A Nonfiction Book by O.G. Rose
Are culture and ethics identical, and should we “forbid forbidding?”
‘A reorganization of those dialectical expressions of Yes and No the interplay of which constitutes culture, transforming motive into conduct, is occurring throughout the West, particularly in the United States and England.’¹ Though perhaps not identical, Hunter and Rieff seem to be on the same page: both wrote on culture similarly and suggested we are in a time of extraordinary change and tension. Because of the West’s change into a therapeutic culture, to Rieff, Western culture, ‘which once imagined itself inside a church, [now] feels trapped in something like a zoo of separate cages.’² Tribal, alienated, and feeling like we don’t belong, we can indeed belike caged beasts, and while some prefer the comfort, protection, and accommodations of the cage, others beat against the bars.
Society is composed of countless unspoken gestures, rules, and directives that everyone generally agrees to make the society function. We must all agree that a person ahead of us in line has a right to be served first, that the young should generally receive medical assistance before people in their late nineties, that neighbors do not have a right to cut down trees in my yard without consulting me, and so on. Society is full of “givens” that are not always “laws,” principles that society needs to become intelligible and something in which we can successfully operate. Without any of these customs, manners, or the like, it would feel like we couldn’t go out into the world without making mistakes, taking on great risk, or submitting ourselves to emotional turmoil, judgment, and confusion (which is to say we would have no shelter from “The Real,” to allude to Lacan, which to face constantly would existential overwhelm us, though never facing comes with its own problem, all of which suggests that we need a process, like what is found in Dante, though that will have to be elaborated on elsewhere). In these circumstances, it does indeed feel like we are trapped in a cage, that we cannot go anywhere without having no idea what we should do. The lack of shared intelligibility can make us feel trapped and anxious.
For Rieff, our culture is one that ‘embrace[d] a gospel of personal happiness, defined as the unbridled pursuit of impulse[, and yet] we remain profoundly unhappy.’³ ‘Culture,’ rightly practiced, ‘is another name for a design of motives directing the self outward, toward those communal purposes in which alone the self can be realized and satisfied.’⁴ Furthermore, threatened by Pluralism and the inflation of “The Nova Effect,” ‘[c]ulture is the system of significances attached to behavior by which a society explains itself to itself.’⁵ Without culture and its corresponding ‘moral order […] compromised of symbolic boundaries,’ without which, to use Hunter’s thought again, ‘individual and collective existence […] become[s] intolerably disjointed.’⁶ On the topic of ethics, Rieff claimed:
‘To speak of a moral culture would be redundant. Every culture has two main functions: 1) to organize the moral demands men make upon themselves into a system of symbols that make men intelligible and trustworthy to each other, thus rendering also the world intelligible and trustworthy; 2) to organize the expressive remissions by which men release themselves, in some degree, from the strain of conforming to the controlling symbolic, internalized variant readings of culture that constitute individual character. The process by which a culture changes at its profoundest level may be traced in the shifting balance of controls and releases which constitute a system of moral demands.’⁷
For Rieff, a culture without ethics was a culture without culture, and ‘[n]o culture of which we are aware has yet escaped the tension between the modalities of control and release by which every culture constitutes itself.’⁸ Understanding this helps shed light on why Rieff called our modern, “therapeutic” culture an “anti-culture”: without a system of ethics, only self-realization, Rieff didn’t think there could be a culture. Rieff believed the therapeutic culture effaced moral systems, for a “therapeutic culture” was precisely one that removed forces of repression in the name of self-creation, and many of those repressions were ethics themselves.⁹ Consequently, ‘[t]he shift to a purely therapeutic culture […] leads to nothing short of a moral void,’ and hence also a cultural void.¹⁰
‘Every system of moral demands must operate within some social order,’ but so too must every social order entail moral demands.¹¹ America outlaws murder, rape, theft, and the like not simply on grounds of legality, but on grounds of morality which justify the laws, and this morality contributes to making the American social order itself. Ethics requires society as society requires ethics.¹² Do note that by “ethics” and “morality” here I don’t simply mean “don’ts,” for ethics also entails guidance on how to live “the good life”: ‘[a]ny functioning culture provides legitimate releases, not just rules and restrictions.’¹³ A society of only restrictions is a terrible one, and though the total loss of repressions is a problem, so too would be their total and totalitarian presence.
