An Age of Theory and Consumption

Almost thirty years after his death, Walker Percy’s writings remain one of the best sources available for insight into some of the characteristic oddities of the American way of life. Even at a cursory level, it’s hard not to find comparisons or ideas relevant to our life today.

William F. Buckley once suggested that politicians should take an oath to read and internalize the lessons of Love in the Ruins, and aspects of the novel still resonate. Many people today would identify with the protagonist Tom More’s anxiety about the American future:

Is it that God has at last removed his blessing from the U.S.A and what we feel now is just the clank of the old historical machinery, the sudden jerking ahead of the roller-coast cars as the chain catches hold and carries us back toward the brink from that felicitous and privileged siding where even unbelievers admitted that if it was not God who blessed the U.S.A, then at least some great good luck had befallen us, and that now the blessing or the luck is over, the machinery clanks, the chain catches hold, and the cars jerk forward?

That nationalists and postliberals now echo questions like these—published in 1971—ought to intrigue us. Consider further: Are we not now also living with political parties that resemble his Knotheads and Left? Do the assaults on human dignity he depicts in the novel—the euthanasia, human conditioning, and casual disposal of the youngest and oldest alike—not seem increasingly familiar to us?

Take another example from Percy’s fiction: Anyone looking for insight into the alienation and anger that places young men on the path to the alt-right can simply pick up Lancelot. Percy leads us into comprehending Lance Lamar’s intolerance of the age and his insistence that the old American way is dead, and that we need radical change from people who will “tell you something and show you something you should have known all along” about good and evil in politics. Through Lamar, Percy shows how the longing for something real after or against liberalism can open the door to the unthinkable—and it’s not as if there’s a shortage of postliberals who argue in similar terms.

It’s not that Percy was a prophet, exactly, but he did see trends that still matter today. Hopefully, the things that make these two novels resonate so strongly with our politics will pass. We might wonder, though, what deeper story can students of politics take from him—one that will still resonate in the longer-term?

The Worn-Out Self

One candidate is Percy’s diagnosis of our age as that of the theorist-consumer, a label that he thought captured how Americans characteristically thought and lived in the years after World War II, and how they continue to do so today. While Percy does not offer a detailed account of how this became our way of dealing with life, he suggests that the spread of philosophical materialism as a default theory of the person played a significant part in this. As he puts it, somewhere around that era, the old religious language we used to grapple with experience seemed increasingly “worn out.” When the very words that define a way of being no longer resonate, it is hard to imagine that viewpoint commanding our hearts and minds.

Many Americans look to theories as a way of placing ourselves, grasping our identities, and mastering our condition. Some people turn to consumption—and Percy included people, places, and objects in this category. Percy suggests that it is common for people to oscillate between theory and consumption or merge them. The theorist-consumer is “both sentimental and bored,” marked by an existence where he “neither knows who he is or what he wants outside of theorizing and consuming.” Indeed, the whole point of alternating theory and consumption is to avoid the terror of considering those questions.

As such, we’re more addicted than ever to quick, easy theories that might help us comprehend ourselves, our society, and our politics. In discussing theory, Percy mentioned names like Freud, Marx, Darwin, and Nietzsche as examples: these were people who “pursued the truth more or less successfully by theory—from which, however, they themselves were exempt.” But, Percy notes, too that: “You will look in vain in Darwin’s Origin of the Species for an explanation of Darwin’s behavior in writing Origin of the Species.”

Exemptions from Theory

Percy’s point here is that theorists—whether they are humanists, scientists, or critics—have a tendency to exempt themselves from the logical framework of their own theories. Theory is something we use on others, and avoid applying to our own lives. This makes sense in a way: If a strict scientific materialist didn’t imagine themselves to have rights or denied they idea we should enjoy political freedom, they might be run out of the academy as a totalitarian. At the same time, their theory of the human person cannot support either rights or liberty. A deconstructionist literary scholar might employ a hermeneutic of suspicion throughout their writing and teaching, but to apply this view at home or with friends would make a person incapable of trust or love.

Postliberals in general tend to bring a holy fervor to their critique of American life. They depict us as beset by sin and license, and in need of salvation from a morally indifferent, wildly hypocritical liberal order. The integralists are most perplexing in this regard: they demand a polity that would guard us against secularism and the faux neutrality of modern liberalism. Does this theory not carve out a peculiar exemption for the theorist—the pretension to sufficient knowledge and virtue for ruling, not just over the plebs but also regarding their own temptations to abuse power?

In his novels, Percy has great fun with incoherencies like this. He implores us to see that a view of life from which we must exempt—or cannot explain—ourselves is an impoverished one, and indeed, one that opens us to the greatest deprivations ideology can inflict on human life.

We ought to be careful even with the theories that we very much want to apply to ourselves, though. The most accessible version of “theory” today is the kind of self-explanation that Myers-Briggs or Enneagram offers: if we can understand the self and how it relates to other selves with sufficient detail, we think we can fix what ails us.

