Reclaiming morality from conservative dogma and post-modern indifference
- At 12 August 2008
- medium Opinion
Lecture in the Sydney Ideas series, University of Sydney, 12 August 2008
In the preface to The Freedom Paradox I say that I wrote the book to answer the question of why it is that, despite the wealth and freedom now enjoyed by most citizens of rich countries, we do not appear to be the autonomous, fulfilled, creative individuals we were promised our wealth and freedom would bring.
If the premise of this question is true, it represents a sharp rebuke to the neoliberals who promised a nirvana if only we would agree to set markets free. For the most part we were unconvinced, but our political leaders went ahead anyway. It is true that the neoliberals have been highly successful on their own terms: the economy has done very well, although luck has played a part. Yet we were implicitly promised so much more than high incomes and greater consumption opportunities. The intellectual well-spring of modern neoliberalism, Friedrich von Hayek, predicted that today we would be celebrating a “new sense of power over [our] own fate, the belief in the unbounded possibilities of improving [our] own lot”.
Sadly for him, the facts will not collaborate; they show that we feel less in control of our world than 40 years ago. We look around in vain to find those creative flourishing souls at ease in their own skins and fulfilling their own destinies. Instead we see societies affluent but anxious, peopled by those who have won their freedoms but are not sure what to do with them.
Yet our current predicament is also an embarrassment for the leaders of the liberation movements of the sixties and seventies. Of course it was necessary to sweep away the weight of prejudice, patriarchy and Victorian morality that oppressed various minorities and women. But the social movements too promised so much more. The sexual revolution promised that if we freed sexuality from its emotional entanglements and moral limitations a new world of uninhibited erotic pleasure would open up before us. The counter-culture promised liberation from the conformity and materialism of the American Dream, unable then to see that its revolt against convention would sweep away the social conservatism that actually held capitalism back.
The history of the women’s movement is instructive too. Almost imperceptibly, the demand for liberation morphed into a demand for equality. The demand for equal rights was irresistible, endorsed by history; but it was meant to bring so much more. Freedom could not arise from equality in a society created by men. Now, if they want to young women have been freed to behave as inanely as young men, and wherever a double standard was discovered it was resolved by lowering the bar to the male level rather than raising it to the female one.
In The Freedom Paradox, my answer to the question why freedom from economic, political and social constraints failed to bring about human flourishing lies in the absence of another form of liberty, inner freedom. Inner freedom may be defined as “the extent to which a person is guided in his actions by his own considered will, by his reason or lasting conviction, rather than by momentary impulse or circumstance.”
We relinquish our inner freedom not due to coercion by others but through our moral or intellectual weakness, when we are not guided by our own considered will or lasting convictions but allow ourselves to become the slaves of our passions.
It is ironic that this definition of inner freedom was penned by Hayek, the godfather of neoliberalism and free market ideology, because the theft of our inner freedom is the dominant characteristic of modern consumer capitalism where the cultivation of momentary impulse and exploitation of temporary emotions is not simply a by-product of the system but is essential to its day-to-day reproduction.
In the marketing society of affluent democracies, economic liberalism has not created the free-thinking individuals who populated the dreams of Hayek, Milton Friedman and their political followers. A new structure of conformity rules, one that promotes and celebrates a pseudo-individuality created by the market. The appeal to ‘inner freedom’ is now used as a marketing device to sell us four-wheel drives, designer clothes and superannuation.
It seems to me that the most important sociological question we must confront is why we choose to be unfree. If, as Rosa Luxemburg wrote, “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently”, why do so few do it? By posing this question we are compelled to go well beyond analysis of social and cultural forms to deeper metaphysical questions. I wrote the book because I wanted some answers to the ultimate questions, the magnificent questions that humans have always posed for themselves. What is the nature of our Being? Are we trapped in our everyday perceptions? Why should we behave morally? Are we saved or condemned by our rationality?
