11 August 2012
In my last post, Taking Responsibility for Our Interpretations, I wanted to emphasize how both individuals and political wholes (social groups) seek to vacate their responsibilities by cloaking them in a specious facticity, so that an interpretation of the world is treated as if it were something more than or other than a mere interpretation. One of the most common ways of doing this in relation to history is to formulate an interpretation of history, whether personal or social, as “destiny.”
We are all painfully familiar with loaded terms from historiography like “destiny,” “progress,” “inevitability,” and the like. We find them impartially on the left and the right. In fact, the most strongly ideologically motivated institutions make a practice of most grievously distorting history to fit a particular model that flatters the ideology in question. All one need do is recall the utopian plans of communism and Nazism from the previous century to understand the extent to which visions of the past and the future supposedly inherent in the very nature of things issue in dystopian consequences.
I realize that I’ve engaged with this issue recently in slightly different terms. In Gibbon, Sartre, and the Eurozone I formulated two principles that I called Gibbon’s Principle and Sartre’s Principle. Gibbon’s Principle is that the authority of a social whole is inalienable. Sartre’s Principle is that the authority of the individual is inalienable. In other words, even if a social whole or an individual engages in the pretense of surrendering its autonomy, this is an act of bad faith (mauvaise foi) because the social whole or the individual retains the autonomy to act even as it denies this autonomy to itself. Gibbon’s Principle as applied to history means taking responsibility for the history of social wholes; Sartre’s Principle as applied to history means taking responsibility for the individual’s personal history.
It may seem a bit incredible to compare the benign Eurozone to malevolently utopian visions like communism or Nazism, but the narratives employed to defend the Euro — the inevitability of European integration and its historical irreversibility — are on a par with inherentist narratives that make claims upon history that cannot be sustained. In Gibbon, Sartre, and the Eurozone I compared the attempt to make the Eurozone permanent to the Cuban attempt to incorporate its present socio-political regime as a permanent feature of its constitution, which latter I had discussed in The Imperative of Regime Survival.
It is significant in this connection that the US experienced a traumatic challenge to its national claims of permanence that took the form of the Civil War. Had I been alive in the 1860s, I suspect that I would have argued that it was utter folly to craft a national constitution that had provisions for adding to the territories of the United States but no provisions for the peaceful succession of regions that no longer desired to be part of the US. Because there were no peaceful provisions for succession, the succession took the form of militant succession, which was answered by militancy on the part of those who believed the Union to be indissoluble.
So am I arguing that the Confederates were right? That would certainly put me in an awkward position. If the South had peacefully succeeded from the Union, it is entirely possible that the Balkanization of North American would have yielded a map of minor states such as we find in South America (after the breakup of Gran Colombia), though it is equally possible that the fractured Union would have left only two successor states in North America. Counterfactuals are difficult to argue with any kind of confidence precisely because inherentist and essentialist conceptions of history almost never provide an adequate narrative of what happens.
Regardless of what might have happened, what did in fact happen is the the unity of the US was imposed by force of arms, more or less guaranteeing the US a continental land empire without any power able to seriously challenge the US in the Western hemisphere. This likely resulted in the US repeatedly intervening in the internecine quarrels of Europe until the US itself took responsibility for European security, eventually winning the Cold War and becoming the dominant world power. None of this was inevitable, but it has been given the air of inevitability by nationalistic narratives of American exceptionalism.
There is a sense in which the Cuban narrative of a permanent revolutionary government and the Eurozone narrative of indissolubility seek to emulate the apparently successful indissolubility revealed by the US national experience. Who, after all, would not want to be the exception to the mutability of all human things?
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1 May 2012
After having written, just a few days ago, about declensionism as the possibly now-dominant narrative in the US (in From American Exceptionalism to American Declensionism), it seems a bit odd to take up the topic of whether happy days are here again, but I have been noticing subtle rhetorical shifts in the media that suggest that, no matter the pessimism and cynicism of the moment, Americans are always willing (if not eager) to believe in a better tomorrow. Reinvention — personal, institutional, civic, national — is one of the central themes of the American narrative, and this includes the continual reinvention of a brighter tomorrow.
