The pandemic has left us in a new world—if we can find a way to build it
Having now received the second shot in the arm (the official prepositional phrase of the pandemic), I am post-Moderna. It couldn’t be more fitting. As a Gen-X historian trained in the 1990s, the only way through the grad school gauntlet was the pomo way: ingesting Derrida, deconstructing with Michel, battling (vicariously) in journals, doing righteous analysis in the seminar room, sorting it all out (sort of) by email with friends.
And of course: being reduced to babbling when innocently asked how school was going.
That age suddenly seems a long time back. Might it be that the pandemic has finally pushed us past it and into something new—some era the name of which will not be preceded by Post?
If so, the portents invite hope and disquiet at once.
Why not start with hope? It has been a good spring, and in ways that suggest not just seasonal change but something deeper, something at the level of whatever we yet mean by civilization. If the crisis of postmodernity forced us, beginning in earnest in the 1970s, to reckon with the nature and cost of Progress, that crisis has played itself out in a series of geopolitical episodes that have left us shattered, damaged, and, of course, changed.
September 11, 2001: The reality of fiercely held adversarial beliefs smashed into the national breastbone and we fell to the ground. The attacks came just as the postmodern reckoning with our own civilization’s nature and past was at full strength, confronting us as a people with the darkest, most twisted strands of our history. 9/11 forced us to feel how others were reading this story. The reality of our acute physical vulnerability, flight by flight, crashed over us, too. We were, in so many ways, under threat, from without and within.
The Great Recession: If postmodernity dislodged our confidence in enlightened notions of Reason, the one form of reason in which we yet trusted (whether with a grimace or a shout) was flat, unfeeling instrumental rationality, seen most fully in our trust in the ability of The Market to deliver whatever goods we need. The Recession pulled back the curtain and gave us a long, harrowing glimpse of a massive structure built on sand. Not only had no wise man built our house, no one was in charge of it. George Packer, in his deft and disturbing portrait of Great Recession America, The Unwinding, recounts an observation by billionaire Peter Thiel. “The deep secret is there’s nobody at the steering wheel at all,” says Thiel. “People pretend to be in control, but the deep secret is there’s no one.” It’s middle management all the way down. And at the bottom is sand. Pure sand. Mere sand—and lots of rushing water.
The Trump presidency: In the U.S. and abroad, but especially in the U.S., defiance against the postmodern exposé of white Christian civilization fused with a widespread revolt against the neoliberal order to fuel the broadest, meanest movement of revanchist rage the U.S. has ever seen. Speech by speech, tweet by tweet, Donald Trump gathered up that rage, stoked it, and hurled it at any who opposed the General Will as he intuited it. By the end the Capitol itself was on fire. And Trump’s desolating abomination was evident for any with eyes to see.
Then came the pandemic. It has had a wondrously clarifying effect, the extent of which we are just beginning to sense.
As the virus spread, the vacuity of the revanchist mind became nakedly apparent. The president’s press conferences of the spring of 2020 were the cynosure that revealed the intellectual poverty of the Republican Party.
Trump’s leadership led many Americans away from him and toward one especially important non-Trumpian conclusion: Whatever their corruptions and deficiencies, the professions matter. Diplomats and scientists and teachers and policy experts and journalists and physicians all have crucial work to do, it turns out. The return of professionalism in the Biden administration has never made staid and steady look so sexy. Whatever changes must take place within the professions—and the need is deep, as Packer’s book and a hundred like it show—the solution is not to despise them but reform them.
Our newly sensed need for embodied presence has punctured the giddy turn toward social media that dominated pre-pandemic life. For all of the obsession that TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook have fostered, teachers now look out in wonder at students chastened by their gratitude to be in school. We have a nation filled with everyday heroes, we’ve come to see, people whose callings remind us that our bodies matter, that our union with one another depends on the communion of body, soul, spirit. Modern techno-driven gnosticism and its disdaining of incarnate life looks more like a heresy than it did before the pandemic.
The murder of George Floyd, the conviction of Derek Chauvin, and the global uprising that links them give hope that the decades-old, conflict-laden work of exposing our endemic racism is once again in a season of harvest. What thousands of activists and writers and politicians and artists and teachers—not to mention fathers and mothers—have long been doing to cultivate a better way of seeing seems suddenly to have taken us to a new place, or at least to the promise of a new place.
As we’ve arrived there, the provinciality of the postmodern glorification of particularism at the expense of universalism has become apparent. When Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of a “single garment of destiny,” when he declared that “an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he imagined a race united spiritually, imagined us returning, in fact, to our spiritual roots as a people. The recent worldwide outpouring of grief and anger at unjust systems of power has resulted in a renewed experience of our fundamental commonality. Donne seems visionary once more. Yes: We are all “a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” We are all fragile, felled by disease and our fellow man alike. There are things that ought not to be. That ought reverberates across the seas that join us rather than divide us.
Yet overwhelming dis-ease remains.
We have yet to arrive at a renewed conception of reason, of rationality, of the sort that would make argument not just possible but desirable, perhaps even hopeful. Might a deepening experience of universality help us to catch a new vision of reason itself?
We are far from confronting the political-economic structures that must yield to an older wisdom if the earth is to be stewarded, our bodies detoxed, our air made pure, and the future of our children secured.
And that is why dis-ease haunts our minds and stalks our nights. We hear the water rushing, coming from the great storm that’s been building and building. But the news is out; the deconstructing has been done: We know the structures can’t withstand what is already arriving. We feel the building shaking.
It is, clearly, Reconstruction we need.
In the decade that followed our brutal and merciless Civil War, we failed at Reconstruction. Why? Reconstruction of any kind requires better thinking and better living—better believing, the kind that leads to the response the given crisis requires. If, as Jean-François Lyotard pithily put it in The Postmodern Condition, postmodernity was defined by “incredulity towards metanarratives,” perhaps it’s time to reconsider the credibility—and viability—of any civilization that lacks them.
Eric Miller is Professor of History and the Humanities at Geneva College, where he directs the honors program. His books include Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch, and Brazilian Evangelicalism in the Twenty-First Century: An Inside and Outside Look (co-edited with Ronald J. Morgan). He is the Editor of Current.