Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The Spiritual Condition of the Age

In his article ‘Britain’s Liberal Riots’ [here], Phillip Blond – former theologian, contributor to Radical Orthodoxy and founder of the ResPublica think tank – offers a very useful account of the social significance of the eruption of civil disorder which tore through the urban parts of England last summer. Whilst commentators on the left tended to view the rioting merely as an embarrassing outbreak of mass consumer looting revelatory only of the weaknesses of discrete underfunded areas of public service provision, and so failed to go on to point to the problems at the core of our pseudo-democratic political status quo, Blond emphasizes the politicians’ fear that we will all wake up to the fact that the nationwide disorder was ‘a defining event that could make or break public trust’, and also the way in which the political and media élites have subsequently ‘desperately been trying to capture and represent the resulting public mood’. Blond’s reading enables us to focus on the broken consensus regarding the legitimacy of our political system today, just as the media narration after the event could in fact only show a fragmented society: watching the reports from Clapham Junction on the morning after the concluding police clampdown, it was clear that the back-to-normal shop-owner out with Boris and her broom, inhabits an entirely different world from the black father screaming out ‘your children don’t end up in the mental health system’. For those of us who live in fear and anxiety anyway because of the way this city functions, the riots were terrifying but there is no normal to go back to.

In order to try to develop the most valuable points of Blond’s analysis, I want to turn again to Jaspers’ 1931 work Die Geistige Situation der Zeit – which I will continue to refer to as Thornhill does, as The Spiritual Condition of the Age, rather than as Man in the Modern Age (which is the strangely masculinist title of Eden and Cedar’s Paul’s translation of the work). As Thornhill notes, though this book is ‘certainly by far his [Jaspers’] most conservative political pronouncement’, it ‘remains at one remove from expressly radical-conservative arguments’, so that – rather as with Blond’s article – ‘the critique of parliamentary democracy which it contains never subsides into an opposition to the democratic order per se’. In a review [here] for Negations 3 (Winter 1998) of the conference anthology edited by Kurt Salamun, Karl Jaspers: Zur Aktualität seines Denkens (Karl Jaspers: The Timeliness of his Thought), Sigrid Koepke noted that the 1989 conference speakers all agreed that Jaspers’ evaluation of the 1920s and 1930s in The Spiritual Condition of the Age, is still ‘relevant and helpful for today’s situation – even if they do not necessarily agree with Jaspers’ applications or conclusions’. Here I want to point to the continuing relevance of Jaspers’ insights to the dire condition of the UK now.       

In his essay Blond stresses how the rioters were ‘shamefully emblematic of modern Britain’, insofar as ‘their values have striking parallels with [those of] the UK’s current elite’. ‘In a savage manner they were […] merely acting out the values that now seem to govern and embody Britain – ruthless self-interest coupled to a rootless consumer nihilism.’  The Spiritual Condition of the Age enables us to understand contemporary rootlessness in a more general existential sense, of being ‘uprooted’ within the ‘historically determined and changing situation’ of modern secularism, when ‘it is as if the foundations of being had been shattered’. Now ‘the identity of thought and being (hitherto unchallenged) has ceased to exist for us’. ‘That is why we live in a movement, a flux, a process, in virtue of which changing knowledge enforces a change in life; and, in turn, changing life enforces a change in the consciousness of the knower.’ Jaspers’ model of historical process here – ‘being and consciousness of being were severed, and they must perpetually renew their severance in a changed form, passing from one to the other’ – is explicitly Hegelian, and he goes on to critique the materializing and depersonalizing of the dialectic in Marxist thought.

‘The dialectic of the extant being and consciousness (which cannot be properly understood on a purely intellectual plane, but can only be adequately grasped in the momentous fulfillment of that within us which, through its claim to selfhood, provides the spirit with its capacity for greatness) was degraded by the fixed attachment of being to an artificially simplified process of human history – to history conceived as exclusively determined by the material conditions of production. […] In this doctrine, dialectic sank to become nothing more than a method, devoid both of the content of historical human existence and of metaphysic.’

Insofar as it offers a social philosophy of rootlessness, therefore, Jaspers’ existentialist analytic in this book, unlike the Marxist dialectic, is itself rootless or ever-changeable: ‘The construction of the mental situation of the present [...] is a process that will not lapse into the solidity of a completed stereoscopic image’. The process draws on an ‘attitude of mind which regards itself as selfhood trying to achieve orientation; the object of clarifying the situation being to comprehend as clearly and decisively as possible one’s own development in the particular situation’. The book’s project of defining the spiritual condition of the age is thus itself related to the development of (an idea of) a free self’s destiny today – a process which runs counter to the ‘general sociological situation’.

‘The decisive factor is the developing possibility of a selfhood which is not yet objectively extant – of a selfhood in a particular realm which includes and overrides the general, instead of being included in or overridden by it. This selfhood does not yet exist for contemporary man, but looms as a realisable possibility if man deliberately and successfully intervenes as one of the factors of his own destiny.’

The alternative to such an assumption of historical responsibility, as foreseen by Jaspers, is the evolution of the general sociological situation of rootlessness and alienation, or of the contemporary labour market characterized by a growing precariat, portfolio careers and intermittent employment:

‘It has been said that in modern times men have been shuffled together like grains of sand. They are elements of an apparatus in which they occupy now one location, now another; not parts of a historical substance which they imbue with their selfhood. The number of those who lead this uprooted sort of life is continually on the increase. Driven from pillar to post, then perhaps out-of-work for a lengthy period with nothing more than bare subsistence, they no longer have a definite place or status in the whole. […] What a man can do nowadays can only be done by one who takes short views. He has occupation, indeed, but his life has no continuity.’