They are in truth the oldest questions, the ones that, in every epoch, press themselves forward insistently; yet in our era they have been ruled invalid.
I look around for guidance, for the thinkers, the philosophers, the organisations that might point me to fertile pastures; but all I can find are rationalist philosophers, fervent atheists, moribund churches and crazy fundamentalists. Where once these matters engaged the deepest thinkers — who, by their very thinking, could reassure us that someone was looking after our souls — the profound questions have been expelled from public discourse, so that even to pose them today invites ridicule.
In the history of the species we have reached the point where to ask why we are here and to attempt to confront our own Being invites ridicule. We communicate with each other more than ever—social networkers now complain that they are “too connected” and must tell their acquaintances to stop announcing what they are having for dinner. Yet beneath the babble, a great silence has descended over us. In Western civilization’s retreat to the superficial, we have not simply ignored the deeper realms but invalidated them: the wisdom is no longer handed down; the esoteric is mocked by the shallow; and, the conundrum of Being is everywhere resolved by more frenetic Doing.
I blame Jean-Paul Sartre for this dire state of affairs; at least, to the extent we can blame an individual, he’s as guilty as anyone.
In October 1945, four months after the end of the European war and a few weeks after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Sartre gave a famous lecture to a packed hall in Paris. Titled ‘Existentialism Is a Humanism’, it signaled a new era and defined the mood of a generation.
Existentialism is a humanism, Sartre argued, because man must always fall back on himself, there is nowhere else to go. The humanism of existentialism is not that which upholds man as an end-in-itself, the embodiment of supreme value, because for Sartre man is always unfinished, still to be defined, a work-in-progress. The realization of man as truly human can only ever be the endeavour of man himself; there is no external legislator, no universe except that of human subjectivity. It is in this sense that existentialism is a humanism.
In his bleak and alienating humanist vision Sartre abandoned not just forms of consciousness beyond everyday rationality but all metaphysics. The profound questions of Being, of morality, of human purpose beyond the mundane were disallowed. Perhaps we could have expected no more of the generation that endured Auschwitz, an event that seems to admit only two possible moods, despair and abandon. Little wonder Sartre was criticised as a counsellor of despair and solitariness and reproached for emphasizing all that is mean and sordid in the human situation.
Disavowing all metaphysical or other-worldly foundations, the existentialists declared that only our subjectivity exists. We must begin with our existence, our lives as we find them, our consciousness, the cogito — or, what amounts to the same thing, the pre-reflective cogito — and find our way from there. Who could have imagined that the elevation of self-consciousness could reach the level of refinement it has in today’s affluent societies, where the individual is urged at every turn to create his or her very own world, to live as a free-floating artifice, a bubble of pure self-absorption? Sartre’s philosophical subjectivity developed into an all-encompassing narcissism once the death of ideology liberated us of the obligation to care about others and the larger world. It is the situation Sartre feared his existentialism would lead to but which could lead nowhere else.
The repudiation of the transcendent provided the excuse for post-modern nihilism, a philosophical wasteland perfectly suited to a social formation defined by the emptiness of affluence. I think the secret of Sartre’s urge to collapse the transcendent into the mundane can be traced to his famous confrontation with the root of a chestnut tree in his novel Nausea, published in 1938. After a long period marked by feelings of intense alienation and suicidal thoughts, the protagonist Roquentin, surely the author himself, finds himself in a municipal park where, from a bench, he is overwhelmed by the quiddity of the things around him.
And suddenly, suddenly, the veil is torn away, I have understood, I have seen. …. Then I had this vision. It left me breathless. Never, until these last few days, had I understood the meaning of “existence”…… usually existence hides itself. … And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things, this root was kneaded into existence.
Roquentin is pole-axed by reality, invaded by existence itself in an experience of merger. The abyss opened up for him but at the critical moment he balks then recoils; instead of
accepting the experience as the most precious gift, he denies it and flees. Perhaps it was cowardice, perhaps incomprehension. But is not denial of incomprehension a form of cowardice?
