Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The Thinking of Modern Life

In New Left Review’s Mar/Apr 2012 issue, there appeared an article by T.J Clark (‘For A Left With No Future’) and a reply to that article, by Susan Watkins (‘Presentism?’). What follows is a reply to Watkins’ reply, which considers the issue that divides Clark and Watkins, that is, the issue of what it is to think seriously in, and of, modern life.

The central claim of Clark’s article is that the left has no future. For this claim, Clark gives both reasons and a response. His reasons have to do with the left’s mistaken understanding of the past and the present; his response is to adopt what he calls a ‘tragic perspective.’ Watkins, for her part, is almost entirely critical of Clark’s claim – and of the reasons he gives for it, and of the response he recommends to it – by virtue of conducting a deeper inquiry into the materials that Clark draws upon in his support. But what I aim to show is that despite, and also because of, Watkins’ deeper inquiry, Clark’s argument is, in large part, vindicated, at least insofar as it points to what is now our range of options for effective intellectual engagement with the conditions of our time.


I would begin, however, by making two vital adjustments to Clark’s position. The first involves its immeasurable expansion, so that it is made to apply, not only to the left in our time, but to the defining mode of experience more generally in our time. In other words, if Clark’s claim is that the left has no future, I would simply claim that we have no future – for the same reasons that Clark identifies, reasons to do with our understanding of the past and the present; and with at least something of the same response that Clark recommends, that is, the assumption of a ‘tragic perspective.’

But the second adjustment that I would make is to this very notion, of a ‘tragic perspective.’ Further elucidation of the notion is required if Clark’s argument is to be understood. And my suggestion is this: for the phrase ‘tragic perspective,’ we insert the phrase ‘historical perspective.’ In doing so, the real strength of Clark’s argument is elicited.


As might be expected, there is a direct link between the reasons Clark gives for his no-future claim and the response he proposes to it; a clear understanding of the former, then, is necessary to a fair assessment of the latter. And the reasons are twofold, having to do, first, with Clark’s account of human history and, second, with Clark’s account of modern life. In short, what we learn from the past and what we see in the present ought, in Clark’s view, to persuade us to a mode of thinking modest enough to relinquish its reliance upon the future.


And so to the first of Clark’s reasons for claiming that the left has no future: the nature of human history. Clark’s conviction here is simply stated: if history shows us nothing else, it shows us that human beings are finite, and consequently subject to such a degree of complex contingency that we proceed, ultimately, without trajectory, without purpose, without progress, and therefore without a determinate future. Of the twentieth century, for example, Clark asks: ‘Did the century’s horrors have a shape? Did they obey a logic or follow from a central determination – however much the contingencies of history intervened?’ They did not, is Clark’s unequivocal response. The period, he says, was rather ‘catastrophe in the strict sense – unfolding pell-mell from Sarajevo on...a chaos formed from an unstoppable, unmappable criss-cross of forces.’ But Watkins’ response to Clark’s response is also unequivocal. Clark’s view of history is unacceptable, she says: first, because it installs ‘irrationalism tout court’ at the heart of human effort, and ‘irrationalism is a bad starting-point for any political perspective’; second, because the events that dominated the twentieth century, for example, are ‘amenable to rational investigation and analysis,’ which investigation and analysis are, in fact, our ‘intellectual duty.’

But Watkins, I would argue, has overread Clark’s understanding of history. Clark does say that there is no ‘heart of the matter’ of history. But for this to amount to the installing of ‘irrationalism’ as the defining feature of history, ‘rationalism’ would have to be limited to the identification or presumption of a ‘heart of the matter’ of history. If what Clark says is true, however, this would make ‘rationalism’ into the most irrational thing of all!: the identification or presumption of a ‘heart of the matter’ of history, where none exists. Of course, there are interpretations of history, more or less convincing, interesting, or relevant accounts of how particular events or forces went to shape what was to come. But these are, precisely, interpretations, that is, finite understandings not god’s-eye views. As such, they are just some, among many possible, ways of cutting up the historical cake, which cake has, in fact, no centre. And though finite understandings may be, as Watkins says, ‘a bad starting-point for any political perspective,’ what is there to say to this but, ‘So be it! They are, at any rate, the only starting-point we have.’ We may dream of a ‘rational’ politics, with more absolute knowledge at its disposal, but it is part of the lesson that Clark would teach us, that it is rather such dreaming that is the bad starting-point for politics, and partly responsible for the ineffectual condition of the left in our time, whose optimism is now the orthodox ‘political tonality,’ defining an age, our age, marked by ‘an endless political and economic Micawberism.’  ‘Utopias,’ Clark says (and he would certainly call Watkins’ presumption of a ‘rational’ politics, utopian), ‘reassure modernity as to its infinite potential. But why? It should learn – be taught – to look failure in the face.’

You may object, however, that all of this follows only from the assumption that Clark’s understanding of history, as ‘unfolding pell-mell,’ is truer than Watkins’ understanding of history, as subject to ‘rational analysis.’ And why assume this? Well, first of all, because it is Watkins’ understanding of history that is the grander of the two, and therefore the one on which there is a much greater obligation to prove itself. But also, because Clark’s understanding of history has by now, I believe, the greater philosophical support, not least from a certain Nietzschean tradition, which Watkins identifies as so important to Clark. (The fact that, as Watkins points out, Nietzsche was not always so important to Clark, is no great matter; it is in the nature of a thinking man that he be prepared to develop, even to alter, his ways of thinking.) Michel Foucault, for example, a well-known proponent of a Nietzschean understanding of history, would say that the properly historical perspective is the one that puts aside the search for a ‘heart of the matter’ of history, an origin and an end, and sets itself the ‘grey’ and ‘meticulous’ (Foucault), the ‘ordinary’ and ‘endemic’ (Clark), work of learning from history and diagnosing the present without resting upon the ‘large and well-meaning errors’ (Nietzsche) that have all too often served as a ground for us to stand upon. (See Foucault, The Order of Things)

All by way of showing, that Watkins’ ‘rational analysis’ of the origins of the First World War, which she provides in order to contradict Clark’s understanding of history as ‘pell-mell,’ is perfectly compatible with Clark’s understanding of history as ‘pell-mell’; it is one interpretation, among many possible, of a passage of time that was subject to so many forces that its overriding and accurate mapping is beyond our human capacity. There are, I feel certain Watkins would allow, more than one even well-established account of the origins of the First World War. That is what it means to be human: to be contingent upon a historical unfolding so complex that we, its actors, are always also acted upon, whether we are involved or investigating, whether we are running for our lives or engaged in rational analysis. In the words of the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, whose life spanned the entire of the century about which Clark and Watkins disagree so completely, and who, at his best, might also be numbered among the Nietzscheans of history: ‘We are always affected, whether in hope or fear, by what is nearest to us.’ (Truth and Method) Even our ‘rational’ analyses of the past are as Clark describes our visions of the future: ‘haunted by their worldly realities,’ ‘heavy and ordinary and present-centred.’ Finite, historical, human.

