On Being a Christian in Late Modernity (Part 4: Why the Man/Machine Relation is a Man/Man Relation)

13. Taking the mid 19th century as our point of departure in understanding modernity, I have (so far) focused merely on the question of man’s relationship with his labor (and implicitly the swelling of the earth’s population after 1800). Another way of filling out this narrative, of course, would be to focus upon the global technological revolution that has exponentially unfolded since the Industrial Revolution into our time – a period of constant epochal discovery. I move from labor to technology in order to refrain from begging the question about technology as such. When we reflect upon the impact of technology on a modern life, we do well to note that we are always looking at technology as used, and often in its unintended consequences. This is not to give into the impression that we simply choose our relationship to the world of techne. Rather, we mostly inherit our relation to technology. We modify it and take charge over it to some extent, but never entirely. And in this, we can see that C.S. Lewis was correct to note (in The Abolition of Man) that what we call man’s control over nature always turns out to be some men’s control of other men with nature as its instrument. It is our inherited and mostly “scripted for us” relationship to the world of techne that marks the deepest impact of the decisions of others. To inherit a world of grocery stores, street lights, television, the internet, email, cell phones, drones, satellites, video, etc – is to inherit a world crafted by the free decisions of some men whose cultural and psychological impact is stamped in each contemporary consciousness.

14. It has always been this way, of course. As Lewis notes, each generation exercises power over subsequent ones. And within each generation, some men shape the future more than others. The “some men/other men” dialectic, therefore, has both a historical and a contemporary vector. Looked at this way, we might say that what renders modernity unique is that most of the human decisions that we have inherited are recent (and radical) ones. Moreover, we have inherited a circumstance where contemporary human decisions may have a greater impact than has historically been ordinary for future generations, where the amount of multi-dimensional power and influence that a person (or a very small group of persons) can possess is as historically peculiar as it is difficult to precisely name. To reiterate, the point of emphasizing this is to make it clear that discussing technology and its impact is to discuss the impact of human decisions, of human cultural craft. To say this does not mean that such decisions are wise, in accordance with reason, or even trying to be. As Lewis notes, the dependence of some men on other men is typically the dependence of some men on the will of other men (and perhaps in its most appallingly Freudian hue). Bringing these points full circle, it is crucial to note that this dynamic explains both the general direction of human labor and the general direction of human technological consumption.  We are attempting to see what unites these (human activity). That is to say, we cannot fully understand ourselves if we do not see both how most modern persons have inherited a certain type of relationship to their labor, and the imaginative impact of a technologically mediated world that both mediates and renews that inheritance. Moreover, we cannot fully understand our situation if we do not see each of these as arising from (often the same) human decisions.

15. I have elsewhere argued (and will reiterate more extensively in later posts) that contemporary religious life cannot be understood apart from these two dependencies together. On the one hand, in the world of labor, man has been transformed (even in his expertise) to less and less of a living and creative agent whose work is rooted in natural capacity and clearly ordered toward the common good. In other words, modern laborers rarely see how they fit into the whole social body, and meaning in labor is mostly personal and cathartic rather than regal and participatory. Modern man tends, therefore, toward a certain passivity even in his agency. We often feel “carried along” in the stream of things. Read off the text of our own psyche, therefore, the cosmos manifests as a dream that has not quite expired into the abyss of nothing. It is actually plausible to most modern people that consciousness is a happy accident. Life quite literally manifests that way for many, a fact contextualizing the endless search for innoculates. But this is only half of the story. Not only is our own agency greyed out, but so is the agency of the world. Crafted into the shape of man’s will (or some men’s will), we have inherited our culture’s technological addictions and the precise manner in which these attune us to the world. We are attuned to see the world as so much “stuff” for human consumption and endless re-shaping. We are profoundly un-attuned (even if we know and believe in natural law) to actually see and enjoy the natures of things. The world does not manifest as an actor around which we must navigate, but as agentless stuff for my manipulation. Read off the mirror of this experience of the world (most of us don’t even garden), the cosmos likewise appears agentless. Our own agency obscured, the world’s agency obscured, what reflects back and forth between each is (not surprisingly) agentless. Modern atheism is an existential “mood,” and one that we all understand in some deep way because we all live in our civilization’s existential funhouse of foggy mirrors. I will argue below, however, that this need not be ultimately lamented.

16. Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age defines secularity as the condition within which one’s most basic religious beliefs are felt to be one option among many. To live in a secular society is to live in a society where one feels irreducibly relativized in their beliefs. The shifts in human civilization that made this possible are highly related, in my judgment, to what I have outlined above and in my previous post. But refracted through this transition, it also becomes clear that we can extend Taylor’s analysis to as many areas as these forces (technology and labor) touch. That is to say, not only is modern life defined by the experience of religious relativization and negotiation, but one might further interpret modernity as the simultaneous global renegotiation of all human custom. Everything is up in the air (the role of the sexes, the place of nations, the meaning of authority, etc). There are no group-relations which are not in the process of rearrangement (even if wisdom has remained the same in most things). Putting these threads together, a resultant picture emerges that we exist at a moment in time in which the very basic dependence of some men on other men is turned to a maximum at precisely the same moment that all features of human custom are in a moment of renegotiation (these phenomena are, of course, related). In the following posts, I will attempt to show the various challenges this poses for us. Taking for granted Taylor’s account of religious relativization, I will move on to consider the peculiar role that human reflexivity plays in contemporary life. That is to say, contemporary human life is not merely a matter of inheriting a flow of things, but is also constantly re-constructed in the re-negotiation process. One literally “cannot keep up” with shifts in human custom and value. Nevertheless, each of us cannot imagine ourselves apart from the “playing a certain part” in the cultural renegotiation, a fact that renders modern identity inherently reflexive, self-making, and endlessly subject to modification. Seeing this helps us to see what is arguably the fundamental crisis of modernity, the crisis of trust. 1. Some men. Other men. 2. The simultaneous global renegotiation of all human custom. 3. The constantly shifting nature of reflexive modern identity. 4. The fallout from all of this is a crisis of human trust. Classically reinforced in thick overlapping (and what is crucial, embodied) networks, the age of mobility and of the internet have erased (for most humans) the kinds of primal connections that have historically mediated human trust. It is to this subject, therefore, that I turn next.


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