Faustian Society

When we examine the characteristics of contemporary societies that have been described in previous pages, we find that much of it comes down to a few essential ideas. These societies are part of a new civilization and a new period in history, which can be referred to as Faustian (with apologies to Spengler) because of its quest for power.

At its core, this new Faustian age and civilization believes in the self and the self’s right and ability to control the conditions of its own existence. It exalts reason, but it is practical or “instrumental” reason, which is seen as a tool that humanity can use to manipulate the world.

Faustian society includes at least four elements that define the individual’s changing relationship to the world of limitation:

* It uses science and technology to overcome the limits of the physical world.

* It brings together high technology and art to create simulations that can be used as substitutes for what can’t be extracted from the physical world. The most important of these simulations are imitation realities, which provide people with experiences not available in the rest of life.

* It adheres to an aesthetic philosophy, which sees the acting out of fantasies that express our fears and desires, as a form of art, entertainment and liberation.

* It views matter, life, culture and mind as deceptive appearances, which makes them simulations or something similar to simulations.

In addition, Faustian societies are characterized by the pervasive use of deceptive simulations to manipulate large numbers of people.

Put in terms that were first referred to on an earlier page, Faustian society is using the powers of rationality and the ego – of logic, science and technology — to build a perfect world that answers to our desires. The goal is to create a new kind of person: a sovereign self, in control of its environment, including its own biology and mind.

In order to achieve this goal, it is trying to make the world as transparent as possible, so everything can be seen and understood. It wants to hold all existence up to an x-ray, because what is known can be controlled. This effort to bring about transparency and control, or knowledge and power, in the service of real human needs and boundless human desires, summarizes much of what Faustian society is about.

We can see intimations of the world as Faustian society would re-create it in today’s simulated and automated environments and in some of the images of life conveyed by television and movies. These are early efforts to build and portray perfect worlds and perfect selves in which nothing is left to chance.

But we can also see in some of these same simulations, portrayals of the dangers that Faustian society poses to our relation to the world of limitation, including the danger that we might lose interest in “reality”; devalue it; undermine it, or lose the ability to distinguish reality from illusion.

Faustian society is already the dominant force in the contemporary world. Its power centers are the high-technology urban areas of America, particularly in the Northeast and West Coast, and the urban centers of Western Europe and Japan. The world’s business, scientific and cultural “elites,” many of whom live in these regions, are its creators, administrators and exemplars. They have enormous power to shape its culture, in the near-term. When seen from a broader perspective, they begin to look like the vehicles of humanity’s desire to bring about a perfect world, as they produce forms of technology and representation that answer to their audience’s needs and desires.

But many groups and regions haven’t made the transition to this new kind of society; others are in opposition to it. In particular, what remains of the world’s religious traditionalists, have been engaged in a reaction against many (although not all) of these changes. Despite their considerable differences with each other, all view the world as the work of a creator, who imposed not only material conditions on existence, but a moral code that limits thought and action, and subordinates creature to creator. All see themselves as defending religion, traditional culture and morality against the secularism, the moral and cultural relativism, and the philosophy of the self, fantasy, pleasure, transgression and cultural experimentation of Faustian society.

The creations of popular entertainment have foreseen the emergence of Faustian societies. They routinely portray humanity gaining power over both the material world and worlds of illusion. And they frequently examine the potential for good and evil in these new powers.

The movie Matinee, for example, which is about Key West during the Cuban missile crisis, portrays all the elements described above: the effort to use technology in the quest for power; the bringing together of art and technology to create advanced simulations that allow audiences to act out fantasies in which they overcome dangers; the use of simulations to deceive; and the social constructionist effort to expose culture and ideology as illusions that are used to manipulate and mystify people. The movie’s creators put all this in because they are tapping in to the issues and anxieties of the age.

Some of these works of popular culture, especially science fiction, also provide information about the kind of ethic that can help us live in this new kind of society. Much of their message comes down to this: the new Faustian societies provide a great many opportunities. But they also create dead ends and traps that are disguised as forms of progress. If we want to use technology correctly, and not be destroyed by it, our wisdom will have to keep up with our power. This theme is particularly evident in the original Star Trek, which repeatedly warns that there is a danger in trying to find shortcuts to power or trying to achieve false paradise.

A similar philosophy can be teased out of Freudian theory. Using psychoanalytic ideas, we can see that, in addition to the limits of the physical world, there is another set of limits we have to confront, namely the limits of our own personalities: our narcissism, primitive emotions and lack of ethical development. These are the most important obstacles we have to overcome, if we want to appropriately use these new technologies.

There are two philosophies, in particular, that emerged out of psychoanalytic theory, that we can use to construct a coherent philosophy for a new age. One comes out of the work of the utopian philosopher Herbert Marcuse, who asked how the new power and affluence made possible by technology would be used. As Marcuse saw it, it could be used to satisfy true or false needs, making possible exploitation and escape, or a breakthrough into a new kind of society, based on the right to live fully.

