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Preface from the Age of Anxiety: Meaning, Identity, and Politics in 21st-Century Film and Literature

This book grows out of scholarship by numerous authors that has raised awareness of the existential, socio-psychological, and socio-political problems produced by modern understandings of the human person. The book draws upon the various works of Aristotle, Alexis de Tocqueville, Allan Bloom, Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, Francis Fukuyama, Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Wendell Berry, Sherry Turkle, Joseph Pieper, Walker Percy, Matthew Crawford, Douglas Rushkoff, C. S. Lewis, Thomas de Zengotita, and Nicholas Carr in order to show how the self has been displaced from its natural habitat of the local community and how the human person and society as a whole are affected by this displacement. These themes have manifested in the popular culture within both literature and film. By analyzing these artifacts, we intend to further develop understanding of the problem and provide potential solutions to the problem.

Since the Enlightenment, the human person has been predominantly understood as an autonomous individual or subject that ought to be free of external restraints and controls in its pursuit of happiness and meaning in life. This quest of self-fulfillment contains the notion that nature has no essential meaning and is simply material to be used for the convenience of the creative self. This approach has only become more dominant with the rise of postmodern critiques of modernism. The late Peter Lawler argued that postmodernism, as normally understood, is really hyper-modernism.[1] Communities once were the source of meaning and purpose within human existence, but the connection between the person and authoritative traditions is on the verge of complete dissolution. The vision of an autonomous self has evolved into a radical individualism that threatens not only communal life but also the individual self. We are living in an unparalleled historical moment in which the individual is thought to have the ability and, more importantly, the supreme right to define and create one’s very self without reference to and at the expense of the greater socio-political-economic environment and communities to which one belongs. This freedom appeared to be and is promised to be absolute. In a very real sense, the self is thought to be both sovereign and sacred.

However, this has left the human person existentially paralyzed, or incapable of living with a sense of meaningful purpose. Many feel existentially numb, skeptical of the inherent value of human life, and morally nauseous, to use Sartre’s imagery. It is simply untrue that humans can “self-create” apart from a tradition or narrative. Selves, to use Charles Taylor’s analysis, are by nature situated within the world, history, and local communities. The promise of finding fulfillment and happiness within an increasingly globalized society is showing itself to be an illusion. Americans live in one of the most affluent and technologically advanced societies, and yet it is one of the most heavily medicated societies in the world. Perceiving this void and the resulting discontent in the human experience, multi-national corporations have swooped in to take advantage of this situation, stunting the human capacity of meaning-making through multimillion-dollar marketing, advertising, and branding campaigns directed at tying identity to consumption. Instead of deriving one’s sense of purpose and identity from one’s role and place within a community, the consumer has been deceived into thinking that their identity and purpose can be purchased through the meaning represented by the conspicuous consumption of brands. This line of thought was popularized in David Fincher’s Fight Club when the Narrator asks, “What type of dining room set defines me as a person?”[2]

The authority of traditional, socio-cultural institutions, which provided meaning, purpose, and direction to human life, has been undermined and their influence in society has greatly diminished. Building upon these twentieth century developments, the twenty-first century has begun with the default position that authority and power are identical and are derived from the majority. This is evident in the authority of consumption that rules the marketplace. The marketplace has no understanding of a human telos beyond the unlimited ability to consume.[3] Freedom of choice masks itself as meaningful, but without a sense of “enough” or satisfaction, the unrestricted fulfillment of desire leaves the person empty and wanting more. As we go through this “great disruption,” which is done in the name of liberation and freedom, the self is being enslaved.[4] We must begin to ask whether we are free to choose or free to live within boundaries established by communities in which we live. To use William Cavanaugh’s distinction, are we Augustinian selves who find freedom in conformity to a truth outside the self, or are we Friedmanesque (as in Milton Friedman) selves who find freedom in unencumbered choice?[5]

