What's happened to American culture over the last 30 years? What might be called "human values"—a shorthand for the best aspirational system of values thought to have permeated Western society—seem to have fallen by the wayside. While we look to our dysfunctional political systems to reverse systemic racism and begin to provide all Americans with the same basic human rights, health care, and opportunity for a reasonable quality of life they deserve, the reality is that our problems run deeper than politics alone. Until the gaping holes in our cultural values and ethical norms undergo significant transformation, a political system fraught with endless legal machination and evasion will still struggle to effect meaningful change.
But how do you transform a culture? I'm not smart enough to answer that but I know that you have to start by taking a good hard look at what's wrong. Thoughtful self-reflection has always been an important tradition in the American marketplace of ideas. In this context, academia has traditionally been an important vehicle for cultural criticism. Throughout the 60s and 70s, social critiques were both plentiful and welcomed. Occasionally, popularized versions of academic work ended up on bestseller lists. A large number of titles spring to mind such as "The Culture of Narcissism" by Christopher Lasch which won the National Book Award in 1980. New York University Professor Neil Postman's "Amusing Ourselves to Death" was another popular title and, more recently in 2000, "Bowling Alone" by Robert Putnam.
The social science void
Somewhere along the line, however, something changed. Many academics in the humanities and social sciences wandered into abstruse postmodern commentary while, at the same time, corporate influence began making its mark in academia. Losing some of its valuable independence and sense of impartial inquiry, intellectual thought became gradually marginalized. The upshot was that liberal arts academics often published works more geared towards elite audiences while shying away from addressing our deeper social and political problems. As these trends progressed, over the last few decades the sociology sections in many bookstores shrank as the public's appetite for popular treatments that addressed cultural issues diminished.
That's not to say there weren't attempts to breakthrough. Cultural historian Morris Berman published "The Twilight of American Culture" and Jane Jacobs published "Dark Age Ahead," both worthy reality checks. But these books received scant attention in the mediasphere where books and articles that smacked of head-on political criticism or sharp-elbowed social commentary tended to be sidelined.
Bread and circuses
Over time, widespread public apathy combined with the media's unavoidable urge to feed a bread and circuses mentality which Postman would probably brand as "infotainment." But even politics began to take on aspects of this quality, what Guy Debord has called "The Spectacle." Witness the way that CNN transformed the democratic party debates into a kind of flashy sideshow. Meanwhile, Americans likely felt overwhelmed and steamrollered by forces beyond their control that also contributed to a sense of apathy. And the other voices of social critics willing to speak out more clearly and forcefully tended to be drowned out in a sea of corporate PR and often slipshod mainstream journalism.
Ironically, the kind of broad inner reflection seen in an earlier era is now sorely needed but in short supply. When we look around for some sort of sociological or philosophical guidance, it seems clear that the best seller book market has been co-opted by commentators such as Yuval Harari and Thomas Friedman, spouting their patented versions of corporatist "wisdom." Harari's pseudo-intellectualism, in particular, has even been lionized by "The New Yorker", including his particular take on a set of values dubbed post-humanism.
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What's post-humanism and why should we care?
What is "post-humanism" and what does it signify? And is this trendy system of values the best we can do in terms of our cultural direction? Wikipedia tell us that "humanism is a philosophical stance that emphasizes the value and dignity of human beings, individually and collectively and…..refers to a perspective that affirms some notion of human freedom and progress." Post-human thinking, however fashionable these days, steers us away from these values, along with a strange technologically driven off-shoot known as transhumanism.
Transhumanism is the darling of Silicon Valley and represents its dark underbelly. It's a philosophical and technological movement that aims to overcome what it considers to be the limits of the human condition. The transhumanists’ goals are to live longer, overcome what they feel are our current cognitive limitations, and improve our bodies using new forms of computer-based technology. Hard-core transhumanists like Elon Musk are working to wire the human brain to computers and the Internet to create what they fantasize might be this new improved species of human.
In my opinion, the very notion of transhumanism is a dagger to the heart of our best remaining cultural values. Moreover, it forces us to decide whether the worst aspects of our technology obsession is becoming a runaway train taking us into a dystopian world instead of being used to rectify the morass of problems we've created on this planet. (If it turns out that Covid-19 is indeed a man-made creation, then we might be tempted to agree with Emerson that "The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization".)
Transhumanism represents a soulless technology regime and an attempt on the part of technocratic elites to replace the more humanist and humane aspects of our cultural heritage. But to begin the much needed process of cultural transformation, this dystopian project has to be called out and exposed. The transhumanism and post-human sentiment that's become fashionable in these troubled times promises a version of human evolution that was originally sourced from military research. But to what aspirational ends? Fighting wars more efficiently using super soldiers? Subordinating humans to AI and robotic intelligence? Living longer on a planet trashed by environmental abuse and the climate crisis? It's hard to view the transhuman premise as anything other than the raw will to power, a Promethean chimera aiming for domination of nature at all costs, and the last gasp of Western scientific materialism.
The word "aspirational" is used a lot these days. But, broadly, what can we now say is aspirational in our current system of values (or for that matter minimally inspirational)? As we see the downsides of what Joanna Macy calls the "the industrial growth society" fueled by runaway technology, coupled with the effects of large scale urbanization, the climate crisis, neo-Darwinian racial injustice, and now Covid-19, what new system of values can we look to in order to jump start and sustain a cultural renaissance?
As Daniel Quinn, author of "Beyond Civilization" has pointed out, at any point in history the current paradigm is incapable of imagining the next. Inevitably, the current darkness will eventually give way to a new paradigm. Perhaps we have seen the beginnings of this with huge numbers of Americans waking up and taking to the streets to protest the economic and racial injustice of our train-wrecked society. And so we wait and hope, while speaking truth to power and doing our best to re-imagine a truly transformational way of living that can take us into what Quinn calls "humanity's next great adventure."