But Marcuse’s ideas of what it means to live fully are somewhat limited. They can be enlarged by the ideas of the humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, who believed that we can develop into our true selves, which are inherently ethical, psychologically healthy and constructive. Like Marcuse, Maslow believed we can judge society by the degree to which it helps us grow in this direction.

If you put the ideas of Freud, Maslow and Marcuse together, they lead to the conclusion that the true self has existed throughout history, and it has been “waiting” to be released from the prison created by our primitive psychodynamics, distorted cultures and oppressive social conditions. This true self isn’t an entity inside the mind, that is hidden by the mask of a false self. It is the full person we become when these numerous interferences are eliminated. It is willing to speak, hear and seek the truth about itself and society, without fleeing into the regressive symptoms offered by personal neurosis and popular culture. It is assertive, not aggressive; focused on living fully rather than on shoring up constantly-collapsing psychological defenses; it is able to love and work, and take pleasure and responsibility. It affirms life and compassion over hate and revenge.

When people experience this state of higher functioning, to one degree or another, in their better moments or, in some instances, throughout much of their lives, we see in them an essential characteristic: they don’t only feel good, about themselves and life, they also spontaneously do good. They have an inherent, aesthetic revulsion to anything that would do physical or symbolic violence to themselves or others.

To the extent we are our true selves, we have a deep revulsion to the culture of manipulation, and everything in us tells us not to become one of its practitioners. And we see the regressive radicalism offered by much of popular culture as a lure. All those forbidden fantasies are forms of regression that lead us away from our true selves.

Like language, the potential to become our selves is inherent in us, but it has to be evoked by culture, to come to even partial realization. It is always there, as a part of our makeup, mixed in with, and limited by, other elements of personality and culture.

Contrary to what some postmodernists claim, this self isn’t a collection of roles or a story under constant revision, although, as we have seen, personality and culture do contain a significant degree of disguise. Instead, it is a single entity, with capacities when it comes to language, thinking, emotion, psychodynamics, morality and personal fulfillment that are individual instances of a universal human nature. Since we all partake of this human nature, we all share the same capacities for good and ill, health and neurosis, no matter what “roles” we play or how technology expands our powers.

With this in mind, we can now ask a set of questions that represent one of the essential issues of our age: which aspect of the self will be evoked by the cultures and societies of the 21st century, with their artificial environments, pervasive computers, technologies of power and virtual realities? Which desires will be served by our new abilities: our primitive urges or our aspirations for true fulfillment? Will these powers serve the goal of freedom or will our ability to overcome many of the limits of the world allow us to turn the world itself into a vast arena for acting out the limitations of personality?

Seen in this light, the issue of the age (and every age) is whether we will we use our powers to encourage the development of true or false selves, and seek after a true or false idea of a better world. These are the issues that are being acted out in all the spectacles of art and technology described in the book. In Disney; in advertisements; in the mind-numbing simulation-work of politicians, and in innumerable other creations of culture, we see a quest after misleading images of the perfect self, and of false paradise. Other works, such as apparently modest comedies like Groundhog Day and Uncle Buck, about people who overcome fear and anger and some of their false desires, to become something they already were, are efforts to get at the truth of the self.

We can build strong and healthy people without deep and profound knowledge of the truths of personality, society and culture, of course. But the insight of modernism and Western civilization, that truth liberates, is still essential. It tells us that we have the ability to see through the psychodynamics that partly govern everyone, and discover that many (not all) of the limits of life are, in fact, our own invention; they are defenses we create in response to deeply buried fears of real and imagined dangers from childhood, which are not-so-seamlessly woven into personality. And we have the capacity to discover in the environment of technology, art and simulation that makes up contemporary culture, the story of our selves and society, which we are constantly writing in disguised form. A great many of these creations — individual movies, for example, or theme parks — are like monads: if we could make them entirely transparent, we would discover that each one contains a large part of the entire story.

If the reader will forgive a final hyperbole, mostly stolen from Northrop Frye’s discussion of James Joyce (with Hegel looming somewhere ominously in the background): only after humanity has seen through the illusions of the self and society can it wake up from the dream of history and recognize its own role as the dreamer. Then society and culture appear as objectified and alienated parts of ourselves. The new self that has the potential to be born from this exercise in clarity can consciously create a society and culture that expresses the fullness of life, rather than the yearning for, and flight from, itself.

We can begin this effort at self-knowledge by recognizing that we are ascending a ladder of invention and discovery that has always been there, waiting to be climbed. This ladder of progress is built in to the universe. It is an element of the world, of which we are only a part.

The ladder has two arms. One is made up of our growing power to use science and technology to control the physical world. The other is made up our ability to grow as people. We will need both if we want to make our great ascent.

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