I feel like a broken record these days. It is said that one position or another is correct, when it seems obvious to me all stated positions are, taken as they appear to us, incorrect. That being said, I cannot help but take a side, or forfeit my own role in the political economy of modern society, which demands we select ideas as easily as a shopper selects a bag of sweets. So let me suspend my own judgement to examine the root and stem of our beliefs, so that we might recover their source, and genesis in our unconscious. The ideas at the core of the dialectic of modernity are, I would suggest, Jung’s ‘shadow’ and its inverse: the sun, or light towards which shadows grasp, without success, but not without hope, even in the darkest pits of despair — like a candle in the night, darkest before the dawn.
The shadow is all fear. The sun is all hope. In the twilight of our idol-obsessed dreams, we pass from hope to despair or vice versa. But we often have neither — caught in the in-between, neither living nor dying, neither waking nor sleeping. Such a condition is equivalent to a kind of living death, or zombie-like non-existence. It is said since the Renaissance of ancient ideas in the late-medieval and early-modern world that the dead grip the living; le mort saisit le vif. But what happens when the living are but puppets of the ideas of their ancestors? In such a condition, fear becomes a shadow of itself, and existence becomes purely mechanical. Our machines become people, and we become machines.
This seems to be a modern idea, but it has ancient parallels. The idea of demonic possession animated preachers under Roman rule, following the devastation of the Civil War. Jesus of Nazareth arose as an exorcist and miracle-worker in a time of fear and dread. The Life of Bryan mocks this condition: was not the Roman Empire, so Monty Python reasons comedically, good for peace and business? What is not considered is how this very inflationary stagnation is the key to spiritual crisis. War selects for strength; trade, for weakness. Both are extremes: Stoicism is as unattainable as Epicureanism is deleterious to spiritual wellbeing. Indulgence and ignorance are equally dangerous. To refrain to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil gives rise to the question: why? Or, why not?
Why not learn what has been repressed? This desire for balance begins the cycle of the extremes. Good and evil are understood but quickly forgotten. And yet, they cannot be forgotten entirely. This gives rise to a cycle between extremes that mirrors the structure of Zoroastrianism and Manicheanism, whose influence on Christianity has strongly conditioned our modern morality. We are constantly looking for a Lucifer figure. We cannot live without an antimorality as an antinomy to morality. But unlike Hegel, and more like Kant, we never collapse the distinction. But unlike Kant, we don’t suspend judgement. We truly believe our current position is right — and that the beliefs of others, or even our own past and future selves, are wrong. Such is the narcissistic presentism that follows from a morality of scapegoats and villains. We constantly have a new enemy — but we must always have an enemy. This reflects the theological politics in which we have become entrapped, reflecting political theorist Carl Schmitt’s contention that the political is the art of dividing friends from enemies.
In hip hop, Public Enemy subverted this Schmittian story in the song: ‘Fight The Power’. But more specifically: ‘Fight the powers that be.’ What about powers that were, or are not yet here? This is irrelevant. The powers that have being in the present are the powers that matter for us. This counterpower, to echo Michel Foucault, is not so much narcissistic as it is counternarcisstic, and counter-Manichean. Good and evil are not the point. The point is the prison of the present, and the power to which this gives rise. To fight the power on any other turf than the here and now is to mistake its properties. But to pretend this battle can ever end is to mistake our present condition for a merely temporary one. It is as erroneous as confusing the present for eternity, as philosopher Martin Heidegger has suggested in his temporal analysis of being. The present is neither permanent nor temporary. It is, as political philosopher James Harrington suggested about politics in general, a balance between polar extremes. And yet, it is not a neutral balance. It is active. It is conditioned by Heideggerian ‘care’. It constantly raises Drake’s debut album’s injunction: Take Care. Or else?
Underneath the caring surface is a paranoid depth. This paranoia creates a kind of desperate desire to break free from fear. It is fear that motivates the subjects of Hobbes’ state of nature to covenant, ‘every man with every man’, to forfeit our own will to the ‘reall Unitie’ of the sovereign state, or Leviathan. The state preserves the market, or a condition of perpetual commercial ‘Warre’, in peacetime by use of the threat of violence. Potential violence contains actual violence. The state is necessary for the proper functioning of capitalism. The risk is that ‘private men’ and monopolies will become ‘Intestines’ in the bowels of the state, undermining it from within. The state protects trade but trade creates classes that lead the society in question back to violent war, leading to the formation of a new state to save the day, create a new trading order, and foster a new class structure, which leads to a fresh cycle of conflict, and so on. In Plato’s cycle of regimes, this cyclical history never ends until philosophers become kings or vice versa. For who else can bring balance to power but the holders of knowledge and the bearers of wisdom?
This assumes a certain school to raise the next generation of philosopher-legislators. But the medieval scholastics replaced ancient scepticism with dogma, as Hobbes found. The modern scientists have replaced God with technology and its mathematical philosophy. Euclidean geometry, which so enamoured Plato and Hobbes, has fallen apart. And yet, Kurt Gödel and other mathematicians find attempts to form a dogmatic foundation to science unsatisfactory. Plato’s realm of the forms, or pure ideas, remains both speculative and ideal for grounding an understanding of ourselves beyond the barely physical.
Alas, today, we have mistaken the conceptual for the illusion and the physical for the truth. We have forgotten the ancient critique of nature. We became naturalists, confusing ‘is’ with ‘ought’ (hence Hume’s now-famous, yet often mistaken, ‘naturalistic fallacy’ — surely a self-fulfilling prophecy in the modern age). Then, as Ernst Fraenkel argued in The Dual State, naturalism collapsed and with it all semblance of other-worldly morality. What remained? Zarathustra and the doctrine of good and evil, but without anything to fill these empty cups (to mildly misquote Nietzsche and Charlie Puth). The result was the postmodern abyss: a fusion of Schmittian politics and Heideggerian phenomenology. Everyday life became Heideggerian, with exceptional political events being Schmittian. The Heideggerian subject and the Schmittian sovereign jointly abolished the Platonic object of the good.
The Nietzschean death of God was left uncompleted, but Plato’s Good was buried deep in the ground. What was left in this cataclysmic burning of all that is good and true? The charring cinders of a dying humanity left no room for a Phoenix to rise from the ashes. We are without hope and without reward for our suffering as a species. Maybe we should not feel so sorry for ourselves. And yet sorry implies apology, which in turn implies morality. But what is there?
Well, there is hope. There is shadow everywhere. But where there is a shadow, there is also the sun. If we still have some idea of evil, however misplaced, this implies some lost idea of the good. How to regain this whole sun in the partial shadows of modern existence? It seems, to follow Tolkien’s world by analogy, there is one path down which we might venture to confront the apparent contradiction between technology and morality in modern society: power. With great power comes great responsibility. Oh, but how can this be in a world without true morality? We are left in Weber’s dialectic of ‘many gods and demons’, or Gramsci’s insistence that, as the old dies and the new is being born, there is a ‘time of monsters’. The old demons are gone. All that is left, if Aristotle is right that man is torn betwixt gods and beasts, is the beast below.
We are waiting for a miracle.