Empty Time

Younes Rahmoun

“The repeated attempts that have been made to improve humanity, and in particular to make it more peaceable, have failed, because nobody has understood the full depth and vigour of the instincts of aggression innate in each individual. Such efforts do not seek to do more than encourage the positive, well wishing impulses of the person while denying or suppressing his aggressive ones.”
Melanie Klein (The Early Development of Conscience in the Child)

“Finally… there results the generally acclaimed ‘popularization’…in science. This is the notorious tailoring of science’s coat for the figure of a ‘mixed public,’ to use a tailor-like activity for a tailor-like German (sic!).”
Friedrich Nietzsche (The Use and Abuse of History)

“…the wisest man preaches no doctrines, he has no scheme.”
Henry David Thoreau (A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers)

“The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.”
Adorno and Horkheimer (Dialectic of Enlightenment)

In the current edition of the New York Review of Books (besides an idiotic Bill McKibben article) there is a review, by Michael Gorra, of Terry Eagleton’s latest book “Cultural Revolutionaries”. I will write more about this review below, but for now I wanted to note a remark made early in the review:

“Even this reviewer wants to laugh at the idea that there is something crucial for our ‘social existence as a whole’ in coming to the correct estimation of Pope or Shelley.”

Now, OK, I both understand what he is saying, and yes, in a certain sense that is a specious idea, but that is not really what Eagleton is saying. Gorra also takes issue, in the first paragraph of the review with Eagleton saying the Cambridge don saw ‘literary criticism as the best training ground for the development of a free, unspecialized, disinterested, intelligence, which could be brought to bear on social existence as a whole’. Again, this is Eagleton describing what those dons believed, not what he believed. It is true, to some extent, that Eagleton is sympathetic to this idea, but the reason I bring this up is that I don’t find this idea of critical thinking, even in terms of exclusively English literature, as at all absurd. I know what Eagleton means and so does Gorra.

And what he means is extrapolated upon through much of the rest of the review. And one aspect here is that the disciplined and informed close reading of canonical texts is a valuable (crucial even) practice. Why is this to be laughed at now? Well, for one thing Gorra concludes the review by rhapsodising over Virginia Woolf’s criticism, placing her far ahead of Empson or Leavis et al. This is an agenda. Woolf is important but as a critic not on a level with Empson, certainly. And yes there is the clear problem of white supremacist residue in Cambridge curriculum. But this is a very complex topic. The idea here, it seems to me, is that the evolution of Western consciousness cannot be understood (at all) without a deep reading of Shakespeare (and Donne, Spenser, Marlowe, and maybe Wordsworth). It cannot be understood without such a reading of Dante, either, or Goethe. Nor without a critique of white supremacism. And in an age where nobody reads at all the state of this aforementioned Western consciousness is (I believe) much degraded and perhaps pathological. The importance of criticism like that of Empson or even Levis (and Eagleton also includes Raymond Williams, I.A. Richards, and T.S. Eliot) is today ignored and largely dismissed. This leads into ideas on progress, but more on that below.

Pierre Verger, photography.

Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self Fashioning; from More to Shakespeare is an interesting attempt to track the upheaval that occured in 16th century England regards the idea of identity, of self. It is also an examination of what that period contributed to a definition of intelligence. And the lasting influence of all of this.

“Thus separated from the imitation of Christ- a separation that can, as we shall see, give rise to considerable anxiety-self fashioning acquires a new range of meanings: it describes the practice of parents and teachers; it is linked to manners or demeanor, particularly that of the elite; it may suggest hypocrisy or deception, an adherence to mere outward ceremony; it suggests representation of one’s nature or intention in speech or actions. And with representation we return to literature, or rather we may grasp that self-fashioning derives its interest precisely from the fact that it functions without regard for a sharp distinction between literature and social life.”
Stephen Greenblatt (Renaissance Self Fashioning)

There seems to be a tacit belief, today, that culture plays little part in the shaping of the self. Notwithstanding the constant fretting about the influence of rap music or video games. Those are largely racist tropes serving as cautionary PSAs popular with grammar school vice-principles. And what is usually thought of as ‘high culture’ has all but been erased outside of small specialized enclaves of Academia.

Culture also means the mechanisms of control, and those mechanisms are often embedded in artistic works, in traditions and superstitions. And more on that below, too, but honestly, I think society could benefit greatly if schools today made students engage in close readings of John Donne (or Wyatt or Marlowe, or et al).

“Social actions are themselves always embedded in systems of public signification, always grasped, even by their makers, in acts of intetepretation, while the words that constitute the works of literature that we discuss here are by their very nature the manifest assurance of a similar embeddedness.”
Stephen Greenblatt (Ibid)

Robert Adams, photography.

