Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Getting Ahead of Ourselves

The so-called North American culture wars between liberals and conservatives divides very neatly in terms of how our common human future is conceived. On the one side, stories are told of the progressive enlightenment of that portion of the human race that views the world through a rational lens. On the other, stories are told of moral decline and destruction, a consequence of the usurpation of centers of power by liberal forces.

Both sides are ahead of themselves. The former forgets that long-term progress is in absolutely no sense predictable, while the identification of markers of short-term progress is rarely more than a form of self-gratification. The latter misunderstands morality as something imposed by an external authority, who or which demands submission, when it is actually something imposed on oneself.

In the Hegelian sense, one thinks in a circle, whose true beginning is only revealed at the end.  In the Heideggerian sense, one thinks about the past and present out of an possible future. Which is not to say either side is explicitly Hegelian or Heideggerian.

Rather that both sides have a share in the peculiarly modern tendency, which includes the post-modern detour some especially critical thinkers seems to have taken, to judge the human past and present from conjured images of a time that might be.


Neither side, it seems to me, really takes seriously present human life, if by present we mean the limits of bodily existence, the secularity* of the political order. Were they to take such seriously, they might actually talk to each other, and seek agreement on the basis of mutually shared interests, rather than stoke disagreement on the basis of a need for a principled stance.

*By 'secularity', I mean that understanding of living in a middle age, between past and future, cut off from all abstract origins and endings--a thoroughgoing medievalism, if you will, in which origin and end coincide in a/the mortal human body.

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