The Addict as Prophet: Part 4, Modernity and Arbitrariness

In my last post we raised the fascinating claim made by Kent Dunnington in his book Addiction and Virtue that addiction can be viewed as a prophetic critique of modernity.

How so?

Dunnington argues (p. 101) that "addiction is ubiquitous in contemporary life...because  addiction makes accessible certain kinds of moral and intellectual goods, which the development of modernity have made otherwise difficult to attain."

So, what are the "moral and intellectual goods" of addiction?

What makes addiction so addictive?

Dunnington makes the argument that modernity is characterized by a moral, spiritual and psychological malaise. Malaise is defined as "a general feeling of discomfort, illness, or uneasiness whose exact cause is difficult to identify."

According to Dunnington, this malaise--the uneasiness we experience in modernity--is characterized by three main symptoms: Arbitrariness, boredom and loneliness. Addiction, Dunnington argues, is so addictive because addiction uniquely addresses these three symptoms. Addiction is, thus, a uniquely modern problem as addiction is particularly well-suited for "treating" what ails modern people.

This is not to deny that addiction existed or was a problem before modernity, just the claim that as modernity exacerbated our feelings of arbitrariness, boredom and loneliness it has caused us to become increasingly drawn to addictive behaviors to reduce the discomfort we experience in modernity.

Consequently, addiction functions as a form of prophetic critique, pointing us toward the moral, spiritual and psychological failures of modernity.

In this and the next two posts we'll walk through how addictions address the three symptoms of modernity's malaise. We start with arbitrariness.

As many scholars have pointed out, modernity has lost its telos (goal, direction, purpose). In the words of Robert Jenson, modernity lost its story. According to Charles Taylor, the modern "secular age" lives in the "immanent frame." We've lost the metaphysical framework that tells us who we are and where we are going.

All that is left in modernity is freedom and the individual will. There is no "point" to anything, just you and your choices. Any meaning or telos for your life is the one you choose for yourself. There is no grand narrative or plotline you're being caught up in. Life is, rather, a Choose-Your-Own adventure novel.

This view of the human person is perfectly suited to capitalism and consumerism. In modernity our choices and freedoms are maximized allowing us to pursue our true, "authentic" selves in the quest for self-fulfillment and self-actualization.

The trouble with this, as we all know, is the person looking back at us in the mirror. True, in modernity I am the Captain of my own ship. And that's a thrilling prospect. But as I ponder my life I quickly come to the conclusion that I'm a pretty unreliable captain. I'm fickle, weak-willed, and self-deluded. My true, authentic self--the Real Me--seems to change year to year, if not day to day. Sometimes I want this, and sometimes I want that.

Again, this is the perfect situation for capitalism, marketers wooing me with rival visions of my best self, getting me to indulge or improve myself with this or that product or plan, people making money off me as I spin my wheels searching for happiness and fulfillment.

In short, without a larger goal, telos or story guiding my life, it all seems pretty arbitrary. I could do this or that, and the choice doesn't matter all that much. Because I can change my mind. I can reinvent myself in this instant.

Yes, freedom and choice provide us with a sense of control, but they do so by removing the existential weight of existence. Nothing matters, not really and not ultimately. There's just the next commercial, the next vacation, the next gym membership, the next Netflix episode, the next iPhone, the next house (bigger and better), the next shopping trip, the next Super Bowl party, the next Stars Wars or Harry Potter release, the next Friday night out with the boys or girls.

Modernity is just an arbitrary string of nexts that don't add up to anything substantive or valuable.

According to Dunnington, then, addiction is addictive because it addresses this sense of arbitrariness, that nothing matters more than anything else. Addiction is addictive because it gives weight to the unbearable lightness of being, gives texture to the consumeristic flatness of modern life.

Addiction is addictive because it makes something matter in a world where nothing matters.

Dunnington's summary of this (p. 112):
Addiction is a sort of rejection of consumerism's enthronement of the immediate over the teleological. It is true that many addictions begin from a desire to be distracted by immediate gratification. But addiction is addicting rather than merely distracting exactly because it provides the kind of propelling and purposive force that consumerism cannot provide...

Addiction provides what consumers do not believe exists: necessity. Major addiction can therefore be interpreted both as a response to the absence of teleology in modern culture and as a kind of embodied critique of the late capitalist consumerism which this absence has produced.

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