Perhaps one of the most confusing aspects of this present age is the sheer speed with which unquestioned orthodoxies—for example, the nature of marriage, or the tight connection between biology and gender, or the vital importance of free speech to a free society—are either crumbling before our eyes or have been completely overthrown. If cultural conservatives are to respond to these changes, it is not enough to address each of them as isolated, discrete phenomena. We must first understand them as symptomatic of deeper cultural pathologies; and that requires a broader theoretical framework that sets the iconoclasm of today in the context of wider, deeper, social and cultural changes.
One thinker who can help us with this is Philip Rieff. Rieff is today justly famous for his 1966 book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud. With this remarkably prescient analysis of how personal, psychological well-being would become the primary purpose of life, Rieff spoke more truth than he could possibly have anticipated. The world in which we live today, where everything—even biological sex—is to be subordinated to how we feel inside, was barely conceivable in 1966. Today it is hard to imagine a world where the therapeutic is not normative.
Yet Rieff’s significance as a cultural critic is broader and greater than his analysis of Psychological Man, and it is here where he can help address that question of why we now have so much cultural iconoclasm of such speed and intensity. The key text is his posthumously published trilogy, Sacred Order/Social Order, where he reflects on the emerging culture of the West in a way that helps to clarify why our age subverts so much those institutions, beliefs, and practices that have traditionally defined Western civilization. The reason, Rieff argues, is a seismic change in how our society justifies its beliefs and practices, a change hundreds of years in the making whose results are now arriving thick and fast in the public square.
Sex, Religion, and Civilization
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To grasp the underlying thesis of Sacred Order/Social Order, it is first helpful to understand something of Rieff’s debt to Sigmund Freud. Rieff was a scholar (and admirer) of Freud. His first major work was Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959), and his cultural criticism reveals debts to the psychoanalyst at several key points.
First, Rieff agrees with Freud that civilization is the result of a trade-off. For human beings, sex is the key to happiness; but if all human beings indulged their sexual instincts as they wished, there would be total chaos. Civilization therefore involves repressing and redirecting sexual urges so that people can live together in relative harmony. Nobody will enjoy perfect happiness—hence the “discontents” in the title of Freud’s famous essay, Civilization and Its Discontents—but more people will enjoy more happiness for longer than in a world of sexual anarchy. All that repressed sexual energy will go into cultural projects, such as art, music, and commerce.
We might summarize the implications of this by saying that, for Freud (and subsequently for Rieff), civilization is defined by what it forbids, particularly in the sexual realm. Culture is defined by that set of institutions, practices, and beliefs that inculcate and transmit these prohibitions from one generation to the next.
This leads to Rieff’s second debt to Freud in the realm of cultural criticism: the role of religion. For Freud, religion was an illusion. That is not primarily a statement about its metaphysical truth—though Freud was himself an atheist. Rather, it means that religion fulfills a specific purpose. It offers a picture of the world that grounds the prohibitions that constitute civilization in a transcendent order of being. For example, the Ten Commandments in the Bible are designed to reflect the character of God. They are therefore not presented as arbitrary, and they possess authority, not because they reflect the immanent concerns of Jewish culture, but because they are spoken by a creator and redeemer God.
Sacred and Social Orders
In Sacred Order/Social Order, Rieff offers a historical scheme for categorizing cultures in light of these basic insights. Rieff calls these First, Second, and Third World cultures. First Worlds are characterized by a variety of myths that ground and justify their cultures through something that transcends the immediate present. These might be the tales of the gods and heroes in the Iliad or the Norse sagas, the philosophy of Plato, or the mythic stories of origin found in Native American societies. Whatever their specific content, what they share in common is that they make the present culture accountable to something greater than itself. Rieff says that a belief in fate is perhaps the key here.
Second Worlds are characterized not by a belief in fate but by faith. The great examples would be Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, where cultural codes are rooted in the belief in a specific divine and sovereign being who stands over and above creation, and to whom all creatures are ultimately accountable. First and Second Worlds are similar in that both set their social order upon a deeper, even sacred, order. It is the Third World that represents a decisive rupture on this point.
Third Worlds are characterized by their repudiation of any sacred order. There is nothing in a Third World beyond this world by which culture can be justified. The implications of this are, according to Rieff, comprehensive and catastrophic. First, because of their rejection of a sacred order, Third World cultures face an unprecedented challenge: that of justifying themselves on the basis of themselves. No culture in history, Rieff notes, has ever done this successfully. It is a fool’s errand that ends in cultural collapse:
No culture in history has sustained itself merely as a culture, however attractive and authoritative. Cultures are dependent on their predicative sacred orders and break into mere residues whenever their predicates are broken. That is the main reason why our late second cultures and early thirds are increasingly unstable.
Living in a Third World Culture
To return to our initial question—why is so much traumatic cultural change occurring with such rapidity and intensity today—we can helpfully apply this scheme to our current context. The proliferation of identities and the consequent chaotic militancy of identity politics is inextricably related to the collapse of the sacred, to the demolition of any transcendent metaphysical basis on which a coherent social order might be founded. Even the question of “What is human nature?” becomes something impossible to answer with any degree of certainty or consensus.
