Chapter 19: Unquiet Frontiers of Modernity

In this chapter, Taylor explores some of the points of cross pressure, tension, unease for modern unbelief. The places where the buffered identity and immanent frame have a hard time remaining “closed,” and an “open” take suggests itself. Taylor’s exploration in this chapter can’t “decide the issue between belief and unbelief” but it can “bring into view certain sites of unease with the closed perspective on the immanent frame.” Taylor points out three such sites of unease; subtler languages, time and death. 

A key feature of the anthropocentric shift has been the increased preoccupation with the beauty and pleasures of nature and ordinary life. The “subtler languages” developed by the Romantic poets articulates this sense of the wonder, hidden depths, sublimity, etc. of nature. This relieves exclusive humanism of the sense of hollowness of the purely immanent, and gives it a deeper language to express those depths of feeling and deeper experience. However, those very languages which free exclusive humanism of its hollowness, also point beyond and whisper of transcendence: “The Romantic sense of nature, for instance, is hard to separate from images of a larger force, or a current of life sweeping through all things. These images, central for instance to Wordsworth’s poetry… break the carefully erected boundaries of the buffered identity, which neatly divide mind from nature.” Can exclusive humanism account for this image of a “life-force” in nature, without reducing it to say, metaphors of our depth of feeling? Can exclusive humanism make sense of, account for, this experience/intuition of more? Can it develop its own language, of equal depth and profundity that doesn’t “burst the categories of the buffered self?” Taylor is skeptical: “It’s not clear that the answer to this last question is positive.”

Another point of tension is our experience of time. In the medieval conception, higher times—eternity—intersected with secular, everyday time. The hierarchical orders, king, knights, peasants, the church, the nation, were all grounded in higher time: “Our forebears lived in a world of multiple times, hierarchically related. The social orders of hierarchical complementarity in which they lived only made sense within this multi-layered time.” Time, for the medieval, “is multiform and kairotic,” eternity intersects with the everyday, and the sacred, eternity, higher time are just part of the normal experience. With disenchantment and the process of Reform, these hierarchical structures are done away with, and along with this comes this sense of time as flat, homogenous. 

A purely secular time-understanding allows us to imagine society “horizontally”, unrelated to any “high points”, where the ordinary sequence of events touches higher time, and therefore without recognizing any privileged persons or agencies— such as kings or priests—who stand and mediate at such alleged points. This radical horizontality is precisely what is implied in the direct access society, where each member is “immediate to the whole”.

A purely secular time is just a “container to be filled,” a finite resource to be used efficiently and effectively: “This has made us take a stance towards time as an instrument, or as a resource to be managed, and hence measured, cut up, regulated. The instrumental stance by its very nature homogenizes; it defines segments for some further purpose, but recognizes no intrinsic qualitative differences. This stance has built the rigid time frame in which we all live.” 

Now, this kind of notion of time, Taylor admits, is unlivable, and our modern experience of time isn’t quite that of “homogenous, empty time.” Modernity has given its own shape and meaning to time, so that we have a sense of moving meaningfully through time, rather than just feeling lost or trapped in it. This is done in two ways. First via “cycles, routines, reoccurring forms in our lives: the daily round, the week, seasons, times of heightened activity, vacations.” These give our daily lives a shape as we move through time: breakfast, work, lunch, dinner. September, October, November. Christmas, Boxing Day, New Year. And so on. Second, there is the broader narrative of moving through time as a society, nation, civilization, or as the human race, these are narratives “of change, growth, development, realization of potential.”  Outside of both of these stand those moments of “coming together,” when the “urban monads” fuse into a whole for some higher cause; these have great potential to shift the course of history into a new direction, positive or negative. Think of 60s revolution or the “Nürnberg rallies,” these“kairotic moments,” themselves find their place in our narrative, they are celebrated or mourned as key turning points. These moments are roughly analogous to the Carnival of the middle ages, when the order of things flips and we break out of our normal time: 

Some moments of this kind are, indeed, the closest analogues to the Carnival of previous centuries. They can be powerful and moving, because they witness the birth of a new collective agent out of its formerly dispersed potential. They can be heady, exciting. But unlike Carnival, they are not enframed by any deeply entrenched if implicit common understanding of structure and counter-structure. They are often immensely riveting, but frequently also “wild”, up for grabs, capable of being taken over by a host of different moral vectors, either utopian revolutionary, or xenophobic, or wildly destructive; or they can crystallize on some deeply felt, commonly cherished good, like ringing the key chains in Wenceslas Square; or as in the case of the Di funeral, celebrating in an out-of-ordinary life the ordinary, fragile pursuit of love and happiness. 

The basic sense of the modern time consciousness is that as we go about our daily routines, we are participating in the larger story of progress, we are part of a “civilized” society, and we in our small way are playing our role in it, moving that history forward: 

Let’s say I am a dedicated doctor, engineer, scientist, agronomer. My life is full of disciplined routines. But through these I am helping to build and sustain a civilization in which human well-being will be served as never before in history; and the perhaps small discoveries and innovations which I manage to make will hand on the same task to my successors at a slightly higher level of achievement. The meaning of these routines, what makes them really worth while, lies in this bigger picture, which extends across space but also across time.

What is unique about this outlook is that the meaning of time/history is purely immanent to history itself, within the narration of progress, that we are going somewhere: “the single reality giving meaning to the repeatable cycles is a narrative of human self-realization, variously understood as the story of Progress, or Reason and Freedom, or Civilization or Decency or Human Rights; or as the coming to maturity of a nation or culture.” By contrast, for the older, pre-modern conception, the meaning “of the repeated cycles of time was found outside of time, or in higher time or eternity.” 