How did Sartre understand the meaning of the existence that was unveiled for him? He mistook that which was cleared away to reveal Being for Being itself. In Sartre’s existentialism Being has no cause, purpose or explanation; it has no meaning. Our existence is de trop, superfluous; we can taste existence in our bodies but it means nothing; all beings and Being itself are surplus to requirements, without reason, redundant. The first principle of existentialism is, he declares: “Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself”.2 Nothing underpins our existence; we are no more than the sum of our acts, our subjectivity. In short, our existence is absurd. Sartre’s existentialism was, in the precise words of Slavoj Zizek, the “pessimistic wisdom of the failed encounter”.3
Heidegger was Sartre’s great teacher, yet he resisted being drafted to the existentialist cause. He objected to the way Sartre abandoned the notion of Being as such, collapsing it into the life of beings.4 By starting from the “I think” the existentialists were trapped in a technical interpretation of thinking, unable to see that humanism essentially reduces humanity to an animal rationale, the rational animal, whereas in truth the humanity of humans is grander. A year after Sartre’s intervention, Heidegger wrote that, for all of its elevation of humanity to the centre of our concerns, humanism still cannot assign to us our proper dignity. “Humanism is opposed”, he wrote, “because it does not set the humanitas of man high enough”. In the place of man as the image of God, existentialism had created man as homo faber, man the maker, the maker of himself. But, protested Heidegger, man does not decide the nature of being nor how it is manifested in the world.
An exhausted and cynical world wanted Sartre’s message. The mood of anguish that came to be associated with existentialism was rooted in self-pity rather than fear and trembling before the Absolute. By denying metaphysics Sartre initiated the era of the great silence, where it became de rigueur to repudiate that which could give us our true dignity, our humanitas.
Since then the great silence has been filled by the empty chatter of the post-modernists—provided a justification by the French post-structuralists who attacked not just absolute truths but truth as such. Post-modernism’s essential historical function has been to depoliticise a generation of students and legitimise the trivial through vehicles such as cultural studies. If there is only subjectivity we are always prisoners of our own conditions, of language and context. Sartre and the post-structuralists provided us not with an explanation of Being, but an escape from Being, and we have been running from it ever since.
It’s all very well for Sartre to declare that we can all choose to be different, but what do we hold onto while we make the transformation? Where is the core of the self that provides the safe haven while we remake ourselves? Where else can we turn after the existentialists and their post-modern heirs have declared null and void the possibility of any greater truth within us that might act as a guide or a template for exercising our freedom? If humanity has become wholly disconnected from anything that might root us to our existence, to our place in the universe, the contingencies of the mundane world become irresistible. Why not then immerse ourselves in our bodies and devote ourselves to shopping, sex, drugs and appearances?
The moral self
In his Paris lecture Sartre declared that existentialists find it “extremely embarrassing that God does not exist” for then there is no alternative but to repudiate all forms of moral authority. Man is free to choose any moral rules, or none, by which to live. He recounts the story of a pupil who approached him for advice during the war. The pupil lived alone with his mother, after his father had left to become a collaborator with the Nazi occupiers and his brother was killed by them. He had to choose to stay with his mother, for whom he was her only consolation, or go abroad to join the Free French to fight the Nazi’s and avenge his brother.
Should he devote himself to the concrete welfare of an individual or to a great but uncertain duty to his people? No moral doctrine could help him choose and Sartre was at a loss, telling the student he was on his own. This situation, common in life, demands a moral decision where there can be no rules to guide us. We may seek advice from others, and Sartre’s pupil did without success, but they can only illuminate our choices, not make them. In the end it is the decision of our own inner judge and it is to that court of ourselves we must go, there to sweep away all other considerations, all distractions and self-interested reasons, and in the stillness allow the ruling to emerge.
