Friday


The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are one of the great surviving relics of medieval civilization.

Last August in The Temporal Structures of Civilization I suggested that we might think of early modern civilization — what I have called Modernism without Industrialism — as an abortive civilization. Modern civilization, sensu stricto, was preempted and essentially overtaken by industrialized civilization, or, as I now like to say, industrial-technological civilization.

Implicit in this claim is the idea (not explicitly formulated in my post of this past summer) that our civilization or any civilization might be suddenly and unaccountably preempted by a macro-historical revolution that changes everything, if only that revolution is sufficiently large and catastrophic. Those were my thoughts of high summer, and now it is fall and the rains have begun. I have been meaning to return to some of these themes, and the change in the weather is as good a reason as any to revisit my less-than-sunny summer thoughts.

The most studied macro-historical transitions in Western history are 1) the transition from classical antiquity to the middle ages, and 2) the transition from the middle ages to modernity. Both of these transitions have must to teach us, and it is remarkable that the differences between these two macro-historical revolutions are so schematic that they also seem to have been formulated to give us two radically different perspectives on what it means to make the transition from one form of civilization to another.

The transition from medievalism to modernism was gradual, continuous, and incremental; any attempt to draw a clear line between medieval civilization and modern civilization must adopt some conventions simply in order to make the distinctions, and in adopting historical conventions we know that we could have chosen our conventions differently.

Despite the gradual transition from medievalism to modernism, the medieval mind and the modern mind could not be more different. Their separation in time was gradual but the result was nearly absolute incommensurability. To formulate it in Aristotelian modalities, it was the accidents of of life that remained continuous in the transition from medievalism to modernity, even while the essence of life fundamentally changed. There is a sense in which we could say that there was an essentialist revolution that left accidents unchanged.

The transition from antiquity to medievalism, on the other hand, while it did take several centuries to consolidate as a macro-historical revolution, involved a violent break with the past and its traditions — actually, several violent breaks in tradition. There was the relative suddenness of the abandonment of classical religious traditions in favor of Christianity; there was the collapse of any unified Roman legal and political power in Western Europe; there was the break with the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, which continued on for another thousand years (turning itself into what Toynbee would have called a fossil civilization); there was the collapse the urban life in Western Europe and the flight from the cities, and with this came a radical economic transition from a unified system of commerce across the Roman Empire to a self-sufficient manorial system.

Although this transition from antiquity of medievalism involved a series of violent social dislocations, the scale of which have not been seen since in Western civilization (with the exception of the Black Death and industrialization), the medieval mind believed itself to be unchanged in essentials from the world of classical antiquity. It was common rhetorical and indeed an intellectual trope of the middle ages for people to speak of themselves as Romans and to assume that their world was simply a greatly diminished and impoverished Roman Empire. Rather than thinking in terms of a new civilization that had been born with the passing of classical antiquity, it was said that mundus senescit — the world grows old — and it was thought that the peoples of time were simply waiting for the old world to end.

From an historiographical perspective, medieval civilization is an historical phenomenon of great value, because it represents a fully contained macro-historical division of western history, with a more-or-less clearly defined beginning, middle, and end. In other words, we have the full arc of the story of medieval civilization.

Somewhere (I don’t recall where as I write this) I read that someone characterized the upshot of Toynbee’s historical effort as embodying the idea that civilizations are the proper unit of historical study. Civilizations are a unit of historical study — one unit among many other possible units of study — but every epistemic order of magnitude has its proper units of historical study. Those units are the “individuals” recognized by the conceptual infrastructure of a given epistemic order of magnitude.

Different objects of historical study will also mean different forms of historical transition between the objects in question. Civilizations have characteristic forms of transition. Demographic macro-historical transitions that affect the entire human population of the Earth, like the transitions from hunter-gatherer nomadism to agriculturalism, and then the transition from agriculturalism to industrialism, are of another order of magnitude. It is no wonder that the modernism of civilization gave way before the demographic revolution of industrialization; the latter is a far larger historical force that can easily swamp developments as relatively small as those on the scale of civilization.

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Marxist Eschatology

13 January 2012

Friday


Why do I keep writing about Marx? I have already discovered that repeatedly writing about Marx confuses people. Indeed, it confuses some people so completely that if you write a long, detailed criticism of some Marxian idea, those who don’t take the time to read or don’t have the capacity of understand simply assume you’re a Marxist because you’re writing about Marx. Why not get “Karl Marx” tattooed across my knuckles, then? It’s a fun idea. People who read me, but don’t read me closely, sometimes think I’m a Marxist, while people who see me but don’t look closely sometimes think I’m a John Bircher. Really. I was in a coffee house in a trendy part of Portland some years ago having a long and detailed conversation about logic with a friend, and someone asked us if we were from the John Birch Society. I guess it must have been due to our clean-cut looks and the moral earnestness of our discussion. I once asked one of my sisters why people often mistake me for a reactionary, and she said I wasn’t “flying the flag,” and that if I wore my hair in dreadlocks and dressed the part, people would probably think differently. I realized later how right she was.