And what follows from this understanding of history as human, but the inevitability of conflict? With dreams of a ‘rational’ history go dreams of a peaceful humanity; hence Clark’s claim for the inherence of violence and war. Now, Watkins once again overreads this claim, characterizing it as a claim for violence as the innate and all-encompassing determinant of human history, as ‘our timeless urge’ and ‘the motor of civilization.’ But Clark’s aim is merely to persuade us that the infinity of human capacities ‘is for bad as much as good.’ Nothing could be clearer: Clark urges us to accept that violence, conflict, ferocity, war are as fundamental to human existence as are generosity, freedom and care.

Clark takes A. C. Bradley as giving us the most appropriate model of the tragic for our times. And for Bradley, as Watkins points out, tragedy arises from ‘the war of good with good.’ But from where does ‘the war of good with good’ spring, but the finite nature of human existence, for which there is no overriding telos, no ‘rational’ ground on which to justify the expectation that two goods will be mutually compatible. When there is no grand logic to the unfolding of history, when there is no god’s-eye view to secure the basic positions, when there is no ‘heart of the matter,’ then two rights cannot be guarantee not to make a wrong. Indeed, there is not even the guarantee that ‘right,’ that peace and forgiveness, will not on its own be degrading, nor that ‘wrong,’ that violence and conflict, will not on its own be positive and productive. For this insight, we do not have to go as far back as to Kant, who argued for the morally uplifting effects of war; David Harvey recently argued in interview for the galvanizing effects on modern urban environments of a degree of conflict more or less unknown to the ‘cappuccino pacification’ of most Western cities.


So much for Clark’s first reason for claiming that the left has no future; the left, Clark implies, has mistaken human history as being subject to overriding trajectories and, therefore, as potentially to be rid of all conflict. Clark has a second reason for claiming that the left has no future, a reason to do with the failure of the left to fully appreciate the nature of modern life. According to Clark, the societies we live in have reconstituted whole populations, as comprised of ‘a new kind of isolate obedient “individual” with technical support to match,’ populations held together only by ‘a fiction of full existence to come,’ rather than by social and political aptitudes; the left, in its failure to face up to this, to modern life, has lost the relevance it may once have had, if only because its optimism, its ‘fictions of full existence to come,’ are now the stuff of status quo.

But Watkins is sceptical of Clark’s account of modern life. Here is her response:

[M]odernity in [Clark’s] work is endowed with truly Weberian grimness – which is not to say that it has acquired conceptual coherence. Lacking any satisfactory definition, or agreement over its sphere of application (culture, ethos, social order), causes (Protestantism, capitalism, consumerism) or periodization (end of feudalism, Enlightenment, 1850, 1905), modernity has come to function as a pseudo-concept, a placeholder that averts the need for deeper enquiry; or a way of speaking about capitalism without mentioning the term...

Clark’s descriptions of modern life are, for Watkins, inadequate, because they do not have the kind of ‘conceptual coherence’ that is, for Watkins, the measure of adequacy. They do not posit sufficiently the origins of modern life, nor delineate sufficiently its jurisdiction. They are no more than Clark’s impressions, we might say, and generate just that kind of irrational account that makes for a very bad starting-point for politics.

So, does its lack of ‘coherence,’ its somewhat indeterminate and shifting nature, make Clark’s idea of ‘modernity’ into a ‘placeholder,’ as Watkins says? Yes!, a placeholder for as many of the ways as we can think of, in which modern life works in the manner that Clark describes: to instil a ‘general infantilization of human needs and purposes’; to prove itself ‘integral to consumer capitalism’; to effect ‘a terrible emptying and sanitizing of the imagination’; to make meaning into ‘a scarce social commodity’; to bring about ‘the de-skilling of everyday life’; and we might add: to ‘free’ us into a precarious world of immaterial work and zero-hour contracts; to preoccupy us with the micro-management of everything under a sheen of 24-hour coverage and consumer choice; and so on and so on. There are brilliant account of this, modern life, available, for example in the writings of the Italian radical thinkers, Berradi, Virno and others. Like them, what Clark aims to give is a ‘plain’ treatment of modern life, one that resonates with us, one that looks familiar but that makes the familiar clearer, more comprehensible, even as, indeed because, it lacks the kind of ‘heart of the matter’ ‘coherence’ that Watkins demands.

Does this make Clark’s idea of ‘modernity,’ or any other idea used as a placeholder for effects like those listed above, into a ‘pseudo-concept,’ as Watkins says? No!, or only if you continue, as Watkins does, to look for ‘conceptual coherence.’ Watkins describes Clark’s idea of ‘modernity’ as ‘Weberian,’ and then, almost immediately, criticizes Clark’s idea for not sticking to a ‘Weberian’ path. But Clark’s reply would surely be to say: ‘That is your problem. It was you who called me “Weberian.” And it is you who demands the kind of “conceptual coherence” with which I and history are unconcerned.’

Watkins regards Clark’s unconcern as licentious, even as lazy. Of Clark’s idea of ‘modernity,’ she writes: it is ‘a way of speaking that averts the need for deeper inquiry.’ But this takes us, now, to the heart of the matter of this essay at least, that is, to the question of whether it is ‘the need for deeper inquiry’ that is now our greatest weakness, and the reason why we seem unable to think clearly enough to alter our condition. In other words, what if it is ‘the need for deeper inquiry’ that must, of all our needs, be averted, for something rather than nothing to now be possible? What if our ‘intellectual duty,’ as Watkins calls it, of ‘rational investigation and analysis,’ is now the chain that binds our thinking? To borrow an image from Wittgenstein, what if keeping the engine idling is what is making us unable, now, to move ourselves from here?

If this seems rather hysterical a reaction, then have a look at what results from the ‘deeper inquiry’ into modern life that Watkins implies is necessary: ‘No uniform ethos, habitus or particular way of being human,’ Watkins writes, ‘is discernible across this varied landscape.’ Nothing results, in other words: no, even somewhat indeterminate and shifting, description of modern life is given; no, even somewhat incoherent, idea of modern life is proposed. And all the while, increasing numbers continue to fall victim to the thin reality of consumer capitalism, and submit themselves to working under ever-more-precarious conditions, and find themselves in the grip of institutional and/or pharmaceutical regimes as a solution to their impossibly insubstantial individuality...Rather than employ a ‘placeholder’ to give expression to urgent aspects of modern life, Watkins would keep the engine idling. And so, we go nowhere and do nothing. And all because of ‘the need for deeper inquiry.’

As for Clark’s idea of ‘modernity’ being ‘a way of speaking about capitalism without mentioning the term,’ it is odd that Watkins suggests this as a criticism. The obvious response is, ‘Of course it is! Insofar as capitalism is now the dominant form of social, political, economic and cultural organization, how could any description of modern life not be “a way of speaking about capitalism”?’ We have been taught to shy away from ‘placeholder’ terms like ‘modernity’ and ‘capitalism,’ as if they are so encompassing and so bandied-about as to be naive, even offensive, both too comprehensive and too comprehensible to deserve the name of thinking. But the thinking of modern life must not shy away from such terms. For, though they may be, to use Clark’s word, ‘plain,’ this need not mean, to use Clark’s word, ‘banal.’

And so we have the second reason that Clark gives for claiming that the left has no future: the nature of modern life, which has reconstituted whole populations to be unfit for the societies the left envisages, and which would, at any rate, incorporate the left’s utopianism into the controlling futurism that is its defining orientation.


