Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Communism, Nazism, et al, to come

It may be impossible to destroy the capitalist system completely. Marx showed its necessary flaws, and more than half a century later Derrida showed the necessary flaws of a system of differences, the lack of a metaphysics of presence which, paradoxically, makes metaphysics, or a notion of metaphysics, essential. And perhaps it is thus so with Marx’s idea of the flaws that will eventually bring down capitalism. But if we take Derrida’s account of the flaws in a text, where an argument is shown to be internally inconsistent due to the different meanings that can be teased out of a text, then we can expect such flaws to occur.

If we take one of Derrida’s more controversial assertions - that “all is text” - as pointing to a grander meaning of a “text”, and yet always interpretive as a text must be, with literary allusions which are creative and, maybe concerned with truth, but definitely not finding it. Rather, that all our perceptual tools have this interpretive element, that signs always allude to other signs, that there is a chain of meaning which, for all intents and purposes, does not end. However, we must believe it will end, or that it began, and in doing so we create the conditions for language, not underpinned by an actual metaphysics of presence, but rather underpinned by the hope of such a presence. Language flies away from us, and we believe that it was once ours, that we owned it, authored it, and once had (or will have) a kind of complete control over it.

In ancient myths about chaos, perhaps what is being conveyed is not the chaos of the natural world, but rather the chaos of language. Or, the chaos of the natural world, as portrayed in such stories, alludes to the chaos, where language slips away metaphorically, always in an ambiguous way, where such a slippage can never be identified but rather there is this posthumous feeling of such a slippage. And underpinning this idea of slippage is this idea of a metaphysics of presence which is a sort of origin point, that there was a fall from grace (like the bible tells us). This sense can never be completely eradicated, but it is a type of nostalgia, it was, or it will be. It is this same sense that we find in fantasy novels and science fiction novels (utopian or dystopian alike). They are to come, and they are extensions of our hopes and dreams, or our fears and nightmares. What is to come? In a very real sense, or should I say textual sense, we can examine what is to come. This is not some exercise in divining the future in its actuality, but rather it is an exercise in divining what was to come in the past, and perhaps even gain some insight into the shape of popular metaphysics, or mainstream metaphysics. The hope of a metaphysics of presence takes different shapes. What can these shapes (I use the term understanding its inappropriateness completely) tell us about society, or the shifts and turns that take place in this originary “place” (never a place), or the hopes of that which is to come, and how revolution overtook a conservative mythology of romanticism, paralleled by the rise of the science fiction novel. At this point, metaphysics becomes focussed on what is to come. Not completely, but there is a definite shift.

To describe this shift, cultural, metaphysical, mythological, we cannot get away from Karl Marx. For it his ideas which in some crucial ways exemplify this shift away from a more mythological outlook - a focus on the past as an originary explanation - towards a forward looking hope of a presence to come. That is not to say that one overtook the other, or that there is a clear distinction between the two. Rather, revolution brings with it a promise, and Marx’s doctrine of the proletariat promised a revolution to come, an emancipation from capitalism towards a presence. At the centre of the Marxist doctrine is the notion of alienation that is at the heart of capitalism, the notion that those within the capitalist system are alienated from the true nature of what it means to be human through the processes of production and exploitation. Right there we see an appeal to an absent centre, a true nature to come. Indeed, it is in the future that Marx puts his hopes, both encouraging revolution and determining that the system will collapse under its own weight. This promise, a messianicity as Derrida calls it, is a hope in the future.

Marx was a product (albeit a brilliant one, and I say this with tongue planted firmly in cheek) of his age, an age of revolution, and the ascendency of a Middle Class. There was a widespread hope in the future, of what is to come. It is also interesting that Marx’s socialism was nationless, a hope of an end of distinctions, a global effort. This ending of distinction, a one world order, signifies the end of language itself. The vagueness of Marx and Engels’ doctrine when he reaches this point shows a disparity. It is a disparity which lies in an ending. The system they had become obsessed with, tied to with their own criticism of it, meant that they could not leave it, and ultimately could only suggest the death of that system to signify an end to contemporary distinctions such as the nation state. Thus, the ending of capitalism could only ever be an ending, filled with a notion of hope of what is to come - a true essence of humanity. What is it? We’ll know it when we see it. Thus the ending needs some sort of a notion of hope of the revealing of a complete presence of humanity. And it is at this point that language fails Marx and Engels. It is this point where contemporary distinctions are destroyed, and it is at this point, a death, where the messianicity inherent within Marxism shows itself. An essence for humanity, to come, always to come. And there is no way of getting away from this leap of faith. All we can do is decide whether or not it is a wise leap to take.

On the other side of the coin, we have nationalism, the great defender of the distinctions of yesterday, of yesterday itself. To take an extreme case study, Nazi Germany shows us the extent to this modern form of nationalism. But I would like to propose another term, taken from mythology, to describe such a notion. It is ancestor worship, the worship of past, to be recreated, always to be recreated. It is a nostalgia for an essence to be rediscovered. The Gaelic revival in Ireland is another example of such a nostalgia. And always there is a hope that the past was ideal, and that it can come again, that the true essence of Ireland or Germany will be realised, or recaptured. Considering the perception in both countries of an implosion of the meaning of Irishness or Germaness at the time, and the lack of faith in governments in the two countries, it is not surprising that an essence was searched for with such vigour, a true essence, a metaphysics to come, to be recaptured, always to come. For Marx, it was the revolution which would bring about the presence of the human, completely present, total, without distinction, and, as a consequence almost, Marx was without a language or syntax to talk about this post-capital world to come. It is in a similar vein that the Nazis worshiped a vague, quasi-scientific notion of the Aryan race, a Germanic race, once united in some forgotten or alternative past, and to be reunited against a common enemy. Once defeated, the revelation awaits - the revelation of the reunified race, of its supremacy and domination, to come.

