2004/02/07

Culture, economy, politics and civilization

Last thursday I concluded my post saying: "What drives humanity over the long haul is not its economy, it is unmistakenly it's culture, it's ways of behaving, it's ways of interacting with the other species, the environment and it is evident that we are doing very poorly on that level. We have more goods than at any time in our history but the more our economies enrich, the more our cultures enpoor and in the process humanity's chances of survival are thinning fast. The coming cultural input of China could not be better timed".

I know that this conclusion is poles apart from the views and theories expressed by the recognized authorities from the left as well as from the right in Western countries. But I have the weakness to think that both sides of the Western intelligentsia are wrong, I think that both behave as pure Westerncentrics. They know that there is a world out there that is different from the Western world, another world that has another understanding of realities but that's about all. They generally know nothing about the ideas, the values and the ways of behaving inside that external world that, let's never forget it, represents 90% of the world population. Could it be that 10% of the world population has in its hands the destinity of humanity?
Never, that's pure delusion.
Our future can't be thought of as a simple projection into the future of trends observed today within the Western world.
I concede that it's not a given to build up a global vision out of this kind of Westerncentricism and to try to gain a more global picture of humanity's road. My personal approach is to diversify my sources of information, I read stuff written by people from the US, the EU and China and I compare. I also follow the advances in scientific research and I can guarantee that the knowledge that I gain from modern physics, chemistry, bilology, and so on helps to structure my thoughts by allowing me to adapt my ideas and visions in terms of my conclusions about economics, politics, art, culture and civilization.

The Western approach from the left as well as from the right, to put it bluntly, somehow follows in the footsteps of "The end of History" of Francis Fukuyama. In this model, the end game on humanity's road is a post-modermist stage of evolution that leads to the appearance of a last man that eliminates all other forms of being and behaving from the entire earth. It is not important for me here that the right glorifies such an outcome while the left rejects it. The thing that I find utterly disconcerting is that both right and left come to the same conclusion of an end-game in history, in human evolution.

"Classical modernism belongs in a 'transitional era' poised between 'two distinct worlds', those of the traditional, agricultural and peasant order, and the new machine-based industrialism, where the 'new technological machinery brings with it its own aesthetic shock, in the way it erupts without warning into the older pastoral and feudal landscape. Russia, Italy, and to some extent pre-First World War France provide the key examples.
Late modernism is an essentially US affair and is a product of the Cold War, but in all kinds of complicated ways. It is late not just in the temporal sense, post-Second World War, but also as a belated reprise at once modifying and traducing of some of the canonical features of earlier modernist thinking. On one hand, it keeps faith with the anti-modernity strain of high modernism, a last ditch stand against the depredations of capital as a market society hovers over its descent into the trammels of a fully commercialized postmodernity. On the other, it is distinguished from the heroic moment of its predecessor in its complicity with the end of a whole era of social transformations and indeed of Utopian desires and anticipations. It embodies a retreat from political alternatives to the rule of capital, through its insistence on (a version of) the autonomy of art". (1)


This version of post-modernism presenting itself as the natural extension of modernity should thus reject to the dustbin of history all other possibilities of post-industrial development. And art in this vision becomes a dull merchandise... that has to be a-utopia in order to please a customer base that has been numbed.
One can't but wonder how a healthy thinking process could lead to such a linear projection towards certainty. And how come that this certainty leads to a vision of reality with an ultimate outcome. Is this not a caricature of the foundings of Judeo-Christian thought?
Let's just register for now that it's always a black versus white, good versus bad final outcome that is given as well from the left as from the right.
But let's discover now how this kind of thinking works.

"Rejecting into the blur Kant, Freud and Marx, the modern form of capitalism induces an in-depth replanning of the spirits. Under pleasing and democratic airs, and since it is a question of selling or of buying, any moral, traditional or transcendantal consideration tends to be erased. As the ideologies which preceded it in the 20th century, neoliberalism wants to create a "new man".
(...) THIS PROGRAMMED DEATH of the subject of modernity does not seem to me foreign with the changes that one observes since a good 20 years in capitalism. Neoliberalism, to name by its name this new state of capitalism, is detaching itself from all forms of exchanges which remained by reference to an absolute guarantor or metasocial of the exchanges. To go quickly and to the essence, one could say that one needed gold like standard to guarantee the monetary exchanges, as one needed a guarantor symbolic system (Reason, for example) to allow philosophical speeches. However, one ceases referring to any transcendantal value to practice exchanges. The exchanges are not worth any more as guaranteed by a higher power (transcendantal or moral), but by the fact they put directly in report with the merchandises. In one word, commercial exchanges today desymbolise the world.
(...) Any transcendent figure which came to found the value from now on is rejected, there are only goods which are exchanged at their strict commercial value. Men today are requested to get rid of all these symbolic overload systems that guaranteed their exchanges. The symbolic value system is thus dismantled in the benefit of simple and neutral money value of the goods so that nothing any more, no other consideration (moral, traditional, transcendent...), can make obstacle with its freedom of movement. From this results a desymbolisation of the world. Men should not agree any more to transcendental value systems, they must simply yield to the play of infinite and widened circulation of goods.
(...) THIS RADICAL CHANGE in the play of exchanges involves an anthropological change. Since every symbolic guarantor system of the exchanges between men is liquidated, it is the human condition itself that changes. Our being-with-the-world cannot be the same any more since what is at stake for human life is not the search for an agreement with these transcendantal symbolic value systems playing the role of guarantors, but is related to our capacity to follow an always moving flow of goods in circulation. In one word, it is not the same subject any more who is required here and there.
(...) In the desymbolisation that we live in the present, it is not any more the critical subject proposing a deliberation in the name of the moral requirement of freedom that suits, it is neither the nevrotic subject taken in a compulsive culpability, it is a precarious subject, a-critical and psychotic, who from now on is necessary, a subject open to all commercial transcations and all kinds of identity fluctuations.
(...) Under pleasing and democratic airs, a new ideology, probably as virulent as the terrible ideologies that broke out in the West in the 20th century, is busy imposing itself. It is indeed not impossible that after the hell of Nazism and the terror of Communism a new historical catastrophe is profiling. (...) We are entering a new time: a time of total capitalism that is not interested only in the goods and their capitalization any more, is not satisfied with the social control of the bodies any more, but also aims, under cover of freedom, at an in-depth replanning of the spirits". (2)