There is a certain elusive nostalgia in the predictions of plentiful natural gas from shale (has anyone yet called it “power too cheap to meter?”), the revitalization of Rust Belt-era cities, and the return of manufacturing jobs to the US. The fact that these strategic trends are all based in fact does not mean that they will come together to form a coherent future, but it is (or would be) easy to put these trends together and draw conclusions from them — it is (mostly) a pleasant scenario. However, for starters, these strategic trends — all of which, I will admit without hesitation, have a clear basis in contemporary events — are mutually incompatible.
Thomas P.M. Barnett of Wikistrat has been particular assiduous on reporting both the potential for shale gas and the return of manufacturing to US shores, and in fact combining the two by considering the industrial development that will follow from the large scale commercial exploitation of fracking to extract natural gas from shale. Dr. Barnett has posted a stream of loosely related items on this, such as The coming American industrial renaissance, States and localities fighting over hydrofracturing drilling
, The displacement effect of all that new US natural gas, and North American energy boom attracting Chinese investment, inter alia.
Dr. Barnett has not been alone in predicting a revitalization of American prospects based on a conventional outlook on economic prosperity. I recently listened to the book $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better by Christopher Steiner, and while parts of this book read like “peak oil” apocalypticism, as the subtitle indicates, the author believes much good will come out of increasing unaffordable fossil fuels. He predicts the revitalization of failing metropolitan areas like Detroit, as well as the return of manufacturing jobs to the US because of the expense of transported manufactured goods when transportation costs rise sharply.
One of the most difficult things about prediction and futurism (and futurism must here be understood as a coherent group of predictions definitive of a particular way of life) is that the world is complex and interconnected, while the human mind has difficulty keeping three or four things in its focus at the same time. Both because of the practical realities of thinking and writing, which are processes that take place in time and therefore are “strung out,” as it were, rather than found together simultaneously, our narratives of necessity give a sequential account of things. This comes through very clearly in $20 Per Gallon, which exemplifies this diachronic imperative in contrast to the synchronic reality of parallel and simultaneous development. The author treats in sequence consequences of high fuel prices that will happen across the board, simultaneously, and as these consequences occur simultaneously, then will influence each other, with the result being quite beyond our powers of prediction. Complex adaptive systems are continually adapting to each other, and, in the process of adapting, changing themselves and changing the context in which all other complex adaptive systems adapt.
As I attempted to show in Futurism Without Predictions, the approach to futurism that is likely to tell us what the future is going to be like, rather than picking and choosing particular items and there, but getting the whole completely wrong, is identifying the master strategic trend, and the master strategic trend is that which not only becomes the dominant strategic trend but also that strategic trend that is intrinsically capable of subordinating the greatest number of coherent and mutually compatible (i.e., in Leibnizean terms, compossible) strategic trends.
Traditional futurists have often defended their predictions (and the predictions of past futurists, thereby to shore up the credentials of the discipline generally speaking) by pointing to individual items that were predicted and which where eventually built — submarines, helicopters, the videophone, and so forth. The problem with this strategy of rationalizing predictions (a problem that we often feel but do not always know how to express) is that particular instances of technology predicted and then built do not add up to the feeling that futurists have given of the future. It is not only that we aren’t wearing unisex leotards, going to work in flying cars, and getting all our nutrition from a single pill we take in the morning, it is that our world does not look like and does not feel like the world of the Jetsons.
To get a proper feeling for what the world is like, and what it may be like in the future, we need to stop thinking in terms of individual predictions and start thinking in terms of dominant strategic trends that shape the overall character of life in a particular historical era. In other words, we need to look at the big picture. And in the big picture, some of the obvious trends of today will be in conflict, and will not come together (cannot come together) into any kind of synthesis that will define the future.
