Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Slackerdom, Religion, Temporality, and the Kids

Laura is asking about raising kids and the role of fathers in the home; Harry Brighouse is asking about the ways in which one can raising "counter-culture" kids--and whether religious believers (specifically American evangelical Christians) have something to teach secular liberals in this regard. In many ways, I think they are looking at the same thing: namely, how can you prevent the "outside" (the economy, the office, social expectations, what's on tv) from dominating what you're trying to do with your family and your children on the "inside"? Harry, to his great credit, isn't being suckered in the usual liberal nostrums of making sure your kids watch PBS instead of something else: he's willing to take on television entirely. Laura, meanwhile, urges her girlfriends to avoid careerist types, and marry the slackers: "They might not make senior partner, but they'll make your dinner and play with the kids. You might not be able to afford a house in a town with a good school district, but so what? He's made lasagna for dinner." As someone who just praised "slackerdom," how could I disagree?

Keep up with Harry's and Laura's comments, as I'm sure there is going to be plenty of good ideas and good arguments tossed around. But I'd like to make a more theoretical point, which may connect a couple of, I think, very important concerns. Harry's inquiry into parenting shows a lot of sympathy of religious believers, and their well-documented ability to create a rival--and, Harry acknowledges, in many ways better, especially when it comes to raising children--culture all their own. What is it that I see "slacking"--in the sense of being turned off by the world's fairly obvious agenda of, as Harry put it, "manipulat[ing our] children into bugging [us] for more toys, more fast food, more candy, more, more, more"--and "believing"--in the sense of being attuned and committed to something literally not of this world--as having in common? Well, perhaps not very much, sociologically speaking. But one thing I have noticed, in regard to which believers very much are "slackers," if not vice versa, is their attachment--or perhaps detachment--from time.

By time I don't mean simply the limits they may place on their own or their children's use of time, but the sense of time, or temporality, itself. As a lot of insightful people--like Charles Taylor and Sheldon Wolin, among others--have observed, modernity is significantly a function of a single dominant tempo, or pace: all the world is on the clock, and we need to fill up all this empty temporal space (through acquiring, improving, progressing, etc.) before our time is up. Religious believers, especially those labeled (rightly or wrongly) as "fundamentalists," have a different attitude: they believe that "time" might actually end, that there's a judgment awaiting us, that we are always being held accountable in light of those ends, and not by anything temporal. (I should note that I would not be considered a "fundamentalist" by any but the most stringent secularist criteria, but that's not to say I don't have a fair amount of sympathy for them.) As a result, such believers are actually well equipped (theoretically speaking) to challenge the dominance of a timetable which is indistinguishable from the marketplace itself--always racing forward, always revising itself, always fallible, yet always improving, addicted to the newest, busiest, most "progressive" (read: technological) thing. Of course, environmentalists and Marxists and all sorts of others resist this kind of measurement--but do they actually have a sense of a different temporal order, a sense of where they came from and where they are going, that will empower them to step outside the material(istic) world, to "slack off," to say, as Christians like myself often say (and try fervently to believe), "take no thought for the morrow"? We all have our beliefs, our myths. But can they withstand peer pressure, commercial pressure, cultural marginalization? I'm grateful for my faith, because even though it isn't nearly strong enough, it helps me be content with what I've got, focus on my children, and get off the clock.

To put this in more philosophical terms, here's what I wrote on this subject some years ago, with some interjections (it's not available anywhere online, but you can buy the book that contains this essay here):

"On the one hand, the modern worldview has allowed its harmonized temporality and deliberate inclusion of difference to shape pluralistic and liberating public habits...; on the other hand, this slow but sure replacing of any belief in ends with [modern] fallibilistic presumptions has left us unmoved or uninvolved in substantive, collective rituals, leaving us all...open to an impersonal, automatic temporal acceleration against which we only have weak, individualistic myths to keep us secured....[Sheldon] Wolin suggests that in the midst of what is essentially a temporal dilemma [wherein we have little or no time which is our own, to think or act fundamentally or counter-culturally], something old must be invoked: not a new revolution, for revolution has already been appropriated into a commercial myth [borderless neoliberal capitalism's appropriation of the rhetoric of global empowerment, anyone?], but rather something collective and ritualistic and unexpected: something, perhaps, like belief." ("Can Theorists Make Time For Belief?" in Vocations of Political Theory, pg. 106).