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Introductory: Toward a Theory of Culture

If I am tracking Rieff correctly at the beginning, he speaks of the older forms of culture which fell apart in 19th Century; a culture which in particular utilized a religious form as the means of “controlling the infinite variety of panic and emptiness to which they are disposed.” (3) A culture is a mechanism which makes possible a communal understanding such that the people can live with one another and themselves.

A culture permits its members to “sublimate”, a process of renunciation and from that the creation of something greater.

But throughout the 19th century there was a “deconversion” form a “series of symbols” to a superior “system of symbols – Science”. (6) This system, which Rieff compares to a stiff collar is in process of being changed. Freud sought to “soften” the collar; others have sought to take it altogether off.

Freud saw as a necessary the elements of coercion and renunciation to the maintenance of a culture. This process of renunciation works itself out in sublimation, which the creation of cultural artifacts of value within the culture.

Here is where becomes interesting: There are those who seek not merely to soften the collar but rather to remove it altogether. They seek a culture with no aspect of renunciation. Rieff refers to this as a cultural suicide. It is a religion of self; thus, apparently something without any culture, because culture “is another name for a design of motives directing the self outward, toward those communal purposes in which alone the self can be realized and satisfied.” (3)

This is an anti-culture of intellectuals Rieff describes as “the most elaborate act of suicide that Western intellectuals have ever staged.” (7)

He sees a force toward an atomization of the individual and the countervailing force toward structures which permit communal life. “Every culture must establish itself as a system of moralizing demands”. (8)

He then comes to the “unreligion of the age”, the “therapeutic” which has “nothing at stake beyond the manipulatable sense of well-being.” Prior culture had mechanisms to permit renunciation, provide for sublimation and provide a type of judgment, admonitions and reassurances. (11) There is a type of human aimed by such a mechanism. And when the culture changes the nature of human “perfection” changes. (8)

It should be noted that the mechanisms do not seek merely the complete extirpation of desires. In reference to Christian asceticism, the aim was “control and complete spiritualization” of sexual desire. (13).

Speaking of modern culture (at the time of his writing in the 1960’s) he noted that the movement of sexual desire was away from renunciation toward “release”. The previous “desire” has become a “need”. (13)

And so, since the previous religious (primarily) culture makers have failed to communicate their symbolic vision to others in an inherently compelling way, “We are probably witnessing the end of a cultural history dominated by book religious and word-makers.” (15)

We have moved to a therapeutic culture of individualized management of the self for a sense of well-being, “With the arts of psychiatric management enhanced and perfected, men will come to know one another in ways that could facilitate total socialization without a symbolic of communal purpose.” (17)

“Religious man was born to be saved; psychological man is born to be pleased.” (19)

Thus, what may have been before considered immoral may be rejected if it is seen in a therapeutic light of “enhancing one’s sense of well-being.” (21)

What is not mentioned in this end of individualized well-being (particularly as to sexual desires) brought about without a cultural control which applies to others is the conflict of my desire and your counter-desire. The history after Rieff has witnessed a contrast of predators and then the pain or remorse or shame or ruin of their prey. But on what account can they be accounted wrong? We have to reach back to prior categories that do not quite make sense.

We have the question as to why “consent” carries sufficient moral weight to require imprisonment. I’m not saying by any stretch that non-consensual actions are morally good. But rather that consent is made to carry enormous moral weight.

Consent is a difficult matter, because it raises all sorts of questions of moral ability, freewill, influence, excessive influence and such. Moreover, those questions of human moral capacity do not fit easily into a naturalistic empiricism. The moral reasoning which underlies such matters borrows from other understandings of human value.

We are also seeing the emergence of a new sort of insistent moral reasoning respecting sexual desire which is every bit as demanding as any parody of previous Western moralities (influenced obviously by Christianity). Indeed, this new religiously insistent morality sees it perfectly fit to end the public life of those who violate the rules (whatever those rules may be).