After spending the last several months researching Modernism, I now have much better insight into some of my older posts on the decline of the American family.
The following excerpt comes from Andrew Cherlin’s book The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today:
“The newer form of individualism, which Bellah and his colleagues called “expressive individualism,” germinated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and flowered in the second half of the twentieth. It is a view of life that emphasizes the development of one’s sense of self, the pursuit of emotional satisfaction, and the expression of one’s feelings.”
In other words, Modernism.
Modernism is an aesthetic that emphasizes self-expression, self-liberation, self-exploration and self-fulfillment. It is extremely individualistic. It is subversive of all types of collectives.
Trevin Wax at The Gospel Coalition offers several definitions of “expressive individualism” which is the doctrine at the core of Modernism:
“When defining expressive individualism, it might be best to start with the slogans behind the movement:
- You be you.
- Be true to yourself.
- Follow your heart.
- Find yourself.
Modernism is Romanticism turned inward to the inner world of the self. It romanticizes the ideal of individual self-expression. It elevates aesthetics above religion, morality and society. As this ideal applies to identity and culture, it makes modernists deeply unsatisfied with ascriptive or given forms of identity and cultural norms that restrict their freedom of self-definition and self-expression.
“That term suggests not only a desire to pursue one’s own path but also a yearning for fulfillment through the definition and articulation of one’s own identity. It is a drive both to be more like whatever you already are and also to live in society by fully asserting who you are. The capacity of individuals to define the terms of their own existence by defining their personal identities is increasingly equated with liberty and with the meaning of some of our basic rights, and it is given pride of place in our self-understanding.”
“I mean the understanding of life which emerges with the Romantic expressivism of the late-eighteenth century, that each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority.”
- The highest good is individual freedom, happiness, self-definition, and self-expression.
- Traditions, religions, received wisdom, regulations, and social ties that restrict individual freedom, happiness, self-definition, and self-expression must be reshaped, deconstructed, or destroyed.
- The world will inevitably improve as the scope of individual freedom grows. Technology —in particular the internet—will motor this progression toward utopia.
- The primary social ethic is tolerance of everyone’s self-defined quest for individual freedom and self-expression. Any deviation from this ethic of tolerance is dangerous and must not be tolerated. Therefore social justice is less about economic or class inequality, and more about issues of equality relating to individual identity, self-expression, and personal autonomy.
- Humans are inherently good.
- Large-scale structures and institutions are suspicious at best and evil at worst.
- Forms of external authority are rejected and personal authenticity is lauded.
Malcolm Cowley summed up the Greenwich Village idea:
“Greenwich Village was not only a place, a mood, a way of life: like all bohemias, it was also a doctrine. Since the days of Gautier and Murger, this doctrine had remained the same in spirit, but it had changed in several details. By 1920, it had become a system of ideas that could roughly be summarized as follows:
- The idea of salvation by the child. Each of us at birth has special potentialities which are slowly crushed by a standardized society and mechanical methods of teaching. If a new educational system can be introduced, one by which children are encouraged to develop their own personalities, to blossom freely like flowers, then the world will be saved by this new, free generation.
- The idea of self-expression – Each man’s, each woman’s, purpose in life is to express himself, to realize his full individuality through creative work and beautiful living in beautiful surroundings.
- The idea of paganism – The body is a temple in which there is nothing unclean, a shrine to be adorned for the ritual of love.
- The idea of living for the moment – It is stupid to pile up treasures that we can enjoy only in old age, when we have lost the capacity for enjoyment. Better to seize the moment as it comes, to dwell in it intensely, even at the cost of future suffering. Better to live extravagantly, gather June rosebuds, “burn my candle at both ends … It gives a lovely light.”
- The idea of liberty – Every law, convention or rule of art that prevents self-expression or the full enjoyment of the moment should be shattered and abolished. Puritanism is the great enemy. The crusade against puritanism is the only crusade with which free individuals are justified in allying themselves.
- The idea of female equality – Women should be the economic and moral equals of men. They should have the same pay, the same working conditions, the same opportunity for drinking, smoking; taking or dismissing lovers.
