Read an Excerpt
On the relevance of the wisdom traditions to our times
As the assumptions of modernity unravel around us and we race the clock against the momentum of destructiveness, we are challenged to create new possibilities and haunted by failures of immense proportion. How is it that we paid so little attention to the steady degradation of our habitat for so long? How is it that the global nuclear arsenal reached fifty thousand cataclysmic warheads before the grassroots outcry became widespread? How is it that many of our landfills reached 90 percent of their capacity before recycling became commonplace? How is it that we have allowed the groundwater to be so recklessly depleted? How is it that hundreds of nuclear power plants have been constructed around the world without safe means of transporting or storing the radioactive waste? How is it that the enthusiasm for the modern nation-state overlooked the fate of some five thousand indigenous or long-standing cultural nations who have resisted the rule of capitalist or socialist states, resulting in hundreds of wars and millions of refugees?
Clearly, we have proven ourselves capable of sacrificing our perception, thought, and behavior to the power of an idea, the Great March of Progress. By now, however, even the most stalwart boosters of modern "progress," in both the East and the West, have had to acknowledge that it is leading us through toxic waste, fast-eroding topsoil, and bad air. Its powerful momentum, from which we now can barely distinguish our species itself, has brought us from clan members to villagers to citizens of thenuclearized nation-state, from hunter-gatherers to farmers and craftsmen to consumers in the globalized marketplace, from awe at Earth's sacred majesty to scientistic rationalism and the technocrative imperative. The Promethean impulse, so central to the modern era, kicks aside cultural and ecological constraints, assuring us that if we can do something, we should do it.
While appreciating the comforts, conveniences, and medicalbenefits of our time, we surely must also wonder at theincreasingly ill fit between our nominal values in the industrialized world and the course of our actions. What meaning doesthe natural world hold for us that we so eagerly sacrifice it to anunqualified growth economy? What is the meaning of nationalsovereignty when transnational corporations operate at an overarching level? What meaning do we perceive in the fragile unfolding of a child when we consent to raise our young on televisionviolence and models of conspicuous consumption? We say thatcommunity means a lot to us, but how tenuous that felt connection has become. We say that the meaning of being human residesin the ability to love and to care--yet when child abuse, violenceagainst women, AIDS, homelessness, and farm foreclosuresbecome epidemic, most of us turn away and hope those problemswill be taken care of somehow by someone else. "The meaning of life at the close of the twentieth century? According to a jokecurrently in the air, "You're born. You buy. You die."
The Promises of Modernity
The cult of modernity promised a world of peace, freedom, and fulfillment if we would just trust in an instrumental rationality and never look back at our past, so embarrassingly superstitious, communal, and constraining to the freewheeling, autonomous individual, homo oeconomicus. The "natural" belief in the modern era that economics is the driving force behind all other human activities might lead one to suppose that materialism is the creed of modernity. Yet modern states, both capitalist and socialist, have raced each other to impose destructive industrialism on the material base of life--air, soil, water. The material reality was worth nothing weighed against short-term economic growth, from which, according to both classical liberal and Marxist salvation ideologies, would come abundance and fulfillment for all, from which we would have reassuring proof of our power over nature and over any peoples too "backward" to comprehend the historical imperative of the modern state. Modernity stripped down the meaning of life to a struggle between the human mind and the rest of the natural world. Economic expansion promised autonomy and deliverance from the vulnerability of that separateness. (The roots of this orientation predate the modern era, as I explain in Appendix B.)
Because it is now apparent that modernity has failed to fulfill its promises of "a better life" in many of the deepest senses, we are compelled to search for new, or perhaps recovered, modes of understanding our nature and the relation between our species and the rest of the natural world. We face both the external crises of modernity (such as destruction of the natural world, the nuclearized nation-state, the sacrifice of the Third World and indigenous peoples for the needs of the industrialized "megamachine") and the internal crises, including a search for meaning in our lives and relief from a sense of isolation. In this task of sorting and reconsidering, we encounter the confusion of a multitude of analyses, insights, and remedies, as one would expect in times of planetary uncertainty and transition.
One cluster of responses to the internal crises has become quite fashionable in the West: deconstructive postmodernism draws attention to the ways in which overarching concepts are actually culturally constructed and are not the universal truisms that most people assume. In its extreme forms, deconstructive postmodernism declares that meaning itself is impossible, except as relative and essentially arbitrary choices we decide upon and act out in ironic performance. Diverse expressions of this orientation range from sensible defenses of particularity to intense cynicism, denial, indifference, and disengagement.
Responses from Deconstructive Postmodernism
Several streams fed the development of deconstructive postmodernism in architecture, art, and literature, while perhaps the most widely influential stream, actually a torrent, flowed from the (mostly French) academic fields of philosophy, linguistics, literary criticism, psychology, and cultural history, spreading to the rest of the social sciences, to theories of law, to social-change movements, and, in a newly explicit way, to the art world. . .<%END%>