Canada is not immune to some of the uglier manifestations of the post-Enlightenment. As former readers of The Dark Age Blog know, I’ve never expressed an especial preference for one political ideology over another except as necessary to restore a socio-political equilibrium, being content to describe myself simply as a “counter-reactionary”. (In fact, passionately counter-reactionary). As a proponent of “integral politics” — ( that is to say, one who recognises some degree of use-value in all the formal political tools evolved through history, so painfully developed over the course of the Modern Era, for creating the Good Society, whether these tools be called liberal, conservative, socialist, or environmentalist) I have avoided hobbling myself by indulging in any strict adherence to a mere angular and narrow-minded nook-and-corner perspective that so often characterises the mentality of the vulgar ideologue or (what is equivalent) the politically oriented narcissist. Consequently, people who try to figure out my “political position” — the cliched term — often become frustrated with me.
But as you also may recall from The Dark Age Blog, too, I consider the present Prime Minister of Canada, Mr. Stephen Harper, as close to being the Devil incarnate — and as much a thorough-going, self-involved narcissist — as any Prime Minister the Dominion of Canada has ever seen. Certainly he is the most reactionary, being one whose politics crosses the line of what is considered proper conduct in a democracy, and whose politics slides down the greasy pole into the cesspool of crypto-fascism.
He is also one of the most unpopular Canadian Prime Ministers of all time. In these times, however, that makes no difference. In these times, in Canada, a politician and his party can be assured of victory at the polls if it gains scarcely greater than 30% of the vote. This is a scandal. But the electorate is so fractured between the socialists, the liberals, the greens, the Quebec nationalists, and the (very much mis-named) “conservatives” that 30% of the vote now constitutes a plurality (though not a majority) sufficient to elevate even the likes of an Adolf Hitler to power (in 1932, the Nazis won over 37% of the popular vote, effectively consolidating their hold in that fractured nation over the liberal Weimar Republic, which they subsequently dissolved and replaced with a fascist dictatorship).
In other words, the German reactionaries came to power initially by largely constitutional means (along with a little violence and intimidation), and thereafter used quasi-constitutional instruments to subvert and destroy the constitutional state, establishing a dictatorship. Democracy, with its considerable shortcomings, is very fragile, and seizing control of state power in order to shape society to one’s preference is often far too tempting for the ambitious — and the weak. If you are more committed to your own political “perspective” than to the democracy (which means diversity) as a whole, then you are a political reactionary.
Now, describing the Harper Junta (the PMO or Prime Minister’s Office) as being cryto-fascist may seem like exaggeration on my part. But when even many self-declared conservatives have become alarmed by the direction in which a so-called (and mis-named) “Tory” government is moving, then it is necessary to conclude that “Canada’s new government” (as the present Conservative government likes to style itself) has crossed the boundary of what is considered acceptable conduct even to traditional conservatives. And the only boundary this might be, one that even traditional conservatives fear to cross, is into the wasteland of right-wing reactionary politics — the twilight zone called “fascism”.
I will point out, also, that even Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s chief appointed propagandist, could refer to the Nazi dictatorship and the politics of the pure ethnic state (der Volksstaat) as being “authentic democracy” (as opposed to “liberal democracy”) and that this was believed by many gullible and naive people as being the case.
There is a close relationship between the words “demos” and “demon”. (Plurality, thy name is Legion). And it was that relation that moved Nietzsche, after much reflection, to characterise democracy as “herd mentality”. And herd mentality is just what seems to be in vogue, at present, in much of current Canadian politics.
However, I will let you be the judge of whether the acts of the present Canadian government constitute the politics of the reactionary through the following links (even though this may be of more interest to Canadians than the majority of readers of The Chrysalis.)
Kelly McParland of even the conservative National Post: “Tory bodies are piling up” (the only parallel McParland doesn’t invoke here is the Nazi “Night of the Long Knives”, which purged the more naive “moderate” conservatives and socialists from the Nazi fold. But the continuing purge of even moderate conservatives and conservative appointees and progressives from the new Conservative Party of Canada by Stephen Harper means that this party has already crossed a line). The National Post, August 19, 2010.
Linda McQuaig: “Harper’s Foxy luncheon“. The Toronto Star, August 24 highlights the conspiratorial and secretive nature of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and Harper’s reactionary politics.
Lawrence Martin: “Is Stephen Harper set to move against the CRTC?” The Globe and Mail, August 19, 2010. The PMO’s genteel version of subversion, or “coup from above” as it is sometimes called. This hasn’t disturbed (as it should have) many of the True Believers in the True (reactionary) Faith one bit.
