The Trouble with “Modernity”

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that capitalism is the engine behind the environmental crises of the early 21st century. It doesn’t even take a Marxist: as the French environmental journalist ...

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that capitalism is the engine behind the environmental crises of the early 21st century. It doesn’t even take a Marxist: as the French environmental journalist Hervé Kempf put it in a recent book, it’s not so much Homo sapiens as the rich who are destroying the earth—rich people, rich nations.1 His claim is backed up by reams of data, and he’s not the only one who’s making it (see, for instance, the latest volume by Naomi Klein2). So why do we cling to the idea that it’s “humanity”—humanity in some essential sense, not just the accidents of particular human societies—that’s brought the planet to the brink of disaster? Mark Greif’s probing new book, The Age of the Crisis of Man, offers a kind of prehistory of this humanity’s-to-blame discourse, and therefore the beginnings of an explanation for its resilience.

From the very start of his book, Greif is up front about the limits of the discourse he’s reconstructed for us. He describes the experience of realizing, to his dismay, “how tedious, how unhelpful” the crisis-of-man language feels, in the rearview mirror. And he is unsparing in his criticisms of how, for instance, such language erased the specifics of the lives of women, colonized people, and people of color in its deployment of the idea of “man.” Again and again, however, just when he’s on the brink of suggesting there might be better ways to think about the political, economic, and ecological crises of the past century, he shies away, as though it would be rude to criticize the prominent thinkers who produced this “tedious, unhelpful” language.

At the heart of the discourse was the question of whether there’s just something innately self-destructive about Homo sapiens, and that concern, Greif shows, expressed itself in questions about history, about religion and faith and ideology, and about technology. Can there be progress? Is faith in a higher power, or even just faith in humanity’s ability to become its best collective self, built from the same materials as susceptibility to the worst authoritarianism? Now that we’ve built atom bombs and gas chambers, have we lost control of our own powers of technological innovation?

The agonized questions driving this discourse attracted an extraordinary range of renowned commentators. Some of its most influential texts, like the Kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer’s 1944 Essay on Man, have receded from our cultural memory; others, like Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958), are still widely read today. The discourse was not only a matter for philosophers, though: it caught the imagination of historians like Lewis Mumford (The Condition of Man, 1944), theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr (The Nature and Destiny of Man, 1941–43), and literary critics like C. S. Lewis (The Abolition of Man, 1943). For Greif the discourse can take reactionary form in precursor texts like Oswald Spengler’s two-volume Decline of the West (1918–1923), yet also includes many left-wing variants, like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944).

But perhaps because the reach of this discourse extended downward from traditional academic writing to popular journalism, it created odd combinations of genre and style: Greif refers (accurately, I think) to the Adorno and Horkheimer volume, for instance, as “one of the slowest page-turners of all time.” For Greif, this awkward blend of academic and popular imperatives was soon joined, during and immediately after World War II, by an equally unusual mix of domestic American concerns and émigré anxieties, which places a double burden on theorists of “the crisis of man,” to explain both history and human nature in terms of each other. In Greif’s account, this creates a particular, and tedious, narrative method:

In the American discourse of man through the war years, under the influence of the émigrés … a particular kind of history emerges—the revival of the Enlightenment’s version of a universal critical history, but without a confident faith in progress. This could be called re-enlightenment history. … Re-enlightenment writers conceived the whole of Western history as, once again, a long progress, but one in which something had gone wrong; and behaved as if by running through the entire history of the mind, man, faith, or ideas of human nature, developmentally, they might find the flaw and figure out how to repair it.

This method of re-narrating the history of “civilization,” meanwhile, ends up creating a distinctive, and awkward, style:

This [insistence on synopsis] is part of what gives the crisis of man canon its painfully laborious character for readers. An author will carry a thesis summarizable in a sentence or in five pages through two volumes. … To protect civilization at its moment of danger, you, the reader, must hear of it; to find the flaw that endangered this civilization, he, the intellectual, must relive it.

Things get worse from here. It’s not only the method and the style of the discourse, Greif points out, but its substance, that hobbles it at every turn. The universalism of “man,” to begin with, quite obviously masks the specificity of “woman,” and it turns out, over and over, essentially to mean “white man.” As he puts it, “Was there no ‘crisis of woman’? No ‘crisis of color’ in a country where W. E. B. DuBois edited The Crisis until 1934?” Greif does yeoman’s work in showing how figures like Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan tried to explode the discourse from within; in a chapter on the 1960s he traces a fascinating mutation of the language of “man” into the language of “the man,” where the whiteness and conformism of “man” is exposed at the level of vernacular speech. But the interest and the political force of feminist and antiracist languages, he implicitly admits, lay in their power to create completely other ways of thinking and talking, not in their ability to change the crisis-of-man jargon.

