Late Modernity: The Comedy & the Tragedy

If you have ever had the experience when, as is said, you “didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry”, then you are experiencing the truth of coincidentia oppositorum — the coincidence of opposites. Or, as William Blake put it in one of his Proverbs of Hell, “Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps”.

So, it was in that mood of not knowing whether to laugh or cry — simultaneously bemused and bewildered — that I read of this global poll in today’s Guardian — “77% in developed world are happy but wish life was simpler, says poll“.

I am usually quite suspicious of polls and pollsters. After a couple of frustrating experiences with such polls, I afterwards declined to respond to them. Perhaps I should be suspicious of this particular poll, too. But if it is in the leastwise accurate, it reveals such a truly massive disconnect and dissonance between consciousness and reality that I can’t help feel we might very well be a doomed species after all.

Just how far down does this rabbit hole go? Into what depths of delusion is the human mind capable of sinking and yet still manage to survive its own self-deceptions and self-contradictions? Indeed, can we even survive this in the Global Era?

I turned away from reading this poll with a sense of impending doom, and couldn’t help but sense that Heidegger was right after all when, at the end of a long and lustrous (and controversial) career of thinking and reasoning, he confessed: “only a god can save us now.”  The model man of reason and the mind who, “in the final analysis”,  despairs of the intellect and prays for the intercession of a god is deeply ironical (and which may well account for his flirtation with fascism).

There are many things about this poll that I could respond to, but I will focus on the one main shocker. The shocker lies in the poll’s general summary and conclusion,

Curiously, people are far more optimistic about the prospects for their families and local communities than they are for the world. A total of 59% expressed an upbeat outlook when asked about how their families would fare over the next year. But only 22% of people said they were optimistic about prospects for the world as a whole, a proportion that fell to 20% in the US, 15% in Britain and 6% in France.

Now, there are a great number of issues contained in this conclusion that could be drawn out. One is how it seems to reflect Carroll Quigley’s observations on the life-cycle of civilisations and the “core-periphery” dialectics (or diachrony, to be more accurate) of empire, particularly relevant in this, our waning stages of the Modern Era. I began reading Quigley’s massive “contemporary history” called Tragedy and Hope last evening and was quite surprised at how closely in agrees with some of my own recent reflections on the economic and political state of the civilisation of late modernity, or what he calls “Western Civilization”.

My sole objection to Quigley’s model and approach at this time is that his thinking is too space-bound — which is an odd objection to hurl against an historian. For Quigley the “core-periphery” dialectic is principally a geographical one, where through a process of “diffusion” (through either imperialist war, colonisation, or trade), the material goods (technologies), ideologies, and values of the “core” diffuse to areas outside the core, but in a reverse rate and inverted historical order of development than that which occurred in the core itself. Thus, for example, advanced weapons and other technologies may diffuse to the “periphery” long before the “values and ideologies” that shaped the manufacture and determined the appropriate and inappropriate use of those weapons and technologies diffused.

That is to say, by “values and ideologies” we should understand a particular “structure of consciousness” in Gebser’s terms. And in contemporary terms, that structure would be “the mental-rational consciousness”, but which Quigley is pleased to call “the scientific outlook” — or the objective attitude that Gebser identifies with “perspective” consciousness that he equates with “the modern” (point-of-view, line-of-thought consciousness).

Now, what Quigley calls “Western Civilization” I prefer to call, (more accurately I think), “the Modern Era”. The shift in emphasis, you see, is from space (geography) to time. I consider it a very grave error of modern thought to confuse “Western Civilisation” and “Modern Era” as being synonymous, for it is a confusion of space and time (history). It is hegemonic thinking. Spatial thinking is hegemonic thinking, a domineering type of thinking. So, where Quigley describes a dialectical relationship between “core” and “periphery” in terms of geography and “regions”, I see principally, instead, a diachronical one, between the past and the future, for even in his own model the rate and order of this “diffusion” is inverted — it is asynchronous — and this is an issue of time and timing, and of an asynchronous relationship between the “core” and the “periphery” (or what we call “modernist” and “traditional”).

This error is, I think, the chief reason Quigley made the error of assuming the durability, stability, strength, and resilience of “Soviet Civilization”, as he calls it, even in 1962 when he published his book, while China earns scarcely a mention (at least, to the extent I have read so far). Only a couple of decades later, the USSR collapsed, not being so resilient or stable after all, while China has risen at a near astonishing rate.

