Themes of alienation, vacuity, and absurdity have permeated the art and literature of the late twentieth century. From Samuel Beckett, to Mark Rothko, Marcel Duchamp, Brett Easton-Ellis, Salvador Dali, and Albert Camus, there appears to be a recognition of something misdirected, misaligned, out of whack. It’s political, social, economic, and even aesthetic – the artists themselves often recognise the futility of even their own art. What has been missing is – naturally – hard to pin down; but there is something essential about it, something epistemic. The resultant failures of society to compensate, despite eager, youthful, soviet-style enthusiastic promises of progress and improvement, merely accelerate the retrenchment of people from the public sphere, from the political, and into the familiar space of the self, and the narcissistic selfie. If this is wrong, if this is not right, or not how it should be, what happened to us?
Hannah Arendt blames the enlightenment, as do many philosophers of the twentieth century. In her work The Human Condition, she points to three aspects to life: labour, our bodily functions; work, our creative efforts; and action, our political exercise. This last element – action – bestows meaning upon the rest of our existence, and she argues that we gave up on that sometime in the seventeenth century. Nietzsche says we missed a trick at the enlightenment. In castigating religious dogma, we didn’t realise that it was dogma that was the problem, rather than religion, and did away with the latter rather than the former. The result was a scientistic dogma that has compounded our alienation ever since, culminating in our neoliberal present. Leo Strauss argued that modernity inevitably leads us to relativism – and by extension scientism, historicism, economism and nihilism. Dany-Robert Dufour calls it The Art of Shrinking Heads, a managerial and scientistic hubris. Juergen Habermas wrote of An Awareness of What is Missing, going further than the Enlightenment, and pushing it all the way back to the Axial Age, the time of Classical Greece around 500BCE, when we saw a divergence between faith and reason. Martin Heidegger, as quoted many times in these pages, lamented the uprooting of man that was well underway by the time of his final interview in 1966.
This grand abdication, a departure from prior convention, appears in retrospect to have been an intuitively sensible course of action, even if its outcome has not been what had been desired. In searching for freedom and human flourishing, western liberalism settled on a lowest common denominator of individual actuation, inadvertently triggering a process of dehumanisation that has appeared to accelerate through the twentieth century. But something else happened.
We have arrived at so exalted a rational position that we believe we have the power to achieve any good thing – that fully knowing the universe is possible, given enough time and resources. The parallel and inevitable development is that we can also achieve any bad thing; and that when bad things happen, it must be because somebody did it, or allowed it to happen, in a positive way. Somebody – some expert, leader, elite or otherwise – made the decision to turn to science rather than religion. Maybe it was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, maybe it was Immanuel Kant. Whoever it was, someone did it. It could have been a group of people. But it was people who did it, positively, through their actions, decisions, and agency. Fast forward to today and the debate on Climate Change. Once again, we have an absolute conviction that human beings did this, that people decided ‘we’re going to burn coal and oil’ and deliberately construct a global economy that drives global warming. Similarly, we have an absolute conviction that if certain people, or groups of people, such as companies, decided to do so in the morning, Climate Change could at least be slowed down. This anthropocentrism is a symptom of that great abdication, when we lost the balance in our cosmology, an ontological turn, when (as Habermas might have put it) something went missing.
The toxic combination of historicism and economism has reduced us; we are less than we were before. Progress is a myth. For all our smartphones and drugs and machines, we have regressed as sentient ontological beings and become teleologically impoverished, having traded eschatology for nihilism towards a kind of anti-apocalypse: this is no revealing, no final judgement, no end of history; it is an annihilation.