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.