Lines are drawn upon the world

21 10 2015

Liberalism, conservatism, communism, fascism, feminism, environmentalism, libertarianism, anarchism.

Your basic soup of ideology.

I’ve taught an ideology class before, and yeah, I pretty much went through these (and their varieties): it’s bog-standard to compare these different bits to one another.

Yet I, of course, have come to disagree not only with myself but EVERYONE ELSE!!!

(Okay, I doubt very much I’m the only dissenter to this approach, but let’s pretend I’m being original, here.)

My crankiness with the standard approach stems from history, in particular, the combo of teaching the course of Weimar and my earlier musings on modernity. (I’m still musing, by the way, but to no particular end.) I wanted something which helped me to make sense of these histories, and for which history would help make sense of the ideologies.

Blah, blah, what I came up with was something centered on modernity (as historical epoch), which in turn lead to various ontologies (or Weltanschauung—hey, I’m doing Germany, so why not a little German?), which in turn give rise to various ideologies.

Here’s the basic idea: historical epoch

MODERNITY (historical epoch)
Liberalism (Weltanschauung)
…liberalism (ideology)
…varieties of communism
…varieties of theocracy

This is drafty—very drafty—but I’m trying to get at the notion that all of these ideologies in fact come out of world-views which are themselves formed in reponse to Modernity. In particular, I’m trying to get at the importance of the concept of time: of the past, and the future.

So, for example, while the ideologies of Liberalism hold to a more-or-less open future, those of Totalitarianism hold to closed future, some final, perfectible, end. Those of Reaction, on the other hand, reject Modernity’s social-linear notion of time and seek a return of past glories.

What I don’t include here, obviously, is any explication of what Modernity or the various ontologies or ideologies mean. I’m also not so sure about the ideologies themselves: I don’t think anarchism (or libertarianism, which I don’t include) are sufficient as governing ideologies themselves; it might make more sense to fold anarchism into socialism (as I implicitly do with libertarianism and liberalism).

There’s also the matter that these Weltanschauungen are ideal-types, and while the ideologies themselves are closer to the ground, the organization and experience of politics itself tends to slosh over any neatly drawn lines.

Finally, this schema may not travel well to other parts of the world. The experiences of China, India, and Japan (to name a few) are arguably not anchored in a response to Modernity: they’ve got their own things goin’ on. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some sort of overlap in ideologies, but I’d guess the underlying dynamics would be distinct.

I don’t think that’s a knock against this genealogy, however, to say that’s it’s limited: that tends to be feature of genealogies generally.

Anyway, this will take more work (I’ve already modified this from my original presentation in class last week), but I think there’s something there.

And ja ja, Hegel or someone probably already beat me to this. Guess I’ll have to get my own owl.

This is the end

4 08 2014
Image credit: Chronicling America

Image credit: Chronicling America

A war begins, and so begins the end of the European medieval period.

The medieval era had, of course, been ending for some time: Luther’s declaration, the wars of religion, the Thirty Years War and the Treaty of Westphalia, the scientific revolution—all of these tore the present away from the past and thrust its people into a new world, literally and figuratively.

Reactionaries bemoaned this newness and sought to wrench their world back; Enlightenment philosophes celebrated the demise of the old and considered the wrenching mere birth pangs for the unbounded future. Ordinary people went about their business, adjusting to spread of literacy and the advancement of capital, managing, as always, what the world presented to them.

Modernity arrived at different times in different throughout its 4-century advance: the Dutch and the Scots were the vanguard, France thrashed violently between the old and the new, Spaniards retreated, and the German-speaking peoples went in all directions in their various lands.

It is the long holdout of those German-speaking peoples and the empires they proclaimed which carried the medieval into the modern era; the Kaiser and the Emperor were the last holdouts.

And thus the war, begun by these medieval powers, brought them to their end.


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.

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.

Time is a bastard

5 04 2010

I can’t think big without thinking small.

Okay, so not strictly true—I can aggrandize with the best of ’em—but I do have to gather enough nails before I can be confident of a structure holding.

So in attempting to come to terms with medieval thought-modernity-post-modernity, I want to make sure I get the timelines right, even if, in the end, it’s really not about the dates at all.

It’s a litt. . . a lot embarrassing how poor is my knowledge of any pre-twentieth century history. I picked up bits here and there as a background to understanding certain contemporary conflicts, but I had no sense of how this tied into that—hell, I had only the thinnest sense of this and near-none of that, much less of any ties.

I am therefore now engaged in the process of infilling 500 or so years of European history, beginning around 1200 and heading into the 1700s.

Lotta shit happened; who knew?

I don’t want to go too far back into medieval times, because, again, I’m interested in the transition, but the 13th century seems a reasonable spot into which I can row my boat: It’s  in this century that the  papacy achieves its greatest power (only to see it begin to decline as kings begin to accrue and guard their increasing territorial power), as well as the century of the Inquisition.

Perhaps I could have begun with the First Crusade (Pope Urban II, 1095), or even further back with the split between the eastern and western Christianity (1054). Or I could have gone the other way, and begun with the first Black Death pandemic in 1347.

