As humming members of the hive and history’s children, how many ghosts are invisibly conspiring in each decision we make?
Homegrown terrorism, global warming, rampant economic inequality, financial corruption and corporate tax-dodging on an epic scale: The American project is surely in need of rescuing. But what sort of person can step in now to save our day? Despite the old narrative preferred by the NRA, the armed descendants of Natty Bumppo and John Wayne—who reliably emerged from their self-reliant solitude in the American wilderness to rescue their communities—are hardly equipped to defend us today against ISIS recruiters, cyber-thieves, or corporate polluters. To a postmillennial generation whose vision of the wilderness is streamed through a smartphone and whose members are (in the digital sense at least) almost never alone, the “lonesome cowboy” of American lore must seem a strange dude, indeed: nostalgically attractive in certain ways, perhaps, but also ludicrously irrelevant to the crises at hand—in no plausible way a moral metaphor for effective action.
All heroic myths exaggerate. But when an old paragon falls out of sync with a people’s changing reality, he becomes less an admirable guide than a figure of fun, his once virtuous parable the butt of populist parodies. In 1605, a similar crisis was poignantly inscribed in the tragicomic character of Don Quixote, who strove to revive medievalism’s romantic rituals and chivalric code in a proto-modern era of Machiavellian schemers and Puritan plain-speakers, provoking in his contemporary readers an intensely ambivalent reaction of nostalgic compassion and condescending laughter.
Four centuries later, we have entered an era as ambivalent and contested as his. In ways that are by turns thrilling, confusing, and frightening, America has been shedding many of the core presumptions of its foundational past as the first modern society, struggling through a cultural transition between ruling common senses a century in the making. We are undeniably post-modern now, in the literal sense that we are living after the height of the modern era, but we are doing so without having achieved as yet a coherent consensus as to what ought to succeed it.
Despite the scapegoating of our culture wars, the skirmishes of which have been the feverish symptoms of this deeper incoherence, the primary forces undermining our self-conception as a modern people have been self-induced and are ironically inseparable from our collective investment in material progress. We do “make sense” through the evidence of our senses, and our radically empowered technological tools, now reflexively embraced by every subset of our fractious body politic, have changed the ways that evidence is arrayed, weighed, and routinely shared. Completing a process that began with the earliest electronic media, the daily use of our digital devices with their search engines, shareware, and wiki-empowered social networking sites has been revising our expectations as to what seems natural, right, and delightful to behold. And it has been doing so in ways that undermine many of modernity’s core beliefs about the good as well as the true and the beautiful—about who a hero is and what he or she ought to do.
In a deliberate play on the word science, the intellectual achievements of which have been the hallmark of the modern era, I have been calling these post-modern ways of assessing the world conscientious thinking. The history of the word—combining a prefix (con) meaning “with” or “together” with a root (scientia) meaning “learning” or “knowledge”—defines both the sort of reasoning it describes and how that reasoning differs from the default practices of the modern mind. Whereas the science of modernity strove to know the world through an isolation of parts and specialization of thought, post-modern thinking now aims to know with. It selects con-scientious methods that can account for the “togetherness” of experience, naturally preferring interrelation over isolation, hybridity over purity, and the authority of consensus over the sovereignty of individual expertise.