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.

Where was I?

29 12 2011

No work, not enough work, too much work, work.

That’s been the last six months. Nowhere near enough money, even with too much work (really blew it on this last freelance job—shoulda charged double), but now things to be evening out: three courses for the spring, half-time admin work for a local-international organization.

I have some idea of what I’ll be doing with the teaching, no clue on what exactly I need to do with the admin work, but hey, I’ve gone from clueless to clue-full before.


Hey, I’ve got some a few new readers! HI!

Thanks for poking your head through my window! I’ll try not to slam it down on your noggin’. . . .

(And yes, I’ll return the favor and check out your blogs as well, now that I have the time to do so.)


I really hate not knowing things.

The problem, of course, is that the more I learn, the more I learn what I don’t know. Frustrating, that.

And embarrassing. Before I embarked on my jaunt through the European medieval period, I knew nothing about this history. Nothing.

Oh, something about the break with the Eastern Church in the 11th century, and Luther in the 1500s, but I couldn’t have told you the difference between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, or between the various emperors and the pope.

Yeah, it was bad.

So now I’m learning stuff (yay!), but I’m running up against the parameters that I had initially set for this project. It was conceived as an investigation of intellectual history, with not much room for social (writ large) history, but I’m too much of a materialist to dismiss the conditions (see below) under which these ideas were generated and spread.

This is a very long way of thanking petefrombaltimore for his suggestions in reading.

Yes, a project like this can sprawl out over any boundaries set—hence my initial attempts at capturing only intellectual history—but sometimes the most interesting bits are discovered in the spillage.

Anyway, I just finished Peter Gay’s The Enlightenment and am now on Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation; I may then mix in some close-up histories, as well as tackling some of the primary sources.

Can’t say I’ve yet gotten anything solid on the late-margins of modernity by poking around in the early margins, but I am still poking along.


Got my first round of applause for teaching in. . . ever?

It was for my bioethics course, a class which was terrible the first time I taught it (at another university), pretty good the first time I taught it here, and now, well, good. I’ll continue to tweak it as I go along, but I’ve got a solid set-up which should hold for at least another few semesters.

It’s much easier to keep teaching the same thing over and over—all that prep work is already done—but I get antsy. I don’t think there’s a perfect syllabus or course (see: not a Platonist), so after a certain number of repetitions I overhaul the course to try to capture something missing from the previous go-around.

It’s not always better, and almost always requires adjustment, but it keeps me thinking.

Anyway, the applause.

It was common at UW-Madison to applaud professors at the end of the semester. Most of my classes were large lectures, so the performative aspect of teaching was more apparent than in seminars, but classes were similarly large at Minnesota, and I don’t recall the students applauding professors there.

It’s nice, both to applaud and be applauded. I liked that I could show my appreciation for a good professor (or lack thereof with tepid clapping); it seemed to signal that there was something more going on in that lecture hall than a contractual transmission of information from instructor to user.

The best professors gave us knowledge far and beyond that necessary for a good grade: they gave us an appreciation for the wonder of knowing.

I don’t know if that’s what my students were applauding. I work hard to tamp down my urge to overwhelm them with my words—as the person who constructs the syllabus and leads the discussions, I already have great, if indirect, influence on how they approach the subject—but on this last day of class I gave them a concentrated shot of my approach to bioethics.

I started with a truncated version of the epistemology/ontology/practical lecture, zeroing in on the significance of being (or Being, if you please) in one’s understanding of practical ethics. I then moved on to Hannah Arendt’s distinction between human nature and the human condition, namely, that while we cannot with any certainty know our nature, we can approach our condition.

And the most basic of our conditions are that we are biological beings, we are social beings, and we are mortal beings. We may be more than this, I noted (spiritual, philosophical, etc.), but we are damned-near-incontestably conditioned by our biology, our relationships to others, and the fact that we are born and will some day die.

This matters to bioethics, I argued, because any ethics which does not take account of these conditions cannot be of any practical worth.

(You might think that this would be so obvious as to be banal, but it is not.)

I can’t tell you that consequentialism or deontological ethics or casuistry or any other way is the correct approach, I said. We need standards to keep us from justification-by-convenience, to force a critical appraisal of our actions, but, pace our conditions, we have to allow deviation from those standards: the rules are to serve the human, not the human, the rules.

