The Ironies of Modern Progress and Infantilization (by Ben Cain)
It’s commonly observed that we tend to rationalize our flaws and failings, to avoid the pain of cognitive dissonance, so that we all come to think of ourselves as fundamentally good persons even though many of us must instead be bad if “good” is to have any contrastive meaning. Societies, too, often exhibit pride which leads their chief representatives to embarrass themselves by declaring that their nation is the greatest that’s ever been in history. Both the ancients and the moderns did this, but it’s hard to deny the facts of modern technological acceleration. Just in the last century, global and instant communications have been established, intelligent machines run much of our infrastructure, robots have taken over many menial jobs, the awesome power of nuclear weapons has been demonstrated, and humans have visited the moon. We tend to think that the social impact of such uniquely powerful machines must be for the better. We speak casually, therefore, of technological advance or progress.
The familiar criticism of technology is that it destroys at least as much as it creates, so that the optimists tell only one side of the story. I’m not going to argue that neo-Luddite case here. Instead, I’m interested in the source of our judgment about progress through technology. Ironically, the more modern technology we see, the less reason we have to think there’s any kind of progress at all. This is because modernists from Descartes and Galileo onward have been compelled to distinguish between real and superficial properties, the former being physical and quantitative and the latter being subjective and qualitative. Examples of the superficial, “secondary” aspects are the contents of consciousness, but also symbolic meaning, purpose, and moral value, which include the normative idea of progress. For the most part, modernists think of subjective qualities as illusory, and because they devised scientific methods of investigation that bypass personal impressions and biases, modernists acquired knowledge of how natural processes actually work, which has enabled us to produce so much technology. So it’s curious to hear so many of us still assuming that our societies are generally superior to premodern ones, thanks in particular to our technological advantage. On the contrary, our technology is arguably the sign of a cognitive development that renders such an assumption vacuous.
Animism and Angst
One way of making sense of this apparent lack of social awareness is to point out that there are always elites who understand their society better than do the masses. And we could add that because the modern technological changes have happened so swiftly and have such staggering implications, many people won’t catch up to them or will even pretend there are no such consequences because they’re horrifying. But I think this makes for only part of the explanation. The masses aren’t merely ignoring the materialistic implications of science or the bad omens that technologies represent; instead, they have a commonsense conviction that technology must be good because it improves our lives.
In short, most citizens of modern, technologically-developed societies are pragmatic about technology. If you asked them whether they think their societies are better than earlier ones, they’d say yes and if you asked them why, they’d say that technology enables us to do what we want more efficiently, which is to say that technology empowers us to achieve our goals. And it turns out that this pragmatic attitude is more or less consistent with modern materialism. There’s no appeal here to some transcendent ideal, but just an egocentric view of technologies as useful tools. So our societies are more advanced than ancient ones because the ancients had to work harder to achieve their goals, whereas modern technology makes our lives easier. Mind you, this assumes that everyone in history has had some goals in common, and indeed our instinctive, animalistic desires are universal in so far as they’re matters of biology. By contrast, if all societies were alien and incommensurable to each other, national pride would be egregiously irrational. And most people probably also assume that our universal desires ought to be satisfied, because we have human rights, so that there’s moral force behind this social progress.
The instincts to acquire shelter, food, sex, power, and prestige, however, seem to me likewise insufficient to explain our incessant artificialization of nature. There’s another universal urge, which we can think of as the existential one and this is the need to overcome our fear of the ultimate natural truths. There are two ways of doing so, with authenticity or with inauthenticity, which is to say with honour, integrity, and creativity or with delusions arising from a weak will. (Again, this raises the question of whether even these values make sense in the naturalistic picture, and I’ll come back to this at the end of this article.) Elsewhere, I talk about the ancient worldviews as glorifying our penchant for personification. Prehistoric animists saw all of nature as alive, partly because hardly anything at that time was redesigned and refashioned to suit human interests and the predominant wilderness was full of plant and animal life. Also, the ancients hadn’t learned to repress their childlike urge to vent the products of their imagination. At that time, populations were sparse and there were no machines standing as solemn proofs of objective facts; moreover, there wasn’t much historical information to humble the Paleolithic peoples with knowledge of opposing views and thus to rein in their speculations. For such reasons, those ancients must have confronted the world much as all children do—at least with respect to their trust in their imagination.