Chantal Hébert: “Public servants find their voice; Harper MPs and Senators silent“. The toadyism and cowardice of the conservative MPs and the meekness of the Harper appointed conservative Senators (basically Harper’s window dressing). From The Toronto Star, August 20, 2010.
Neo-conservatism failed in the United States with the George Bush administration. But it seems some naive fools (Harper amongst them) believe — even more improbably — that it can succeed in Canada where it was a manifest and embarrassing failure elsewhere.
But, as I remarked in the earlier Dark Age Blog, Canada is almost always — invariably — 10 years behind everyone else in the world. There’s a word for that lag — “retarded”.
You may recall from the former Dark Age Blog, that I traced the historical decay of the Enlightenment principle of Universal Reason into its presently completely objectified and quantified mode as the World Machine of the Global Economy. This is the exhausted form of Universal Reason which had formerly been considered as practically identical with the Mind of God — God being conceived by the Deists as The Great Architect, First Cause, and Grand Systems Engineer of the Great Cosmos in the form of the cosmic clockwork mechanism now actualised as “World Economy”. It also justified the proud (but ultimately faulty) definition of Man as “the rational animal” created in the image of Universal Reason (a.k.a. God).
In some ways, there was not much really new in this conception, since Norse myth (amongst others, including Buddhism) already conceived of the cosmos as a “Mill o’ the Gods”, or as the Great Wheel of Time and Space. We also find the cosmos imagined as a great machine and Juggernaut (the Hindu Jagganatha or “Lord of the Universe”) crushing everything beneath its giant wheel in some of the poetry of Omar Khayyam. It is also still the preferred image and interpretation of Albert Einstein who, as mentioned in the last post, confronted the paradoxes and ambiguities of Quantum Mechanics and probability theory with the objection that “God does not play dice with the world”.
As so much else, the secular principle of “universality” has its source in monotheism. It’s impossible to think of Universal Reason without that earlier foundation. This is why Nietzsche’s declaration of the “death of God” comes at the expense, also, of the secular principle of universality and attends his forecast for “two centuries of nihilism”. This was very prescient of Nietzsche, who (rightly or wrongly) many consider to be the first post-modernist. There is a certain irony in the fact that much of neo-conservative ideology claims (or pretends) to be influenced by Nietzsche. So did the fascists, of course, until Nietzsche’s patent detestation of racists and anti-semites became something of an embarrassing contradiction for fascism along with its radically perverse misunderstanding of Nietzsche’s “overman”. Nietzsche already knew that the incipient disintegration of the Modern Era and its table of values was afoot. “Incipit tragoedia“, he poignantly wrote. “The tragedy begins”. And much of what Nietzsche wrote was an attempt — an experiment — to formulate a viable successor to the disintegrating Age and to serve as practical guidance for those about to descend into the deep, dark woods of his two centuries of nihilism. “What does not kill me makes me stronger” was Nietzsche’s principle of faith — in fact, a new formulation of the significance of “faith” as a real power that guides us into an unknown future and as a principle of immunity against despair at the surrounding gloom.
It is this same conviction that the Modern Era was disintegrating which informs William Butler Yeats’ great and disturbing poem The Second Coming, penned just after the Great War of 1914-1918 (subsequently rebaptised as The World War). “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”. What is that “centre” if not God conceived as Universal Reason, symbolised also in the poem as the Falconer?
(Former readers of The Dark Age Blog will forgive me for redundancy here, as it becomes necessary to revisit a few themes from TDAB for new readers to The Chrysalis).
The decay of Universal Reason into the reductionism of mere instrumentalising rationality (sometimes called “techno-science”) and its quantification as the World Machine of Global Economy parallels the debasement of the meaning of “universality” into signifying little more than universal homogeneity and uniformity, attended also by the confusion of the meanings of “integration” and “assimilation” (they don’t mean the same thing). The Global Economy is a deadening and fatal caricature of Universal Reason which now rather resembles Allan Ginsberg’s Moloch depicted in his famous poem Howl. And as the principle of Universal Reason has declined so has the power of propaganda increased correspondingly. Equally has the pursuit of entertainment eclipsed the goal of enlightenment. All these factors signify that the Modern Age is exhausted of all further possibility, and that its core values have decayed beyond recovery or repair.
