Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Modern Heroism

I’m somewhere up the Pacific northwest coast, Lewis and Clark territory, looking at old maps and reading sociology.

Zygmunt Bauman is the prophet of new forms of capital, work, and identity.  In Liquid Modernities he defines the modern individual as trapped inside a web of uncaring, unplanning, antisocial networks much as the visitor to the trailer park is supposed to bring his own entertainment, appliances, home, and expectations, not to interact, not to stay, and certainly not to threaten authority.  Advanced liberalism is experienced through a cycle of isolation, dread, and denial, where truly shared experiences are a form of self-deception.  

For Bauman, each of the institutions supposed to liberate the individual to pursue greater realms of individual expression -- everything from education to critical theory; psychology and identity politics alike -- only confirm for the individual that there is nothing he/she can do to change the mind of the great social structures that have held her/him from his/her birth.  S/he is locked inside the cell of his/her own self.  Therapy only confirms that what s/he dreads is true: we really are that alone.  In a brilliant exegesis of Jane Fonda and self-help/fitness culture more generally, Bauman writes:

Trying to straighten out other people’s crooked problems makes you dependent, and being dependent means giving hostages to fate – or, more precisely, the things you cannot master or people you cannot control; so mind your own business, and your own business only, with a clear conscience.  There is little to be gained from doing the job for others, and it would divert your attention from the job no one can do but you.  Such a message sounds sweet – as a much-needed reassurance, absolution and green light – to all those loners who are forced to follow, with or against their better judgment and not without pangs of conscience, Samuel Butler’s exhortation that ‘Pleasure after all is a safer guide than either right or duty.’

In short, to be sure the impulse for caring and attending is natural and valued; but even altruism is probably just another form of self-delusion in the end, and given the private nature of all one's peers, it's better to shut up and hide in a closet if you're feeling lousy about either yourself or the world; everyone expects it of you anyway, and nothing you do is going to change anybody's mind. 

I’ve been rolling on a particularly immobile depression for a couple of weeks straight now (sorry, no blogging when lame; major rule).  So Bauman is hitting home pretty hard.  And maybe it’s a sign of a (semi) healthy ability to laugh at oneself that I find myself taking a weirdly giddy delight in simultaneously cherishing Bauman’s nihilism and paradoxically Not Believing A Word Of It. 

I find myself asking, What’s so modern about this particular form of alienation?  My dissertation is on strangers not speaking to each other; I write about the eighteenth-century transformation from face-to-face gemeinschaft to the faceless society of familiar strangers in gesellschaft.  I have every reason to embrace any theory that gives me fodder for explicitly defining the coming of the nation state, the vast bureaucracy, the culture of narcissism. I have a stack of eighteenth-century transformations that all lead to various forms of isolation and acceptance of vast, social networks aimed at telling the individual how to behave, and then convincing the individual of his/her own responsibility for the costs. 

If anything, the information structures carrying home messages about the correct kind of behavior are modern: the consumer society, the self-help industry, the mass media, the nation state.  Indeed we may have more and better ways than ever before for assessing our own behavior; we have statistics, crowds, gurus.  We know not only how our neighbors and colleagues deal, but how anonymous millions deal; if we don’t know we can look up and find out exactly where we as individuals lie in the city-wide, national, and global age-brackets for our age, weight, and alcohol consumption.  If I have the smallest desire to compare myself with any of them, I can just as easily find myself competing against all of them.  And nothing would drive me back into the cave of my own conscience as surely and promptly as the threat of finding out that I am not doing so well and nothing can ever help me.  This particular form of social death is surely new. 

But I find myself asking what the individual looked like before.  What the melancholy of the medieval monastic or renaissance scholar had that was so different from the isolated trailer-park melancholy of the twenty-first century academic who wants to pound her face into her desk because she can neither defeat fascism out of doors nor overcome her neediness for human contact at home. 

What exactly is the epistemic status of this hyper-individualism?  Is it a genetic inheritance of the hunter-gatherer instinct of individual animals banded together in tribes?  Is it a theological relic of our long-term engagement as individuals in bodies with a society that bequeaths us our traditions, but which we can neither really know nor trust as a source of the ultimate Good (either for us or for others)? 

So I end up back in Greece (of course) ruminating on epics and the hero’s epic journey.  What made him so different?  We don’t think that the hero is necessarily happy, but we all honor him.  He doesn’t satisfy all of our values, but he embodies a majority of them in circumstances beyond the expectations and diversity of any historical experience. 