What’s more, both Marx’s and the Nazi Party’s respective ideologies have another aspect in common with each other. Both share a determination, one concerned with the past and hence the future, the other concerned with the future primarily, that there will be a great revealing of essence and presence. Germany’s search for a real Germany, one not crippled by a massive war debt, and Marx’s search for a real humanity, free from the shackles of capitalism, both lead to a massive appetite, in a sense, for an end of distinction. A huge appetite for that which creates distinction, a voracious appetite. Because this appetite is based on something which is to come, a presence to be revealed, in a very real sense it knows no bounds. For, if Derrida’s notion of presence which is always to come, or which always relies on a leap of faith in(to) the notion of presence itself - in the truth of a particular ideology - then such an appetite will never be satisfied. Or, as Marx hints at, it can be satisfied only through death and the end of language. And this itself is impossible.

In the moment, it cannot be satisfied, as a theory in abstract form. That is not to say that it can have no effect in the world. On the contrary. If we go back to the Nazis for a second, we can see how such an ideal, to come, can lead to human suffering on an unimaginable scale. The Aryan race, already dominant, and yet there was a dominance to come. It was a dominance which implied a purge of those impure within German society, those who were not German, not Aryan. The lack of hesitation on the part of those who perpetrated these acts point to a deterministic belief that once this is done, then the purity of Germany, the presence (or the real) Germany, the essence of the country will be revealed. To come. Always to come. Without an understanding of this, an insatiable monster is born. History has seen this happen. Unfortunately, it has happened more than once.

And of Marxism? It too has seen similar kinds of atrocities in its archive. We can see this same desire for purity, the idea that there is one way for humanity (a true way) and that there are no others stems from the implications inherent within Marx’s doctrine of alienation. If mankind is alienated from its true nature due to the capitalist system, and it is only through the overturning of this system that a liberation from alienation and (supposedly because of this liberation) a natural collapse into essence and true nature. This is singular. There is only one essence. This is quite natural - the Nazis only had one rightful race - but it too leads to a similar insatiable appetite to eliminate. This drive to eliminate is in order to preserve, but it is always to preserve that which is to come. And therein lies the madness, the unstoppable monsters that can be created in the search for essence - in the search for an end to language itself, a stillness which whispers to us in our imagination, at the edge and right in the centre, never there but always to come.

Can I call this search evil? No. It is this search which itself creates the conditions for language, as Derrida holds. It is both a basis for language, and the divergence that occurs, away from the presence and essence of language (to come). It is a leap of faith and, as I have said before, all of us must take it. Even if we go back to Descartes, and ponder for a moment upon his own leap of faith, away from us beings for whom there may exist nothing outside our own experience (an implication of his famous assertion, "I think therefore I am"), and who are this possibly being deceived at all moments, towards an external world of some description. Descartes holds that the thing which ensures that there is an external world is God. We may scoff at such an assertion, but perhaps Descartes is just doing what he can, in that he is taking a natural step. It is a more blatant step than other thinkers, probably because a notion of God has fallen out of favour in many different sectors of society, but perhaps it is a necessary step.

Kierkegaard wrote that truth is faith, ultimately, and a condition for a truth, any truth, requires belief. Even evidence-based truth has its limits, as Hume showed. To take this leap of faith belief in a presence of something (upon which said belief is based) is conceived as a concrete thing akin to Plato’s theory of the forms. Essentially, it becomes something which is perceived to exist for all places in all times, and hence is considered as marking an end to (or preceding) language. And no single definition at all would be possible without such a sense of the finality of truth. But it is a drive, perhaps, rather than a thing.

We have seen the terrible things that such a search can do. But this ideality to come may also lead to a more peaceful outlook on life. It’s not all bad. But we should be cautious. This would be a healthy approach. If we throw ourselves into an idea, we must somehow acknowledge the fact that we are more like creative consultants than passive followers within the system of this idea. And the idea, then, becomes another piece of art, and belief can be qualified by this creative aspect, that you can help shape this belief, that you can leave it behind, engage with it without holding it as a primary reason for motion. In fact, art is the antidote for this sort of thing, and the more you engage with art both as an artist and as someone who enjoys art, the more able you are to allow other (shall we call them) occupants of that notion of an essence.

In recent years consumerism has come to occupy such a position, as the thing which fills this alternative. Art is more widespread than ever, thanks to the internet. We like to think of ourselves as a post-ideological people. And we worry desperately about the lack of meaning in the world, about our children, and a world where neighbors no longer say hello. We fill this void within ourselves with things of little to no consequences, or at least no far-reaching consequence. With simulations, as Baudrillard calls them. And yet, as has been shown, ideology can be a terrible thing, and terrible things can be borne out of it.

It is as if we wished for something past these horrible things done in the name of ideology and our wish was granted. Considering a wish, we must also consider belief. For our beliefs are filled with wishes. Taking into account the role of belief in ideology, as Kierkegaard holds, I am reminded of that old proverb:

Be careful what you wish for.

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