For my part, I continue to write about Marx because Marx is the greatest exemplar of a perennial tradition of human thought that has been with us from the beginning and which will be with us as long as civilization and human life endures. This tradition wasn’t always called Marxism, and it won’t always be called Marxism, but the perennial tendency will remain. There will always be individuals who are attracted to the perennial idea that Marx represents, and as of the present time Marx remains the most powerful advocate of these ideas. And so it is necessary to grapple with Marx. I might even be willing to go so far as to say of Marx what Hegel said of Spinoza: To be a philosopher, one must first be a Marxist.

I have on many occasions written about the eschatology implicit in Marx, which is a pretty straight-forward secularization of pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die. Recently in Missing the point I used this famous phrase to describe the dead-end ritualism of mass labor under advanced industrialized capitalism, but it is just as true of Marx’s original vision. Some time ago I quoted a famous passage from Bertrand Russell to this end (Mythologies of Industrialized Civilization). This post was cited in a discussion on The Rational Responders web site. No one told me about the discussion; I found it by following the links back from hits to my post. Some seemed to agree with me, while others thought I got it all wrong, and Russell too.

It was one of the central features of Karl Löwith’s philosophy of history that modernity itself consists of a number of secularizations of originally theological concepts, and Löwith clearly implied that this rendered much modern thought essentially illegitimate. This implication was sufficiently clear that Hans Blumenberg wrote a long book, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, in order to rebut Löwith. Unfortunately, Löwith and Blumenberg are not well known in Anglo-American analytical philosophy, so their works are little discussed. Marx seems to slot in well with Löwith’s secularization thesis, but if secularization is a legitimate historical process, what’s the problem?

I just argued yesterday in Areté and Selection that the medieval world was the direct ancestor of modernity, and if this is indeed the case, then no one should be surprised that many modern concepts of our secular civilization are secularizations of medieval concepts derived from a primarily theological civilization. This is just what happens when a theological civilization gives way to a secular civilization. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and I think that I will begin referring to that which preceded industrial-technological civilization as religio-philosophical civilization.

In any case, to get around to my main point of today’s post, I was thinking about Marx’s own conception of Marx’s communist millennium that would be a worker’s paradise in which:

“…nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

Karl Marx, The German Ideology, Part I: Feuerbach. Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook, A. Idealism and Materialism

Marx was careful to be vague about the coming worker’s paradise under communism partly because he didn’t want to held to any overly-specific predictions, and partly because he wanted to avoid being called a Utopian. In social science circles, to be called a Utopian is the end the discussion with one’s exclusion as a serious thinker. Marx knew it, dismissed other social theorists himself as utopians, and forcefully argued that communism would come about as a result of inevitable historical processes, not in order to fulfill our dreams of a more just social order in the future.

In other words, Marx’s conception of communism is closely parallel to the line I have consistently argued about the industrial revolution, and, by extension, globalization, since I have also argued that globalization is simply an extension of the industrial revolution — its continuation, and eventually, some decades hence, its completion and fulfillment.

The industrialization of the world’s economies has not come about because of utopian plans for a better, healthier, and more just society, and it did not come about as the result of the nefarious plotting of hidden powers who pull levers behind a curtain. The industrial revolution came about as an historical process that escalated due to a feedback loop of science, technology, and industry. This process is still incomplete. As the process continues its march around the globe — again, not as the result of utopian dreams or evil conspiracies — it creates what we now call globalization, as institutions that first appeared in Western Europe begin to appear elsewhere in the world. But the institutions are symptoms, not causes. People who see only the surface of things see the institutions of industrialized societies as the causes of changes; they are not the causes; these institutions follow from deep structural changes in economic organization.

I don’t think that Marx would have disagreed with me too strenuous only this, and I don’t think that he would disagree all that much with the next claim I will make. I have called the industrial revolution a macro-historical revolution, as it initiates a new stage in human history. There have only been two previous fundamentally distinct forms of human society, and these were hunter-gatherer nomadic societies, and settled agricultural societies. If communism had come about as Marx believed it would come about, then this too would have qualified as a fundamentally new form of human society, and communism would have inaugurated a new macro-historical division. The material conditions of life would have changed for the greater part of humanity. This is simply to put Marx’s idea in my terminology.

I have also argued that Marx’s theory has not really received its experimentum crusis, because the industrial revolution has even in our time not yet been completed. We cannot say that Marx was wrong in his essential argument until globalization has transformed the world entire into an industrialized economy, and then, under these conditions, no communist revolution occurs that expropriates the expropriators. People who still argue today about whether Marx was right or wrong, whether he has been refuted or validated by history, are missing the point: the conditions do not yet obtain under which Marx can be judged to be right or wrong. Thus Marxism must remain an open question for us if we are going to maintain our intellectual integrity.

Given, then, that the fulfillment of Marx’s prophecy is still a live option for history, I ought to count it among the macro-historical possibilities that I began to delineate in Three Futures, where I identified singularization, pastoralization, and extraterrestrialization as historical forces that could sufficiently transform the basic organization of human societies to the point that a new macro-historical division is defined by the transformation. I ought, then, to speak of four futures, except that I am working on another possibility that I hope to discuss soon, which would define five futures — or, better, five strategic trends that suggest transformation on the civilizational level if extrapolated to a sufficient degree.

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Theses on Easter

4 April 2010

Sunday


Theses on the Occasion of Easter Sunday

A Theoretical Account of Ritualized Celebration


1. Distinctions must be made among myth, ritual, and celebration.

1.1 Myth, ritual, and celebration, though distinct, are logically related.

1.11 A celebration is an occasion for a ritual,
A ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth,
Therefore a celebration is an occasion in which to participate in a myth.
Q. E. D.

1.2 Rituals of burial are older than agricultural rituals of life-death-rebirth, even extending to other species (Neanderthals, now extinct), and may well be the origin of life-death-rebirth rituals.

2. Among the most ancient of continually observed celebrations is that of the life-death-resurrection of the Year-God, eniautos daimon.

2.1 The celebration of the life and re-birth of the Year-God, eniautos daimon, is at least as old as settled, agrarian society.

2.11 Agriculture and the written word together produced settled, historical civilization.

2.12 Settled historical civilization has defined the norm of human history from the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution to the Industrial Revolution.

2.2 Settled agrarian society coincides with the origins of civilization.

2.21 The celebration of the life and re-birth of the Year-God, eniautos daimon, coincides with the origins of civilization.

3. Once the breakthrough to history has been made by way of the written word, it is the nature of historical civilization to commemorate nodal points of the year, whether with solemnities, festivities, or both.

3.1 Historical civilization is predicated upon the presumed value of the history that brings that civilization into being.

3.2 Nodal points of the year celebrated in historical civilizations are observed as validation of their historicity through the performance of rituals.

3.21 In a temperate climate, summer and winter solstices and spring and fall equinoxes are nodal points of the year.

4. The mythology of a settled, agricultural civilization emerges from the same regularities of nature observed of necessity by agricultural peoples.

4.1 The calendrics of celebration emerges from the regularities of nature observed of necessity by agricultural peoples.

4.11 The mythology and calendar of celebrations of settled, agricultural civilizations come from the same source.

4.2 Celebrations are the points of contact between the two parallel orders of mythological events and the actual historical calendar.

4.21 A civilization validates its mythology by establishing a correspondence between mythological events and historical events.

4.3 Enacting a myth in historical time, by way of a ritual, makes that myth literal truth by giving to it a concrete embodiment.

5. Easter is one species of the genus of life-death-rebirth celebrations.

5.1 The particular features of the Easter celebration are the result of the adaptive radiation of the dialectic of sacrifice and resurrection.

6. Easter is that species of life-death-rebirth celebration specific to Christendom.

6.1 Christendom was primarily a construction of the Middle Ages.

6.11 Christendom was the legacy of Medieval Europe that disappeared with the passing of medieval civilization but which, like the Roman Empire before it, is with us still and remains a touchstone of the Western tradition.

6.12 Christendom was an empire of the spirit and of the cross as Rome was an empire of the will and of the sword.

6.13 To have once been Roman, and then to have been Christian, and finally to have become modern, is the condition of Western man.

6.2 Easter is a celebration specific to civilization, the civilized celebration par excellence.

7. The naturalistic civilization that is emerging from the consequences of the Industrial Revolution represents the first significant change in the social structure of human society since the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution.

7.1 With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, we have ceased to be an agrarian society.

7.2 For the first time in history, life-death-rebirth celebrations face interpretation by a non-agrarian society.

7.21 Not only should we not hesitate to find new meanings in ancient celebrations, of which Easter represents the latest adaptive radiation, but rather we should actively and consciously seek meanings relevant to the present in such celebrations.

8. As the painters of the renaissance drew upon the traditions of pagan antiquity already at that time a thousand years out of date, so too the post-Christian Western civilization will draw upon the traditions of Christendom for hundreds if not thousands of years to come.

8.1 The period of time that we have come to call the modern era — roughly the past five hundred years — has not been the modern era proper but rather has been the period of the formation of modernity.