Rieff also notes that Third Worlds are marked by scorn for the moral codes on which Second Worlds are based. They turn these into matters of scorn, and vice comes to be regarded as virtue, a message pressed with vigor by Third World cultural elites whose dominant attitude to any semblance of a sacred order is one of mockery, cynicism, and irony. Perhaps the Rolling Stones capture the Third World cultural mood best: “Now that every cop is a criminal and all the sinners saints.” That neatly summarizes Rieff’s description of a dying society. The name of the song from which those lyrics come? “Sympathy for the Devil.”
Third World culture is, of course, the culture of the Psychological Man and the therapeutic quest for well-being that Rieff so brilliantly described in his earlier works. If there is nothing beyond this world for which to strive, or by which we are held accountable, the gravitational pull toward personal happiness as the purpose of life becomes irresistibly strong, and the rationales for repression become increasingly weak.
Again, we might apply this therapeutic aesthetic to our current context. What is the increasingly thin foundation on which today’s sexual codes are built? Mere consent. It is not the intrinsic nature of the individual sexual act that renders it unacceptable today. Rather, it is whether those involved are willing participants. Negotiating personal desire, and not objective moral judgments, has become the ethical order of the day.
This leads to a second point: Third Worlds inevitably tend toward individual, personal hedonism. That means that the purpose of sex will be transformed, and the taboos surrounding it abolished. Abortion is emblematic of this. It shatters the idea of sex as having a teleological purpose in reproduction, and it removes evidence of past sexual activity. All that is really significant in the act of intercourse is the moment of sexual encounter and the instant of passing pleasure it provides. This hedonism undermines the prohibitions on incest, homosexuality, and any other kind of sexual coupling one cares to imagine. It furthers the idea that such taboos are arbitrary at best, and thus ripe for abolition.
The Anti-Culture and Its Deathworks
Given that Rieff believes cultures to be defined by what they prohibit, particularly in the sexual realm, the Sadean vision of the Third World as one of the abolition of sexual codes, of “forbidding to forbid,” has far-reaching significance. Indeed, it leads Rieff to call this type of culture an anti-culture. Its purpose is not to transmit beliefs and practices from one generation to the next. Its purpose is quite the opposite: to shatter past values and to engage in the constant revolutionizing of beliefs and behavior. While all First and Second World cultures acknowledged the reality of transgression, in the Third World transgression becomes the norm. In fact, given that it is forbidden to forbid, the very concept of transgression ceases to have any stable meaning.
There are two other distinctive pathologies of the Third World that we see all around us and that Rieff argues are unprecedented. First: the cultural elites, committed to the Third World project, are essentially proponents of anti-culture. In the past, elites worked to transmit the sacred order/social order from generation to generation. Not any more. Iconoclasm is cool and liberating
Second, this iconoclastic destruction of the older culture is conducted by means of the characteristic “cultural” production of both latter-day Second Worlds and nascent Third Worlds: the deathwork. A deathwork is something that takes the idioms of the Second World and subverts them in a way that destroys the very foundations on which the social order was built. Examples he gives include the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe, Serrano’s Piss Christ, and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. All in their different ways mock the values of religion while proposing nothing of any great significance to replace it.
A good example of how this plays out in our world is provided by the fate of the concept of sexual modesty. In a Second World, debates about modesty would concern its definition and limits, because the concept itself is grounded in a higher authority. In a Third World, that foundation has gone, and the concept itself is therefore not simply to be revised but rather to be abolished. This is achieved via various means: for example, the prevalence of pornography and the constant ridiculing by the elites of those ideals that originally gave sex meaning and significance, such as chastity, self-control, monogamy, and so on.
If we truly want to understand not just the individual symptoms but the underlying causes of our current cultural chaos, we should ponder Rieff’s later works. His approach to culture gives us insights into much of what is happening around us in terms of its content, its speed, and its intensity. The adulation of iconoclastic figures such as rock stars, the constant sneering at traditional Second World beliefs and social practices in movies and on television, and the popularity of the vulgar, amoral anarchy of reality TV—these all represent aspects of the Third World and its deathworks and anti-culture. Even the cynical irony with which many of us are tempted to view the world is a deathwork. And that is depressing because it shows the depth of the problem. We live at a time when it is not simply a question of debating the nature of our culture on some commonly agreed foundation. It is a time when we face the complete transformation of our culture into an anti-culture.
Rieff’s approach is not without its problems of classification. For example, is militant Islam—of the kind represented by Islamic State—an example of a Second World sacred order or a deathwork? In other words, is it seeking to ground culture on the transcendent? Or is it trying simply to smash the culture that exists? Perhaps it is a form of Fascism in religious garb, as some have cogently argued.
Either way, Rieff’s basic insights seem sound, and there is no doubt that the overall picture is bleak. Cultural conservatives (in the true and literal sense of the term) are not engaging opponents with whom they simply disagree about the content of culture. They disagree with them on what exactly culture is: either it is something grounded in a sacred order or it is something free-floating and up for grabs. Those are incommensurable positions. If Rieff is right, the prospect for improvement is minimal. As Nietzsche’s Madman pointed out many years ago, if you unchain the earth from the sun, you end up plunging into total darkness.