Modernity and the Crisis of Meaning.

This is the post excerpt.


Introduction: modernity, disenchantment and Weber 


The crisis of meaning in modern life is based on the tensions between rationalism, science and material consumerism of capitalism with religion, spirituality and the need for existential meaning. This tension is an underlying theme in the popular science fiction cartoon, Rick and Morty. According to an analysis by Will Schoder (Rick and Morty – Finding Meaning in Life 2016), the character Rick reflects the existential crisis at the heart of modernity by being a genius of science, yet struggling to find purpose in his life, reflected by character traits like alcoholism. Schoder (Rick and Morty – Finding Meaning in Life 2016) leaves us with a predicament to think about: if Rick, a scientific genius, cannot find meaning in his life, how can the rest of us? This existential theme of Rick and Morty fits nicely with a core issue of modernity: not being able to provide meaning for individuals. According to John Carroll (2001), individuals have a deep need for metaphysical and spiritual questions, arguing, secularism cannot substitute things like economic life-narratives for sacred stories that give life meaning (pp. 9-10). For Carroll (2001), Western culture is losing its sacred stories that provide meaning for individual lives (p. 9).  


Historically, this tension in sociology was originally identified by Max Weber, who argued that modernity was disenchanting individuals from the natural world, leading to the eventual decline of religion. The process of disenchantment, according to Weber, was developed by the rise of rationalism, modern science and secularism (Kim 2012). For Weber, modernity is based on the relationship between capitalism and the modern-state, arguing, rationalism manifested through rational calculations of modern capitalism and rational-legal administration of the modern bureaucratic state (Giddens 1984, pp. 179-180). According to Weber, this modernisation process characterised by institutions of the nation-state and capitalism dominated all aspects of social life and lead to the rationalisation of the world (Scott 2009, p . 111). More profoundly, Weber argues, this manifestation permeates all aspects of of Western culture, and argues, this ratitionalisation process resulted in the ‘disenchantment of the world’ (Giddens 1984, p. 183). For Weber, disenchantment describes the process of eliminating irrational spiritual beliefs of mysticism and religion in modern society (Grosby 2013, p. 301; Giddens 1984, p. 183; Kim 2012).


The dominant sociological argument in regards to modernity and disenchantment is known as the ‘secularisation thesis’, Which argues that religion and spiritual consciousness are on the decline worldwide (Savy 2012, p. 197). However, since the nineteen nineties, the consensus behind the secularisation thesis has been challenged by evidence of surveys showing that religion is not on the decline (Savy 2012, p. 197). Do these findings prove Carroll correct that humans have a deep need for metaphysical questions being answered? This blog is going to explore various manifestations of this tension between modernity and spirituality and explore this question. 

Disenchantment, Albert Camus and absurdity.

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.” –Albert Camus (The Myth of Sisyphus).

Sociologically, the consequence of disenchantment of modernity is the philosophy of existentialism that would largely define the crisis of meaning of the human condition. If we are to take the Secularisation Thesis as a description of the decline of religion through the rise of rationalisation, the role of religion would need to be replaced by something else. Existentialism was a response to this crisis, a consequence of disenchantment, and a major existentialist writer was Albert Camus.

The crisis of meaning is an ideology that has plagued society throughout history, but does it even exist? Are we searching for something that just isn’t there? Albert Camus would argue so. Albert Camus (b. 1913—1960) was a French-Algerian journalist, playwright, novelist, philosophical essayist, and Nobel laureate. He is often described as and associated with existentialism, though he himself has criticized and rejected any association with this philosophical discourse. He began Untitledhis literary career as a political journalist, though he has been described as a particularly unpolitical man. However, it is due to Camus’ first three novels (The Stranger, The Plague, and The Fall) and his two book-length philosophical essays (The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel) that he gained notoriety. In the former philosophical essay, Camus introduced the philosophical concept of the Absurd, which cemented his reputation in the literary world. This concept of the Absurd is what Camus saw as the contradiction between people’s desire to find meaning in life and the universe itself, which is completely meaningless.

