The Cutting Edge PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Tuesday, 10 August 2010 10:19

What makes us do what we do?

Freud says that it all comes down to sexual desire: We act out of lust.  Marxists counter by stressing class identity.  Adam Smith and his followers saw we rationally calculate what is in our best interests.  Dostoevsky found that unbearably naïve: In reality, people act out of spite and masochistic impulses as often as self-interest.

More perspicacious than most, C. S. Lewis recognized that our motives don’t well up from within our souls.  Motivations and desires are social.  We do what we do because we want to have certain kinds of relations with certain kinds of people, or because we long for an admiring glance from others.

In a brilliant essay, Lewis sketched out the features of what he called the “Inner Ring.”  In human groups there are often two hierarchies, one official and permanent, the other unofficial and shifting.  The latter is the Inner Ring.  It is not “a formally organized secret society with officers and rules which you would be told after you had been admitted.”  There is no induction ceremony, and no formal means of excommunication.

“The only certain rule,” Lewis said, “is that the insiders and outsiders call it by different names.”  From the inside, it might be an intimate friendship, a “we few, we happy few,” or “”all the sensible people.”  But “from outside, if you have despaired of getting into it, you call it ‘That gang’ or ‘they’ or ‘So-and-so and his set’ or ‘The Caucus’ or ‘The Inner Ring.’”

Lewis believed his most important insight was not the existence of the Inner Ring (on reflection, everyone knows what he’s talking about), but its domination of our desires, motivations, and actions: “I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.”

I want to tip Lewis’s Inner Ring on its side.  When we do that, it becomes temporal rather than spatial, and instead of Inner and Outer we talk about Ahead and Behind.   Instead of a boundary, we see a horizon, the horizon we know as the Cutting Edge.  The desire to be at the Cutting Edge is the desire to bathe in the glow of the new, to the desperation to be seen as the wave of the future, the craving to be recognized as the first to see the rising sun.

The temporal and spatial pictures overlap. Both the Inner Ring and the Cutting Edge are about honor, about striving for recognition.  For some Inner Rings, being In is identical to Being Ahead, while Being Out is tantamount to Being Behind.  Yet, I think there’s some value in looking at Lewis’s observations sideways.

Hence my thesis, a paraphrase of Lewis: I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be on the Cutting Edge and the terror of being left Behind.

We check the news online four or five times a day (or an hour) for the latest gossip, not merely to be informed but to be perceived as informed.  We buy new clothes every season because we don’t want to be out of style.  We have to have the latest iGadget, preferably before any of our friends have it.

Ideas also follow trends.  (Definition of postmodernity: The social condition in which all culture is a subsidiary of the fashion industry.)  We want to read the latest books not because they communicate wisdom, but to be seen reading the latest books.  We need to be up on the latest developments in theory because they are the latest developments in theory.

The Cutting Edge dominates entertainment perhaps more than any other sector of life.  What accounts for the millions who go to see a film on the first weekend?  Who can still laugh without embarrassment at comedies or comedians from the Paleolithic 1990s? Or who can avoid a cringe or a giggle at the special effects of the original Star Wars?  Sometimes these are sound judgments: Sitcoms often really are lame (but why did people laugh twenty years ago? – the Cutting Edge).  Special effects start looking goofy only a few years after a movie’s release.  Just as often these judgments of taste are made because we are swept along by the herd rushing headlong to the Cutting Edge.

Rowing against the current doesn’t necessarily deliver us from the tyranny of the Cutting Edge.  A painter who bucks abstractionism and expressionism and returns to traditional figures and themes may well do so in the hopes of being the founder of a new, retro school.  A composer who writes beautiful melodies might do so because it’s Edgier.

The response to the enticements of the Inner Ring is Trinitarian and ecclesiological.  In Christ, we are incorporated into the ultimate Inner Ring, the eternal fugue of Father, Son, and Spirit.  Baptism inducts us into the Ring, since the church is the historical manifestation of that Ring, the family of the Father, the body of the Son, the temple of the Spirit.  Who could ask for a Ring more Inner than that? Once we’re in that Ring, every social, artistic, academic elite loses its glister.

My warning about the Cutting Edge is not the same as an exhortation to stay put.  God does new things, and the response to the enticements of the Cutting Edge is pneumatological and eschatological.  The Cutting Edge is a false pneumatology, confusing the spirit of the age with the Spirit of God.  It is, by the same token, a false eschatology, conflating our contemporary horizon with the true future that is the Spirit.

We don’t respond to the seductions of the now by renouncing the new.  We respond by tapping our foreheads to remind us of the Spirit sealed to us in baptism.  Through the Spirit, Christians are the people of His future. We are, already now, at the horizon of the future where everything is heading.  In step with the Spirit, we stay at the Cuttingest of all possible Cutting Edges.

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