Sunday, December 25, 2005

History is linear

It seems to me that referring to history is often only one of those mental safety mechanisms that give us a sense of security rather than offer any serious new analysis of our present state and future course. Of course there are certain deeply meaningful themes and patterns (of which some words later) - yes, history is crucially relevant. But not in the way we popularly think. In reality we live in unprecedented times. Of our species history of ca 200 000 - 250 000 years 95% have been spent as hunter-gatherers, a majority of this time apparently without what we would today call specifically human culture, human language and self-awareness. After these huge expanses of time and experience followed then the agricultural era of ca 10 000 years, an age of empires and kingdoms, of great religions. The industrial age lasted roughly 200 years, ending with gigantic wars and holocausts.Now we are in most parts of the West and the "developed" world ca 50 years into the post-industrial age. Fifty years. How can we say, how could we imagine what will happen next?

History is linear, it has meaningful themes and patterns - a very controversial statement actually in today's postmodern academia. But apart from the various cul-de-sacs of French theory there are two basic competing ways to see this huge, inexplicable arc from scattered animal like groups without human culture to reality-tv and global capitalism. Or maybe they fundamentally complete each other. The optimistic school sees stubborn movement towards greater sophistication and complexity leading to increased self-awareness and control. History as a painfully slow and chaotic process of enlightenment. The more pessimistic version sees continuous gravitation to greater and greater forms of power fueled by our permanent, animal reflexes outside any rational control. Here we are: panicky apes with weapons of mass destruction.

As usual, I have tried to construct a messy, unsatisfactory middle way - I simply think there is no way to know yet which trend will turn out to be more significant. This experience with complex societies has been so recent, so short that we might only be witnessing the painful birth pangs of something unimaginably better. Certainly much also points towards the pessimistic, even apocalyptic views: so much aggressive, instinctual passion, so little wisdom and control. So many weapons, so many structural problems. We live in unprecedented times - and I do have a certain fearful sense that we are engaged in a race with time. Trends collapse, histories end, species die out. Who could say: we live in unprecedented times.

Postscript: There is of course a third, and currently quite prevalent, view with which I have some sympathy - to deny all coherence from history, and to see all constructions of logic and shape exactly as such, as purely "artificial" constructions out of fundamental formlessness. I too think that history is fundamentally random in the sense that nothing is pretermined and everything is determined by chaotic, unique constellations. At the moment. Of course, to say even this is to say that history has coherence beyond any individual view point, that it has unmistakeable linearity and direction. We only are not in the position to say how temporary those apparent trends turn out to be: what we have now is only this one brilliantly shooting arc with no ability as yet to determine its fundamental nature and direction or lack of them.


Anonymous said...

It is somewhat disturbing to read this posting of yours. Here I was feeling great about us and what we have achieved and now you crushed it all by pointing out that we barely know where we are coming from and especially where we are heading. Seems to me that we have, as a species, reached the point in our developement where we are starting to ask the right questions but the answers have to wait for the more enligtened times. Here the time is, in my mind, a crucial factor. Do we have enough of it before we find the answers? It is totally absurd to expect that our "reign" will last for ever, since nothing will. Granted that during the next one hundred years a lot of present confusion will be wiped out by the sciences, especially in the fields of biology and anthropology. The most likely, in the short term anyway, we will just incubate more and better questions. Of course this all will be a moot point if in our irresponsibility we will destroy our, as it turned out to be, fragile space ship.

helsinkian said...

The middle way may be messy but it's the realistic one, it's all we really have unless we become delusional. There are too many delusions of grandeur in the optimistic way and the pessimists don't see that with the help of language, knowledge and communication our time is witnessing new opportunities for a better and more peaceful coexistence.

In the end the random factor is out there behind the scenes; better or worse things will always happen. Usually with a new era we always tend to witness both. The smarter we humans become, the easier it becomes to cure deadly diseases but also easier to develop even deadlier ones as a matter of warfare. As we know, we have enormous potential which we're also wasting. It's not the waste of time and money that I'm worried about but evil. The desire to power is the worst threat when it is realized by the wrong person. Think about Stalin and how he envisioned progress and led his country to the nuclear age. He just happened to be a mass murderer.

No civilization is immune to the lure of the tyrant and evil can manifest itself in so many ways. Weapons of mass destruction in the wrong hands can turn the tide of history. If we're not careful, we can be bombed back to the stone age.

stockholm slender said...

I do agree about the point of asking the right questions - or even asking reasoned questions. We in many ways are there but we lack the ability to find any answers, and the ability to act reasonably as a collective. We simply have no idea beynd the shor term where our actions will lead. To me this seems like a very pracarious situation indeed. Our technology is getting more sophisticated and deadly every year, but wisdom and reason don't seem to develope at all.