But the 13th century seems right: that monarchs began to assert themselves against the claims of the Vatican augured the beginnings of the nation-state (not to arrive fully until the dissolution of the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires in the early 1900s), which carries its own moral and political claims. It was also during the 1200s that the earlier re-discovery by Christians of classical texts became integrated into various university curricula; Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, published late in the century, is the apotheosis of Aristotelian Christianity.

Can I tell you that before I began this project I knew almost none of this?

I swore after I took my prelims, and then again after I finished my dissertation, that I was done learning.

Hah. And I thought I was so smart. . . .

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.

Friday poem (Monday): An Anatomy of the World

29 03 2010

Tuesday update: Sorry for posting a naked poem—Wordpress was all wonky last night.


I have, of late, become preoccupied with the medieval period in Europe history, or, more accurately, with the intellectual history of that long moment of transition between medieval times and modernity.

The ‘whys’ of a such a preoccupation I’ll save for another post. But given my current backward glance, a poem from that moment seemed appropriate.

John Donne is not, strictly speaking, a medieval poet: He was writing at the turn of and into the 17th century, a time which might be pegged as ‘early modern.’ But he fits into that long moment of transition during which old certainties about the place of God in nature were crumbling under the onslaught of observation and a kind of deistic theorizing. 

Three centuries later Yeats noted that ‘the center cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’, but the intellectual revolutions of  the 17th century were in many ways far more unsettling than the political revolutions of the  20th: How was man to know who he was if his God were pushed into the recesses of the heavens, and mere mechanism replaced divinity and grace?

The section, below, from Donne’s elegy for a friend’s young daughter allows us entry into that disorienting new world—the world we now take for granted as our own. Reason and science and deduction will lead us forward, it was argued then (and now)—nevermind the past.

In mourning this young girl, however, Donne shows that a world without a past is a world without meaning; to take things apart may yield a new kind of knowledge, but it may also leave us dismantled.

from An Anatomy of the World

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 see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and all relation:
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix, and that there can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.
This is the world’s condition now, . . .

Walking in your footsteps

26 04 2009

REM’s It’s the end of the world as we know it or Lou Reed’s Fly into the sun (opening lyric: I would not run from the holocaust/I would not run from the bomb) are the more obvious titles to a meditation on the apocalypse, but what the hell, we here at AbsurdBeats like to mix it up once in awhile.

Where was I? Ah yes, little blue-green planet goes boom, death, devastation, et cetera, et cetera. It’s a great theme for books, and I have a particular weakness for B-grade movies about an imminently-imperiled or just-toasted Earth. I’ve also had my share of nuclear nightmares, and the movie 28 Days Later added zombies into the nighttime bad-dream rotation.

As a general matter, however, I don’t much worry about the end of the world. Oh, I’m not really joking when I tell my students that I’m glad I’ll likely be dead before the environment collapses, and I won’t be suprised (though I will of course be shocked) if a dirty bomb is lobbed into some urban center. And yes, I keep my eyes open to the damage microbes can do (thank you, Laurie Garrett, for that), and am not uninterested in reports of a nasty strain of swine flu flying around.

Still. If the world ends, it ends. It’s sad to think that we as a species would have blown our chance (and the chances of our fellow creatures) to have figured out how to join the universe, and that in ending ourselves we probably will have destroyed the evidence—the art, architecture, music, literature—that we were more than just violent and greedy idiots.

But this is a detached sadness: if we’re gone, there’ll be no one around to mourn or regret. Death is sad for survivors, not the dead themselves.

C. recently posted on her ‘go’ bag, a pack to which she’s been adding what she’d need to survive if she had to get the hell out of the city. It’s not a bad idea, and given my predilection for preparedness, I should probably put a pack together as well.

But, as I noted in a comment to her post, I have no desire to survive a truly world-ending event. To tramp down ash-laden roads, as do the father and son in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in search of some place beyond the fire? Forget it. Or to wait around a few days or weeks or even months for my skin to fall off? Pass. Maybe one shouldn’t go gently into that good night, but when the world ends, so do the good nights.

What of disasters which simply alter, but don’t end, the world? Rod Dreher at Crunchy Con isn’t exactly waving a ‘The end is near!’ sign, but he’s mighty interested in those who do. Sharon Astyk (at Casaubon’s Book) similarly waives any claim to apocalyptic thinking, but she’s preparing, nonetheless. Gather ye rosebuds (and corn and whatnot) while ye may, because the times they are a-changin’.

I dunno. I tend to skim those pieces on how This Time! we’re gonna be thrown back to the farm, what with this modern way of life collapsing under its own decadent, alienated ways and all. Neither Dreher nor Astyk is a particular fan of modernity, and each seeks a return to a less individualistic, more communal way of life. It’s not that I’m accusing either of actively wishing for The Big One, but they do sense opportunity in a series of little earthquakes.

I’m more po-mo than pre-mo, and have had my own arguments with modern theorists and my own criticisms of modern life. But it’s also the milieu of my life, and that of my friends and family, and we have been shaped by this modern world. Yes, I think there’s got to be a better way to live—but until I come up with that better way, for all of the inhabitants of this little blue-green orb, I’m not about to cheer the end of this fucked-up, violent, compromised, weird old world.

And if things change drastically? Well, that happens, periodically. Unless we do manage to blow ourselves to smithereens, we’ll manage with what comes next.

That’s what we do.