We have seen the future, and it sucks.

Why the Culture Wins: An Appreciation of Iain M. Banks

10th February 2018

Read it.

If you haven’t read any of the novels of Ian M. Banks, you probably ought to do so.

This article tells you why.

It also contains some useful discussion of culture, technology, history, and moral choice.

This is, I think, where Banks draws upon his most sociologically astute observation, again extrapolating from contemporary cultural trends. There are a variety of developments that are associated with modernity. One of them involves a move away from ascribed toward achieved sources of identity. The idea is rather simple: in traditional societies, people were defined largely by the circumstances that they were born into, or their ascribed characteristics – who your family was, what “station” in life you were born to, what gender you were, etc. There were a strict set of roles that prescribed how each person in each set of circumstances was to act, and life consisted largely of acting out the prescribed role. A modern society, by contrast, favours “choice” over “circumstances,” and indeed, considers it the height of injustice that people should be constrained or limited by their circumstances. Thus there is a move toward achieved sources of identity – what school you went to, what career you have chosen, who you decided to marry, and the lifestyle you adopt. “Getting to know someone,” in our society, involves asking them about the choices they have made in life, not the circumstances they were born into.

There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to both arrangements. The advantages of choice, for people living in an achievement-oriented society, are too obvious to be worth enumerating. But there are disadvantages. Under the old system of ascribed statuses, people did not suffer from “identity crises,” and they did not need to spend the better part of their 20’s “finding themselves.” When everything is chosen, however, then the basis upon which one can make a choice becomes eroded. There are no more fixed points, from which different options can be evaluated. This generates the crisis of meaning that Taylor associates with the decline of strong evaluation.

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