Now, another important feature of our modern “time consciousness” is that “these narratives have come under attack.” The meta-narrative of Progress has come under the postmodernist critique, that this is a “grand story,” a power move, a myth we can no longer believe. Alongside this come the various critiques we have been rehearsing throughout this series, all these contribute to the “spectre of meaninglessness: “as a result of the denial of transcendence, of heroism, of deep feeling, we are left with a view of human life which is empty, cannot inspire commitment, offers nothing really worth while, cannot answer the craving for goals we can dedicate ourselves to.” This sense of meaninglessness is unique to modernity; in pre-modern times, the sense was the opposite, there was too much meaning, the stakes between heaven and hell were too high. And so there is this sense of the emptiness, the feeling of entrapment in routine, the sense of the endlessness of time, a sense of disconnection from the past: 

The sense of imprisonment in the routine is articulated by the great Weberian image of the iron cage. This is a kind of imprisonment in the banal, the “alltäglich”. (Indeed, the word we translate in English as the “routinization” of charisma is “Veralltäglichung”.) The sense of the disintegration of everyday time, its hardening into a kind of leaden endlessness, was movingly articulated by Baudelaire. It is the essence of what he calls “spleen”, “ennui”. 

And so, in these ways, the modern time consciousness gives us a sense of meaninglessness that pushes us towards transcendence: “What arises through the sense of loss in these three dimensions is the need to rediscover a lived time beneath or beyond the objectified time-resource of the disciplined order of civilization. It is out of lived experience that we either find the way to break out of the Iron Cage, or to transfigure the world of ennui, or to reconnect the lost time.” 

A final point of tension for exclusive humanism is Death. There is something absurd about death, especially tragic death, the way it just breaks in and ruptures, suddenly brings to a life to an end. This person you love is there the one day, full of life, full of possibility, full of history, full of future; and then suddenly this is all gone, snapped like a twig. This seems to make no sense, to be absurd in some way, that this vibrant life and shared meaning, should just vanish into nothingness. According to Nietzsche “Love desires eternity.” What he is getting at is this sense that a love between two people already, in a very profound sense, participates in eternity: “A deep love… exists against the vicissitudes of life, tying together past and present in spite of the disruptions and dispersals of quarrels, distractions, misunderstandings, resentments. By its very nature it participates in gathered time.” The hunger for eternity then, is not the simple desire “to live on, not to have our lives stop,” to let the fun keep going, but something much more profound. The hunger for eternity comes from the profound hope that the love, the joy, the meaning that we have built between us, that this endures and is not just absurdly snatched from us: “all joy strives for eternity, because it loses some of its sense if it doesn’t last.” We see a sort of eternity in remembering those we have lost, or when what they have built, left their mark on, endures. So, a mayor can find a sort of eternity in his town, a president in a nation, a CEO in a company, or someone can endure in art, music, architecture etc.:

One can make the eternal be the clan, the tribe, the society, the way of life. And your love, and the children who come from it, have their place in the chain; as long as you have preserved, or better enhanced, that tribe or way of life, you’ve handed it on. In that way, the meaning continues. This just shows how joy strives for eternity, even if all that is available is a lesser form of it; and even if something is left out that matters to us highly individuated moderns, as the particular things that meant most to us are gradually lost in the general impact we’ve made. And of course, this eternity can’t preserve those who are really forgotten, or those who haven’t left their mark, or those who have been damned, excluded. There is no general resurrection in this “eternity” of grateful posterity. This is what exercised Benjamin, the unfilled need to rescue those who were trampled in history.

This shows in a small way the hunger for eternity. The desire to have what really matters about our lives endure, to last, and not to absurdly snuffed out. To have those losers of history be found, rescued. Unbelief has a hard time dealing with Death, but one possible path forward is within the “immanent counter-enlightenment.” Figures such as Heidegger, Nietzsche, Derrida etc., have tried to recover the centrality of death as “paramount vantage point in which life shows its meaning.” Heidegger speaks of “being unto death,” this sense that only by remembering your death, can you truly embrace the joys of finitude. So this is one way of dealing with death. And yet, the experience of death, the confrontation with the ugly reality, cannot help but awake a sense of the absurdity of death and, a hope, a longing, for eternity. 

And so in these ways, the cross pressure between belief and unbelief continues. There are various points of tension, some of which Taylor has explored which push and pull people in one or the other direction. But the conditions of modernity do not seem to dictate either a “closed” or “open” take, the tension seems ongoing: 

The more one reflects, the more the easy certainties of either “spin”, transcendental or immanentist, are undermined. I could have mentioned many other such points of pressure on our fixed positions; but I hope that the basic point has been made more plausible: the present fractured expressivist culture, with its advancing post-Durkheimian understanding, seems very inhospitable to belief. Our world is ideologically fragmented, and the range of positions are growing as the nova effect is multiplied by expressive individualism. There are strong incentives to remain within the bounds of the human domain, or at least not to bother exploring beyond it. The level of understanding of some of the great languages of transcendence is declining; in this respect, massive unlearning is taking place. The individual pursuit of happiness as defined by consumer culture still absorbs much of our time and energy, or else the threat of being shut out of this pursuit through poverty, unemployment, incapacity galvanizes all our efforts. All this is true, and yet the sense that there is something more presses in. Great numbers of people feel it: in moments of reflection about their life; in moments of relaxation in nature; in moments of bereavement and loss; and quite wildly and unpredictably. Our age is very far from settling in to a comfortable unbelief. Although many individuals do so, and more still seem to on the outside, the unrest continues to surface. Could it ever be otherwise?

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