Waco, TX. I must admit, I read intellectual genealogies from conservative-leaning scholars with some sense of conflict. First, because I think the best have come already from Heidegger and Kierkegaard—I marvel that no pundits nowadays do much with The Two Ages. Second, and foremost, I tend to disagree with most of the genealogical-ideological account of how we got here but agree with the assessment of where we are and what to do about it. How could one be wrong that Blessed Scotus should get all the blame but right about how we are all anxious and need a good kick in the posterior? And if so, what does that say about the real merit of these genealogies? What would it mean for me to agree with the need to re-embed our unleashed individualities back into the reality of this world but disagree that to do so one must devote oneself to Thomas or MacIntyre?
These anxieties reemerged while reading Anthony M. Wachs and Jon D. Schaff’s Age of Anxiety: Meaning, Identity, and Politics in 21st-Century Film and Literature. In this book, Wachs and Schaff narrate a Western decline from metaphysical realism and cosmological coherence to unreal nominalism and cultural fragmentation. The proof of this decline lies in the pop culture, wherein some contemporary TV series, films, and books point to a broken, uprooted society that is searching for some way to put itself back together. The scope of the work is wide in terms of its subject matter—zombie shows to virtue ethics—but precise in its thesis: our society is suffering from a naked, disenchanted worldview, and for clothing it is choosing a domineering, technological lifestyle of consumption; instead of this choice, we should re-learn the old virtues of rootedness, belonging, and custom anew, or else we will continue living anxious, unfulfilling lives. In these two respects, its wide scope and its precise argument, Age of Anxiety is straightforward, engaging, and especially illuminating about many cultural products I hadn’t much thought about before. My disagreements will come to the fore, but I commend this work at the outset for its coherent analyses of so many different artifacts. Such work is the mark of genuine scholarly care for contemporary pop culture, which is often difficult to practice.
The book begins with a familiar genealogical analysis: a decline from realistic metaphysics to nominalism, a world of inherent meaning fragmented into a collection of meaningless quiddities, and this has had the effect of untethering people from the stable narratives that were built around metaphysical realities once considered foundational. The modern world has broken up the “variety of once-stable narratives,” left individuals “with little guidance as to how they might lead a meaningful life,” and so has given each person the typical experience of anxiety, malaise. Narrative is crucial here, and the loss of narrative leaves us without a script of life, as it were, forcing our decisions to be little more than absurd caprice. So far, so modern. But now, horrified by this absurdity, our present society shirks toward never-ending distraction for relief, which is found in various electronic devices, watching habits, and consumable products. And so now the modern autonomous self has transformed into the hyper-modern consumer, ever “tempted to keep purchasing as a way to maintain meaning.” Though Wachs and Schaff are not quite explicit about it, this transition marks a shift from a lack of a unifying narrative to a new unifying one—albeit indeed one far worse than the old narratives. Technology alone makes sense of life for us today and provides us with a kind of script; one might press further and say, it alone is the ‘realistic’ worldview to hypermodern man. This fact, to me, is the great danger few declensionist genealogies recognize but that the authors here suggest: the danger not of disenchantment but of enchantment by less noble spirits.
The rest of the book is split into three sections, each of which begins with a reflection on ideas followed by an analysis of a work of pop-culture. The first concerns societal roles, distinctions of class, and human practice in a culturally-embedded reality, ideas which resonate in the series Downton Abbey and the film WALL-E. Alexis de Tocqueville and Wendell Berry influence the discussion most here, the main questions being how a society can be democratic without suffering the role-destroying process of leveling, the loss by law or convention of particular distinctions in role, authority, skill, and personality. This leveling, if successful, eventuates in practical loss as well: people lose their skill for both agriculture and culture, as the authors’ enjoyable treatment of the enjoyable WALL-E goes to show.
Section two deals with technology more explicitly, with zombie pulp like Zombieland and World War Z and the android-themed work of the HBO series Westworld its subject matter. As someone who was never interested in the zombie genre, I was most surprised at how engrossed I got in the chapter devoted thereto. Never had I thought that zombie movies might reflect current anxiety, listlessness, and malaise rather than simply provide escapist fare for a strange, almost wishful apocalyptic instinct. Matthew Crawford’s philosophy serves as the guide here, and his contention that “human interaction [and physical engagement with tools], rather than impersonal economic transactions, should typify our economic experience” matches well with the authors’ presentation of human rediscovery of lost physical and technical abilities in World War Z. The chapter on Westworld, though it sometimes verges on the tedious in its presentation of the series’ (admittedly tedious) narrative, is perhaps the book’s strongest analysis of the hyper-modern self that is doomed to make up its own nihilistic meaning on its own bestial terms within the confines of a culture that often resembles a technological amusement park. Here the authors warn of the dire need for the renewal of a humanism that values the genuine human freedom to strive toward its proper telos rather than mechanically abide by an artificial status quo of illusory (and inhumane) self-will.
The last section turns to the constructive side of the authors’ argument, as it treats issues of faith and commitment in a faithless and uncommitted world. It discusses how Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge and Martin Scorsese’s Silence illustrate the success and failures of the Christian faithful in the current day, and it presents J.R.R. Tolkien’s (and Peter Jackson’s) The Lord of the Rings as an ultimate contemporary example of how a unifying narrative of good vs. evil can beckon us back to the rooted, moral existence modernity has lost. Finally, Wachs and Schaff conclude with some practical advice for living well in the anxious age: reading the Great Books, holding on to the ideal of liberal education for its own sake, and emphasizing leisure as a primary way to “get out of one’s head and engage with reality itself.” This combination of education and leisure should bring us a renewed culture of “festivity,” a mode of life that recognizes the essence of human being is neither labor nor consumption but contemplation and celebration of reality for its own sake.