I mention this to amend a very gross error of judgement. The Marxian and nationalist revolutions of the 20th century in the “peripheries” were not essentially “anti-Western”. They were efforts by this same “periphery” to synchronise with the “core” or “Modern Era”, and this synchronisation process was called “modernisation”. One notes that contrary to Marx’s own theories and expectations, these Marxian revolutions occurred in societies that were colonies of the core or which were mired in antiquity and stagnant traditionalism — feudal societies whose weakness, exploitability, and humiliating vulnerability to imperialism was quite apparent.  At the time of the Russian Revolution, for example, the industrial proletariat amounted to only some 3 millions, while the number of serfs was numbered at 120 million. The situation was similar in China. Karl Marx versus Confucius. What was actually “diffused” in these very violent  modernising revolutions was the mental-rational structure of consciousness itself which came in the name of a very “modern” thinker, Karl Marx. In many cases, the leading revolutionaries were even educated in the West, and the bloody revolutions that made the “Modern World” — the Lutheran, the English Civil War, the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution — they compressed into a single generation.

And I’m sure if we were to number the casualties of these four European Revolutions — the revolutions of “the core” — the numbers would be comparable to the casualties of the communist and nationalist revolutions of the 20th century. They just happened over a longer period of time.

The reason I mention this is because it helps explain some of the results of this poll if we cease to think of “Western Civilization” (geography or space) and “Modern Era” (history or time) as being synonymous, and it helps to understand the life-cycle of civilisations if we understand that the “core” and the “periphery” age at different rates, so that while the “core” may indeed be disintegrating and entering its senility and its “Age of Decay” (as Quigley calls it) — it’s decadence — the periphery is still appropriating and assimilating its products, values, and consciousness structure as novelties, innovations, its “revolutions” in this or that aspect of social life. This process of transfer is what is termed “dehiscence” — a term from botany. “Diffusion” may also be dehiscence.

So, we also see this in the results of this global poll. The “core” has become pessimistic about modernity and the process called “globalisation”, while the “periphery” — those regions formerly outside the modern epoch and its mood — are very optimistic about globalisation and modernisation. In other words, morale is higher in the periphery — in the so-called “emerging economies” — than in the core, in the birthplace of the Modern Era which just happens to coincide with what is called “the West,” where “modernity” has already clearly reached its sell-by date and passed its shelf-life.

This discrepancy in outlook is going to make concerted action to address real existential threats almost impossible. And that discrepancy or dissonance — we can call it delusion — is what is reflected in the “curious” contradiction mentioned in the summary. Some 60% are pessimistic about the fate of the earth, yet are contented and optimistic about the prospects for themselves and their families!

What the devil….?!

Assuming these poll results are accurate, and actually reflect global opinion, the absurdity of it all is overwhelming. The Earth may be going to hell, but I and mine will do OK. That’s the conclusion. I and mine are magically insulated and immunised against, and isolated from, the crises besetting others and the rest of the planet. I and mine are surrounded and protected by a magical pentagramme that defends against evil spirits. Others may suffer the ill-effects, the blowback, the perverse outcomes and revenge effects of modernisation cum globalisation,  but I and mine will progress and do just fine.

This kind of delusion is unfathomable. It really is egoism become totally irrational. And it leads to the conclusion that only a shared global catastrophe is going to shake it loose. This momentary “happiness” and “contentment” of the 77% is bound to be but a transient overture and preface to disaster.

And perhaps disaster is exactly what we have come to need as a stimulus and corrective? “The cure for the disease is in the disease”, says Rumi. Something that will definitively and decisively dislodge our minds from the illusionment that the fortunes and prospects of I and mine are separate from the fate of others and of the earth as a whole?

But I will say this: there is something in us called “Life” or “innocence” that is truthful, and it is truthful to the point of pain and horror and exists “beyond good and evil”. It will not abide long the vain pretenses, conceits, and hollow deceptions and delusions of the ego-self. It asserts itself in the famous “Freudian slip” or in the embarrassing “unguarded moment” or in the “fortuitous accident” or as the “odd coincidence”. It’s name is “Truth” and it is the indweller and it does not dissemble, prevaricate or equivocate. Nor is it long denied, but that it asserts itself — even destructively and violently, from the ego’s perspective — in which case it is called “apocalyptic” or “revelation”.  It is called “ancient force” and when you gaze at your image in the mirror in the morning, it also gazes back at you, and it is older than time itself.  Gebser calls it the “archaic consciousness” and it is your ancient heritage — the “You of you”.

And it does not lie.



4 responses to “Late Modernity: The Comedy & the Tragedy”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    By the way, if anyone has an optional interpretation of these poll results (apart from “polls lie”) I would surely love to read it. Thanks.