“The status of being cast out has long been feared and in the Judeo-Christian tradition is often represented as the archetype of human misery (e.g., the fall of Lucifer, sin as separation from God, thrown into “outer darkness,” etc.). This is beyond seeing someone as an exploitable resource, as material for one’s own enterprises. In a sense it is seeing them as leftover material, qua Marx’s surplus army of labor, but in an important sense it goes beyond even this: not only do the people in this category not contribute but they are a net drain, a mere cost, that efficiency dictates must in the long run be solved, a final solution if you will.”
David J. Blacker (What’s Left of the World)

The current crisis of homelessness in the U.S., and throughout most of Europe, in varying degrees, raises a host of questions related to what I have previously labeled the destruction of humanness. The absence of jobs, both in North America and Europe is largely because of automation. And automation is there to help cut costs for the owners of businesses, and not for any benefit to the consumer. There is now what anti humanist Yuval Harari calls a population of ‘useless eaters’. Note, too, that the alarmism of the climate crisis is cover for all manner of de-populating the planet of said ‘useless eaters’. And like education, and discussions of consciousness, and the political trend toward fascism, these things all overlap. Learning to closely read Dante is not irrelevant to research on AI or to the return of fascism, or to homelessness. And there is a moral dimension, obviously (I hope obviously), to all these topics. The Covid moral crusade has shifted to climate (as was predicted on the AR podcasts over a year ago). Climate issues, though, like the pandemic, and like nearly ALL topics today, are impossible to debate with the general population — at least, clearly, with the bourgeoisie. People have lost the ability to debate or discuss (that disinterested intelligence Eagleton wrote about above).

Blacker notes that an idea of self respect is foundational to the western moral tradition. And without straying too far from the point here, this self respect is predicated on one’s place in the social order. There is a clear circularity here, though, for that social order is, in theory, based on one’s sense of identity.

Evard d’Espinques (1475, Holy Grail Roundtable)

“For most people the pathways through which to garner respect are pre-fabricated; the winning strategy is to conform to certain expectations and inhabit certain social positions as ready-made bases for respectability. One’s sense of self is powerfully shaped by these social roles and locations. I am a father, brother, Mayor, donor, taxpayer, neighbor, caregiver, pet rescuer and so on. For most people in recent generations, one’s occupation in the economic sense provides one of the most powerful of these identity anchors; for so many of us (perhaps particularly Americans) we are what we do (for a living), this latter being inseparable from our sense of who we really are.”
David J. Blacker (Ibid)

A Gallup poll from 2014 revealed 55% of Americans got their sense of identity from their job. For college graduates this rose to 70%. So, as Blacker notes, one of the semi-hidden costs of job precarity is a collective collapse of identity. And in such a situation the forces of reaction are always appealing because they insert a ready made (nostalgic) scapegoat formula. The future (one of hope, potentially) is really the past. A mythic past, that not even those most engaged fully believe, but act on anyway for want of acting on anything else. And this is, I think, a hugely important syndrome; the contemporary subject accepts ambivalence about certain things, especially those that allow for his purchase on reality to hold fast. That Adorno and Horkheimer quote (at the top) is a profound description of the mind of the white bourgeoisie today. That particular badly educated middle class aspirational clerk to Empire actually, frequently, don’t mind something is false, or counterfeit or fake– in fact they prefer it. Others simply compartmentalize. But these are broad statements and I think something of a deeper shift is occurring. Notwithstanding that;

Nicolaes Pickenoy (Portrait of a Young Woman; 1590) detail.

“…we seem to be experiencing a huge proliferation of service and administrative jobs that take place at farther and farther remove from the site of anything recognizable as production. Fewer industrial and agricultural workers and more financiers. Fewer professors and more higher education administrators. Fewer product developers and more advertising and media placement types. Fewer investigative journalists and more news aggregators and pundits. And so on, a trend that has involved “the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources and public relations.”
David J. Blacker (Ibid)

Alienated labour has always been alienated. But it is perhaps the fact that wage slavery is now utterly divorced from ends that makes it feel so irrational. The danger is to think the manual labour of eighty or a hundred years ago was not also horrid. But the social context was different, union solidarity existed, and a culture, however threadbare in certain industries, also existed. Now it is interesting that Blacker writes that humans seem to be inherently creators of narratives. But his optimism about a flowering of creative narration seems just odd, if not absurdly naive. Because people do not any longer creative narratives. That is part of the unfolding tragedy before us. And it is also a subject I have tried to examine for the last several years. The eroding inner narrative is the most damaging on all levels. When a society can no longer create stories to explain their lives, both at a societal level but also a personal and tribal level (as it were) that society is going to collapse.

