What is postmodernity and how does it show up in the world around us? The answer to this question is multifaceted and some of it was touched upon in Chris' recent piece A Response to Tom Huston, Re: Integral Activism. In this post I want to add a couple more pieces to the mosaic of that ongoing inquiry.
My resource today is a video from the scholar/philosopher John David Ebert, whose massive ongoing video series (free online) continues to provide incredible riches. Ebert often takes a (rather difficult) book of philosophy or cultural theory and unpacks it chapter by chapter. As I've said before when introducing Ebert videos, it's the breadth and richness of his background arsenal that makes him such an excellent guide to these texts. I particularly appreciate his understanding of mythology and how he's able to draw parallels to it within the contemporary works he examines.
In this video Ebert's discussing the first chapter of the book Bubbles by the contemporary German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk. Sloterdijk is widely considered to be one of the great heavyweight thinkers of our time, but his work is just beginning to be translated into English, so I'm happy to now be able to enter his voice into the mix here at the site. There's a few points I want to draw attention to before I play the video itself at the end. (but feel free to watch it first and then come back to the commentary, whatever works). Let's start with this dense statement of Ebert's, which I'll try and unpack afterwards:
What Sloterdijk is really doing here is going back and reinterpreting Heidegger's idea of being-in-the-world. He says in this book that to be-in-the-world means simultaneously to be inside of a sphere. Human beings, according to Sloterdijk, are the animals that create spheres as systemic immune systems; spheres are cultural immune systems that immunize with metaphysical ideas. Ontology, as he says, is applied immunology. Metaphysical systems like any of the ancient ideas of the world religions, gods, the soul, freedom, Being itself, all of these ideas are ones that immunize and protect the human being from the Lacanian 'Real'. Spheres are symbolic and imaginary immune systems that protect against the impact of the Lacanian Real, which comes along every so often and pops and ruptures them. Spheres typically implode and explode, and they're constantly having to be remade and restructured.
The first thing I'd note is that Sloterdijk is using the term sphere in much the same way that others use worldview, or what integral theory calls 'structures of consciousness' and Spiral Dynamics calls 'codes' or 'value-systems'. As I see it these are all roughly equivalent to Sloterdijk's concept of the sphere, and it's worth noting that Sloterdijk can be considered a post-postmodern philosopher in his willingness to look at meta perspectives like this once again. But we'll get to that in a moment, as that lack of a meta-narrative (or sphere) is precisely at the center of what characterizes postmodernity, as we'll see.
I'm intrigued by Sloterdijk's conception of these spheres as immune systems; something feels intuitively right about that. They are a way of making sense of the world that brings us consistency and meaning and thus safety, stability and solace. And they help keep out the inbreaking of the Real, a concept that's hard to define (technically because the Real is said to be beyond signification, it "resists symbolization"), but as an approximation you might say it's pure Reality unmediated by any interpretation or defense system. Sheer Is-ness (to use a Zen phrase). The problem with the spheres we construct is they don't always match up with reality, and thus can create friction between us and ourselves, or us and the earth/cosmos we're immersed in. In Spiral Dynamics terms, our life conditions will start to create perturbations that necessitate we open ourselves and our systems up to the emergence of a new and more adequate code/sphere.
Ok, so far so good. Let's skip ahead to the eleven minute mark in the video, where Ebert relays this:
Sloterdijk says that the problem with modern man then is that modern man lives in a shell-less state. Ever since Copernicus, the sky no longer functions as an immune system. Prior to that it had functioned as an immune system, and indeed there are medieval paintings, if you look at the painting from Fouquet from 1452 called 'The Holy Spirit Driving Away the Demons', you see the sky as a blue dome with the hand of God punching down through it, chasing away all these demons. So you can clearly see that the sky in an enclosed sense, providing a sense of safety and warmth and reassurance to the human being during the middle ages, was indeed immunological...
In an age when the immunological world of the spheres is gone, the human being exists in a shell-less state, no longer defended by the immunizing sense of the sky as an enclosed cosmology. In the 17th century in Dutch art we get this experience of being out, open, unprotected, and we're in vast expanses of the sky. The Dutch, as Gambridge pointed out, are the ones who discovered the sky. Three quarters of their canvases are taken up with these gigantic visions of the heavens because the Copernican world has come in, and the Ptolemaic spheres have collapsed and now we're out in the open in space, unprotected, no longer immunized by these metaphysical ideas; so all the crises of anxiety and existentialism and ontological disorientation, come out of the West from this sphereological crisis, from this collapse, according to Sloterdijk.
I want to pick up this thread by also bringing in the work of Nan Ellin, a professor of urban design and editor of a collection of essays called The Architecture of Fear. I read that book as research for Michael Fisher and I's upcoming exhibit on the Architecture of Fear for our Museum of Fearology project. Ellin's essay 'Shelter From the Storm or Form Follows Fear and Vice Versa' has lots to offer what's being said here.