More precisely, they didn’t confront the world at all. When a modern adult rises in the morning, she leaves behind her irrational dreams and prides herself on believing that she controls her waking hours with her autonomous and rational ego. By contrast, there’s no such divergence between the child’s dream life and waking hours, since the child’s dreams spill into her playful interpretations of everything that happens to her. To be sure, modern children have their imagination tempered by the educational system that’s bursting at the seams with lessons from history. But children generally have only a fuzzy distinction between subject and object. That distinction becomes paramount after the technoscientific proofs of the world’s natural impersonality. The world has always been impersonal and amoral, but only modernists have every reason to believe as much and thus only we inheritors of that knowledge face the starkest existential choice between personal authenticity and its opposite. The prehistoric protopeople, who were still experimenting with their newly acquired excess brain power, faced no such decision between intellectual integrity and flagrant self-deception. They didn’t choose to personify the world, because they knew no different; instead, they projected their mental creations onto the wilderness with childlike abandon and so distracted themselves from their potential to understand the nature of the world’s apparent indifference. After all, in spite of the relative abundance of the ancient environments, things didn’t always go the ancients’ way; they suffered and died like everyone else. Moreover, even early humans were much cleverer than most other species.
Thus, the ancients weren’t so innocent or ignorant that they felt no fear, if only because few animals are that helpless. But human fear differs from the reactionary animal kind, because ours has an existential dimension due to the breadth of our categories and thus of our understanding. Humans attach labels to so many things in the world not just because we’re curious, but because we’re audacious and we have excess (redundant) brain capacity. Animals feel immediate pain and perhaps even the alienness of the world beyond their home territory, but not the profound horror of death’s inexorability or of the world’s undeadness, which is to say the fear of nature’s way of developing (through complexification, natural selection, and the laws of probability) without any normative reason. Animals don’t see the world for what it is, because their vision and thus their concern are so narrow, whereas we’ve looked far out into the macrocosmic and microcosmic magnitudes of the universe. We’ve found no reassuring Mind at the bottom of anything, not even in our bodies. Our overactive brains compel us to care about aspects of the world that are bad for our mental health, and so we’re liable to feel anxious. And as I say, we cope with that anxiety in different ways.
Modernity and Infantilization
But how does this existentialism relate to the source of our myth of modern progress? Well, I see a comparison between prehistoric, mythopoeic reverie and the modern consumer’s infantilization. In each case, we have a lack of enlightenment, a retreat from rational neutrality, and an intermixing of subject and object. I’ve discussed the mythopoeic worldview elsewhere, so here I’ll just say that it amounts to thinking of the world as entirely enchanted and filled with vitality. Again, the modern revolutions (science and capitalistic industry) have led to our disenchantment with nature, because we’ve been forced to see the world as dead inside. That’s why late modernists are at best pragmatic about progress. We must somehow express our naïve pride in ourselves and in our self-destructive modern nations, because we prefer not to suffer as alienated outsiders. But modernity’s ideal of ultrarationality makes absolutist and xenophobic pride seem uncivilized—although American audiences are notorious for stooping to that sort of savagery when they chant “USA! USA!” to quell disturbances in their proceedings. In any case, we postmodern pragmatists think of progress as being relative to our interests.