It is pretty obvious that at least some manufacturing jobs will return to the US. As poorer countries become wealthier, it will no longer be cheaper to make things overseas and ship them back to the US. That’s pretty simple; it’s not rocket science. But the danger of thinking in terms of a US manufacturing economy is the perverse fetishism of industry that one often finds in popular writings on economics. Manufacturing is no more an answer to the economic conundra of the present than is the idea that everyone will become a hedge fund manager and work in financial services. Any real and vital economy has many sectors, and the interaction of these sectors in the marketplace is what makes an economy thrive. So don’t expect to get a job at 18 making widgets at the local factory, planning to retire in 30 years on a full pension. Those days are over. Longevity killed that dream. Ironically, we have to work longer and harder because we are healthier and live longer. This is an example of unpredictable consequences of simultaneous developments.
It is also pretty obvious that new fracking techniques are going to allow for the extraction of natural gas from shale at a level that was not previously possible. But natural gas is a fossil fuel, and although it certainly burns cleaner than coal, if the world economy expands dramatically by cranking up natural gas, we will be digging ourselves deeper into a problem that may have truly radical unpredictable consequences — like having to abandon the world’s major coastal cities because they are all under water due to rising sea levels.
Furthermore, the rentention of an economy based on cheap and widely available fossil fuels will mean that the kind of forced urbanization imagined in Christopher Steiner’s book will not occur. It is a relatively simple matter to convert cars, trains, and planes to run on one fossil fuel or another, and LNG is only marginally less convenient that oil. If natural gas is cheap and plentiful, LNG will be cheap and plentiful, and travel by private car and by airline will continue to be routine. And if the problem of hypersonic engines can be practically tamed, the world may become more internationally knit together, not less.
Make no mistake, increasing urbanization is one of the central strategic trends of our time, and we can expect it to continue. But it is likely to continue along the model of what Joel Garreau called “edge cities,” as well as sprawling, car-enabled suburbs that many people claim to disdain but which continue to grow in population.
Whether or not the trend is your friend, it is certainly your future. And the tone and feeling of the future will be set by that strategic trend that drives, shapes, and influences all the other strategic trends — either by magnifying them or by rendering them irrelevant.
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24 April 2012
The pages of Foreign Policy magazine are once again becoming agitated by the question of American decline. There is A Nation of Spoiled Brats: Financial Times columnist Ed Luce explains the real reason for American decline an interview by David Rothkopf in Foreign Policy dated 16 April 2012; a few days before this there was The American decline debate by Clyde Prestowitz, while for some background we have from last January Think Again: American Decline, This time it’s for real by Gideon Rachman. The latter, Gideon Rachman, also writes for the Financial Times, which also occasionally hosts pieces on alleged American decline.
I have written before about my distaste for declensionism, so I am not simply going to repeat my arguments the continuing vitality of US institutions and ambitions. For this, you can see The Revolution Without the Revolution and Expanding on a Comment. I will also like to point out the declensionism can be considered a special case of apocalypticism, so that arguments against apocalypticism (as, for example, in The End of the End of the World) also apply, mutatis mutandis, to declensionism.
Of course, one might accept or reject both exceptionalism and declensionism; the two are not mutually exclusive. One might well maintain that the US is unique and that it is now in decline — in fact, I believe that this is the position of many if not most on the political right — as one might equally well maintain that the US is not unique and not in decline (something closer to my own perspective). However, despite the possibility of simultaneously maintaining or rejecting exceptionalism and declensionism, what is interesting about the current spate of declensionist commentary is the shift in narrative that seems to have taken place.
At one time, American exceptionalism was the dominate narrative in understanding the US and its position in the world. I now wonder if we have turned the corner so that American declensionism has become, or is becoming, the dominant narrative by which society at large attempts to understand the US and its position in the world. Having the exceptionalist or the declensionist perspective matters, because each plays into a familiar context of related narratives. That is to say, one idea leads to another, so once you get started down a particular narrative path, the internal logic of the narrative is likely to guide your thinking more than any evidence or reasoning.