To summarize the dispute between Clark and Watkins, as it has thus far emerged, we might simply observe, that while Clark is shy of history and confident of modern life, Watkins is confident of history and shy of modern life. And why this? What is the kernel of this difference between Clark and Watkins? It is, simply, the ‘rational’ requirement for ‘conceptual coherence.’ ‘Conceptual coherence’ is, for Watkins, the measure of reason. In claiming this coherence (misguidedly Clark would argue, and I agree) for interpretations of history, she recasts history as ‘rational’ and human effort as capable of ‘rational’ analysis. But this ‘luxury of hindsight’ as we call it naturally is not afforded by the present; hence, Watkins’ demand for ‘conceptual coherence’ will not say anything further about modern life than that nothing, nothing ‘rational’ at least, can be said about modern life. Meanwhile, the ‘tragic,’ or as I would call it ‘historical,’ perspective that prevents Clark from drawing grand conclusions about the past is the same perspective that allows Clark, that compels him even, to draw grand conclusions about the present. From the historical perspective, though we acknowledge that we humans have little capacity to control the outcome of our thoughts and actions, we judge it better that we go forth from here with something rather than nothing at all for our sustenance and protection; meanwhile, the desire for ‘conceptual coherence’ is in danger of making ‘great if well-meaning errors’ about history and maintaining great if well-meaning silences about modern life.

As I see it, then, the really significant conclusion to be drawn from the debate between Clark and Watkins is: that we finite humans are not as we finite humans must do; in other words, that there is a certain style now required of us, which is not directly consistent with the substance of what we know. Clark’s claim is that the left has no future; Clark’s recommended response is for the left to think and act as if it has no future. But what is crucial to realize is that it is not the same kind of thing, to accept that we have no future and to think and act as if we have no future. The former is an achievement of abstraction; the latter, an achievement of application. And abstraction and application are not, not anymore at least, the same kind of thing. It is because of her failure to realize this that Watkins is incapable of thinking of modern life.

Let us proceed, then, with this in mind, from our examination of the reasons Clark gives for his no-future claim, to an examination of the nature of the claim itself (the abstract achievement Clark demands of us) and of the response that Clark would have us give (the applied achievement that Clark demands of us).


First, to the abstract move that Clark expects us to make, that is, the realization that the left has no future: based on his understanding of the nature of the past and the nature of the present, Clark would have us accept that any effort on our part to anticipate a future is subject to such a degree of historical contingency and weakened to such a degree by contemporary opportunism and futurism that it cannot be relied upon either to constitute or to predict a future for us. In this sense, we are, as Clark would have it, without a future; we are without a future that can be allowed as a justification for our plans, our projects and our principles.

It is hardly surprising that, having criticized the reasons Clark gives for making this claim, Watkins then criticizes the claim itself, which she regards as making little sense. Firstly, it makes little ontological sense, she says – ‘futurity is a constitutive dimension of human experience...while any effective action embodies in itself a difference between “then” and “now.”’ This first criticism amounts to the objection that, as Heidegger famously put it, we humans are ‘thrown,’ and have an orientation towards future, a sense of purpose, as a basic feature of our experience. But this objection cannot be allowed as an objection to Clark’s position. For, far from denying future-orientedness of this kind, Clark’s position presupposes it (while also admitting that we humans are equally oriented towards the past; for Heidegger, we are thrown into a situation as well as being thrown forward from it). What Clark would have us dispense with are the purposeless purposes, the contentless futures, invoked by the kind of utopian visions that he identifies in left-wing thinking (and that I would identify as a feature of modern life more generally), visions that amount to no less than ‘the wish for escape from mortal existence,’ as Clark puts it, by putting before us a future that would erase the conditions of our present (by refusing to acknowledge that we humans are thrown into a situation as well as being thrown forward from it). The response that Clark recommends amounts, as we shall see, to a version of reformism, an effort to change, step by step, and failure by failure, aspects of our current condition. Quite clearly, this response presupposes an orientation towards the future, an acceptance, as Watkins puts it, of ‘the difference between “then” and “now.”’

But Watkins also criticizes Clark’s no-future claim as making little sociological sense: the ‘Great Look Forward,’ she writes, ‘was not a matter of messianic belief but a rational response to the experience of accelerating social and economic change.’ An interpretation of accelerating social and economic change, in other words. And, like all interpretations, as Clark puts it ‘heavy and ordinary and present-centred.’ Clark’s effort is merely to point this out. And to show that the very act of looking forward ‘greatly,’ just like we have said of the act of analysing ‘deeply,’ has become the bedrock of modern life and, therefore, the very thing to be resisted if modern life is to be challenged in any way.

But Watkins does not agree with this version of modern life; for, her strongest criticism of Clark’s no-future claim is that it makes little ideological sense – the claim, she says, ‘would already appear to be established as the postmodern order of the day: a changeless now, from horizon to horizon, and a presentist politics reduced to the mindless repetition of the words, “Yes, we can.”’ In other words, Watkins’ view is that it is Clark’s no-futurism that is ‘heavy and ordinary and present-centred,’ Clark’s no-futurism that is the bedrock of modern life and, therefore, the very thing to be resisted if modern life is to be challenged in any way. (It is worth pointing out that Watkins’ view of modern life here – as dominated by presentism – sits uneasily with her earlier claim that ‘no uniform ethos, habitus or particular way of being human is discernible across [its] varied landscape.’)

Here, then, is the central question, rather baldly put: Is modern life, as Clark says it is, dominated by futurism and therefore in need of more presentism? Or is modern life, as Watkins says it is, dominated by presentism, and therefore at the very least not in need of relinquishing its futurism? To some extent, the answer is: both! But only insofar as the apparent ‘presentism’ of modern life is ultimately in thrall to a substance-less orientation towards future (and a sentimentalizing nostalgia for the past) that would erase anything like a meaningful engagement with here and now. Clark’s merit is that he sees that this is the case, that the click-of-the-mouse, at-your-fingertips presentism of modern life, which is so ergonomic as to the respond to us more and more at the level of instinct, makes things such that the present is continually effaced, in part by empty anticipations of what is to come. Much of the ergonomics of modern life, after all, goes to facilitate mediation of the present with the future (I’ll record now to watch later), or to bind us into a continual process of almost entirely virtual consumerism, founded upon the time when...I’ll make cupcakes (and this is where sentimentalizing nostalgia for the past plays its part) in my new shabby-chic enamel bun tins, I’ll sip wine from my new ‘Jamie-At-Home’ glasses, I’ll read all of the books I’ve been planning to read, on my new Kindle...And, politically, this is also the structure of modern life: a ‘you can make it happen now’ ergonomics, in which you can (but mostly don’t) design your own healthcare, set up your own school, vote in your own police commissioner; combined with grand visions of One Nation of peace and prosperity. Watkins is betrayed by her own example in this regard: ‘Yes, we can’ is patently not a presentist slogan; it is a call to focus on a future that cannot be, by a man elected as the messiah that never was...


So much for the abstract achievement that Clark would ask of us. So much, that is, for Clark’s claim that we have no future. It can, I think, survive Watkins’ criticisms, although to do so it must rely upon a philosophical tradition that would emphasize history and contingency, language and finitude, and upon vivid descriptions of modern life, which would persuade us as forcefully as possible to recognize ourselves and the times we live in. But what, now, of the applied achievement that Clark would ask of us? What of his exhortation that we begin to think and act as if we have no future?