Arguably, then, we should all be despairing, nihilistic antinatalists, cheering on our species’ extinction to spare us more horror from our accursed powers of reason, because of the atheistic implications of science-led philosophical naturalism. But something funny happened along the way to the postmodern now, which is that our high-tech environment has driven most of us to revert to the mythopoeic trance. We, too, collapse the distinction between subject and object, because we’re not surrounded by the wilderness that science has shown to be the “product” of undead forces; instead, we’ve blocked out that world from our daily life and immersed ourselves in our technosphere. That artificial world is at our beck and call: our technology is designed for us and it answers to us a thousand times a day. Science has not yet shown us to be exactly as impersonal as the lifeless universe and so we can take comfort in our amenities as we assume that while there’s no spirit under any rock, there’s a mind behind every iPhone.
So while we’re aware of the scientist’s abstract concept of the physical object, we don’t typically experience the world as including such absurdly remote quantities. Heidegger spoke of the pragmatic stance as the instrumentalization of every object, in which case we can look at a rock and see a potential tool, a “ready-to-hand” helper, not just an impersonal, undead and “given” object. (This is in contrast to objectification, in which we treat things only as “present-to-hand,” or as submitting to scientific scrutiny. The latter seems to reduce to the former, though, since objectification is still anthropocentric, in that the object is viewed not as a fully independent noumenon, but as a subject of human explanation and that makes it a sort of tool. True objectivity is the torment not of scientists but of those suffering from angst on account of their experience of nature’s horrible indifference and undeadness. True objectivity is just angst, when we despair that we can’t do anything with the world because we’re not at home in it and nature marches on regardless. All other attitudes, roughly speaking, are pragmatic.) In any case, the modern environment surpasses that instrumentalism with infantilization, because we late modernists usually encounter actual artifacts, not just potential ones. The big cities, at least, are almost entirely artificial places. Of course, everything in a city is also physical, on some level of scientific explanation, but that’s irrelevant to how we interpret the world we experience. A city is made up of artifacts and artifacts are objects whose functions extend the intentions of some subjects. Thus, hypermodern places bridge the divide between subjects and objects at the experiential level.
However, that’s only a precondition of infantilization. What is it for an adult to live as a child? To answer this, we need standards of psychological adulthood and infancy. My idea of adulthood derives from the modern myths of liberty and rational self-empowerment. Ours is a modern world, albeit one infected with our postmodern self-doubts, so it’s fitting that we be judged according to the standards set by modern European cultures. The modern individual, then, is liberated by the Enlightenment’s break with the past, made free to pursue her self-interest. Above all, this individual is rational since reason makes for her autonomy. Moreover, she’s skeptical of authority and tradition, since the modern experience is of how ancient Church teachings became dogmas that stifled the pursuit of more objective knowledge; indeed, the Church demonized and persecuted those who posed untraditional questions. The modern adult idolizes our hero, the Scientist, who relies on her critical faculties to uncover the truth, which is to say that the modern adult should be expected to be fearlessly individualistic in her assessments and tastes. Finally, this adult should be cosmopolitan—which is very different from Catholic universalism, for example. The Catholic has a vision of everyone’s obligation to convert to Catholicism, whereas the modernist appreciates everyone’s equal potential for self-determination, and so the modernist is classically liberal in welcoming a wide variety of opinions and lifestyles.
What, then, are the relevant characteristics of an infant? The infant is almost entirely dependent on a higher power. A biological infant has no choice in the matter and her infancy is only a stage in a process of maturation. Similarly, an infantile adult lacks autonomy and may be fed information in the same way a biological infant is fed food. For example, a cult member who defers to the charismatic leader in all matters of judgment is infantile with respect to that act of self-surrender. Many premodern cultures have been likewise infantile and our notion of modern progress compares the transition from that anti-modern version of maturity to the modern ideal of the individual’s rational autonomy, with the baby’s growth into a more independent being.
That’s the theory, anyway. The reality is that modern science is wedded to industry which applies our knowledge of nature, and the resulting artificial world infantilizes the masses. How so? For starters, through the post-WWII capitalistic imperative to grow the economy through hyper-consumption. Artificial demand is stimulated through propaganda, which is to say through mostly irrational, associative advertising. The demand is artificial in that it’s manufactured by corporations that have mastered the inhuman science of persuasion. That demand is met by mass-produced supply, the products of which tend to be planned for obsolescence and thus shoddier than they need to be.