The American exceptionalist is likely to say something like, “Sure, things aren’t so good right now, but they’ll turn around; good ol’ American know-how will see to to that. And when things do turn around everyone will see that America isn’t just another country in the world, it is different from all the others, and it can continue to defy the critics and stymy its enemies, and it always will.”
The American declensionist likely to say something like, “No country can forever defy the laws of nature or society; it is time for simple realism and pragmatism in facing up to the fact of America’s finite resources. We need to reassess our position in the world and adopt more appropriate horizons for our actions, learn to learn our lessons, and avoid the kind of overreach that might make things even worse. Every empire in history has eventually joined that of Ozymandias, and we must prepare for the same.”
As I wrote above, I have little sympathy for the declensionists, who are quite taken with their own wisdom in soberly recognizing what they take to be the limits of US power and ambition. The declensionists are smug and self-satified in their own self-defined ghetto — but no more so than the exceptionalists. In fact, this is precisely what these two narratives — the exceptionalist and the declensionist — have in common: their parochial outlook. Both the jingoistic promoter of exceptionalism and the shrill prophet of declension are so wrapped up in their idea of American that this idea comes to supplant the reality. It is this very parochial outlook that is the true danger to the American experiment.
However, if I had to craft my own declensionist narrative, it would not look anything like the stock, off-the-shelf accounts of American decline. If there has been an American “decline” it is because the political class of the US does not believe in the Enlightenment ideals that were instrumental in constituting the US political system. It is not that the political class is actively opposed to Enlightenment ideals, but more a matter of disconnect and incomprehension. It wouldn’t take much to acquaint any intelligent individual with the Enlightenment tradition, but this is not being done. Without an understanding of Enlightenment ideals, there is political drift. The politically expedient takes precedence over all over considerations. With political drift, there is tension between competing visions of what ought to be taking place instead of drift. .
Even if the US political class could be acquainted with the Enlightenment tradition that gave us our constitution and out institutions, it is very likely that they wouldn’t know what to do with this understanding. How does one put Enlightenment ideals into practice in the 21st century?
This is why is probably better to speak in terms of political evolution rather than declension. The world changes, and we must change with it. Hopefully we can remain true to our ideals in the midst of change, but that isn’t always possible. Sometimes you must reach out for new ideals.
The Roman political system survived in one form or another from the founding of the city of Rome until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. That is a run of almost 2,000 years. The Roman Empire did not remain true to the ideals of the Roman Republic, and the Byzantine Empire did not remain true to the ideals of the Roman Empire. This exemplifies what I have called historical viability. If the American political experiment is to be historically viable, it too will undergo changes as profound as those experienced by any long-lived institution.
With this in mind, we can observe that the narrative shift from American exceptionalism to American declensionism is not evidence of defeatism or pessimism or decline, but rather evidence of American historical viability. As the American self-image is able to change from exceptionalism to declensionism, this change facilitates other forms of change, so that the American experiment is changing and adapting to changed times, and in so doing demonstrating its historical viability.
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5 April 2009
A Naturalistic Sermon
The Stories that We Tell
Today is Palm Sunday. What does Palm Sunday mean, or what ought Palm Sunday to mean, from a naturalistic perspective? Perhaps even to ask the question sounds odd. Let me try to explain.
Recently when I was working on Technical Ecstasy: Futurism and Dystopia and Fear of the Future in which I discussed several science fiction films and television series, I found that I was asking myself, “Why are these stories meaningful for us?” and “What do these stories mean to us?” The answer to the question is not immediately apparent. Clearly, the stories are told, and clearly also they resonate with the public; their popularity tells us this much.
There is a sense in which the effort to elaborately place a story in a context utterly distinct from the world that we know alienates us from the story. But the same could be said for the world of fairy tales, in which animals talk and men are transformed into stone, and the like. And yet we understand immediately the relation of the world of the fairy tale to the world in which we actually live.