8.2 Modernity simpliciter has but begun.


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Friday


Last August I wrote about the possibly apocryphal quote from Paul Valéry: to see is to forget the name of the thing one sees. I mentioned then that I am fascinated by this quote and often return to it. I found myself thinking about it again recently and find that I have more to say on it. A good aphorism is pregnant with meaning and can always be the point of departure for another meditation, as a text of scripture can always be the point of departure for another sermon.

To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees. What is meant by “seeing” in this context?

Seeing — true seeing, genuine seeing — is seeing that transcends the ordinary experience of seeing. The ordinary experience of seeing gets lost in conventions. People scarcely notice the things around them. As soon as a thing is seen, it is immediately assigned to some familiar category and no more attention is paid to. In this way, seeing becomes an exercise in identification, and identification draws upon a familiar conceptual scheme, a Weltanschauung in which there is a place for everything and everything is to be found in its place. Such “seeing” is little more than an excuse to dismiss things with a glance, to ignore the world.

To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees. This encapsulation of an extraordinary kind of seeing immediately suggests another kind of seeing, the kind of seeing that is ordinary seeing. What is ordinary experience? What defines the mundane? There is a passage from a posthumously published fragment of Wittgenstein that comes to mind:

“Nothing could be more remarkable than seeing a man who thinks he is unobserved performing some quite simple everyday activity. Let us imagine a theatre; the curtain goes up and we see a man alone in a room, walking up and down, lighting a cigarette, sitting down, etc. so that suddenly we are observing a human being from outside in a way that ordinarily we can never observe ourselves; it would be like watching a chapter of biography with our own eyes, — surely this would be uncanny and wonderful at the same time. We should be observing something more wonderful than anything a playwright could arrange to be acted or spoken on the stage: life itself. — But then we do see this every day without its making the slightest impression on us! True enough, but we do not see it from that point of view.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p. 4e

Wittgenstein here observes an unexpected coincidence of ordinary and extraordinary experience. For Wittgenstein, extraordinary seeing is simply a shift in perspective away from ordinary seeing. And ordinary seeing is not an excuse to ignore the world, as I wrote above, but is an immersion in the world. The Wittgensteinian conception of extraordinary experience is immanent; Wittgenstein rejects the transcendent as a source of the extraordinary.

I can imagine someone not getting the point of Wittgenstein’s example; it is more in the nature of a parable than an argument. And like most parables, it is inherently ambiguous. Wittgenstein was, after all, from Vienna: a crucible of modernity in which thoroughly modern ideas were no sooner given their initial formulation than they were dialectically confronted with their opposite number. As I have noted elsewhere, reflexivity is of the essence of modernity.

Should we seek the extraordinary variety of seeing invoked in the possibly apocryphal Valéry quote in ordinary experience? Is there a dialectic of ordinary and the extraordinary experience that would reveal seeing as the seeing the forgets itself as seeing? For Wittgenstein, it is a change of one’s point of view that renders the ordinary extraordinary. Presumably, also, there is a change in point of view that would render the extraordinary ordinary.

Is there a changed point of view that would give us extraordinary experience from our ordinary experience? Can we find an unexpected coincidence of the two through a shift in perspective? Can a change within oneself make one see as one has not seen before? What is true seeing, genuine seeing? Vision. Thus the seeing with which the quote is concerned is visionary seeing. How does one attain a vision?

The ordinary might converge upon the extraordinary through repetition. Repetitive rituals — essentially, iterations of ordinary experience — have long been employed to induce altered states of consciousness, that is to say, extraordinary experience. I wrote about this in Algorithms of Ecstasy.

But Valéry would not likely have been sympathetic to this. In his famous essay, “Man and the Sea Shell,” Valéry wrote, “…it is the nature of the intelligence to do away with the infinite and to abolish repetitions.” It is perhaps unreasonable to take this line from Valéry out of context, for it is a line that means something in its context. But it is not entirely unreasonable. Elsewhere Valéry makes explicit criticisms of Cantorianism and the Cantorian conception of the infinite, and the simplest way to the infinite is the endless iteration of anything.

There is also, in Valéry, an implicit criticism of the extraordinary, and this criticism could well be of a piece with his rejection of Cantor. If the quote that concerns us is indeed from Valéry, it is not a paean to outlandishness for the sake of outlandishness. For Valéry, Cantor is too outlandish. For Valéry, even extraordinary vision would be ordinary in a sense, finite to be sure, not the excrescence of an altered state of mind. And thus we find ourselves back at the coincidence and convertibility of ordinary and extraordinary experience, of mundane seeing and visionary seeing.

In the difference between the approaches to the extraordinary by way of the transcendent or the immanent, Valéry and Wittgenstein represent the immanent. Cantor perhaps represents the transcendent, though he had little to say regarding experience, whether ordinary or extraordinary. But perhaps a theory of extraordinary experience, hence visionary seeing, might be derived from Cantor, and, once derived, placed in transcendental contrast to the immanence of Valéry and Wittgenstein.

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