This is a “withering from within”, as the Christian social philosopher Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy put it, and as he described it (much like Ginsberg’s Moloch) in his book The Christian Future, or the modern mind outrun, published in 1946:
“The future of our economic order and the future of Christians are in conflict. This conflict seems to be decided at the outset in favour of the economic order. For the great languages of Church as well as State, of the Bible as well as of the Constitution, are losing their power in a daily process of advertising, commercialization, mechanization. People become indifferent to the hullabaloo of all verbiage…. A powerful hand has lifted up the particles of the human race and now puts them down again under a new horizon of existence. We see this horizon as dimly as the eastern sky one hour before sunrise; yet it determines already the lives and livelihood of all of us despite our nation or denomination. Granted that twelve generations or so lived happily within “Church” and “State” (the very word “State” is not older than 1500) and got their orientation from these two sources of light; this no longer is true.
We are unemployed, impoverished, inflated, killed, moved around, in nations great and small, in Churches free and orthodox, because of a new ‘within’. Against this new ‘within’, the millions find little protection, either within their nation or within their Church. Global economic cooperation is the new ‘within.’ Neither the New Deal nor the GOP nor Hitler nor Stalin can guarantee prosperity because the globe is not governed by any one statesman. The Great Society, this speechless giant of the future, does not speak English (neither does it speak Russian). And it is this Great Society which claims all of us who have to make a living, as her material, her victims, her assets or liabilities in terms of capital and labor.
The two world wars were the form of world revolution in which this new future reached into everybody’s life; the nationalist and communist ideologies with their dreams of revolution were checkmated and are mere foam around the real transformation. The real transformation was made by the wars and it make the Great Society final. She is the heiress of State and Church.” (pp. 4 – 5).
More specifically, we might add, it is the Corporate form that is now the specific institutional heiress of State and Church, whose functions it now also assimilates and appropriates to itself (just as it has assimilated and appropriated virtually all scientific activity) under the guise of deregulation, privatisation, and of “private-public partnerships”, which are, in effect, a usurpation and co-optation. Needless to say, “economism” is the prevailing ideology and the new common sense of this “new within”.
In fact, it is this “common sense” that now displaces Universal Reason from the centre, just as Entertainment eclipses Enlightenment. Yet somehow, we need to liberate the value of reasonableness from beneath the dead hand of this new “common sense” and of a reductionist instrumentalising rationality that enslaves rather than liberates. At the same time, we need to promote the meaning of universality to a higher and more immediate experience of shared existence and life, which Nietzsche attempted to do by making the Earth itself this universal centre in human experience. “Be true to the earth”, he pleaded. It’s good advice, but seems to fall slightly short as a value for promoting a sense of shared existence. It is a consciousness of the shared mortality of all living things, including our Earth, that acts to arouse empathy and compassion as the direct experience of a universal adequate for our emerging Planetary Era.
But this development may well be forced upon our plastic conscience by future events if we do not now take steps to develop it within ourselves willingly and voluntarily. And nothing interferes with the realisation of universal compassion than the great problem of our day — human narcissism, also in large part only the decayed remnant and standing ruin of the Cartesian cogito.
As recorded earlier, an essential (and potentially dangerous) element of the Post-Enlightenment is the end of universality as a core value defining of the Modern Age. This is particularly true of post-modernism, with its rejection of anything called “Truth” in the universal sense. There are only perspectives.
But as you may already know from the former Dark Age Blog, I prefer to render this by saying that truth is and remains singular and one, while what we call “facts” — as representations or images of the one truth we ultimately aspire to (even if we prefer to call it “Integral Theory” or “Theory of Everything”) — are indeed plural and many, for all facts are man-made (it is the very meaning of the word “fact”) while truth is not man-made. It is revealed because it is the essence of the real and not as image of the real. As we noted earlier: there is especially a great deal of difference between “the truth that sets free” and “the facts of the matter” (and so also between consciousness and ideology) and this difference is what really marks the relation between spirit and reason, (or soul and mind, if you prefer), and between the True Self and the False Self. And the reason many of us seek after the truth (if we do, that is) is because, in our heart of hearts, we truly want to be free in more than the superficial and even perverse way people presently understand “freedom”.
But a more immediate and current example of our Post-Enlightenment decadence, as revealed in the disintegration of Universal Reason and modernity’s principle value of universality generally, is the present mass explusion of the Roma (Gypsies) of France.
