Prof. Norbert Bolz Sinn-Designer. On the Management of Cultural Meaningfulness
Compensating the Burdens of Modernization
In the following I will attempt to make culture recognizable as a compensation of modern society. I assume we agree that our society is unmanageably complex, our technologies overburden us and the human standard no longer provides us with an orientation in our world. Culture offers compensation for these extreme demands. It promises us an escape from complexity and it offers us symbols of unity.
From this perspective unity through reason does not appear as the modern age’s basis, but rather as its almost religious consolation. In reflecting on Max Weber one could say: occidental reason was the compensation for societal modernization and not its motor. Though not intended, this is even made clear by Habermas’ project of modernism. We can establish the following for the modern age: societal processes of differentiation demand compensatory rituals of unity. Culture provides for these rituals.
The more the modern world is differentiated, the more generalized these symbols of unity have to be. This is why the art of simplification is becoming increasingly important. People need security and trust in their world… and this can only be reached with a rigorous reduction in complexity. By the way, this does not only apply to the quite agreeable simplification of religion and art, but also to our handling of technology, i.e., “user friendliness”.
But this has brought us onto a level of anthropological description. Culture protects people from the complexity of their world. Above all, culture is naturally the protective armor that human beings use against themselves, i.e. the domestication of the wolf he is for others like himself. But culture also protects human beings from a nature they are not adapted to. The misfits need prosthetics. In the sense of our theory of compensation this means: culture creates a compensation for human beings not being natural.
The idea that human beings are not natural might sound frightening in the ears of non-scientists, but it is in fact good news. Those who demand: “I want to stay the way I am” are answered by culture: “you can”! And this is possible because the processes of selection, variation and mutation take place for human beings on the level of their techniques and institutions. In other words, culture underlies evolution – as a substitute for human beings. This evolution of culture is opportunistic. This is why one speaks quite rightly of trends that have nothing to do with fashion. This may also frighten: cultural evolution is opportunistic. But opportunism only means a sense for good prospects. Successful trends are adaptive, i.e., they can stop and change directions. Here an example to clarify: ecology is known as a mega-trend of our culture; in the past it was colored rather darkly. Today we observe this trend stabilizing its success by changing its direction and color and reformulating itself as eco-optimism. This is evolutionary opportunism.
As you have certainly noticed, I understand culture as de-dramatization. It protects us by being indirect; or, as neo-cybernetics would formulate, through second-order observation. This comes at a cost. Culture relieves us of fear, but it offers us nothing to be amazed at anymore. One has described this many times as demystification and de-auratization of the world.
Culture is the world of meaningfulness – and as such stands in striking contrast to the scientific world. As we all know, physical reality is created by reading the gauges; this is why it tells us nothing. It is in fact what Pascal had already seen: the infinite spaces of science remain silent. This vacuum must be filled with cultural meaningfulness, but the hard sciences do not want to be a part of this. Max Weber once even spoke of “sociologists’ axiophobia”.
Norbert Bolz was born in 1953 in Ludwigshafen, Germany. He completed his Abitur at the Max-Planck- High School. Bolz studied philosophy, German language and literature studies, English language and literature studies and religious studies. He wrote his conferral about Adorno’s aesthetics supervised by philosopher Jacob Taubes. Norbert Bolz wrote his Habilitation about the theme „Philosophical Extremism in between the world-wars“, and was the Assistant of Jacob Taubes until Taubes passed. In the time period between 1992 and 2002 he held the chair for communication theory at the Institute for Art- and Design Sciences, University of Essen. Since winter term 2002/03 professorship at the Technical University of Berlin, faculty 1 humanities, institute for language and communication, area of expertise media sciences.