Postmodernity as Thanatos: the Relationship Between Illusion and Needs



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Zygmunt Bauman and other postmodernists have argued that postmodernity is characterized by the disintegration of the legitimacy and authority of what has been referred to as grand narratives or "illusions." These theorists often highlight the manipulative and obfuscating effects of illusion. As such, scholars like Bauman contend that postmodernity sets the stage for sincere, moral responsibility. However, they fail to acknowledge that these illusions provide a cultural and social function through their satisfaction of human needs. Failing to fully acknowledge the importance of this function and human needs in general leads many postmodern theorists to be unable to adequately theorize about the contemporary epoch. In addition to the weakening authority of grand illusions, the advent of technologically advanced society coincided with the process of desublimation (a process by which instant gratification occurs). Desublimation worked to undermine what Sigmund Freud has referred to as the life instincts by promulgating false needs (i.e., wants or desires perceived as needs). As such, contemporary society may be depicted as constituting anomic, atomistic individuals seeking self-preservation. This process may be delineated as the death instincts, or Thanatos, as coming to triumph over the life instincts, Eros. A Thanatos society has significant implications for moral responsibility. The diminution of sincere emotional integration facilitates the unbridled spread of postemotionalism into more and more spheres of social life. As postemotional scripts become the prevailing moral guidelines, Thanatos manifests itself as a compulsion to repeat destructive behavior at the societal and individual level. Society and its members struggle in their attempts to choose the "right" course of action. Confusion and fear become affixed features of personal and social life and morality becomes an arbitrary endeavor.