This is the modern world: “What’s Left?” September 2020

SFMOMA. Photo by Henrik Kam

I’m old.

I’m 68 years old. My dad died of a heart attack at 67 on December 16, 1993, not quite two months after his wife—my mom—died of lung cancer at 64. I look at this two ways. He lived just one month and two days after his 67th birthday. As of today I’ve lived a year plus two months and change longer than he did when he died almost 27 years ago. I’m now 13+ months past my own 67th birthday. So I’m feeling reassured.

I’m also considered old Left by “the kids” these days. That’s despite having developed my politics during the period of the New Left—the time of SDS, the New Communist Movement, a resurgent rank-and-file labor movement, and a revived anarchism. Which is doubly ironic because we in the New Left called the Left of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s—the Stalinist CP-USA and its loyal opposition the Trotskyist SWP—the Old Left. Frankly, I’m darned uncomfortable with and a bit distrustful of the current youthful Left based not on class but on non-class identities embraced by the “new” populist postmodernism. So I’m pissed off that I’m now considered a sad old Leftist anachronism.

Finally, I feel old in a metaphysical sense. To understand this, let’s start with a curious pair of books: Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904) and The Education of Henry Adams (1907), both written by Henry Adams. My parents had a two-volume Time Life “great books” series paperback edition of The Education of Henry Adams that I discovered in their library one rainy weekend and read in one sitting. Editions of Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres were harder to come by, but I discovered a Doubleday Anchor paperback in a used book store years later to round out my own education of Henry Adams.

Henry Adams

Henry Brooks Adams (1838-1918) was the scion of Boston brahmins, member of the famous Adams family which included the 2nd and 6th US presidents, and an American historian who produced a nine volume study of Jefferson’s and Madison’s presidential administrations. He was also a man of letters, writing two novels to boot, whose life straddled the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. He was obsessed with the erosion of faith by science, convinced that a world of order and unity was disintegrating into chaos around him. Adams distilled the history of western civilization down to the metaphor of the Virgin and the dynamo in these two books. His first book, subtitled A Study in 13th Century Unity, was a historical and philosophical meditation on the 12th century Norman construction of the Mont-Saint-Michel cathedral and the 13th century cult of the Virgin at Chartres. For Adams, Europe in the century from 1150 to 1250 was “the point in history when man held the highest idea of himself as a unit in a unified universe.”

That old order, the Ancien régime, the Europe of the Middle Ages was manorialism and feudalism, chivalry and serfdom, the Holy Roman Empire and the Crusades; of nobility, clergy and peasantry unified in Christian holy war against infidel Islam according to Adams. He admired the infusion of religious ideals throughout European economic, political and military institutions in this age when philosophy, theology and the arts were all informed by faith. In Mont-Saint-Michel he symbolized this organic unity of reason and intuition, science and religion in the statue of the Virgin Mary in Chartres cathedral. In turn he saw in the scholasticism of St. Thomas Aquinas, with its emphasis on human reason, the beginning of the destruction of this coherent, totalizing world view.

For Adams, the humanism of the Renaissance, the individual faith of the Reformation, the universal reason of the Enlightenment, the liberté, égalité, fraternité and démocratie of the French revolution, the modern era’s nation-states and national capitalist economies all furthered the disintegration of this organic unity, replacing the singularity of faith with the fragmenting logic of science. In The Education, Adams described this historical transition as “evolving the universe from a thought” to “evolving thought from the universe.” The movement from religious spiritualism to scientific materialism produced “Multiplicity, Diversity, Complexity, Anarchy, Chaos,” with no way to prevent the proliferation of conflicting, contradictory thoughts from scientific observation of the universe. Adams symbolized this atomizing scientific world view in the mechanistic force of the dynamo he saw at the 1900 Great Exposition in Paris. He subtitled his two volume philosophical and autobiographical reflection on the woeful inadequacy of his “education” for the modern world A Study of 20th Century Multiplicity.

