconscious censorship than do their patients or students. Consciousness, for most thinking individuals, defines the bounds of their essential personality: they live their lives and shape their ends on its terms and within its precincts. Understanding tends to become absorbed into the domain of linguistic explicitness for this reason, and the supposed tools and techniques of language become prescriptive or even authoritative forces, overruling experience, intuition, feeling, and all the preconscious dimensions of myth and presupposition. Only those realities — human no less than natural — which meet the Cartesian evidentiary standards of clarity and distinctness are validated as true and objective. This one-sided or hyper-conscious civilization tends thus to replicate a preternaturally definite system of order, a system individually and constitutionally blind to all realities that are vague, obscure, intellectually or rationally elusive, moot, polymorphous, etc. The court of modern consciousness carries incredibly prejudicial criteria for admission.
(V) From being a strict and limited methodology, science has evolved into a presumptuous value-positive belief-system, a new dogmatism attempting to legislate on issues utterly beyond science's materialistic-descriptive purview. Science so corrupted by fideism, by loss of intellectual scruples against hubris in metaphysics and values, is properly speaking no longer science but scientism. Scientism, unlike science, has no compunction about helping itself to positions on matters about which it ought to be stringently agnostic — values, ideals, religious or moral-ethical concepts, a priori ideas or essential judgments, or other matters not subject to empirical verification, quantitative measurement or experimental control. In this form science has mutated into a surreptitious authoritarianism, promoting partisan interests under the guise of impartiality. In spite of its highly restrictive original charter — value-neutrality, stringent evidentiary criteria, etc. — science thus propagates a number of moralizing bastard-sciences, psychologism and economism and such, full of oracular pronouncements on issues of general interest. Values not defensible on their own terms thus get bootlegged under the aegis of scientific authority, and scientists are enabled to indulge in the very kind of objective special-pleading for which they excoriate the humanities. Scientism is an intellectually and politically dishonest venture of increasingly potent propaganda effect.
(W) The decay of traditional value-hierarchies — structuring not only the components of social order but also those of individual character — is widely regarded as having produced simple chaos, a jumble of higher and lower into a formless melange, or what Nietzsche described as a "flea market with trash and treasure sitting side by side," no longer differentiated by a discriminating intelligence (what to Aristotle was connoisseurial proairesis, the tasteful sapiens that is our species' taxonomic index). The truth, however, may be that we have not at all invalidated the order implicit in that hierarchy; we have only inverted it, validating its structure negatively. It is not that the modern age has no pronounced value-proclivities, but rather that we are partisans of the lowest, enthusiasts of the traditionally subordinate norms that now are no longer restrained and put in proportion by higher perspectives. Under conditions of undiscriminating judgment, naturally the crudest, simplest, most rudimentary ideals are advantaged to prevail over the subtler, more complex, more rarified. Marx describes the modern economic order in this way, as a triumph of the mechanical and instrumental (the alimentary tract of society, the economy) over the directorial and normative (philosophy, culture, and politics as classically conceived). Hans Jonas describes the same dominion in our sciences of life, a determination to explain the higher not in terms that account for its specificities but in terms that merely reduce it to lower-order preconditions: physicalism, materialism, biologism, a metaphysical catabolism. The same may indeed be said of the rise of subjectivism and psychologism: the raw material of intellectual-moral-cultural life, out of which an order could be formed by an architectonic inspiration, have predominated over those higher functions. We have thus not a cultural order that gives equal weight to all possible values and norms, but a kakistocracy of principles (the very opposite of an aristocracy), an atavistic favoritism for the subrational, subspiritual, subcultural, subpolitical. Our perduring problems and crises — with their very resistance or intractability to the rule of sanity and responsibility — illustrate just such an inversion: not the least of the problems militating against clarity in values and ethics is our inability to distinguish between norms or ideals and the very pathologies they are meant to police. The relativity in modern life that makes diseases confusable with their cures is damning evidence of just such kakistocracy: in its judgment and conscience, the modern age is indeed in love with an easeful death, with its own toxins and addictions. Our "public philosophy" — our politics, ethics, and psychology of utilitarian self-interest — by traditional standards is accordingly a misanthropy, a determination to expect (and encourage) the worst in human motives.
(X) The modern era is marked by the distinctive prevalence of extrinsic values. In the broadest sense of the term, a kind of utilitarianism has been normalized as a methodological perspective on ends and values: all norms are to be evaluated as instruments in the service of ulterior ends (which themselves have only instrumental-utilitarian value, not terminal at all). In the world of norms, there seems no longer to be ultimate and absolute terms: a general relativization or comparativism — a superficially rational functionalism — has reduced all ends and values to the same footing. The consequence of relativism is a homogenization of option, in which discriminatory intellect and criteria for distinction have been systematically suppressed. Only by arbitrary selection do particular norms get promoted to superior status — such a promotion is not binding on anyone else's viewpoint, and of course can always be undone by an equally arbitrary demotion. We do not understand any longer how to raise a question de jure about norms, how to grasp the intrinsic or essential merits of such a principle: for us, ends and values have become toys of manipulative will, which is not structurally bound to respect any of the matters to which it relates. All norms are to such an abstract-amoral will fundamentally provisional, conditional on its arbitrary ratification of their validity. The entire realm of subjectivity increasingly comes to coincide with licentiousness, as a medium radically purged of natural, traditional, religious, or metaphysical authority. In such utilitarian circumstances, where nothing is done for its own sake, where comparison-shopping is conducted among norms as well as among groceries — so that every absolute claim is diluted and contaminated with other factors, in effect rationalized away — there can be no appreciation of intrinsic goods, terminal ends, noble motivation, sacred matters. The very concepts of such things have become oxymorons, modernly inconceivable self-contradictions that are a litmus test of our acidic-disillusioning ideologies. A kind of banausic-philistine mentality comes to predominate, a banal and relentless demand for exploitation and usefulness, which is the classic index by which bourgeois civilization evinces itself, in a syndromic obsession with utility, efficiency, and mechanistic coordination. This was indeed a culture predestined to be scientized and technologized. The regime of extrinsic values — that is to say, not values at all but merely means — is the subjective correlate of the ideology of economism earlier described.
