Meaninglessness and Modernity

My goal for the month is to get through Charles Taylor’s The Secular Age, which was the “it” book about ten years ago.  I read 250 pages of it at the time, then put it down and only picked it up again about a month ago.  Now I have managed to get through another 80 pages or so—which only leaves about 350 pages to go.

Anyway, Taylor has always been a liberal critic of liberalism—going all the way back to his first “big book,” the one on Hegel, published in 1975.  He was thought of as a “communitarian” in those days because his theme was the emptiness of “negative liberty” as contrasted to the notion of “situated freedom” that he derived from Hegel. (In A Secular Age, Taylor calls the liberal, autonomous self “the buffered self,” barricaded against “communion” with others or with the world, taking a detached, “objectivist” view of things, better to maintain its disengaged, “cold” autonomy.) The basic idea was that the autonomous, disconnected self, that sits at the center of any idea of negative freedom, is so contentless that its freedom to act is basically meaningless.  I was greatly influenced by Taylor in my Postmodernism and its Critics, where I took his “situated freedom” in a more materialist direction, thinking about the ways in which social structures and access to/distribution of material resources were central to any ability to act.  From there, I later moved to using the term “effective freedom,” which I got from John Dewey.  The notion is fairly simple: freedom is just another word for nothing unless you have the wherewithal to actually enact the things you dream of accomplishing.  In other words, a certain social organization that attends to material needs is required for freedom to be enjoyed.  A version, in other words, of the Marxist critique of the “formal freedoms” of a bourgeois society.

But I want now to think about Taylor’s assertion that modernity is afflicted with a certain kind of spiritual “malaise” (his word), a pervasive uneasiness (not felt by all, but by many) that their lives lack purpose or meaning.  This is the nihilism that Nietzsche saw all around him, or Durkheim’s anomie, or Baudelaire’s ennui.  Taylor insists this is new.  “What you won’t hear at other times and places is one of the commonplaces of our day (right or wrong is beside my point), that our age suffers from a threatened loss of meaning.  This malaise is specific to a buffered identity, whose very invulnerability opens it to the danger that not just evil spirits, cosmic forces or gods won’t ‘get to’ it, but that nothing significant will stand out for it” (303).

Note the hedge: Taylor doesn’t commit himself fully to asserting that modernity is truly a realm of meaninglessness.  He only insists that the feeling that one lacks meaning is prevalent.  And, elsewhere, he also admits that this feeling is mostly articulated by elites.

My basic reaction is to say that I don’t see it.  Sufficient unto the day is the meaning thereof.   What strikes me as much more evident is that the daily round, the struggle to keep life going and halfway bearable, provides more than enough purpose for most people.  I am fully persuaded that meaning is generated through the daily entanglement within social practices and our relations with/to others.  One possibility, I guess, is that modernity pushes more people into loneliness, into disconnected lives that exclude them from being embedded in larger social relations.  And I don’t doubt that something like “modern individualism” means that some selves (again, we need to think about privilege and elites here) develop strategies that provide them greater autonomy vis a vis the social orders in which they are embedded.  Buffered selves are not, however, necessarily (or even, I would argue, primarily) disconnected selves.  Rather, they are selves who enjoy (I choose this word deliberately) some power within the social relations in which they are entangled.  Everything we know about human social orders tells us that power will be abused where it is possessed.  Which is why idealizing traditional communities, with their strict hierarchies, is either foolishly naïve or tantamount to an inegalitarian defense of privilege.  As with wealth, the only good way forward is for a fuller, more equitable distribution of power.  Unbuffered selves are exploited selves.

But back to nihilism.  I just don’t see it (as I have said.)  I am tempted to go so far as to say it takes leisure—and lots of it—to suffer from ennui.  Just getting by takes all the time and attention of lots of people—and they don’t seem inclined to wonder if somehow there is more, that somehow their lives are missing something.  Rather, I think it much more likely that what we have is a case of elites who disparage what keeps “ordinary people” engaged.  I am thinking here of Thoreau’s claim that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation,” or even of Wordsworth’s complaint that “getting and spending takes all our power.”  What is troublesome about the masses is that they don’t experience anomie, that they find “getting and spending” good enough for them, thank you very much.  They aren’t searching for meaning, they are searching for a way to get ahead.  Life is hard enough to keep one going; it provides plenty of purpose in its daily rounds.