That said, Blacker in an earlier book writes of what he sees as this inevitable collapse of capitalism in the not too distant future:

“Scholars and activists in this area are extremely unlikely to “change” things on such a vast scale and should understand their role as more akin to a John the Baptist: preparing the way for what is surely to come. The collapse may be concentrated and acute or drawn out and “stepwise” or, in the happiest (and most unlikely) case, gradual and smooth. All we can do now is, like Marx after his own fashion, brace for the historical inevitability and do what we can by way of preparation. As capitalism has gone so far as to implicate the entire planet, this fatalism dour or cheerful is the only real “environmentalism” and the only true educational endeavor still available. Still-relevant aspects of the philosophical tradition such as ancient Stoicism and individual figures as Seneca, Lucretius, Spinoza, and Nietzsche and many others can be scavenged for insight as to how we might conceive a post-capitalist fatalism that is coexistent with a non-extractive stance toward nature and each other. “
David J. Blacker ( The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame)

George Ault (Hoboken Factory, 1932)

The rise of fascism in the 20th century is always a part of any puzzle, culturally speaking. And the current economic crisis in the West has accelerated psychological insecurity. And it has an impact on this already dessicated idea of identity. But the current precarity has been a half century in the making. Even the onset of the internet and electronic media has not invented anything in terms of human pathology, it has only intensified and accelerated it. It has not invented the crippled psychological states of the human, only made them worse, or more acute and pervasive. The effects of electronic information has also served a contraction of subjectivity. Much like capital itself is, in a sense, contracting (debatable but still…) human psychology is contracting. Not intelligence, but subjectivity, human consciousness if you will.

“The U.S. press wrote little about the genocide during the war years, even though the facts became known in 1942. How different might the U.S. response have been if newspapers had reported in huge headlines the incredible fact that millions of people were being gassed in death factories? A request by some Jewish organizations to bomb the gas chambers or the railroads leading to Auschwitz was not seriously considered.”
Ervin Staub (The roots of evil: The origins of genocide and other group violence)

Here I want to introduce some ideas about repression and progress, and that perhaps the Freudian revisionism of today is itself a symptom (I’ve suggested this before) but also begs questions about the definition of progress. The influence of this idea ‘progress’ with ideas about nature, and about identity.

“…through inevitable loss, physical pain, and death,nature will always rise up against us, majestic, cruel and inexorable, and remind us of our helplessness and weakness, which we thought to escape through the work of civilization.”
Sigmund Freud (The Future of an Illusion)

Ker Xavier Roussel (1927)

“Those who assert the unsayability of Auschwitz should be more cautious in their statement’: if, joining uniqueness to unsayabilty, they transform Auschwitz into a reality absolutely separated from language, they break the tie between an impossibility and a possibility of speaking that…constitutes testimony; then they unconsciously repeat the Nazi’s gesture’ .”
Giorgio Agamben (Remnants of Auschwitz)

Agamben’s point here is that one is conferring on genocide a quality of the mystical or mythical. As he asks: ‘why unsayable’? God is in many religions the unsayable, the unknowable, and there are (primarily in Hebraic traditions, and in Islam) prohibitions against the creation of images of this unsayable and unseeable God. Aniconism is evident even in early Buddhism where symbols such as Bodhi Tree stood in for God.

“The verb that we have translated “to adore in silence” is, in the Greek text, euphemein. Euphemein, which originally means “to observe religious silence,” is the origin of the modern word “euphemism,” which denotes those terms that are substituted for other terms that cannot be uttered for reasons of modesty or civility~ To say that Auschwitz is “unsayable” or “incomprehensible” is equivalent to euphemein, to adoring in silence, as one does with a god.”
Giorgio Agamben (Ibid)

This brings up the idea of bearing witness, but also of the creating of narrative. The contemporary world of mass marketing and the streaming of propaganda 24/7, as well as the constant manipulation of images and with this the waning of ‘meaning’ itself has resulted in populations unable not only to reason critically, but to have a clear sense of self in a society. There is an increasing vagueness to social interactions, and to abstractions associated with the state and society. There is also, culturally, an increasing sense of impermanence. I see this in art, where the deep contemplation of museum or gallery is replaced by events. Even in theatre what is left of experimental or alternative theatre (in the US) take to single performances in someone’s backyard. This is partly the result of economic restrictions, the inflationary cost of putting up a show, but those factors are also part of the gestalt of impermanence and the loss of memory. This results, at one end of things, with more strident jingoism and a normalizing of fascism in a frustrated working class that is out of work. But this also touches on how contemporary subjects experience their own memories and dreams. The economic imperatives are profound, and yet there has been an overall adjustment in the artistic communities of the West to these imperatives. There is little protest or refusal or even criticism.

Herbert List, photography (optician’s shop, Paris 1936)

Karl Barth (quoted by Agamben) wrote in 1960: “we may suppose that even on the morning after the Day of Judgment·-· if such a thing were possible- every cabaret, every night club, every newspaper firm eager for advertisements and subscribers, every nest of political fanatics, every discussion group, indeed, every Christian tea-party and Church synod would resume business to the best of its ability, and with a new sense of opportunity, completely unmoved, quite uninstructed, and in no serious sense different from what it was before.”
Karl Barth (Church Dogmatics)

