This reciprocal determination operates elsewhere as well, although by other means and with other aims. It involves a double displacement, which renders a concept plausible or true by pointing to an error and, at the same time, by enforcing belief in something real through a denunciation of the false. The assumption is made that what is not held to be false must be real. Thus, for example, in the past, arguments against ‘false’ gods were used to induce belief in a true God. The process repeats itself today in contemporary historiography: by demonstrating the presence of errors, discourse must pass off as ‘real’ whatever is placed in opposition to the errors. Even though this is logically questionable, it works, and it fools people. Consequently, fiction is deported to the land of the unreal, but the discourse that is armed with the technical ‘know-how’ to discern errors is given the supplementary privilege of prepresenting something ‘real.’ Debates about the reliability of literature as opposed to history illustrate this division.✧ Michel de Certeau, “History: Science and Fiction”
The notion of ‘just now’ has been lived out indeed in a century already divided into decades with names and nicknames, ranging from the dynastic to the dynamic, from Edwardian to Roaring. Most important, an instant-by-instant difference in the actual experience of historical time lives out—and in—the rhythms of an unprecedented and accelerating pace of change in the history of material cultures. Accordingly, the imaginative experience of temporality moves beyond one of crisis time to one of time itself in crisis: a formerly natural, apparently gradual time of diurnal days and seasonal rounds has been lined ever more finely and grandly by the developing mechanisms of chronometry, which have worked in ways little and large—from the division of the globe into twenty-four equal time zones to the parsing of micro-times within a supposedly seamless instantaneity—to unsettle temporal measurement itself.
♦ Vincent Sherry, “A History of ‘Modernism'”
My wing is ready for flight,
I would like to turn back.
If I stayed everliving time,
I’d still have little luck.
—Gerhard Scholem, “Greetings from the Angelus”
There is a picture by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.
♦ Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”
[T]he four theses of modernity.
- We cannot not periodize.
- Modernity is not a concept, philosophical or otherwise, but a narrative category.
- The narrative of modernity cannot be organized around categories of subjectivity; consciousness and subjectivity are unrepresentable; only situations of modernity can be narrated.
- No ‘theory’ of modernity makes sense today unless it comes to terms with the hypothesis of a postmodern break with the modern.
♦ Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present
Foucault saw psychoanalysis as an essentially sinister moment in the exercise of power in Western history. While psychoanalysis can certainly be shown to have served a massive power strategy of normativizing subjectivity, its very effectiveness in that inglorious role could be said to depend on the accuracy of the psychic profile it has drawn. The language of psychoanalysis has both served and demystified strategies designed to control human subjects. Its invaluable function has been to provide what seems to me a transhistoric account, at least for Western culture, of psychic mechanisms assumed and exploited by strategies of power. Its analytic and classificatory approach to the mind lends itself to both a disciplinary and liberating intentionality. If psychoanalysis has designed a mental map that can guide projects of political mastery, that very same map gives us the terms of a reverse discourse (an aspect of power exercises that interested Foucault very much) that can be used to resist projects of subjection.
♦ Leo Bersani, “The Power of Evil and the Power of Love”
Psychoanalysis emerged from a taxonomic effort that assumed the quantifiable existence of a psychic norm that could be studied as a referential model. Freud surmised that the heterosexual male psyche was the ur-consciousness from which society and culture emerged. It was thus an effort contiguous with the medicalization of the human being, the human being of course being a white man engaged with the direction of his own corner of the universe, however big or small that was, and the process of cataloguing and symptomatizing the aberrants of that being (which included everyone else) was indeed part of a larger process that aimed, consciously or not, at bringing the mental arena into the realm of regulation, diagnosis, and control. This is what a good Foucauldian might see when looking at the formative structures of psychological “exploration.”
Yet a radical decentering also emerged. Psychoanalysis’ central model may have been myopic, but the continued reading and rereading of Freud that has gone on for over a hundred years now has produced a cornucopia of insight, much of which has continued to inform and provoke the assumptions tacitly made about the nature and operation of the human mind. Theories simplified and enshrined as little more than knee-jerk sitcom punchlines in contemporary culture, under closer scrutiny actually disclose a tenacious relevancy when a reader with a little imagination goes back and investigates what exactly was written about the way one individual can come to know another, and in turn come to know about him or herself. The paths Freud cleared were (and are) openly navigable for all manner of quests directed toward self-awareness—and most are quite heterogeneously applicable. The perception that psychoanalysis attempts to produce a master narrative for the race, one that can churn out adequate and reductive assessments of an individual’s nature, and then prescribe adjustments so that that individual might better assimilate to the conditions of the status quo, has more to do with a conflation of the goals of what is now psychiatry and what has become analysis than the content of Freudian methods and perspectives.
By all accounts (some of which are psychoanalytic) subjection emerges from multiple points of origin, but the essential unit of its process is a Self aware of its own limitations, and oftentimes confused. The products of the project of making sense of what it is that we are, how and why we struggle to make meaning in a vast and complex system of interrelations, can and have been used in the service of power. But that which enables our compliance to arbitrary norms can also help us distinguish how they are norms, plural, and that our fundamental commonalities contain within their enumeration unquantifiable opportunities for othering as well as coming to terms with the reality that we are also all individuals, constantly attempting to create our own mould, even as we are shaped by it, so that we might fit into this world.