- The idea of psychological adjustment – We are unhappy because we are maladjusted, and maladjusted because we are repressed. If our individual repressions can be removed – by confessing them to a Freudian psychologist – then we can adjust ourselves to any situation, and be happy in it. (But Freudianism is only one method of adjustment. What is wrong with us may be our glands, and by a slight operation, or merely by taking a daily dose of thyroid, we may alter our whole personalities. Again, we may adjust ourselves by some such psycho-physical discipline as was taught by Gurdjieff. The implication of all these methods are the same – that the environment itself need not be altered. This explains why most radicals who become converted to psychoanalysis or glands or Gurdjieff gradually abandoned their political radicalism.)
- The idea of changing place – “They do things better in Europe.” England and Germany have the wisdom of old cultures; the Latin peoples have admirably preserved their pagan heritage. By expatriating himself, by living in Paris, Capri, or the south of France, the artist can break the Puritan shackles, drink, live freely and be wholly creative.”
Théophile Gautier put it this way:
“To develop freely every intellectual fancy, whether or not it shocks taste, conventions, and rules; to hate and repulse to the utmost what Horace called the profanum vulgus, and what moustachioed, long-haired rapins mean by ‘shopkeepers,’ ‘philistines,’ or ‘bourgeois’; to celebrate the pleasures of love with a passion capable of scorching the paper on which we record them, insisting upon love as the sole end and sole means of happiness; and to sanctify and deify Art, regarded as second Creator.”
Walter Pater expressed it this way:
“Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us” – but only for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but the experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses. How can we past most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces united in their purest energy?
To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain ecstasy, is success in life. Failure is to form habits; for habit is relative to a stereotyped world; meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two things, persons, situations–seem alike. While all melts under our feet, we may well catch at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange flowers and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us and in the brilliance of their gifts some tragic dividing offices on their ways, is on this short day of frost and sun to sleep before evening. With this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch. What we have to do is to get rid of apathy, to be for ever curiously testing opinion and courting new impressions, never acquiescing in a facile orthodoxy of Comte or of Hegel or of our own. Theories, religious or philosophical ideas, as points of view, instruments of criticism, may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us. ‘La philosophie,’ says Victor Hugo, ‘c’est le microscope de la pensée.’ [Philosophy is the microscope of thought.] The theory or idea or system which requires of us the sacrifice of any part of this experience, in consideration of some interest into which we cannot enter, or some abstract morality we have not identified with ourselves, or what is only conventional, has no real claim upon us.”
Nietzsche’s imperative was “become who you are”
Oscar Wilde believed that “to become a work of art is the object of living …”
Ezra Pound put it this way:
“If an artist falsifies his report as to the nature of man, as to his own nature, as to the nature of his ideal of the perfect, as to the nature of his ideal of this, that or the other, of god, if god exists, of the life force, of the nature of good or evil, if good and bad exist, of the force with which he believes or disbelieves this, that or the other, of the degree in which he suffers or is made glad; if the artist falsifies his reports on these matters or on any other matter in order that he may conform to the taste of his time, to the proprieties of a sovereign, to the conveniences of a preconceived code of ethics, then that artist lies. If he lies out of deliberate will to lie, if he lies out of carelessness, out of laziness, out of cowardice, out of any sort of negligence whatsoever, he nevertheless lies and he should be punished or despised in proportion to the seriousness of his offense.”
Henry James put it this way:
“The quest for pure experience, for the perfectly free imagination, became obsessive for James as he grew older and increasingly realized that some options in life were no longer possible for him …
“Conscious of what he had missed all his life, and what he seemed doomed to miss yet again, Howells laid his hand on Sturges’ shoulder and said something like this: “Oh, you are young, you are young – be glad of it: be glad of it and live. Live all you can: it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t matter much what you do – but live. This place makes it all come over to me. I see it now. I haven’t done so – and now I’m old. It’s too late. It has gone past me – I’ve lost it. You have time. You are young. Live!” James admitted to amplifying and improving the words a bit – the journal was his, after all – but the core of meaning was obvious. If you have a consciousness, cultivate it. Take chances. Your will is freer when you are young. Make your own universe. Don’t let institutions hold you back. Think of the possibilities, of the results!