The stunning failure to grasp, for example, the consequences of a nuclear war, seems a signature void of the Western bourgeoisie today. But this didn’t fall out of the sky yesterday, this indifference to potential cataclysms. It has been decades developing. At the same time one can see the public manipulated into hysterical outrages at pure fictions of Madison Avenue (politicians in Europe wearing ‘Fuck Putin’ t shirts to work in the government offices, or indignation at one or another ‘woke’ trigger). I said in an interview (Knut Normann’s podcast on which Johan Eddebo also appeared) that the Innocence Project has had over 200 death sentences overturned based on DNA evidence. These were men sentenced to die by the state. And yet this fact has caused very little outrage. The fluidity of moral signposts is a defining characteristic of the post modern capitalist world. One can, of course, also see the extraordinary moral hysteria associated with climate change, as one saw with Vaccine mandates and Covid protocols, overall. The increasingly threadbare alarmism of climate completely disregards militarism. It’s quite amazing, really, to see people, the same people, outraged at lack of ‘climate action’ by governments applaud US/NATO aggressions in Ukraine, much as they were cheerleading the assault on the former Yugoslavia, or Syria, or Libya, or Afghanistan and Iraq. The assault on Yugoslavia left much of the countryside and cities of that region poisoned, and carcinogenic with depleted uranium.

Here I think a deeper autopsy of ‘progress’ is necessary. It is a word that has come to be used casually, without a lot of thought. But it is a profoundly ambivalent word and idea. Writing on Adorno’s notions of progress here, Michael Lowy and Eleni Varikas note:

“If we consider the example of mechanical reproduction, it is plain that advances in the processes of production take place at the expense of production according to need: indeed, the new processes themselves come to dominate, and need adapts itself to them. Worse still, in the realm of both cultural and material goods, progress is regarded not as a matter of how far productive techniques meet human needs, but as inherent in the productive process itself regardless of what it reproduces.”
Michael Lowy & Eleni Varikas (The World Spirit on the Fins of a Rocket)

Certainly this tendency of adaptation to new tech has been multiplied a thousand fold with the onset of digital electronic media. Lowy and Varikas add later…

” Progress, which had begun by demystifying the superstitions of animism, according to which things possessed a soul, had ended up under the sway of a far more powerful magic- the magic of a world in which men’s souls are transformed into things. Modern man, forgetful of his ancient unity with the natural world, remained in a state of enchantment: reification, noted Adorno and .”Horkheimer, always involves forgetfulness and oblivion.”

George Hugnet

“In both the culture industry and public commemorations, the memory of the Holocaust gradually replaced the memory of anti-fascism.”
Enzo Traverso (The New Faces of Fascism)

Traverso sees this shift beginning around 1980 and continuing through to the start of the 21st century. But there needs to be an examination of early and mid 20th century fascism before understanding its shift at the end of the century.

“The constitutive elements of fascism were disparate. We find at first a romantic impulse, that is, a national mystique that idealizes old traditions, often inventing a mythical past. Fascist culture glorified action, virility, youth, and fighting, translating them into a particular image of the body, into gestures, emblems, and symbols that aimed at redefining the nation’s identity. ”
Enzo Traverso (Ibid)

But there is a crucial observation Traverso adds a paragraph later. For the constitutive elements of fascism need their opposite. And this is particularly true during this shift to a new fascism.

“The Jewish intellectual living in the urban centre, far from nature, not engaged in sports, and thinking instead of acting, incarnated the decadence to which fascism opposed physical strength, courage, disregard for danger, and the fighting ethic of its ‘New Man”.
Enzo Traverso (Ibid)

The anti-semitic cliches of the early 20th century migrated to new targets. Eugenics signaled the change from negative stereotypes into medical categories. Scientism in a sense was one of the defining tools of the new world order. Education and culture were presented as characteristics of the Jewish outsider. But fascism was always a revolution against the revolution. It was always at its core ‘anti communist’.

“In fact, anti-communism characterized fascism from the beginning to the end of its historical trajectory. It was a militant, radical, aggressive anti-communism that transformed the nationalist ‘civil religion’ into a ‘crusade’ against the enemy. Regarded as a form of anti-Bolshevism, fascism does not appear as revolutionary but as a typically counterrevolutionary phenomenon arising from the atmosphere of civil war into which Europe plunged after the Russian Revolution of 1917. The bloody repression first of the Spartacist insurrection in Berlin, then of the workers’ republics in Bavaria and Hungary in 1919, as well as the defeat of the biennio rosso in Italy the following year were the salient moments of this European civil war.”
Enzo Traverso (Ibid)

Theo Van Doesburg

One of the problems today when discussing the growth of NGO power, globally, and the impact of the WEF, the Klaus Schwab scenario for a surveillance state of total pauperism for the working class, is the constant conflation of communism and fascism.

