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Thursday, April 07, 2011


Christopher Lasch, Radical Orthodoxy & the Modern Collapse of the Self

Ed. Note: Christopher Lasch, R.I.P., is a Contributing Editor of the NOR.

In the divided society we inhabit, one claim, at least, is assured of nearly universal assent: that something is terribly wrong with society, and that it -- whatever "it" is -- has been going wrong for quite some time. The problem, more often than not, is presented as a simple dichotomy: the rise of "theocratic" government as a threat to pluralist democracy, or the decline of "Judeo-Christian" morality in favor of "moral relativism" of one sort or another. While popular, these platitudinous rallying cries are largely transient; though they might spur a flurry of trendy talking-head pieces in response, they do little to address the real, deep-seated sickness affecting Western culture. One critic who has stood out from this group is historian Christopher Lasch, whose series of books discussing American culture has been a frequent subject of conversation, but has been less than effective in changing the course of political or societal trends. More recently, a group of theologians originally tied to Cambridge University has been offering another extended critique of the structures of modern Western society; their project, termed "Radical Orthodoxy" by some, extends and enriches Lasch's work.

Christopher Lasch had, perhaps, the ideal liberal background. Raised by parents active in the Midwestern Democratic Party, he attended Harvard in the early 1950s and continued in his parents' progressive footsteps. During his time at Harvard, he was exposed to, and became interested in, neo-orthodox Christian theology. In the 1960s Lasch became active in the New Left, seeing in it a possible escape from the stifling Enlightenment project he had grown to perceive as the basis of liberalism. However, at the same time Lasch was moving toward the New Left, he was also gaining deep appreciation for the value of bonds formed by tradition. This appreciation ultimately drove him to part ways with the New Left, as his focus shifted to the study of the structures of human society. This shift was heralded in 1977 by the publication of his book Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged, which was followed two years later by what would become his most famous work, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. His work in this latter period of his life defied pigeonholing, combining, for example, a typically leftist critique of extant economic structures with an appreciation for the value of cultural tradition deeply resonant with that of many self-described conservatives. In the years between the publication of Haven and his death, Lasch levied a sustained critique of Western, and particularly American, society from this unique vantage point.

For Lasch, the fundamental problem with modern Western society lies somewhere in the vicinity of society's atomization. Traditional structures have broken down; political life is disintegrating; the family is breaking apart; work has become a merely economic and transactional enterprise; the self has turned inward. Lasch locates these phenomena primarily within a larger discussion of the market, which, he says, has co-opted these traditional institutions and led to this dis-integration. While this position is evident in The Culture of Narcissism, it grows more pronounced in his later works, finding its fullest and most explicit presentation in The Revolt of the Elites, where he says that the market "does not easily coexist with institutions that operate according to principles that are antithetical to itself: schools and universities, newspapers and magazines, charities, families. Sooner or later the market tends to absorb them all."

Although the collapse of the self is a thread running through the majority of his work, Lasch focuses most intently on this collapse, fittingly, in The Minimal Self. In this book, he discusses the relationship between the "fantastic world of commodities" and the diminished modern conception of the self. The self, he argues, must be an integrated interior and exterior, with an awareness of its outlines, willing to exist in tension between the temptations to "remake the world in its own image" and to "merge into its environment." In a society of mass production, however, workers, treated as a quantifiable and replaceable entities, become accustomed to "the repeated experience of uneasy self-scrutiny, of submission to expert judgment, of distrust of their own capacity to make intelligent decisions." This serves to instill in the individual an increased identification of the self with the surface appearance, to collapse the distinction between appearance and reality. Confronted with a seemingly endless and ever-expanding range of choices between different flavors of toothpaste or scents of antiperspirant, the individual becomes paralyzed by the expansion of meaningless choice, and is prevented from exercising any real freedom, from the possibility of making a meaningful decision among substantially different options. Life becomes increasingly dependent on the maintenance of a high-technology infrastructure, and old age becomes a state of particular and increased dependence on an economy of medical technology.

