We must be aware of the dangers that lie in our most generous wishes. Some paradox of our nature leads us, when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them the objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion.
• Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination
And so in the late twentieth century the imperial cycle of the last century in some way replicates itself, although today there are really no big empty spaces, no expanding frontiers, no exciting new settlements to establish. We live in one global environment with a huge number of ecological, economic, social, and political pressures tearing at its only dimly perceived, basically uninterpreted and uncomprehended fabric. Anyone with even a vague consciousness of this whole is alarmed at how such remorselessly selfish and narrow interests—patriotism, chauvinism, ethnic, religious, and racial hatreds—can in fact lead to mass destructiveness. The world simply cannot afford this many more times.
♦ Edward Said, “Two Visions in Heart of Darkness“
The populist dramatics presently unfolding, spreading out, and blanketing large swaths of the earth’s restless surface are part of the fabric that Said qualified as not just “basically uninterpreted” but also “uncomprehended.” I would add that the interwoven thread counts of ecology, economy, society, and politics also exist as a fabric uninterrupted: for the accumulated fibres of our invention have seamlessly stitched up every square millimetre of real estate, solid or psychic, spatial or virtual, from point to point to point. There is nothing raw, open, uncatalogued, or uncovered in the sense that would have existed for that plucky imperialist surveyor out at the vanguard of “civilization.” The map doesn’t drop off at some point. The tapestry of record covers all continents and states of matter, but it doesn’t exist with any satisfactory kind of explanatory notes. When almost anyone can know that everywhere in the world exists in unquestionable reification, and that you can’t fire a cannon anywhere without wiping out a village, you begin to realize that we are all part of the weave, and that its constantly evolving design is simply beyond any of us to contend with definitively. And yet, just as the illusion of the frontier of human conquest has dwindled from overtly national consciousnesses of patriotic narratives (for now), capitalist minds attuned to handicap everywhere remain constantly on the look-out to press their advantage on any number of fronts. Colonization remains a presaged and imperative force, and constantly on the move into spaces not empty, not unknown, but only provisionally unexploited. It is the lack of comprehension that allows for the reemergence and reassertion of mythologies reductive enough to claim that the human fabric is patchy, in need of radical repair, and not just inequivalent but also of unequal quality, stitch to stitch.
The elements are now reversed. It is no longer the end of time and of the world which will show retrospectively that men were mad not to have been prepared for them; it is the tide of madness, its secret invasion, that shows that the world is near its final catastrophe; it is man’s insanity that invokes and makes necessary the world’s end.
♦ Michel Foucault, Madness & Civilization
Foucault perceived this turn at the dawn of the Renaissance, at the moment of transition, coming out of the Medieval into a nascent modernity. This discerned change of perspective, that the engines of apocalypse might drive from within rather than without, is a movement toward the agency of a collective human character: we are not beset by madness, we generate it, and it is threatening to undo us. What about the passage strikes as prescient is that it was written in 1965, the dead centre of a time in the West when the politically aware began to feel the human environment bristle with the will to change in the face of institutional power, and activism became an activity that defined a generation. I wonder if there was an old Medieval attitude present but obscured by student demonstration and a collective cry of outrage—that the crush of humanity was at the mercy of an agenda and a timetable decreed from on high, and that there was nothing to do but rage and plead for a more equanimous rule. The turn that runs through the collective consciousness 50 years later feels as if it has aped the inversion of the dawn of the modern. The responsibility for the end of the known world resides in our own conscience now, solidly rests on the shoulders of each individual member of a society that may have uttered a cry of outrage at a contemporary state of affairs, but complacently—and madly; in a way utterly insane—has done nothing to meaningfully affect change either in personal or mass action. We know it is crazy to do nothing, to let the elite drive the engines of decision, to make no meaningful attempt to curb individual lifestyles to slow the disintegration of global ecosystems, to allow systems of power and privilege to disenfranchise and suppress the descendants of victims of imperial conquest; we seem to know on some level that our own madness is leading to cataclysm and an outright dissolution of the known.