It is at this juncture that we must point to the one aspect of Clark’s abstract claim upon which Clark and Watkins agree: the present, modern life, is without ‘conceptual coherence.’ Clark holds this to be true, because it is his view that finite human understanding is incapable generally of ‘conceptual coherence’; Watkins holds this to be true, because it is her view that the present must lose its open-endedness, must become the past in short, before it can properly be subject to ‘rational analysis.’ But how Clark and Watkins respond to this shared view of modern life – how they apply this abstract acknowledgment – is very different, and crucially so. Watkins holds, as many academics and theoreticians hold: that we humans must do as we humans are; that substance and style must accord; that it is possible and right to reflect the abstract acknowledgment – that modern life may now have, and may turn out to have had, a character very different from the one we now think of it as having – in what we say and do. Clark holds the contrary view: that we humans must not do as we humans are; that there is no way to give practical expression to the abstract admission of the partial, incoherent, nature of our understanding of modern life. ‘No doubt,’ writes Clark,

there is an alternative to the present order of things. Yet nothing follows from this – nothing deserving the name political. Left politics is immobilized at the level of theory and therefore of practice, by the idea that it should spend its time turning over the entrails of the present for signs of catastrophe and salvation.

Nothing follows, Clark argues, from the abstract admission that we cannot be sure of the present; the effort to make something follow, as Watkins would, gives rise to a nihilistic emptying out of thought and action, all under the guise of a great and irresistible reasonableness, ‘a need for deeper inquiry,’ a demand for ‘conceptual coherence.’ Nothing follows, then, from the intellectual acknowledgment that our understanding of the present is but an interpretation of the present; nothing, but an immobilization of thought and of action; nothing, but an engine idling, endlessly and to no good effect.

We might say, then, that Watkins’ weakness, her inability to think of modern life, is the result of her fear of modern life, her fear of its ‘incoherence,’ which makes her determine to make no claim about modern life except the claim that modern life is too ‘varied’ a ‘landscape’ to make any claim about. Watkins, for this reason, is immobilized at the level of application; the only information she can act upon is ‘coherent’ information, and the only ‘coherent’ information about modern life is that there is no ‘coherence’ to be had from modern life. And, in this respect, she is like many modern-day intellectuals, particularly academic intellectuals – Chantal Mouffe, for example, recently published an article entitled ‘Truth is Concrete,’ in which she too concluded that nothing can be concluded from the ‘varied landscape’ of modern life, and also on the grounds that we finite humans must do as we finite humans are, in other words, that we must reflect our abstract acknowledgement of the partiality of our understanding of modern life when it comes to applying ourselves to the thinking and acting of modern life. ‘I strongly believe,’ says Mouffe, ‘that...it is necessary to adopt a pluralistic perspective.’ Why? Because, as Mouffe puts it, ‘things could always have been otherwise and every order is predicated on the exclusion of other possibilities.’ The task, then, as Mouffe sees it, is to find ways to ‘disarticulate’ any interpretation of the current order of things so as to leave room for other interpretations.

But the problem, with Mouffe and with Watkins, is this: our ordinary experience nowadays is pluralistic to its core, and therefore not to be challenged in any way by what is now a general ‘intellectual’ enthusiasm for ‘a pluralistic perspective.’ Mouffe addresses her argument to the Italian radicals we have already mentioned here, and one among them, Paolo Virno, argues that it is precisely a pluralistic perspective that constitutes modern life. In ‘The Ambivalence of Disenchantment,’ he writes:

A process of uprooting without end, engendered by the mutability of contexts marked for the most part by conventions, artifices, and abstractions, overturns this scheme [the scheme of ‘disarticulation, à la Mouffe] and submits it to an inexorable practical critique...Today’s modes of being and feeling lie in an abandonment without reserve to our own finitude. Uprooting...constitutes the substance of our contingency and precariousness...It constitutes an ordinary condition that everyone feels because of the continual mutation of modes of production, techniques of communication, and styles of life.

Clark’s claim – the claim that we have no future – can best be summarized as: we humans are finite. But this abstract claim cannot, not now, be applied, because, as Virno expresses it, an abandonment without reserve to our finitude is the defining feature of our times, which we might describe as demanding a we-finite-humans-must-do-as-we-finite-humans-are mode of living. Adopting a ‘pluralistic perspective,’ as Mouffe and Watkins would have us do, is grist to the mill of modern life.

David Harvey, in a recent history of neo-liberalism, expresses regret at what he regards as the so-far ineffectual opposition to neo-liberal hegemony, and names as culpable ‘all those postmodern intellectual currents that accord without knowing it, with the White House line that truth is both socially constructed and a mere effect of discourse.’ His recommendation is that we drown out this pluralistic intellectualism with the acknowledgement, as he puts it, that ‘there is a reality out there and it is catching up with us fast.’ Because the ‘concrete’ truth is that things could not ‘always have been otherwise,’ as Mouffe thinks. Or at least, nothing follows from the fact that they could. Nothing, but those endless efforts to theorize multplicity and think plurality that are clogging our intellectual arteries and contributing to the apparently unstoppable ‘progress’ of modern life.


The material point, then, is this: Watkins’ refusal to respond to modern life in any manner other than by an intellectual idling in its ‘varied landscape’ is precisely the form of control that defines our times. Modern life, we might say, thrives upon a general intellectualism. What form, then, does this intellectualism take? What, in other words, are the features of modern-day control?

At his trial, Socrates is reported to have described to the men of Athens a day in the life he has lived, a life which they are gathered there to determine the guilt or innocence of. ‘All day long,’ spoke Socrates, ‘I never cease to settle here, there, and everywhere, rousing, persuading, reproving every one of you. You will not easily find another like me, gentlemen...’ Socrates lived his life in the marketplace, questioning those who were going about their business, showing up the inadequacy of their merely human, finite, conceptions of truth and of right; the philosopher of ‘things could always have been otherwise.’ And, in Socrates’ time, it is easy to believe that such a role was vital; in a small city, with deeply entrenched prejudices, much like a stubborn, one-directional horse, the gadfly philosopher was badly needed. But times have changed, and we are all gadflies now, abandoned without reserve to our finitude, never settling for long enough to coalesce into anything like as stable as a horse.

Franco ‘Bifo’ Berradi spoke recently in interview of the many protests that have been launched against the conditions of late-capitalism – the sit-ins, the occupations, the street marches. Berradi explains that what he regards as their ineffectuality is the result of a disjunction, between the physicality of the protests and the virtuality of what is being protested against; the streets, in his view, are no longer the appropriate domain for active resistance to modern life. But we might equally say, that the marketplace is no longer the appropriate arena for active effectual thinking of modern life. Why? Because nothing’s going on in the marketplace: no jobs, or if there are jobs, they are the most passing, precarious things of all; no identifications, of if there are identifications, they are the most ephemeral because consumer-driven; no ideas, or if there are ideas, they are held at arms length, to allow for ‘a pluralistic perspective’; no poets except those who are ‘post-literary’; no craftsmen save for systems-operators; no politicians who are not cyphers for global institutions of capitalism; no horses but those constituted by the most momentary and most virtual formations of gadflies. Virno describes very well the cynicism and opportunism of late-capitalist societies, in which we believe in nothing and attach ourselves to anything, in which we belong to nothing but hang our sense of self on anything.[9] All day long, we never cease to settle, here, there, and everywhere, rousing, persuading, reproving. You will easily find millions of others like us...The challenge, then, is how to address gadflies? Solve this, and we will have learnt what it is, the thinking of modern life.