Sartre’s anguished pupil knew this: “in the end”, he said, “it is feeling that counts; the direction in which it is really pushing me is the one I ought to choose”. Sartre dismissed this too. Feeling cannot be “estimated”, he said, so an internal weighing of options cannot guide you. Feeling always follows actions, he insisted, rather than preceding them. In Sartre’s world, not only is there is no external guide, nor is there any authentic inner voice; there is nothing, but whatever you choose you must take full responsibility or Sartre will accuse you of bad faith.
Sartre’s pupil was appealing intuitively to what in The Freedom Paradox I call the moral self. It was Arthur Schopenhauer’s great insight to recognise that all humans have at their core the same inner nature, the universal Self or, as the Eastern traditions sometimes call it, the “subtle part”. In those moments when the distinction between subject and object seems to dissolve, the participation of the self in others leads us to recognise in them our own inner nature. This “metaphysical empathy” forms the grounds of all morality and is the basis for the moral self.
The moral self is the innermost voice of conscience where all personal interests, social conventions, duties and obligations have been left behind. The moral self is universal, yet it is also personal. Its elaboration into concrete moralities can take myriad forms while always rooted in the common principle. Responding to the demands of the moral self provides the reason and the motive for taking the moral path. When we fall short of our ethical standards we do not declare: “Oh no! I have acted against a maxim that serves as universal law, contravened the agreement I reached behind the veil of ignorance, or breached the social contract written in invisible ink”. No, we say: “I have let myself down, I have gone against my better nature”. That better nature is the moral self. It is the arbiter, the inner judge, who speaks to us with an immediacy and authority that no maxim, legislation, contract or ecclesiastical authority can possess.
Those who deny their moral selves are alienated from the universal Self; the further we drift from our moral selves the less “human” we become. That is why evil acts are called “inhuman” and when we appeal to the good we appeal to people’s “humanity”.
The moral self is the fixed point, the root point that transcends the conditions of all communities, societies and religions. As Schopenhauer wrote: “All genuine virtue proceeds from the immediate and intuitive knowledge of the metaphysical identity of all beings…”
Sartre could never accept an intuition like this because he declared that there is no human nature; and there is no human nature because there is no God to have a conception of it. Yet the death of God does not mean we are abandoned to the shifting unstable world constructed by man, a world in which values become arbitrary because there remains no basis for judging their rightness other than social usefulness. In our world, profoundly split between the militantly secular and the fundamentally religious, there are only two acknowledged conceptions of humankind, as the image of god (imago dei) or as man the manufacturer (homo faber). If there is no third way, we are condemned.
Against the power of religious authority, humanism held itself out as the fearless defender of the dignity of humankind and our freedom to choose our own destiny. But can we be no more than the animal rationale, the rational animal? In the interests of ceding us autonomy humanism devalues our humanity, robs us of any purpose in the grander order, and denies legitimacy to the question of our Being. Is not our rationality wasted if all we use it for is to create the conditions that soothe, stimulate or entertain our minds and bodies? If we devote our unique form of consciousness to nothing more than feathering our own nests then we have surely betrayed something larger.
If existentialism did not set our humanity high enough, at least it allowed us to make our own truth; it may have killed the transcendental subject but that still left the subject of everyday action. For the post-structuralists existentialism was guilty of an excess of subjectivity, and they set out to deny us even the residue. In the vision of its most important figure, Michel Foucault, we are completely cut adrift; there are no origins, only accidents; history has no narrative but is merely a series of episodes; there is no knowledge, only a variety of perspectives.
Foucault called his historical study an archeology, designed to unearth the necessary but unconscious forms of thought that provide the conditions of a type of domination. He did not set out to reveal a truth but to sustain a discourse, to justify a perspective.5 For all its brilliance at exposing hidden meanings and cultural codes that order our experience, the cost to us was the destabilization of all notions of identity and denial that our sense of self has roots. Our difference became our essence.