“At this point of his effort man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between Camusthe human need and the unreasonable silence of the world” (Albert Camus cited in Foley 2008, p. 5). Bowker (2014) claims that the general understanding of absurdity
today lies within the clash between human consciousness and the non-human elements of the world, “something which arises from a confrontation between the human desire for coherence, for understanding, and the irrationality, the opacity, of the world” (Cruickshank 1960 cited in Bowker 2014, p. 20). Bowker (2014) suggests that in absurdity one might find not only deprivation, disenchantment and destructiveness but a form of enlightenment ( p. 2). Camus disagrees that this realisation of absurdity renders life tragic; he argues that it is not an ending, but only a beginning (Foley 2008, p. 6). We want the world to make sense, but it does not make sense.

Camus’ novel The Stranger is often cited as a prime example of absurdism and existentialism, though Camus strongly rejects the latter claim. The title character in the novel attends his mother’s funeral but does not feel any  grief, a few days later he kills a man and is sentenced to death. The title character never experiences remorse albert-camuss-the-strangerthroughout this whole process but expresses frustration at the meaninglessness of his existence. In the moments before his execution, the main character accepts the human condition as something he can’t change. This novel echoes Camus thoughts as he believes it’s absurd “to try to know, understand, or explain the world, for he sees the attempt to gain rational knowledge as futile” (Aronson 2017) the character attempts to question the human condition before accepting that he will not get an answer. Aronson (2017) then asks  “it is absurd to continually seek meaning in life when there is none, and it is absurd to hope for some form of continued existence after death given that the latter results in our extinction?” when we pull away the mask, we can see the absurdity of the human condition and we are left with no answers.

Rejection of modernity, Thoreau and Into the Wild


The problem of disenchantment and existentialism is a constant issue for modern life. Where the problem is replacing the gap left behind by the rational disenchantment of the world. Modernity has provided mostly rational and economic purpose for human existence. However, this has not been universally accepted, as people continue the search for spiritual meaning. A central problem for modernity, according to Max Weber, is the limitations of rationality in regards to the problem of conflicting, irreconcilable social and personal values (Brubaker 1987, p. 5). Subjective values is central to the tension between modernity and spirituality. Weber argues, conflicts of values can emerge if one’s own subjective, value-orientation is different to objective rationality of modern society (Brubaker 1987, pp. 5-6). A film that explores this conflict in modernity is the film, Into the Wild, which portrays a rejection of accepted values of modernity, instead, provides a story of spiritual discovery.

Into the Wild is a non-fiction, biographical book written by Jon Krakauer that was adapted into a film directed by Sean Penn. This true story is based on the experiences of Christopher McCandless who reinvents himself as ‘Alexander Supertramp’ – a new identity that is marked by his rejection of materialism and his quest for raw, transcendent experience. McCandless, a minimalist and arguably a transcendentalist, rejects capitalism and endeavours to find ultimate freedom and meaning in the absence of materialistic possessions. In the film, his resentment towards capitalism and materialism is demonstrated when he burns his leftover cash, cuts up his bankcards, and abandons his yellow Datsun to travel and on foot (Into the Wild 2007). Underlying his devotion to his ideals, one of the only material possessions McCandless takes with him on his journey are texts from his favourite writers, namely Tolstoy and Thoreau.

McCandless’ Alaskan journey mirrors that of Henry Thoreau’s in the novel Walden and embodies similar ideologies covered in this biographical text. The central theme of Walden is based on Thoreau’s personal pilgrimage is spiritual progress, and an exploration beyond the boundaries of materialist lifestyles, to discover new truths, and transform as a person through the process (Krakauer 1995, p. 97). The novel centres around Thoreau living in a one room cabin (Krakauer 1995, p. 99) in the woods and going on a journey of spiritual and psychological development (Krakauer 1995, p. 97). Walden is a reaction to the status-quo of its time, where individual lifestyles are centred on the economy at the expense of others. Thoreau’s argues, this is mostly because individuals think there is no other alternative (Krakauer 1995, pp. 96-97).  Thoreau seeks to open up “infinite possibilities” (Krakauer 1995, p. 97) from this oppositional point of view (Krakauer 1995, p. 97). This narrative explores an economic idea that conflicts with the “heart of capitalist economics”, which is to ask: not how much I can take; but like a traveller, how little can we take to live a successful life (Krakauer 1995, p. 98). Instead of seeking more material objects; we should seek spiritual development (Krakauer 1995, p. 98). Walden is a return to the American “primitive and frontier life” by isolating himself away from civilization (Krakauer 1995, p. 98).Thoreau’s attitude to money is to consider it not a “necessity to life”, arguing it is not required to buy one necessary of the soul (p. 98). Instead, the necessities are: clothing, shelter, food and fuel (Krakauer 1995, p. 98). Thoreau argues that the most important form of capital that is ultimately real is time (Krakauer 1995, p. 99). The purpose of one’s life journey for Thoreau is for individuals to seek spiritual, rather than monetary, potential; however, to do this within nature, as nature provides the “moral landscape” to explore it (Krakauer 1995, p. 100).

There are vast similarities between McCandless’ Alaskan adventure and Thoreau’s escape to Walden Pond. Similarly to McCandless’ abandoned ‘Magic Bus’ in the Alaskan wilderness, the setting for Walden is near Walden Pond, isolated from civilisation. Both narratives emphasise this society/nature dichotomy and their quest for personal development, immersed in the beauty of nature. Living a simplistic life, both men are divorced from materialism and live day to day with the bare necessities of food, shelter, and clothing. McCandless’ economic ideals are parallel to Thoreau’s, as both men express their aversion to material wealth and capitalism and instead emphasise the wealth of experience.


Limits of modernity, Nietzsche’s Last Man and WALL-E

Contemporary social theory proposes that meaninglessness in modern society can, in part, be explained by people’s incapacity to connect transcendent meanings with modern rationality.  Often, meaning is believed to be found in the identification of a transcendent purpose – often spiritual – yet modern culture continues to promote systems and processes that reject such endeavors and promote simplification and rationality: capitalism and utilitarianism. Weber argues that an inevitable consequence of rationalised routine of bureaucracy and policy-governed authority would reduce human life to an “iron cage”, where human life becomes trapped and determined by the rationalisation of bureaucracy (Jenkins 2000, p. 13). This iron cage can argubly be extended to human reliance to technology and consumerist nature of capitalism that is dominating contemporary modern life. A film that takes rationlisation and consumerism to extremes is the film Wall-E.


While Disney Pixar’s 2008 animation WALL-E is universally perceived as a nostalgic fantasy of a futuristic waste-collecting robot, the film indeed holds much sociological significance – especially in relation to the critique of utilitarianism and consumerism, and human’s search for meaning.  The film presents a dystopian future where by humans have destroyed the natural planet Earth and must be artificially sustained in a spacecraft.  Audiences can see a human civilization that has lost all connection with each other, their home planet, and their sense of selves.  Surrounded by abundant technologies and capitalist propaganda, the humans of the dystopian future are consumed by consumption itself in both a behavioural and gastronomic sense – ceaselessly distracted by technologies and devouring artificial nutriments– and as a result lose all ability to perceive their surroundings or interact with one another.  Mankind is therefore devoid of meaning in almost every context – socially, spiritually, culturally – and give the impression they are merely existing rather than living.

This representation brings forth the sociological discussion of whether substantial meaning can be found within a modern society that rejects tradition and encourages capitalism and consumerism.  Bettelheim (1976) claimed that finding meaning in one’s life is both one’s “greatest need and most difficult achievement” (p. 3) – but where can one effectively find meaning?  While WALL-E presents a particularly futuristic world, similar elements of capitalism and consumerism depicted in the film can be observed in the modern world.  Individuals of today are becoming increasingly inclined to indulge themselves with materialistic possessions and goods as a way of finding fulfillment, rather than seeking it through spiritual or religious practices and traditions.

WALL-E people

In Nietzsche’s (2008) “The Last Man” Zarathustra describes the last men as a “flock” – no one seeks to differentiate themselves through adopting leadership or ambition; instead the last men are concordant in their lack of lust for superiority or direction (p. 10).   Nietzsche (2008) enforces that the last men’s neglect to search for transcendent significance demonstrates their inability to find meaning or fulfillment.  More than this, the last men are oblivious to their meaninglessness – “blinking” (p. 10) when confronted with the truth.  Many parallels of Nietzsche’s work can be drawn not only with the purposeless existence of the futuristic human race presented in WALL-E, but also with the growing implications of utilitarianism in modern society.