In her article, Watkins addresses, one by one, all of the texts that Clark, in his article, lines up in support of his argument. But, of the very first one – Bruegel’s The Land of Cockaigne – she writes: ‘Clark offers a compelling interpretation of the painting...But...might it not equally be read as...’ To which, on the one hand, the only reply is: ‘Yes! Of course Bruegel’s painting might equally be read as..., just as the origins of the First World War might equally be identified as...’ But, what follows from this, quintessentially ‘intellectual,’ acknowledgment that all readings of texts are interpretations of texts, just like all accounts of modern life are interpretations of modern life? As Clark says, nothing follows. Not now. For, we live now in a world of opportunism and cynicism, a world in which we are all too aware that it might equally be read as, that things could always have been otherwise. What we require to be persuaded of is that anything might be read with conviction, that anything might only be what it is.


Watkins’ interpretationism, amounts to the demand that, in giving an account of modern life, we do as Mouffe would have us do, that is, ‘recognize not a flat homogenous present but a range of uneven temporalities at work within the same chronological time...Such a world,’ Watkins says, ‘requires a perspective that is internationalist, but also irreducibly pluralistic: not one tonality, but many.’ In this regard, Watkins urges us to adopt a comic perspective, to admit, as Aristotle did,

the place of comedy alongside tragedy, with its contrary values: multiplicity as well as tragic unity; coupling and procreation as well as death; what his Poetics called ‘the inferior people,’ always so numerous, and the mockery of rulers, in place of pity and awe.

But what Watkins fails to see is that comic inferiority is now the form of our tragedy, that mockery of rulers is now the mode of our tragic subjection, and that procreation (we are now seven billion!) is now the principle reason for our imminent demise.

If we do as I have suggested, and translate Clark’s call for a ‘tragic perspective’ into the call for a ‘historical perspective,’ then the necessity against which human freedom tragically crashes again and again is revealed to be, not some unitary force – God, Nature, Fate – but pell-mell, chaos, contingency, the war of good with good. Human plans and purposes collide time and again against the force of history, which is undermining of human plans and purposes not in its brick-wall stasis but in its unpredictable fluidity, its constantly unfolding contingency. History already installs the principle of multiplicity, already installs the pluralistic perspective, at the very heart of human endeavour; we are tragic, then, because we are comic: disordered, chaotic, ‘incoherent,’ ‘irrational.’ When we conceived of our tragedy differently, when we posited some unitary force or forces, as operative upon human effort, then it was likely very necessary to interpose with testimony to the multiple, the pluralistic character of so-called unitary forces. But we no longer posit such unitary forces, for modern life is abandoned without reserve to the finitude of everything and we must therefore interpose with testimony to something other than multiplicity, something other than plurality, some perspective other than the comic one. We must be horse-philosophers not gadfly-philosophers, contrary and all as that now appears to be to what we have come to think of thinking as.

And it is important to point out that, if Watkins does not see this at all, then Clark only sees it in part. For, Clark’s version of thinking-as-‘moderacy’ is still  too comic to be the tragic perspective he is looking for. Watkins identifies the following passage, quoted by Clark from Nietzsche’s The Will To Power, as the most significant passage in the whole of Clark’s article:

Who will prove to be the strongest in the course of this? The most moderate; those who do not require any extreme articles of faith; those who not only concede but actually love a fair amount of contingency and nonsense; those who can think of man with a considerable reduction of his value without becoming small and weak themselves on that account...

The problem with Clark is that he regards utopianism, the infantilizing deferral to an ideal future, as the aspect of modern life that requires most to be overcome. ‘Extremism,’ he says, ‘is the ticket to ride of our times.’ This is true. But so too is moderacy the ticket to ride of our times, if, by moderacy, we mean, as Clark does, the love of ‘a fair amount of contingency and nonsense.’ What Clark misses, and his missing it seriously hampers his efforts to think of modern life, is that infantilizing promises of escape from mortal existence are nowadays combined with ‘intellectualiizing’ feelings of love for mortal existence, in the ‘abandonment without reserve’ to mortal existence that Virno describes. Which is why modern life is so difficult to resist, combining as it does, a sense of belonging to the most fleetingly posited of ideals with a total cynicism about the extent to which anything has lasting merit; an opportunistic focus upon the most passing and finite of chances with a low-level but persistent anxious nostalgia for what might yet have been...


If, traditionally, the task of thinking was the task of operating about the margins of life, never ceasing, all day long, to settle here, there, and everywhere, then never ceasing, all day long, to settle here, there, and everywhere is now the most basic aspect of our condition, which is therefore not to be roused by the marginal styles. As a marginal concern, utopianism, for example, may indeed have been effective, operating in trickle-down fashion, to edify us with a vision of something better. And, as a marginal concern, interpretationism too might have been effective, operating in trickle-down fashion, to edify us with a sense that things might, at the very least, be otherwise. But, by now, utopianism and interpretationism have trickled down, and not in substance but in style, so that a contentless and infantilizing futurism and an it-might-always-have-been-otherwise, relativistic opportunism are the main constituents of modern life. For this reason, the fact that utopianism furnishes us with visions that are ‘heavy and ordinary and present-centred,’ just as interpretationism provides us with analyses that are ‘heavy and ordinary and present-centred,’ is the least of their problems. In societies in which they were marginal to strong and commonly-held prejudices, utopianism and interpretationism may still have had their effects; the engine may have idled, and somewhat lopsidedly, but it may still have been in better working order when it set off again. In our society, however, utopianism and interpretationism are marginal to nothing, and so the engine just keeps on idling; utopianism and interpretationism are adopted as styles of living, the ‘heavy and ordinary and present-centred’ content of any particular utopia or any particular interpretation being negligible by comparison with the style of thinking, the mode of living, it reinforces. This is why, as Clark puts it, nothing follows now from utopian visions and ‘rational’ interpretations: as, in our late-capitalist societies, there is no trickle-down of wealth, just of the speculation and consumption practices that generate it; so, in our late-capitalist societies, there is no trickle-down of ideas, just of the futurist and relativist thinking practices that generate them.

We must, then, say of Watkins and, partly, of Clark, as Watkins reports Lukács as saying of Nietzsche. ‘In his penetrating characterization,’ Watkins writes:

Lukács suggested that Nietzsche’s greatest gift was his ‘anticipatory sensitivity’ for what the disaffected intelligentsia of the imperial era would require; his dazzling aphorisms and wide cultural range would ‘satisfy its frustrated, sometimes rebellious instincts with gestures that appeared fascinating and hyper-revolutionary.’ The social function of Nietzsche’s writing was to rescue dissatisfied intellectuals who might be drawn to the alternative of the workers’ movement; on the basis of his philosophy, ‘one could go on as before – with fewer inhibitions and a clearer conscience – and feel oneself to be much more revolutionary than the socialists.’

