Sunday, June 7, 2015

Book review - The Trouble with “Modernity”

Mark GreifThe Age of the Crisis of Man
Reviewed by CHRISTOPHER NEALON 

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that capitalism is the engine behind the environmental crises of the early 21st century. It doesn’t even take a Marxist: as the French environmental journalist Hervé Kempf put it in a recent book, it’s not so much Homo sapiens as the rich who are destroying the earth—rich people, rich nations.1 His claim is backed up by reams of data, and he’s not the only one who’s making it (see, for instance, the latest volume by Naomi Klein2). So why do we cling to the idea that it’s “humanity”—humanity in some essential sense, not just the accidents of particular human societies—that’s brought the planet to the brink of disaster? Mark Greif’s probing new book, The Age of the Crisis of Man, offers a kind of prehistory of this humanity’s-to-blame discourse, and therefore the beginnings of an explanation for its resilience.

From the very start of his book, Greif is up front about the limits of the discourse he’s reconstructed for us. He describes the experience of realizing, to his dismay, “how tedious, how unhelpful” the crisis-of-man language feels, in the rearview mirror. And he is unsparing in his criticisms of how, for instance, such language erased the specifics of the lives of women, colonized people, and people of color in its deployment of the idea of “man.” Again and again, however, just when he’s on the brink of suggesting there might be better ways to think about the political, economic, and ecological crises of the past century, he shies away, as though it would be rude to criticize the prominent thinkers who produced this “tedious, unhelpful” language.

At the heart of the discourse was the question of whether there’s just something innately self-destructive about Homo sapiens, and that concern, Greif shows, expressed itself in questions about history, about religion and faith and ideology, and about technology. Can there be progress? Is faith in a higher power, or even just faith in humanity’s ability to become its best collective self, built from the same materials as susceptibility to the worst authoritarianism? Now that we’ve built atom bombs and gas chambers, have we lost control of our own powers of technological innovation?

The agonized questions driving this discourse attracted an extraordinary range of renowned commentators. Some of its most influential texts, like the Kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer’s 1944 Essay on Man, have receded from our cultural memory; others, like Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958), are still widely read today. The discourse was not only a matter for philosophers, though: it caught the imagination of historians like Lewis Mumford (The Condition of Man, 1944), theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr (The Nature and Destiny of Man,1941–43), and literary critics like C. S. Lewis (The Abolition of Man, 1943). For Greif the discourse can take reactionary form in precursor texts like Oswald Spengler’s two-volume Decline of the West (1918–1923), yet also includes many left-wing variants, like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944).

But perhaps because the reach of this discourse extended downward from traditional academic writing to popular journalism, it created odd combinations of genre and style: Greif refers (accurately, I think) to the Adorno and Horkheimer volume, for instance, as “one of the slowest page-turners of all time.” For Greif, this awkward blend of academic and popular imperatives was soon joined, during and immediately after World War II, by an equally unusual mix of domestic American concerns and émigré anxieties, which places a double burden on theorists of “the crisis of man,” to explain both history and human nature in terms of each other. In Greif’s account, this creates a particular, and tedious, narrative method:

 In the American discourse of man through the war years, under the influence of the émigrés … a particular kind of history emerges—the revival of the Enlightenment’s version of a universal critical history, but without a confident faith in progress. This could be called re-enlightenment history. … Re-enlightenment writers conceived the whole of Western history as, once again, a long progress, but one in which something had gone wrong; and behaved as if by running through the entire history of the mind, man, faith, or ideas of human nature, developmentally, they might find the flaw and figure out how to repair it.

This method of re-narrating the history of “civilization,” meanwhile, ends up creating a distinctive, and awkward, style:

 This [insistence on synopsis] is part of what gives the crisis of man canon its painfully laborious character for readers. An author will carry a thesis summarizable in a sentence or in five pages through two volumes. … To protect civilization at its moment of danger, you, the reader, must hear of it; to find the flaw that endangered this civilization, he, the intellectual, must relive it.

 Things get worse from here. It’s not only the method and the style of the discourse, Greif points out, but its substance, that hobbles it at every turn. The universalism of “man,” to begin with, quite obviously masks the specificity of “woman,” and it turns out, over and over, essentially to mean “white man.” As he puts it, “Was there no ‘crisis of woman’? No ‘crisis of color’ in a country where W. E. B. DuBois editedThe Crisis until 1934?” Greif does yeoman’s work in showing how figures like Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan tried to explode the discourse from within; in a chapter on the 1960s he traces a fascinating mutation of the language of “man” into the language of “the man,” where the whiteness and conformism of “man” is exposed at the level of vernacular speech. But the interest and the political force of feminist and antiracist languages, he implicitly admits, lay in their power to create completely other ways of thinking and talking, not in their ability to change the crisis-of-man jargon.

There are other political and historiographical problems with the discourse worth noting as well.. read more: