Monday, January 8, 2018

Deflating Modernity (Part 3): The hubris of self-normativity

Modernity gives birth to its own normativity (Joffra Bosschart, Kali, 1978) 

How is an a priori history possible? When the soothsayer causes and contrives the events that he proclaims in advance. Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age

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We open with a high-flown assertion:
Modernity no longer will borrow the criteria by which it takes orientation from the models supplied by another epoch: is has to create its normativity out of itself. Modernity sees itself cast back upon itself without any possibility of escape. (PDM, p.7)
What's important here is "out of itself." Imagine a vertical axis of epochal space vs. an horizontal axis of epochal constitution. From the vertical axis M gets no contact with the outside. From its horizontal axis, M creates itself ex nihilo. A true Messianic miracle! Hegel's dream was turned into law by the Hegelian Left (as programme for revolution) and by the Right (as Christian soteriology).

Today, M is a solid part of history. The lesson is that dreams come true. Yet, is it insane to posit the possibility that history cheated? Or better, could history not cheat and cover it with more cheating?

For now, self-normativity = M-normativity  

Norms are standards, measures (whether quantitative or qualitative). Norms are constantly negotiated as descriptions and re-descriptions of the world. They are up for comparison, which presupposes difference. Terms such as "good," "beautiful," "wrong," "unjust," "permissible, "inappropriate,"  don't, can't, exist in isolation. When it comes to M what are we comparing? An epoch is conscious of itself through a similar process of juxtaposition. In this respect, Hegel provides a persuasive argument in his Science of Logic about how a thing (whatever) constructs its ground.
Ground is the unity of identity and difference, the truth of what difference and identity have turned out to be –the reflection-into-self, which is equally a reflection-into-other, and vice-versa. It is essence put explicitly as a totality (§121).
The point is that M's ground already contains a reflection into-self vs. into-other.

((As the M-theorist seeks for further evidence, he only finds more incongruity))

In Chapter 1 of The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (PDM here) Habermas provides two examples of how self-normativity proceeds.

From Baudelaire (in The Painter of Modern Life)
By "modernity" I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and immutable…This transitory, fugitive element, whose metamorphoses are so rapid, must on no account be despised or dispensed with.
Habermas interprets the paragraph above as the "authentic work is radically bound to the moment of its emergence, precisely because it consumes itself in actuality." (PDM, p. 9).

How could Baudelaire have M-normativity in mind –when in the following paragraph he adds:
There was a form of modernity for every painter of the past; the majority of the fine portraits that remain to us from former times arc clothed in the dress of their own day. They are perfectly harmonious works because the dress, the hairstyle, and even the gesture, the expression and the smile (each age has its carriage, its expression and its smile) form a whole, full of vitality.
What Baudelaire is doing is negotiating an opening between epochal standards that M-normativity prohibits. For Baudelaire the "modern" is trans-historic. It applies to Baudelaire's present (circa 1863), as much as it applies to Greek painter Phidias circa 440 BC! The Baudelairean modern is trans-modern.

From Walter Benjamin (in On the Concept of History XVII):
A historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where he encounters it as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the sign of a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past. He takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history—blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out of the lifework. As a result of this method the lifework is preserved in this work and at the same time canceled; in the lifework, the era; and in the era, the entire course of history. The nourishing fruit of what is historically understood contains time in its interior as a precious but tasteless seed.
This is Benjamin at his most epiphanic. The revolutionary encounters the subject as monad. Is this not a reference to Leibniz? Self-aware, indivisible, self-sufficient recollections of the absolute reflection of the outside? Benjamin wills his epoch out of history's course (i.e., the narratology of history)  through an explosive force (aufzusprengen) which reminds one of Nietzsche's "will to power" (Wille zu Macht). And Benjamin hopes that no systemic energy is lost in the process: Spent energy miraculously preserved -even against the course of time- contravening laws of entropy by perforce of Messianic cessation. The result is that of a congealed era in the form of a seed. One senses Benjamin metaphor-twisting aiming at a sort of Spinozean immanence: As everything is connected, the self/monad becomes the seed/epoch (an obscure poetic maneuver that would not satisfy a Frankfurt critic like Theodor Adorno). Remember, M-normativity is divorced from any connectivity.

