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.


What’s up with the weird wonder?

11 10 2011

I blame Greil Marcus.

Yes, Lynda Barry kicked off this theme for the blog, by my ears were first pricked reading Marcus in The City Pages, which is when I first encountered the notion of “weird old America”.

Weird old America: what a wonderful phrase.

Now, does it matter that the actual phrase was “old, weird America” and has something to do with Bob Dylan and basement tapes and an invisible republic? From a librarian point of view, yes, but from the necessity of having one’s ears pricked and interest piqued and thought provoked, not really.

In any case, it gave me an insight into this country that I had never previously considered: that this is a profoundly strange joint, and that maybe, just maybe, I could ease up a bit in my assessments of the US of A. Or maybe not “ease up” so much as “open up”, to let myself see beyond the cold, clear lines of politics and carefully sculpted narratives into the brambles and crannies of these American cultures.

I knew Americans weren’t necessarily more rational or normal than any other people, but that’s how we talked of ourselves, as Americans. To be American was to be free and brave, to live the American Dream, be all we could be, etc. It is a narrative of striving and effort and independence and normality, and while there might be plenty of individuals and maybe even “subcultures” which members deviated from this clear bright line, those deviants were no part of the culture.

Marcus’s phrase (in my misremembering) helped me to see that, ehhhhn, all of those individuals and subcultures who wonder away from that line are also America. They aren’t artifacts or zoo creatures, “outsider artists” who exist to confirm the rightness of conformity or who may only comment upon, but not participate in, this American Life, but are themselves woven into the warped woof of our cultural fabric, that the normal is as warped as the rest of it.

I’m getting too cute with words (one of the side effects of dipping into weird wonder); I mean to say, Marcus fucked with my sense of direction and perception. I took this nation’s superpowerness for granted and Marcus said, quietly, not quite. He undermined my view from above, and with the invocation of “weird old America” gestured toward all these pieces of our lives that don’t quite fit a clean narrative but fit, nonetheless.

You can still be angry, he allowed, but you can be affectionate, too. Open up, enlarge yourself, appreciate what’s there.

Some folks need to stiffen their spines, need a reminder to squint at what they’re told or take a hammer to what is, but I need the nudge to take it easy. I like hard lines and sharp angles and interrogations and prosecutions; to think is to critique.

Except that it’s not, not the whole of thought; that’s where the wonder comes in.

And the weird, the weird can be the lever that cracks open the wonder.

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.