Friday, January 16, 2015

ever-expanding open-ended world, in contradistinction to a closed cosmos: experience of [this] crisis splits culture itself apart

"The battle was triggered by the question
of how to achieve perfection, an aim
that both the moderns and the ancients shared. 
For the latter, perfection was achieved
by imitating nature, whereas for the former,
the ancient models were
no longer to be imitated
but had to be surpassed. 
Such a shift was largely due to the fact
that the moderns found themselves confronted
with an ever-expanding, open-ended world,
in contradistinction to the ancients,
who entertained the idea
of a closed cosmos.
Consequently, progress became
the guiding light for the moderns,
who thus turned the inherited world order
completely around by conceiving it as
an irreversible advance into the future.
The cyclical movement of day and night
and the seasons, indicative
of an ordered cosmos,
was replaced by a linear ascent. 
Perfection therefore was no longer a given
that required contemplation, as exemplified
by the Greek theoria
instead, it was now something to be achieved,
and as a task to be performed
it could no longer be an act of imitation.
...Moreover, the moderns proved
to be rather self-assertive
in this process of differentiation,
thereby endowing their discourse of history
with a teleological direction.
What, however, happens
when such optimism wanes?
The stage was reached...
when Rousseau 1750
by stating that the arts and sciences
had not, in actual fact, improved morals
but had corrupted them.
Such a devastating statement marked
the beginning
of what has since come to be known
as cultural critique, sparked off
by a crisis of culture
that had not been in the orbit
of those [moderns] who had pleaded
the superiority of their own culture
over the ancients. The experience
of crisis splits culture itself apart,
and this process began to deepen
and accelerate with the dawn
of the Industrial Revolution.
Fundamental differences opened up
in individual cultures..."

— Wolfgang Iser, "Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus"
in The Range of Interpretation [1994] (NY: Columbia U Press, 2000) p160-1.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

War is only an invention - tied to manly prestige

"…if it be granted that warfare is, after all, an invention, it may nevertheless be an invention that lends itself to certain types of personality, to the exigent needs of autocrats, to the expansionist desires of crowded peoples, to the desire for plunder and rape and loot which is engendered by a dull and frustrating life… In many parts of the world, war is a game in which the individual can win counters - counters which bring him prestige in the eyes of his own sex or of the opposite sex; he plays for these counters as he might, in our society, strive for a tennis championship. Warfare is a frame for such prestige-seeking merely because it calls for the display of certain skills and certain virtues; all of these skills - riding straight, shooting straight, dodging the missiles of the enemy and sending one's own straight to the mark - can be equally well exercised in some other framework and, equally, the virtues endurance, bravery, loyalty, steadfastness - can be displayed in other contexts. The tie-up between proving oneself a man and proving this by a success in organized killing is due to a definition which many societies have made of manliness. …Grant that war is an invention, that it is not a biological necessity nor the outcome of certain special types of social forms, still once the invention is made, what are we to do about it? …If we know that it is not inevitable, that it is due to historical accident that warfare is one of the ways in which we think of behaving, are we given any hope by that? What hope is there of persuading nations to abandon war…whenever certain defined circumstances arise? …[I]f we despair over the way in which war seems such an ingrained habit of most of the human race, we can take comfort from the fact that a poor invention will usually give place to a better invention. For this, two conditions, at least, are necessary. The people must recognize the defects of the old invention, and someone must make a new one. Propaganda against warfare, documentation of its terrible cost in human suffering and social waste, these prepare the ground by teaching people to feel that warfare is a defective social institution. … A form of behaviour becomes out of date only when something else takes its place, and, in order to invent forms of behaviour which will make war obsolete, it is a first requirement to believe that [such] an invention is possible."

—Margaret Mead, ‘Warfare is only an invention - not a biological necessity’ (1940). Her full essay, "Warfare is Only an Invention -- Not a Biological Necessity"
is available online, and in The Dolphin Reader, ed. Douglas Hunt (Houghton Mifflin, 1990).