‘What is moral becomes and remains self-evident only within a powerful and deeply compelling system of culture,’ and what constitutes culture is indefinable without morality (at least meaningfully).¹⁴ Classically, following Aristotle’s thought, ‘an individual can exercise his gifts and powers fully only by participating in the common life […] The healthy man is in fact the good citizen.’¹⁵ In this view, there cannot be “healthy people” if there are no ethics, for the loss of ethics is the loss of the culture and community necessary for a common life. In what Rieff called our ‘new anti-culture,’ on the other hand, the supposedly “healthy person” lives according ‘an eternal interim ethic of release from […] inherited controls’ — necessary for cultural definition — and is an evangelist of tolerance.¹⁶ ‘[O]ur culture has shifted toward a predicate of impulse release, projecting [ever-weakening] controls unsteadily based upon an infinite variety of wants raised to the status of needs.’¹⁷ (Please note here a possible “psychological role” of economics, which forces us to admit that many of our “wants” are in fact “just wants,” not needs.)
There is a tension between a culture’s releases and it’s repressions, and there is much disagreement about which is the source of our salvation: ‘[i]n the very symbols from which Freud had wanted to free mankind, Jung [for example] saw the principle of salvation.’¹⁸ There is disagreement to what degree an individual needs releases versus repressions (suggesting society should leave space for individual adjustments, but not “too much space,” hence the tension), and some would say that what the individual needs is to be free of all repressions entirely. Rieff believed both “releases” and “givens” are needed, and that a society that either always tells it citizens “Yes” or “No” is dysfunctional and fails to provide the controls necessary ‘to preserve a certain established level of adequacy in the social functioning of the individual, as well as forestall the danger of his psychological collapse.’¹⁹ A society must be both therapeutic (provide a “yes”) and repressive (provide a “no”), and it is in the midst of this dialectic that the individual finds psychological stability and belonging. Rieff believed a society that entailed utterly no repressions would be psychological torture for its citizens (which perhaps explains “the meaning crisis”), and he warned that we are increasingly a world without any repressions. To allude to Bonhoeffer’s terms on grace, it is increasingly a world of “cheap therapeutics” versus “costly therapeutics” — a world where the “the therapeutic has triumphed” and left nothing else. In that triumph, the therapeutic has ironically lost its capacity to be therapeutic: ‘contemporary life holds to a therapeutic ethos more than any previous age while simultaneously removing all traditional sources of therapy.’²⁰ Pessimistic, Rieff warned that ‘[t]he present swing in the direction of release may not be orbital but more extended and historically more permanent, based on the automaticity and ease which an infinity of created needs can now be satisfied.’²¹
Before the modern world, ‘[i]n all cultures before our own, the competing symbols took the form of languages of faith.’²² Rieff wrote:
‘Christian culture, like other organizations of moral demand, operated, however imperfectly, through the internalization of a soteriological character ideal carrying tremendous potentials for fresh intakes of communal energy; the highest level of controls and remissions (which together organized systems of moral demands) experienced an historical and individualizes incarnation.’²³
Like actors taking on and becoming roles, religion provided a (standard of) “character” which entailed a symbolic system of releases and repressions which people could become and hence achieve a (more) proper and dialectical “costly therapeutic.” Religion today has lost much of its authority and power (as discussed), and in light of this truth, Rieff was concerned about a ‘disorder so fundamental’ that ‘the therapeutic function of the community, per se,’ had been destroyed (ironically because “the therapeutic has triumphed”), which was to say that the community could ‘no longer […] supply a system of symbolic integration’ (suggesting perpetual exposure to “The Real,” following Lacan)²⁴ This ‘destruction of all idealizations upon which traditional and classical communities were based’ is where Rieff believed ‘the origin of modernity’ should be sought; furthermore, Rieff might have agreed that modernity could be defined according to an impossible and futile struggle: the effort of humans to avoid psychological torment while also avoiding a “costly therapeutic.”²⁵
‘A cultural revolution occurs when the releasing or remissive symbolic grows more compelling than the controlling one; then it is that the inherent tensions reach a breaking point.’²⁶ Rieff wrote that ‘[t]he primary process of cultural change refers to shifting jurisdictions over categories of social action by controlling and remissive symbolisms of communal and individual purposes.’²⁷ According to Rieff, we are currently in the middle of a cultural revolution — “the triumph of the therapeutic” — which has been accompanied and fed by other forces described in this work (like tolerance and Pluralism). It is while in this midst of this “revolution” that we are trying to determine how we can “belong again” without ceasing to be Cosmopolitan. On our “revolutionary culture,” Rieff wrote:
