On the Decline of Social Thought and Prospects for its Renewal
by Eugene Halton
Published by The University of Chicago Press, 1995, paper, 1997
selection from chapter 8: The Modern Error and the Renewal of Social Thought
....Kundera, Lessing, Melville,
and Lawrence all point to the paradoxical tragedies of modern life: the
development of rational capacities oversteps boundaries and parasitically
feeds on the emotional sources of rational life. Rationality is itself
one capacity among others, which becomes destructive when taken to be the
sovereign of reason.
Though we humans possess rationality, we are not rational beings and cannot become rational beings. Or let me modify that. The moment we truly become rational creatures is the moment when Ahab is lashed to the whale, when he, as the rational isolato subject, attains a final unity with the narcissistic object of his rationalization, his death. It is the moment of Raskolnikov's rational murder. That moment of the realization of the rational creature is the "interesting age" in which we now are living.
We humans are passionate beings, whether we are modern workers in a rationalized factory or computer terminal, or Realpolitik calculators planning how to maximize our individual strategic interests, or scientists inquiring into the origins of the physical universe, or philosophers inquiring into the sources and ends of public life. We are beings of passion currently possessed by a singular passion for being rational. This rational passion, having exalted itself above creation in the name of "God," "Science," "Reason," "Critical theory," "Modernity," and even, in unconscious self-alienation, "Postmodernity," has blinded its adherents to the inner community of passions which are necessary to human sanity, and to the passional relation to the outer world of nature and experience, mediated through an integrated self. In the quest to attain universal intellect at any expense, we have committed the "Unpardonable Sin," as Hawthorne put it, of rationally possessed hubris, and have become severed from the universal "heartthrob" of humanity. We moderns have become the fiendish Frankenstein monsters, Ethan Brands, Ahabs, Raskolnikovs, Mr. Kurtzs, and Adrian Leverkühns, presciently felt and imagined by those writers sensitive to the drift of modern culture.
The contemporary intellectual landscape is still dominated by those who believe that all we need to do is improve our critical rationality, science, or technology, or to include multiple "modes of authority" in our methods and theories. Yet, as Coleridge said, "deep thinking is attainable only by a man of deep feeling"--today, of course, we would say "by a man or woman of deep feeling"-- and those who, living from the head alone, have lost the capacity to feel deeply are not likely to point the way toward a renewal of thought and culture.
As the twilight of the twentieth-century begins to set, neither a rationalist such as Habermas nor even a postmodern antirationalist such as Rorty--nor the majority of theorists, it is fair to say--face up to the fact that the dream of the modern age to create rationally grounded societies has long since revealed itself to be a nightmare, the hydra-headed nightmare of bureaucratic totalitarianism and bureaucratic capitalism, of mass Isolatoism. Human life, which developed through the enlargement and subtlization of the mammalian traits of REM dreaming, powerful mother-infant bonding and nurturance, and play, expressed in the development of ritual observances, emotionally rich linguistic communication, and the flourescence of fantastic symbolic forms in body decoration, painting, and even practical artifacts, is reduced to the rote, to lifeless formalism and its opposite: contingent sensationalism. The human person, who was the living incarnation of evolutionary reasonableness, was rendered into a cog of devitalized systems--whether politically as the mass man of brutal Communist and Nazi systems or of the control-by-reward consumer societies, or through general rational bureaucracy itself and various "systems" and behaviorist theories, or as psychological man--an isolate subject possessed of "subjective values" and incapable of touching the objective world. If modernity began with the celebration of the person in humanism, it ended in the twentieth-century with a "posthuman" world from which the organic human person had been dispossessed.
The true utopia of the power-mongers and rational calculators--not to mention the Arnold Gehlens and sociobiologists--is that of the bee-hive, one of the earliest manifestations of the megamachine. Sixty million years ago bees and ants achieved highly efficient societies that would be the envy of the leading economic powers and systems theorists of today.
Let me emphasize that I am not rejecting rationality per se, but simply the dominant tendencies of modern culture toward an ever more rational world. One of my basic premisses is that the progressive development and release of rational capacities in modern culture and its institutions have been possible because of the legacy of the many forms of non-rational reasonableness embedded in Western Civilization, a legacy by no means obsolete. In its ever greater expansion the rational mind increasingly devalued that which was not rational, and claimed that reason was synonymous with the rational. It was only able to do so, in my opinion, because of the rich, hybrid compost of organic intelligence on which it was based and which fueled it, a reasonableness developed out of pre-western, non-western, and precivilizational, and even prehistoric sources. Emotions can develop or atrophy, both individually and institutionally, and can range from fleeting sensations to instinctive proclivities whose forms, however variously expressed, remain deeply engrained aspects of being human. Those patterns of ritual expression and forms of feeling in the human constitution, such as dreaming, play, and intense mother-infant bonding, reach back to deeply embedded biological sources--to prehuman and ecstatic mammalian sources--which were pivotal to the emergence of human beings and which continue to animate human conduct at the highest levels as well as the lowest.
The casting off of archaic culture, of traditional customs, mores, and beliefs, of localized community in the development of modern culture, not only produced positive energies in the development of the modern autonomous self, but also had the unenlightening consequence of jettisoning the checks and balances of the human person, leaving the individual much more dependent on singular sources of socialization. "Enlightenment" was supposed to replace the chaotic dark regions of the mythologizing psyche with sober modern reason, a project which neglected the possibility that mythic narratives might be expressions of a deeper relatedness with the powers that move humans than rational consciousness can touch....
Consumer culture today is the chief socializing agent of the modern ghost in the machine, promising freedom and autonomy and immediate gratification while relentlessly colonizing both the civic community and the very structure of the self, from infancy on, like a retro-virus: a retro-virus which says, "buy me, drink me, eat me, dream me, desire me, and you will be yourself." In the virtual reality of consumption culture anything goes if people will buy it, only the real cost for the delusion of endless possession is a loss of self-possession. The endless parade of consumptive fantasies becomes a way of life: the self can be endlessly redescribed, like new clothing. Between the Big System and pure chance contingencies stands the hollow self, with its glorious hypertrophied freedoms to choose and idealize, unburdened by its organic needs and limitations, by spontaneous empathy, or by purposes or commitments which transcend its singular existence.
If, as Marshall Berman points out so well, Faust was the embodiment of the myth of development and modernization, postmodern Post-Faustian Person, driven by the irrational march of rational images and fantasies instead of the Grand March of history, is perhaps the logical terminus of the Faustian myth: the complete colonization of the inner life of humanity and the "wide world outside" by the ghost in the machine....
return to Bereft of Reason