Finally, I said, circling back around, this is where I center my ethics, on the matter of  human being. What makes us who we are, and what we could become? It’s not that our abilities have to be unique among species, but we should think about ourselves, as humans, in how we approach one another.

We don’t have to be heroes, I observed. It’s not about pulling someone out of a burning car or tackling the bad guy or dodging bullets; it’s about recognizing one another as humans.

And then I told the story of a group of people in a small town in Wisconsin who decided to hold a funeral for an unknown woman who had been found, murdered, in their town. She wasn’t one of their own, and would never know what had been done for her, but through the donations of the funeral home and money raised for a plot and marker, and in the service at the cemetery, these people did in fact claim her as one of their own.

There was nothing heroic in this ordinary act of burying the dead, but by taking care of this dead woman’s body, they recognized her as one of them; they demonstrated their humanity in their recognition of her humanity.

We can take care of one another, I said. Our ethics ought to be centered on how we take care of one another.

They seemed to like that. I didn’t expect the applause—I thought I had gone too far—but even if I had, they didn’t seem to mind.

It was nice.


As a coda, I’ve consolidated my earwig approach to teaching (“I want this stuff to bother you for the rest of your lives”) into a line stolen and adapted from Serenity:

I aim to trouble you.

It’s not me, really, who can do this, but I can bring the trouble of politics and theory and ethics to my students, and hope that it disturbs them a good long time.

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.

All hail Sorn!

16 06 2010

In the midst of praising Sorn for supplying me with a boatload o’ book recommendations on my Medieval-Modern Musings page, I was going to gripe, ‘That man needs to get a blog.’

Only he already has one: Nonsensical Reality.

I ‘met’ Sorn on TNC’s blog, where he is a regular and thoughtful presence. I put in a request for reading recommendations and, well, look at his comment on the MMM page, and you’ll see what I got.

Until I happen to buy him the line of drinks I owe him for his suggestions, I can at the very least plug the blog of this restless and reflective man.

Everything! Everything! Everything!

25 05 2010

Blows my mind how little I know. That is most excellent.

I’m not kidding: However much I wish I knew, mm, everything, that there is so much more out there to discover keeps me keepin’ on.

Consider my medieval Euro-history project: I recently finished Charles Freeman’s The Closing of the Western Mind (which is about the transition from the pagan to the Christian era), and man! what a jumble early Christian history is!

I did know that it took awhile for Christianity to gel as an institutional movement, but thought that after the Council of Nicaea in 325 everything was all sewn up until the Great Schism of 1054, and even then, it wasn’t until Luther and Calvin that the [western] Christian fabric was truly rent.

Only I didn’t know what the Council of Nicaea actually accomplished (something to do with the Trinity, maybe? And that Nicene Creed, right?), didn’t know that very little was settled at Nicaea, that the splits between the Eastern and Western churches were evident within a century of Christ’s death, and never knew, frankly, how the Copts fit into all this.


I still don’t know, frankly, but slowly, slowly, this is all seeping in.

This is how I learn something new.

My approach  is to read promiscuously, trusting that with enough exposure I’ll be able to piece together a particular phenomenon. And I don’t need to dive into deep scholarship at the outset either; solid popular books (like Freeman’s) give me the chance to train my sights, as well as offer a decent bib I can crib. I do prefer that what I read be, you know, good, but even the junk can sometimes be useful, if only as a kind of astringent for my thoughts.

Anyway, that’s how this political theorist began her work with genetics: Snatching every book with the word ‘gene’ in the title and gulping them down, then more slowly working my way toward what, for my purposes, were the most important (or delectable, to continue the metaphor) platters on the table.

I’m still in the gorge phase of my research, slurping up commentary on how orthodoxy was invented and how intertwined it all was with empire; how faith, political power, and obedience to god and man never quite fit together; how misogyny was built into early belief; how anti-Judaism became anti-semitism; and how time itself was changed.

And that’s just the beginning.

A colleague asked where I was going with all of this. I don’t know, I told him. I know there’s something there, but I don’t yet know what it is.

Now that, my friends, is one of the best feelings in the world.

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.