The same phenomenon manifests itself in politics. A globalized world has undermined the meaning of local, state, and even national associations. The dislocation caused by a global marketplace has allowed multinational corporations to profit without being dedicated to or responsible for any particular place. More nefariously, corporations are programmed to extract wealth from local communities.[6] The oxymoronic “global citizen,” often residing in a “global city,” has more in common with other global citizens residing in other global cities around the world than with his fellow national citizens. This would not be an issue if it were not for the fact that public policy, especially in America, has been by, of, and for “the elite global citizen” rather than the “placed individual” who lacks the means, the ability, and the desire to uproot him or herself to pursue true cosmopolitanism. This change is witnessed by the admonishing of out-of-work coal miners to “learn to code” by members of the corporate media, an admonition backfired when those journalists were told to “learn to code” during layoffs of early 2019. The Trump presidency, Brexit, and hyper-nationalization in Eastern Europe and places such as Scotland and Catalonian Spain are all extreme responses to the lack of localized, authoritative traditions to meaningfully guide human experience within a global world. In Donald Trump’s infelicitous yet possibly true words, “A country is a country.” To be American, Scottish, Polish, etc., must mean something. The decline of that meaning and its replacement by a consumer-self leaves many unsatisfied. In addition, the dislocation caused by the dynamism of hyper-globalization redounds to the benefit of the cosmopolitan self, while literally leaving others dislocated and behind. The rise of nationalism, or even localism, is a response to these pathologies.

Adding to the experience of angst and social instability, the rapid pace of technological development is driving an unprecedented faith in the malleability of human nature and, concomitantly, doubt in the existence of personness. Advances in neuroscience have left scientists to conclude that the self and consciousness are illusions created by the biochemical secretions of one’s brain and the firing off of neurons. One’s choices are not made by a will, whether it be free or bound, but rather are determined by neurochemicals and one’s socio-economic conditions. Additionally, many within the humanities have likewise undermined the human experience through the postmodern deconstruction of personness, the postulation of a self that is inherently fragmented, bodies with language. With both the sciences and the humanities rejecting personness as having objective existence, many are left without satisfactory answers to questions such as, “Who are we?” and “What makes us human?” Maybe we would be better off if our automated technologies and artificial intelligences would guide our daily choices, such as the most efficient route to work (Google Maps) or what time to wake up based upon a Fitbit tracking one’s sleep habits. Essentially, people are naturally gravitating toward allowing the self to be socially engineered. This development is being driven by a scientism that is looking forward to the merging of man and machine, an event called “the singularity” by futurists. This quasi-religious position is dangerous for, contrary to Sam Harris’s thinking, science cannot provide the moral criteria necessary for true human progress.[7]

Humans by nature are social beings, and in the past that has largely meant being situated within local communities that contain and are defined by authoritative cultural traditions. With the rise of large nation-states, multi-national corporations, and global NGOs, localized meaning-making is increasingly obsolesced. As such, human beings need to find meaning in alternative forms of communities, such as professional disciplines, that provide members with a sense of meaning. Along these lines, Alasdair MacIntyre’s term for submitting oneself to a discipline is “practice.” Developing a practice is what helps create a real, authentic self in opposition to a purchased self. The practice puts the individual into conversation with others within a community.[8] Contemporary philosopher Matthew Crawford makes a similar argument in his defense of craft and manual labor.[9] The submission to the discipline of organ making, to use one of Crawford’s examples, is actually more meaningful and freeing than the notion of the self “liberated” from all external influences.[10]

We are looking at pieces of literature and films that speak to our age of anxiety that resulted from the decline of authorities and narratives that enabled an individual to feel a part of something and gave meaning to his life. Each chapter looks at paradigmatic exemplars from the popular culture. Each example is chosen because of its popularity and influence in the culture, and each relates to important aspects of the Age of Anxiety. Using Charles Taylor’s terminology, we live in a social imaginary that has been disenchanted. That social imaginary is given witness in our popular culture, both literary and film. Using literature and film, this book both diagnoses the causes of the flatness of the late modern self as well as providing insight into how a better, more meaningful life can arise out of the debris of our disenchanted condition.