Reading Watkins-style analyses, just as Clark observes of encounters with left-thinking visions of the future, has now the effect that Lukács describes, of allowing us to ‘go on as before.’ Only now, it is worse, for the dominant styles of thinking now satisfy not just would-be revolutionary intellectuals but everyone. For, there is a general intellectualism about modern life, a general high-mindedness and a general open-mindedness, a general mode of thinking that is, like the markets that are the gods of our time, utterly insubstantial but fascinatingly self-perpetuating.

The closing sentence of the opening section of Watkins’ article reads as follows: ‘This is a preliminary and personal reply; no doubt there will be many others.’ As preparation for what is to follow, it is unsurpassable, revealing of just that tripartite displacement of the present, which is the character of modern life and against which Clark’s article would argue. For, if we examine this simple sentence, we find it to contain all of the most important features of Watkins’ way of thinking, which: excuses itself on the grounds of a future that will provide something better; presents itself as no more than a personal reaction; and opens itself to the potential challenge of others. The future, the personal, and others: the three orientations whereby thinking in modern life removes the possibility of thinking of modern life. As the French group, Tiqqun, expresses it: ‘The commodity society now seeks to find its best supports in the marginalized elements of traditional society themselves – women and youths first, then homosexuals and “minorities.”’ (See Raw Materials for a Theory of The Young Girl) We might say that the marginals – women, children and ‘minorities’ – are now ‘in,’ via the infantilizing futurism, feminizing emotivism, ‘other’-orientedness of modern life. Which means, of course, that the margins cannot any longer give us a perspective on modern life, that Watkins’ ‘pluralistic perspective’ cannot think of modern life. Theorizing plurality, thinking multiplicity, as our academics are now so wont to do, is utter nihilism. It is the intellectualization of nihilism. These are the days ‘when nihilism speaks of happiness,’ says Tiqqun. These are the days when nihilism speaks of reason.

What, then, is it, to think of modern life?

The answer lies in Virno’s phrase, the one that describes the defining mode of modern life as ‘abandonment without reserve to our own finitude.’ The phrase implies two modes of resistance to modern life. The first is a downright denial of our finitude. But that will not do; Clark’s emphasis on the ordinary and heavy and present-centred nature of our reflections is the most recent in too long and convincing a philosophical criticism of Enlightenment hopes that reason and progress might be supported by some more-than-finite grounds.  ‘We are always affected, whether in hope or fear, by what is nearest to us...’

But the other possibility for resistance held out by Virno’s phrases is that we admit, but with reserve, our finitude, that we reserve something from our finitude. I believe that this is what it is, to think of modern life. What, then, does it involve?

To answer this question, it will help to return, one last time, to a brief account of what it is to abandon ourselves without reserve to our finitude. The primary object of Clark’s criticism is, as we have said, the utopianism that he believes to define the intellectual left in our time. But there are, as we have also said, two tricks that Clark misses here: one, is that the characteristics that Clark attributes to the intellectual left in our time are actually much more widely attributable to the nature of our time more generally; the other, is that, not only utopianism but interpretationism too, not only extremism but moderacy too, not only messianic faith but rational analysis too, have trickled down from their intellectual heights to constitute the dominant mode of experience in modern life, the ‘ticket to ride’ of our times. And it is this heady combination – of a specious utopianism (someday, surely...) and an empty interpretationism (that may be true for you, but...) – that makes for our abandonment without reserve to our finitude. We no longer recognize claims that purport to apply to anything or anyone other than this moment and me (design your own...; a package for now), unless those claims call forth a vision whose total unrelatedness to current conditions is in proportion to its total satisfaction of our need to belong to something greater than ourselves. Our buildings – so futuristic, with their steel and their glass; so plumb and so square – go up as instantaneously as they are designed to be pulled down. A year sometimes is beyond their endurance, their materials as deteriorated by tiny passages of time as they were suggestive, on first encounter, of an unimaginably future time; the future in every angle; the finite in every pore. Our clothes – make yourself over in a matter of seconds and very cheaply, in a the-future-is-now simple move; and have every unfinished seam, every degrading elastine component, every thinnest-weave cotton length, degrade at first contact with human form and movement. Everywhere we go now, everything we eat, sit on, wear and use, makes an onslaught of this pincer movement to an oh-so-infinite future and an oh-so-finite now. We are abandoned without reserve to our finitude, when we content ourselves with the most merely-human of satisfactions and the most utterly-inhuman of dreams.  

And our theories are like our houses and our clothes. ‘This is a preliminary and personal reply; no doubt there will be many others,’ writes Watkins, invoking, in one short introductory line, both the limitedness of merely human effort – so ‘personal,’ so ‘preliminary’ – and the ilimitedness of much-more-than-human validity – ‘preliminary’ and ‘many others’ would fold into this reply the truth of all possible replies.

What, then, would it be like to admit our finitude but with reserve? We humans can never be anything other than finite, never anything other than ordinary and heavy and present-centred. Our perspective can never be other than historical, or, as Clark would have it, tragic. So much, we admit. But we abandon ourselves to this admission when we allow it to prevent us from forming any opinion but the most vague, taking any action but the most omnilateral, thinking anything but the most abstract, adopting any perspective but the most pluralistic. Our situation is ordinary and heavy and present-centred, true, but we must act as if it is ours, we must stand up and claim it as our own, if we are not to be left with no situation at all. This is why the historical perspective, as we have called it here, is not the same in the applied admission as it is in the abstract admission: our abstract admission is unreserved – we are irreducibly finite beings; but our applied admission is reserved – yes, we are finite beings but we have reasons so good for what we see, what we think, and what we do, that we are willing to exclude other possibilities for seeing, thinking and doing in their defence. We act as if we are finite, not by abandoning ourselves to our finitude but by raising ourselves above it, not just by admitting our finitude but by denying it too.

But wait a moment. Is not this dual movement of admission and denial not just another version of what we have described Watkins’ approach as amounting to, that is, a combination of admitting the utterly finite nature of things while positing an infinite future? It is not. For, there is a vast difference, between the institutionalized, systematized, emptied-out admission/denial of Watkins-style thinking; and the rich, variable, and productive admission/denial of what I am recommending as the thinking of modern life.

In a short essay entitled ‘The Experience of Death,’ Gadamer reflects on what he describes as ‘the gradual disappearance of the representation of death in modern society.’ The funeral procession, once a common sight on the streets of our towns and cities, is all but gone; the expectation that family members will die in their homes or ours more or less unknown; the widespread use of morphine preventing us even from the experience of our own death. But what has disappeared is not straightforward, Gadamer warns. For, though, as he says, there are historical records to indicate that death-rituals are older even than language itself, what these records also show is that death-rituals, throughout history, share a common refusal to acknowledge death as the end, a common reference to some form of afterlife for the deceased. What has disappeared, then, is not a simple admission of human finitude, but a richly and variously ritualised admission in the form of denial, and denial in the form of admission. What we have today, says Gadamer, is also admission of human finitude (secular societies have relinquished hopes of the religious beyond) and denial of human finitude (secular societies outsource their confrontation to institutions and pharmaceuticals), but our admission and denial is brought to such ‘institutional perfection,’ as Gadamer describes it, is so systematic, so sterile, so emptied-out of content, that it amounts to what Virno calls the abandonment without reserve to our finitude, combining a total relinquishment of the rich mythologies of finitude with an infantile trust in institutions and practices so vast and impersonal that they are taken to have a merit much more than anything merely human. ‘As regards our enlightened cultural world,’ writes Gadamer, ‘it is not inappropriate to speak of an almost systematic repression of death,’ which is to say, an almost systematic, utterly unreserved, abandonment to it.