(Y) For all its minutely regularized and instrumentally rational procedures, the modern order is dominated by norms that are ultimately principles of excess: there are consistent patterns of appeal to what Hegel termed the "bad infinite," the interminable process of some quantitative increment — that is, a fetish for processes that have become their own ends-in-themselves. We might list the Faustian-omnivorous hunger for infinite experience, the scientific imperative of the infinite pursuit of knowledge no matter how trivial and no matter what the cost, the drive of capital for maximal profit (and secondarily, an accelerating rate of increase in profit), the imperialistic program of arrogation of territory and exploitation of resources, the ever-widening circles of production and consumption by which the modern market swelled up to mass-scale, the search for ever more apocalyptic-orgasmic pleasure in Bentham's hedonic calculus and Freud's pleasure principle, the intensifying concentration of power and search for metaphysical challenge in Nietzsche's Will-to-Power, the totalitarian drive to infinitize the dominion of the state and overpower all forms of resistance to central authority, the collaboration between utilitarian psychology and chemistry to yield an ever-more potent and concentrated form of narcotic euphoria, and so on. The modern era seems long ago launched on a number of programs bent on quantitative aggrandizement, on the utter abolition of any form of limitation (nature, tradition, religion, culture, ethics, etc., all become "inhibitions" to be ground under the treads of this expansionary and licentious ideological imperative). There is a perverse compulsive "emancipation," a radical discreditation of any and all restraints, at work here: whatever can be done, must be done; whatever boundaries or limits seem to exist are ipso facto unjust and must be defied and disproved. A mania to make human institutions and actions omnipotent, a lust for specific forms of infinity, arises as the modern inversion of ancient wisdom — "nothing to excess" translates for us as "too much is not enough." The image of drug-addiction, with its ever-heightening dosages and thresholds of sensitivity and the pharmaceutical search for ever-more intense highs, well-encapsulates the modern drive to infinity. The vacuity of the modern concept of abstract freedom makes it eminently able to combine with any of these compulsory drives with no contradictoriness apparent to the afflicted victim: freedom is purely and simply freedom from to modern individuals who unreflectively ignore the demons that are driving them, from outside their field of vision, to one insatiable excess or another.
(Z) The systems of education, information, employment, and technology have created radically specialized (fragmented, aspectival, interdependent) forms of competence and understanding. The prospect of philosophical and ethical orientation is suppressed by this ever-narrowing mentality: the integrity of intelligence and conscience, the holistic perspective that ethical-political freedom and its unpredictable consequences require of us, full-spectrum values as the ground of sanity and objectivity, the systemic-organic character of polymorphous reality, suffer massively from this cloistered and artificial methodology. For lack of self-sufficiency and versatility, specialists became even more radically dependent on the institutions and media that made them into specialized functionaries in the first place. Their agendas and criteria are assigned to them heteronomously by the institutions that have become their second nature: any needs and issues those institutions cannot respond to by definition are not essential needs and issues. Specialization compounds the insularity of technical rationality, bureaucratic formality, psychological intellectualism, and apolitical or privatistic individuality: in their corporate matrix, specialists have no independent or intuitive access to natural phenomena (including their own human reality) that is not corrupted by official interpretations and priorities. They tend, by the pressures of that organization, to become creatures of that matrix, bearing no other values or potential than what is officially ascribed to them. Their claustrophobic order holds together by a kind of conventionalist closure, a mutual pact of conformism. Independence of perspective and moral resources is by definition anathema, a subversive force against the very heart of this kind of cohesion. Specialization delimits the rights as well as the interests and capabilities of corporate or political members who are, indeed, no longer autonomous individuals at all in the classical sense. Specialization creates a peculiarly modern form of rationalist and utilitarian provincialism, an outlook as parochial in normative understanding as it is cosmopolitan in factual information.
— These currents, as varying perspectives on some nebulous revolutions, certainly overlap with one another. They each provide "ideal-types," that is, extrapolated tendencies that real phenomena will match only in some degree or other. Described in such condensed form, they may seem at times to contradict one another, for lack of specific context or less abstract terminology. But taken as triangulating perspectives on a common field, they give a fairly coherent portrait of a viscous subject. However much we may need to discount the historical or doctrinal context of these or other theoretical concepts, they still describe the anatomy and dynamics of a world order whose most self-jeopardizing vice is indeed its liability to lose perspective on itself. The contrast between modernity's cosmopolitan self-image and its true historical and cultural parochialism is bathetic. Sal si puedes: save yourself if you can.