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Response to Review of History in the Discursive Condition: Reconsidering the Tools of Thought

This book focuses on a central problematic, one that I have developed in various earlier work and brought here in one volume together with some discussion of implications. The problem is to answer the question: what fundamentally is at stake, practically speaking, in the homologous departures from six centuries of modernity by various physicists, philosophers, artists, musicians, politicians. The confluence across the range of practice is by now undeniable, and it seems to me that the stakes are high and have too long been trivialized by some cultural interpreters, perhaps especially by historians. The book offers two fundamental steps. First, a definition of that threshold between two quite different cultural paradigms: one founded by faith in neutrality, the other founded in language; the former the modern condition (Eurocentric societies, roughly from 1400 to 2000); and the latter the discursive condition rooted in the infinite plurality of semiological systems (also in Eurocentric societies since roughly 1850 and ongoing in the present). The book then turns in the second part to some implications of this cultural shift, tracing what happens in the discursive condition to familiar empiricist ideals concerning identity and agency, time, method, and art’s role in social renewal.

The reviewer, Mr Macfie, focuses mainly on the first issue just mentioned, the overriding foundational difference between modernity and what is succeeding it, and he focuses as so many do not on the heart of the matter, which is the invention and perpetuation of neutrality in the culture of modernity. Given this intelligent reading I regret having to begin with the terminological tangle he creates in the process around the terms ‘modern’ and ‘modernism’. Clearly I have failed to convey the degree to which modernism has very little to do with modernity (a slight, but only a slight exaggeration).

Modernism belongs to a brief period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its productions in the realm of ‘art’ (if we can still use that term) were self conscious and stylized and suggest a final push of modernity to ‘save the essences’ – a phrase I coined (in Realism and Consensus) in response to Owen Barfield’s phrase for medieval art as an engine for ‘saving the appearances’.

Modernity belongs to the era from (roughly) 1400 to 1900 in Europe and includes everything from so-called realism in painting to the foundations of modern science. It would be interesting to discuss all the ways in which this modernity, and the neutrality crucial to it, produced its yet-to-be catalogued main branches over half a millennium and eventually reached some kind of phoenix fire in modernism, the final, simplified, intense, but comparatively limited effort to save the essences of modernity.

Mr Macfie’s review repeatedly collapses this distinction between modernity and modernism. The end of modernity is profoundly consequential. The end of modernism is relatively trivial by comparison. Confusing them obscures the key focus of the book, which is the high stakes involved in departing from modernity. A reference to ‘the modern condition’ is immediately contradicted by the ‘… gloss ‘(postmodernism)’’. He suggests that I say (I do not say ) that ‘modernism’ emerged out of the medieval Christian world; what I think I say is that ‘modernism’ emerged near the end of six centuries of modernity.  Mr Macfie works within a scholarly culture that, for whatever reasons either explicit or obscure, has hopelessly confused the key terms we have agreed to use in discussing a profound change in the culture of the West. The term modernism has become so invested in value that it need not mean anything exactly; it has become one of those ‘mana’ words Levi Strauss talked about that function as place holders for meaning, rather than anything more specific. To the extent this is the case it will thwart any meaningful discussion of what exactly is and is not at stake in a shift beyond modernity. Thus the academy strikes another blow for the status quo.

Mr Macfie focuses, with a couple of exceptions, on the key terms and arguments of the book with regard to the neutrality of modern (NOT ‘modernist’) time and space. That neutrality makes possible the kind of measurement essential to modern (NOT ‘modernist’) science. That neutrality makes possible distinctions between past, present and future that sustain historical explanation, the final triumph of modernity (NOT ‘modernism’). That neutrality made possible the objectification of the world and thus the creation of the ‘objects’ that we still assume are independent of our measurement, despite personal and scientific evidence to the contrary. (To speak of medieval ‘objects’ would be a bit like referring to the Homeric idea of ‘self’: projecting something recent and ‘modern’ into something ancient where it has no place). ‘Objects’ belong to the modern (NOT ‘modernist’) world; we cannot say that our ‘objects’ existed in the medieval world, not even that most interesting of all objects, ‘the subject’. It is hard to say what ‘objects’ are once they are viewed from within the discursive condition where they do not exist as univocally as they have existed in the modern condition.

