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Our Social Transformation Through Wisdom of Near-Collapse

November 22, 2010

Rhys Alton

I recently finished the final posting for a very intense seminar entitled Ethics After Postmodern. It was a tough class. Really tested my metal and at times I didn’t know if I would pull through. (But I did!)

The class was divided into 5 units, each representing a successive stage in the development of postmodernism propelling arguments. The last, featuring Thoreau (1864/2009), Emerson (1841/1993), and DuBois (1903) and several contemporary thinkers seemed a bit of throwback. As you already figured out many of the readings were written prior to most of those throughout the class and prior to much of what we have come to know as the postmodern problematic. Where was the developmental link? I was initially stumped when I attempted to make sense of how Thoreau (1864/2009), Emerson (1841/1993), and DuBois (1903) stood as a response to the likes of Lyotard (1994), Derrida (1978), and Rorty (1990). It seemed simply nostalgic, or—dare I even say?—regressive.

But then I thought of Lyotard’s (1984) intimation that the postmodern consciousness actually preceded the modern; that the postmodern was, in truth, a project that aimed to return to the purity of form and intent that existed prior to the introduction of the modern and its veneer of metanarratives. So in order to grasp the significance of these works as a call toward more meaningful personal ethic I had, like the mythical Janus, to look in two directions at once—the past and the future. And this made sense. The celebration of the unfettered spirit that Emerson (1841/1993) proclaims when he cries “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature” (¶7) is the same kind of uncompromising individualism Michel Foucault (1994) spoke of when he suggested that the key to developing a meaningful personal ethic was rapport à soi, or a relation to oneself.


However, for me, this same assertion of the self that the postmodernists and the transcendentalists so exalted presented some substantial sticking points–not the least of which was its fundamental narcissistic tone and intent. For example, when Emerson (1841/1993) goes on to trumpet that “the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it” (¶7), I am left thinking “Well, ok…but what about the social bond?

Does the self simply trump our bonds (deeper or not) to our community and the broader social fabric? You must forgive me if I digress towards the prosaic for just a moment, but we have some really, really big challenges before us these days—as in the biggest financial collapse since the Great Depression. Economist Umair Haque (2009) writing in the “Harvard Business Review” sums our situation up nicely when he observes “This is no mere recession: it’s a tectonic global shift in savings, consumption, and investment. Today’s macropocalypse is a rupture in the global economic fabric – and the next half-decade will be spent reweaving it” (¶4).

Frankly, if our aim is a reweaving, I don’t know how much help we can derive from a personal ethic based only on Emerson’s avowal that “the only right is what is after my constitution” (¶7). Something more is needed; and as we outfit ourselves to move ahead and trudge the road of economic—and should we also mention, ecological?—survival I will submit that a more interdisciplinary lens is needed to help fix our bearings on the road ahead. We must pull from a more expansive pallet if we are to access the authenticity of our hearts and the deepest rigor our minds to craft a resilient and sustainable moral code.

A Developmental Turn

This challenge could open a very large cache of options and opinions that, at present, I am unable to explore. For that reason, I need to suggest something of an odd turn: to gain a clearer vision of how these intellectual traditions can aid us in the journey ahead we will need to shift focus a bit and apply the lessons gleaned from adult psychological development theory. Applying such a lens to the broader canvas of contemporary social models will reward us with much greater insight into (a) how those models have worked to further the agenda of social progress, and (b) help us to integrate what is best in those former traditions without repeating their mistakes.

Hm. That’s still a huge call for a short posting (though, getting longer by the minute I’m sorry to say!). Here’s a quick lesson: Developmental psychologists like Erikson, Piaget, Gebser, and Kegan all seemed to agree that psychological development of adult humans continues through stages that reach far into the adult years. What is more, the stage-based developmental models each of these gentlemen advances features similar configurations of developmental stages. The earliest adult stage is highlighted by formal, rational thinking. During this stage fixed rules and group solidarity are paramount. Applied to the social canvas, this is the modernist era.

But then challenges arise which modernist values cannot surmount. Usually these challenges take the form of crises in which the limits of conformity create pain that call for a far more individualistic world view. Thoreau (1864/2009) speaks a great deal about this. Witness Thoreau shake the cage of conformity when he cries that “…men have become the tools of their tools. The man who independently plucked the fruits when he was hungry is become a farmer; and he who stood under a tree for shelter, a housekeeper” (p. 51). This same ire is echoed more than 100 years later in the writings of seminal postmodernist thinkers like Lyotard (1984) who, like Thoreau, also called for renunciation in the form of an “incredulity toward metanarratives” (p. xxiv). While such writing emboldened a whole generation of artists and critical thinkers, to move forward a deeper perspective was needed.

An Inward Turn

Very often the dissonance between the problems in one’s environment and the failure of one’s worldview to make adequate sense out of the problems leads to tremendous pain. Many retreat to aggression and cynicism—as often sensed in many postmodernist writings–while the community’s real change agents undergo profound shifts in awareness by looking inward for the source of external transformation.  Anzaldua (1987) spoke of such a shift with lyricism and grace:

The struggle has always been inner, and is played out in the outer terrains. Awareness of our situation must come before inner changes, which in turn come before changes in society. Nothing happens in the “real” world unless it first happens in the images in our heads. (p. 109)

This change can often take the form of a full scale breakdown as old ways of meaning-making become completely inadequate to meet the sophisticated nature of the problems being faced. This is the point at which Anzaldua’s “new consciousness” (p. 102) emerges, the point at which the person—in one form or another—follows her counsel to “Deconstruct/construct” (p. 104). Everything gets torn down, so that it may be rebuilt in a form more suited to the emerging paradigm. Emerson (1841/1993) sensed this same resilient, emergent potential when he observed that the “one fact the world hates, that the soul becomes” (¶ 26, italics in original).

