Blown backwards into the future

14 05 2014

Benjamin conjured history as an angel.

Let’s sit with that for a bit, as it’s a lovely sad conjuring.

There is no repair, not for the angel, not for us. Sad, perhaps, but not unbearably so.

There is also no going back, as that angel learned. If the past is an ocean, then history is diving in and bringing the bits and debris and life to the surface, to the present, to see what we’ve got. We can bring what’s down below to the surface and we can make sense of it, but it is our sense, a present sense. And the things themselves, especially the lives themselves, are changed for having been dragged from the deep.

Diving, digging, spelunking: all this bringing to the surface the bits and debris in attempt to recreate life. History as simulacrum.

And the epochs and eras and moments? Those are the bits highlighted or strung together: the Renaissance or Scientific Revolution or Modernity or the Enlightenment. It gives us a way to see.

Usually, when I speak of seeing, I speak metaphorically. But I wanted literally to see where these different moments were in relation to one another, so I ran parallel timelines of European history—scientific, cultural, religious, political, trade—down sheets of paper taped in my hallway, then plotted out those moments.


This is an incomplete draft—I clearly need to allow more room on the final version—but it’s not hard to see how this moment was understand as Italian Renaissance at its ripest.

Or here, as what we now call the Scientific Revolution gets underway:


These give me that bird’s eye view of the middle centuries of the last millennium; they also make me wonder what isn’t there, isn’t recorded in any of the texts I’m using.

What moments are still underground? And what stories will we tell if we ever unearth them?


And I know things now

7 05 2014

Modernity is dead is in a coma.

Okay, not modernity—modernity is still kickin’—but my medieval/modern project to suss out the beginnings of modernity, yeah, that’s on life support. I’ll probably never pull the plug, but the chances of recovery at this point are slim.

The main problem was that I never had a thesis. As a former post-modernist I was interested in the pre-mod: learning about the last great (Euro) transition might help me to make sense of what may or may not be another transitional moment.

And I learned a lot! I knew pitifully little about European history—couldn’t have told you the difference between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, that’s how bad I was—and now I know something more. I’d now be comfortable positioning the Renaissance as the final flowering of the medieval era, arguing that the 16th and 17th centuries were the double-hinge between the medieval and the modern, that the Enlightenment was about the new moderns getting chesty, that Nietzsche crowbarred open the crack first noticed by the sophists, and that the medieval era in Europe did not truly end until the end of World War I.

None of these is a particularly novel observation. I make no pretense of expertise nor even much beyond a rudimentary working knowledge: there are still large gaps in my knowledge and large books to be read. And I will continue reading for a very long time.

But I don’t have a point to that reading beyond the knowledge itself. It’s possible that something at some point will present itself as a specific route to be followed, but right now, the past is an ocean, not a river.

That’s all right. I’m a fan of useless knowledge and wandering thoughts.

Modern thought(less): time isn’t holding us, time isn’t after us

10 10 2012

Been awhile, hasn’t it?

No, I haven’t given up on my attempt to make sense of the outer reaches of modernity by looking at the [European] origins of modernity, but I haven’t made much headway, either.

Oh, I been readin’, oh yeah, but have I done anything with all that reading? Not really. Beyond the most basic fact that modernity and secularism two-stepped across the centuries, as well as the sense that medievalism lasted into the 20th century, I have information, history, ideas—but no theory.

Peter Gay’s two-volume essay on the Enlightenment (called, handily enough, The Enlightenment) has been helpful in understanding how the ideas of the early modern period were cemented in intellectual thought, but precisely because these men were already modern, they are of less help in understanding those who became modern, or who were medieval-moderns.

Newton, for example, was a kind of medieval-modern. His work in physics, optics, and calculus encompass a large portion of the foundation of modern science, but he also conducted experiments in alchemy; the founding of a new kind of knowledge had not yet erased the old.

Other, scattered thoughts: The Crusades were crucial in re-introducing into Europe the ideas of the ancient Greeks. . . although, even here, al-Andalus also provided an entree for Muslim knowledge of and elaboration on Levantine thought into a Christian worldview. Also, I haven’t read much on the impact of westward exploration and colonization on European thought. Hm.

Evolution in war strategy and armaments—I’m thinking here of the recruitment and consolidation of armies—undoubtedly played a role, as did consequences of those wars, especially the Thirty Years War. (The Treaty of Westphalia is commonly considered an origin in the development of the concept of state sovereignty. Which reminds me: Foucault.)

What else. I haven’t read much in terms of everyday life during this period, although I do have Braudel and Natalie Zemon Davis on my reading lists. I’m still not sure where to put the on-the-ground stuff, interested as I am in intellectual history. Still, a concentration on thoughts untethered from practice yields shallow history.