There are other political and historiographical problems with the discourse worth noting as well. For one thing, it is a discourse of Euro-American crisis, but it remains studiously ignorant of the histories of slavery and colonialism that might be said to have provided the material wealth that would later allow certain societies to afford crisis talk in the first place. Greif shows that the very prominent and influential strain of anticolonial thinking that grew up around the anthropologist Franz Boas—thinking elaborated in the work of women and scholars of color like Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ruth Benedict—is kept at arm’s length throughout the history of the crisis discourse’s career. He also shows that, in the place of reflections on slavery or colonialism, or even on the non-Western world, the crisis-of-man theorists tended to rely on one of two extremely reductive historical schemas, a “three-centuries” story of modernity (18th / 19th / 20th, or, Enlightenment / progress / modernity), or a “three-ages” story of the history of “civilization” (ancient / medieval-Christian / modern).

It’s not only the method and the style of the crisis-of-man discourse, Greif points out, but its substance, that hobbles it at every turn.

So why study it? Why restore this discourse, with all its manifest flaws, to our attention today? For Greif, there are two key reasons. The first is that the study of this midcentury discourse is cautionary. It allows us to see intellectual culture repeating what are easy to identify, looking back, as hopelessly circular or reductive debates. Greif does a fine job, and a gentle one, describing this. He points out that the theory wars of the 1980s and 1990s, for instance, thoughtlessly rehash debates between universalism and the celebration of difference that were first on display in the 1930s in debates between followers of Reinhold Niebuhr and champions of John Dewey. In those earlier confrontations, conservative thinkers—usually leaning on Catholic thought, often working from a neo-Thomist perspective burnished at the University of Chicago—decried the human plasticity celebrated by Dewey and his students either because it didn’t exist, or because it made people subject to malign, totalitarian influences.

In this argument, to imagine “molding” children in the classroom, for instance, was not only a hubristic attempt to do nature’s work, but also a kind of hapless miniature of Hitler’s desire to “mold” the youth of Germany (Greif gives us chilling material in this regard, not least Hitler declaring, God-like, that “creation is not yet at an end”). So when Greif describes Mortimer Adler railing against Deweyan social constructivists at a conference at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1940, even going so far as to blame them for the Nazi invasion of France, a little bell goes off. And, indeed, if you glance back at Martha Nussbaum’s 1999 attack on the supposed moral relativism of Judith Butler’s work in the pages of The New Republic, you will find Nussbaum, another Chicagoan, making exactly Adler’s moves.3 Only now it’s deconstruction, rather than Deweyan humanism, that leaves “us” unable to be stern enough, and foundationalist enough (and Catholic enough) to fend off Nazis / Russians / Islamists.

So a caution against repeating the worst of earlier debates is one reason to re-familiarize ourselves with this rhetoric of the “crisis of man.” But the second reason to do this, Greif suggests, is more important, and it has to do with the life of the American novel. The Age of the Crisis of Man
is subtitled Thought and Fiction in America, 1933–1973, and the central four of the book’s ten chapters make an argument that, while the crisis-of-man discourse led pedigreed academics to theorize a little more grandly than would prove useful a generation later, those writers were nonetheless read very carefully by a range of young midcentury novelists, who took the philosophical questions at the root of the discourse and set about answering them using the far-more-situated and flexible techniques of fictional narrative. As Greif puts it,

The novel was briefly a space in which the new authority of unmarked, universal man could be borrowed and spread, and yet where its contradictions and gaps would come into relief. … [This was] because novels were still composed from below, requiring the depiction of plausible, generally lower-class American characters, who spoke vernacular language and embodied vernacular conflicts. There, high philosophical obligations must intersect the ordinary.

Greif builds his case for the novel as the privileged transmitter of crisis-of-man language in persuasive and engaging readings of novels by Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison (whom he reads in tandem, as friends and rivals), Flannery O’Connor, and Thomas Pynchon. Some of his choices feel odd: there are two whole chapters pairing Ellison and Bellow, while James Baldwin crops up so often as a pointed counterexample to the limits of novelistic crisis-of-man discourse that I wondered why Greif didn’t just give him a chapter. And the book simply cries out for a chapter on Toni Morrison, who had already by the early 1970s written two extraordinary novels (The Bluest Eye and Sula) that probed not only the limits of the “human” but the limits of a universalizing discourse of “humanity.”

But Greif works well with what he’s chosen. He is especially good at giving breathing room to the unsavory or even repellent aspects of the writers who interest him. For instance, he makes it impossible to ignore the misanthropy and the creepy sexism of the young Bellow, whose first novel, Dangling Man, climaxes with the lower-class protagonist taking out his pent-up anger on an insouciant, privileged young girl by spanking her in white heat of excitement. But he also offers a lovely reading of the novels in which Bellow’s Chicago-style training in the Great Books leads him, not to a Nussbaumian moral rigidity, but to a kind of flexible populist typology of character. Discussing The Adventures of Augie March, Greif writes,

The permanent lesson of [Augie’s education] is that the great ones are already around you … Can we always find people in our immediate neighborhood who are the same as those in remote antiquity, as written down in books? Augie March
seems to say, basically, yes.