Modernity, re-enchantment and Spirited Away

Weber argues that the rise of rationalisation in modernity would bring the disenchantment of the world. However, there is a resistance to rationalisation that Weber, in his later work, identified as the human need for meaning (Grosby 2013, pp. 303-304, 307). The universality of rationalisation in modernity begins to be questioned. According to Jenkins (2000) the decline of religion does not necessarily follow the decline of spiritual or irrational beliefs (p. 19). Contrary to Weber and the disenchantment of the world, Jenkins (2000) argues re-enchantment can be seen as an integral part of modernity (p. 22). For Jenkins (2000) there has been a response to the rationalisation of the Enlightenment through various forms of re-enchantment of modern life through cultural themes that seeks to return to a Romanticist, mythical and pre-modern time (p. 19). Jenkins (2000) sees a returning to pre-modern times as big business in the entertainment industry (p. 19). An example of re-enchantment can be seen in the anime, Spirit Away, which blends modern Japan with pre-modern spirituality.

Modern anime in Japan explores a whole range of ideas, about spirituality, the supernatural and the mystical.  Amine could be used to oppose the idea of the meaningless of modernity. One example is Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film ‘Spirited Away’. This film is about ‘Chihiro’ a girl who, along with her parents, get lost and end up sw1in a mystical world full of spirits. In this world, there is an ‘onsen’ or Japanese bathhouse which represents a hierarchy in the labour force from the modernisation of Japan. After world war 2, when Japan became more open to foreign ideas, foreign foods, clothing, technology and others started to become part of Japanese life too, therefore to become more modern and industrialized Japan had to increase labour force. The boiler room, which is located in the basement of the onsen represents the Japanese labour force that is growing very quickly, and to keep up with this demand the labour force must create mass production with less physical labour. This is shown with the character ‘Kamaji’ who is half robosw2t and has six arms. He operates the boiler room by himself with the help of his ‘soots’, he represents the modernisation of the labour force – less physical labour and more use of efficient machines – therefore when Chihiro asks for a job he rejects her because physical labour is no longer needed.    As contrast to the boiler room, at the top floor of the onsen is Yubaba (the boss) office, which draws a clear line on the levels of hierarchical status. This office filled with very grand and expensive ‘western’ things, it looks very rich and spacious, and also Yubaba’s clothes have a western influence. This creates a link between the west and riches and good economic status, and suggest that material goods can show ones status.

In terms of mystical aspects of Spirited away, the character Chihiro is “spirited away’’ into the spirit world. This idea of there being a human world and a spirit world and even though they are separate they are still connected to each other, is a part of many Japanese animations. ‘spirited away’ is translated into Kami-kakushi in Japanese and it refers to death of person that god takes people away, or it is used when there is sudden disappearance without any explanation. It often occurred in pre-modern Japan that children disappeared and were discovered couple days later in temple or shrine.  sw3Religion also plays a role in this film. The main religion in Japan is called Shinto, and this is portrayed throughout the movie. The onsen is the main place where the movie takes place and this represents a place of cleansing and purifying one’s self. A major theme of Shintoism is that overtime we become dirty or polluted and end up doing things poorly, therefore one must act in a way to wash away this pollution in order to purify ourselves. An example of this, is the scene in the movie when Chihiro helps to cleanse a ‘stink spirit’ (which is actually a river spirit that has been polluted over time) and returns it to a state of balance and purity, through this her kokoro (heart) also becomes purified. There is a quote by Miyazaki which says “In my grandparents’ times, it was believed that gods and spirits existed everywhere – in the trees, rivers, insects, walls, anything. My generation does not believe in this, but I like the idea that we should treasure everything because there is a kind of life to everything”. There is the suggestion that, though Chihiro, the ‘younger generation’ is not aware of these spiritual values that have constituted a large part of Japanese history- and so culture.


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Author: sixth6element

Six university students applying their sociological imagination.

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