I have developed an abiding hatred for the Spanish Empire. This may be unfair to the Spaniards, but they turn up again and again as the bad guys. (How’s that for subtle interpretation?) I’ve got a big-ass book on the history of the Dutch Republic that I’m looking forward to, not least because of the central role of the Dutch in the development of capitalism.

Capitalism, yeah, haven’t talked much about that, either. Can’t talk about modernity without talkin’ bout capitalism.

Still, I really want to try to nail down the emergence of the individual as a political subject: there is no modernity without this emergence. The Reformation and the wars of religion are crucial, of course, but I want to understand precisely how the connection was made between the individual and his relationship to God and the emergence of the concept of the individual citizen’s relationship to the state. (I say concept because it took awhile for the walk to catch up to the talk.)

I have no plans to abandon this project, but if I can’t get it together, I may have to abandon my hopes for this project.

Maybe I should do that sooner rather than later: I’m always better after I’ve left hope behind.

Onward, Christian soldiers

27 06 2012

Done with Calvin and on to the Thirty Years War.

Yes, the project on modernity rumbles on, as I dart back and forth between the 16th and 20th centuries (with occasional forays into the 15th and 14th centuries), jumbling up the wars of religion and emperors and kings and popes and princes and reformers and Reformers and . . . everything everything everything.

May I pause just to note what pleasure, what pure pleasure it gives me to see shapes and movement arise from what had once been a white, blank field of the past?

Consider this line from CV Wedgewood: “Pursuing the shadow of a universal power the German rulers forfeited the chance of a national one.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates has remarked on the beauty of her Wedgewood—and yes, she has a way with words—but her facility with the language reveals a nimbleness of thought, and this one, elegantly expressed, conveys the tragic risk of greatness: Go big and you lose the small, and in losing the small, you lose it all.

Only Pursuing the shadow of a universal power the German rulers forfeited the chance of a national one in its specificity is far more breathtaking and heartbreaking than my pallid generalization.

And it is the specificity itself which provides that pleasure: there was nothing, and now there is something.

Now, before I repeat that last line to end the post, I do want to interject with one observation about Calvin’s Reformed thought, specifically, his doctrine of double predestination (God elects both who goes to heaven and who goes to hell): why would anyone believe this?

Calvin argued that only a few of the professing Christians would be saved and most lost, that there was absolutely nothing the individual (an utterly depraved being) could do to save herself—so why would anyone cleave to a belief system which gave you rotten odds and no way to change them?

One possibility is that most Reformers didn’t believe in predestination, double or otherwise; another is that Reformers did believe in double predestination, but also believed that they were the elect. So, yeah, sucks to be you, o depraved man, but I am so filled with the spirit that there is no way God hasn’t picked me for His team.

There is no rational reason* to believe this; since people believed nonetheless, then it is clear that something other than reason is required to explain the spread of the Reformed faith.

(*Reason in terms of: why pick this religion over that one, not: why pick any religion at all. Context, people, context.)

Anyway, Calvin was much more impressed with himself than I was with him—although it must be noted he had a few more followers than the 19 who follow me (in this blog, anyway).

Oh, man, it’s getting late and I’m getting frantic for sleep so yes, let’s return to pleasure and knowledge and movement where before there was stillness and lines where before there was blankness and etchings across the smooth surface  and something, something rather than nothing.

Modern thought(less): In which I discuss the margins of modernity, multiplicity, and epistemological nihilism. . .

30 08 2011

I have not abandoned medieval thought.

Okay, yes, I have been skipping from the 16th century to the 4th century to the 21st century and now, the 19th (Weber) and 20th (Berlin) centuries.

There’s a purpose in all this hopscotching, there is. Somewhere.

I mentioned oh-so-long ago that I was going back in an attempt to make sense of now, back to the end of the last great (European) ontological moment for clues on what might be the end of the current, modern moment. I noted that I had become increasingly dubious of the notion of the post-modern, and thought that perhaps we might be simply be at the fraying ends of modernity.

Now I’m not even so sure about the “fraying ends”; that we may be at the far side of modernity does not yet mean we have reached the limits of this territory. There may be margins we can approach, but “ends” or “afters”? No, I don’t think so.

There are multiple modernities, just as there were multiple medievalisms; such multiplicity within (as opposed to, alongside) modernity creates problems which did not exist for medieval thinkers: unlike medieval thinkers, who worked toward unity, modern thinkers have tended to presuppose a unity in both method and outlook. Such unity has been long questioned—most obviously by Hume and Nietzsche—but it seemed that only in the latter half of the 20th century that skepticism about modernity’s (modernities’?) presuppositions came to the fore, a skepticism which is often called “post-modernism”.

But this skepticism, even undermining of the presuppositions seems itself to emerge from modernity and to be obsessed with questions of modernity, and it is not at all clear to me that laying bare the complexities and contradictions of the various modernities is in any way post-modern.

Well, in any way save one: the shattering of epistemological unity (again, which cracks long predate the 20th c) irreversibly breaches one of the boundaries of modernity, and it is here, and only here, that any thinkers, in grappling with such nihilism, may be said to advancing beyond modernity.

That matters. A lot. But even the shattering of such epistemological unity does not itself obliterate the methods which rested unconcerned above it. In other words, measurement, observation, reduction, generalization, and, of course, reason, are still powerful tools for dismantling and reassembling the world, even if they are no longer all-powerful.

The foundation crumbles, but the world still stands, and it’s not at all clear to me that scattering of foundational certainties necessarily leads to the dissolution of modernity; it may, in fact, simply have revealed the plurality of modernities which were, as the saying goes, always already there.

Negation—wha. . .what?

18 05 2011

Perhaps I should not have used the term “negation”.

It carries a philosophical load—which is fine, and not unrelated to my use of it—but I wanted (also) to emphasize the more prosaic, i.e., practical, aspects of negation, as in: to negate, to eliminate as an option or consideration.

The germ theory of disease negated theories of miasma, Lavoisier’s experiments with oxygen negated phlogiston, industrial production of beakers and test tubes negated the need for scientists to blow their own glassware (which further negated the need for the knowledge of blowing glassware), fuel injection will likely negate carburetors, etc.

So negation could mean “overturn” (as with germs > miasmas or oxygen > phlogiston) or “leave behind” (as with glass-blowing and carburetors), that is, to negate may be to disprove or it could mean to render irrelevant or trivial.

Now, these practical effects may reverberate ontologically, such that the negation of the practical may serve to negate an entire way of thinking or being, or simply to serve as a signal of the instability of that way of thinking/being. Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, with its discussion of paradigm shifts rendering previous modes of scientific practice inert, lays out a version of global negation, while current questions of the role of cyber-technologies signal uncertainty over what counts as “real”.

John Donne’s “An Anatomy of the World” (1611) is often quoted—hell, I quoted it a while back—to exemplify the agonized confusion over the discoveries of the natural philosophers:

And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out;
The sun is lost, and the earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and relation:

Natural philosophy took for itself the name science, and modernity marched on. The laments for the old world died with those who once lived in it.

William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming” clearly echoes this lament, with the opening

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

The times they are a-changin’, indeed.

History is not a line, or rather, history only holds the line, such that events may loosen or smash that hold and the contents of that history scatter.

Some of those pieces are lost and even of those which are found, the meaning of the piece, precisely because it has been scattered, can only be guessed at. It is shard of pottery uncovered in the desert, hinting at something which once was, now gone.

But not everything is lost: it could be hiding in that proverbial plain sight. I’m much taken with the notion of the palimpsest—that is, of a kind of tablet which has been inscribed then scrubbed clean to be reinscribed—largely because I think that the previous inscriptions are still there, that, like words which have been erased from a page, the impression lingers.

Heidegger in The Question Concerning Technology decries the transformation of the Rhine from a river in a landscape into a “water power supplier”, that is, it is no longer itself but a source of reserve power for a hydroelectric plant. Perhaps it could be understood as that river in a landscape, he muses, but “In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry.”

Those who complain that Manhattan has turned into a theme park and that Times Square has lost all its gritty reality have not a little bit in common with Herr Heidegger.

I have a great deal of sympathy for this feeling, but even more skepticism for such sympathy; as I’ve mentioned more times than you probably care to read, we’re never who we’ve been.

So, again, I’m not taking the side of the past against the present, not least because I have no basis for such a taking of sides. Again, I simply want to trace the history of modern history.

I can’t raise all the inscriptions on the palimpsest, but maybe I can see some of what has been left behind.

Vas ist dis “thoughtlessness”?

17 05 2011

Have I been thoughtless?

Perhaps, but mostly busy, lazy, and sick; actually, it would be more accurate to state that “busy, lazy, and sick” are the proximate causes for my thoughtlessness.


What do I mean by thoughtlessness (anyway)?

Let’s start with what I don’t mean: I don’t mean stupid (as in lacking analytic and intellectual ability) or ignorant (as in lacking knowledge) or even the general not-bothering-to-think (although there is something to this). Nor do I mean this to be the result of (c)overt propangandistic attempts to alter interpretations of events or peoples’ own experiences of those events.

Nope, I mean something more structural, as in a way of being (and thus also thinking—or not thinking, as it were) which encompasses and conditions all of us. There is rarely any sort of intent behind this version of thoughtlessness (although there are at times (c)overt attempts to justify intentional thoughtlessness) and thus it is rarely malicious, and while its effects may nonetheless be pernicious, it may, at some levels, even be beneficial.

Finally, thoughtlessness is not restricted to modern thought. I think it’s a feature of consciously totalizing systems of thought, by which I mean systems of thought which actively seek to rewrite, suppress, or surpass any preexisting narratives and to corral any innovations or questions into forms recognized by that system. I’m not sure how much I’ll be considering those other systems—I’m thinking at this point specifically of medieval Christianity—but as I have an inkling of modern thought as way to overcome the upheavals of said Christianity, there’s likely to be some engagement.

Regardless, I’m interested in the thoughtlessness of modernity, so that’s what I’ll be lookin’ at.

Okay, you say, but you haven’t yet said what it is.

The one word answer is: negation. Other brief definitions: a plowing-under, erasure, diminution, trivialization, limitation, . . . you get the gist. The slightly longer answer is that in modern thought there are some matters worth thinking about and others not, that there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to think about those matters worth thinking about, and that if you think about worthless things in inappropriate ways you will have a hard time getting along in life.

Again, no conspiracy; just a sense of “this is how things are”.

None of this is particularly new. Critics of modernity from both the pre- and (alleged) post- positions have long pointed out what is lost in the movement from one way of being to another. The Catholic Church, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Strauss are among the more prominent critics, and some versions of anthropology are given over to a recovery from/protection against the predations of modernity.

Although I, too, am a critic—not so much prominent as obscure—I’m not terribly interested in trying to return to some sort of pre-modern ontology or in continuing my lament of How Shitty Everything Is. No, I am actively trying to move beyond the lament and it seems to me that such movement requires trying to make sense of where we are now.

There is so much which makes sense and does not make sense at the same time, so much which is simultaneously thought-ful and thought-less—how can this be?

I am curious.

Modern thought(less): Rambling preamble

26 04 2011

Thoughtlessness is a marker of modernity.

That’s a big, vague statement, leaving “thoughtlessness”, “marker”, and “modernity” all undefined. What I’ll be attempting to do, then, in goddess knows how many posts, is to unvague these terms, to ask if there is something about modern thoughtlessness which is distinct from prior/other moments of thoughtlessness, how mindfulness is connected to thoughtlessness, and whatever the hell else pops into me wee little mind about modernity.

Dmf asked how the project on the dawning of modernity is coming along, to which I can only respond: still coming. There will be connections made, however. I’m almost sure of it.

Anyway, since this is the pre-amble, here are a few pre-liminary statements (subject, of course, to revision):

1.We are not yet beyond modernity.

2. Following (1), what is called “post-modernity” is actually a critique of modernity, such that “post-modernity” is a misnomer.

3. Modernity has its own history, such that features which are prominent in one period in one period may be marginal in another.

4. Following (3), some features of modernity may be emergent and/or may disappear over the course of modernity.

5. The role of science, in terms of method, subject, and results, matter in the shaping of modern thought.

6. Modernity has become inseparable from capitalism.

7. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation were crucial in the development of modern thought.

8. Rights-based individualism is an emergent phenomenon and varying property of modernity, that is, the connection between individualism, rights, and modernity must be interrogated, not assumed.

9. Rights-based individualism and capitalism are connected to the phenomenon of thoughtlessness.

10. Mindfulness, as an emergent goal of rights-based individualism, deepens rather than overcomes the phenomenon of thoughtlessness.

Some of these hypotheses are commonly accepted, others, less so, but I wanted explicitly to mark off the ground where the digging will start.

Furthermore, I don’t know that all of these statements will hold up, or that others won’t emerge as more pressing or plausible. These are, at this point, simply educated hunches.

Two other points: One, I was captivated some many years ago by the concept of the palimpsest, so I’m sure I’ll work that in somehow. The hard part will be making sure I don’t mislead myself in my eagerness to deploy the concept.

Two, it is worth mentioning again that this discussion of modern thought is of a specific, European-based phenomenon. I reject the notion that European history comprises the whole of world history, and in writing these posts make no claims about other histories or forms of contemporary thought in the world.

In any case, why does this matter? Maybe it doesn’t. I simply want to make sense, and it seems to me that spelunking into intellectual history is one way to do so.

We’ll see.

It’s getting better all the time

4 04 2010

I blame Rod Dreher.