The idea was so adapted to James’ sensibility that the seed began to sprout as soon as planted. He began with “the figure of an elderly man who hasn’t ‘lived’, hasn’t at all, in the sense of sensations, passions, impulses, pleasures – and to whom, in the presence of some great human spectacle, some great organization for the Immediate, the Agreeable, for curiosity, and experiment and perception, for Enjoyment, in a word, becomes, sur la fin, or toward it, sorrowfully aware.”
Here is how I would sum it up: each of us is a special snowflake with a unique inner sense of self that we must cultivate and which must be allowed to blossom and realize its full potential. My sense of self-expression is far more important than any external limits imposed by culture, religion or morality. It is more important any obligation that I have to another person who I happen to be related to like my wife or descendants. Quite often, your “true self” is at odds with the self you are given like your gender. Being “true to yourself” is more important than your marriage, family, your race, your religion, etc. This subjective inner sense of self is more important than conforming to nature and reality.
The following excerpt comes from Andrew Cherlin’s bookThe Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today:
“This kind of expressive individualism has flourished as prosperity has given more Americans the time and money to develop their senses of self – to cultivate their own emotional gardens, as it were. It suggests a view of intimate partnerships as continually changing as the partners’ inner selves develop.”
What could go wrong when married women become expressive individualists in a culture that is drenched in Modernism? Maybe their sense of self changes during their marriage?
“Until the past half century, individuals moved through a series of roles (student, spouse, parent, housewife or breadwinner) in away that seemed more or less natural. Choices were constrained. In mill towns, two or three generations of kin might work at the same factory. Getting married was the only acceptable way to have children, except perhaps among the poor. Young people often chose their spouses from among a pool of acquaintances in their neighborhood, church, or school. But now you can’t get a job in the factory where your father and grandfather worked because overseas competition has forced it to close, so you must choose another career. You get little help from relatives in finding a partner, so you sign on to an internet dating service and review hundreds of personal profiles. As other lifestyles become more acceptable, you must choose whether to get married and whether to have children. You develop your own sense of self by continually examining your situation, reflecting on it, and deciding whether to alter your behavior as a result. People pay attention to their experiences and make changes in their lives if they are not satisfied. They want to continue to grow and change throughout adulthood.”
I’m not a modernist.
My sense of identity (White, Southern, Protestant) is ascriptive and traditional. It comes from my culture. My sense of morality which is based on religion, honor and virtue ethics is also traditional. I’ve rejected the poison that is pulsating through America popular culture because the depth of my understanding of history far exceeds 99.9999% of my peers. My sense of self is based on traditional roles like son, husband and father. My sense of culture and politics is an organic form of conservatism.
“It encourages people to view the success of their partnerships in individualistic terms. And it suggests that commitments to spouses and partners are personal choices that can be, and perhaps should be, ended if they become unsatisfying.
The World Values Surveys asked about expressive individualism using a cluster of questions that contrast “survival versus self expression” values. The answers to these questions suggest that the level of expressive individualism among Americans is high but not out of line for a wealthy Western nation, a little below that in Sweden and the Netherlands, comparable to the levels in Norway and West Germany, and greater than in Britain, Canada, or France. One question in this cluster asked people to place themselves on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 means that they think the actions they take have no real effect on what happens to them (which indicates survival values) and 10 means they think they have completely free choice ad control over their lives (self-expression values). More Americans placed themselves at the free choice end than did people in any other Western country, but some of the other countries were close: 82 percent of Americans chose, 7,8,9, or 10, compared to 77 percent of Canadians, 74 percent of Swedes, and 73 percent of Germans.
The cultural model of individualism, then, holds that self-development and personal satisfaction are the key rewards of an intimate partnership. Your partnership must provide you with the opportunity to develop your sense of who you are and to express that sense through your relations with your partner. If it does not, then you should end it.
Cohabiting relationships, especially those without children, come closest to this kind of partnership. They are held together solely by the voluntary commitments of the partners, and should either party become dissatisfied with the relationship, it is expected that she or he will end it. The rise of cohabitation reflects the growing influence of the cultural model of individualism on personal and family life. Living together provides a way of obtaining the emotional rewards of a partnership while minimizing the commitment to it.