The familiar result is the rebranding of the two biologically normal social classes: the rich and powerful alphas and everyone else (the following masses). Modern wealth is rationalized with myths of self-determination and genius, since no credible appeal can be made now to the divine right of kings. Mind you, the exception has been the creation of distinct middle classes which is due to socialist policies in liberal parts of the world that challenge the social Darwinian cynicism that’s implicit in capitalism. Maintaining a middle class in a capitalistic society, though, is a Sisyphean task: it’s like pushing a boulder up a hill we’re doomed to have to keep reclimbing. The middle class members are fattened like livestock awaiting slaughter by the predators that are groomed by capitalistic institutions such as the elite business schools. And so the middle class inevitably goes into debt and joins the poor, while the wealthy consolidate their power as the ruling oligarchs, as has happened in Canada and the US. (For more on what are effectively the hidden differences between democratic liberals and capitalistic conservatives, see here.)
The masses, then, are targeted by the propaganda arm of modern industry, while the wealthy live in a more rarified world. For example, the wealthy tend not to watch television, they’re not in the market for cheap, mass-produced merchandise, and they don’t even gullibly link their self-worth to their hording of possessions in the crass materialistic fashion. No, the oligarchs who come to power through the capitalistic competition have a much graver flaw: they’re as undead as the rest of nature, which makes them fitting avatars of nature’s inhumanity. Those who are obsessed with becoming very powerful or who are corrupted by their power tend to be sociopathic, which means they lack the ability to care what others feel. For that reason, the power elite are more like machines than people: they tend not to be idealistic and so associative advertising won’t work on them, since that kind of advertising construes the consumption of a material good as a means of fulfilling an archetypal desire. Of course, the relatively poor masses are just the opposite: burdened by their conscience, they trust that our modern world isn’t a horror show. Thus, they’re all-too ready to seek advice from advertisers on how to be happy, even though advertisers are actually deeply cynical. The masses are thereby indoctrinated into cultural materialism.
Workers in the service industry literally talk to the customer as if she were a baby, constantly smiling and speaking in a lilting, sing-songy voice; telling the customer whatever she wants to hear, because the customer is always right (just as Baby gets whatever it wants); working like a dog to satisfy the customer as though the latter were the boss and the true adult in the room—but she’s not. The real power elite don’t deal directly with lowly service providers, such as the employees of the average mall. Their underlings do both their buying and their selling for them, so that they needn’t mix with lower folk. This is why George H. W. Bush had never before seen a grocery scanner. No, the service provider is the surrogate parent who is available around the clock to service the consumer, just as a mother must be prepared at any moment to drop everything and attend to Baby. The consumer is the baby—and a whining, selfish one she is at that. That’s the unsettling truth obscured by the illusion of freedom in a consumption-driven society. A consumer can choose which brand name to support out of the hundreds she surveys in the department store, and that bewildering selection reassures her that she’s living the modern dream. But just as the democratic privileges in an effective plutocracy are superficial and structurally irrelevant, so too the consumer’s freedom of choice is belied by her lack of what Isaiah Berlin calls positive freedom. Consumers have negative freedom in that they’re free from coercion so that they can do whatever they want (as long as they don’t hurt anyone). But they lack the positive freedom of being able to fulfill their potential.
In particular, consumers fail to live up to the above ideal of modern adulthood. Choosing which brand of soft drink to buy, when you’ve been indoctrinated by a materialistic culture, is like an infant preferring to receive milk from the left breast rather than the right. Obviously, the deeper choice is to prefer something other than limitless consumption, but that choice is anathema because it’s bad for business. Still, in so far as we have the potential to be mature in the modern sense, to be like those iconoclastic early modern scientists who overcame their Christian culture by way of discovering for themselves how the real world works, we manic consumers have fallen far short. Almost all of us are grossly immature, regardless of how old we are or whether consumer-friendly psychologists pronounce us “normal.”
