“The most serious parody I have ever heard was this: In the beginning was nonsense, and the nonsense was with God, and the nonsense was God.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche

Philip Rieff is best known for his Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (1966), a work that many would rank among the most significant intellectual achievements of the turbulent 1960’s.  Triumph was among the first to limn the emergence of the “therapeutic culture” in the post-Christian civilization of the West and was certainly the most penetrating in its understanding of just how radical a break with the past was implied by such a culture.  To be sure, Rieff paired the terms culture and therapeutic with an acute sense of the culture-dissolving properties of the emergent therapeutic regime.  For Rieff was conservative enough to recognize that a culture, in the deepest sense of the term, is a system of moral demands or symbols that makes “men intelligible and trustworthy to one another,” while, at the same time, organizing “the expressive remissions by which men release themselves . . . from the strain of conforming to the controlling symbolic.”  By contrast, the therapeutic, or psychologizing, impulse in modern societies seeks the complete dissolution of inherited systems of moral demands.

What is most revolutionary about the world that Freud begot (though this was not at all his intention), argued Rieff, is the shift from “renunciatory control” toward a “predicate of impulse release.”  To the extent that the new therapeutic culture is itself a system of control, it is one founded precariously upon an “infinite variety of wants raised to the status of needs” (a rubric that might encompass not only the mephitic illusions of the advertising industry but also much of what passes for the political these days).  But Rieff concedes that such a state of affairs would constitute not a “culture” so much as an “anti-culture,” for with the overthrowing of the systems of renunciation, the sense of binding communal purpose that lies at the heart of traditional culture would be lost—replaced with an “ethic” of endless self-gratification.

In spite of this recognition, Rieff maintained an air of studied neutrality in Triumph.  While he repeatedly noted that history offers no precedent for a civilization bereft of a proscriptive system of moral demands, he nonetheless held out the possibility that the emerging therapeutic culture might formulate its own more stable controls, that rampant narcissism might somehow be “managed” by psychiatric intervention “enhanced and perfected” at every level of the social organism.  The old orders of faith and sacrifice may have been viable only in the now passing age of economic scarcity (all of human history before the 20th century).  With the advent of the “affluent society,” in which scarcity is no longer an overriding concern, men and women “may feel freer to live their lives with a minimum of pretense to anything more grand than sweetening the time.”  Perhaps, Rieff added, “it is better so; in cultures past, men sacrificed themselves to heroic and cruel deceptions, and suffered for glories that once mirrored their miseries.”

In retrospect, it is hard to fathom how Rieff, who was otherwise so immune to the utopian drift of the 60’s, could have failed to recognize the Orwellian implications of such speculations.  Whatever the cause of this partial blindness, to reread Triumph today is to be otherwise astonished at its prescience.  As a small industry of studies inspired by Rieff’s work has testified, the therapeutic culture, or anticulture, has permeated virtually every aspect of our lives: the classroom, the criminal-justice system, vast sectors of our state and federal bureaucracies, the churches, the arts, the entertainment industry, advertising, sexual relations, and child rearing—just to name the most obvious.  Even more ominously, it has seeped into our very thoughts, encouraging us at every turn to conceive of ourselves as patients rather than agents, as isolated and needy selves whose “actualization” depends on the caring intervention of an army of “experts” eager to absolve us of our moral scruples and to render us thereby more dependent on their tender mercies.  Considered as a pseudoreligion, what some have called therapism has proved vastly more effective in shaping the consciousness of the masses than were the failed totalitarian ideologies of communism and fascism—and may be more enduring.

But there lies the rub.  Can such an anticulture be sustained?  After almost 40 years of near silence on the matter, Rieff raises the question persistently in My Life Among the Deathworks, the first of three volumes under the general heading Sacred Order/Social Order.  Here, the term therapeutic, while still an important analytical motif, has become part of a more comprehensive polemic against the anticulture that now dominates the most affluent societies and threatens to become global in its reach.  The transformation in Rieff’s intellectual posture is astonishing.  Abandoned is the “fiction” of scientific neutrality maintained in his earlier work; the voice with which he now speaks is, by turns, angry, coruscating, contemptuous, darkly ironic, riddling, and, above all, prophetic.  He has taken a side, and there is no ambiguity about which side.  By his own admission, Deathworks is an attempt to strike a “fatal blow” against the anticulture and its “armies,” those whose ultimate aim is the destruction of the very memory of the sacred orders that undergirded every culture before the nightmarish “dispossession” of the last century.  Against the sociological tradition established by Saint-Simon and Comte, Rieff offers a “sacred sociology” that (he argues in a footnote) may be said to have its origins in Plato’s Republic and the Penta-teuch.  To reclaim this “minority tradition” is, first of all, to recover the revelation of divine identity in Exodus 3:14 (“I AM THAT I AM”), the foundation of all genuine identity, of that “sacred self” of which the anticulture is busily stripping us.

