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. . . .