“Fascism was a movement rooted among the (both emerging and declining) middle classes and directed by plebeian leaders who did not conquer power by insurrectionary means but through a compromise with the older economic, bureaucratic, military, and political elites. Fascism undoubtedly built a new regime and destroyed the old liberal state along with its separation of powers, its constitutional liberties, and its democratic parliaments. But with a few exceptions (notably Franco’s military putsch) it took power legally and, above all, it never changed the economic structure of society. Unlike the communist revolutions, which radically changed the social forms of property and production, ‘fascist revolutions’ everywhere integrated the old ruling classes into their system of power. In other words, the birth of fascism always implies a certain osmosis between fascism, authoritarianism, and conservatism.”
Enzo Traverso (Ibid)

But progress has gradually migrated from societal improvement to individual adjustment. Just as self reflection is part of a project of self betterment that is often referred to as ‘working on oneself’. Labour is at work on your own psyche, and appearance. Today the rejection of otherness is directed at both a manufactured threat to the planet (more than a threat to people) in the climate crisis, and to unbelievers who refuse vaccines (or simply question their efficacy) and become lepers of a sort. The unclean. And there is always a strange moral scolding to this; anti vaxxers (sic) are ‘selfish’. Traverso is correct to tie colonialism into the growth and evolution of interwar fascism. For colonialism was a laboratory for mass exterminations, and for legislative bureaucratic violence against the indigenous populations. From Algeria to the Congo to India and southeast Asia, to Namibia and South Africa and the Caribbean; European powers experimented with with judicial and institutional policies to control, exploit and murder the ‘lower’ and inferior races. Progress and efficiency.

Michon Sanders

“Fascist liturgy was inscribed into the national heritage, while antifascism was rejected as the politics of a simple minority. In this way, fascism came to embody national memory, while antifascism (which experienced a new impulse as a mass movement after 8 September 1943) came to be regarded as the product of ‘the death of the fatherland.”
Enzo Traverso (Ibid)

This is remarkably insightful, and holds relevance for the contemporary landscape regards fascism, and the drum beat of ‘totalitarianism’ as a tool to merge genuine anti-fascism with fascism. The American memory of WW2, and of National Socialism was diluted intentionally, the better to inscribe Operation Paperclip onto the ledger of the American Dream narrative. Traverso notes the rise of an ‘anti-antifascism’ form of revisionism. And most to the point are the rhetorical and ideological tactics employed. One is that the new anti-anti fascist historian or critic is ‘scientific’ — as opposed to the emotional and irrational anti fascist writer. The second is to conflate communism and fascism as totalitarian. And third, to make equivalent the violence of fascism and its opponents (whether communist or not). The conclusion is to reject both fascism and anti fascism (and most certainly that means the evils of communism). These tactics all fall under an umbrella of ‘rational value neutral’ scholarship — one that is to be associated with science. And as Traverso notes, value free historical writing is anti communist historical writing.

Also, much anti fascist writing lacked any great insight into, in particular, National Socialism. As Traverson writes…

“This revealed a far-reaching incomprehension of the ideological roots of National Socialism as well as a harmful adaptation to the language and culture of an old European practice discriminating against and stigmatizing the Jews. In simple terms, antifascist intellectuals were unable to grasp the ‘dialectics of the Enlightenment’ underlying fascism; they viewed it as a kind of collapse of civilization, as a throwback to barbarism, rather than a genuine product of modernity itself.”
Enzo Traverso (Ibid)

This is important because, I suspect, that this particular myopia is a key feature of that reactionary side of many leftists today. It as a default retreat to older European values and style, if only unconsciously. It was a failure (per Traverso) to see fascism as a form of reactionary modernism. Not a collapse backward to barbarism. This was progress. It was efficient, emotionless in its bureauracratisation and rational in its decisions.

German baker’s family, Keetmanshoop. German South Africa (Namibia) 1926

A final note on the relevance today of this constant stream of propaganda, both historical and academic, and also in pop culture and on social media. The liberal intelligentsia in Italy and Germany both aligned themselves with fascist power (even if they saw the leadership as uncouth) and as Traverso writes: “The horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not the result of a totalitarian ideology; it was planned by Roosevelt and ordered by Truman, not by Stalin.” (Ibid)

And this leads, again, to the rehabilitation of fascism currently ongoing. Western leaders visiting the WW2 cemeteries of fascist dead, in a gesture of equivalence, is but one example. Traverso has a lengthy and illuminating chapter on just the word ‘totalitarian’. As he notes at the end, it simply came to mean ‘enemy of the West’. Enemy of capitalism. And those who employ it today nearly always traffic in arguments of equivalence (in terms of repression and violence) and one side bar worth mentioning is the back handed dismissing of national liberation struggles from these sectors. One is more likely to hear of the violence of the FNP than the army of occupation that France had in Algeria. Today the Mau Mau or FNP, the Cuban Revolution, and liberation wars of Vietnam, even the resistance to European settler regimes in Africa (Rhodesia or Namibia) are all reduced to the cartoon narratives of U.S. media and academia. Many of these struggles were not communist but they still threatened western business interests.

“…it was the extermination of the Herero, perpetrated in 1904 in South-Western Africa (today Namibia) by the troops of General von Trotha, that prefigured the ‘Final Solution’ in terms of both its language (Vernichtung, Untermenschentum) and its processes (famine, camps, deportation, systematic annihilation). We might say (paraphrasing Ernst Nolte) that the ‘logical and factual prius’ of the Holocaust should be sought in German colonial history. Outside Germany, the closest experience of genocide before the Holocaust was the fascist colonization of Ethiopia in 1935, conducted as a war against ‘lower races’, with chemical weapons and mass destruction…”
Enzo Traverso (Ibid)

But I want to return to the psychoanalytical implications of fascism, and its sediments of repressive technics in studies of projects like The Great Reset. And also, to return to the top of this posting, the erosion of literacy and the role this plays in selling revisionist histories.