An older sense of self, "rooted in Judeo-Christian traditions," has been lost, and so individuals turn to the market and its permeating rhythms, already so familiar from their steady shaping of the relationship between internal and external. Seeking to prevent the self's imminent collapse, they attempt to build a therapeutic "technology of the self" mimicking the life-support technologies with which they are already familiar; in doing so, they instead, turning inward, complete the collapse and seek to become something other than human. This collapse is, ultimately, portrayed as the source of such particularly modern problems as the bourgeois-ification of the working class and the widespread increase in transient relationships.

Lasch reads this phenomenon -- the expansion of the market and its replacement of traditional structures -- as affecting the family as well. Placed under extreme pressure from this expansion, which "reduces individuals to abstractions, anonymous buyers and sellers whose claims on each other are determined solely by their capacity to pay," the family, whose internal economy cannot be market-driven or money-based, no longer functions as it ought. The family ceases to be a traditional structure in any real sense and is constructed, rather, as a market-driven corporation. Responsibilities -- child-rearing, for example -- may be shirked in favor of a higher market valuation of the self. More importantly, the family becomes an economic structure like any other, whose functions may be freely usurped at any time by a superior economic structure in the name of efficiency. Education and training of children, for example, shift from being familial functions to being functions of the state, which seeks to "inculcate industrial discipline in the broadest sense of the term." The production of goods that are appealing for consumption dismantles the structure of the family -- both explicitly, as its relational/sacrificial economy is replaced with a market-driven, efficiency-oriented one, and more subtly, as the collapse of the self causes the abandonment of familial functions dependent on personal sacrifice.

The community, Lasch argues, is being undermined by this inadequate, market-driven conception of the self as well. A "world of mirrors, insubstantial images, illusions increasingly indistinguishable from reality," is a world that "has no objective or independent existence and seems to exist only to gratify or thwart [the consumer's] desires." For the economist John Maynard Keynes, the removal of limits on those desires is necessary for a flourishing capitalistic market; but for Lasch, that removal is far too high a price; it leads to the destruction of society.

The problems Lasch has described all come crashing together to create the modern dilemma: Man strives to find happiness in alternately grooming himself for the market and visiting the market for products -- television, processed foods, antidepressants, contraceptives -- that promise to relieve the stress of that grooming. Woman desires to break down barriers that prevent her from joining man in his daily liturgy of prostitution and purchasing and, in doing so, becomes a caricatured participant in that liturgy, equally as oversexualized and overambitious as he. Child is rushed from practice to training session to state school on a tight and controlled schedule, being prepared to compete in the marketplace for undergraduate degrees and middle-management jobs. Neighborhoods are composed of identical boxes whose only ontological connection is the continuous, shared arterial pavement leading to the "real world," where speech becomes advertisement and money replaces familiarity as the basis of interpersonal confidence.

The travails of modern society are for Lasch a set of problems flowing primarily out of the market's co-optation of the self. Ultimately, nothing remains untouched by this core co-optation of the self.

In 1993 John Milbank, a Cambridge theologian, published Theology and Social Theory, in which he set forth a new vision, one that would attract other members of the university and, soon enough, interlopers from beyond Britain. This vision, a critique of modernism grounded in the Cambridge Platonist tradition, has spoken with a voice that is, by turns, Augustinian, Thomist, socialist, Anglo-Catholic, Roman Catholic, postmodern, and post-postmodern. This vision of a radical approach to orthodoxy -- radical, that is, in the earlier sense of returning to roots -- positions itself as a re-orientation, and a reclamation by theology of her place as Queen of the Sciences. For these "Radical Orthodoxy" theologians, sociology, for example, can never be an autonomous science; it has theological bases and makes theological claims -- the only question is whether those claims are Christian. Economic systems are theological in this construction, as well, as is evidenced in Radical Orthodoxy's conception of capitalism. For the Radical Orthodoxy theologians, capitalist economics are the particular economic manifestation of a more general capitalism, a system of interpersonal relations based on the hoarding of abundance that generates false scarcity; it is the elevation of the transaction over the gift.

