History Degree Zero

22 October 2012


Waiting at the End of History

for the Coming of the Zero Hour

What does French literary criticism have to do with geopolitics, geostrategy, and far future scenarios of human civilization? Everything, as it turns out.

Roland Barthes wrote a book titled Writing Degree Zero; one could say that it is a work of literary criticism, but as with much sophisticated scholarship it is more than this. French literary criticism is not a scholarly undertaking for the faint at heart.

Barthes compares what he calls “writing degree zero” to the writing of a journalist; we can similarly compare history degree zero with the history found in journalism. In journalism, nothing ever happens, and at the same time something is always happening. It is the contemporary incarnation of the cyclical conception of history, in which nothing in essentials changes even while accidental change is the pervasive order of the day. (In Italy this is called “Gatopardismo.”) This is history reduced to white noise.

Here is Barthes’ own formulation of writing degree zero:

“Proportionately speaking, writing at the degree zero is basically in the indicative mood, or if you like, amodal; it would be accurate to say that it is a journalist’s writing. If it were not precisely the case that journalism develops, in general, optative or imperative (that is, emotive) forms. The new neutral writing takes place in the midst of all those ejaculations and judgments, without becoming involved in any of them; it consists precisely in their absence. But this absence is complete, it implies no refuge, no secret; one cannot therefore say that it is an impassive mode of writing; rather, that is is innocent.”

Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith, New York: Hill and Wang, 1977 (originally published 1953), pp. 76-77

It has been said that Barthes’ book is parochial, and certainly his central concern is French literature, and the situation (or, if you prefer, the dilemma) of the French writer. Barthes was a man of his place and time, and the book sets itself questions that scarcely resonate in early twenty-first century America: How can writing be revolutionary? We’ve come a long way since 1968.

Barthes was clearly vexed that a lot of writing by professed communists was anything but revolutionary. It was, in fact — horror of horrors — bourgeois, and little better than shilling shockers, penny dreadfuls, and yellow journalism. Barthes, then, was asking how it was possible for someone with truly revolutionary ideas to write in a revolutionary manner.

One must recall that at this time there were two kinds of writers in France: communists who supported Stalin and made excuses for him, and communists who did not support Stalin and made no excuses for him. (If you have the chance, I urge you to see the wonderful film Red Kiss, which is a bit difficult to find, but worth the effort for its illustration of the period.) The most famous literary-intellectual-philosophical dispute of the time — that between Sartre and Camus — perfectly exemplified this. Camus, not one to make excuses for anyone, said he would be neither a victim nor an executioner. Sartre, after resisting the blandishments of communism for many years, eventually became the most unimaginative of communists, defended Stalin and Mao, and had his lackeys take Camus to task in print.

Barthes explicitly cites the style of Camus as embodying the qualities of writing of the zero degree, though I think that Barthes was so personally involved in the idea of literature that his identification of Camus as writing degree zero was not in any sense intended as a political slander — or, for that matter, as a literary slander. (I hope that more informed readers will correct me if I am wrong.)

Journalism, then, is historiography degree zero, and in so far as journalists produce (as they like to say) the first draft of history, and in so far as this first draft is subsequently iterated in later drafts of history, historiography more closely approximates the zero degree. (If you prefer reading sitreps to journalism — they’re pretty much the same thing — you can reformulate the preceding sentence.) And then again, in so far as mass journalism is consumed by a mass audience, and that mass audience goes on to create contemporary history, in a mass spectacle of life imitating art, history itself, and not merely the recounting of history in historiography, approaches the zero degree. The new neutral history — uninvolved, disengaged, absent — is the perfect characterization of the mass politics of mass man.

There are elections, there are debates, there is television news 24/7 and radio talk shows 24/7, there are still a few newspapers and magazines sacrificing dead trees, and there is of course the blogosphere resonating with the voices of the millions (like myself) who have no access to the media megaphone and who prefer the web to a soapbox. All of this feeds into the appearance that there is always something going on. But we know that almost nothing changes for all the sound and fury. It doesn’t really matter who wins the election, since the rich will still be rich and the poor will still be poor.

Have we already, then, reached history degree zero? Are we living at the end of history? Is this what the end of days looks like? Not quite. Not quite yet.

One of the most famous and familiar motifs of Marx’s thought is that history is driven by ideological conflict. It is a very Victorian, very Darwinian, very nineteenth century idea. History understood as an ideological conflict has characterized the modern period of Western history, even if it was not always obvious what people were fighting for. Sometimes it was obvious what men were fighting for, and this was especially true in the wake of revolutions: those who died to defend the American Revolution or the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution knew, to some extent at least, what they were fighting for.

For Marx, the locomotive of history was the class struggle, and it was the nature of class struggle to erupt into revolutionary action. Revolutions, as I noted above, had the property of clarifying what it’s all about. You’re on one side of the barricades or the other. Marx was right to focus on revolutions, but wrong to focus on the class struggle.

We can arrive at a more satisfactory understanding of modern history if we take social class out of Marx’s class struggle and make the class a variable for which we can substitute any political entity whatsoever. Thus we arrive at a formal conception of political struggle: a social class can struggle against a nation-state; a nation-state can struggle against a royal family; a royal family can struggle against a city-state, and so on, and so forth.

The convergence of the international system on the model of the nation-state system has given us the appearance that nation-states struggle with nation-states, and as life has imitated art — in this case, the art of political thought — we have steadily been reduced to the monoculture of a single kind of political entity — nation-states — engaged in a single kind of struggle. Francis Fukuyama called this political system “liberal democracy” and this condition “the end of the history.” I guess one name is as good as any other name; I would call it political homogenization.

In many posts I have discussed Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis (a thesis, I might add, heavily indebted to French scholarship, and especially to Alexandre Kojève’s reading of Hegel — note that Kojève was an acquaintance of Leo Strauss and his work was translated by Allen Bloom, noted literary critic and cranky academic who wrote The Closing of the American Mind). I have pointed out that, despite the many dismissive critiques of Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, and claims of a “return of history,” that Fukuyama himself still holds a modified version of the thesis, and this is that contemporary liberal democratic society is the sole remaining viable form of political society (cf. Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics, in which I noted that Fukuyama is still thinking through his thesis twenty years on, as befits a philosopher).

As it turns out, there is a political level below that of the “end of history” and this is the absence of history — history degree zero.

A single remaining political ideology signifies History Degree One, and in the theater of political ideologies, liberal democracy is, for Fukuyama, the last man standing — but if this last man standing is a straw man, and we knock over this straw man, what then? If it can be shown that liberal democracy is a failure also, along with communism and fascism, nationalism and socialism, internationalism and fundamentalism, what comes next?

What then? Zero hour. History degree zero.

Even the end of history waits for further developments, and the future of the end of history is Zero Hour.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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