Zakaria Ramhani

Greenblatt has a fascinating thin volume on the Biblical story of Adam and Eve:

“We humans, the story goes, were uniquely made in the image and likeness of the God who created us. That God gave us dominance over all other species, and He gave us something else: a prohibition. The prohibition came without explanation or justification. But at the beginning of time it was not necessary that our first ancestors understand; it was necessary only that they obey. That Adam and Eve did not obey, that they violated God’s express command, caused everything that followed in the lives of our whole species, from the universal phenomenon of shame to the universal fact of mortality.”
Stephen Greenblatt (The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve)

Greenblatt points out that it was the Renaissance (in Dürer, Michelangelo, and Milton) that first convincingly represented this story in a literal manner. Questions arose, in particular around the character of a God who does not teach what is right and wrong to his/her creation. And the spectre of death. And these questions culminated in a sense with the Enlightenment.

“ The human of the first chapter of Genesis is in effect the holotype of humanity. God authored this creature and carefully introduced him—naked, of course—on earth as the type specimen. When you contemplate Adam, you contemplate both a particular, individual figure and the entirety of humankind.”
Stephen Greenblatt (Ibid)

The story of human evolution is constantly changing, and I doubt today anyone would write a book titled The Ascent of Man. Greenblatt points this out and it’s germane to ideas of progress, I think. There is always a story, an origin myth — there is action (per Greenblatt, in this case, with Eve eating of the beautiful apple– because it is described as “the tree was good for eating and that it was lust to the eyes”) and it is in a story that a culture or society is first taught how it came to be what it is currently. The loss of an ability to internally re-narrate our own lives is in the first tier of a pathological transition in consciousness. The loss of reading, certainly the loss of careful meditative reading, means the subjective narration is fragmented, cliched, and incomplete. Its been remarked for years now (Norman Mailer was the first one I heard) that we have generations who anticipate interruptions in their stories (largely experienced on screens). The anticipation extends now to more than just interruptions.

William Adolphe Bouguereau (Adam and Eve discover their son Abel,slain by Cain. The first death in the Bible) 1886.

“But all monks were expected to know how to read. In a world increasingly dominated by illiterate warlords, that expectation, formulated early in the history of monasticism, was of incalculable importance. Here is the Rule from the monasteries established in Egypt and throughout the Middle East by the late fourth-century Coptic saint Pachomius. ‘When a candidate for admission to the monastery presents himself to the elders, they shall give him twenty Psalms or two of the Apostles’ epistles or some other part of Scripture. And if he is illiterate he shall go at the first, third and sixth hours to someone who can teach and has been appointed for him. He shall stand before him and learn very studiously and with all gratitude. The fundamentals of a syllable, the verbs and nouns shall be written for him and even if he does not want to, he shall be compelled to read. (Rule 139)’- “He shall be compelled to read.” It was this compulsion that, through centuries of chaos, helped to salvage the achievements of ancient thought.”
Stephen Greenblatt (The Swerve; How the World Became Modern)

St. Benedict, we learn, proscribed a certain number of hours each for reading. Others for manual labor, for as he said, idleness is the enemy of the soul. And senior monks were to make their rounds to make sure the proscribed reading was being done without what Benedict termed ‘Acediosus’, often translated as apathetic. But it is more than than and also not quite that. It described what today would be called ‘depression’. An inability to concentrate, an anxious shifting of eyes and attention from the book before one. The desert Father John Cassian called it ‘the noonday demon’. Now these were not schools, debate was forbidden. In fact objections to the sacred word were punishable by flogging.

The story though is really about (prior to Gutenberg’s invention of movable type, but even after to some degree) the scribes who copied the codices and papyruses found in monasteries — many of them quite remote — from all over Europe and parts of North Africa. For the copyists were, to a large extent, how knowledge was allowed to survive. For this was also a time of great shortages of paper, or vellum (or other skins) and of books themselves. This story is a long narrative that first culminates in the discoveries at Pompeii, in which Roman libraries (personal ones) were preserved with remarkable integrity, and the story of Lucretius and his one poetic/scientific work: On the Nature of Things. And virtually nothing is known of Lucretius the man even today. The point of this tale of the rediscovery of one of antiquity’s masterpieces is that, to some significant degree, it launched the Renaissance. But that is perhaps not the story here (and Greenblatt is nothing if not keeping his eye on bestseller lists). Certainly the influence of Lucretius is profound, for three central reasons. First, he wrote the most humane meditation on death perhaps ever, he was one of the earliest hedonists and sex positive writers (Yeats said he wrote the greatest description of sexual intercourse ever) and third, he began the examination of unseen forces outside of God’s hand. The theory that all matter is made of atoms in constant motion. But the reason I quote from this book has more to do with those monks of the early 14th century on through Gutenberg and beyond for a hundred years more. It is the idea of recitation (one monk read aloud each night during an otherwise silent dinner) and through the prayerful silent reading of individual monks in their cells. And that I think the liberating influence of Lucretius is often viewed from an oddly middle class perspective. Or maybe it’s just modern liberal perspective.

