Why the New Urban Enthusiasm Is Destined to Fade

secular-age-charles-taylor-coverCanadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s mammoth book a A Secular Age is a very important work that traces the history of secularization from the late Middle Ages through to today. Taylor is indebted to many others, including notably Weber, but his comprehensive view obviates the need to read many of those other sources. (I haven’t read Weber, and probably never will).

It’s an incredibly invigorating read, but also extremely long. So I can’t in good conscience recommend that you read it unless you are interested in such things. I did, however, and plan to share a series of three posts with some applications I took away from the book.

Taylor has three definitions of secularization. One is in effect the separation of church and state, or the secularization of government. The second is the decline of individual spiritual belief.  The third, and the one on which Taylor focuses, is the process by which we went from a world in the year 1500 in which it was impossible not to believe in God to today’s world in which unbelief is one choice among many. And in which transcendent goals that are not rooted in earthly well-being disappear. As he puts it, “A secular age is one in which the eclipse of all goals beyond human flourishing becomes conceivable; or better, if it falls within the range of imaginable life for masses of people.”

His primary objective is to rebut what he terms the “subtraction hypothesis.” In the subtraction view, secularization was an inevitable byproduct of science. Astronomy, Darwin, etc. chipped away at religious belief as it was found to be untenable, and what remained is the secular world we know today.

Taylor doesn’t deny the importance of subtraction, as in the case of Darwin, but he also documents crucially the process of addition.  We did not just tear down religious beliefs and the worldview that sustained them, we also socially constructed new realities to take their place. Among these are the so-called “buffered self” and the “modern moral order.”  This post will talk about one aspect of the former.

The creation of the buffered self is linked to what Weber called “disenchantment”, or the gradual elimination of the idea of “magic” from the world. In an enchanted world, meanings could exist in external things, and those meanings could impose themselves on us. The boundary between our being and the world was porous, leaving us vulnerable.  So a love potion, for example, had the power to make us fall in love.

In our disenchanted world, meanings exist totally in the mind. There is a barrier between ourselves and the world. Potions no longer have the power to make us fall in love. Being in love is state that exists in the mind.  Per Taylor, “As a bounded self I can see the boundary as a buffer, such that things beyond don’t need to ‘get to me’, to use the contemporary expression. That’s the sense to my use of the term ‘buffered’ here. The self can see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meanings of things for it.”  We see this concept of the self as buffered from the world in, for example, the vast number of mindset oriented self-help books, such as those of Tony Robbins, which are predicated on our personal reality being primarily an internal construct.  The concept of a boundary between the mind and the world is also critical to particularly modern undertakings such as science, which puts meaning in the mind while rendering the world purely as mechanism.

The creation of the buffered self had consequences, however. By disconnecting us from the world, and draining the world of meanings, the buffered self creates a sense of improverished existence.  That is to say, it produces the pervasive modern sense of malaise long commented on by Freud and others.  But whereas Freud saw malaise as the inevitable byproduct of the sense of guilt necessary to make civilization possible, for Taylor it is rooted specifically in Western modernity’s sense of the buffered self. He says:

But [the buffered self] can also be lived as a limit, even a prison, making us blind or insensitive to whatever lies beyond this ordered human world and its instrumental-rational projects. The sense can easily arise that we are missing something, cut off from something, that we are living behind a screen…Although we respond to it very differently everyone understands the complaint that our disenchanted world lacks meaning….[T]here is a particular way of framing this issue of division from nature which is especially worth mention. It is the malaise at the adoption of a purely instrumental, “rational” stance towards the world or human life. The close link to [loss of unity with nature] comes in the fact that it is usually this stance which is indicted as what has in fact closed us off from nature and the current of life within us and without. But still, the attack on the instrumental stance takes up another side of this self-closure which has had its own devastating consequences. In the effort to control our lives, or control nature, we have destroyed much that is deep or valuable in them. We have been blinded to the importance of equilibria which can be upset, but can’t be created by instrumental rationality. The most important of these in our contemporary debates is obviously the one touching the ecological balance of our entire biosphere.

This sense of malaise, resulting from the buffered self and the loss of a sense of transcendence, can been see in several ways:

  • The loss of meaning in life and search for an overall sense of purpose or significance
  • An inability to “solemnize” key moments of our life that we sense should have special significance (which is why even non-believers often get married in a church or otherwise try to mark the event as “sacred”)
  • A sense of the “flatness” of the ordinary world (such as the banality of our consumer culture)

This sense of malaise has been fought against in various ways, for example, by the Romantics, or what Taylor calls the “tragic axis” of people like Nietzsche who reject the modern moral order. But all of us at some level, I think, rebel at some aspects of our world in this manner.

What does this have to do with the present urban resurgence, you might ask?

Good question. The reason I bring this up, and use Taylor specifically to talk about the malaise concept, is his rich and wide ranging list of examples and applications. He even, as it turns out, talks about suburbanization as an attempt to overcome modern malaise.

For instance, some people sense a terrible flatness in the everyday, and this experience has been identified particularly with commercial, industrial, or consumer society. They feel emptiness of the repeated, accelerating cycle of desire and fulfillment in consumer culture; the cardboard quality of bright supermarkets, or neat row housing in a clean suburb; the ugliness of slag heaps, or an aging industrial townscape. We may respond negatively to the elite’s stance, the judging of ordinary people’s lives without real knowledge, that these feelings seem to reflect But however mixed with unacceptable social distance and superiority, these feelings are easy to understand and hard to shake off. And if we think of the immense popularity in our civilization of the flight away from certain townscapes, to the country, the suburbs, even to wilderness, we have to admit the virtual universality of some reactions of this range. The irony of the suburb, or garden city, is that it provokes in more fortunate others some of the same feelings, viz., of the emptiness and flatness of an urban environment, which were responsible for its existence in the first place. [emphasis added]

While Taylor notes the specifically elite character of much of the rebellion against the suburbs, where the elite start, everyone else often follows. Most of the arguments about the future primacy of the urban life are predicated on exactly this happening.

But if we consider the root causes of malaise, we see that it does not arise from the built environment, not even that of the banality of the suburbs. So the attempt to find meaning, create more richness to our lives, etc. through changes in the physical organization of our life, while they may have some benefits, won’t cure the disease. While there are debates about what causes this underlying sense of malaise, Freud vs. Taylor for example, its persistence as a feature of modern life and the coming and going so many responses to it over at least two centuries suggest that it derives from something inherent in our civilization or the human condition.

So just as at some level the suburbs failed to satisfy, and just as the previous urban environments likewise did, we should expect contemporary urbanism to also fail. Thus it seems destined to being a fashion that, like so many others before, will ultimately burn itself out, except for those to whom (like myself perhaps) it is particularly well-suited. Urbanism, however much we might like it, and though its day in the sun may go on for quite a while, does not represent the end of history or the answer to the quest for meaning, human connection, or depth of experience in life.

from Aaron M. Renn


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