Now, you will seldom find me citing a columnist from, of all things, the neo-conservative Weekly Standard, but this article by Christopher Caldwell appearing in The Financial Times touches on the issue closely (albeit without much depth of insight), where he writes:
“France needs a pretext to crack down because its immigration policy is marked by an unwillingness to assert national interest. European governments squeamishly claim to be acting in the name of universal principle, or even in the interests of immigrants themselves. The French government describes its expulsions of Roma as an “action humanitaire”, while its Europe secretary, Pierre Lellouche, calls them a blow against “human trafficking”. ” (“Roma reveal a rootless Europe”, Financial Times, August 27, 2010).
(You can ignore the comments at the end of the article. It’s the Age of the Idiot and they are rather typical).
Pragmatics trumps principle, in other words, (which is fine for Mr. Caldwell, it seems, with his elliptical and obscure reference to “national interest”). Since the First World War, not only has confidence in the guidance of Universal Reason fallen into question and disrepute, but in consequence so has the principle of universality come under considerable stress, if not outright contempt and assault. That is to say, it is the same principle that found proud and confident expression in the American Constitution:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
But, oddly enough, it is the Pope who now defends the authentic spirit of universality, as Caldwell also notes in the same article:
“Last weekend, the Pope, speaking in French, urged politicians to “accept legitimate kinds of human diversity”. Clearly he was addressing the French situation, and he had the right conception of the problem, which is that there is a clash between the diversity of individuals (a principle that the modern liberal state upholds in an almost absolutist way), and the diversity of communities (a principle it holds in utter contempt).”
Now, this is sly and devious obfuscation of the kind I’ve come to expect from neo-cons, for it is precisely a conservative government in France, not a so-called “liberal” one, that now expresses “utter contempt” for this “diversity of communities” by executing what is, in effect, an almost fascistic kind of collective punishment against an ethnic community without any “proper” regard for individual diversity, difference, or the principle of universality. This is France’s own more or less genteel version of a “Final Solution” to the Gypsy problem. Once again, in other words, as in the fascist period, the principle of universality is stressed to the breaking point. This is the deeper significance of what is transpiring in this particular instance, (especially significant because France was home to the European Enlightenment). But it is certainly not the only instance today where the value of universality shows signs of disintegrating into a new kind of tribalism and ethnic narcissism that Mr. Caldwell is pleased to call “national interest” — the typical excuse of the reactionary.
Something similar is happening presently in Canada with the recent arrival of a shipload of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka on the Canadian West Coast. It has aroused the indignation of the ultra conservatives and other reactionaries. The one difference — a remaining concession to the value of universality and generosity of spirit — is that each Tamil is (reportedly) being interviewed to determine their bona fides, as appears not to be the case in France.
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Emma Lazarus, 1883
Wonderful poem. Very expressive of the “New World” Era now passing away. Now our world — called “Global Economy” — is very much like “the brazen giant… with conquering limbs astride from land to land”.
Next post… how “Universal Reason” became quantified and degraded as “World Machine” of the Global Economy, and the value of universality became debased as signifying homogeneity and uniformity. Remember Nietzsche’s formula for nihilism: “all higher values devalue themselves”. We will see this process in action. And it is precisely so-called “neo-conservatives” today who are the biggest post-modern nihilists of all — the spitting image of that against which they hypocritically rage. And against Mr. Caldwell’s principle of “national interest” (which is segregative and exclusionary neo-tribalism), we must recover the authentic and true value and fuller meaning of universality, and transform it into its higher expression and meaning, the seed germ of which already lay slumbering and dormant in the significance of “universal” from the beginning.
In this public announcement, we have chosen to analyse the « Greek case », on the one hand because it seems indicative of what 2010 has in store for us, and on the other because it is a perfect illustration of the way in which news and information on the world crisis is moving towards « make-believe news » between blocs and interests which are increasingly in conflict. Clearly it is a « must » to learn how to decipher worldwide news and information in the months and years to come which will be a growing means of manipulatory activity. (GlobalEurope Anticipation Bulletin, N°42, February 16, 2010)
That is the passage from the Leap/E2020 report on the global systemic crisis that I really wanted to highlight in making the link to the article earlier. The increasing reliance on, and resort to, perception management practices (otherwise called “propaganda” or deception management) is only one of the most revealing characteristics of the Post-Enlightenment. An additional aspect of the Post-Enlightenment (or, decadence of the Age of Reason or Universal Reason, otherwise now called “post-modernity”) is the sense of the world as being something absurd, and not reasonable or rational at all.
