The dilemma of hypermodernity (Part Six)
By Mark Wegierski
An earlier, academic version of this essay has appeared in This World: Religion and Public Life (Culture and Consumption) no. 31 (2000) (New Brunswick, USA and London, UK: Transaction Publishers), pp. 29-45. This is the 16th anniversary of the appearance of the academic version of the essay – which had also appeared in various, different, non-academic iterations in the 1990s, including in Polish translation. The essay had also appeared in three parts on its 15th anniversary, in Quarterly Review (UK).
The broad outline of the question of humanity versus technology has been posed. It had been suggested that there in essence lie two main alternatives before humanity, the dystopic "hypermodernity", and a more positive "postmodernity". The use of the term "postmodern", as something distinct from "hypermodern" is, it should be cautioned, rather eclectic and original. The author's meaning of "postmodern" is probably best reflected in architectural theory -- where a postmodern style tries to combine "the best elements of old and new" -- rather than in contemporary political thought.
The concept of "postmodernity" arises, like many worthwhile ideas, from the systematization of a quasi-intuitive, quasi-commonsense notion. The manifest problems of late modernity -- the disenchantment of a once meaningful and "magical" cosmos; the attenuation of truly meaningful collective identifications; and the virtual elimination of a serious public-political realm from human existence -- are accepted as valid criticisms across virtually the entire spectrum of serious political thought. (Generally-speaking, differences arise only in ascertaining the real importance and actual severity of these problems to the polity -- which are of course minimized in individualist, liberal political discourse -- as well as in the proposed solutions: liberal political theory, for example, would probably say that "taking rights seriously" -- along with a tiny eye-dropper's worth of collectivity in the vast ocean of society -- is the optimal solution.) On the other hand, the problems of premodernity, whatever warm ecstasies of "belonging" and "meaning" it might have offered -- are also manifest. These basically consist in the wretched material conditions of existence of the time, as well as in the often too-vehement denial of the material. The idea of "postmodernity" arises as a hope for a saner world in which "our physical nature will not be cursed, as in the Middle Ages, but even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon, as in the Modern Era." This is from a passage which was probably the original inspiration of this concept for the author, the conclusion of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's startling commencement address to Harvard University, June 8, 1978 (published as A World Split Apart). To cite the conclusion in fuller form:
"If the world has not approached its end, it has reached a major watershed in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will demand from us a spiritual blaze; we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life, where our physical nature will not be cursed, as in the Middle Ages, but even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon, as in the Modern Era. This ascension is similar to climbing onto the next anthropological stage. No one on earth has any other way left but -- upward." (A World Split Apart, pp. 59 and 61.)
A common reaction among many people to this strong appeal might be that, while it seems quite positive, where and how is it likely to be realized in today's tangled and confused world? The author will attempt to identify some of the possible centres and idea-streams from whence this so-called "postmodern" resolution of history might arise, as well as to sketch out (partially as a consequence of the identification of these foci) the actual possible shape (if only in the roughest contours) of a saner, better world. Some attention will also be paid to the enormous obstacles standing in the way. The author, incidentally, finds it hard to share Solzhenitsyn's somewhat optimistic and providential view of matters -- the coming struggle for humanity will demand the utmost sacrifice and commitment from every person who is more-or-less conscious of the near-impending disaster before us.
Five very powerful and incisive cultural structures support a view of history similar to that of Solzhenitsyn's. First, there is the Hegelian system of thesis - antithesis - synthesis. Applying this schema to the contemporary world-historical situation, the thesis could be interpreted to be premodernity, the antithesis modernity, and (a possible) synthesis ("the negation of the negation") is "postmodernity". The thesis is really "re-established at a higher level", having passed through historical experience and consciousness of what modernity entails. (History would not necessarily "end" then, but presumably develop in directions of which we can have no knowledge.) Secondly, there is the psychology of the human being, where one typically sees the progress from a "magical" childhood, to a troubled adolescence of rebellion and questioning, to (in most cases) a settled, integrated adulthood. Thirdly, there is one of the central ideas of the visionary poet, William Blake, who suggested another type of psychology which passes from the child's world of innocence, into the adult world of experience ("the school of hard knocks"), but with the re-emergence of what critics have called a "higher innocence" at the end. Reinterpreting this idea for the contemporary context, it may be seen that some people, although they are older, have some remnant of a distinctly unjaded, "fresh" approach to life left in them, whereas many younger people seem to have all their idealism burnt out of them, by excessive sensual and sensory indulgence early in their lives. They can at best be good technicians and lawyers, being significantly diminished in their real sense of humanity. (This argument has been advanced by, among others, Alan Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, and by Malcolm Muggeridge, in his cutting, mordant essay, "The Great Liberal Death Wish".) It is more likely that it is through the informed and conscious idealism of those persons who remain somewhat unjaded that the world might possibly be taken in more positive directions, rather than by the jaded cynicism of those who only seek personal power and self-aggrandizement, and are often also thoroughly debauched. Fourthly, there is the philosophical insight about education, which is that one passes from ignorance, which may indeed be blissful, to education, where one rejects intuition, and is unsettled by constant self-questioning ("a little education is a dangerous thing"), but finally to the state of wisdom, where many of the intuitions once held are validated "at a higher level" ("a true and extensive education allows one to find again one's place in the world"). Finally, one sees in the history of philosophy and philosophy of science a movement away from "myth and mystery", in favour of mechanistic calculation with full predictability, but, with the emergence of speculative physics in the Twentieth Century, the possibility re-emerges of a non-dualistic view of the cosmos, of a "virtuous circle", where "the observer affects the event", thereby presumably establishing a kind of "post-rational" worldview, where "reason is put in its place", and "myth and mystery" can exist again.
One of the most interesting images I have come across which relates to this threefold schema is Rousseau's analogy of the three gardens. It appears in one of Rousseau's novels, La Nouvelle Héloïse. The three gardens are one which is naturally wild, a second which is clipped in artificial geometric shapes, and a third, which although it appears as exceedingly wild and exuberant, is in fact carefully cultivated by human hands. They are seen in succession by the protagonist of the story. The analogy seems to mirror the development of humanity -- from a spontaneously wild state of nature, to a state of enchained and regulated civilization, and then, possibly, to a situation where a sense of organic harmony is maintained through conscious human intervention. Without passing out of the naturally wild garden to the artificial garden, we would not have the ability to have the exuberant and humanly maintained third garden. (See Lester G. Crocker, "Order and Disorder in Rousseau's Social Thought." Publications of the Modern Language Association of America vol. 94, no. 2 (March 1979), pp. 247-260.)
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.