Sartre allowed us to strive for an authentic self, but Foucault insisted the self can have no coherent grounding; it is no more than a unity of accidents, a network which does not even form a pattern. “Nothing in man—not even his body—is sufficiently stable to serve as the basis for self-recognition or for understanding other men.”6 Even our freedom is an illusion; liberty, he declared, is an “invention of the ruling classes”. Rights, duties and obligations are no more than historical forms. Reciprocity and the rule of law — what naïve people call civilisation— are but modes of domination, of violence by another means. Domination can only be defeated by another domination.
It is this Nietzschean view of history—of man as a species always at war— that so appealed to fascists. After all, it was Mussolini who wrote: “We have buried the putrid corpse of liberty”. Do not celebrate the abolition of slavery, winning the franchise or women’s equality; these were not real progress but the successes of those who were capable of seizing the old rules and turning them against the previous rulers in order to create a new domination. The great victories of progressive politics were turned on themselves.
For two decades from the mid-60s, contravening oppressive rules was a revolutionary act. But sooner or later the market co-opts everything. If sexism, racism and homophobia had once seemed essential to the reproduction of the system, the system soon learned it could do without them; indeed, that it could flourish if the abolition of oppression opened up new markets and new sources of labour. Today, transgression is no longer an act of political defiance, but a question of style, a personal indulgence. Throughout our history every ideology and every movement set out to tear down the old in order so as to build a new one. Post-structuralism could only tear down. It has no program, no demands, no dream, no vision; it wanted to construct nothing.
There is an old journalistic maxim: to find the truth, follow the money. In social science, to find the truth of a new social situation follow the power. So where is the power today? Hegemony no longer lies with a reactionary conservative culture; it lies with the marketers and the culture makers in the media. For them, pushing the boundaries is now a marketing technique. Where once it challenged conservative hegemony, transgression has now been co-opted by the market and turned into a means of sustaining the new power centres.
Nowhere is this truer than among the academic apologists of the porn industry, pseudo-radicals trapped in the past, blind to the fact that they have become the pawns of commerce at its most vulgar. The avant-garde has ended up in the caboose. As Zizek has written: perversion is not subversion.
The liberation movements of the sixties and seventies seemed to cause the ground to move, to call everything into question. Moral rules became the enemy, the primary charge being that they served as the means by which dominant groups exercised control over subordinate ones. Straight white males and the institutions they were most closely associated with came under siege from all sides. So overwhelming were the criticisms of the old moral order that a generation—led by new thinkers like Foucault and Derrida who took it upon themselves to challenge everything—rejected not just particular moral rules but the legitimacy of morality as such. If so much of the traditional ethical code could be shown to be an arbitrary instrument of oppression, perhaps the whole code was tainted and all ethical rules must be invalid.
This challenge to the authority of all moral claims represented the most far-reaching cultural shift. The 1960’s radicals’ predilection for asserting their autonomy by publicly rejecting conventions, especially those governing sexual behaviour, caused all rules guiding personal behaviour to be contested. If moralising is the assertion of an ethical rule without the need for justification, it became uncool to do it, and even now anyone who criticises personal behaviour of almost any kind must expect to be dismissed as a
But there is now an emerging discomfort with the absence of rules, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the arena of sexual mores. The attitude of the sexual revolution—that, apart from consent, there are no rules governing sexual behaviour—lifted the constraints on the libido. This gave permission for sex to be divorced from intimacy, a process that has reached its zenith in recent years. The perilous combination of emotional disengagement and the sexual urge is the theme of Hanif Kureishi’s novel Intimacy. The detachment cultivated by the protagonist as he prepares to abandon his wife and children is a justification for a kind of adolescent callousness, “a Thatcherism of the soul”. “We must”, he says, “treat other people as if they are real. But are they?”
