The toxic triangle of modernity

I said to a correspondent recently that it feels like I am perpetually walking on ice—whenever I seem to have found a philosophical, spiritual, psychological or epistemological safe spot, I take a few more steps and fall into the freezing waters of uncertainty and doubt once again. And because my intellectual awakening was brought on by the sweet goodness of books and blogs about self-improvement and productivity, Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity functioned as an unexpected dunk into some Nordic fjord.

The book actually turned out to be one of the best I’ve read in the last year or so, which is saying a lot as I’ve had the fortune of being exposed to some absolute crackers. It discusses developments in our relationships to things like emancipation, work, community and what we think about when we think about time and space. But the two things that most interest me about it are its discussion of the concepts of individualism and impotence, which, taken together with the idea of an over-emphasis on normative models, form what I have termed the “toxic triangle of modernity”.

toxic triangle of modernity


Let’s begin with the first concept: the over-emphasis on the normative. I mentioned it recently in Removing the normative, but I’d like to revisit it here.

The definition of “normative” I have in mind here is something like, “An ideal but unachievable model”. For example, in his Letters Seneca advises:

“Choose someone whose way of life as well as words, and whose very face as mirroring the character that lies behind it, have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model. There is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make the crooked straight.”

The idea is that by choosing some great man or woman as a model and holding them in mind, you can begin to pull yourself up and improve the quality of your words, deeds and thoughts. It’s a shoot-for-the-moon-but-if-you-miss-you’ll-land-amongst-the-stars kind of thing. But there is an insidious side to it.

If a model is taken with the assumption that the model’s state is achievable by the imitator, then the imitator is setting themselves up for a world of pain and misery. It’s the difference between aspiration and ambition. Aspiring to live and learn with the same joy as a Richard Feynman is very different, in process and outcome, from having the ambition to be like Richard Feynman. The former is a selective imitation and application of his most positive traits in the context of your own life; the latter is a slavish attempt to solve—or skirt around—your own problems by becoming someone else.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand the over-emphasis on the normative in our current cultural climate is to turn to Instagram. We all know the schtick: social media is the highlight reel of someone’s life, it is not a faithful representation, etc. etc.. Yet, we still fall for it and make the comparison between so-and-so’s “best life” and our own. The latter seems utterly enthralling and the former is exquisitely mundane. The digital nomad; the big-city yogi; the wildlife photographer; the van dweller; the artisan; the happy family—every aspect of our life and being is represented on social media and every aspect is illuminated with the most perfect combination of light and framing. Is it any wonder that we, who live a normal live in an often grey world, spend a lot of time feeling like shit?


The cult of individualism demands independence and self-reliance from all its acolytes. It’s motto could well be Henley’s, “I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul.” It preaches the idea that all problems encountered by the individual can be solved by the individual. Conversely, that means that any problem’s perpetuation is the fault of the individual. As Bauman says:

“..if they fall ill, it is assumed that this has happened because they were not resolute and industrious enough in following their health regime; if they stay unemployed, it is because they failed to learn the skills of gaining an interview, or because they did not try hard enough to find a job or because they are, purely and simply, work-shy; if they are not sure about their career prospects and agonise about their future, it is because they are not good enough at winning friends and influencing people and failed to learn and master, as they should have done, the arts of self-expression and impressing others. This is, at any rate, what they are told these days to be the case, and what they have come to believe, so that they now behave as if this was, indeed, the truth of the matter. As Beck aptly and poignantly puts it, ‘how one lives becomes a biographical solution to systemic contradictions’. Risks and contradictions go on being socially produced; it is just the duty and the necessity to cope with them which are being individualised.”

Like the women who is raped “because” she had the audacity to wear “provocative” clothing, or the Jewish concentration camp inmates who were seen as worthy of detention and destruction by neighbouring civilians because of their abject condition, the individual is the one ultimately responsible for his or her inability to vault over systemically-produced obstacles. All success is individually generated, as is all failure.