‘The next culture, with its component symbols, and with institutions embodying these symbols arranged in a normative working order, probably will require, in order to establish itself, (1) a new institutionalized inequality of demand and remission, (2) an ideal character type designated in these studies as the ‘therapeutic.’ Under foreseeable ideological and technological conditions, this emerging moral ideal is unlikely to be a workingman; on the contrary, the therapeutic will be a man of leisure, released by technology from the regimental discipline of work so as to secure his sense of well-being in highly refined alloplastic ways.’²⁸
Rieff believed that “the character” of the new culture would be a person who was totally and utterly free: to be ethical would be to impose no “no”; to be “fully human,” to live out every “yes.” Since there cannot be culture or community without any limits, according to Rieff, this kind of character is precisely what James Hunter might call a “non-character” or maybe even an “anti-character” (similar to Rieff’s “anti-culture”). Additionally, it is interesting to note what Conyers warned about tolerance and how the doctrine makes it “forbidden to forbid” — to allude to the French slogan that horrified Rieff (il est interdit d’interdire) — and how the State becomes “the hero of justice” which assures that communities don’t forbid (in addition to making illegal “unjustified use of non-legal force,” so the State makes it illegal to place limits on how people exercise their freedom). It seems the doctrine of tolerance helps the purely therapeutic advance and triumph, and thanks to the doctrine, the State becomes an “agent for good (against communities).” If Rieff proves correct though, this means the State, for all the right reasons, help brings about psychological torment for its citizenship. Seeing this future approaching, Rieff admonished:
‘At the breaking point, a culture can no longer maintain itself as an established span of moral demands. Its jurisdiction contracts; it demands less, permits more. Bread and circuses become confused with the right and duty. Spectacle becomes a functional substitute for sacrament. Massive regressions occur, with large sections of the population returning to levels of destructive aggression historically accessible to it. At times of impending transition to a new moral order, symbolic forms and their institutional objectifications change their relative weights in that order. Competing symbolisms gather support in competing elites; they jostle each other for priority of place as the organizers of the next phase in the psychohistorical process.’²⁹
‘Whenever a releasing symbolic increases its jurisdiction to the point where it no longer serves to support the incumbent moral demands, but rather contradicts them, that culture is in jeopardy. Such freedoms were signatures on the death warrant of previous cultures.’³⁰ In other words, whenever a cultural revolution occurs that replaces a system of releases and repressions with one of only releases (that undermines previous repressions), a culture fails. Rieff continued:
‘At the close of a culture, the releasing modalities themselves begin to look and sound like controls. They are harbingers of the next culture. Some fresh imbalance is required before the succeeding system of culture can be born, bringing into being a new symbolic of expectations, and, moreover, institutions appropriately organized to enact those expectations, translating the high symbolic into rules of social conduct. In the realm of culture, equality of controlling and remissive functions, rather than inequality, is the mother of revolution. When the cross becomes a symbol of power or beauty, suppressing the historical reminder of a particularly brutal instrument of humiliation and death, then its own moral authority, under the Christian rubric of ‘cross-bearing,’ is threatened.’³¹
Who will guide us through our new culture? ‘After the clergy, the political revolutionaries, and the psychoanalysts — there remain the artists and the scientists, as serious aspirants to the title of secular pastoral guide.’³² We have already discussed the possibility of science helping us “belong again” (and we will late discuss creativity), but here it should be noted the ways in which science can problematically help with “the triumph of the therapeutic.” Rieff wrote:
‘The modern scientist has had quite another conception of himself; qua scientist, he has tried to extricate himself from all moral demands except those imposed upon him by the internal logic of his transformative endeavor directed against the natural world, all designed to overcome those gross miseries and necessities nature imposes upon mankind.’³³
‘In this sense, the scientific endeavor in its entirety, representing as it does the effort to create a non-moral culture, embodies the moral revolution. With a commitment that is strictly vocational, the scientist personifies the latest phase of Western psycho-historical process, one that refrains from laying down guidelines of moral intervention for the society as a whole.’³⁴