We still consume self-help books with fervor, begin radical diet or exercise plans, and when those don’t work, we embark upon theoretically self-justified Eat Pray Love or Cheryl Strayed-style flights from the everyday. In Lost in the Cosmos, Percy described this sort of theorist-consumer conduct as an “escape by travel”—but the trouble is that one must still return to the problem of how to live with oneself on an ordinary afternoon when the shopping budget is spent, and one’s current theory of the self cannot explain how to cope with our sadness-amidst-plenty.

Infotainers at Large

Where Percy points to titans of nineteenth century thought as examples of theorists by which people try to live, today we’re more likely to imagine Jordan Peterson or some other internet-oriented purveyor of intellectual shorthand. Today’s popular idea-mongers hold a place astride both theory and consumption: they spin out their views in Ted Talks, on social channels, or on YouTube, we consume these and enter into their lives on Instagram and elsewhere. We in turn attempt to redesign our lives around the theories they spin out. Such people sometimes describe their own life’s work (and even their lives) as a brand—selling oneself and one’s theory of life as a consumer item.

Consider social media’s place in our lives in a more general sense, too: through it, we consume each other’s lives, our doings, and our adventures. Having followers is a proxy for our importance and the medium opens many new doors to envy, intensified partisanship, and the internet’s version of mob justice. Social media has created a new reality for many where what is real is what we see online: If we go on vacation and don’t post it on Instagram, did it really happen? Lies may be corrected on Twitter, but the truth never gets as much attention after fiction goes viral. All of this creates a poisonous backdrop for envy.

As Percy reminds us, envy comes from the Latin word invidere—to look at with malice. Social media helps us grasp the way Percy thought egalitarianism and envy work together. We live in a democratic society where being noticed by others practically requires that we disclose our lives online. In revealing ourselves with the hopes of adoration, do we not also encourage that tearing-down malice? He wonders: how much good news, glittering success, or exquisite outings can we take about others before we desire “compensatory catastrophes” to befall them?

In this light, the reign of the social-media intellectual might be as much about our desire to bring down conventional experts down a peg or two as it is the fact these internet idea-celebrities flatter our sense of being able to achieve mastery over ourselves, over society, and possibly over nature as well. Of course, they also suggest we can learn from them in a quick 15-minute video or an accessible mass-market book rather than over years of advanced study. Infotainment appeals to the consumer-theorist soul.

I don’t want to overstate this: we shouldn’t forget that Percy himself suggests the old experts of the self justifiably merit our contempt for having crafting mishmash theories of the human person, theories that still animate so many of the social sciences. Political scientists have their own version of this kind of tirelessly hopeful work: after every election, journals are flooded with minute and detailed attempts to defend models that hope to predict the next cycle. All too commonly, they accomplish this through an analysis that reduces the population to some finely calibrated view of its passions, interests, and fears—but never a people’s sense of honor or its deepest beliefs. Another consequence of the way that theory in Percy’s sense always reduces human life to lower terms than our dignity requires—and it does so in a way that its practitioners miss.

The Radical Temptation

Why does this matter politically? Percy’s sketch of our condition as theorist-consumers can help us see why some people find themselves drawn to radical causes. Having tried to find meaning in our tame liberal politics and consumer lifestyle, or growing alienated from the kind of community that most of us can build with our neighbors and our friends, some people throw themselves behind the totalizing community that exists around great political and social causes. Such causes usually offer a seemingly novel theory to their adherents, and membership demands a much deeper commitment than any kind of liberal associational life—that is, outside of a faith community—can boast. One surrenders freedom to the new political tribe, and in return, gains a new life.

Viewed this way, groups like Antifa and the Proud Boys are two sides of the same alienated coin. Of course, if people stay long enough with a cause, most of them will eventually grow disaffected. They might then resume an oscillating course around new theories and different modes of consumption; Percy offers us a reminder that there is another way.

While Percy would never tell us that the world or people and places aren’t genuinely good and necessary elements of our flourishing, he nonetheless understood that we tend not to notice that: our great temptation is to careen from one mishmash, reductive idea of human life to another; to substitute one worldly good for another.

The ultimate danger of our theory-consumption orbit is that it encourages a fully materialist view of the human person and the belief that we can live by theories that reduce us to cogs in some bigger process. Percy consistently railed against these views because devalue human personhood and undermine any possibility we might flourish.

In his essays on psychology and concerning language, Percy suggests that we can and must do better. To grapple with the highs and the lows of the human condition requires we reunite body and soul—to reknit what Descartes tore asunder. We need a humane way of studying human beings that takes consciousness, community, and creativity seriously—and Percy offers a path toward thinking about that. His writings resonate with the idea that we must abandon reductive theories of the self—not only because they are inadequate for science, but because our souls demand a deeper explanation of the human condition.