Now, you might think I’ve established, at best, not a one-way dependence of the masses on the plutocrats, but a sort of sadomasochistic interdependence between them. After all, the producers need consumers to buy their goods, just as a farmer needs to maintain his livestock out of self-interest. Unfortunately, this isn’t so in the globalized world, since the predators of our age have learned that they can express the nihilism at the heart of social Darwinian capitalism, without reservation, just by draining one country of its resources at a time and then by taking their business to a developing country when the previous host has expired, perhaps one day returning as that prior host revivifies in something like the Spenglerian manner. Thus, while it’s true that sellers need buyers, in general, it’s not the case that transnational sellers need any particular country’s buyers, as long as some country somewhere includes willing and able customers. But whereas the transnational sellers don’t need any particular consumers and the consumers can choose between brands (even though companies tend to merge to avoid competing, becoming monopolies or oligopolies), there’s asymmetry in the fact that the mass consumer’s self-worth is attached to consumption and thus to the buyer-seller relationship, whereas that’s not so for the wealthy producers.
Again, that’s because the more power you have, the more dehumanized you become, so that the power elite can’t afford moral principles or a conscience or a vision of a better world. Those who come to be in positions of great power become custodians of the social system (the dominance hierarchy), and all such systems tend to have unequal power distributions so that they can be efficiently managed. (To take a classic example, soviet communism failed largely because its system had to waste so much energy on the pretense that its power wasn’t centralized.) Centralized power naturally corrupts the leaders or else it attracts those who are already corrupt or amoral. So powerful leaders are disproportionately inhuman, psychologically speaking. (I take it this is the kernel of truth in David Icke’s conspiracy theory that our rulers are secretly evil lizards from another dimension.) Although the oligarch may be inclined to consume for her pleasure and indeed she obviously has many more material possessions than the average consumer, the oligarch attaches no value to consumption, because she’s without human feeling. She feels pleasure and pain like most animals, but she lacks complex, altruistic emotions. Ironically, then, the more wealth and power you have, the fewer human rights you ought to have. (For more on this naturalistic, albeit counterintuitive interpretation of oligarchy, see here.)
In any case, to return to the childish consumer, the point is that consumption-driven capitalism infantilizes the masses by establishing this asymmetric relationship between transnational producer and the average buyer. Just as a biological baby is almost wholly dependent on its guardian, the average consumer depends on the economic system that satisfies her craving for more and more material goods. The wealthy consume because they’re predatory machines, like viruses that are only semi-alive, but the masses consume because we’ve been misled into believing that owning things makes us happy and we dearly want to be happy. We think wealth and power liberate us, because with enough money we can buy whatever we want. But we forget the essence of our modern ideal or else we’ve outgrown that ideal in our postmodern phase. What makes the modern individual heroic is her independence, which is why our prototypes (Copernicus, Galileo, Bruno, Darwin, Nietzsche) were modern especially because of their socially subversive inquiries. We consumers aren’t nearly so modern or individualistic, regardless of our libertarian or pragmatic bluster. As consumers, we’re dependent on the mass producers and on our material possessions themselves. We’re not autonomous iconoclasts, we’re just politically correct followers. We don’t think for ourselves, but put our faith in the contemptible balderdash of corporate propaganda. We haven’t the rationality even to laugh at the foolish fallacies that are the bread and butter of associative ads. It doesn’t matter what we say or write; if we enjoy consuming material goods, our subconscious has been colonized by materialistic memes and so our working values are as shallow as they can be without being as empty as those of the animalistic power elite. As consumers, we’re children playing at adult dress-up; we’re cattle that make-believe we’re free just because we routinely choose from among a preselected array of options.
