Eras and Empires

Empire is no more! and now the lion and wolf shall cease. — William Blake, “The Song of Liberty

I was reading, just a few moments ago, an article on the decline of the American Empire posted on the CBC: “How 9/11 hastened the decline of the American Empire“. The article is a summary of an Ideas radio programme presented last evening entitled “The Sorrows of Empire“. I haven’t listened to “The Sorrows of Empire” as yet, but I can anticipate what it might relate based on the précis.

I felt I needed to quickly comment on this. It is what it is, but it’s also not what it seems.

It would be ironic indeed — even absurd to the highest degree — if it were true that a handful of men with box-cutters brought low an empire. That would be the Butterfly Effect indeed! Who knew that little things like box-cutters hid within themselves the potential to become weapons of mass destruction? It would be a real historical “David and Goliath” story if it were true.

In fact, I would suggest that even 9/11 is a diversion from the real issue, and not central to it. Isn’t it absurd that a country with 4,804 nuclear warheads has now become afraid of box-cutters?

It is less about the end of empire than it is about the end of an era, although the two things have become confused in men’s minds. What is crumbling is the historical foundations of the Modern Era itself. America — the “New World” — was simply the pre-eminent creation of this era. It was the apotheosis of the meaning of “modern”.

But in almost all respects, the symptoms of decline are shared globally. Why focus on America except that America was the exemplary “New World” not just in the geographical sense, but also the historical sense? The same problems of organisation now afflict Europe, the UK, even Asia. Has no one noticed that the crisis of Late Modernity is world-wide?

The empire that is in decline is the empire of the Modern Age itself, which is about 500 years old. America was the torch-bearer for this Era.

What is an “era” really but a specific form or structure of consciousness — a logic. That logic provides orientation in space and time as “the common sense”. A civilisation is a specific structure of consciousness, and the structure of the Modern Era’s consciousness was the mental-rational. An era enters into decline when its consciousness structure becomes deficient in some way related to its changing circumstances or historical context — what we call “reality”. We call that deficiency “delusion”. The symptoms of delusion we have already named: the proliferation of the anomalous in terms of “perverse outcome”, “unintended consequence”, “revenge effect”, or “blowback”. These are symptoms of a consciousness structure now functioning in deficient mode, and which as consequence has become self-defeating.

We should recall Nietzsche’s succinct formula for nihilism: “all higher values devalue themselves“. Is that not an equally good characterisation of the self-defeating? This is what the article highlights: ways of thinking, ways of acting, ways of responding to events that have become self-defeating.



3 responses to “Eras and Empires”

  1. LittleBigMan says :

    “The empire that is in decline is the empire of the Modern Age itself, which is about 500 years old. America was the torch-bearer for this Era.”

    Yes, not only the Modern Age is in decline but also it seems to me that we are in a period of transition when nothing (e.g. economies, communication, warfare, technology and its impact on the division and use of time and space, etc.) is the same as it was a generation ago. As you have characterized it before – if I understood it correctly – this is a period of “break down” AND “break through.” A period of decline and new beginnings.

    The ubiquity and planetary nature of communication in this period of decline and transition will ensure that the lessons learned are and will be learned by all peoples: Empire is a deficient mental model and a bloody adventure.

    • Scott Preston says :

      If I’m not mistaken “breakdown is breakthrough” was a principle of the radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing He had a different understanding of mental illness, something quite Gebserian in a way. He saw mental disintegration as prelude to a new integration, a re-arrangement of the psychic furniture, as it were, even as something under certain circumstances, essentially healthy — a recovery of self from the clutches of “the foreign installation”, as I’ve been calling it.

      So, as a psychiatric model, it bears close resemblance to Gebser’s understanding of breakdown of old consciousness structures (civilisations) as also being breakthroughs to new “mutations”.

      • LittleBigMan says :

        That’s excellent information. Thank you. I have added R.D. Laing to my list of authors to read from.

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