We are now beginning to understand that free love exacts a heavy price, one unwittingly exposed by author and libertarian Catherine Millet. The publisher described her best-selling memoir The Sexual Life of Catherine M. as “a manifesto of our times—when the sexual equality of women is a reality and where love and sex have gone their own separate ways”. Is this not precisely what men, in their raw state, have always wanted, to separate copulation from intimacy? Is not every counsellor’s room witness to a stream of torn relationships in which she wants more intimacy and he wants more penetration? In the world of Catherine Millet women have entered the universe of sex constructed by men—primordial, unsocialised men driven by their ids—in which all finer feelings drown in a sea of testosterone. One almost begins to suspect that the sexual taboos of the past served not so much to oppress women but to protect them from the predatory urges of the unleashed male libido.
This is the new “democracy of pleasure”, in the words of Ovidie, the French porn star and author who describes herself as a feminist, artist and philosopher. Ovidie starred in the mainstream film The Pornographer of which one critic said “no film in the history of cinema had portrayed oral sex with such a superb sense of existential weariness and melancholy”. The subtext of all porn is boredom, the mechanisation of sex stripped of its excitement and mystery, reduced to what one person does to another (or more commonly, what he does to her). Sex in porn is not the exploration of one with another; it is an act of relief, like defecation.
The novels of Michel Houellebecq mirror the turmoil of sexual politics rippling through Western cultures. They have been called pornographic, yet, unlike Millet, Houellebecq’s eroticism has a purpose. For his characters, sex is an antidote to the meaninglessness of modern life, but the novels are also a meditation on that lack of meaning. They are a subtle journey into the vain quest for happiness in a post-scarcity world in which the promises of plenty, and the freedoms won in the sixties and seventies, have left a new barrenness. If all else has failed us and there is nothing left to believe in, why not fuck till we drop? Whereas Millet puts her orifices on display, Houellebecq shows us his doubts. While Millet is still playing out the fantasies of sexual freedom, Houellebecq is warning us of its perils: “The sexual revolution”, he wrote, “was to destroy the last unit separating the individual from the market.”
Where is all this taking us? It seems to me that as the imperatives for self-creation and individualism reach extreme levels they are exacting a terrible price. Houellebecq’s novels are suffused with a sense of the disengagement of the modern project of personal freedom.
For all of their casual sex and post-modern nonchalance, the stories remind us of what we sacrifice.
In The Possibility of an Island Houellebecq writes of a youthful generation only a few years in advance of the present, one in which sexuality is no more than a pleasant pastime, devoid of sentiment and commitment. For all of the stylish insouciance of “sex-positive feminists” such as Millet, this form of sexuality is a triumph of the male fantasy.
The centuries-old male project, perfectly expressed nowadays by pornographic films, that consisted of ridding sexuality of any emotional connotation in order to bring it back into the realm of pure entertainment had finally, in this generation, been accomplished.
Porn films and the sexual ennui of Millet serve the same function—to free men of the obligation for intimacy. Although Houellebecq’s novels appear to adopt a conspicuous indifference to this moral hollowing-out, in fact his work, read sympathetically, is a searing critique of post-modern moral laxity, all the more powerful because he refuses to impose any sort of moral judgment.
He exposes the modern tragedy simply by projecting the trends forward to a world of radically isolated selves from which the prospect of intense and passionate love has been banished. He takes us to a secure, closed, affluent, technologically controlled dystopia and considers the possibility of the island that John Donne said no man could be. His work expresses better than any sociological treatise the emptiness that stretches, cavernous, beneath the everyday activity of the consumer existence. Of the young generation not far into the future, he writes, “They had reached their goal: at no moment in their lives would they ever know love. They were free.” At no moment in their lives would they ever know love. They were free. In our modern pursuit of ultimate freedom, we deny ourselves the possibility of being truly human.
In his 1945 lecture Sartre said we should not seek refuge in utopian dreams: “act without hope” beyond that which you can do for yourself. But he rejected the accusation that his existentialism leads to quietism, the predisposition to political passivity. He turned to Marxism to give his subject some history to work on, something to struggle with. But it always sat uneasily with the philosophy of the self-creating subject.
