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.