Friedrich Nietzsche

When the Virgin was central, man was at his pinnacle of unity with the universe. Yet when the dynamo of human achievement replaced faith, man was eventually subordinated to mere mechanical forces. The primary paradox embodied in Adams’ Virgin/dynamo metaphor has been described by others in different ways. Friedrich Nietzsche decried the “collective degeneration of man” into the “perfect herd animal” of our democratic era when, under corrupt “modern ideas,” human beings behave “too humanely.” He maintained in Beyond Good and Evil that: “[e]very elevation of the type ‘man’ has hitherto been the work of an aristocratic society—and so it will always be: a society which believes in a long scale of rank and differences of worth between man and man and needs slavery in some sense or other.” In his Revolt Against the Modern World, Julius Evola praised Medieval Europe for “its objectivity, its virile spirit, its hierarchical structure, its proud antihumanistic simplicity so often permeated by the sense of the sacred” which made man heroic. When the humanism of the Renaissance supposedly “emancipated itself from the ‘darkness of the Middle Ages’ […] [c]ivilization, even as an ideal, ceased to have a unitary axis.” Degeneration and decadence inevitably followed, marked by “restlessness, dissatisfaction, resentment, the need to go further and faster, and the inability to possess one’s life in simplicity, independence, and balance” in which man was “made more and more insufficient to himself and powerless.”

So I understand it. I get the lure of traditionalism in its organic, anti-individualist, communalist aspects, even though I’m firmly rooted in modernity, a contented child of the modern world. Which is why I’m leery of postmodernism. I’m appalled by the collapse of Leftist class politics to identitarianism and populism. I hoped that the nation-state would be transcended by a stateless, classless, global human community, not disintegrate into ultraviolent tribalism. I’m an abject atheist now terrified that the world’s religions are splintering between ultra-orthodoxy and neopagan revival. And I’m horrified that, throughout all of this, capitalism will still prevail.

On the one hand, I think that “things fall apart; the center cannot hold” once the orthodoxy of a tradition is rejected. I see this in the history of the Catholic faith I rejected, and in the Marxist faith I’ve acquired that Doris Lessing has argued “could not prevent itself from dividing and subdividing, like all the other religions, into smaller and smaller chapels, sects and creeds.” On the other hand, I think that capitalism has a totalizing, globalizing impulse that is built on cycles, each of which engenders a Leftist reaction that attempts to supersede capitalism. The Left that arose out of industrial capitalism nearly succeeded in smashing that system. I don’t see the same potential arising out of the postmodern Left.

Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson

There is little scholarly disagreement that Friedrich Nietzsche is at the heart of postmodernism in centering an “incredulity toward metanarratives.” I consider the revival of this “radical conservative” and “aristocratic individualist” philosopher—much admired by Fascists—to be generally troublesome for a postmodernism that claims to be Leftist. Postmodernism becomes highly problematic when it attempts to rehabilitate philosophers like Martin Heidegger who enthusiastically if opportunistically joined the Nazi party, only to think better of his decision later. Thus far we have an intentionally fragmentary, pluralist, vaguely leftist populism. Once we reinstate overt Nazis like Carl Schmitt and recruit parafascist Traditionalists like Julius Evola, we arrive at the European Nouvelle Droite of Alain de Benoist. He championed a Traditionalist identitarian “Europe of a thousand flags” comprised of separate tribal ethnies. This is rightwing populism pure and simple.

“I believe that the emergence of postmodernism is closely related to the emergence of this new moment of late, consumer or multinational capitalism,” writes Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. “I believe also that its formal features in many ways express the deeper logic of that particular social system. I will only be able, however, to show this for one major theme: namely the disappearance of a sense of history, the way in which our entire contemporary social system has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past, has begun to live in a perpetual present and in a perpetual change that obliterates traditions of the kind which all earlier social formations have had in one way or another to preserve.”

I’m not just old, I’m crotchety. Postmodernism obliterates not just tradition, but history. I am, and we are, nothing without history.

Fred Jameson, portrait by Mark Staff Brandl

SOURCES:
Personal recollections
Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres and The Education of Henry Adams (2 volumes) by Henry Adams
Revolt Against the Modern World by Julius Evola
Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism by Fredric Jameson
Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique by Alex Callinicos
The Illusions of Postmodernism by Terry Eagleton
The Sokal Hoax ed. by editors of Lingua Franca
Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont
The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism ed. by Stuart Sim
The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism by Richard Wolin

 

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