To embrace these conditions as signalling the growth of flexible labour or the feminization of working life is, it seems to me, to miss the point: for what both genders are in fact succumbing to now is the death of community – ‘the whole’ – or the phenomenon of what Blond calls ‘widespread social anonymity and fragmentation’. Jaspers notes how ‘the tendencies to disintegrate’ the traditional nucleus of community, the family, ‘increase proportionally with the trend to render a universal life-order absolute’. Yet still ‘people cling to this primitive world with invincible tenacity’. Indeed, Jaspers maintains, ‘amid the general social dissolution, man is thrust back into dependence upon these most primitive bonds out of which alone a new and trustworthy objectivity can be constructed.’ Indeed, as regards ‘the relations between one selfhood and another, there is no generalisable situation, but only the absolute historicity of those who encounter one another, the intimacy of their contact, the fidelity and irreplaceability of personal ties’. The emphasis on existentialist personal ties is the basis of Jaspers’ theory of solidarity. ‘What frees us from solitude is not the world, but the selfhood which enters into ties with others. Interlinkage of self-existent persons constitutes the invisible reality of the essential.’ Precisely this conception of the invisibility or non-objectivity of solidarity amongst genuinely existent selves, enables Jaspers’ theory of indirect social action, for instance as performed by the vulnerable:

‘Since there is no objective criterion of trustworthy selfhood, this could not be directly assembled to form influential groups. As has been well said: “There is no trust (no organized association) of the persons who are the salt of the earth.” That is their weakness, inasmuch as their strength can only inhere in their inconspicuousness. There is among them a tie which does not take the form of any formal contract, but is stronger than any national, political, partisan, or social community, and stronger than the bonds of race. Never direct and immediate, it first becomes manifest in its consequences.’  

The praxis of ‘the solidarity of the self-existent’ involves the activation of non-formal ties, alongside a mindful readiness for a similarly formless, intermittent mode of communication: digital relations, voluntary work...

‘True nobility is not found in an isolated being. It exists in the interlinkage of independent human beings. Such are aware of their duty to discover one another, to help one another onward wherever they encounter one another, and to be ever ready for communication, on the watch, but without importunacy. Though they have entered into no formal agreement, they hold together with a loyalty which is stronger than any formal agreement could give.’

The form of sociality projected by Jaspers here is of course necessarily faltering and vulnerable, being ‘rendered insecure in the world by the weakness due to the comparatively small number of such persons and to the uncertainty of their contacts’. But this is not so much a Facebook community, made up of those who ‘have dozens of men as friends who are not really friends’, as ‘the origin of the loftiest soaring movement which is as yet possible in the world’.

‘The unity of this dispersed élite is like the Invisible Church of a corpus mysticum in the anonymous chain of the friends from among whom […] one selfhood is revealed to another and perhaps distant selfhood. In this immaterial realm of mind there are, at any moment, a few indwellers who, entering into close proximity, strike flame out of one another by the intimacy of their communication.’

Jaspers here holds communication to be ‘the most fundamental problem of philosophy’. In some crucial statements, he views the communicative creation of social ties as a means of the spiritualization through which the self can claim self-existence, and resist assimilation to the modern technical order. Blogging or voluntary caring, for instance, can be conceived as turning the machine against itself.

‘He must either on his own initiative independently gain possession of the mechanism of his life, or else, himself degraded to become a machine, surrender to the apparatus. He must, through communication, establish the tie between self and self, in full awareness that here everything turns upon loyalty or disloyalty; and in default of this his life will be utterly despiritualized and become a mere function. He must either advance to the frontier where he can glimpse his Transcendence, or else must remain entangled in the disillusionment of a self that is wholly involved in the things of the world.’

Jaspers’ upholding of community, communing and communication in the face of a technicizing social order, is comparable to Blond’s critique of the disastrous practice of centrist ‘socialism’ in the form of atomizing social control – a perpetuation of the cruel white heat of Thatcherism – which has brought our cities to their long-term meltdown:

‘The attack upon structures that stabilize people and provide a necessary and secure footing has also been accompanied by a relentless assault on the principles that underpin these foundations be it those of faith, tradition or morality. A hostile technocratic amorality that removes culture, taboo and memory from public policy has been the hallmark of Labour’s years in power.’   

Jaspers’ understanding of technocracy is Weberian: ‘To-day it is taken as a matter of course that human life is the supply of mass-needs by rationalized production with the aid of technical advances.’ When the ‘mass-order’ creates such a ‘universal life-apparatus’, Jaspers argues, this technical apparatus ‘proves destructive to the world of a truly human life’; ‘tension between the universal life-apparatus and a truly human world is, therefore, inevitable.’ Educators, for example, dismiss ‘historical tradition, and will have education carried on as if it had no relationship with time at all, and consisted only of training for technical skill’ and ‘the acquisition of realist knowledge’. This means that ‘the growth of knowledge during the era of advanced technique in conjunction with the spreading dominion of apparatus seem to narrow man’s potentialities even while enriching him’. Like Blond, Jaspers emphasizes the importance of keeping cultural memory alive – so as to regenerate mental potentialities (‘substance’):

‘Whilst an enmity to culture is grinding to powder all that has hitherto existed (with an arrogant assumption that the world is now beginning entirely afresh), in the process of reconstitution the mental substance can only be preserved by a sort of historical remembrance which must be something more than a mere knowledge of the past and must take the form of a contemporary vital force.’

To be continued

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