End Times

Even before Francis Fukuyama pronounced his “end of history”, the sociologist Daniel Bell had forecast “the end of ideology”. It’s not just street-corner preachers waylaying us pedestrians with prophecies of the end times.

But like Mr. Fukuyama, Mr. Bell probably misconstrued the meaning of the end of ideology, and in what way it, like “the end of history”, pertained to the growing impotence of reason in the breakdown of the mental-rational consciousness structure. In this case, “end of ideology” would refer to what Jacques Ellul called “the political illusion” — the impotence of reason, reflected in policy-making, to amend or alter the logical dynamics of Late Modernity, which had become quasi-autonomous.

The implications of this “end of ideology” are quite startling when appreciated in relation to “the end of history” and to David Ehrenfeld’s “The Coming Collapse of the Age of Technology“, too, as well as Heidegger’s final despairing of the emancipatory project and potential of the Age of Reason. “Only a god can save us now”, he confessed in an interview towards the end of his productive life as a thinker and a man of reason, in some ways fully exemplary of the mental-rational consciousness structure itself (or the logico-mathematical modus), which had finally come to despair of itself.

What lies “behind” it all is the growing sense of the impotence of reason to fulfill its destiny and achieve its purpose, which was well put by the Enlightenment philosophe, the Marquis de Condorcet — “the infinite perfectibility of man” based on the articulation of reason and the judicious application of rational methods in the perfection of the Cartesian cogito or res cogitans — the “thinking thing”.

If it did not exactly amount to nothing, it was definitively blunted by the events of 1914 to 1945, which marked the final disillusionment of the intelligentsia. The dramatic reversal in mood afterwards was exemplified in the proliferation of darkly dystopian visions of the present and future and mankind’s seeming impotence to evade or avoid them in the face of its inherent dynamic.

The “end of history” and “the end of ideology” is reason’s dead end. Somehow, the Age of Reason had walked into a trap in the increased narrowing of its options and increasing constraint on its freedom of action. The “end of ideology” arose in the form of “consensus”, which was really the final surrender of reason, and of the mental-rational consciousness, to fatalism and to “rationalisation”. Neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism, neo-socialism were this consensus as “end of ideology” and “end of history” both. But what lay behind this “consensus” was really the sense of the impotence of reason, expressed as lack of policy choices and political options, to change anything at all about the new status quo or to alter the inherent dynamic of Late Modernity, which had  become a juggernaut, an automaton, or a kind of golem.

“Things are in the saddle. And ride mankind”, observed Emerson. The object had come to dominate the subject, or you could say equally that the subject became purely invested in the object (projection, that is). Only, this could not be admitted. There is, as Ellul suggested in The Technological Society, only the possibility of “the one best way” as prescribed and predetermined by the system itself.

Whether that is ultimately true or not, the “consensus” and “the end of ideology” presumed it was true and final. “There is no alternative” pronounced Margaret Thatcher, and her followers have concurred in that. The “TINA principle”, as it came to be called, suggested also that democracy had come to an end, too, for what is democracy but the choice of policies? Only, this could not be admitted either. The charade of “freedom” and choice had to be maintained. But if that too were the case, reason itself would have no purpose whatsoever, for what is reason but decision, and to choose between different courses of action? If, indeed, “there is no alternative”, reason is paralysed. Reason becomes a thing without function, an activity without potency or purpose.

In fact, what’s the point of being “conscious” at all if things are truly in the saddle and ride mankind? Would “the end of history” and “the end of ideology”, pursued to their logical conclusion, also mean the end of freedom, and a new kind of disguised slavishness? Even in the form of apathy and resignation?

This is already true, to some extent. The evidence for that is the very lack of any sense of higher purpose or of a collective destiny or ideal to be realised. We don’t create the future. We wait for it to happen to us. That’s fatalism.

The emancipatory promise and potential of the Age of Reason is exhausted. The mental-rational consciousness has reached the limits of its possibilities and has now become a trap. That’s “enantiodromia“. Angst is the feeling of being trapped.