Ellin notes that there was a huge rise in fear in the modern era precisely because of the type of collapse of the traditional spheres as Sloterdijk outlines. This was also exacerbated by the acceleration of life and a loss of 'time', the concentrations of different ethnic groups in urban centers, and the profound shifts to family and social life demanded by industrial production. But the modern mind managed to quell a good dose of that fear through a couple of means. One was the functional, rational organization of life and the economic realm. This rational ordering of society brought about a sense of stability, despite the 'creative destruction' at the heart of the capitalist mode of production. The other was a widespread belief in linearity, progress, and the abundance for all that capitalism would bring about. This acted as a new sphere for the times.
But by the 1960s a deep mood of doubt about all this had set in in many countries. One major aspect of this post-modern zeitgeist is what Terry Eagleton describes as, "the contemporary movement of thought that rejects totalities, universal values, grand historical narratives, solid foundations to human existence and the possibility of objective knowledge" (1). If modernity was swimming in a shell-less state, then the postmodern condition was/is one of being totally naked, disoriented, with no direction home. You might call it a sphere that denies the possibility of spheres altogether, the painful paradox at the heart of the age.
And Ellin offers a fascinating analysis of the new kind of fear produced by this postmodern setting, and the three main ways that people have coped with/responded to it. Michael and I are going to write a follow-up article to our Architecture of Fear exhibit where we unpack this at length, but here's a summary rundown now. One response to this exposed condition has been fundamentalism, regionalism, a search for roots, 'retribalization', a general desire to preserve and invent differences. You also get the forceful return of 'traditional values', as we've amply seen in the American context.
Another response is a great rise in nostalgia, a desire to return to a simpler and idealized past. For Ellin this takes the form of all sorts of retro movements in music, art, architecture and so on. There's a sort of safe hiding in what's familiar, what we already know, and what was around during our childhood.
A third response is escapism, which can take the form of fantasy worlds- like video games, or online worlds- or fantasy environments, such as malls, theme parks and tourist driven recreations of old towns and historic settings. This escapism- and the fundamental fear and anxiety that's driving it- has also produced a new level of securitization in our living spaces, something that Michael and I will be focusing on in particular in our exhibit. This is evidenced by the rise in gated communities, walls, patrolled entryways, alarm systems on houses and cars, the movement of corporate headquarters to private 'parks' outside of cities and much more. It's also effected how we dress and the cars we drive, as we'll also examine in that future article. Another form of escapism, and one of the most prevalent and culturally debilitating, is narcissism. The postmodern period has seen many retreat into their own 'personal sphere' as a last refuge of safety and meaning.
So that's a look into a large and important aspect of what characterizes the postmodern condition. I appreciated Sloterdijk's subtle understanding of these spheres that we create, and how we're exposed or shell-less in the post/modern period. And I was rather blown away by Nan Ellin's description of the myriad ways the resultant anxiety and fear shows up in the world around us, in our behaviors, relations, design, art, culture, politics and so on. Folks like Sloterdijk and Ellin can help get some awareness of what's going on here, and thus open the possibility for moving through it.
And what are the ways we might get beyond this anxiety ridden fragmented age? Well, without breaking out into a new article, I think one of the keys is a new understanding and experience of the cosmos and our relationship to it. One of my favorite expressions of this comes via the architect and architectural theorist Charles Jencks:
Today we have a new metanarrative, coming from the post-modern sciences of complexity and the new cosmology, the idea of cosmogenesis, the story of the developing universe, the notion that the evolving cosmos is a single, creative, unfolding event that includes life and us in its narrative, one that locates culture in space in time. (2)
We can access this new sphere via an external understanding of the cosmos- through such things as Big History and The Great Story- and from an internal perspective through spiritual movements that are connecting to the cosmic and evolutionary dimensions of our existence. (I'm currently practicing evolutionary Christianity, one expression of this shift). I can attest from my own experience to a drop in anxiety and fear and a rise in meaning and wonder through a prolonged engagement with this worldview/sphere.
And these shifts will begin to express themselves in a number of fields and ways. In architecture for instance, Charles Jencks has been creating some really interesting designs through his engagement with the new cosmology, and in our Architecture of Fear exhibit we'll be introducing Nan Ellin's work on 'the architecture of love'.
One of the ways through this turbulent passage is simply to understand the underlying sources of fear and disintegration, which hopefully this post has contributed to in some way. Here now is the original video by John David Ebert.
"Only after the victory of humanism and the Enlightenment as the religious foundation of the Western society did anxiety about spiritual nonbeing become dominant. The breakdown of absolutism, the development of liberalism and democracy, the rise of a technical civilization with its victory over all enemies and its own beginning disintegration- these are the presuppositions for the third main period of anxiety in history [the post/modern era]. In this period the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness is dominant. We are under the threat of spiritual non-being". - Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be
For more on postmodernism see- Portlandia and Postmodernism- Some Thoughts; Dali's Lobster's- Surrealism and the Artifacts of Postmodernism; Retro Music and Creativity- A Query; SNJ- A Message From Neil Young and Springsteen to Skinny Indie Rockers; An Irishman in Bourdeaux- A Response to Postmodern Relativism.
(1) Terry Eagleton, After Theory, p. 13.
(2) Charles Jencks, Critical Modernism- Where is Post-modernism Going?, p.24