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 the triumph of empiricism is jeopardized by the surprising truth that our sense data are primarily symbols.
♦ Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key
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.
“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