Let me be clear: I don’t think it actually functions all that differently for elites.  I think that they, too, are mostly sustained by the demands that each day brings, along with their own ambitions (for acclaim, recognition etc within their own social spheres).  I just think elites are endlessly snobby about the form that they see non-elite desires taking.  (I am somewhat channeling Bourdieu’s Distinction here, with its wonderful discussions of how elite taste scorns everything bodily and material in the name of “higher” pleasures.  We arrive here at J. S. Mill’s worries about and scorn of the pleasures of the pig.)  Elites may have a different content for their purposes, but I think the form is much the same, i.e. generated out of the social relations in which they are embedded.

What to conclude? 1. I am with Taylor in seeing “meaning” as a function of social entanglements.  Thus, if modernity truly extracts people from such entanglements, then modernity would be afflicted by a loss of meaning.  But that is a very, very different claim than saying that a secular age that only offers entanglement in the here and now—and not some kind of additional relationship to the transcendent—leaves us short of meaning or purpose.  I am willing to grant to Taylor that for some people a relationship to the divine stands as an important motivator in their lives.  But that is, for me, just like saying that for some people reading books, with their relationship to absent, often dead, authors is important to their lives.  Many don’t read books—and never feel any absence of purpose because they don’t read.  Similarly, many will do just fine without any relation to a divine.

  1. I am suspicious, as is obvious, as anyone imputing to others a state of desperation, anomie, loss of purpose etc. I don’t quite know what would stand as evidence to back up such a claim.  I suspect that, much more often, the basis for the claim is a distaste for, even incredulity about, the things in which people find purpose.  Surely, the critic says, that can’t be enough to sustain a meaningful life?  There must be more, there must be a longing for more.  Why?  Just because it wouldn’t satisfy you, that’s no evidence that it is unsatisfactory to that other guy.
  2. I hardly want to deny the existence of despair. (Let me for the moment make a false distinction between despair and depression, where depression is [as we say these days] a “clinical” condition while despair is something produced by the external circumstances in which the self finds itself.)  I suspect that despair is rarely a function of the general conditions of modernity; in other words, I don’t believe in some general malaise inflicting our (or some other) culture.  Rather, despair (at least within the structures of feeling that I see as fairly general in our culture) comes from one of three sources.  (Pardon the wild generalizations here.) 1. Suffering, either one’s own and [even worse] that of one’s loved ones that cannot be alleviated.  2. Being caught into dismal situations that one cannot alter or escape.  Such situations can be a job which one hates because constantly humiliated or exploited or made to do things that are shameful, or caught in certain social relations that, for whatever reason, one thinks must be endured even though terrible. 3. Being excluded from entanglement in the kinds of social relations that generate meaning.  The obvious case here is unemployment.  Work is a central producer of meaning in modern societies.  The weight (in terms of senses of self-worth and of engagement with others in a collective enterprise) placed on work in our society is truly frightening—and is what makes unemployment an existential as well as a financial disaster.  I do think Taylor is good in pushing us to think about the possibility of societies which would have many more sources of meaning aside from one’s work.

Three further thoughts for today.  The first is that (again, generalizing wildly) I don’t actually think religion (at least in contemporary American society) functions primarily as a source of meaning.  Or if it does, it does so by way of conferring an identity and offering a set of social relations apart from work and family.  I don’t think it has much to do at all with a relation to the transcendent, to god.  I do think it offers some consolation for suffering, some modes of coping with sickness, death, and other ills.  But it does not seem to be offering some kind of alternative path through the modern world, some other way of constructing a life.  Again, for a few it does do that.  But the Simone Weils among us are few and far between.  For the vast majority, their religion sits comfortably with their leading completely conventional modern lives.  I just don’t see where the religious in America today acknowledge or act upon some kind of “malaise,” some kind of awareness of modernity’s constitutive shortcomings.  The religious, in other words, are as casually modern as the rest of us, unmoved (by all appearances) by a sense that there must be “more.”  Religion is a source of meaning, yes, in that it affords participation in another, different, set of communal relations, but it hardly seems at odds with modernity.  Evangelicals may deplore modern permissiveness and keep their children out of public schools, but they still associate virtue with toeing the line in a capitalist economy and find purpose in constructing a life in the here and now.

