Tainted Left V: More History Than We Can Understand, Composing, 25/07/2016

Today’s post won’t wrap up this “Tainted Left” series. That’ll be tomorrow’s post when I string together a few semi-connected thoughts on how progressives can overcome the legacy of the worst mistakes made in the name of our values.

Today is, instead, a first go at answering that question I ended with on Friday. “So what does a theory of history that embraces contingency completely even look like?”

Today will be a very pure form of what I originally conceived the blog to do. Adam Riggio Writes is a lot of things – a simple, utilitarian home for thoughts on the internet, a cheap branding device, in its original purpose a motivator to overcome the hopeless doldrums of depression. And I’ve come up with quite a few other ways to use this space since then.

Every post is a walk through the woods with a pen and paper.
But I conceived this blog as a space to think through ideas as I was researching and writing larger projects. Writing out a rough draft – in total transparency, where anyone could see my process of developing ideas. Not even a rough draft, but a notebook. 

A public notebook. Being in public would force me to develop the notes more intensely than if they stayed in my binders and files. And, I hope, the resulting larger, more formal works would be suitably more conceptually rigorous and fine-detailed. Ideas begin as very vague suspicions, and it takes time to refine them.

One of the worst philosophers I ever met during my time working in the academy used to attack aggressively every idea someone would throw out in a conceptual conversation as if it was a final draft. A brainfart doesn’t survive if it’s attacked as if it were a fully-thought-through philosophical system. But if you give it room to grow, it can become brilliant.
• • •
Continued from last post . . . History begins as human experience. Experience as a society is constructed as an aggregate of the experiences of all the individuals that make up that society, interacting in trillions of complex connections. 

The development of a society is a massively complex web, its changes being the shifts in connections and macroscopic shapes. We remember those massive shifts – the transformations of the human world itself – as history.

But how does the macroscopic appear in daily human experience, which always occurs on an individual scale? The macroscopic – the civilizational, the structural – is real because it’s the wider context and network of our life. Our individuality would be impossible without existence at this scale. 

It's inescapably pretentious to refer to Marcel Proust in any context of
conversation, but he's a genuinely insightful theorist of memory, and
will probably be important to the concepts of Utopias. And I think I've
left the pretence train leave the station long ago.
We could no more live without our social environment than we could without the physical. We’d be adrift in an airless emptiness. 

The necessary shift in our perspective as thinkers comes in bringing ourselves from considering what it is to be civilizational to an individual human life. How can we bring our deeply local thinking to the scale of the macroscopic? 

In the experience of our daily thinking, humans engage with the past as memory. Now, memories themselves are disjointed and fragmentary, and our recollections can be just as shattered. But our identities are rooted in the coherence of our pasts. 

That coherence comes from building a narrative of our chaotic memories. We thread them together with stories. But that storytelling doesn’t reflect the fragmentary nature of our actual memories. 

All narratives of our own lives involve more creativity than fidelity – we make otherwise separate moments fit seamlessly together, place events next to each other to reveal how one may have caused the other, make theme and purpose emerge from brute fact.

It makes our histories constructed, but it doesn’t make them lies. Narrative is the common human way of making sense of the world. They are fictions without being lies. Truths with less than absolute fidelity to the source material. “Based on a true story” but still condensed to a succinct season of television.

Looking at real events on a macroscopic scale, you end up having to do a lot of the same that you did to make sense of your memories. Tracing past events, you have a lot of concurrent developments all interacting in complex ways. 

But they’re also largely disconnected from each other. Some are recorded in more detail, but others are sketchy, hazy. Mere traces in dust. You want to discover a coherence in them, so you assemble a picture, a narrative, a timeline. A set of causes and relationships, along with their shifts as those relationships affect each other. 

Life is a narrative, wrote Hannah Arendt. Well, really,
life is a whole ton of narratives and logics fitting all
their pieces together. That's history's overdetermination.
You can make more than one narrative from all these fragments, and all of them would correspond to the evidence that assembled them. You just concentrate on some details over others, think one cause more likely than another for some coincidence.

But if you stick to that raw material in the construction, all the narratives you can tell are faithful to the material of history. From the same events, you can construct many different narratives. 

This is what Louis Althusser means when he talks about history as overdetermined. You can construct a narrative from the same fragments of history according to many different logics. There is more than one logic to the construction of history, so more than one logic could connect all these events themselves. 

If there are, simultaneously, many different logics operating in the causes of human society, then some future event can be the product of many different logics. There is always more than one cause for the same event. That event could turn out to be many different things, depending on what historical logic is in material play at some decisive moment to shape the future. A single history can have many outcomes.

Now we begin to see the ground for repudiating that old accusation of progressive politics. “Your socialism led to totalitarianism, so that’s what socialism does!” Well, no, not necessarily. And ‘not necessarily’ is the best anyone will ever be able to say. . . . To be continued

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