I do not want to spoil prospective readers’ engagement with the film analyses (which are among the more enjoyable parts of this book), so I will mostly engage the larger themes of the book. A preliminary criticism is that its headier discussions sometimes suffer from abstractions that may be coherent within the book’s metanarrative but which are not necessarily accurate, at least in some contexts. Metaphysical realism is prone to jargon as much as post-structuralist psychoanalysis is. Wachs and Schaff choose to argue with and reflect upon august interlocutors—Hobbes, Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau, Berry, Voegelin, MacIntyre, Thomas—but at several points, they rely on well-trod judgments that are both polemical and contested. They concur with the typical genealogies of nominalism once popularly proposed by Richard Weaver and then later by Radical Orthodoxy, blaming nominalism and the Reformation for the seeds of a woeful modernity. Much of the blame, on this account, rests with Calvin’s rejection of ‘sacramentalism’ (which apparently is a feature of an ‘enchanted’ world enough, despite the very Catholic Walker Percy’s insight that nothing could be further apart than enchantment and sacrament), as well as with Luther’s supposed voluntarism. Readers of Wendell Berry, who himself has been accused of being a ‘radical Protestant’ by some Catholic commentators, might be surprised to find him placed on the ‘good’ side of Aristotle and Thomas against the ‘bad’ side of Luther and Locke. Such a lineup of good vs. bad thinkers in one long arc comes across almost as an origin myth, in both the classical and pejorative sense.
Much more perceptive, to my mind, would have been to maintain the focus on the ways that certain habits and technologies, as Wachs and Schaff often underscore, uproot us and shift our ideas away from reality. But in such a case, a turn back to realistic philosophy cannot suffice until one turns back to a realistic life—which the authors do recognize at their best when they rely on philosophers as Crawford and Byung-Chul Han (who wrote The Burnout Society) to good effect. But elsewhere the declension narrative controls so much of their engagement with cultural artifacts that I wonder if they sometimes fall sway to their own metanarrative and do not let the things themselves direct the conversation.
Their treatment of Scorsese’s Silence is the most striking example. The film’s protagonist, Father Rodrigues, a missionary priest to Japan who apostatizes to stop the torture of Japanese Christians, is an example for them of the failure to hold up to one’s metaphysical convictions in a hostile world and of weak, modern justification for it. They suggest the “message of the film to be that matters of faith ought to be treated as private devotions that ought not to enter into public life,” because they think Scorsese endorses Rodrigues’ apostasy and so “misses the more transcendental or realist moral” opposition to this act as a “betrayal” of the “deepest source” of one’s “worldview” and convictions. But such a treatment puts all the weight on the strength of faith or lack thereof in Rodrigues, rather than on the real fact of God’s presence even in the worst circumstances, even in His silence. Most treatments of Silence, because they focus so much on the individual choice of Rodrigues and whether it was right or not, fail to see what I think Scorsese portrays: that God’s presence persists in both martyrdom and apostasy, that the Word pervades the silence, whether it be in a tyrannical sixteenth-century Japan or a hypermodern technological wasteland. I take that insight as the more ‘realist’ one, for it holds to the reality of the Gospel, indeed the reality of God, no matter how fickle human values, worldviews, and choices are. The integrity of reality does not depend on our ability to make sense of it within a coherent narrative, though indeed the loss of coherence often is traumatic for persons and cultures. Nevertheless, reality’s integrity is already there, upheld by Another.
This leads me to a core issue at the heart of this book’s argument: Does the current world suffer more from a loss of narrative, a fragmentation of reality into incommensurable individualities, a hopeless solipsism, or does this world suffer most from its being on an all-too-inevitable path? Could it be that it is trapped in a grand narrative that locks everything into a kind of reductive sense, a narrative that keeps promising we will soon master the one thing—energy or mechanics, will or power—that drives it all? I think Wachs and Schaff would agree at least somewhat with the latter possibility, as they suggest as much throughout the book. But if we are indeed trapped in a reductive narrative, then to my mind we need less grand coherence, not more. Realism—which I endorse as much the authors do—comes by attendance to the manifestation of the things themselves, even beyond how they fit in the values and worldviews, whether traditional and enchanted or modern and disenchanted, that so often obscure their metaphysical independence from that space between our ears.
What then would I recommend instead? Well, oddly enough, most of the same things Wachs and Schaff do. For I consider reading the Great Books to provoke precisely those acts of encounter with the Other, the things themselves, which are always so surprising, so saturated with meanings far greater than any I could comprehend after just one reading. And I believe leisure is, if practiced rightly, just that posture of attendance to things for their own sakes rather than our own ends. What is a culture of “festivity” besides that? I find these things important because they open the human being to difference, to the irreducible complexity of creation, whereas the authors here endorse them more for the sake of stability, of stretching our roots into this very reality. But why press this dispute in the middle of a party?
So I end this review where I began: still confused about my agreements and disagreements, cheering on the advice Wachs and Schaff give but wondering why they had to disparage Martin Luther while giving it. In that respect I am still thinking—about zombie shows, Pixar movies, Scorsese films, metaphysical realism, the philosophical fate of modern man. I take that as proof Age of Anxiety is a good book, a prod to good discussions and thoughts, an invitation to attend more carefully to the troubled but wondrous world in which we find ourselves.