Of course the hero comes up against foreign lands and institutions (witches, nomads, lotus-eaters) with their own values; they may attempt to manipulate him or destroy him; they usually try at least to win him over to their way of thought.  The hero represents our values system, however, and we love him for somehow surviving.  Not conquering: just surviving. 

The modern hero is not so different from the hero of the ancient world.  The hero of most Philip K. Dick and Raymond Chandler novels alike is one part values to nine parts survivor: survivor of twisted harlots in the suburbs or borg-like social consciences and runaway killer machines.  All that’s new about modernity may be that we have more people telling us what to do, and less of a voice to talk back to them, and more of an opportunity to abdicate responsibility, than ever before. 

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Anonymous Scott Paeth said...

I'm not so sure that ancient greece is where you want to go for inspiration. Greek heroes, after all, weren't very heroic ("Greek hero," doesn't that sound like a sandwich? "Yeah, I'll take the Patroclus on rye." "Do you want that with Achilles armor?" "Nah, it might get me in trouble with the guy who ordered the Hector.").

The qualities honored in Greek heroes, "arete," is understood as excellence, and usually martial excellence (though Odysseus was honored for his "craftiness"). It is seldom moral nobility in any sense that you or I would recognize that represents the ideal of heroism in Greek literature. Even as late as the Italian renaissance, the idea of "Virtu" didn't mean moral virtue in the sense that we commonly understand it -- rather, it meant "manliness," again, martial virtues.

This is where the theological dimension comes in. If the philosophical virtues of Justice, Courage, Moderation, and Wisdom aren't sufficient to lead us out of the mire of our own self-involvement, maybe Faith, Hope, and Love ultimately can, since they are innately oriented beyond individual self-satisfaction.

Well, sorry if this is too abstruse. This is what happens when an ethicist thinks about heroism!

6:21 AM  
Blogger J said...

What Arete gets at where the enumeration of modern virtues fails is not a particular virtue but a different definition of virtue: not as an Aristotilian concept that can be bargained out and strictly defined and located by experiment, but a Bourdieuian praxis that can be observed in a community. Before and after philosophy, Greeks observed their virtues through drama, through rehearsal in front of all the other Greeks there assembled. To call for a kind of virtue embodied in a story, or in a play -- particularly if the story is oral, and locateable not in an individual or generation but in a series of them -- is to call for an open dialogue about the kinds of community that have forcibly survived all sorts of political change.

To emphasize Arete is not to engage Paul *or* Kant; it is to engage Greekness in whatever form Greekness was shared, communicated, and learned. It is to embrace community.

You're right to turn the conversation towards ethics, for it's in the poverty of our ethical conversation that the problem of modern loneliness (and the impossibility of ethical action faced with genocide a hemisphere away) takes place. As Bauman points out, we have no terms to turn us towards a version of community that doesn't call for endless sacrifice and paranoia, for jettisoning lovers and alliances. We have no ethical terms for that community, so ethics has become impossible.

Neither Justice nor Love is enough; neither points us to being alert enough, curious enough, engaged enough to see the bounds of possibility; to make a connection to strangers and nomads we have not yet met, to listen to unfamiliar stories.

I think I'm rebelling not only against the individualism of Justice, Courage, Moderation, and Wisdom, but of the smallness of the community in which Faith, Hope, and Love are commonly constructed. It is not merely the individualism, it's the

Faith, Hope and Love are trivial without Courage and Justice -- instructions borne out in Paul's instructions to the disciples to leave on their pilgrimages through the world without a coin in their purse, with two days' change of clothes.

But I'll take my anarchic streak up here again and return where I started: the enumerated, Aristotelian virtues will not get us far enough. What we long for in the stories, what the stories offer, what the epic hero embodies, is a praxis of survival and exploration. The sacrifice is located in time and space: moving past islands and old engagements, rather than making a sacrifice of one's son or leader. It may be loathesomely pagan to imply that the sacrifices most needed are the ones that the world makes for one. But it is very human, and very modest, to point to the root of human knowledge in experience, and the story of that experience already offering the basis for the doubling, love, recognition, denial, and sacrifice that will be called for in the future. All forms of enumerated virtues are merely individual exiles. When we speak of an arete of the exile, we speak to the human condition, translated across time and space.

12:25 AM  

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