What we require, then, is a way of thinking that is not systematic in its admission/denial of our finitude, not sterile, not emptied-out, but that is rich, ritualised, productive and fulsome in its admission/denial of our finitude. The sterile futurism of our glass and steel cities has its reprimand still in the crumbling eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings it is gradually replacing, with their modest-but-immodest ‘Clark and Bros.’ or such like, sculpted into the stone lintel above the door. What is this, but an admission, with reserve, of human finitude, not refusing to nail one’s colours to the mast in the knowledge that one’s colours will inevitably fade, but acting in defiance of this fading and, by doing so, mastering it to some degree. We must learn to think as the Victorians learned to build, etching our thoughts and actions in stone and wagering they’ll outwit our finite existences.

Clark makes this wager, I think, venturing forth, as we have seen him do, with his interpretation of modern life, giving this interpretation all the content he can muster, concluding something from the varied landscape of modern life, identifying an ethos, forming and recording his impressions. Watkins criticizes Clark’s article for its use of asyndeton, ‘lists in which (for example) Franco, Pol Pot, Ayman al-Zawahiri are made to march in step, without so much as a conjunction between them; making one wonder whether Clark thinks that historical causality has any role to play.’ But Clark does not think that historical causality has any role to play, or rather, Clark thinks that historical causality is so complex, so ‘pell-mell,’ that the very most we can form are impressions of how it might be at work. Watkins also mentions Clark’s reliance on the present continuous tense – ‘We are seeing...’ But, what tense is a better one for the thinker of modern life? ‘The reader here may sometimes feel coerced as much as persuaded,’ continues Watkins. Is Clark to be criticised, then, because his impressions of modern life are so vivid, and so current, as to compel us to see what he sees? Not so; for, this is what it is like, to etch ‘Clark and Bros.’ in the stone over the door. It inspires trust. Here is a business that intends to stay. Here is an enterprise of substance. You need go no further than here...

The forming and describing of impressions of modern life is, then, one very effective way to think of modern life. Tiqqun, who compiled ‘materials for a theory’ and never gave them ‘coherence’ but sent them forth broad-blown and flush as May, explain this very well:

Except incorrectly speaking – which may be our intention – the jumble of fragments that follows in no way comprise a theory. They are materials accumulated randomly in encounters with, visits with, and observation of YoungGirls; pearls extracted from their newspapers and magazines; expressions gleaned in sometimes dubious circumstances, arranged in no particular order. They are gathered here under approximate headings...a bit of order had to be given to them. The decision to put them out like this, in all their incompleteness, their contingent origins, with all the ordinary excess of elements that would have comprised a nicely presentable theory if they were polished, cleaned out, and whittled down, means choosing trash theory for once. The cardinal ruse of theoreticians in general is that they present the result of their elaborations in such a way as to make the elaboration process itself no longer appear in them. In our estimation, this ruse doesn’t work any more in the face of today’s...attention span fragmentation. We’ve chosen a different one. Minds looking for moral comfort or for vice to condemn will find in these scattered pages but roads that will lead them nowhere. In fact we’re not so much trying to convert YoungGirls as we are trying to trace out all the corners of a fractalized batttlefront of YoungGirlization. And to supply the weapons for a hand to hand, blow by blow fight, wherever you may find yourself.

There is, however, another option than interpretation-as-impressionism, when it comes to the thinking of modern life. And it is, utopianism, but with a level of content and conviction to trump the infantilization and inertia that Clark describes so well in respect of the left. We might say, only dangerous utopianism will now do, taking something from Zizek’s most recent publication, which concedes something to Clark’s argument but then asks whether we cannot still have more. (See The Year of Dreaming Dangerously) Zizek’s answer is that we can, so long as we are willing and able to expand our thinking into the realm of believing. It is a dangerous game, of course, but it certainly affords us finite humans the chance of reserving something from our finitude.

The problem with Clark, according to Žižek, is that his understanding of ‘future’ is truncated, limited to the-future-that-comes-from-what-is-now (our future, we might say) and closed to that other sense of ‘future,’ the-future-that-is-to-come, unpredictably and miraculously (a future, we might say). Clark is right to claim that we have no future, Žižek accepts; our future, after all, is almost entirely veiled against our capacities to anticipate it. But there is still a future before us, Žižek insists, a future that does not merely follow from what is now but that comes from nowhere, as a bolt comes from the heavens, marking a shift in the course of things of a kind that, by definition, we can only imagine. Naturally, positing a future requires faith, Žižek admits. But not blind faith. Not an infantilizing faith. And certainly not an inert faith. For, positing a future requires of us that we begin, actively, to interpret events around us, aspects of modern life, as signs of a future, much as Kant, to whom Žižek refers, interpreted the enthusiasm of those onlookers to the French Revolution as a sign of a future as progress and enlightenment. By so interpreting modern life as offering signs of a future, we will go to constitute a future, such that, though we may not have our future (finite beings that we are), we can have a future if we believe in it and perform our belief.

At the end of the eighteenth-century, Kant urged us all to act as if. His argument was that, though we (finite) humans can never know that there is a grand purpose to human existence, we can and must act as if there is, in order for progress to ensue, making the most of those occasions (for Kant, experiences of the beautiful and the sublime) on which it really feels as if there is a great purpose to human existence. For, the wonderful thing is that if we act as if there is a great purpose to human existence, progress will ensue! Therein lies the force of the experiment: we can reserve something from our finitude by believing in something greater than it; we can transform our finite perspective by actively imagining beyond it. It is a risky business, of course. Progress, as Kant conceived of it (the advance of scientistic thinking and acting), though it ensued from the experiment he persuaded us to, did not turn out very well, arguably having given rise to the problems – of social, political, economic and environmental collapse – that are defining of modern life. But, it is worth another try, Žižek at least would convince us. And Clark, I think, would agree, with the single proviso that we make sure to act as if our imagined future already is, and not merely as if it will be.

Modern life issues the following imperative: put meat on the bones of our interpretations and our utopias, so that we may resurrect the skeleton that has been made by now of thought and of action. No doubt, this will seem barbarism, irrational and incoherent, to our stripped-down secular way of thinking, but rationalism and coherence have met their limit in the historical nature of human existence, which can be admitted, fully, truly, only with some degree of denial, only with some amount of reserve. Gadamer accepts that this would seem to leave ‘thinking little space for its work of conceptual questioning, grounding and justifying,’ but it is our task, in modern life, to make much of this little space, to make a kingdom indeed of this nutshell, for it is the extent of our domain.  


There is, however, one more feature of the thinking of modern life, one more way in which we must put meat back on the bones of thought and action, one more way in which we must reserve something from our finitude: the reinstatement of the literal. ‘I was literally blown away by what she said,’ is a version of what is so common a turn of phrase nowadays, ‘literally’ now most usually employed to introduce what is, in fact, a figure of speech! It is as if the departure from the literal to the figurative is no longer expressive enough, as if the literal must be reinvoked, but figuratively, for appropriate emphasis. And the upshot is nothing less than modern life’s gradual relinquishment of the very notion of reality. Just as interpretations have trickled down as style but not substance, and utopias have trickled down as style but not substance, so reality too is trickling down as style but not substance: the literal as figure; reality as turn of phrase.