I belabor this point to emphasize and confirm  Mr Macfie’s strongest point: his recognition of the difficulty involved in even perceiving, much less deliberately departing from, the habits and expectations codified by modernity (NOT ‘modernism’). Discussing the discursive condition does not lend itself to the easy objectification achieved by most historical explanation.  Mr Macfie acknowledges the big questions raised by the shift from neutrality to language and asks whether we might not refer the problematic taking shape to class-based or biology-based explanations.

He asks, for example, was medieval time discontinuous for the elite but cyclic or even a dimension of events for the peasant? Or for another example, might not ‘consciousness’ be defined as the ‘integration of all language systems’ on the basis that they all arise from our brains? These questions and many like them are precisely the kind raised by the phenomena that, taken together in their infinite systemic plurality, cumulatively suggest the presence of a discursive condition competing fundamentally with the modern condition. They could lead into productive discussion if they avoid slipping backwards into instrumental and rationalist ways of speaking about language. Even  Mr Macfie does not avoid this; he doubts that we can ever speak and understand ‘the language of the discursive condition’ or ever ‘succeed in constructing (fashioning, creating, inventing) tools of thought appropriate to the discursive condition’. But the terms belong to modernity. In the discursive condition we don’t ‘fashion’ or ‘invent’ a language (conceived in Saussure’s terms, which I take as a model); nor is there any single language that is ‘the’ language of the discursive condition. History in the Discursive Condition is short and focused on key implications; the widest range of examples can be found in my longer books on narrative where persuasion relies more on examples (e.g., Realism and Consensus, Sequel to History, and The Novel in History 1840–1895).

I find promising Macfie’s willingness to formulate the problem and speak directly to it. First, he speaks to the infinite plurality of semiological systems and then recoils from it by speaking of ‘the language of the discursive condition’ as if there were some singular language characteristic of the discursive condition when in fact that condition is the condition of systemic multiplicity. There is no objectification among the palimpsest of codes. Second his method tends (whose doesn’t?) toward the reductive abstraction, and uses the instrumental imaginary so characteristic, of the culture of empiricism (modernity). However, as users of our semiological systems, we did not fashion, create, invent, or construct them and we will not fashion, create, invent, or construct any of the systems we approach as new possibilities belonging to the discursive condition. The great complexity of semiological systems is modified in usage, not ‘constructed’ by instrumentally minded empiricists who by definition avoid or suppress the irreducible complexities of the discursive condition. Modernity requires certain assumptions; the discursive condition requires other assumptions. The two sets do not ‘agree’ – end of story. The discursive condition of infinite semiological systems is one thing; the common denominator universe of modernity where neutrality sponsors objectification is quite another. What can be done in the discursive condition is all and only the work of self-conscious enunciators within the particular set of semiological (language) systems available uniquely to each person, and using the creativity called for by each such moment. Those moments where someone specifies by particular usage what otherwise remains only systemic potential – those are the moments of creative opportunity that are featured in the discursive condition and trivialized in the modern condition. The discursive condition involves an entirely new approach to individuality, creativity and influential action. The modern condition by contrast sponsors an heroic idea of ‘the’ individual: someone whose ‘genius’ can Change The World without any intermediary system to complexify and linguistify the situation – an idea of identity and action that now probably produces more harm than benefit. That, and not tired rehearsals about ‘ethics’ or ‘postmodernity’, would be one of the postmodern issues worth pursuing.

