The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 19 No. 1 (Spring 2017)

From the Editor

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2017

(Volume 19 | Issue 1)

The past is a foreign country,” wrote the British author L.P. Hartley in his 1953 novel, The Go-Between. But almost before Hartley’s words acquired the status of proverb, something curious happened. Thanks largely to the dizzying pace of change that technology has made almost routine, the present itself became a foreign country—alien, but in the most deceptive of ways. In this curious present, we discern only with difficulty how things that seem familiar and fixed are actually, upon closer investigation, strange and unsettled. One day, for example, we think the reality of “reality TV” is anything but real; the next day we discover that it most shockingly is—and maybe has been for much longer than we realized. If we have not quite arrived at Orwellian Newspeak, in which war is peace and love is hate, then we are somewhere not far off. In this here and now, where meanings and norms shift shapes right before our eyes, we are strangers in, and to, our own time.

That strangeness is in no respect more unsettling than in relation to the very selves we are becoming. Yes, it goes almost without saying that every individual self is unique, but all selves are also inescapably shaped by beliefs, norms, ideals, and meanings that make up the totality of a specific culture at a specific time. Until now at least, those underlying and defining elements of a culture benefited from a certain stability—or at least the appearance of such amid what might be described, more precisely, as gradually changing continuity. In the increasingly alien present, however, the very character of our culture (some would even say our anti-culture) is the absence of such stability and continuity, both having been displaced by the discontinuous, disruptive, and destabilizing force of change, a force that is now celebrated, and even idolized, for its own sake. “The age demanded an image / Of its accelerated grimace,” Ezra Pound wrote in 1920, anticipating in his mad-brilliant way the cultic worship of rapacious, insatiable change that subjects the world and its inhabitants to various logics—bureaucratic, political, economic, and technological—that were intended to control change but instead have escaped the mastery and even the understanding of their human creators.

So, then, what sort of selves are we becoming in this age that we call, for lack of a better word, post-modern; this age that still lives off the legacies of modernity, even as we post-moderns question, doubt, and mock the very authority of those legacies, reducing truths of all kind, and even the more modest pursuit of truth, to the wink-and-why-not of truthiness? To capture some sense of the self at this post-modern moment, we have asked our contributors to identify and explain key features of a deeper cultural code beneath the shifting, fluid field of our anti-culture. We have asked them to interpret various attitudes, dispositions, practices, popular tastes, trends, and literary and pop-cultural works to uncover deeper meanings and values shaping our individual lives, usually without our being aware that they do. Author and critic David Bosworth launches the discussion by identifying important features of the post-modern person in the emergence of a new way of thinking about the world, a knowing with (which he dubs “conscientious thinking”) in which the autonomy and supremacy of the individual yields, in many spheres of social and intellectual life, to the power and authority of the collective, the hive. Historian Wilfred McClay, in his essay, explains how conflicted feelings about progress reveal the strange persistence of guilt, an emotion supposedly banished with the modern slaying of God. To get at what we think about the extent and efficacy of our own moral agency, critic and journalist Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig considers various popular representations of evil in books, film, and television shows. Philosopher Mary Townsend sees a fundamental crisis of being behind the rash of suicides afflicting our campuses today, a phenomenon too often addressed, and explained away, as nothing more than a mental health problem. And finally, historian Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn sees an interesting turn in our vast contemporary self-help industry in the recovery of certain ancient traditions of self-making, but she questions whether these traditions will provide a helpful antidote to the pervasive consumerist-therapeutic ethic or whether they too will be subsumed and co-opted by it. If there is a note of urgency in all of these critical investigations, it emerges not from a sense of despair but, rather, from a shared belief that, even if the present is a foreign country, nothing human in it should remain alien to us.

One note on usage: Throughout this issue, we have taken the prerogative of spelling post-modern and postmodern in different and mutually distinguishing ways. The former applies simply to the age that follows the end of modernity, described most aptly by the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci as one in which the old world is dying and the new one struggles to be born. By contrast, we use postmodern when it refers to the broad intellectual and artistic movement that took form (not very helpfully, we would argue) in response to the exhaustion of modernity.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 19.1 (Spring 2017). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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