Eleanor Morton Is Funny
England, Center of the World

More From Rieff (1)

...the kind of man I see emerging, as our culture fades into the next, resembles the kind once called "spiritual"--because such a man desires to preserve the inherited morality freed from its hard external crust of institutional discipline. Yet a culture survives principally, I think, by the power of its institutions to bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs with reasons which sink so deep into the self that they become commonly and implicitly understood--with that understanding of which explicit belief and precise knowledge of externals would show outwardly like the tip of an iceberg....  Having broken the outward forms so as to liberate, allegedly, the inner meaning of the good, the beautiful, and the true, the spiritualizers, who set the pace of Western cultural life from just before the beginning to a short time after the end of the nineteenth century, have given way now to their logical and historical successors, the psychologizers, inheritors of that dualist tradition which pits human nature against social order. (p. 2)

The systematic hunting down of all settled convictions represents the anti-cultural predicate upon which modern personality is being reorganized.... (p. 10)

Not only our Western culture but every system of integrative moral demand, the generative principle of culture, expressed itself in positive deprivations--in a character ideal that functioned to commit the individual to the group. Culture was thus the establishment and organization of restrictive motives. Men engaged in disciplines of interdiction. The dialectic of deprivation and remission from deprivation was in the service of those particular interdicts by which a culture constituted itself. The analytic attitude does contain a certain time-element of asceticism, but it points toward a character ideal that is in principle anti-ascetic and therefore revolutionary if viewed from perspectives formed in the inherited moral demand system. The dialectic of perfection, based on a deprivational mode, is being succeeded by a dialectic of fulfillment, based on the appetitive mode. (p. 40)

That last sentence is an adequate summary of the condition(s) analyzed in the book.

The "spiritualizers" in the first quotation appear to be the Romantics in particular, though the general cultural drift they represented was not confined to them. One might think, in argument to that general point, of the many instances in Christian scripture and thought in which we are admonished to attend to the spirit and not the letter. And the "spiritualizers" do, too. But their mistake is to suppose that the spirit need not be, in fact should not be, embodied, that to give it a body is an unacceptable limitation. Jesus himself tells us that the law is to be made alive, not done away with. 

What immediately strikes the reader of our time is the apparent paradox in which the destruction of all settled convictions has turned into an extremely rigid heresy-hunting orthodoxy. But it's only apparent. What we call "society" is as intrinsic a part of being human as is the individual. And every society has, also intrinsically, its expectations of conduct, its standards by the light of which some things are acceptable and some are not. Or, to use Reiff's terms, its controls, or interdicts, and remissions.


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More on this later, but in the meantime this is an interesting read that touches on some of these same issues. I have read Han with much profit, and this is a good intro to his work.


That's fascinating. Never heard of him before.

I've encountered a rumor a couple times that Han is a sort of "secret Catholic" like McLuhan was, but I haven't seen any evidence of that, other than his occasional positive references to Catholic thinkers.

I found an interview with Byung-Chul Han from this past April. He's pinning his hopes on art coming to the rescue:

"I would not promote a reactivation of past rituals. This is simply not possible because the rituals of Western culture are very closely associated with the Christian narrative. And everywhere the Christian narrative is losing its power. There is little left of it beyond Christmastime.

Rituals found a community. Contrary to the suggestion in your question, it is not inevitable that rituals solidify existing power relations. Quite the opposite. During Carnival, power relations are reversed, so that the slaves can criticize and even mock their masters. Often, roles are exchanged: The masters serve their slaves. And the fool ascends the throne as king. This ritualized temporary suspension of the power structure stabilizes the community.

In a world that is completely without rituals and wholly profane, all that is left are consumption and the satisfaction of needs. It is Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” in which every want is immediately gratified. The people are kept in good spirits with the help of fun, consumption and entertainment. The state distributes a drug called soma in order to increase feelings of happiness in the population. Maybe in our brave new world, people will receive a universal basic income and have unlimited access to video games. That would be the new version of panem et circenses ('bread and circuses').

I am, however, not completely pessimistic. Perhaps we shall develop new narratives, ones that do not presuppose a hierarchy. We can easily imagine a flat narrative. Every narrative develops its own rituals for the purposes of making it habitual, embedding it in the physical body. Culture founds community.

After the pandemic, what is most in need of recovery is culture. Cultural events such as theater, dance and even football have a ritual character. The only way in which we can revitalize community is through ritual forms. Today, culture is held together solely by instrumental and economic relations. But that does not found communities — it isolates people. Art, in particular, should play a central role in the revitalization of rituals."


Well, there's truth in that, but I have to say that it sounds fairly hopeless as a response to civilizational decline. Intellectuals have a tendency (because they're intellectuals) to propose kind of abstract solutions like "the revitalization of rituals," as if it's a project we can set for ourselves and work on. But cultures don't work like that. They grow organically in undirected and mostly unforeseeable ways.

In what sense was McLuhan a "secret Catholic"? As an alumna of St Michael's College (the Catholic college at the University of Toronto where McLuhan worked), I never thought of his Catholicism as secret.

I started to say something about that, too. Rob can answer as to what he meant exactly, but I took him to mean that McLuhan's Catholicism was not explicitly referenced in his work. I never read much of him but I always had the impression that he didn't present himself as speaking from a Catholic point of view.

Yes, exactly. Those who knew him knew he was a practicing Catholic, but he didn't write from that point of view explicitly.

Well, the rumor I referenced above turns out to be true: Byung-Chul Han is Catholic. He says so in this interview:


He's also a bit of an odd bird, but an intriguing and likable one. I've read several interviews with him but this is the first one I've seen where he talks about his personal life a bit and not just his work.

Intriguing and likable, indeed.

"The Korean-born philosopher has just published The Crisis of Narration, a book in which he argues that, today, narration is indistinguishable from advertising: people and politicians market their lives on social media. "

I think "personal brand" is one of the most repellent terms our weird culture has produced.

I agree. Two or three years ago my company had this push for people to develop their personal brand within the company. They had meetings and get-togethers, even a photo shoot. Of course it was all voluntary, but the company definitely encouraged it, and I was surprised by the number of people who actually joined in. Personally, I thought it was one of the dumbest things ever.

Even weirder. How far could one's personal brand depart from the norm and still be acceptable within the company? Makes me think of the Jennifer Aniston character in Office Space and her "flair."


Well, for what it's worth, in our region it was the leaders of the Pride Network who were the biggest advocates of the "branding" endeavors.

Not too surprising, really. The Pride crowd is at the moment very self-confident culturally, and expects approval, to say the least.

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