If it is true that “things are in the saddle and ride mankind” and that reason, as it has developed, is now impotent to do anything about it, then we must transcend reason — that is to say, overcome a consciousness structure which has now entered “deficient mode”, as Gebser describes it. It means reason, or the mental-rational consciousness — the logico-mathematical consciousness — must discover new sources of life and purpose from “beyond” itself.

And if, indeed, things are in the saddle and ride mankind, and the object now dominates the subject so thoroughly, so invisibly (that is, what I have been calling “the foreign installation”) then “things” and the object must become emptied of power and to be seen as empty — vanus. This is exactly the emancipatory promise of Buddhism (as it was for William Blake)– to see through the object into its essential emptiness. The “empty mirror”. “Things” have no power. They are just “the mind-forg’d manacles”. “Ulro” for Blake; “samsara” for Buddhism.

Our civilisation needs a dose of Buddhism to now free itself from its enthrallment to the object and image. This is its essential narcissism, in fact — its obsequiousness before the “thing” and the system of things. This Nietzsche also did largely by taking up Buddhism and weaving it into his philosophy. It’s not often noted how much Nietzsche’s philosophy owes to Buddhism, or why David Loy’s “Buddhist Revolution” makes perfect sense.

And that’s what Mr Slavoj Zizek failed to understand when he railed against Western Marxists turning to Buddhism. But then, Mr. Zizek still believes, nostalgically, anachronistically, and against all the evidence, in the recovery of the redemptive and salvific enterprise of the Modern Project.


5 responses to “End Times”

  1. alex jay says :

    “Even in the form of apathy and resignation?” —
    “This is already true, to some extent. The evidence for that is the very lack of any sense of higher purpose or of a collective destiny or ideal to be realised. We don’t create the future. We wait for it to happen to us. That’s fatalism.”

    I think you have summarised the recent Scottish independence failure quite well in that statement. What is lacking in all political discourse is vision.

  2. abdulmonem says :

    Faith, in an effective supreme oneness as the source of everything is the only path. The divine energy( the intelligent light), that pours the knowledge in the plaintive hearts that are seeking truthfully for sure and clear vision to address the malady of the time, away from speculations and throwing blindly, stones in the dark. God is the only path to know what is going on and bear witness on what is going on. Faith without reason is fatal. Reason without faith is blind and we, in the blindness, are masqueraded. The voice of prophecy does not say that he knows but he says let us be aware of the oneness and protect ourselves through faith and good deed. Emphatic knowledge is a divine domain and those who are graced to enter that domain. Those who are arrogant and pretentious are doomed and doom like cancer eats slowly. No wonder god loves the meeks who tread on the earth softly and parade not. I hate big talks.Simplicity is the garment of the humble.I dislike Fukuyama and the like.

  3. LittleBigMan says :

    Oh, yes…..“things are in the saddle and ride mankind.” Indeed! Emerson is so insightful. What I love about The Chrysalis is that I can take the premises of your essays and find a perfect match for them in the real world. That’s so unlike most everything else I find in the mass media (radio, the internet, etc.)

    Things are indeed in the saddle from the top down in the organization I work for. I Just watched a documentary called “Gasland” about fracking and hydraulic fracturing, and the entire documentary can be summed up in Emerson’s insightful observation.

    I think one of the less conspicuous byproducts of this obsession with “things” is that their emptiness is contagious and makes us empty too – as you have hinted in your essay. Not to mention the depression and ill health that an obsession with things may bring about.

    It’s obvious how saddled with things most people in my sphere are, but what’s pretty incredible about the people in my environment is that an unusual number of them (from all ages 19 or 20 years old all the way to those who are 50+) express how “tired” they are.

    I personally think that peoples’ obsession with things – or having been saddled by things as Emerson said – is the main reason why so many people feel exhausted and without energy. Running after an illusion of happiness must after all be very exhausting.

    • Scott Preston says :

      World weariness is a typical symptom of civilisational exhaustion and decline. And, as you noted, this sense of “tiredness” or fatigue afflicts young and old alike.

      • LittleBigMan says :

        “World weariness” is a far better term for this epidemic of fatigue. The weariness comes from the developing and increasingly evident knowledge that what was advertised and ingrained in peoples’ minds as necessary for one’s happiness has proven to be false.

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