So both technology and capitalism infantilize the masses. By doing our bidding and so making us feel we’re of central importance in the artificial world, technology suppresses angst and alienation. We therefore live not the modern dream but the ancient mythopoeic one—which is also the child’s experience of playing in a magical place, regardless of where the child actually happens to be. And capitalism turns us into consumers, first and foremost, and constant consumption is the very name of the infant’s game, because the infant needs abundant fuel to support her accelerated growth.
A third source of our existential immaturity is inherent in the myth of the modern hero. For many years, this problem with modernism lay dormant because of the early modernists’ persistent sexism, racism, and imperialism. Only white European males were thought of as proper individuals. Their rationalism, however, implied egalitarianism since we’re all innately rational, to some extent, and once the civil rights of women and minorities were recognized, there was a perceptible decline in the manliness of the modern hero. No longer a bold rebel against dogmas or a skeptical lover of the truth, the late-modern individual now is someone who must tolerate all differences. Ours is a multicultural, global village and so we’re consigned to moral relativism and forced to defer to politically correct conventions out of respect for each other’s right to our opinions. Thus, bold originality, once regarded as heroic, is now considered boorish. Early modernists loved to discuss ideas in Salons, but now even to broach a political or religious subject in public is considered impolite, because you may offend someone.
Such rules of political correctness are like parents’ futile restrictions on their child’s thoughts and actions. Western children are protected from coarse language and violence and nudity, because postmodern parents labour under the illusion that their children will be infantile for their entire lifespan, whereas we’re all primarily animals and so are bound to run up against the horrors of natural life sooner or later. Compare these arbitrary strictures with the medieval Church’s laws against heresy. In all three cases (taboos for infantilized adults, protectionist illusions for children, and medieval Christian imperialism), the rules are uninspired as solutions to the existential problem of how to face reality, but the Church went as far as to torture and kill on behalf of its absurd notions. At most, postmodern parents may spank their child for saying a bad word, while an adult who carries the albatross of the archaic ideal of the independent person and so wishes to test the merit of her assumptions by attempting to engage others in a conversation about ideas will only find herself alone and ignored at the party, inspecting the plant in the corner of the room. Still, our postmodern mode of infantilization is fully degrading despite the lack of severe consequences when we step out of bounds.
This is the ethic of care that’s implicit in modern individualism, which is at odds with the modern hunt for the truth. Modernism was originally framed in the masculine terms of a conflict between scientific truth and Christian dogmatic opinion, but now that everyone is recognized as an autonomous, dignified modern person, feminine values have surged. And just as someone with a hammer sees everything else as a nail, a woman is inclined to see everyone else as a baby. This is why, for example, young women who haven’t outgrown their motherly instincts overuse the word “cute”: handbags are cute, as are small pets and even handsome men. This is also why girls worship not tough, rugged male celebrities, but androgynous ones like Justin Bieber. As conservative social critics appreciate, manliness is out of fashion. Even hair on a man’s chest is perceived as revolting, let alone the hair on his back. Men’s bodies must be shorn of any such symbol of their unruly desires, because men are obliged to fulfill women’s fantasy that men are babies who need to be nurtured. Men must be innocent, not savage; they must be eternally youthful and thus hairless, not battered and scarred by the heartless world; they must be doe-eyed and cheerful, not grim, aloof and embittered. Men must be babies, not the manly heroes celebrated by the early modernists, who brought Europe out of the relative Dark Age. Men have been feminized, thanks ironically to the early modern ideal of personal autonomy through reason. As for women themselves, those who must see themselves primarily as care-givers in so far as they’re naturally inclined to infantilize men, they too become child-like, because “care” is reflexive. And so modern women baby themselves, treating themselves to the spa, to the latest fashions and accessories, to the inanities of daytime television, to the sentimental fantasies of soap operas and romance novels, and to the platitudes of flattering, feel-good New Age cults.
