The Radical and the Reactionary at the End of History
Needing to refamiliarise myself with the ideas of the “speech-thinker” Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, I began reading once again in his little book entitled The Origin of Speech where I came upon a lengthy passage that is suggestive for understanding our times. I am going to reproduce it at length, adding (perhaps) a brief commentary at the conclusion.
First, a little context is required. Rosenstock-Huessy sees society as potentially beset by four “diseases of communal speech”. These social or speech diseases he names war, anarchy, revolution, and decadence. That these bear a striking resemblance in some ways to the four riders of the apocalypse (or to William Blake’s four Zoas in their negative aspect) isn’t perhaps coincidental. War and anarchy are diseases of social space — outer and inner, respectively. Revolution and decadence are diseases of social time, of future and past — or forward and backward — respectively. Here and now, we experience our reality as a fourfold structure of inner and outer spaces, past and future times. Our reality is a fourfold structure of two times and two spaces. These time and space fronts of life are subject to pressure and stress that, left unaddressed, may become any one or more of the four diseases that may terminate in social death.
Our concern here is with Rosenstock-Huessy’s remarks on the diseases of society’s time axis — revolution and decadence — since the pressure of time on modern society is exactly what is leading many to speak of “post-modern” or “post-Enlightenment” or “Late Modernity” generally. Two tensions are implied here: the decadence of a past age called “the Modern Era”, and the prospective revolutionary emergence of an as yet unrecognised new age, still inarticulate, but vaguely discerned in silhouette as being “post-modern” or “Planetary Civilisation” or “Global Era”. This new era or age is not a linear or progressive continuation of the Modern, but an essential discontinuity, restructuration, or parting of the ways.
Our times (in the plural) thus demonstrate the simultaneous co-existence of both the degenerate and the revolutionary as a social struggle between permanence (continuity or business-as-usual) and change (discontinuity) which presently manifests as “culture war”, and which is a conflict between the past and the future within the present. This is the character of the “malaise of late modernity” that has not gone unnoticed. When this titanic struggle between the times becomes embodied in human actors and agencies, it takes the extreme form of a conflict between the reactionary old and the radical new.
With those remarks, let us defer to Rosenstock-Huessy’s own description of what happens when “the times are out of joint”, and why this passage has much to say about the Occupy movement and mainstream efforts to paint it in such negative and disparaging terms.
“…[A] revolution is inarticulate at first. In war both warring parties have their sets of language. Two languages which exist clash. In a revolution the revolutionary language is not yet in existence. Revolutionaries are called young for this very reason. Their language must be grown in the process of the revolution. We might even call a revolution the birth of a new language. And as such all the great revolutions of the West are treated in my books on revolution. Here we shall advance to a definition of revolution in comparison with war. In a revolution old speech is rejected by a new shout which struggles to become articulate. The revolutionaries make a terrific noise but nine tenths of their whoops will evaporate and the final language spoken by the bourgeoisie or the proletarians thirty years later will have been cleared of these shouts of the beginning. But during the revolution suffering results from this very fact that the revolution is still inarticulate. The conflict lies between an over-articulate but dead old language and an inarticulate new life. War is conflict between here and there, the languages of friend and foe, revolution [is a] conflict between old and new, between the languages of yesterday and tomorrow, with the language group of tomorrow attacking.
Two more conditions exist. The opposite of revolution is tyranny or counterrevolution. In a counterrevolution the old attack the young, and yesterday murders tomorrow; yesterday is attacking. Its technique is significant. While the young revolutionary group shouts because it is still inarticulate, any reactionary counterrevolution is so hyperarticulate as to become hypocritical. The disease of reaction is hypocrisy. Law and order are on everybody’s lips even where circumstances of a different truth prevail. Trusts and monopolies call themselves free enterprise. Unions cartellizing labor speak of freedom of contract. Decadent families speak of the family’s splendor and claims to privilege, and so on.
Since war and revolution are more readily studied among us than the two other negative situations of speech, it must be emphasized that the tyranny of the old is as real as the violence of a powerful neighbor in wartimes, or the violence of the young in times of revolution. The tyranny of old age leads to degeneracy. No children are born, no future is envisaged, small communities dwindle. No new enterprises of small size originate any more. The sources of new life dry up. The small town is till cited as the home of all the virtues. But this lipservice does not induce anybody to live in such a small town all year round. The family is idealized in sermons and editorials. But people in this same degenerating civilization may marry on a purely temporary basis and remain unencumbered by offspring. The term ‘marriage’ simply grows hollow. And so it goes with patriotism, freedom, etc.
Lipservice is the cause of tyranny. An old order is degenerate, abusing future life wherever lipservice takes the place of shouting. The equilibrium between yesterday and tomorrow consists of an interplay between articulated namedness and inarticulate unknown-ness. I who am anonymous today must and desire to be known and make a name for myself tomorrow. If society is so ‘cliche,’ so clogged that it won’t let my day arrive ever, it has degenerated. If speech is unable to be reborn sufficiently, speech is absent between old renowned life and new unknown life.
The facts of ‘lipservice’ under the tyranny of the old and of wild shouting under the tyranny of revolution show up the social diseases of decay and revolution as diseases of speech or language.” (pp. 12-14, The Origin of Speech, Argo Books, 1981)
This important passage highlights some of the main tendencies and trends of the day. It is an accurate diagnosis of the emerging situation that is leading to a polarisation of the times in terms of the reactionary and the revolutionary or radical. An old order and consciousness now felt to be a tyranny of untruthful cliches, hypocrisies, and lipservice confronts a still inarticulate new consciousness — the future — that seeks to become known, articulate and realised. It is the conflict between the Modern Era and the Planetary Era in which human beings serve as agency of contending times. The Planetary Era wants to be born as Jean Gebser’s “integral consciousness structure” or aperspectival consciousness, but it is coming up against resistance “from behind” in the form of an older point-of-view and line-of-thought perspectivist consciousness characteristic of the Modern Era, but which has become degenerate for the fact of now being perceived as cliche, hypocrisy, and lipservice in the context of the new.
The future, in other words, is already our here and now. The new reality of the Planetary Era is the real presence. As Schiller once put it, “in today already walks tomorrow.” Only the perception has not caught up with the experienced reality, which is why an older language can be seen and heard to be demonstrable cant, hypocrisy, and lipservice in the way described by Rosenstock-Huessy.
What he described many years ago, is now the pattern of events today.