Finally and most puzzlingly the review ignores the final chapter of the book, a discussion of ‘art and action’ which indicates what constitutes opportunity in the discursive condition. Among other things, the chapter argues that, as Werner Herzog has said, ‘art’ is not a concept appropriate to our time. ‘Art’ is a commodity. Creative work is a process and part of the ever-present opportunity presented by the discursive condition. Rationalism (the so-called Enlightenment) deliberately marginalized ‘art’ and that marginalization continues to have dire consequences in western societies especially those most deeply invested in empiricism. As rationalism loses persuasive power in a world defined by principles of uncertainty, the value appreciates for creative usage among the variety of systems within which most of us operate daily, using creatively or conventionally the many non-verbal (semiological) systems that operate like language as Saussure defines it. If it is true that language speaks us, then language speaks us in the sense that we are born into our available languages (semiological systems including non-verbal language). Only an idiot would claim to have invented all the languages s/he uses on a daily basis. And that usage (‘enunciation’) can only take place in language – there is no ‘outside’ to language – and thus usage is the ever-present opportunity for creative action in the discursive condition. We can at each moment use, or deflect, the opportunity for new usage that exists, whether we exploit it or not, within our available systemic potentials. So we are spoken by language in the sense that we acknowledge that powerful systems of meaning and value shape everything from consciousness to cosmology.  But it is also true that each person can and does speak, even powerfully; in fact only such individual speech can specify the systemic potentials available to and unique to that person.From that potential comes the unique and unrepeatable poetry of a life.Agency and action are not foreclosed by the shift to language. But they are redefined. Doing something new takes courage as well as knowledge; courage to say or do what ‘cannot’ be said or done – that has seemed un-sayable or un-doable. (I don’t know why  Mr Macfie says that systemic plurality is ‘ruled out’ by Saussure, who was at pains to show how, for instance, time differs absolutely in different language traditions (Slavic, Romance, Germanic)).

Toward the end Mr Macfie takes to stating what I ‘believe’; I wish he would stick to what I argue; the only belief of mine he could know from this book is the belief that it is important to follow a trail of clues that seem consequential even if you have no idea where they lead. I’m surprised to find that he thinks I am ‘in no doubt’ about several points when in fact doubt is the watchword of the book. I do insist on the importance of taking the measure of our most habitual commitments, in this case particularly the commitment to historical explanation which is a default operating system in North America especially.

Mr Macfie notes quite correctly that there are ‘few’ examples of postmodern history. That would always be the case when big change is underway undercover. Most of us are habitual historians on a daily basis. It would be silly to expect more until we have defined the problematic. It took our ‘modern’ history 400 years at least to develop from its cultural foundations in the Renaissance to its flowering in the 19th century. A postmodern history might show its colours 400 years from now, unless postmodern history does not simply prove to be a contradiction in terms in which case history as we know it will simply wither and die out from lack of critical attention and return us to what has been the non-historicist status quo of most cultures and most times. Denial and dismissal pretty much define the present state of affairs with, as Mr Macfie notes, very ‘few’ exceptions. He explains quite eloquently how assimilation of something as profound as a new cultural paradigm is likely to go, sneaking up on us bit by bit as we attend to less profound, consequential things. He might be right. Another option would be to do and to encourage work with the requisite combination of humility and courage necessary for pursuing foundational critique in general and the ‘postmodern’ problematic in particular. What’s needed at this early stage is some humility and some creativity in defining a problematic and the many issues it raises, resisting the temptation to fall into the radioactive language of our empiricist traditions. The march of past, present and future has brought us relentless and unapologetic ‘development’ to the point of coma. The self-justifying faith in neutrality and objectivity has brought us the suppression of all stories but one, and one engaged in a war of story against story now in its second century. The trivialization of language as a habitation has nearly obliterated the sense that power can be non-instrumental. These would be the kind of discursive issues worth pursuing.

There are more questions than answers in dealing with the discursive condition, and in the process of asking those questions we can take the measure of what that condition is capable of so we might discover new states and modes more appropriate to our time than the leftovers of Lockean empiricism.  Mr Macfie rightly expresses his doubts about being able to assume the position of a discursive conditioner. That’s okay. One does not, and is not being asked by me, to ‘adopt the new paradigm’; we don’t even know what that is yet beyond a collection of demonstrably related phenomena that spur creative thought about what we think we know.