As murky and undisclosed as the root motivations that drive the liberal arts can sometimes seem, there are some tacit assumptions and ambitions that do begin to take shape amongst the arena’s composite disciplines, collectively giving definition to the field of inquiry. Upon examination, “our lives, our world, and our future prosperity” are clearly central concerns that inhere at the very core of liberal arts research. By virtue of the commonalities there are to be found between the heterogeneous approaches to scholarship, analysis, and discourse that traverse the bodies of work found in the study of modern languages, history, philosophy, linguistics, et al. a clearer picture of what might be called the investigation of human enterprise, the study of the human sciences, emerges.
If we are to live in a world dependent upon the transmission of information, where not just functional literacy—the capacity to read and write an alphabet—is essential to gain access to the higher functions and institutions of our society, but also a symbolic and figurative literacy—one that allows the educated to gain some perspective about where and how the subject is situated in the larger world, and that that world has a reality that includes more than the present moment, but also a barely fathomable past and an receding horizon of contemporary cultures and concerns—then it is essential that the expressions and products of human perception and thought are studied. Our culture is the aggregate sum of its parts, past and present, and, when catalogued, the means an individual has to make sense of its existence can seem to be quite meager. A staggering amount of the information that bombards the mind of a contemporary ego relates to immediacy, to navigating and surviving the ever-shifting currents of a surging, interdependent ocean of things-which-must-be-done. What the liberal arts exist to do is to call attention, from within the moment, from the vantage of the perpetually ebbing present, to the patterns that emerge: the way that they replicate; how they imply sources; how they describe and prioritize hierarchies of concern that exist outside of the individual, and rather traverse the space between individuals, construct meaning, and define purposes.
The objects and expressions that humankind produces and has produced—from writing, to sculpture, to architecture, to visual arts, to music—all these things contain within them manifest and latent content. Just as Freud said of dreams, so is it true of all productions of the human mind. Objects that have been bequeathed to us from previous generations, due either to intention or happenstance, reverence or serendipity, these things comprise the substance of our enterprise as a self-referential species. Everything we have that has emerged from human impulse is not only record, but code. In the attempt to understand these objects and the ideas they articulate better, we are breaking a cipher that obscures every unexamined convention, every rote decision, every cultural moment of panic that threatens the cohesion of our collective project.
We are a cooperative species. This cooperative nature is more profound than our economic and national ties. What we read, how we converse, the stories that inspire us, the images that absorb us, the spaces we reside, gather, and celebrate in all contribute to how we prioritize and understand the world that we are constantly creating. Without an attempt to articulate the magnitude of what we express, and what we have been expressing from the beginning of recorded time, we have no hope of escaping dread of the future, or dissatisfaction with the past. Fear is the product of ignorance. This has been true of every region approached by human thought and then subject to resistance of comprehension. Just as we need science, mathematics, and medicine to render the world more approachable and livable, so do we need the liberal arts. Without an attempt to understand what it is that we do, what it is that we have been doing, and how it is that we mean to mean something to ourselves and others—how this project has been a driving force behind living a life worth living since a human being articulated “why?”—we are destined to live on the cusp of an ignorant panic, confounded by the symbols and structures of our own history. The liberal arts are what keep our lives and our world integrated with who we have been, and, increasingly, with who we are today as they study what transmits meaning, on an individual to global scale. The prospect of prosperity is dismal without meaning. Such a way of living can only promote an appalling transience, where the inhabitants of the now perform drastic acts of vivisection on the operations of society that carry the promise of a tomorrow capable of carrying on any insight from its predecessors. Ignoring the necessity of evaluating our connective tissues—the records of human expression—robs potential answers from any member of our race who dares to draw a question mark after doing something (anything) for its own sake.
To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it “the way it really was.” It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from conformism that is about to overpower it. The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer of Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.
♦ Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”
The ideal process of researching, and then articulating, the past continues to absorb even the most popularized mind—we do not need to look so far for proof of that—the silver screen never closes its bright window on the past; but the “danger” is all too apparent in the warped perspectives we find on offer. To say nothing of the agendas that populate “official” printed histories, or “definitive” academic accounts of an era, the slow evacuation of difficult to assimilate data from the public record, especially where infotainment is concerned—and disseminated so freely through our commercial media—this should worry us all. As the facts are slaved to current political dynamics, as painstakingly acquired historical knowledges are reduced to sound bytes easily absorbed and edited into a cumulative, teleological narrative of coherent progress, we are unwittingly abdicating rigour from our understanding of what precedes the current moment—a moment that is complex enough, troubling enough, to demand a multifaceted approach to contend with its complexities and, ideally, contribute to our search for a way forward. History should raise questions about the present, and vice versa. In reality answers are in short supply.
The sterilization of the past we are witnessing may not be conspiratorial, a program designed to stultify our potential for progress, but it is collusion of a most insidious order. The same non-localized authority that compels us to participate in structures and systems of exchange that we feel little kinship for is at work in the effacement of the past; but an eternal now where we are constantly in the process of affirming, and then acquiring, what we want is no substitution for a holistic appreciation for all the things that we know, but do not know that we know for certain.
“One of the mysteries in the history of chemistry is how seldom chemists blew themselves up while investigating novel substances and reactions. Hydrogen and oxygen . . . can burn smoothly together, but they can also react explosively. Priestley used to carry small bottles of these two airs, and he entertained visitors by exploding the gases.”
♦ Trevor H. Levere, Transforming Matter: A History of Chemistry from Alchemy to the Buckyball