Radical Orthodoxy theologians are also concerned with the co-optation of society by the market, and offer critiques of the reigning social structure that are often uncannily similar to Lasch's. Like Lasch, they are attentive to the loss of traditional religion accompanying this co-optation; however, they approach this relationship from a theological rather than a social-scientific perspective. Eugene McCarraher of Villanova University, in his article "The Enchantments of Mammon: Notes Toward a Theological History of Capitalism" (Modern Theology, July 2005), argues that capitalism is, in reality, a Christian heresy, a "perverse appropriation and practice of sacrament." For Radical Orthodoxy theologians, the beginning of the collapse of the self, the family, and the society is not in a direct co-optation of the self, but rather in an ontological regrafting. Society, which properly finds its being in reference to the Body of Christ, is cut loose from this relationship by modernity, and situated in reference to the market.

In the Introduction to the book Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, Milbank attempts to situate the Radical Orthodoxy project within a third way, one occupied by the "great Christian critics of the Enlightenment." Throughout the Radical Orthodoxy corpus, the attempt to sustain this critique is a driving force; it is rare to find a text that deals with a theological question without discussing social context and cultural impact. For example, Graham Ward, in his book Cities of God, paints the capitalist city as one in which the individual attempts to achieve self-transcendence by entering into a virtual reality, where the exterior is improved upon and the interior erased. The self in this city is, for Ward, doomed to an existence ruled by "the vicious logic of Narcissus." He sees this collapse of interior and exterior not only in the self, but in the goods with which the self is surrounded, in which "the proximity of production to reproduction becomes so pronounced the real vanishes behind the sign of or the designer label or the logo for the actual goods."

D. Stephen Long sees the market's permeation of society as leading to the destruction of the family, as "it invites us to construe our lives, primarily our lives as family members, in terms of the activities of producers and consumers" (Divine Economy: Theology and the Market). For Long, this construction, while tempting, ultimately serves to further the atomization of society by reducing all human interaction to a series of exchanges of scarce goods. The family becomes constituted by this economy of calculated exchange. In the same manner, all of society -- every human institution -- must become constituted by the market, by the economics of exchange.

In all of these critiques, the Radical Orthodoxy theologians argue that secularity has "ruined and denied" what it "apparently celebrated: embodied life, self-expression, sexuality, aesthetic experience, human political community"; and in all of them, they mirror Lasch, depicting the market as an encroaching force that permeates and undermines all of life.

The Radical Orthodoxy theologians' response to this encroaching force, however, is where they begin to differentiate themselves from Lasch. While Lasch sees the proper response to this force as the reclamation of traditional structures -- familial, religious, societal -- in order to provide moderating and mediating limitation within those spheres, he sees the return to tradition as primarily pragmatic, effected because those particular traditions were effective, not because they were theoretically or ontologically superior. (This is not to say that Lasch would not see them as theoretically or ontolog­ically superior, but that such a perception was not the basis of his argument for their preservation.) For the Radical Orthodoxy theologians, in contrast, their argument for the reclamation of traditional structures -- for "Orthodoxy" -- is deeply embedded in a Christo­logical argument concerning the ontology of the body. They, like Lasch, see the plight of the modern self as the most dramatic example of the societal collapse; however, the self that Radical Orthodoxy is concerned with is not the nameless individual of The Minimal Self, but rather the "displaced body of Jesus Christ." It is in the alienation of personal, familial, and societal structures from this body that the great collapse is effected.

For Graham Ward, the Body of Christ is marked by what he calls "ontological scandal" -- the repeated "I am" of John's Gospel. It is a body, but it is a body that transcends and undermines what we know of bodies. For Ward, this disjunct, which he refers to as "displacement," has as dramatic loci the transfiguration, the Eucharist, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension ("The Displaced Body of Christ," Radical Orthodoxy). William T. Cavanaugh accepts, narrows, and applies this argument; recalling the dispersive and atomizing nature of the Fall, he argues that the only un­doing of this atomization is in "restoring unity through participation in Christ's Body" ("The City: Be­yond Secular Parodies," Radical Orthodoxy). Participation in Christ's Body, the Church, through the Eucharist, constitutes society properly and functionally; other theories of the constitution of society are conflicting soteriologies. Cavanaugh particularly singles out the modern state, which, in his estimation, is intended to save us from the Church. All bodies, for Radical Orthodoxy, ultimately have their existence after this fashion: They are all analogies -- for Gerard Loughlin, parodies -- of the triune God, and specifically of Jesus Christ, who is God made man.

