Monday, March 21, 2011

The Age of Authenticity (ch. 13)

Taylor closed chapter 12 by sketching two “ideal types” in his “outrageously simplified potty history” of the last 200 years: the Ancien Regime (AR) and the Age of Mobilization (AM). Chapter 13 should be read as extending that analysis, so the next type/phase is the “Age of Authenticity” (AA).

(a) The social imaginary of expressive individualism

What we get in this chapter is Taylor’s explication of “the social imaginary of expressive individualism” (486), that unique form of the modern, post-Romantic social imaginary that has exploded “in the last half century, perhaps even less, which has profoundly altered the conditions of belief in our societies” (473). What’s at issue here is not so much the causes or mechanims [Taylor will consistently point to the consumer revolution and post-war affluence, 474, 490), but rather “the understandings of human life, agency, and the good” which emerge with this expansion of expressive individualism. (474).

The SI of AA is crystallized in terms of authenticity, the understanding that “each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering conformity with a model imposed on us from outside” (475). So the primary—yea, only—value in such a world is choice: “bare choice as a prime value, irrespective of what is a choice between, or in what domain” (478). And tolerance is the last remaining virtue (484).

Taylor sees two temptations of evaluation re: AA (480): critics can too easily dismiss it as egoism; friends can too easily celebrate it as progress without cost. Taylor’s evaluation takes a different tack: on his reading, AA has changed our available options (480b)—it has changed not just the conditions of belief but the milieu of our everyday lived experience. To get at this, he homes in on fashion as a kind of case study. What we see there is that while fashion is a medium of expression for my individuality, it is also something that is inescapably relational, almost parasitic: “The space of fashion is one in which we sustain a language together of signs and meanings, which is constantly changing, but which at any moment is the background needed to give our gestures the sense they have” (481). This is no longer a space of common actual but rather a space of mutual display—another way of “being-with” (481b) in which “a host of urban monads hover on the boundary between solipsism and communication” (482). This breeds aa new kind of self-consciousness: “My loud remarks and gestures are overtly addressed only to my immediate companions, my family group is sedately walking, engaged in our own Sunday outing, but all the time we are aware of this common space that we are building, in which the messages that cross take their meaning” (482). In other words, we all behave now like 13-year-old girls.[1]

It is these spaces of mutual display, Taylor argues, that are most prone to being colonized by consumer culture, so that “consumer culture, expressivism and spaces of mutual display connect in our world to produce their own kind of synergy” (483):

The language of self-definition is defined in the spaces of mutual display, which have now gone meta-topical; they relate us to prestigious centres of style-creation, usually in rich and powerful nations and milieux. And this language is the object of constant attempted manipulation by large corporations” (483).

Indeed, this construction of a consumer identity—which has to feel like its chosen (483—the illusion of nonconformity, the suburban skater kid whose mom bought him the $150 board blazoned with “anarchy” symbols)—trumps other identities, especially collective identities like citizenship or religious affiliation (c. Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian).

One could argue that for many young people today, certain styles, which they enjoy and display in their more immediate circle, but which are defined through the media, in relation to admired stars—or even products—occupy a bigger place in their sense of self, and that this has tended to displace in importance the sense of belonging to large scale collective agencies, like nations, not to speak of churches, political parties, agencies of advocacy, and the life (484).

This expansion of expressive individualism does not unsettled the modern moral order; to the contrary, if anything it strengthens the order of mutual benefit. Indeed, the MMO is the “ethical base” for the soft relativism of the expressivist imaginary: do your own thing, who am I to judge? The only sin is intolerance. Here is where Taylor locates the most significant shift in the post-60s West: while ideals of tolerance have always been present in the modern social imaginary, in earlier forms (Locke, the early American Republic, etc.) this value was contained and surrounded by other values which were a scaffolding of formation (e.g., the citizen ethic, 484). What erodes in the last half century is precisely these limits on individual fulfillment (485).

(b) The place of the sacred in our secular age

What is the “imagined place of the sacred” in a society governed by expressivist individualism (486)? Taylor has already hinted that such a society seems to forge its own “festive” rendition of the sacred—“moments of fusion in a common action/feeling, which both wrench us out of the everyday, and seem to put us in touch with something exceptional, beyond ourselves. Which is why some have seen these moments as among the new forms of religion in our world” (482-483). But while there might still be room for a kind of sacred, something has also clearly changed. Taylor makes sense of this in terms of Durkheim’s categories:

  • · “Under the paleo-Durkheimian dispensation, my connection to the sacred entailed my belonging to the church” and the church (Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican) is co-extensive with society such that there is “a link between adhering to God and belonging to the state” (486).
  • · In a “neo-Durkheimian mode,” there has been some disembedding. Here we see the emergence of the “denominational imaginary” (450) and an emphasis on voluntary association, but when you join “the church of your choice,” you’re still connecting to something bigger--“the church” and its heritage, which still feeds and fuels the project of the nation.
  • · But now in the post-Durkheimian context with its expressivist outlook we have a qualitative shift: “The religious life or practice that I become part of must not only be my choice, but it must speak to me, it must make sense in terms of my spiritual development as I understand this” (486). The expressivist forges her own religion (“spirituality”), her own, personal Jesus. But what’s most significant is that the sacred is uncoupled from political allegiance (487). This begins to loosen up things more generally, in accord with expressivist individualism, such that it becomes less and less “rational” to accept any external contraints. So whereas Methodists and Pietists unleashed an emphasis on emotional encounters with God but kept this tethered to orthodoxy, it was only a matter of time “before the emphasis will shift more and more towards the strength and the genuineness of the feelings, rather than the nature of their object” (488). And so a new spiritual injunction arises: “let everyone follow his/her own path of spiritual inspiration. Don’t’ be led off yours by the allegation that it doesn’t fit with some orthodoxy” (489).

What draws people away from traditional, institutional religion is largely just the success of consumer culture—the “stronger form of magic” found in the ever-new glow of consumer products (490). As a result, the expressivist revolution (1) “undermined some of the large-scale religious forms of the Age of Mobilization” and (2) “undermined the link between Christian faith and civilizational order” (492). In fact, “where the link between disciplines and civilizational order is broken, but that between Christian faith and the disciplines remains unchallenged, expressivism and the conjoined sexual revolution has alienated many people from the churches” (493).

[1] This analysis has to be compared to DFW’s account of our self-conscious age in [articles in Journal of Contemporary Fiction]. DFW is also analyzing the culture of those writers who grew up after the 60s revolution of expressive individualism.

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