Friday, February 18, 2011

The Great Disembedding (ch. 3)

In chapter 3, Taylor further considers the emergence of the super-buffered individual (here we’re on the terrain of his earlier work, The Sources of the Self). And let’s keep in mind—anticipating chapter 4—that his concern is how such an individualism becomes sedimented in a social imaginary, not just part of a social “theory.” What emerges, then, is “a new self-understanding of our social existence, one which gave an unprecedented primacy to the individual” (146). We’ll see in a moment that his use of the term “understanding” here is significant because of its Heideggerian echoes.

Taylor now describes this shift—in which society will come to be seen as a collection of individuals (146)—as “the great disembedding.” But we can only make sense of this claim about disembedding if we appreciate the embedding that it’s dissing, so to speak. Most germane to understanding the point of this chapter is appreciating what Taylor calls the “triple embedding” of premodern societies, a configuration of society which goes along with what he’s been calling enchantment: “Human agents are embedded in society, society in the cosmos, and the cosmos incorporates the divine” (152).[1] The dis-embedding, then, happens gradually by targeting different facets of this triple embedding (e.g., disenchantment targets the 3rd aspect; social contract theory targets the second aspect, etc.).

In a somewhat strange way, Taylor tells this story in a way reminiscent of a “history of religions” approach, or in a way that calls to mind Karl Jaspers’ grand stories about human cultural development. So you’ll note that Taylor keeps speaking about a shift from tribal, “smaller-scale” societies (147) to the emergence of the “Axial” religions in the first millennium B.C.—the emergence of Judaism, Confucianism, Greek religion, etc. from the more primal religions of tribal societies. It seems that Taylor’s point is that the Axial religions are already on the way to disembedding the individual. So if there is an “irony” that, say, Christianity unleashes forces that will lead to exclusive humanism, he seems to be noting an earlier irony here. This tension comes back at the end of the chapter in his discussion, following Ivan Illich, of the “corruption” of Christianity (158): while on the one hand Christianity was a driver of disembedding, on the other hand such a configuration of Christianity was already a corruption, one that failed to appreciate that Christianity envisioned not disembedding but an alternative embedding—a “network of agape” which transcended tribal identities but still saw the individual embedded in the polis and the polis embedded in the divine life (a “participatory” ontology). But instead this Christian impetus became “the disciplined society” (158).

[1] Note how he suggests creation ex nihilo already breaks this chain (152).

1 comment:

  1. When at last you get to chapters 12 & 13 (ages of mobilization & authenticity), you might want to look at some of my thoughts at I posted some comments about A Secular Age as long ago as late October of 2010 but didn't really get going until I used it to examine the 1K vs. 2K kerfuffle.