Frustrated? Anxious? Busy? Angry? Exhausted? Welcome to modernity. The modern psychic condition is distraught, distressed, frayed at the edges. A crisis may loom around every corner. We await the next occasion in which our nerve ends snap. What’s gone wrong? How has modernity failed us? I have more possible answers than I have time to propose them. Let me suggest a few.
Amidst our relentless modern pluralism, it’s not hard to be confused. There can be a dominant tension between what we do and what we think we ought to do. So many problems; so many complex solutions. So much theory, so little time to digest it. We can stall in theoretical fog.
We face numerous alternatives, a smorgasbord of cultural points of view, a potpourri of opportunities. The modern revolution has given us whole new takes on science, thought, politics, economics, sociology and religion. We’ve left the traditional world far behind. We’re faced with the often very stark differences between tradition and modernity. One consequence of our embrace of the modern revolution is the lost habit of engaging that difference.
Among the alternatives facing us is the opportunity to abandon our traditional identity. We can now live entirely free from our own history. A handy habit if there are aspects of our past about which we harbour a sense of guilt. The memory wash seems to suggest that we can wipe the moral slate clean of our past indiscretions. We can trade it for the chance to create a new identity: innovative, progressive, guilt-bound no longer. But creating an altogether new identity is a daunting task. We begin as actors unsure of our parts.
Most helpful to our psyches in this state of opportunistic void, it seems to me, is at least the possibility of a conversation with tradition. We can consider what such an exchange might tell us about compatibility or difference, or indeed about ourselves.
I suggest we can ‘lose’ our modernity in two ways. One way is to discover what lingers in our modern thinking that actually reaches back to pre-modern times. When we look back to a time before the revolution swept away all before it, what can strike us is the continuing relevance of past ideas and experience, despite the modern habit of dismissing them. Another way we can ‘lose’ our modernity is to view it through a critical lens, as if a newfound discontent with it sets us at least temporarily outside of its sometimes inescapable and unquestioned influence. We can change the monologue of modernity into a dialogue with tradition.
Thanks in large part to the 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes who was very committed to thinking for himself, the modern sense of self is rather intensely self-absorbed. Added to this is the fact that the democratic revolution and its code of rights has released the hounds of individualism. We seem to be awash in freedoms that were unavailable to us in the hierarchy of the old order. Many of us don’t want to go back. We can keep the remnants of our history safe and silent in a glass case where it can’t mock or trouble us – or so we think.
In carrying on independently of and separate from our own inheritance, even our own community, we leave behind what represents the wisdom of the ages prior to our modernity. On our side of the democratic, scientific and philosophical revolution we inhabit a strikingly different ‘worldview’ than our predecessors. So we have replaced a perhaps naively embraced conservative and communal ethic with an ethic that presents itself as subjective, inventive and utterly pluralist.
This ethic is an aspect of modernity that has indeed released a lot of remarkable energy. Lest we flounder in the freedom of our unlimited possibility, however, we have available to us traditional voices that have much to tell us. Without abandoning our modern world and what strikes us as helpful and even exciting about it, we owe it to ourselves to have the conversation with our own past.
This two-sided psychic space has oftentimes been referred to as ‘post-modern.’ By uttering the word, we indicate that we are leaving the confines of the modern world and taking ourselves to a psychic space that begins to reframe our history and discover our real uniqueness.
Don’t get me wrong. We’ve made considerable technological progress that indeed makes many of our lives seem easier and better. I’m pleased about the rights revolution. I’m no monarchist. But my rights don’t give me my identity. Let me repeat that: my rights do not give me my identity. They identify me with the commonality rather than with my uniqueness or eccentricity. That I can only discover by digging underneath the slick confines of so much modern sociological theory. If all politics is local, so, ultimately, is all culture, community and identity. A more beneficial view of post-modernity would take us back to the abidingly personal realms of community, neighbourhood, family and personal character.