The post-structuralists killed off the subject altogether, which destabilised notions of struggle and freedom. For Foucault power is ever-present and anonymous and renders us all cogs in a machine. It is the over-arching structure, a totalizing idea that leaves no room for the subject and therefore no room for agency. Of course, this plays into the hands of the truly powerful because the message is that there is no possibility of resistance. For Foucault the patterns of domination are so dense, so embedded in the culture, that freedom is abolished. We look in vain for a politics of action or a purpose on which to act. Post-modern politics is the new quietism; as such it is reactionary, the hand-maiden of consumerism.
How do we revolt against systems of power and cultural codes when, as Foucault maintained, we are nothing more than products of them? The post-modern analysis of power lets the real owners of power off the hook. Radical social science was transformed from a bulwark against the institutions of power into a collaborator with them. When academics became mesmerized by popular culture, they failed to notice that since the 1970s the autonomous sources and often-defiant nature of working class culture that Raymond Williams described had become colonized and co-opted by marketing. The celebration of popular culture became a justification of consumerist exploitation. So when a corporation wants to defend itself against accusations that it is exploiting children by sexualizing them in its advertising, where does it turn for expert support? Not to psychologists or child development experts, who will not collaborate, but to “sex-positive” media academics and cultural studies professors in our universities.
As an intellectual force, post-modernism is now in retreat. It was developed as a weapon to be used against the institutions of power at a time when the appeal of socialism was fading. In his 2004 essay ‘Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?’ Bruno Latour concedes that the method of questioning the biases and prejudices lying behind facts is being turned against progressive political positions by a conservative resurgence that also, oddly enough, has in its sights the modernist project of objective truth. Fundamentalism is on the march, and it pays less respect to the scientific method than the most ironic social constructionist. It is not just the creationists but also the global warming sceptics who have tried to systematically undermine the credibility of a mass of scientific research. Mimicking the post-modernists in their critique of the social sciences and humanities, the global warming sceptics have characterised climate science as a social construction of scientists motivated by career advancement and prospects of research funding. Climate science must be discredited because it lends standing to environmentalism which, as we all know, is a force of darkness whose secret agenda is to dismantle capitalism.
The neo-conservatives long for a return to a pre-modern era in which faith has authority over science. Modernism elevated matters of fact over matters of belief and now finds itself under siege from both post-modernism and neo-conservatism. Both reject the claim of science to objective truth. The former sees the truth of modernism as socially constructed and the real truth as always contestable; the latter refuse to accept that belief should be subject to falsification by fact.
Yet the weakness of social constructionism is now laid bare; for all of its radical challenge to accepted authority it never knew what it wanted. Latour asks: “What were we really after when we were so intent on showing the social construction of scientific facts?” and answers that, although some went too far, and created “an excessive distrust of good matters of fact”, our aim really was “to emancipate the public from prematurely naturalized objectified facts”. And then what? This only displaces the answer, for how do we know when the facts have “matured” sufficiently for us to trust them? What was the purpose of the post-modern project? What was to replace the structure that critique tore down so ruthlessly? There was no vision and this political aimlessness stands in contrast to the conservatives who know exactly what their goal was in deploying the techniques of deconstruction to erode the standing of science.
As philosophy or social theory, post-modernism no longer matters—not because it failed but because it succeeded too well. Popular culture has left the academy behind. Popular culture, now largely the product of marketing, has co-opted the post-modern stance and its mood of moral indifference. Bruno Latour’s doubts have been voiced too late; the genie has escaped and is now living in the Big Brother house.
Latour acknowledges it: “It has been a long time since the intellectuals were in the vanguard”. The avant-garde can now be found not in the cafes of the Left Bank, the paint-splattered garrets or the turbulent philosophy schools but in the creative department of Saatchi & Saatchi. Brand loyalty rather than social revolution is the order of the day.