Which leads back to progress. I think if one examines history by first somehow letting go of the idea of progress (very difficult) other buried factors will emerge besides this march of advancement.

Ferdinand Hodler (1885)

“In the French Revolution the executioner was no longer the absolute master of the punitive ceremony, for he was replaced by the guillotine, the new symbol of sovereignty. “
Enzo Traverso (The Origins of Nazi Violence)

The idea of progress is born with Hegel (at least this is the most convenient starting point) who saw everything that happens as a step forward in mankind’s march toward freedom and self realization. The World Spirit embodied by Napoleon on horseback. The Enlightenment was the other factory for an idea of progressive development. Adorno said that progress had twin aspects, one secular and one theological; the latter of which is tied in with redemption. Now Adorno also critiqued writers such as Ortega y Gasset and Spengler as part of a reactionary critique of progress that relied on a nostalgia for past values. Within this lies a paradox (or contradiction) because this nostalgia has an element of truth in the sense that by the 21st century it is exactly the loss of traditions in learning and culture that have been some of the hallmarks of the new anti-humanism. But nostalgia itself is almost always reactionary and harkens back to a mythic past that never existed. For Adorno, the point is not to embrace the myth of the past, or to restore it, but to look at the promises of the past. He wrote in several places about the betrayed promise of contemporary society.

Walter Benjamin saw the idea of progress in a slightly different way, though closely related.

“Labour and commodities are only exchangeable because they can be treated as equivalent – and they can only be treated as equivalent because units of time are treated as identical. Commodity fetishism depends on homogeneous empty time. Homogeneous empty time is also associated with the closed world of fate and guilt.”
Andy McLaverty-Robinson (Walter Benjamin: Messianism and Revolution – Theses on History)

Progress is a by product, in its common usage, of capitalism. Marx’s idea of progress was highly mediated, in fact. But then he was critiquing capitalism. The point here is there has been a gradual enforcing of what McLaverty-Robinson calls homogeneous time. Time succumbs to exchange value metrics. The rise of technology as an almost metaphysical force has led to the securitizing of all social life. Technology and science, then, are arbiters of value today. Reading and contemplation simply fall outside these metrics. Everything, for the state, has become a war. And there is a militarizing of not just domestic issues, but a militarized policing of consciousness. Again, the ruthless savage super-ego is reinforced. Is legitimized. And such reinforcement is a rare phenomenon and the anxious subject will take refuge in such policy.

Daidō Moriyama, photography (2014, Tokyo subway)

Time, then, is experienced the same way commodities are constantly presented as new. The reproduction of the same advertised as unique and different. The Covid lockdowns were a military/police response to a health problem. Vaccines were a technological/scientific and theological ritual. Wearing the mask was a sign of baptism. And here, there is always voiced the morality of ‘the future’. For progress leads inexorably toward ‘the future’ and this is a place, a realm, an idea of redemption. The future is characterless and anodyne, it is infused with the emotional excesses of the savage super ego.

Benjamin juxtaposed homogeneous time with what he called messianic time. Without going into detail on that, the import here is that this is satori, awakening. The promise of art for Adorno was also awakening, or epiphanic somehow. Paul and the Damascene conversion — such are the openings out of the constant state of exception under which everyone now lives. And that state of exception is one of endless empty time, a digital image that is overexposed now so only a blinding blankness exists.

Albert Speer’s Deutsches Haus, Paris Exhibition 1937

Benjamin was in Paris in 1937, during the famed world Exhibition. This famously juxtaposed Speer’s Deutsches Haus with Boris Iofan designed pavilion for the USSR. This has often been the intellectual site of conflation for fascism and communism (see rather reactionary writers like Esther Leslie, and her book on Benjamin, which is both insightful AND regrettable in its political tenor). Benjamin had been in Paris in 1934 and his letters to friends during this period, especially Gershom Scholem, spoke of his despair which was mostly about the refusal of the French left to take action against the popular front fascists. In 1938, after a visit with Brecht, Benjamin wrote of his frustration at seeing his work compared with that of Heidegger in an officially communist periodical.

Benjamin also regretted the degraded state of art and culture under Stalin. But his comments, like Brecht’s at the time, were also clear that the far larger regret was the onset of fascism and the resiliency of Capitalism. The state of communism was directed at making it better. And to help end fascism.

“For Benjamin, there is an increasing ‘abuse’ of art, occasioned by the maintenance of conditions of production, supplemented by the opposing drive towards the self-abolition of art. A technological dynamic pushes for art’s dissolution. Benjamin charts a dialectical development of art, depicted as both a possible and a necessary direction for art, in which a quantitative shift in the type of art being produced, due to new conditions of production, turns into a qualitative shift in the nature of art.”
Esther Leslie (Walter Benjamin; Overwhelming Conformism)

and a short while later Leslie adds:

“Contemporary artworks are conceived by critics and artists in terms of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery, ‘concepts whose uncontrolled (and at present almost uncontrollable) application leads to a processing of data in the fascist sense’.”