    • alex jay says :

      I can think of several interpretations from different perspectives (eg the most pessimistic outlook from the 3 core modern democracies – U.S.A, Britain, France – as the populace giving up on their political institutions towards more localised self-reliance – i.e tribalism, therefore the vast divergence on the family outlook), but to keep it simple, I agree that the poll signifies a conflict between a past oriented consciousness and a future one. To illustrate this War of Time, I was taken by an interview with the Chinese premier (link below if interested) at the recent BRICS conference in Brazil. It is quite clear that the thrust of his answers are geared towards the future. Whereas just about everything coming from his Western counterparts (with the possible exclusion of Germany – not much of a past to shout about) is in the words of Bruce Springsteen stuck in the memory of “glory days” long gone – therefore all the nonsense of “exceptionalism” in reality based on conquest and plunder.

      Much to interpret, but fundamentally I agree the poll reflects a contrasting orientation between the past and the future – in other words time and not space.

      • Scott Preston says :

        My particular problem with the “interpretation” of these results is the seeming unfathomable self-contradiction in the responses — that, apparently, most people believe that the culminating crises of the late modern age will only effect others, but not themselves. The apparent absurdity, the apparent insanity of it, is that many seem to believe that everyone else will be impacted by this, while they themselves will remain immunised or secured against these impacts.

        Surely, no one can be THAT insane as to think their own lives and awareness are so totally separate, isolated, and insulated from a truth or reality they believe only others must face and endure, as if their own minds occupied, and their own lives occurred, in a completely separate universe from that of everyone else?

        It’s as if they were simply watching a frightening movie, from which they can get up and go home any time they please.

        (Come to think of it, that was the very thesis of Neal Gabler’s book Life the Movie, which I think I’ll have to re-read). It’s as if they were watching reality on TV.

        This is the problem I have with the poll results. Although this “separativeness” or isolation is the key issue of Rosenstock-Huessy’s attack on Cartesianism and metaphysical dualism (the mind-body, or subject-object, Ego-It dichotomisation) it’s hard for me to believe it could have become so thoroughly “universal” or general, and in just this way of “divorce from reality”, or from any sense of being implicated or participant in it, or in sharing the same fate.

        It is insanity. It is exactly what we mean by schizoid. I’ld like to think there might be other or optional conclusions to draw from this besides that one. Surely human beings are not THAT insane(?).

  2. LittleBigMan says :

    I, too, am very distrustful of poll results. In fact, very rarely, I pay any attention to them. What has always helped me tell what’s what is just to take a careful look around me and then think about what all that may or may not mean anything.

    I have found in my experience that if people are asked whether or not they are happy, they will very likely reply that yes they are. So, it’s usually not appropriate to ask such a question from people directly. One must look for other indirect means or even indirect data when investigating this.

    For example, two days ago, there was a program on the radio that was discussing the level of debt among Americans. In that program, it said that 70 million Americans have a debt dossier at a collection agency. This is unbelievable. 70 million Americans are in default of payments of debts they have accumulated on their credit cards. Obviously, these people aren’t happy and they are constantly being harassed by collection agency agents. Now watch for another sickening news report next “Black Friday” shopping day when many of these same people set another shopping record!!!!!! 🙂

    Another metric is the level of student loan in this country – and even worse – the value the vast majority of students receive for this debt. It is known that student loan in America stands at $1.3 trillion. Worse than that is that the education American students get has become commercialized and lost its value. It’s clear that millions of American students aren’t very happy about this.

    The prices keep going up and income is either stagnating or falling behind or jobs that one once could build a life around are disappearing. That’s got to hurt, too.

    I have mentioned before that of all my colleagues who have children, only one has children who are in their 30s and are doing relatively well. My other colleagues’ children are either continuing their education unsuccessfully (are not doing great at school), or have graduated and cannot find stable employment. These people cannot be very happy with the situation either.

    I do find retirees that are genuinely happy. But that’s about it.

    According to what I’m hearing, China isn’t on the right track either.

    I knew a young (in her 20s), smart, and talented Chinese national who contacted me for letters of recommendation of all types. Meanwhile, she shared with me that after more than a year of looking for work in China, the only thing she has been able to find is part-time work!!!!! In China!!!! Although I cannot see her face, but when I read her words, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to surmise that she was shedding tears as she was writing to me.

    I have colleagues who are married to Chinese nationals and therefore they often visit China. They do not like what they see there at all. Pollution, environmental destruction, privatization of laws (i.e. laws that don’t apply to everyone equally), hard employment, etc. etc. are all unraveling the Chinese society from within.

    The bottom line is that the elite have the media in their pockets and have these outlets fabricate any kind of poll results they want. They just want to make us believe that everything is hunky dory which of course isn’t the case.

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