Greif is equally thoughtful about the class and racial politics that suffuse the rhetoric of salvation in O’Connor. He writes beautifully, for instance, about O’Connor’s late story “Revelation,” in which a tidy, effortfully dignified working-class white woman imagines herself placed by God into various scenarios of social hierarchy; she discovers about herself, for instance, that she’d rather be a dignified black woman than “white trash.” Having tracked the ways in which, throughout her career, O’Connor had largely refused to answer the call to think in terms of the “crisis of man,” turning instead to scenes of grace or salvation, he finds in the late “Revelation” a buried recognition that “her ability to teach her characters their partiality and primitive equality before God … might depend on the stability of a social order of different classes and races, which civil rights sought to undermine in the name of the same God and divinity.”

Sometimes, though, when Greif writes about the intersection of literary fiction and actual politics, his judiciousness and even-handedness lead him to hesitate at the brink of what he has equipped us to see. Describing the way Bellow may have attempted, in Henderson the Rain King, to script his friendship with Ellison as the story of a greater genius (Ellison) who may nonetheless be outshone, in the long run, by “a Bellow surrogate,” Greif notes that this wish of Bellow’s may have been given a boost by “a particular social fact of the years around the two writers’ triumphs in 1952 and 1953—that Jews slipped progressively into the white mainstream, while African Americans remained black.” But he describes his own observation here sheepishly: “Once in a while, a critic has to overread.” And he passes over the irony that it is Bellow, rather than Ellison, who has been eclipsed.

Elsewhere, at the conclusion of a wonderful reading of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Greif asserts that he, like many critics before him, must accept that ascribing positive values to the endlessly protean Pynchon is a losing game. All you will really do, Greif writes, is “wrongly co-opt him by drawing him into literary criticism.” For Greif this problem is especially acute around the question of whether Pynchon could be said to be a humanist, since he constantly alternates between showing us humanity and a radical, meaningless void: “It becomes impossible to declare Pynchon’s ultimate ‘values’ without exposing yourself to the embarrassing admission that you may just want Pynchon to share your values, and thus settle for one or another of his alternatives on that basis.”

One reason to re-familiarize ourselves with this midcentury rhetoric is cautionary. Another, more important reason, Greif suggests, has to do with the life of the American novel.

This critical modesty and intellectual judiciousness prevents Greif from acknowledging that, whether or not Pynchon is a “humanist,” he is certainly a leftist. He has an endlessly complex and alluring variety of ways of testing his values in narrative, but those values are readily identifiable. He always chooses sides (look at his villains). But it’s easier for Greif to participate in the story of Pynchon the Inassimilable Genius—which, indeed, Pynchon may be—than to acknowledge that part of what makes Pynchon’s fiction specifically powerful is that his story about the “crisis of man” is not just a story about some abstract “modernity” into which we’ve run ourselves, but a story about capitalism.

As it turns out, one way to understand the failures of the crisis-of-man discourse is to track its disqualification of capitalism and colonialism as objects of critique, and to tally the costs of its failure to think past the gendered limits of the word “man.” It is clear from Greif’s exasperation with the crisis discourse that he knows this. But just when you think he might bring down the hammer, he chastises himself instead. In a fascinating coda, he imagines speaking backward into history and warning the crisis theorists that once they base their sense of history on a story of human essence, or essence betrayed, “you’ve begun asking the wrong analytic questions for your moment.” But a page later he recoils: “I can say nothing of this sort … How could I tell anyone to desist? How can the dispassionate analyst ever discourage even what seems to him to be folly? Persist in folly! Without folly, how would we ever have history?”

This is a costly generosity, since it gives a pass to a discourse that still pops up like a whack-a-mole in our new era, ready to explain contemporary capitalist and ecological crises in terms of some failure of humanity to be its best self, or some innate violence in our nature. This is what the language of “modernity” does: it pursues intransitive questions of human essence instead of relational questions about what some humans have done to other humans. Climate change: we’re all in this together! That may be true, but erasing the history of how “we” got here will only make it harder to see the contours of the planet-devouring system that has forced some of us to reproduce it for the benefit of some others, decade after decade.

There’s a humorous moment in Greif’s analysis of Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism in which he regrets her choice of title, since it masked its investment in crisis-of-man language, and suggests that the book could perhaps have been called The Origins of Why Modern Men Would Want to Change Human Nature, and How the Worst of Them Have Tried, with Hints on What to Do Now. For my part, I can imagine The Age of the Crisis of Man being re-titled Why the Discourse of Modernity Is Shot Through with Holes, and Why It Would Be Super-presumptuous to Give It Up. Greif’s insistence on being modest, self-critiquing, and “dispassionate” hobbles him right when we need him most. Sometimes, yes, “a critic has to overread.” And sometimes it’s OK to take sides. icon

  1. How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth (Chelsea Green, 2008).
  2. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (Simon & Schuster, 2014); to read an extract from the book, see Naomi Klein, “How Will Everything Change under Climate Change?,” The Guardian, March 8, 2015.
  3. “The Professor of Parody: The Hip Defeatism of Judith Butler,” New Republic, February 2, 1999.
Featured image: Max Horkheimer (left) and Theodor Adorno (right) in April 1964 at a sociology conference in Heidelberg, Germany. Jürgen Habermas is in the background, right, running his hand through his hair. Photograph by Jeremy J. Shapiro / Wikimedia Commons