The second thought concerns “bullshit jobs.”  Reading David Graeber’s book of that title is on my to-do list.  The issue it raises is the extent to which people find their jobs meaningless.  Again, I suspect this is an elitist projection.  I could never find that job meaningful, so how could someone else.  There must be millions and millions of people unhappy at work, pushing paper and doing it only out of raw economic necessity, the elite observer opines.

I spent eight years running an institute, with eight to ten employees underneath me.  At least four of them did jobs I could never stand doing for more than three weeks.  But they were conscientious and engaged workers.  Some were less competent than others, but the less competent ones were, in some ways, even more engaged because it took all of their effort and attention not to screw up.  There was some grousing, of course, about various kinds of bureaucratic requirements that created work for our staff, but, generally speaking, loyalty to our little platoon trumped issues about the meaningfulness of (or need for) the work that had to get done.  In short, like soldiers (as every study of them has shown), the meaning is generated out of the relation to one’s comrades, one’s fellow workers, without much attention paid (no less worrying about) larger meanings or purposes or the larger organization’s stated goals (or “mission” in today’s jargon.)  Thus, cynicism about the larger organization (again, a mainstay of soldier’s lives) can easily be combined with a deep, and satisfying, engagement with the daily round of tasks performed in the company of a group of comrades.

As I say, I will read Graeber, since he has done some field work among those who have bull shit jobs—and maybe he will convince me that a pervasive sense of meaninglessness exists among such workers.  For now, I don’t see an epidemic of meaninglessness all around me.

Third, and finally, I do however see an epidemic of depression (coupled with its evil twin, anxiety).  But I see it as produced by the crisis of work.  Even in 1951, Arendt (in Origins of Totalitarianism) could point to the problem of “superfluouness,” her euphemism for unemployment.  The idea was that the Depression created the opening for fascism.  People want to be needed, to be put to work, to be asked to join something, to be given something to join.  The Nazis offered the nation, while the work was war.  Our current epidemic of depression is caused by the lack of work—and the deep insecurity of those who do have jobs. [Neat that the same word, depression, stands for the economic condition that causes unemployment and the psychological condition that follows upon unemployment.] For our young people, finding a job that in some ways matches up with what they were educated to do has become a terrifying—and often unsuccessful—quest as the ranks of the solidly middle class are depleted.  For our blue collar workers, either the jobs have disappeared forever or are on the verge of disappearing.  Here is where the devil of the modern location of primary meaning in employment makes its horrors most felt.  We need to proliferate the sites of meaning production, of social entanglement in cooperative endeavors that strike people as meaningful.  We have to learn how not to work—and to not feel bad when we are not working.  And if there are bullshit jobs, ones that people find utterly meaningless, then the problem is compounded.

Perhaps (it is at least a plausible argument) the loss of a sense of transcendence, of a relation to the divine, partly causes the way meaning gets so centered in work in the modern age.  And if meaning and work are so entangled, an end to work (on the personal level as involuntary unemployment, and on a societal level with the advent of robots) is a disaster that we need to figure out how to address.  But I still want to say that engagement in the things of this world, with the people with whom we share it, provides plenty of meaning for the vast majority.  If there is a “malaise,” it is a product of the specific ill of unemployment (taking that term in its largest possible sense of exclusion from doing things with others) that is to blame, not some sickness unto death lodged in the modern soul.  And if the remedy is to learn how to find meaning in things apart from work, that doesn’t necessarily entail turning our eyes away from the things of this world.

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