Discover more from Imperfect notes on an imperfect world
Not quite here, but yet at hand
Thinking at twilight
With each new incident or disaster, a rush to place it within a frame, to enlist it to a narrative. In our eagerness to decipher the meaning of the moment we miss that what is occurring might simply beyond our capacity to comprehend and order, or that it has not yet crystalised. Too soon, not yet at hand.
Paul Valery in 1931 foreshadowing Ulrich Beck’s ‘risk society’ thesis:
The effects of effects, which were formerly imperceptible or negligible in relation to the length of a human life and to the radius of action of any human power, are now felt almost instantly at any distance…
There is no prudence, wisdom, or genius that is not quickly baffled by such complexity, for there is no more duration, continuity, or recognizable causality in this universe of multiple relations and contacts. Prudence, wisdom, and genius can be identified only by a series of successes; once accident and disorder are predominant, an expert or inspired game is in no way different from a game of chance; the finest gifts miscarry.
Hence the new politics are to the old what the short-term calculations of a stock market gambler - the nervous spurts of speculation on the floor of the exchange, the sudden fluctuations and reverses, the uncertain profits and losses - are to the old patriarchal economy, the slow, careful accumulation of a patrimony.... The long-pursued schemes and profound thought of a Machiavelli or a Richelieu would today have no more reliability and value than a "stock market tip."
What Valery saw in outline, Beck saw in detail when viewing the post-Cold War world:
Global risks are a kind of collective return of the repressed, wherein the self-assurance of the industrial capitalism, organized in form of nation-state politics, is confronted with the source of its own errors as an objectified threat to its own existence.
The geological faults laid bare by the global risks in world politics have served to frustrate routine expectations and to doom the trusted instruments of theory and politics to failure.
At the end of his life Beck tried to give voice to the conditions he saw through the concept of ‘metamorphosis’, which attempts to highlight the ‘in-between-ness’ of our present conditions.
There is now a common analytical tendency to roll out Antonio Gramsci’s line about the interregnum to describe present conditions, as it undeniably captures something of a period defined in negative terms, by what it is not, what is missing or disappearing. In itself, however, it only takes us so far.
Whereas Olaf Scholz has spoken of ‘Zeitenwende’ - times-turn, a historical turning point - more appropriate is ‘zwischen den Zeiten’ - between the times - a frame adopted by interwar German theologians Karl Barth and Friedrich Gogarten. The latter wrote:
It is the destiny of our generation to stand between the times. We never belonged to the period presently coming to an end; it is doubtful whether we shall ever belong to the period which is to come…. So we stand in the middle - in an empty space. We stand between the times.
Is this again our destiny? Is this where we find ourselves once again?
The first World War was truly a world-ending war, something that Joseph Roth so powerfully captured. In this sense, the emptiness of the interwar period was much more definite. We might again stand between the times, but if so, we likely remain closer to what was than what is to come.
Consider Hannah Arendt’s reflections from 1946:
For the decline of the old, and the birth of the new, is not necessarily an affair of continuity; between the generations, between those who for some reason or other still belong to the old and those who either feel the catastrophe in their very bones or have already grown up with it, the chain is broken and an “empty space,” a kind of historical no man's land, comes to the surface which can be described only in terms of “no longer and not yet.” In Europe such an absolute interruption of continuity occurred during and after the First World War.
This comes from Arendt’s review of Hermann Broch’s, The Death of Virgil, a dreamlike rendition of living in the interstice. From the pivotal dialogue between Virgil and Caesar in the novel:
“No longer and not yet,”—Caesar, much dismayed, was weighing these words— “and between them yawns an empty space.” …
“We stand between two epochs, Augustus; so call it expectancy, not emptiness.”
Hegel’s owl of Minerva might take flight at dusk, yet it is not so easy to see clearly in the dim light: outlines and shadows blur together; the dreamlike confusion of Broch’s text is no accident. This forms one of the larger aims of the project, which is the task of thinking at twilight. Scanning the horizon, attempting to distinguish lines and forms. In doing so, it is also important to appreciate how in the dim light it is possible to be tricked by shadows, to see what is not there. Part of this is being humble about our capacity to see clearly in any conditions.
To finish with another quote that gestures towards the period of the empty space, writing in 1912, Emile Durkheim in Elementary Forms of the Religious Life observed:
In a word, the old gods are growing old or already dead, and others are not yet born… But this state of incertitude and confused agitation cannot last forever. A day will come when our societies will know again those hours of creative effervescence, in the course of which new ideas arise and new formulae are found which serve for a while as a guide to humanity…
Not quite here, but yet at hand. That appears our common fate once again. How to think and act in such conditions, that is our question.