Here's Habermas' opinion:
The consciousness of time expressed in Benjamin is not easy to classify. A singular mixture of surrealist experiences and motifs from Jewish mysticism enter unmistakably into his notion of now-time (jetztzeit) . 1
Benjamin's future may not be exactly what Habermas has in mind. In OCH, XIV, Benjamin declares:
History is the object of a construction whose place is formed not in homogenous and empty time, but in that which is fulfilled by the here-and-now. 
What throws Habermas off is Benjamin's penchant for presentism, his now-time (jetztzeit) this all-absorbing now that contains everything there is. In XV we find a promising clue:
The consciousness of exploding (aufzusprengen) the continuum (Kontinuum) of history is peculiar to the revolutionary classes in the moment of their action. 
The exhortation calls for exploding the continuum of history. But this continuum cannot be a timeless blob (since history presupposes a beginning), nor a momentary cut (since any "now" one thinks of is already "outside" the continuum). In any case, the section moves back and forth from the "chronological" to the "oppositional." Benjamin, the M-theorist, wants to have it both ways.2

the M-theorist's insatiable gluttony (Georg Emanuel Opiz, Der Völler, 1804)

Habermas now aligns himself with M-theorist, Hans Blumenberg. In his monumental Legitimacy Of the Modern Age, Blumenberg suggests normative criteria for each epoch until a new vision of the world becomes necessary. A key concept is "self-assertion" (Selbstbehauptung), a central feature of the modern rational worldview. First, the transition from "ancient" to "medieval" is defined by the idea of "creation ex-nihilo." The preamble to the modern age is characterized by the nominalist God of Okham. The Enlightenment is the attempt to hide the historicity of Being (Blumenberg calls this period "false Modernity").

Each of these moments represent an epochal change (Gegenständigkeit, translated as "oppositionality") as opposed to (Inständigkeit or "extrapositionality"). Blumenberg presents two axes: "the world" and "human action in the world."

Gegenständigkeit is grounded in the Cartesian method and Husserl's Phenomenology where "world" and "action in the world" are within a continuum. Inständigkeit, on the other hand, is a rejection of the former, exemplified by Heidegger's anti-humanism, i.e., the rejection of reason, religion and tradition. Blumenberg proposes that the theological absolutism of the late Middle Ages prompted a radical break which resulted in an epochal self-assertion.

The founding of an epoch comes about only after a sense of crisis. What happens before needs to be surpassed. But with M this is out of the question. How does M surmounts the authority to invest itself in vacuum? According to Hegel, an epoch rises from the dissolution of the immediate, the pre-given form of social and cultural unity, the historic condition that he describes as diremption (Entzweiung). But it doesn't happen as a confrontation to the outside, but as self-anihilation, a sort of M pulling itself from its bootstraps.3

Habermas is more radical in his defense of self-normativity than Koselleck or Blumenberg.
Koselleck has characterized modern-time consciousness among other ways in terms of the increasing difference between "the sense of experience" and the "horizon of expectations": My thesis is that in modern times the difference between experience and expectation has increasingly expanded, more precisely that modernity is first understood as a new age from the time that expectations have distanced themselves evermore from all previous experience. (PDM, p. 12)
Could the M-theorist really explain why there is no "historic consciousness" before M?

To prove M-normativity Habermas needs a radical cut, but so far, he hasn't produced it.

Slowly we begin to find the cracks in the M-normativity frame.

Next: How the overlap of Modernity/Post-Modernity shatters M-normativity.

1 Perhaps Habermas is reading Baudelaire with too much of Benjamin's messianism in mind, though this is not the place to make that claim, which I leave the reader to explore in this interesting essay by Sonam Singh.According to Singh, Benjamin's methodology doesn't fully apprehend Baudelaire's fantastic rethoricity, as the former selectively sutures Baudelaire to accommodate his messianism.  
2 Adorno's resistance to Benjamin's essay comes from a different ideological place, but Benjamin's obscurity is part of the problem. Adorno writes: "Between myth and reconciliation, the poles of his philosophy, the subject evaporates. Before his Medusan glance, man turns into the stage on which an objective process unfolds. For this reason Benjamin’s philosophy is no less a source of terror than a promise of happiness." Some well-known scholars opine that this observation only speaks of Adorno's conceptual stiffness. See, Sonam Singh essay above. 3 Hegel still carries Schelling's notion of the Absolute, since it is through a version of intellectual intuition, rather than conceptual thought, that we can construct the Absolute in consciousness. There are two parts here: the "subjective" subject/object (intelligence or Geist) and "objective" subject-object (nature), both terms—subjectivity and objectivity, or freedom and nature—are both posited in their identity and suspended in their difference and viceversa. See McGrath and Carew, Rethinking German Idealism, Chapter 4.


Robert Linsley said...

the middle finger is a good tag for this one, and maybe for all your posts. That's why I like them. But self normativity, or self definition, is not theory for an abstract artist - it's what they live. There are no external standards, and art that claims there are is bad art - like Mondrian for example. Or Rothko, or Richter. Or maybe you could say that the only standards external to a given work are the achievements of the past. I don't think that fact would be enough to destroy self-normativity.

Alfredo Triff said...

Tx, Robert, well, you've presented an interesting challenge. My point is almost to question self-normativity on the grounds of the paradox it presents. How to rule oneself without other rules?

Robert Linsley said...

you can't solve a paradox, but you can live it.

Alfredo Triff said...

Very true indeed.