Hiding in plain sight: The resurrection of grand theory through intellectual history

It is often said that grand theory is dead, while intellectual history lives. At the ‘end of history’ following the Cold War, anticipated by several ‘ends’ of history since the philosopher Hegel proclaimed Napoleon and himself the ends of political and philosophical history in the early nineteenth century, it became intellectually illegitimate to construct a grand theory of reality. In physics, ‘grand unified theory’ is the name of the game, but no one physicist would dare to face up to the giants of Newton or Einstein today, as grand theory is democratised. In the humanities and social sciences, by contrast, grand theory is effectively dead in the water. No one wants to do it, and anyone who tries to do it is automatically considered a vulgar pop philosopher, at best, or a sinister conspiracy theorist, at worst.

Orwell’s seminal 1984.

As a result of this turn in intellectual attitudes, intellectual history serves as a vehicle for grand theory. Instead of constructing our own theories, we revise the theories of the past to explain them to the present. The purported goal is nothing more than understanding the past, but the result is a reading of the past through the paradigms of the present. History is being rewritten, legitimised by the Byzantine bureaucracy of modern academia, on the one hand, and the medieval market of social media, on the other hand. Either in the papery ivory tower or in the digital market square, there is a project of Orwellian grand theory going on. It has one function and one direction: the legitimation of ultracapitalism, the most recent totalitarian turn of the modern state and civil society, through the language of deep history.

There is one way out of this, and that is to retrace our steps, in order to undo this vulgar rewriting of virtue. We must look to recent history in order to save deep history from the shallow vulgarity of the present. Such an attempt may be hidden in a web of conspiracy, or exposed for what it is: a last attempt to save contemporary capitalism from itself. The alternative is a neomedieval sinking of intellectual, and therefore moral, life, as we come to accept all the terms of modernity as written in the stars: terms like contract, transaction, commutation, transformation, and translocation. These terms describe the relationship among discrete entities, separated by a peculiar metamorphosis of society from the ancient Greek era through to the contemporary global one. We face a crisis of unparalleled proportions, and yet we are rewriting history in order to avoid confronting the present. Countless YouTube video’s proclaim to have the key to philosophy, through some strange admixture of Stoical practice and neo-Kantian theory. Platonic balance eludes us, as does its foundation in Socratic wisdom. We are trapped in Aristotle’s scholastic categories, jumping from one school of thought to another, forgetting the meta-paradigm in which we remain imprisoned.

To escape, we must out-compete the systemic drive towards chaos. There must be a counter-chaos; what Foucault termed a ‘counter-power’, to fight the power that brings new hells with every waking moment. Before our very dreams are re-coded by the algorithmic state, we must re-code this state with the last remnant of our humanity: power, the power in each and every human being – the power to overcome. We will.

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