"(...) Late-modernist ideology thus envisaged a practice of art from which -content- (Greenberg's term) was to be excised. The relevant form of content was largely narrative in kind and excising it was one way of making history disappear". (3)

I must say that this description fits well with societal evolution in the the US and the EU but for 90% of the people of this earth, this description makes no sense. Furthewrmore, even the West is not one. That this model reflects the working of the big mass of society does not mean that the game is over. The best informed citizens who are also the most active stay on the margins of such a lodel.
So, in this vision, as we have seen higher already, art productions become merchandises that have to be freed of all content. Post-modern man has to be "a precarious subject, a-critical and psychotic, a subject open to all commercial transcations and all kinds of identity fluctuations", for let's not forget that for the left "in the desymbolisation that we live in the present, it is not any more the critical subject proposing a deliberation in the name of the moral requirement of freedom that suits".
For sure one can find exemples of art productions with no content those days. In music Richard Kleiderman I guess, while in visual art John CURRIN, both fit quite well the bill. But It is one thing to name a few artists whose productions are empty of content, it is a totally different feat to conclude from those limited exemples that post-modernism should be "a practice of art from which -content- (Greenberg's term) was to be excised".

My personal view is that our human world has entered a chaotic period of disorder. But as science and the Chinese phylosophy of change are showing, out of disorder comes order.
Post-modernism for now in Western societies is a historical process of merchandization, that seems to be a fact. To continue to grow the market needed indeed an internal expansion of demand and to make such an expansion of demand possible, the market was in need of an hegemonic ideology, in a Gramscian sense (4), in order for such an expansion of demand to become acceptable in the eyes of the populations.
But this has not been the only strategy of big capital. Free trade was the other leg used to try to increase global demand and free trade has been over successfull those last 20 years in the sense that it unleached an unforecasted dynamic of geographic rebalancing of power that, I think, is leading the whole world into chaos. Pain is felt in the South as well as in the North and gigantic restructuring efforts are already under way but one should be aware of the fact that the coming future restructurings will go far, far deeper. It will mostly not be a question of political vision of how societies should evolve, it will be the the world awakening to the princip of reality, awakening to changes that have already taken place. I firmly believe indeed that changes are already taking place faster than our ideas can adapt to and the distance between the reality of changes and our capacity to perceive them is bound to continue to grow. This indicates the depth of the chaos that has been unleashed.

I believe that this expanded post-modernist shock is bound to surpass in importance the European Reanaissance in our history. Many factors lead me to think so but I'll come back on that later on. I want now to dwell on what renders this idea of a final outcome to be absolutely out of sink with what is going on around the world at the start of the 21st century.
Looking at the visual arts productions, I can't miss to see an extreme variety of productions and there are some works of extremely good quality out there that's for sure. This does not mean that the art market has already discovered those present day pearls and their creators. Art merchants and critics have still to stick their heads out the confusion that reigned master in the late 20th century. But let me be very clear. What I discern is a profusion of approaches as we never have seen in all our history.
Looking at what's going on in the scientific world I see the same variety and richness as in the visual arts. I'am particularly trilled at the discoveries made in terms of the sciences of complexity for exemple. The sciences that study the emergence and transformations of life itself. What I see is in reality a convergence of modern scientific knowledge with the ancient Chinese phylosophy of change that is bound to revolutionalize our ways of thinking, our ways of understanding ourselves and our cosmos.

"Questioned on the future of time, the Belgian Nobel Prize of chemistry Ilya Prigogine tries to introduce the idea of uncertainty into the idea of time. This idea of uncertainty will perhaps be the marking fact of 21st century. Ilya Prigogine shows that the reversible laws of Newton relate to only one weak fraction of the world in which we live. (...) Do we measure enough the revolution which these discoveries introduce into the notion of time? Here comes the end of certainties: time does not have a future, but futures. Because nature is from now on unforeseeable: it is history".(5)

The future is the result of what we'll be making out of it. I mean that our inputs are making what we will harvest in the future. But what will be our inputs? Surely not only the inputs of the western world. 10% of the world population will not indefinitedly be at the steering wheel. The remaining 90% are knocking on the doors and making more and more vociferous noises. What I want to show is that the future can't be simply a projection of what is going on today in the West. It's a lot more complex than that and it definitely involves all the world, that means all the other cultures: Indu, Chinese, arabic, ...


(1) Codeword Modernity. Christopher Prendergast. New Left Review/24. 2003/11-12
(2) A l'heure du capitalisme total. Servitude de l'homme libéré. Dany-Robert DUFOUR. Le Monde Diplomatique. Octobre 2003.
(3) Codeword Modernity. Christopher Prendergast. New Left Review/24. 2003/11-12
(4) Gramscian: from Gramsci, the Italian marxist thinker from pre 20th century 2nd world war who coined the concept of hegemony. He was saying that taking the political power would ultimately only succeed if this power was founded upon a culture shared almost unanimously by the population and thus he thought that cultural hegemony was to be built before taking the political power.
(5) Jalons pour une ethique du futur. L'avenir du temps. Le Monde Diplomatique. Jerome BINDE. 03/ 2002

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