Popular culture often serves as a window into society’s unconscious. The aspirations and fears of a people manifest themselves in art. In the modern age that means not just high art but art on a popular level, i.e., pop culture. The kind of stories people tell one another, the kinds of stories that capture the public’s imagination, tell us much about what is most important to a people. Popular culture in many ways manifests the anxiety of our age. We can use particular artifacts of popular culture to both diagnose and perhaps provide remedy for our ailments. Typically, academic study of popular culture is quite shallow, mirroring the crude ideological approach that is sadly all too typical of the modern academy. Popular culture studies often simply take an artifact, interpret it through a trendy ideological lens, culminating in a trite conclusion. This method is insufficient. If the purpose of studying popular culture is to gain a view of the collective mind, then the best interpretive structure is not through contemporary ideology, but through analyzing popular culture through the lens of the history of ideas. Popular culture by definition exists in the now, itself a manifestation of popular prejudices. To interpret popular culture via trendy ideology is to enter into a negative feedback loop. We best understand our times by getting outside our times, much as often the best way to understand one’s country is by travelling elsewhere. Today the past is the true undiscovered country. We aim to place various artifacts of today’s popular culture both within the history of ideas and by assessing popular culture through more contemporary thinkers who challenge the academy’s ideological prejudices. Thus, we interpret pop culture using Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Alexis de Tocqueville, among other great thinkers. Among contemporary writers we assess pop culture within the philosophy of iconoclastic thinkers such as Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, Wendell Berry, and Matthew Crawford. Using this method we hope to create a dialogue between past and present, between our times and those who challenge the prejudices of our times.

Interdisciplinarity of Political Science and Communication

At the outset of this project, the authors would like to situate this work in relation to their respective academic disciplines, outline the relationship between those disciplines, and discuss popular understandings of what those disciplines study. Of particular relevance to this project, both authors take a humanistic approach to the studies of communication and political science, which is in contrast to the social scientific narratives and methods that are predominant within both fields of studies. Both political science and communication are stereotyped not only in the minds of non-academics but also by academics in other disciplines. In terms of political science, the study is typecast as the social scientific study of polling and the historical and contemporary study of documents such as the Constitution. Indeed, in the basic Political Science 100 course, it is often taught that political science is the study of who gets what, how, when, and where. Similarly, communication is often confused with communications, with an “s,” in that it is confused with the study of the transmission of information and the technologies that make this possible. In effect, communication studies messages and messaging. Given these norms, as well as the popular conceptions of these disciplines, many may wonder how it is that a political scientist and a communication scholar can work in an interdisciplinary fashion beyond the social scientific study of political communication.

In contrast to the normative forms of study and the stereotypes based upon those norms and conventions, the studies of communication and political science have a great deal in common, especially when approached from a humanistic perspective. In this sense, both studies investigate how human beings interact with one another, especially through the media of speech, law, and society. Indeed, it may be helpful to understand rhetoric as the medium that provides a common ground for political science and communication. In the Aristotelian schema, “politics” was the highest art because it was the art of living justly in the polis, and was made up of ethics, rhetoric, and dialectic. Rhetoric, as the art of eloquent influence, was inherently political, and politics were inherently rhetorical in nature. Far from simply connecting used car salesmen and politicians in deceptive persuasive practices, rhetorical education was traditionally designed to produce good people who would dedicate themselves to serving and leading the public. This common ground and shared concern for the common good links these two disciplines and their distinct ways of approaching the world. These disciplines naturally function together to fruitfully assess the problems of the current historical moment and offer solutions to those problems. Along these lines, true political science “deals with questions that concern everyone and that everyone asks,” and differentiates its answers from mere opinion because of the systematic analysis utilized to demonstrate truth.[11]

 

Notes

[1] Peter Augustine Lawler, Postmodernism Rightly Understood: The Return to Realism in American Thought (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999).

[2] Fight Club, directed by David Fincher, written by Jim Uhls (Los Angeles, CA: 20th Century Fox, 1999).

[3] Telos is a Greek term that is used in reference to a thing’s purpose or essence. It is philosophically and metaphysically used in terms of the essential state of perfection of all categories of beings. In terms of classical Aristotelian and Thomist metaphysics, the human telos is that of happiness such that all human action is oriented towards happiness.

[4] Francis Fukuyama, The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order (New York: Free Press, 1999).

[5] William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008).

[6] Douglas Rushkoff, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity, (New York: Portfolio, 2016), 68-103.

[7] Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, (New York: Free Press, 2010).

[8] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2007).

[9] Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (New York: Penguin, 2009).

[10] Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 209-246.

[11] Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism: Two Essays (New York: Regnery Publishing, 1968), 10-12 and 14.

 

This excerpt is from Age of Anxiety: Meaning, Identity, and Politics in 21st-Century Film and Literature (Lexington Books, 2019). Our review of the book is here.

Anthony M. Wachs and Jon D. Schaff

Anthony M. Wachs is an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric, Communication Ethics, and Catholic intellectual tradition at Duquesne University; Jon D. Schaff is a Professor of Political Science at Northern State University.

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