The internet is the epitome of the post-modern attitude to truth. The internet, the text of post-modernism par excellence—where every user is a purveyor of truth; where no canon acts as ballast or referee as gate-keeper; where the most fantastic theories become embedded in the culture; where conspiracists can evade the ridicule they deserve; where any amateur who can compose a sentence can also write an encyclopaedia; where bits of information are valued more than the wisdom of the sages; and where the restless mind can, with one click, skip from a discourse on phenomenology to hot Asian babes. There was, after all, a didactic reason for excluding pornographic magazines from university libraries.
Progressives feel reluctant to comment on these developments for fear of being branded hypocrites or, worse, “uncool”. Yet as Churchill is reputed to have said when it was pointed out that he had contradicted a previous statement, it is better to be right than consistent. It goes deeper than owning up to an intellectual mistake. Amongst critical theorists, post-modernism is not only a set of beliefs but an attitude, and it has always been easier to discard beliefs than change attitudes. In contrast to the anger and commitment that characterised previous generations of radicals, the post-modernist intellectuals’ refusal to judge is characterised by an attitude of irony and detachment. “Whatever” is the watchword, and something that is manifestly wrong becomes simply “weird”.
When confronted by moral outrages post-modern intellectuals naturally revert to this attitude and summon up all of the slippery debating points, well-known to the argumentative amateur, designed to avoid having to take a stance on anything other than a stance against taking stances. Some of them also purport to be feminists, a conjunction that creates awkward moments, for it is quite a feat to treat female genital mutilation ironically or, as in the case of Catherine Millet, to regard prostitution as nothing more than a lifestyle choice. These intellectuals had to accept the failure of ideologies that opposed capitalism or, in the case of the younger ones, grew up in the era of the “death of ideology”, and the default position became this: If one does not know what to believe, why not satisfy the human need to believe in something by committing oneself, with all the passion of a zealot, to not believing?
Modern political disengagement is a form of quietism—a “philosophy” of non-resistance, the refusal of those in affluent countries to take hold of their own collective destiny, and instead deploy their wealth and personal freedoms to construct a private world that they insist reflects who they truly are. In an individualized world dominated by the market, when we take up a pen to write our own biographies in truth it is guided by an invisible hand, one that inscribes our story in the book of dreams published by an advertising agency.
In conclusion, then, humans have always needed stories to live by. For millennia until the Enlightenment mythical stories gave our lives a narrative coherence, and since the
Enlightenment we have invested our hopes in stories of liberation—liberation from feudal authority, from the arbitrary exercise of power, from political exclusion, from prejudice, from plutocrats and from material deprivation. Although spawned by the social movements of the sixties, post-modern intellectuals have ended up colluding with the economic libertarians to deny us a meaningful story by which to live. For the existentialists this is the moment they declare “you are on you own”, and the only response is retreat into mundane life. But ultimately there is no comfort in the everyday, unless mundane activities are practiced with a transcendent purpose.
This is perhaps the unconscious reason so many young people are drawn to environmental activism. What better way to engage with the magnificent questions than to bind oneself to the fate of the planet? Environmental activism is a repudiation of quietism; it is the resurrection of the subject whom the post-structuralists had pronounced dead. There is no place for post-modern irony and nonchalance when the future of humanity is at stake. The young activists commit their lives to a higher cause and thereby acquire not just an authentic identity but an abiding sense of connectedness between the inner landscape and that of the natural world they seek to protect.
1Speech on the occasion of the publication of The Freedom Paradox: Towards a post-secular ethics
University of Sydney, 12th August 2008 and Cinema Nova, Melbourne, 13th August 2008.
2“Existentialism is A Humanism”.
3 Slavoj Zizek, The Ticklish Subject (Verso 2000), p. 133.
4 Martin Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism” in David Farrell Krell (ed.), Martin Heidegger: Basic writings (Harper & Row, New York, 1977).
5J.G. Merquior, Foucault (Fontana Press, London, 1991), p. 36
6 Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, edited by D. F. Bouchard, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1977, p. 153