Deathworks articulates a conceptual schema that is at once chronological and synchronistic.  Rieff posits a “war of the worlds” that is, at one level, clearly parodic.  The first world in this schema is the pagan world, encompassing both the complex rationality of ancient Athens and the “enchanted mysticisms of aboriginal Australia.”  However different, both are sacred orders rooted in a “mythical understanding of Nature, its gods myriad and its power primordial, capricious, and overwhelming.”  Rieff’s second world encompasses the cultures rooted in the commanding monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, sacred orders predicated upon revelation, faith, and credal obedience.  Common to both the first and the second worlds is the vertical in authority (which Rieff, fond of his wordplay, designates the “via”).  Every culture that came before the present, he notes, “has been a form of address to some ultimate authority.”  By contrast, the now dominant “third world” aspires to address no authority higher than the desacralized self, eliminating the vertical dimension shared by first and second worlds.  This third world has its origin not, as its own dominant myth suggests, in some predetermined evolution of consciousness breaking free of the shackles of faith, but in negation pure and simple.  The third world feeds, parasitically, on the truths of the first and second worlds, recycling them endlessly as fictions: “Third world anti-cultures consume their negational truths,” Rieff notes, “as swiftly as they produce them.”

Historically speaking, Rieff’s first world of metadivine divinities, personifications of hidden, primordial power (a “fecund prepotence” from which all things have their birth) is long since dead.  Its truths can no longer be inhabited (despite the pretensions of the New Age movement).  Nonetheless, there is an underlying affinity between the first and second worlds.  If the third world recognizes no via, it does recognize what Rieff calls primacies of possibility, powers or potencies akin to the mythical agencies of the first.  The Freudian “death instinct” would be an early example of such a primacy of possibility; latterly, our third-world theorists conjure obsessively with the primacies of race, class, and “gender,” the “god-terms” of the present age, which “abstract power into instruments of mind with which to manipulate matter no longer thought metadivine; indeed, no longer thought divine.”  Thus, the first world occupies a fictional place in the ongoing culture war of the worlds, though the central scene of struggle is between the dominant third and a resurgent second world which, though the hour is late, begins to awaken from its long slumber and to recognize that the enemy has overrun the very precincts of the temple.

Since James Davison Hunter popularized the notion in his 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, third-world culture skeptics such as Alan Wolfe have attempted to argue that the contemporary Kulturkampf has been exaggerated or that it is simply a hoax perpetrated by the Religious Right in an attempt to rally its troops against imaginary enemies.  Hunter, who wrote the Introduction to Deathworks, makes the timely point that the debunkers are “committed to denying or trivializing [the idea of the culture wars] by focusing attention exactly where the conflict is weakest—the attitudes and opinions of ordinary people.”  In other words, the culture wars are primarily a struggle between elites and the institutions that they control, and, most importantly, between the “competing sources of moral authority that animate them.”  Rieff would certainly agree, for he states repeatedly that third-world culture is an “invention” of what he calls “radically remissive elites.”  (The term remissive is borrowed from the Freudian vocabulary to describe transgressive acts against the via.)  Strictly speaking, the elites of the third world possess no “source of moral authority,” save the most ephemeral, which, by its very nature, must be constantly reinvented.  Indeed, the deepest source of whatever authority they can muster lies in their ever-renewed claim (in a thousand guises) to be the licensed purveyors “of human freedom against the authority of the past.”  To this end, they have employed and dominated the powerful new technologies—electronic, digital, and, increasingly, medicinal—to extend their control over the masses.  And, in this, they have been abetted by the seemingly innate resistance of the people themselves against the heroic (and tragic) renunciatory culture of the second world.  Recalling Nietzsche’s claim that Christianity is the Platonism of the people, Rieff suggests that

“the people” have resisted and resented Christian faith the more as both science and sociology have promised them release from any and all theologies of truth transcending their immediate worlds and wishes as they would have them fulfilled in a waking dream of life mastered and themselves pleasured.

Perhaps this is, as some have suggested, to place too little faith in the moral instincts of ordinary men and women, but it is difficult to see much hard evidence to the contrary.  Those instincts may be fundamentally sound, but they can all too easily be manipulated and channeled toward dubious ends.

In the army of the third-world elite, there are many divisions, but, increasingly, the spiritual authority of the old second-world priesthood has been transferred, not primarily to the technocrats or the professoriate of the “higher illiteracy,” but to the artists.  In Rieff’s idiom, third-world artists are the masters of “de-creation.”  As its subtitle (“Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority”) implies, much of Deathworks is a meditation on the transgressive role of modern art, which, in its essence, seeks the negation of the vertical in authority.  Thus, Rieff employs the term deathwork to refer primarily to works of third-world art, though specific events or actions (political actions, modes of pedagogy, etc.) may also be called deathworks.  Auschwitz, for example, was a mighty deathwork intended not only to eliminate the Jews bodily but to strip them—the “carrier race” of the commanding truths out of Jerusalem—of their “sacred selves” through unspeakable degradation.  All third-world aesthetics, properly read against the grain, reveal a similar appetite for degradation, mockery, and sacrilege.  One could not begin to do justice here to the range and subtlety of Rieff’s “readings” of specific works of art and literature, especially in Chapter Three (“Deathworks and Third World Creative Destructions”), which is without question the book’s entrée.  A mere sample, then, will have to suffice.

Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés (“Being Given”), according to Rieff one of the greatest deathworks of the 20th century, was created secretly by the famous surrealist during the last two decades (1946-1966) of his life and, in fact, became known to the public only after his death.  This “assemblage,” permanently installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, at first appears simply to be an ancient wooden door, framed, like the entrance to some medieval dungeon, in redbrick.  However, as the viewer approaches the door, he discovers two peepholes conveniently placed in the middle of the door’s upper half.  The invitation to an act of voyeurism is thus made explicit, and what one sees through those peepholes is a calculated obscenity at once more shocking and far subtler than the barbaric photographic statements of Robert Mapple-thorpe. Behind the door lies the eerily lit ruin of an Arcadian landscape—weeds growing rampant, as in a vacant lot; fragments of a stone wall that might once have formed a garden enclosure (perhaps a medieval hortus conclusus).  Just to the left of center is sprawled the naked body of a woman, her genitalia exposed and presented in the fore, her head obscured by shadow.  She appears to be a corpse that looks to be in an advanced state of rigor mortis, and yet her left arm upholds an illuminated gas lamp.  Directly behind the lamp in the distance, a waterfall cascades.  As might be expected, third-world connoisseurs of postmodern anti-art have lavishly praised Duchamp’s assemblage as the apotheosis of the avant-garde attempt to “liberate” the art object from the traditional “picture plane” and, thus, to allow no fixed meaning to be assigned to the object by the viewer-voyeur.  Refusing to be drawn by such evasions, Rieff brilliantly articulates what should be obvious to anyone whose understanding has not been subverted by the “higher illiteracy” of art criticism: Duchamp’s “masterpiece” is a pornographic and unmitigated attack on the sacred origin of humanity, of man (or woman) made in the image of God.  This degraded image of the “world woman” (primordial image of sexual fertility) is at once a mocking vision of the desecration of the temple of God (the body as the dwelling place of the soul) and a third-world vision of life “given” out of death.  In so titling the work, Duchamp seems to be saying that “Being itself—the ontological condition—is transgressive in its energies,” that the truest act of creation lies in destruction.

It is curious that Rieff fails to note the striking parallels between Duchamp’s Étant donnés and the photographs of the mutilated body of Elizabeth Short, the so-called Black Dahlia, which were widely circulated in the American press in 1947-48, just as Duchamp had begun to model his assemblage.  The Black Dahlia murder is, of course, one of the most notorious of unsolved homicides in American history (it has served as fodder for a recent Brian De Palma film), in part because of the “artful” manner in which Short’s naked corpse was “assembled” on the edge of a weedy vacant lot in a Los Angeles neighborhood not far from where Duchamp’s fellow artist and sometimes collaborator, photographer Man Ray, kept a studio.  In fact, a growing body of evidence suggests that Duchamp (who was working then in New York, and who shared with his friend Ray a fascination for the transgressive “artistry” of killers such as the Marquis de Sade) was powerfully influenced by the photographs that were available to him in the New York papers, as well as by the details of Short’s rather curious sexuality.  If true, this convergence of art and criminality of the most debased sort only serves to confirm Rieff’s assumption that our third-world artists have become (with few exceptions) the willing servants/savants of a culture of death.  And what is more, they contemptuously invite our craven complicity in their murderous arts.  For this, they are applauded by archpriests of the postmodern such as Jean-François Lyotard, who has written of Étant donnés that there is a trick of perspective in the work which suggests a certain equivalence between viewer and vulva: “Thus, when the peeping eyes think they’re seeing the vulva, they’re seeing themselves. . . . Con celuit qui voit.”

Philip Rieff died of heart failure on July 3 at his home in Philadelphia.  He was 83 years old.  The two remaining volumes of Sacred Order/Social Order were completed before his death and are forthcoming.  Thus, it remains to be seen just how enduring a foundation Rieff has laid for his “sacred sociology.”  If the first volume is any indication, defenders of the beleaguered second world will be studying Rieff’s work for some time to come.  Deathworks is a difficult book, at times frustrating (probably deliberately so), often obscure, but just as often exhilarating in its clarity and sudden flashes of insight that illuminate the darker regions of our ongoing culture wars.  Some reviewers have dismissed it as “gloomy” or deeply pessimistic, but this is simply not the case.  While it is true that Rieff envisions what may be a long, twilight struggle between the elites of the second and third worlds, he seems convinced that the anticultures of the third world are “interims . . . that can never be made rational or enduring,” for they are, in essence, “self consuming.”


[My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority, by Philip Rieff (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press) 234 pp., $34.95]