Skip to main content

The Unbundled Age

The term "unbundled" comes from contemporary Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, whose magnum opus, A Secular Age (2007), examines what happens to a society that transitions from widespread, default belief in God (the way we think of 1950s midwestern America) to one that considers faith just one possibility among many (depending on where you live, I think it's actually more likely to find widespread, default assumption of agnosticism).  I haven't read this entire book, but I did recently hear Charles Taylor give a talk about it at UCLA.  The book has been in print for a decade now, and his term "unbundled" has become common in some circles.  I'm thinking a lot about it in this charged political moment.

There were 750,000 participants in the LA Women's March in my neighborhood this weekend.  My friends and acquaintances are divided in their feelings about this event.  Some we elated; some felt it was healing after the election; some were inspired to dig in deeper in political activism; some felt excluded; some were disdainful; some were offended.  As various persons have expressed these reactions online, the responses have been impassioned.

It is apparent that, for some, being a woman is an identity marker that speaks to an essential nature.  Being a woman is a starting premise for the formation of political opinions, behaviors, and the way one should approach problems and challenges.  There is a sense of historical continuity afoot as well; there are heroic women from ages past who paved the way for us, and all women today should remember them, thank them, and honor their legacy by fighting for further equality.

Other voices on my screen find stronger identifying markers elsewhere, perhaps in a political party or a philosophical tradition or a religion.  These people are offended to find themselves at odds with other members of their gender.  I am thinking primarily of the pro-life women who felt unwelcome at the march, and I have also seen some friends cite racial reasons for choosing not to participate.  Other women simply voted for Trump, and, although they care deeply for women's causes, did not want to protest the official they helped to put in office.  Some opted out due to discomfort with the language used to describe female bodies, about which they prefer to be more discreet.

There's a mess of these reasons for opting in and opting out swirling around before my eyes.  So, let's think about Charles Taylor and "unbundling."  It's helpful here.  This idea refers to a cultural change where assumptions about people's beliefs that were once safe no longer are.  Perhaps there was a time when persons of a specific religion or race were likely to all vote the same way or care about the same issues.  Veterans would reliably show concern about a certain politician, stay at home moms all voted one way, Catholics always backed the pro-life candidate.  Likewise with the college educated, those living on coasts, those whose parents made a lot of money, etc.  Certain identity markers led to the reasonable expectation of other identity choices and beliefs.  Charles Taylor observes the recent destruction of these links, which were always arbitrary to begin with, and people are no longer packaged the way we'd expect them to be.  Someone can vote for a Republican and be passionately pro-choice.  Someone who always votes for Democrats could feel protective of their right to own a weapon.  We are much more likely now to isolate different compartments of our lives and parts of our identities - gender, race, sexual orientation, wealth, religion, education, ability, etc. - and form our beliefs on a case-by-case basis.

Henry David Thoreau once wrote, "The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought and attended to my answer."  I think society is generally more aware of the dangers of assuming things about people based on their identities, and yet we are as unwilling as ever to sit and listen to people who are different from us. It's easy to get upset when the stakes are high, but there is a special message for me in this notion of unbundling people when we see their photos online.

Many of the passions people express outwardly are, at the root, confessions of pain.  Our lives unfortunately bring about instances of injustice and trauma and abuse, and so many of us make our Facebook posts and write our protest signs in response to these often-hidden tragedies.  Unbundling our expectations of one another can be an act of real compassion.

Simone Weil wrote that "It is better to say, 'I am suffering,' than to say, 'This landscape is ugly.'"  And yet, this is how we express our suffering, isn't it?  Our world can be entirely washed in the colors of our internal suffering so we see our surroundings as manifestations of pain.  I like to keep this quotation in mind every time I drown in proclamations of the ugliness of our national landscape.  The whisper beneath it is always "I am suffering," and that is a place where we can all meet each other.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Cocktail Party

I had drinks with a friend after a long seminar tonight, and for the first time in a while, I didn't stagger to my car exhausted and then sit in traffic for 90 minutes (that's right, it takes me 90 minutes to go 11 miles #LosAngeles) and then collapse for an hour and then go back to work for another 3 hours before crawling into bed (I am taking too many classes this quarter).  Instead, I had two glasses of wine and a little dinner, and I got to talk to a great person who is willing to share a lot of knowledge with me as well as some genuine pleasantness.  It reminded me of the olden days when my social life and my academic life were centered around the same place and task, and it lightened the load quite a bit.

That moment of levity at the end of the day.  Ah.  We need it.  No reading.  No striving.  No obligations.  The wine or cocktail is key.  You're always pausing when you have a drink.  You're being a little bad.  You're working against your evening productiv…

The Comic Mode

As I think about the Decameron this week, I've discovered a wonderful book written in the 1990s by Caroline Walker Bynum about gender and the human body in Medieval religion.  In the introduction, she writes about the way scholars like to identify little conclusions in their analysis, as if the moments in history they write about lead to an ending of some kind like a Shakespeare play.  She permits scholars to do this, so long as they recognize that their conclusions are contrived like the sudden occurrence of four simultaneous weddings at the end of any number of happy plays and stories.  They're not real, but they can serve a purpose nonetheless.  
She calls this tendency to invent conclusions the "comic mode."  It is uncomfortable to live in the tragic or historic mode all of the time, and the comic allows for a certain lightheartedness and chorality - we can try on different voices and allow for the fact that other people will disagree with us and see things from …

Life Craft

Finals weeks are misery for me.  Sometimes I catch a wave of inspiration and weep into my keyboard, but those moments are rare.  I am not having one yet this time around.  I took too many classes this quarter and thus couldn't start my papers until it was too late to wait around for Muses.  And when I say I took too many classes that is not a request for applause at my ambition.  It was a mistake.  A mistake that reflects how desperate I am to be finished with my coursework so I can move on to Dante and do some real thinking that is not geared toward a 3AM slapdash 25 page paper.  And hopefully then this program will become enjoyable for me and not a daily reminder of the huge mistake I made deciding to go here.

As I have been trying to piece together a Boccaccio paper over the past three days, I've spent way more time on the internet than I normally do.  Especially Vogue, a publication I used to read regularly and haven't honestly read in several years.  I watched a bunch…