Of these, the triumph of the Absurd is of a profounder character than the employment of narrow instrumentalist rationality to undermine the principle of universal reason, which is that “manipulatory activity” of perception management to which the authors of the article refer. Recently, I was reading a book by the great quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg called Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science. On page 42 of the book, in which Heisenberg records the early years of Quantum Theory, I was struck by a passage that is profoundly meaningful:
“I remember discussions with Bohr [Niels Bohr] which went through many hours till very late at night and ended almost in despair; and when at the end of the discussion I went alone for a walk in the neighboring park I repeated to myself again and again the question: Can nature possibly be as absurd as it seemed to us in these atomic experiments?”
This growing sense of nature and the cosmos as being “absurd” strikes at the core principle of the Modern Era: Universal Reason (and the principle of universality generally). Nietzsche, earlier, was already alert to the trend in the logic of events departing from universality and towards the triumph of the absurd. The resistance of many earlier physicists to Quantum Mechanics and its implications (including the resistance of the great Einstein) arose from a continuing and conservative commitment to the core principle of the Modern Era — Universal Reason — the conviction that nature and the cosmos were ultimately rational and very much like a clockwork mechanism, and that the human mind should faithfully reflect this universal orderliness. In Einstein’s case, this conviction was expressed in his succinct objection to Quantum Theory: “The Lord God does not play dice with the world”. And, in that sense, Einstein was very much one of the last great Newtonian scientists. Heisenberg’s “revolution in modern science” in this sense of nature’s essential “absurdity” is basically a negation of the principle of Universal Reason as being sufficient and complete in itself.
Now, this trend in science (and philosophy) is paralleled in popular culture, especially after the First World War. Quite evidently, it has nothing to do directly with developments in science and physics. The triumph of the absurd over universal reason has a different root source than in the realm of ideas. The word “absurd” is ancient and comes from the Babylonian word “absu” or “apsu”, which forms the meaning of our word “abyss” (and “abysmal”, which is the feeling Heisenberg describes as his “despair” above). The Greek word for abyss is “chaos” — the Great Nothingness. Chaos only means “disorder” in that sense. There is no order because there is nothing to order. Chaos has the same meaning as the formless and infinite and irrational (without limits or boundaries, ends or beginnings, and therefore without definition). The present mood of nihilism in late modern life and society is the irruption of the Absurd. It is the self-negation (which you may also call “suicide”) of the Modern Era. The trend is not being led by human beings. We are only its responders or respondees, more or less adequate to the challenge it presents to our society’s (indeed, our planet’s) continued existence. The irruption of the absurd not only has the same meaning as “nihilism”, but also of “apocalyptic,” in the sense of an unveiling or disclosure.
We come, in some sense, full circle here. Chaos and the Absurd have much the same significance as Aristotle’s description of Man as initially tabula rasa — blank slate. Given Nietzsche’s succinct formula for nihilism — “all higher values devalue themselves” — we have essentially the same description. We become again like an empty canvas. But any true artist knows what to do with an empty canvas. It’s an invitation to create. And here is where, today, all propaganda and perception management justify themselves.
In another sense, we return to the chrysalid stage — the stage of transformation which we are apt to call, in our terms, “revolution”, so Heisenberg’s description of a “revolution in modern science” isn’t just pro forma or cliche.
But… more about this in the next post on the end of universality and how we can guide events more creatively than we are at present, in which we are in great peril of annihilating ourselves and the Earth.
I should have mentioned previously that I am frequently on the road these days. I am doing crop inspection and consultation prior to the beginning of the harvest. I have been away for the last four days following the Endless Highway. If you ever have the chance to drive Saskatchewan highways, you’ll understand the meaning of the Endless Highway. The road goes on forever.
I could also have said (just to wax mythical here) that the experience felt much like being a latter day Ulysses sailing through the Ocean of Insanity. The prairie city where my partner and I established our base of operations, called Swift Current (or “Speedy Creek” by some wits), touts itself as the city “where life makes sense”. Very metaphysical. And all very true if you find trees to be confusing and senseless. There’s nary a tree to be seen anywhere. Despite that, the Big Empty has a certain beauty of its own. (Hunters especially love it, it seems, because the deer and antelope have no refuge and no place to hide).