Benjamin was acutely critical of positivism and what he saw as the popularizing of science, or perhaps just ‘popular science’. And he decried this idea of a ‘public’ substituting for ‘class’. This would, or could, lead into a discussion of ‘the greater good’, and ideas likes ‘victims rights’, all stuff used for regressive policies today.

“Positivism is a failed intellectual project, according to Benjamin, because it is unable to understand the importance of the social conditions of production in any evaluation of technology. The positivists recognize only the progress of natural science, and not the regressions of society which result from a capitalist organization of the social. Positivists are oblivious to the destructive side of technological development, signalled in the mushrooming fabrication, under exploitative conditions, of fetish commodities and vicious weaponry.”
Esther Leslie (Ibid)

Florence Miller Pierce

And I wanted to conclude this posting with a lengthy quote from the most neglected of Benjamin’s essays; “Edward Fuchs: Collector & Historian”. Written between 1934 and 1937, it is among the most political of Benjamin’s writings.

“Technology, however, is obviously not a pure scientific fact. It is at the same time a historical fact. As such it forces an examination of the attempted positivistic and undialectical separation between the natural sciences and the humanities. The questions which humanity brings to nature are in part conditioned by the level of production. This is the point at which positivism fails. Positivism was only able to see the progress of natural science in the development of technology, but failed to recognize the concomitant retrogression of society. Positivism overlooked the fact that this development was decisively conditioned by capitalism. By the same token, the positivists among the Social Democratic theorists failed to understand that the increasingly more urgent act which would bring the proletariat into possession of this technology was rendered more and more precarious because of this development. They misunderstood the destructive side of this development because they were alienated from the destructive side of dialectics…{ } This image of technology comes from the Gartenlaube. This may cause one to ask whether the Gemütlichkeit which the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie enjoyed does not arise from the hollow comfort of never having to experience how the productive forces had to develop under their hands. This experience was really reserved for the following century. The present century experiences how the speed of traffic machines and the capacities of apparatuses for duplicating words and writing outstrip human needs.The energies which technology develops beyond this threshold are destructive. First of all, they advance the technology of war and its propagandistic preparation. One might say of this development, which was thoroughly class conditioned, that it occurred behind the backs of the last century. That century was not yet conscious of the destructive energies of technology. This is especially true for the Social Democrats at the turn of the century.”
Walter Benjamin (Edward Fuchs: Collector & Historian)

Progress has no track on which it runs, it has no future, in fact. It is an endless series of tiny recuperations of power. Recuperations that change perspectives, and stage scenery, but which are only social mechanisms of control that masquerade as individual experience.

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  1. Thanks for your always thoughtful and penetrating essays, which provide one of the few respites from the information “swarm” (Byung-Chul Han) available on the web. I have had to leave Twitter out of a sense of self preservation, but still enjoy your Aesthetic Resistance podcasts. With respect to narrative and the self, I have been thinking lately of a line in one of Iris Murdoch’s essays in which she describes human beings as “creatures who tell stories and then come to resemble those stories.” But I agree with what I think is your point that we are no longer that kind of being, as our capacity for telling stories has atrophied or disappeared in the technological society–and along with it our sense of being a self at all. Thanks again for your valuable writings.— Jerome

  2. Regino Robainas says:

    Thank-you, John, for the last 2 essays.

    I believe that it would serve us well to
    reflect and reinvestigate frequently the
    master’s annunciation that victory is
    the most potent, and,therefore,the most
    dangerous of medicines. And, as a collorary,
    that health consists of the overcoming of
    illness, the more-and as the fruit of
    overcoming- the better. And the neoliberal,
    neofascist world is quite ill.

  3. Regino Robainas says:

    With respect to empty time I think
    that flashforwards are as significant
    as flashbacks.
    Playing some uncanny oceans game with Death, I
    swim with foreshadowings of my dying in
    a hospital or prison or accident by
    ground, air or water. That future reincarnations
    seem to be evoked by the hospital & other
    modes of Being-onto-Death provides some
    twilight joy.

  4. Regino Robainas says:

    There is something magical about
    waking up on a November Saturday morning
    after Hurricane Nikolehas spent her
    winds to a hearty Cup of warm coffee with
    oatmilk. Maybe not as good as Cuban cafe
    con Leche, but close.

    Then, joyously wiping my eyes, I contemplated
    on a strange concatenation of the German
    Master’s (!) aphorisms & Rembrandt’s life &
    especially Death. And, at once I recalled
    my beloved dutch borne Father Knapp’s definition
    of Happiness, according to the ancient Greeks:

    “The exercise of the vital powers, along lines of
    excellence, in the pursuit of virtue.”

    Perhaps that will help fill the dreadful
    empty times.

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