Do Not Mourn an Authenticity that Would Destroy You, Research Time, 20/03/2014

When I said yesterday that my research was moving into some old-fashioned territory, I was talking about Karl Mannheim territory. He’s known as the developer of the sociology of knowledge, which is one reason for me to be interested in his work. Another reason is that his 1936 book Ideology and Utopia develops these ideas in the context of totalitarian movements, so offers me a source to understand the social fields that condition the mass man. Hannah Arendt’s work examined how the political application of ideology can create a society that strips its component organisms of their individuality. 

Because of the slightly mad logistics of moving (Do you expect any posts this weekend? Because I don’t.), I haven’t managed to read much of it, but the preface by the editor of his English edition, Louis Wirth, intrigues me for two reasons. One of those is more purely philosophical, which I’ll discuss tomorrow. But the other involves a wider social phenomenon, the perception of society’s decline.

Writing in the mid-1930s in Europe, it wasn’t exactly difficult to see signs of social and ethical decay around you. What had been a continental powerhouse had plunged into an economic depression that saw millions starving, and the only way Germany had raised itself out of this downward spiral was through a massive military mobilization that was radicalizing its population to colonize and empty Europe of millions. Nazi images of the health of the German people as medical care for a single man was only the most obvious sign of their social conditioning through propaganda and fear: their politics would see the erasure of individuality.

Really, you should embrace the
decline of Western civilization as
remarkably punk rock.
But I’ve found this notion that civilization was in decline to be a common trope of all, or at least the vast majority, of times of social change. It’s often the reaction of social conservatives to the trends that would see their moralities become obsolete. The difference between the concept’s articulation over the last century and the various other times it’s come up, is that the motif of decline was embraced by the radical left. The social and political theories we call postmodernism was the community pushing social and ethical change embracing the notion that civilization was in decline. 

Here are my very tentative speculations on why this happened. It’s the result of a very schizophrenic philosophical development. I think it would actually make a very good book on the history of philosophy. Perhaps I’ll write it later, when I’m more comfortable in my career and I can write a less radical work that focusses more on the history of ideas than an attempt at conceptual progress.

The most detailed philosophies of postmodernism emerged from French philosophy that analyzed the contemporary media and political landscape of the 20th century to conclude that Western humanity* had lost the grounding in a single tradition, lost its faith in the truth. We now had many truths, and because all truth was destabilized, it was impossible to refer to any truth to ground the creation of a new truth. Knowledge was now an endless play of signifiers.

* Therefore humanity as a whole; among the philosophers of Paris in this era only Jean-Paul Sartre, Gilles Deleuze, and Félix Guattari properly understood the full implications of the end of European colonial imperialism.

The central figures who are normally associated with this notion of postmodernism as the end of any possible truth are Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Jean Beaudrillard. It doesn’t matter than their own philosophies are more complicated than this reductive statement fit only for an 800ish-word blog post. That’s how they were popularly received, the stereotype by which other traditions of philosophy refer to them.

But the really pivotal figure in this idea that the technological era was one slow slippage of authentic existence into relativism, exploitation, and meaninglessness was Martin Heidegger. For him, the process of this meaninglessness was the loss of cultural conformity to a tradition which was rooted generations-long bonding with the land of a people’s existence. 

Martin Heidegger in 1934, as Rector of the University
of Freiburg. No, he doesn't look like a Nazi at all.
When Heidegger’s philosophy was taken up in France, the key work of his influence was Being and Time, which framed this dynamic, according to the phenomenological philosophy to which he still held at the time, solely from the perspective of the individual. This is why so many on France’s radical left could pick up his ideas and develop the tradition we now call postmodernism. His other most frequently read work were his essays on the nature of technology and the concept of dwelling, which he wrote and published after the Second World War. But when I looked into his work from the 1930s, I saw this dynamic of a loss of authenticity articulated in cultural terms. The fall into meaninglessness may be experienced as an individual, but it can only be corrected as a culture, by developing total cultural uniformity of a single people in an exclusive relationship with a single land.

Some of what I’ve read about Heidegger’s Black Notebooks, which according to the instructions of his estate are coming up for publication soon, suggest wildly that they will expose him as a Nazi loon. I don’t think this will be the case. Instead, we’ll simply discover that, far from being a Nazi idiot, Heidegger was the smartest Nazi who ever lived, the only one who could build a profound philosophy from the basic premises of Nazism and the totalitarian movement. I suspect that we will discover that Heidegger developed his idea that one could only preserve individuality through the authenticity of one's culture. His drive to protect and sanctify the individual ended up becoming the ultimate rebuke to the power of human individuality, that he was (against his own wishes and dreams) the deepest and most true philosopher of the mass man.

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