I didn’t discover much evidence there otherwise to justify the town’s boast for itself as being an Oasis of Enlightenment and Reason amidst a surrounding global Sea of Insanity and Senselessness. I happened to watch even a bit of television in my hotel room and couldn’t believe what I was seeing (for as some of you know, I’ve never owned a television). The town was even worse, in some ways, than some other places that make no ridiculous and obscure boast about being sensible. Speedy Creek (a.k.a. Swift Current) is the confluence for four main influences and seasonal influxes — hunters, “rig pigs” (oil men), cowboys, and farmers. In other words, lots of transient and temporary types flow through Speedy Creek. Sometimes dinosaur hunters, too. As a result, it is vexed with a mass outbreak of motels, hotels, and even a casino. Welcome to the boom town. Moreover, the province’s current premier, Brad Wall, comes from Speedy Creek and I consider him senseless.
I hope you had the opportunity to connect to the links I provided in an earlier post to the Leap/E2020 website (GlobalEurope Anticipation Bulletin, to which I’ve posted a permanent link on the right sidebar), as well as the London Times article on Goldman Sachs entitled “Doing God’s Work”. These short articles speak volumes about the end of the Modern Era and the global systemic crisis presently in formation. Perhaps then, after reading the articles posted there, you might have a sense about what I mean about sailing through a Sea of Insanity and an Ocean of Obliviousness like a latter day Ulysses.
And, no, Speedy Creek is not “where life makes sense” either.
Are you confused by the term “post-modern” or “post-modernity”? I don’t blame you. I have read a good deal of baffle-gab that makes excuses for its absurdities, its defects, and its excesses because it really wants to be considered avant-garde and fashionably “post-modern”. The problem with such material is that the author never really understood the meaning of “modern” to begin with. Therefore, with such an unstable footing, how could these post-modern authorities truly understand what it means to be post-modern at all?
Let’s correct this deficiency by putting a few historical facts in focus.
It would be far more revealing of our post-modern condition if by the term “post-modern” we understand “post-Enlightenment”. The term “modern”, in its contemporary usage, has no precise form and no clear definition. It’s sloppy. It’s foggy. It has about as much semantic clarity as the word “democracy”. When even Nazis like Josef Goebbels could promote fascism as being “authentic democracy”, and deceive many otherwise intelligent people about this in his time, something is wrong with the form and content of modern thought. No thanks to our commercialised culture, a man or woman today believes they are being “modern” if they buy the most up-to-date washing machine, computer, or automobile, even if they live (obliviously) under a dictatorship (but nevertheless call it “our democracy”).
On the other hand, the European Enlightenment, which represents the concrete self-consciousness of what it means to be “modern”, was specific and somewhat definite in its self-understanding of what it meant to be “modern”. The Enlightenment Era is also called “Age of Reason” to distinguish it from The Age of Faith (the Holy Roman Empire and the hegemony of the Catholic Pope). The meaning of the word “modern” is intimately connected with that self-understanding. Consequently, the term “post-modern” and the term “post-Enlightenment” have the same meaning, signifying the end of the Age of Reason — also of the end of the ideal of “Universal Reason” and (more disturbingly and by extension) of the principle of universality generally with all the social, cultural, and political implications of that. Therefore, if you want to understand the meaning of our post-modern condition, you must necessarily understand what were the central concerns, interests, and projects of the Enlightenment philosophes (also called The Encyclopediasts) whose foundational values and interests (many of which were formalised politically in the American constitution and in Tom Paine’s Rights of Man and his Common Sense) are now being actively negated and emptied of meaning, especially since the conclusion of the First World War. (We will address the odd and uncanny discrepancy between the ideals of “Universal Reason” and that of “Common Sense” in later posts). The post-modern condition means the negation of all Enlightenment values and ideals, and most especially of its central principle of universality (inevitably, therefore, of the principle of equality). This negation is what is today understood as value nihilism and even as “The Revolution of Nihilism”. This value destruction is recognised as being at the heart of the post-modern condition. It is the destructive negation of all Enlightenment virtues and values, which began with the First World War, but which have served as the guiding stars for much of the social, political, and cultural life of the Modern Era.
I will have more to say about the malicious destruction of the principle of universality by über-conservative reactionaries in later posts, as this has become characteristic of post-modernity. Here, though, we want to explore the meaning of the term “modern” as a value in its own right, and why the recognition that we are now “post-modern” represents a fundamental insight into our current negation of the meaning of “modern” as a value, (for “modern” is often used interchangeably with “liberal”). Upon inquiry, we will find that the root meaning of the word “modern” is found in the Latin word “modus“, meaning “measure”. The word “modus”, in turn, also informs the meanings of significant word-values like “moderate” and “moderation”, “modest” and “modesty”, “model”, “mode” (method or means), “modify”, “module” and “modulate”.