Liquid Modernity contains a few examples of the inhumanity of the cult of individualism, but the most striking, and the one I’ll end this section with, came in the domain of health and fitness. Bauman quotes Jane Fonda:

“ ‘I like to think a lot of my body is my own doing and my own blood and guts. It’s my responsibility.’ Fonda’s message for every woman is to treat her body as her own possession (my blood, my guts), her own product (my own doing) and above all, her own responsibility. To sustain and reinforce the postmodern amour de soi, she invokes (alongside the consumer tendency to self-identify through possessions) the memory of a very pre-postmodern – in fact more pre-modern than modern – instinct of workmanship: the product of my work is as good as (and no better than) the skills, attention and care which I invest in its production. Whatever the results, I have no one else to praise or to blame, as the case may be. The obverse side of the message is also unambiguous, even if not spelled out with similar clarity: you owe your body thought and care, and should you neglect that duty you should feel guilty and ashamed. Imperfections of your body are your guilt and your shame. But the redemption of sins is in the hands of the sinner, and in his or her hands alone.”


First, we are presented with an abundance of normative models. One can go on Instagram and instantly stumble upon well-meaning people attempting to “empower” their followers by teaching them ways to improve their bodies, but who at the same time are manufacturing a deep dissatisfaction in the minds of their followers due to the follower’s inability to ever achieve that normative state.

Second, we are persuaded that all failures are individual failures. A person gets their just desert. The ill, the unemployed, the homeless, the unhealthy, the impoverished, the less-than-best; they have failed themselves.

It is sometimes possible to move beyond the constraints normative models and the school of individualism impose. After all, we’ve all heard stories of incredible transformations, of people turning their lives around, of those who accomplish something with nothing through the virtue of sheer will. But those are the exception, and will become increasingly so once we factor in the third ingredient: impotence, either real or perceived. The best lens through which to view this idea is the idea of climate change.

In a remarkable thread David Roberts comes to a conclusion about our approach to climate change. Some choice excerpts:

“We have the tech we need for sustainability. The economics are aligned. The policy tools are tested and available. Everything is queued up! The only thing missing, the final detail, the last item on the checklist, is … leadership!

“We could solve this affordably & to mutual benefit” is true of almost *every* social dysfunction. I mean, we have the money & policy tools to eliminate poverty. It would generate enormous collective benefit. But we don’t. Why not? B/c we lack … political will!

To sum up: yes, we get it! We have to tools we need to transition to sustainability. It makes economic sense. We just need political will. Message received.”

Now, add to this one of Bauman’s observations:

“The most poignant yet the least answerable question of our times of liquid modernity is not ‘What is to be done?’ (in order to make the world better or happier), but ‘Who is going to do it?’ ”

Knowing what to do but being unable to do it—that is the definition of impotence. And it is a state surprisingly akin to much of modern life. Circling back to health and fitness: it’s easy to get information about what we should eat and what sort of activities we should engage in to remain healthy. There’s millions of sources. Which is the problem. We have the information, and a lot of it conflicts, so we don’t know what to do with it.


This is what you should look like, but it’s your fault that you don’t and there’s nothing you can do to change your body.

Work should be meaningful, fun and wealth-generating, but you haven’t developed the skills to get such a job and it will take the rest of your life to do so.

The best relationships are deep and intimate and long-lasting, but all your relationships are rocky and marred with implicit ruptures that you can never hope to repair or bridge because you’re a broken person.

The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Over-emphasis on the normative, the cult of individualism, and the actual or perceived impotence of the modern person when confronting personal, community or societal issues are, alone, bad news. Together? They are utterly toxic. They feed one another and perpetuate a society where everyone is ashamed of their non-normative state, where everyone feels responsible for problems outside of their control, and where everyone is terrorised by a real or perceived inability to do what they know they must.


I’ve painted a particularly grim picture. However, there is hope, especially when recalling that toxicity is dependent not on the substance itself, but on the amount of it that is consumed. With that in mind I would say that:

1) Normative models are useful when used as the basis for aspiration, not ambition.
2) Individualism is virtuous when limited to the domain and scale of what one person can reasonably hope to accomplish.
3) Impotence has a function, particularly on the societal scale, of checking reckless action and ensuring best results. It slows the decision-making and action-taking processes with the aim of producing sustainable positive effects.

The dose makes the poison, but who will say when enough becomes too much? When normative models have taken over, when the individual has become the sovereign of our times, and when the status quo is one of well-meaning people who know what to do but not how to do it, what will be our response?