24 June 2009 11:39 AM
James Poulos is a writer, editor, and PhD candidate at Georgetown currently at work on a dissertation about individuality after Napoleon. His blog, Postmodern Conservative, is currently hosted at First Things.
Q. You've lately waged a quiet war in your writing against the phrase "sense of...." What's your objection?
It really is astounding, once you become aware of it, how incapable we are of talking about what matters to us without repeated recourse to the phrase 'sense of'. It's a verbal and written tic of huge proportions, hiding in plain sight. That in and of itself suggests we might want to think about why we talk this way. It's a tic that appears in common language and educated language alike -- on the local news ("Give us a sense of what's going on out there in that hurricane, Bob") and in the scholarly work of our most respected academics (Charles Taylor, in his monumental, Templeton-prize-winning A Secular Age, can hardly write a sentence without the phrase). Even critics of our contemporary life urge us to recover 'senses of' whatever our current corruption has purportedly taken away from us. Christopher Lasch, as long ago as the late '70s, fell into this trap. For a sense of a thing, obviously, is not the thing itself; critics of contemporary life merely beg the question when they call for us to replace, say, our lost community with a new 'sense of community'.
Hopefully you can see right there where I'm headed:
we speak of
'senses of' things so unremittingly that a critical listener should
conclude either we no longer have access to the things themselves or we
no longer believe we can speak intelligibly about them. 'Sense of'
speak belies a profound alienation from, or loss of faith in, the
reality principle. I'm currently at work on a dissertation that tries
to defend the individual, noun, against individuality, adjective, for this reason. Rather than aspiring to be individuals, we aspire to live -- if I may -- individualistically.
That's yet a step further removed into abstraction from 'living
individualistically'! I decline to imagine, as de Sade imagined,
whether there's one step further. But at least since Mill, we
English-speakers have bought into the idea that 'Individual' is a title
we bestow on people who are fully experiencing individuality. What on
earth does that mean? It means that qualities dictate character, and
not the other way around. It's not who we are that determines the what
we do, but the way we do things that determines who we are.
When what we do matters less than the way we do it, the scope of what's permissible to do, or what's excused as 'not to be done yet done', of course widens greatly. Some people want to trace the development of this line of thought to the 'secularization' of Christianity. Luther, for instance, publicized the idea that a godly garbage collector can be just as good a Christian as a godly priest. I suspect however that this story only makes proper sense in the broader context of the development of the tension between the character of the (incarnate, whole) individual and the quality of (disembodied, full) individuality. So it goes right to the heart of the matter that we don't just rely on 'sense of' speak to describe the world around us; we use it constantly to talk about ourselves. We're not sad; we're experiencing or feeling a sense of sadness. We talk as if the closest we can get to actually being happy, even for a fleeting moment, is experiencing a sense of happiness. We're all walking around in a default, if not constant, state of undue distance from the incarnate reality of things -- including ourselves! The world seems to have turned into a set of incorporeal adjectives and adverbs, floating essences, that hover above our moral and personal horizon, and living seems like the act of walking through or pulling down these various mistclouds.
I think this is an atavistic, crazy and crippling way of thinking about what and who we are as human individuals. But it's the reigning superstition of contemporary life, and in order to shake us out of its weird enchantment or haze, people will have to draw our attention again and again to the fact that it's slipped so firmly into our collective and individual subconscious or unconscious. Conveniently, if not coincidentally, 'sense of' speak is also a great way to evade responsibility. We share in a strategically therapeutic conspiracy of vagueness. In a world where there are only senses of things, it's impossible to be specific both about the events in our life and our responsibility for approaching, understanding, and judging those events. There are no facts of the matter, certainly about ourselves and one another, to which we must hold ourselves and one another to account. You can imagine how a society or culture in the collective grip of such a tacit pact would be apt to slip into all manner of dysfunctions and mistakes -- and then think of these errors, vaguely and helplessly, as part of some crappy essence of the world or of life itself! Call it the soft nihilism of low expectations.