In The Order of Things, Foucault tells of the transformation that took place, through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, from a world formed by the paradigm of ‘resemblance’ to a world formed by the paradigm of ‘representation.’ It is another in Foucault’s line of attempts to awaken in us a sense of the historical, the tragic if you will, nature of reality and of truth, which, in a world formed by the paradigm of ‘representation,’ have been taken to be the very opposite of historical: reality is that against which we have long understood the historical to stand forth (in all its merely finite humanness); and truth is that which we have defined as the accurate representation of reality.

But it was not always thus, Foucault would have us accept. In an age previous to ours, the truth or otherwise of words was not dependent upon the extent to which words represented things. On the contrary, words were things; that is, words enjoyed a kind of reality that we attribute only to things. Far from merely representing real things, words too were real. Foucault writes:

In the sixteenth century, real language is not a totality of independent signs, a uniform and unbroken entity in which things could be reflected one by one, as in a mirror, and so express their particular truths. It is rather an opaque and mysterious thing, closed in upon itself, a fragmented mass, its enigma renewed in every interval, which combines here and there with the forms of the world and becomes interwoven with them: so much so that all these elements, taken together, form a network of marks in which each of them may play, and does in fact play, in relation to all the others, the role of content or of sign, that of secret or of indicator. In its raw, historical sixteenth-century being, language is not an arbitrary system; it has been set down in the world and forms a part of it, both because things themselves hide and manifest their own enigma like a language and because words offer themselves to men as things to be deciphered. The great metaphor of the book that one opens, that one pores over and reads in order to know nature, is merely the reverse and visible side of another transference, and a much deeper one, which forces language to reside in the world, among the plants, the herbs, the stones, and the animals.

The binary opposition of words and things is, then, a modern invention, as Foucault tells it; in a previous time, things were like words, insofar as they were signs to be interpreted on the basis of various modes of resemblance between them and other signs, and words were like things, insofar as they had properties unto themselves and not only by virtue of their referential function. Words and things were, in effect, the same kind of thing! During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, this ‘profound kinship of language with the world was dissolved.’ Henceforth, words said things, that is, words referred to things and were nothing more than this referral.

But modern life is emerging from the cusp of another epochal divide, as great indeed as that which Foucault describes as having taken place during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a divide between The Age of Representation, and an age in which the binary structure of word-and-things is giving way to a unitary structure of words-and-more-words. This is The Age of Public Representation: in which words are all-in-all, concern with their accurate or otherwise representation of things increasingly anachronistic; in which that link between words and things, which had appeared to us unbreakable, is broken; in which the gold-standard notions of ‘reality’ and ‘realistic,’ have been dissolved.

Foucault describes the mode of being of language in The Age of Resemblance as simultaneously ‘plethoric’ and ‘poverty-stricken’: ‘plethoric,’ because, without The Age of Representation’s real world to put a stay upon potential for meaning, meaning is infinite, generated laterally, as it were, between words and words, and words and things, and things and things, without any word or thing being capable, for more than an instant, of operating as the guarantee or foundation of meaning; and ‘poverty-stricken’ for precisely the same reason, precisely because no word or thing can operate for more than an instant as the fountain of a wisdom that is any deeper than the next formulation of words or arrangement of things. And plethoric and poverty-stricken is our condition too, in our Age of Public Representation, in which there has been an explosive increase in communications proportionate to a dramatic decrease in the likelihood of their producing any real effect.

But, there is a crucial distinction between the mode of being of words in The Age of Resemblance and the mode of being of words in The Age of Public Representation. Foucault describes the binary relation of words and things in The Age of Representation as having gradually replaced a ternary relation between word/things and thing/words in The Age of Resemblance, in which the meaningfulness of any relation always required to be grounded, not, as in the Age of Representation, by a realm of things to which an unassailable privilege was granted, but by a third element, which would, though only momentarily and eminently assailably, guarantee some stability to the relation. The structure for such grounding was, as Foucault tells it, given by belief, in the Word of God, or of Nature, which operated to install the (albeit ideal) principle of limitedness at the heart of the otherwise endless proliferations of meaning that characterized the age. We might say that The Age of Representation secularized that limit, positing a real world of things as the unchanging grounding principle, and altering the ternary relation to a binary one. But our age, The Age of Public Representation, has relinquished even the secular limit, thus returning us to The Age of Resemblance but without the principle of limitedness that gave to that age its depth. Hence, the unitary, flattened-out character of meaning in modern life, which grows, like the capitalism with which it is inextricably bound, ‘with no point of departure, no end, and no promise.’


Paolo Virno describes the conventional mode of living and working (I would add: and of thinking) of modern life, as virtuosic. For Virno, the lack of an end to which our activity is oriented, together with the quintessentially public nature of work and of life (and of thought), means that we are all now in the mode of performers, active but non-productive, communicative because non-productive, active insofar as we are communicative. In other words, since we no longer typically make the things we use (clothes, for example), and since we no longer typically do very many of the things we talk about (eat family meals, for example), all we have are our communications about the making of things and the doing of things. To those still in the mode of things (those yet to have gone public), these communications appear as substitutes and therefore as painful to witness; to such people, communications about things can never substitute for the things themselves. But, to those who have gone public, these communications are glorious, and necessary. Without them, there would be nothing. They are the stuff of our times, not merely substitutes for the (lack of) stuff of our times. Which makes those of us who are of modern life into virtuousi, whose activity amounts to the occasioning of the witnessing of our activity...

And Watkins, and Clark too, are not exempt. The one glaring omission from both their reflections on the claim that we have no future is any consideration of the literal meaning of that claim. The evidence is underdetermining, of course, but authorities across the field now tell us, and have been telling us for some time, that the impact of global warming on the near future of our planet is set to be catastrophic; for many of us seven billion, it is literally true that we have no future. But neither Watkins nor Clark confronts this literal prospect. And, in this, they are truly of their time, which seems to talk and talk about ‘climate change’ without generating any sense that it has real implications. In fact, it is the topic of all others to suffer from virtuosity, that is, from the interpretational and utopian styles that have come to define modern life, with any sense of a real problem being utterly buried in a maniacal focus on the multiplicity of opinions on the topic and an infantile trust that it will all be all right in the end.

What is very interesting in this regard is that Watkins, in her desire to reject the implications of Clark’s tragic perspective, does strike forth from her fundamentally interpretationist style to invoke a literal truth. In the face of Auschwitz, she says, Clark’s view of history as shaped by the war of good with good cannot stand up; for, ‘that would be to impute some good to the perpetrators, some “ethical substance” to their deeds.’ But here we have a real sign of our times, a case of the literal as the greatest figure of all. Certainly, Watkins is not the first to claim for Auschwitz the status of ‘literal’ in the midst of proliferating figures. (See, for example, Lyotard's 'The Sign of History') But it will not now do. For Auschwitz, with its accompanying mantra of ‘never again,’ has operated by now to efface so many real atrocities, that it is one of the most powerful figures of our time. Auschwitz is not our literal. As it is used by Watkins, it is our figure for the literal. Meanwhile, there is a situation building that has long since demanded the kind of respect that only a literal truth can command. ‘There is a reality out there, and it is catching up with us fast...’

No comments:

Post a Comment