The negation of these values is formed by the prefix “im-” (or ‘”in-” or “un-“) as, in English usage, “immoderate” and “immodest”, or generally “unmeasured” or excess. All the meanings of modus have the same significance as the meanings of the words “ratio” (which informs the word “rationality”), or as proportion and proportionality (as measured response), as against the irrational (the absurd) and the disproportionate (the extreme or excessive) — therefore the unbalanced. We all know that “unbalanced” often means “insane”, irrational, mad, or crazy. In other words, “modus“, as measure, does not have as its primary significance the meaning of quantity or quantification (and therefore of the mass, which — like individual — is a term borrowed from physics). It is first and foremost a sense and quality of rhythm, measuredness, balance, proportionality, and not the meaning of numbers soaring into the stratosphere on stock market ticker tapes or opinion polls. In essence, rationality is not primarily quantification or “logic”. It is a continuous balancing of life’s equation (equanimity in Buddhist terms) that comes with a primarily aesthetic and intuitive sense and feeling of proportionality and balance such as we find principally in art, poetry, dance, and music. It is a rhythmical-ness, in other words, that emerges from a soul sense of equanimity restored (another word for proportionality), which is the authentic — often subliminal — underpinning of reason and of rationality itself.
(We will discuss this true nature of reason as a proportionality that arises from a deep inward sense of equanimity in later posts to The Chrysalis. For the time being, it is significant to note that Nietzsche — one of the greatest philosophers of recent times — believed that thinking and true “rationality” should be experienced as rhythmical and proportional, like dance or music, and not as mere calculation contra Hobbes — a neo-conservative favourite).
The philosophes of the Enlightenment (“enlightenment” being somewhat of a misnomer, actually) did not invent their ideals from nothing. The ancient Greeks were the first to formulate what were to become the principles of what we call “modernity”. Even the name “philosopher” is taken from the Greeks, after all. And “modern”, as a moral value, has its contemporary roots in the Renaissance (ie, “re-birth”) of the classical Greek spirit. That spirit originally proscribed and eschewed what was deemed the one and only grievous sin amongst the ancient Greeks — hybris. Hybris means excess, extremity, and indulgence, also in the sense of immodesty and immoderation (the fatal sin of Narcissus being that he indulged and was self-indulgent). The Greek version of the “Golden Rule” (or the Golden Mean) proscribed all such extravagance and self-indulgence. “Nothing too much” or “Nothing in excess” is the meaning of the Apollonian Code. “Enough is enough” is the popular rendering of the more articulate and elegant Greek rule. To be modern in the classical sense is to eschew extremes and excess; is to forbid immodesty and immoderation as exceeding a limit or boundary. We are “post-modern” because we have forgotten this rule. We no longer follow the rule.
But in the post-modern era, “greed is good” to quote Gordon Gecko from the movie Wall Street. All hybris is rewarded, even if it is ultimately destructive and self-destructive. Moderation and modesty are presently penalised. Extravagance is admired. Excess becomes laudable. Irrationality (which greed is) is promoted. We now believe, actually, that we have overcome and triumphed over all limits, as the Greeks knew and understood limit. Even the limits of reason. Yet, at the same time, we are now colliding with all sorts of new limits — Planck’s Wall, Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem, or Heisenberg’s Uncertainity Principle.
In the follow-up posts: the implications of the end of Universality (or Universal Reason), and more current attempts to revalue the meaning of universality in more realistic terms.
Once upon a time, when I was a child growing up in the wild bush country of northern Canada, I would often find strange-looking, slightly elongated cotton ball-like objects hanging from the branches of bushes growing along the shore of Lac Ile-a-la-Crosse, upon whose shores we resided. If I gently squeezed one of these cotton ball-like things between my fingers, I could feel something squirming inside. When I unwrapped one, inside was an ugly-looking worm-like creature. Later I would learn that the name for the soft, cottonball-like thing was “cocoon”, and that the ugly-looking, worm-like creature inside was called a “larva” or “pupa”. I also learned that it wasn’t a fruit of the plant either. It was a transient stage before the ugly-looking, worm-like creature would later emerge — almost miraculously — as a beautiful butterfly or moth.