For Rieff, science tries to avoid establishing morals, and hence helps establish the ethos of a purely “therapeutic culture.” Science tries to avoid forbidding, and hence helps establish a culture that refuses to forbid. It doesn’t directly establish that “it is forbidden to forbid,” but in science “forbidding itself to forbid” (in order to be science), Rieff believed it lacked power to stop “the triumph of the therapeutic,” and in fact science could aid its spreading in it almost giving the purely therapeutic a scientific “feel,” per se. The purely therapeutic gets to be seen as “like” science, for both “forbid forbidding” in different ways, and hence gets to be seen as having an authority “like” the “objective” authority of science. No, there is no direct link, but through culture associations and connections, the two can feed one another. And as science fails to fight against “the triumph of the therapeutic,” it simultaneously contributes to an increase in technology that makes us feel even more capable of doing whatever we want, and hence advances in technology function as indirect evidence that “forbidding ought to be forbidden.” Yet as science helps us advance technology, it simultaneously fails to help us have the values by which we can determine what we should do with that technology. As Rieff wrote:
‘The ultimate technology aims at increasing the range of choice. Yet, without a parallel range of god-terms from which choices may be derived and ordered, choice itself may become a matter of indifference or man will become a glutton, choosing everything. There is no feeling more desperate than that of being free to choose, and yet without the specific compulsion of being chosen. After all, one does not really choose; one is chosen.’³⁵
As science “forbids itself to forbid,” so too Rieff believed art came to “forbid forbidding” in the sense that artistic standards have weakened in the name of “artistic expression” (though interestingly modern art often ‘deliberately creates alternative realities to those put in jeopardy by science’, meaning that though both are therapeutic, science and art exist dialectically).³⁶ Modern art is ‘an unimpeded releasing of the inner life into the world,’ and ‘[t]hus the art work has become, in a strict sense, a therapeutic mode.’³⁷ Consequently, though it doesn’t stop us from praying to them for guidance, neither science nor art are well-equipped to function as a Virgil through our modern age: ‘[n]one of their doctrines promise an authentic therapy of commitment to communal purpose; rather, in each the commitment is to the therapeutic effort itself.’³⁸
¹Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 3.
²Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 5.
³Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Introduction by Elisabeth Lash-Quinn. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: VII.
⁴Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 3.
⁵Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 57.
⁶Hunter, James Davison. Evangelism. The University of Chicago. 1987: 157–158.
⁷Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 199.
⁸Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 200.
⁹It is no secret that I am critical of Ethics (I did write “(Im)morality,” after all). Is it not then somewhat paradoxical to discuss that societies need morality? I don’t think ethics and morality aren’t needed: my criticism is toward Ethics as it is commonly taught and Ethical philosophy in general. Sure, but isn’t my “conditional ethics” a threat to the social order of a culture? Indeed, reductionism is a risk here, but though it is the case that determining right and wrong is bound up in particularities, it doesn’t follow that we don’t need general tools which we can use between situations. Without morality at all, we will be unequipped to deal with the situations from which ethics are indivisible.
¹⁰Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Introduction by Elisabeth Lash-Quinn. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: XVIII.
¹¹Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 201.
¹²This “feedback loop” is a reason why “the banality of evil” is possible.
¹³Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Introduction by Elisabeth Lash-Quinn. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: XIII.
¹⁴Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 222.
¹⁵Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 56.
¹⁶Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 17.
¹⁷Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 13.
¹⁸Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 75.
¹⁹Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 29.
²⁰Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Introduction by Elisabeth Lash-Quinn. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: XXIV.
²¹Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 205.
²²Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 200.
²³Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 12.
²⁴Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 57.
²⁵Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 57.
²⁶Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 200.
²⁷Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 203.
²⁸Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 202.
²⁹Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 200.
³⁰Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 202.
³¹Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 202.
³²Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 218.
³³Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 219.
³⁴Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 219.
³⁵Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 79.
³⁶Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 219.
³⁷Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 220.
³⁸Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007: 223.
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