Looking to the psychologists, they tell us that when the psyche moves out of the deeply individualistic stage, it begins to experience a much more integrated kind of communal affiliation. The spirit–fuller and more individuated from its own inward journey of discovery–now finds it needs regular engagement with other individuals as well as the larger community in order to continue its process of development. We see this communal affiliation in the pragmatist thinkers like Dewey, James, and Rorty. Notice, for example, Rorty’s (1999) call to a communal experience when he suggests that moral progress is really “a matter of increasing sensitivity, increasing responsiveness to the needs of a larger and larger variety of people and things…[an] increasing ability to respond to the concerns of ever larger groups of people” (p. 81, italics in original).

As I noted earlier, this is not simply a matter of convenience or an exercise in self-indulgence; the shift toward a more communal awareness becomes a matter of survival as crises arise which can only be solved by such a perspective. Again we will look to Haque (2009) who points out that if we are to survive the current economic collapse, it will be–not because of bailouts or economic stimulus packages—but from a fundamental shift in how we think about the flow of money and resources. Specifically Haque points to the emergence of collaborative economic structures and makes the case that  “value chains built on inert channels are significantly less profitable than value chains built on circuits – two-way channels” (¶ 4).

Foucault Reconsidered. Briefly.

In closing let us return, just ever so briefly, to Michel Foucault (1994). If you’ll recall Foucault felt that the most important expression of a personal ethic was rapport à soi, or relation with oneself. Given all that has been discussed above, I would like to be so bold as to suggest a revision to Foucaut’s prescriptive, as to better accommodate our present challenges as well as those ahead. The struggles we now face can only be solved with a more networked, communal, and emotionally-intelligent understanding of the world and its people, as such they call for a personal ethic grounded not so much in a relation with oneself as a self through relation. This means that the self will only be able to experience its full expression once it has been given the opportunity to engage in relationship to other and community.

Indeed there is so much more to say about this topic—and hopefully, with time and reflection, I’ll be able to do so far some succinctly(!!). However, in the meantime, if you have made it this far, I’d be tremendously grateful to hear whatever thoughts, critiques, or insights you might have.




Anzaldua, G. (1987). Borderlands/La Frontera. San Francisco:  Aunt Lute Books.

DuBois, W. E. B. (1903). The souls of black folk. Retrieved from

Emerson, R. W. (1841/1993). Self-reliance, and other essays. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

Foucault, M. (1994). The Foucault reader. New York: Pantheon Books.

Haque, U. (2009, January 7). A user’s guide to 21st century economics [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Lyotard, J. F. (1984). The postmodern condition:  A report on knowledge (G. Bennington & B. Massumi, Trans).  Minneapolis:  University of Minneapolis Press.

Rorty, R  (1999). Ethics without principles. In Philosophy and Social Hope (pp. 72-90). New York: Penguin Books.

Thoreau, H. D. (1864/2009). Walden, or life in the woods. (L. Ross, Ed.). New York: Sterling Publishing Company.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 22, 2010 3:50 am

    Totally agree. Check out this article on my website which articulates the African notion that a person is a person through other people. Appreciate what you write very much. Thank you! We need to move in towards communally expressed humanity in order to meet the complexity of the shared challenges in our planet with collective wisdom to co-create a world which works for all.

    Greetings to you from South Africa.

    • December 11, 2010 9:50 pm

      So sorry for my tardy response but I wanted to say thanks so much for comments. I’m printing out the article (looks compelling!). I’ll touch back soon with my thoughts.

      Also, this whole idea of “communally expressed humanity” (great phrase) is a real important one. My whole fascination with dialogue is based its potential for offering a simple yet powerful tool for a direct experience of our collective identity. As you note, it’s an important move and I think only good can come.


  2. November 23, 2010 5:13 pm

    Fascinating experience following your line of inquiry! I can’t help thinking, as I read your argument here, that what you’re describing in the failure of Emerson’s and the other transcendentalists’ ethics is precisely what we’re seeing thrown up in our faces by the shenanigans of Sarah Palin and her non-dancer daughter.

    “However, for me, this same assertion of the self that the postmodernists and the transcendentalists so exalted presented some substantial sticking points–not the least of which was its fundamental narcissistic tone and intent. For example, when Emerson (1841/1993) goes on to trumpet that “the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it” (¶7), I am left thinking “Well, ok…but what about the social bond?”

    This seems to be the fundamental philosophy of the Tea Party – as it is being championed by Sarah Palin, anyway. And I’m left asking the same question you have.

    Lovely to run into your thinking online today. You should come join the conversation on Amplify. Lots of folks there thinking through these kinds of things together…thinking you would enjoy the platform and the community, too:

    • December 11, 2010 10:05 pm

      Again, so sorry Meri for the delayed response to such thoughtful comments. I am very far from an expert on these matters, but I think the thread of self-interest runs so deep in our national psyche that it’s now quite hard to know what is serving the greater good. Like you, I have concern about the deepening tide of fundamentalism underscoring so much of our nation’s political rhetoric. The little I know of social psychology tells me that this kind of thinking is often a fear-filled cry for coherence and order. Trite as it might sound, I don’t think we can fight fear with fear and–as you suggest–I also get very wary of any line of thinking that attempts to build its validity upon the denigration of others.

      And, yes, I’m on Amplify: and I just ‘followed’ you!

      Thanks again.


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