back to

"The Trouble with 'Modernity'"


Public Books has a review by Christopher Nealon of the debut book from Mark Greif, one of the founders and editors of n+1. Greif’s book is entitled The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973, which attempts to parse the trope of “man in crisis” that dominated American art and letters in the mid-twentieth century. In the course of his argument, Greif examines works by Saul Bellow, Flannery O’Conner, Thomas Pynchon, and others. Here’s an excerpt from Nealon’s insightful review:

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that capitalism is the engine behind the environmental crises of the early 21st century. It doesn’t even take a Marxist: as the French environmental journalist Hervé Kempf put it in a recent book, it’s not so much Homo sapiens as the rich who are destroying the earth—rich people, rich nations. His claim is backed up by reams of data, and he’s not the only one who’s making it (see, for instance, the latest volume by Naomi Klein). So why do we cling to the idea that it’s “humanity”—humanity in some essential sense, not just the accidents of particular human societies—that’s brought the planet to the brink of disaster? Mark Greif’s probing new book, The Age of the Crisis of Man, offers a kind of prehistory of this humanity’s-to-blame discourse, and therefore the beginnings of an explanation for its resilience.

From the very start of his book, Greif is up front about the limits of the discourse he’s reconstructed for us. He describes the experience of realizing, to his dismay, “how tedious, how unhelpful” the crisis-of-man language feels, in the rearview mirror. And he is unsparing in his criticisms of how, for instance, such language erased the specifics of the lives of women, colonized people, and people of color in its deployment of the idea of “man.” Again and again, however, just when he’s on the brink of suggesting there might be better ways to think about the political, economic, and ecological crises of the past century, he shies away, as though it would be rude to criticize the prominent thinkers who produced this “tedious, unhelpful” language.

At the heart of the discourse was the question of whether there’s just something innately self-destructive about Homo sapiens, and that concern, Greif shows, expressed itself in questions about history, about religion and faith and ideology, and about technology. Can there be progress? Is faith in a higher power, or even just faith in humanity’s ability to become its best collective self, built from the same materials as susceptibility to the worst authoritarianism? Now that we’ve built atom bombs and gas chambers, have we lost control of our own powers of technological innovation?

The agonized questions driving this discourse attracted an extraordinary range of renowned commentators. Some of its most influential texts, like the Kantian philosopher Ernst Cassirer’s 1944 Essay on Man, have receded from our cultural memory; others, like Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958), are still widely read today. The discourse was not only a matter for philosophers, though: it caught the imagination of historians like Lewis Mumford (The Condition of Man, 1944), theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr (The Nature and Destiny of Man, 1941–43), and literary critics like C. S. Lewis (The Abolition of Man, 1943). For Greif the discourse can take reactionary form in precursor texts like Oswald Spengler’s two-volume Decline of the West (1918–1923), yet also includes many left-wing variants, like Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944).

Image: Max Horkheimer (left) and Theodor Adorno (right) in April 1964 at a sociology conference in Heidelberg, Germany. Jürgen Habermas is in the background, right, running his hand through his hair. Photograph by Jeremy J. Shapiro / Wikimedia Commons