Wednesday, August 30, 2006

"Each Individual...Has His Holy of Holies"

A follow-up to my preview post about Philip Rieff:

It’s important to note that Rieff’s early work focused on the ways in which Freudian psychology had altered our society’s sense of self, and his generally negative opinion of Freud is quite consistent with the critique of modern culture presented in Deathworks. Freud’s central assertion was that man’s psyche could be laid bare by the tools of rational science (i.e., psychotherapy). Whereas people were previously thought to be “separate beings, with each of us different from every other in his identity, his incommunicability, his inwardness”, Freud sought to breakthrough the barriers that had always prevented individuals from truly knowing one another. Thus, the psychoanalyst was urged to roam through the deep recesses of his patients’ psyches and, if successful, to understand them better than they understood themselves. And patients were (and still are) encouraged to share their darkest secrets and raw emotions, in the hope that this surrender of privacy will gain them a modicum of “enlightenment” and, perhaps, happiness.

The result of all this was the emergence of “psychological man”, a term Rieff coined in 1959. Lasch-Quinn provides an excellent description of this creature:

“Forever anxious and insecure, psychological man eschews political and religious commitments, and even economic calculation, for an obsession with self that is unprecedented in human history. He is ‘anti-heroic, shrewd, carefully counting his satisfactions and dissatisfactions, studying unprofitable commitments as the sins most to be avoided.’ Driven by the ‘ideal of insight’ and ‘self-contemplative manipulation,’ his interest resides only in himself.”

One doesn’t need to look too far in our “therapeutic” culture in order to realize that we are now all, to varying degrees, “psychological people”. And if anyone doubts, I recommend that they watch a few episodes of Oprah or Dr. Phil.

As Rieff sees it, the problem with the rise of this psychological culture is that it discourages any love that is not, in some sense, self-love. That is, other people are viewed by "psychological man" as simply objects by which he can fulfill his desires and enhance his pleasure in life. Indeed, he even becomes an object to himself (albeit his favorite object), since he is perpetually seeking more data about himself in a never-ending quest of self-understanding.

Kierkegaard once remarked that there is “something great in the fact that the other person, and thus every individual, is a world unto himself, and has his holy of holies into which no alien hand can reach.” In Rieff’s opinion, Freud and his followers have violated this “holy of holies” by treating the human psyche as knowable, objectifiable, and capable of manipulation. And, sadly, modern neuroscience is trying even harder than old-fashioned psychology to beat down the walls to the “heart of hearts.” The cocky neuroscientist, with his trusty MRI machine, assures us that he will soon be able to tell us exactly why we love, hope, and believe in God. If this should ever come to pass (and I shudder at the thought), then Kierkegaard’s “holy of holies” will have been desecrated forever, and the notion that a human life is sacred will probably become untenable. We will be seen as merely glorified computers, in desperate need of reprogramming by the experts.

This is where Rieff’s thoughts about Freud link-up with his arguments in Deathworks. To retain our collective humanity, we must acknowledge that a chasm exists between all individuals, which is the “space in which all humanity live.” This distance cannot be transversed without destroying the otherness of the other, who is sacred and inviolable. Each is an infinite universe unto themselves.

Monday, August 28, 2006

A Review of a Review: My Life Among the Deathworks

The most recent New Republic carries an interesting book review of My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations on the Aesthetics of Authority, written by the now-deceased sociologist and cultural critic Philip Rieff (he passed away on July 1). The review, by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, describes Rieff as “one of the most formidable foes of nihilism in our time” and his book, as the title implies, passes a harsh judgement on the state of Western culture. Here’s an excerpt from the review:
For Rieff, a deathwork is ‘an all-out assault upon something vital to the established culture.’ Much of today’s cultural expression, in his view, consists of deathworks aimed at destroying not just an older traditional culture, but also the foundation of culture itself. Rieff’s complaints are very large. He believes that, in America, transgression has now replaced creation as a cultural ideal; that creativity in our time has more to do with the urge to destroy.”

To prove his point, Rieff points to numerous cultural items ranging from the video game Grand Theft Auto to Andres Serrano’s notorious Piss Christ exhibit. While it’s easy to exaggerate the importance of such isolated events, it’s hard to argue with Rieff’s central thesis that our society is permeated with a profound “sense of spiritual desolation” that wallows in absurdity and debasement. Significantly, unlike most academics, Rieff understands the origin of this crisis, and he’s not afraid to point out what’s missing from modern life: belief in an all-encompassing sacred order, wherein the dignity of human life is safe-guarded by faith in God the Creator. When such a sacred order is lacking, the “self becomes nothing but its desires and its impulses, and liberation seems to demand the eradication of all obstacles between the ‘I’ and the ‘not-I’. Human beings are experienced only as objects in the self’s quest for gratification, and eventually are turned into trash.”

It’s a bleak picture, but I suspect that it is largely true. How else to explain the void that sits at the very center of our consumerist culture? Sadly, it appears that Rieff offers few easy solutions to this crisis. Our Judeo-Christian heritage, which once anchored our moral and cultural lives, now lies in ruins, and no amount of forced religiosity can bring it back. The future of our society rests, he believes, with the emergence of “sacred messengers, such as Lincoln, who remind us of what is hallowed in our social order.” Without these messengers, we will be adrift forever.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Summer is a Bad Time for Blogging

Wow!! It's been over a month since my last post. However, I have a few good excuses for my lack of blogging. Firstly, my wife and I recently moved from Madison to Minneapolis and, secondly, I have started a new job at the University of Minnesota (that's right, we're living in Gopher country now. But, rest assured, my Badger allegiance will never die!). Needless to say, our lives have been quite hectic lately. Moreover, the summer weather makes it hard to stay indoors, especially when you know that a harsh Minnesota winter is a few months away. So blogging simply hasn't been a high priority.

However, I plan to get back in the game. The challenge will be to develop a new routine that allows time for writing. Unfortunately, I have a considerably longer commute here in the Cities, and my new work situation provides fewer opportunities to "blog on the job" (i.e., it's harder to waste time). But I enjoy blogging too much to let these obstacles get in the way.

I was also thinking of using this disruption to transfer W/O Authority to a different hosting service, as I've never been very happy with Blogger. Does anyone have a recommendation?