In due time I also learned the beautiful classical Greek name for this stage — chrysalis or chrysalid. It is related to the Greek word for gold — chrysos. But chrysalid has also come to signify, more broadly and metaphorically (according to my dictionary) , “anything in an undeveloped or transitory stage”. The cocoon (a word derived from French for “shell” or sheath) has consequently served to symbolise (ambiguously) both the coffin and the womb, a death and a life and the power of transformation. In much of the literature and film of Late Modernity, the cocoon or chrysalid symbolism has been tinged with a kind of anguish and anxiety often characteristic of eras in decline — Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, Alien, or indeed John Wyndham’s 1955 novel The Chrysalids, for example. This is in keeping with the mood of dystopian pessimism that found expression in Western arts and letters since the catastrophe of the First World War shattered all the utopian expectations, dreams, and projects for the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. To say that we find ourselves currently in (and being carried along by the current of) the “post-modern condition” is as much as to say that we live in times that can be properly designated as Post-Enlightenment, and, in those terms, nihilistic. To requote Shakespeare, “the times are out of joint”.
In the emergency of the day however is emergence. This is the true and proper meaning of the word “Apocalypse” — an irruption, emergence, or unveiling of the true and the real which is experienced as shattering because it painfully, ruthlessly, and mercilessly annihilates and breaks asunder all our precious self-important (but ultimately worthless) illusions and delusions — bullshit, in other words. If anything, Late Modernity is the post-Enlightenment Age of Bullshit and the rule of propaganda as much as it is “the culture of narcissism” described by Christopher Lasch (and increasingly also by others). But if any one word can accurately embrace the entirety of the sickness that is Late Modernity as a general diagnosis, that word, and that diagnosis, would be “narcissism”.
Former readers of the now deleted Dark Age Blog (the previous incarnation of The Chrysalis) will recall that TDAB delighted in dissecting and diagnosing the follies, delusions, and narcissism — the sickness, ugliness, and nihilism — of Modernity, Late Modernity, and Post-Modernity. Some of that dissection and diagnosis will return with The Chrysalis. But for the most part, with The Chrysalis there will be a shift in emphasis — a divergent exploration of the ambiguous and paradoxical character of these transitory times in which (so it is said) the only constant is change, and the only permanence is continuous flux. While The Dark Age Blog largely chronicled the almost daily emerging symptoms indicative of the declining vitality, the decadence, and civilisational exhaustion of the last 500 years of the period called “Modern Era” — having traced through history the Era’s first inspired ascent in Renaissance perspective art to its current expired decadence and incipient nihilism in the fuzziness of the post-modern condition (from Promethean Man to Epimethean Man, as we related) — The Chrysalis will prefer to gently squeeze the ugly worm-like thing that is Late Modernity to try and detect any signs of incipient new (and that means, inspired) life. And that means in-spirited life. As former readers of TDAB may also recall, The Dark Age Blog emphasised the cocoon and larval nature of all dark age phenomena in keeping with the old adage that “it is always darkest before the dawn”, or, equivalently, that once you hit rock bottom, the only path left to you is upwards in the manner of Dante’s Hell.
I’ve resumed the blog with the conviction that within the next few weeks some rather significant events will occur which will decisively stamp the fate of the Modern Age once and for all. One of these events will be the resumption of last year’s market meltdown with the incipient end of the artificial multi-trillion dollar “stimulus” (bail-out) package so generously provided (by us) to the “masters of the universe” occupying the “commanding heights” (it wasn’t just George W. Bush who believed he had the complete confidence and personal sponsorship and endorsement of God). “Bail-out” is also a most appropriate word which suggests that the ship is taking on water and is now threatening to sink. But it all has the character of the tale of The Wizard of Oz and of the Emperor who had no clothes. Other forces are at work which will prove in the longer term to be more vital, more successful, more inspired. And that means, finally, more creative than destructive. Rather than continuously and meaninglessly bail out a rotten and leaking old boat, these emerging creative forces will prefer (quite sanely) to build a new boat from sounder, healthier, and less corrupted timbers. Being more creative (and that should not be confused with the current meanings of “productive” or “innovative”, which have acquired degraded and debased and merely economistic meanings) these new forces will eventually prevail, since they now answer to the needful and necessary requirements of our disturbed and turbulent times.
If the Modern Era’s name is now associated, destructively, with The Sixth Extinction Event and with the general degradation of the Earth and its biosphere, then the newly emerging creative forces likely represent, instead, a Seventh Generation Event. It will be my job here to name them and identify them. Today, it is the Earth as a whole which is our cocoon and in the chrysalid stage.
Welcome to The Chrysalis.