Monday, July 18, 2016

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

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)
Let's call it M-normativity (Habermas' normative fiat).

M-normativity = self-normativity. 

How could M-normativity happen in vacuo?

Norms are standards, i.e., measures (whether quantitative or qualitative) of comparison. And a comparison presupposes differences.

But when it comes to M what are we comparing? Certainly not what comes before M, which is prohibited by M-normativity!

Obviously redundant.

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

In Chapter 1 of PDM, Habermas provides two prominent examples of self-normativity: Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin.

Baudelaire, in his 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 ephemeral: "... the authentic work is radically bound to the moment of its emergence, precisely because it consumes itself in actuality." (PDM, p. 9).

Agree, but that doesn't mean that Baudelaire has M-normativity in mind –when in the following paragraph of his famous essay 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.
This is clearly the kind of negotiation between epochal standards that M-normativity prohibits. Baudelaire is saying that "modern" is trans-historic. It can apply to Baudelaire's present (circa 1863), as much as it applies to Greek painter Phidias (circa 440 BC)!

Next, Benjamin, in his 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.
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. 
Benjamin use of "Messianic" is not exactly the kind of future Habermas has in mind, since it goes against the grain of M-normativity. "Messianic" is –epochally speaking– ancient/medieval. How could Benjamin, a M-theorist, use chronological "non-oppositional" terms to define M standards?

Habermas aligns himself with another prominent M-theorist, Hans Blumenberg. According to Blumenberg each epoch is given by a particular criteria, until a new vision of the world becomes necessary. The transition from "ancient" to "medieval" is defined by the idea of "creation ex-nihilo." The preamble to the modern age is the nominalist God of Okham. The Enlightenment is (within Modernity) 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.

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.


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.