Similar considerations apply with stories from the distant past, and Bible stories that have become institutionalized as holidays are stories from the distant past that are, in some respects, so different from the world we know today that their relevance is open to question. On the other hand, we again immediately recognize our world and ourselves in the world of the past. Because we recognize our world in the world of the past, we can, at least to some degree, identify with the past, and because we can identify with the past it becomes meaningful for us.
The Meanings of Palm Sunday
A story such as that told of Palm Sunday has many layers, and therefore many meanings. A Google search on “Palm Sunday” returns several obvious resources, including a nice summary on Wikipedia and an entry from the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia. The latter opens not with the story itself, but by situating the holiday in the context of the ecclesiastical calendar, the Christian liturgical year, as follows: “The sixth and last Sunday of Lent and beginning of Holy Week, a Sunday of the highest rank, not even a commemoration of any kind being permitted in the Mass.” This is a rather formal evocation of Palm Sunday, and notably lacks the human interest of the narrative core of the holiday.
The core of the story from a narrative standpoint is the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem. A triumph is itself a many-layered and manifoldly meaningful symbol. The Wikipedia article cites Christ’s “triumphant” entry into Jerusalem, and other sources use this language as well; however, Christ did not enter Jerusalem on the back of a white charger, but rather on the back of a borrowed donkey, and he was honored by readily available palm fronds and not by conspicuous luxuries.
In Roman antiquity, a Triumph was a special procession through Rome awarded to a victorious general, and came, in later Christian usage, to be called a pompa diaboli, that is to say, the devil’s procession. In the eyes of the earliest Christians, the official pomp, splendor, and spectacle of the Roman Empire was diabolical. Thus to call Christ’s entry into Jerusalem a “Triumph” would have been, in Christ’s own day, very much a “loaded” description of the event. Nevertheless, Christ did enter into Jerusalem, and was celebrated and honored by the people of the city; Palm Sunday was a triumph, and it was not a triumph. The symbolism, to borrow the language of Tillich, contains an element of self-negation.
The name of the holiday — Palm Sunday — references not the narrative of the holiday, but its most prominent symbol: the palm frond. In Christianity’s spread to temperate climes, palm fronds became difficult to find, and many different forms of greenery were substituted. If it is to be understood that the essence of the story is retained even while yew, box, and willow were substituted for palms, then, by the same token, we might speculate that the ancient pagan rituals inevitably involving seasonal display of greenery (an ancient custom throughout Europe), also in a sense retain their essence even when the story of Christ is substituted for the pre-Christian stories that were the occasion of spring festivals across the Old World.
A Lesson for Palm Sunday
If the stories that we find meaningful demonstrate for us, with a palpable immediacy, the presentness of the past, and make it possible for us to feel that the men who inhabit these stories and the situations that they faced are, in essence, like our own, one lesson we ought to take from this is the corollary to the presentness of past: the pastness of the present. Now, this is admittedly an awkward term. Probably it would be better to find a more elegant formulation, but for the moment this will do.
If we can feel the relevancy of meaningful events from the past for today, we ought also to be able to, by way of the a priori imagination, feel the relevancy of the meaningful events of the present for the past. History works in one direction, and while the men of the past cannot learn from what we have experienced, but we can learn in both directions — past to present and present to past — an in doing so we can extend our understanding beyond conventional categories.
The exercise of the intellect is the highest calling of man. Today, perhaps contrary to expectation, it is little cultivated. Why contrary to expectation? One might suppose that, given the near universality of literacy and the availability of information resources that there is no excuse not to cultivate the intellect, but what we find instead is the tiresome repetition of the false, the misleading and the conventional.
We can do better than this — much better. And one way that we can do better is to push our a priori imagination to the limits of its possibility in attempting to understand points of view distinct from that egocentric point of view native and natural to each one of us. To this end, thinking through history from both directions, thinking of the present in terms of the past and the past in terms of the present, is one place to start.
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