Even among married couples, we have seen the rise of what Barbara Whitehead calls “expressive divorce.” Beginning in the 1960s people began to judge the success of their marriages not by their material standard of living or how well they raised children but rather by whether they felt their personal needs were being fulfilled. They turned inward and examined whether their marriages restricted their personal development. They were more likely to turn to psychotherapists for help in seeking out the causes of their unhappiness with their marriages. And if they perceived that their marriages were personally unfulfilling, they considered leaving. According to this logic, if a person finds that he or she has changed since marriage in a direction different from the one his or her spouse has taken, then that person is justified in leaving the marriage in order to express this newer, fuller sense of self. It’s too bad, the feeling goes, especially if the couple is raising children, but to stay in a marriage that constrains the partners’ sense of who they are would be worse.
Concerning family life, then, the cultural model of individualism in the United States today emphasizes these elements:
– One’s primary obligation is to oneself rather than to one’s partner and children.
– Individuals must make choices over the life course about the kinds of intimate lives they wish to lead.
– A variety of living arrangements are acceptable.
– People who are personally dissatisfied with their marriages and other intimate partnerships are justified in ending them.
As a twenty-first century individual, you must choose your style of personal life. You are allowed to – in fact, you are almost required to – continually monitor your sense of self and to look inward to see how well your inner life fits with your married (or cohabiting life). If the fit deteriorates, you are almost required to leave. For according to the cultural model of individualism, a relationship that no longer fits your needs is inauthentic and hollow. It limits the personal rewards that you, and perhaps your partner, can achieve. In this event, a breakup is unfortunate, but you will, and must, move on.”
Here are some statistics from the book:
1.) Median age at first marriage for women: United States, 25
The numbers for Sweden, West Germany, and France are 31, 32, and 33, respectively.
2.) Percent ever married by age 40 for women: United States, 84
The numbers for Sweden, West Germany, and France are 70, 59, and 68, respectively.
3.) Percentage of marriages ending in separation or divorce within five years of marriage: United States, 23
The numbers for Sweden, West Germany, and France are 11, 12, and 8, respectively.
4.) Percentage of cohabiting relationship disrupted after five years: United States, 55
The numbers for Sweden, West Germany, and France are 37, 32, and 29, respectively. By international standards, Americans aren’t very good at marriage or cohabitation.
5.) Percentage of children who experience the dissolution of their parents’ intimate partnership (married or cohabiting) by age fifteen: United States, 40
The numbers for Sweden, West Germany, and France are 30, 29, and 33, respectively. Interestingly, the number for New Zealand is 42. Kiwis with children are even worse at marriage and cohabitation than Americans.
6.) Percentage of children seeing a new partner enter their home within three years of a parental disruption (from either a marriage or cohabiting relationship: United States, 47
The numbers for Sweden, West Germany, and France are 32, 29, and 23, respectively. In Norway, it is 41.
7.) Percent who have spent time as a lone parent by age thirty: United States, 33
The numbers for Sweden, West Germany, and France are 15, 12, and 14, respectively.
8.) Percentage of children born to lone parents who have experienced a new parental partner entering the home by age three: United States, 37
The numbers for Sweden, West Germany, and France are 29, 32, and 13, respectively.
9.) Percentage of women who had experienced more three or more coresidential partnerships by age thirty-five, for all women over the age of thirty-five at the time of FFS interviews: United States, 9.5
The numbers for Sweden, West Germany, and France are 4.5, 2.9, and 1.3, respectively.
10.) Percentage of children experiencing exactly two maternal coresidential partnerships by age 15 for all children over age fifteen at the time of FFS interviews: United States, 21.4
The numbers for Sweden, West Germany, and France are 15.8, 13.5, and 8.2, respectively.
11.) Percentage of marriages ending in separation or divorce in fifteen years: Non-Religious Americans, 54; Religious Americans, 39; Swedes, 28; West Germans, 27; French, 30.
12.) Percentage of unions begun as cohabitations that end in separation within fifteen years (whether or not the couple married in the intervening time): Non-Religious Americans, 76; Religious Americans, 68; Swedes, 56; West Germans, 51; French, 48.
There is nothing left to conserve.
We can only reject “mainstream” culture and create a new one.
Note: I’m looking forward to Carl Trueman’s book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution which is coming out next month.