The Ignorant Baby and the Enlightened Aesthete
Those are three sources of modern infantilization: technology, capitalism, and postmodern culture. I submit, then, that the reason we can be so ignorant as to speak of technoscientific progress, even though scientific theories imply naturalism which in turn implies the unreality of normative values and the undeadness of all processes, is that we lack self-knowledge because we’re infantile. We’re distracted by the games of possessing and playing with our technotoys, because our artificial environment trains us to be babies. And babies aren’t interested in ideas, let alone in terribly dispiriting philosophies such as naturalism with its atheistic and dark existential implications. That’s why we can parrot the meme of modern progress, because we’ve already swallowed a thousand corporate myths by the time we’ve watched a year’s worth of materialistic ads on TV. What’s one more piece of foolishness added to that pile? If we were to look at the myth of progress, we’d see it derives from ancient theistic apocalypticism, and specifically from the Zoroastrian idea of a linear and teleological arrow of historical time. The idea was that time would come to a cataclysmic end when God would perfect the fallen world and defeat the forces of evil in a climactic battle. All prior events are made meaningful in relation to that ultimate endpoint. In that teleological metaphysics, the idea of real progress makes sense. But there’s no such teleology in naturalism, so there can be no modern progress. At best, some scientific theory or piece of technology can meet with our approval and allow us to achieve our personal goals more readily, but that subjective progress loses its normative force. Mind you, that’s the only kind of progress that pragmatists are entitled to affirm, but there’s no real goodness in modernity if that’s all we mean by the word.
The titular ironies, then, are that the so-called technoscientific signs of modern progress are indications rather of the superficiality or illusoriness of the very concept of social progress that most people have in mind, despite their pragmatic attitude, and that the late great modernists who are supposed to stand tall as the current leaders of humanity are instead largely infantilized by modernity and so are similar to the mythopoeic, childlike ancients.
Here, finally, I’ve pointed out that there’s no real progress in nature, since nature is undead rather than enchanted by personal qualities such as meaning or purpose, and yet I affirmed the existential value of personal authenticity. I promised to return to this apparent contradiction. My solution, as I’ve explained at length elsewhere, is to reduce normative evaluation to the aesthetic kind. For example, I say intellectual integrity is better than self-delusion. But is that judgment as superficial and subjective as a moral principle in light of philosophical naturalism? Not if the goodness of personal integrity and more specifically of the coherence of your worldview which drives your behaviour, is thought of as a kind of beauty. When we take up the aesthetic perspective, all processes seem not just undead but artistically creative. Life itself becomes art and our aesthetic duty is to avoid the ugliness of cliché and to strive for ingenious and subversive originality in our actions.
Is the aesthetic attitude as arbitrary as a theistic interpretation of the world, given science-centered naturalism? No, because aesthetics falls out of the objectification made possible by scientific skepticism. We see something as an art object when we see it as complete in itself and thus as useless and indifferent to our concerns, the opposite being a utilitarian or pragmatic stance. And that’s precisely the essence of cosmicism, which is the darkest part of modern wisdom. Natural things, as such, are complete in themselves, meaning that they exist and develop for no human reason. That’s the horror of nature: the world doesn’t care about us, our adaptability notwithstanding, and so we’re bound to be overwhelmed by natural forces and to perish with just as little warning as we were given when nature evolved us in the first place. But the point here is that the flipside of this horror is that nature is full of art! The undeadness of things is also their sublime beauty or raw ugliness. When we recognize the alienness and monstrosity of natural processes, because we’ve given up naïve anthropocentrism, we’ve already adopted the aesthetic attitude. That’s because we’ve declined to project our interests onto what are wholly impersonal things, and so we objectify and aestheticize them with one and the same act of humility. The angst and the horror we feel when we understand what nature really is and thus how impersonal we ourselves are are also aesthetic reactions. Angst is the dawning of awe as we begin to fathom nature’s monstrous scope, horror the awakening of pantheistic fear of the madness of the artist responsible for so much wasted art. The aesthetic values which are also existential ones aren’t merely subjective, because nature’s undead creativity is all-too real.