No, he didn’t start it—well, maybe he did—but he certainly propelled my thinking back a thousand years or so.

Mr. Dreher, you see, is an American old-school conservative: He’s skeptical of modernity even as he admittedly eats of its fruits; skeptical of government (that’s the American part) even as he decries a culture which, in his view, corrodes human dignity; and a believer in community and roots even as he’s repeatedly moved his family around the country.

I say this not to damn him, not least because he is honest about his contradictions, but to locate, if not the then at least a, source of my current trajectory.

You see, I became interested in one of his contradictions, and took off from there.

Dreher has written (not terribly thoughtfully, for the most part) on Islam and the violence currently associated with it. He then contrasts this to contemporary Christianity, and to the relative lack of similar violence. There are all kinds of commentary one could offer on his views and contrasts, but what squiggled into my brain was his unquestioning acceptance of a main tenet of modernity—why would this professed anti-modern base his critique on a pillar of modern thought?

Time: The notion that there is a forward and a back-ward, and that forward is better than back.

This notion of the forward movement of time, the accretion of knowledge, the betterment of the status of the world, has explicitly informed progressive thought within modernity, but it runs underneath almost all of modern Anglo-American and European thought.

(Disclaimer: I’m not talking about the whole world in my discussion of modernity, or of all forms of modernity—there are forms of modern art and architecture, for example, which are distinct from that of  political theory—but of the set of ideas which emerged out of Europe and which greatly informed European philosophy and political institutions. These ideas have of course also found a home across the globe (not least in the United States), but in attempting to trace the ideas back to there source, I’m confining myself to the United Kingdom and the continent. Finally, I make no claim that these ideas in and of themselves are unique to Europe, but that there particular shape and constellation is historically specific. That is all.)

Okay. So, what got to me about Dreher’s contentions regarding Islam was that Christianity today was ‘better’ in some objective (or at least, intersubjective) way than Islam, that is, that even those who are not Christian would see that Christianity is better for the world than Islam.

I’m neither Christian nor Muslim, so theoretically I could simply dismiss such claims about the relative merits of these religions as a kind of fan jockeying of a sport I don’t follow—except that, contrary to Franklin Foer, religion has been a far greater force in the world than soccer.

In any case, even if it is the case that currently there is less violence associated with Christianity than with Islam, it wasn’t always so: The history of Christian Europe was until very recently a history of warring Europe.

I’ll leave that for another day. What is key is the general formula:  that at time t x was strongly associated with y, and that if at time t+1 x is no longer strongly associated with y it is not to say that x will never again associate with y.

To put it more colloquially, just because it ain’t now doesn’t mean it won’t ever be. That Christianity is no longer warring doesn’t mean it won’t ever war.

To believe otherwise is to believe that the past, being the past, has been overcome, never to return; the future is all—a thoroughly modern notion.

Again, as I’m not a fan of either team, I’m not about to engage in Christian-Muslim chest-bumping. More to the point, shit’s too complex for that.

Besides, that’s not what I’m interested in. In thinking about time, I got to thinking about what else characterizes modernity, and thus what might be post-modern, and oh, are we really post-modern? no I don’t think so even though I once took it for granted (which goes to show the risks of taking things for granted) and maybe where we are is at the edges of modernity and who knows if there’s more modernity beyond this or whether these are the fraying edges and hm how would one know maybe it would make sense to look at that last transition into modernity and what came before that?  the Renaissance but was that the beginning of modernity or the end of what came before that? hmm oh yeah the medieval period and Aquinas and . . .  uh. . .  shit: I don’t know anything about the medieval period.

So that’s why I’m mucking about the past, trying to make sense of those currents within the old regime which led, eventually (although certainly not ineluctably) to the new.

It’s a tricky business, not least because I’m looking at the old through the lens of the new; even talking about ‘looking back’ is a modern sensibility.

So be it: Here is where I stand; I can do no other.

Well, okay, I can crouch, and turn around, and try not to take my stance for granted or to think that my peering into the past will in fact bring me into the past.

But I can still look.


My starter reading list, on either side and in the midst of.

  • A Splendid Exchange, William J. Bernstein
  • God’s Crucible, David Levering Lewis
  • Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, Uta Ranke-Heinemann
  • Aristotle’s Children, Richard E. Rubenstein,
  • A World Lit Only By Fire, William Manchester
  • Sea of Faith, Stephen O’Shea
  • The Science of Liberty, Timothy Ferris
  • Betraying Spinoza, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
  • The Scientific Revolution, Stephen Shapin
  • Leviathan and the Air-Pump, Stephen Shapin and Simon Schaffer
  • Coming of Age in the Milky Way, Timothy Ferris

Suggestions welcome.