For Radical Orthodoxy, as for Lasch, there is no area that is untouched by this core problem -- a core problem that is, for Lasch, the co-optation of the self by the market, and for Radical Orthodoxy, the replacement of the Body of Christ by a capitalist facsimile. This capitalist facsimile, for Radical Orthodoxy, is not merely a problem; it is a heresy. In replacing the economy of gift with an economy of exchange, the ability to participate in the divine is removed. With this reduction of all action to calculated exchange, the self-gifting of God to man, embodied in Christ, can no longer serve as the undergirding of society in the way Radical Orthodoxy argues it did in the premodern gift economy. Ultimately, it is this removal -- the shift of economic understanding from an economy of gift to an economy of exchange -- that causes the problems of modernity. Human relationships have moved from the feasting village, where communal celebration is offered out of scarcity, to the transactional suburb, where every feast day is the occasion only for a particularly large private purchase of one's own food. In this society governed by an economy that can only provide abundance by the means of a purchase, the Gift of the Eucharist, with all of its related and interconnected gifts, ultimately collapses into a narrative of financial, contractual exchange. At best, we are left with an exchange-based Christology; at worst, we are left with the wholesale replacement of Christology by the deification of exchange.

There remains, however, the question of working out the ramifications of what have remained, to this point, two primarily theoretical stances. Simply put, what do Lasch and Radical Orthodoxy mean to the life of a clergyman, an auto mechanic, an investment banker, or an educator? While the question of application is, obviously, a far-reaching one, with as many potential answers as there are particular situations, I would like, nevertheless, to offer a few brief suggestions.

The homeschooling movement should be embraced. This embrace need not take the form, however, of a universal practice of homeschooling; rather, it should take the form of a communal support of those who do practice it, combined with an openness to learn from their discoveries.

Liturgical feasts should be more fully, consistently, and jubilantly practiced -- not only by the celebration of the Eucharist, but in actual communal feasting. The feasts are, after the Eucharist, the most explicit manifestation of the practice of gift in everyday communal life; furthermore, they are an occasion in which the community may give to one another in praise to God for His past and continuing gifts. In the Eucharist, the Church celebrates the Gift of God; in the liturgical feasts, the Church celebrates the myriad ways in which that Gift has manifested itself. There is one Eucharist, but there are many feasts.

This celebration of localized events in the history of the Church should be accompanied by a commitment to the local community on all levels. Local businesses, artisans, musicians, painters, and so on, should be supported by each parish in each city; this means, for example, that the Church should not be in the habit of making purchases from national superstores or online wholesalers. Rather, fitting local alternatives should be found; when they cannot be found, they should be incubated and nurtured by the Church.

Individuals, families, and communities should practice handicrafts, arts, and self-sufficient living. Gardening, knitting, musicianship, canning, brewing, painting, and sewing should be the business of all people; when people are involved in a participatory manner in the act of creation, they may give of themselves in a much more meaningful manner than mere financial subsidy. While buying a sweater for a child is not meaningless, for example, the act is not imbued with nearly the quasi-sacramental significance that making a sweater for a child is.

The primary commonality of these suggestions is, of course, that they are all directed toward the creation (or re-creation) of social structures centered around occasions of gift (Eucharist, teaching, parental nurture, and so on), rather than around purchase (psychotherapeutic sermonizing, commodified education, daycare facilities, and the like). These proposals are, admittedly, mere sketches; they may be flawed, and they are certainly incomplete. Nevertheless, they may, I hope, offer a starting point and a bearing for the long, arduous, and rewarding journey out of the swamp of modernity that Christopher Lasch and the Radical Orthodoxy theologians have so vividly and accurately mapped.

By Adam Parsons



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