The preeminent condition of the present time is aesthetic desperation: the search for the smallest piece of beautiful scrap, the most vanishing hint of a serious ideology, that has not yet been brutally subsumed, commoditised, disenchanted, and ground to dust. If I have been accused of fleeing into the ‘ruins’ of Christianity, such an action ought to be entirely unremarkable: in fact, for the Western mind at least, the entire world is more and more a ruin, and we inhabit it almost as ghosts.1 Mark Fisher cut to the heart of the matter: ‘Capitalism,’ one of his most famous and devastating passages observes, ‘is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.’2 When everything solid dissolves into air, all that is left on the ground is ash.
This condition is not just a consequence of material forces, however, but the product of a specific and ongoing crisis in the perception of time. The ruination of the future, as Reinhart Koselleck first observed,3 began with its unwinding in the Reformation, where the onrush of the Apocalypse impinged increasingly upon the indefinite time of the liturgical calendar; it intensified with the unhinging of history from the future in the Enlightenment; and—we may add to Koselleck—it reached a new turn with the displacement of acceleration from the realm of political to technical phenomena in the nineteenth century. In short, where once the future stretched forwards indefinitely in repetition of the present and the immediate past, it became, first, radically distinguished from the past, then emptied of the fixed, apocalyptic content of early Protestant millenarianism, and finally displaced entirely from human control.
For Koselleck, the temporal predicament of the Enlightenment had inaugurated a modern era of ‘critique and crisis’—critique, because the abyss of the future rendered impermanent all human institutions; crisis, because it invited the Enlightenment intellectual, the philosophe, to hide the void with an ideal future of his own design, and the dissonance between these utopias and prevailing social realities introduced an unbearable gaping disjuncture in the ordering of politics that no institutional setting ever since designed has succeeded in closing. In this regard there was little to differentiate revolutionary from counterrevolutionary—politics had become a war for the future over the ashes of the past. A small-time conservative pamphleteer—one Edmund Burke—described his own destiny with reference to the horrific fate of the Hussite general Jan Žižka, whose skin was flayed and stretched over the drums that would beat the sound of war: Burke’s person was to be ground into the total war against revolution.4 Through this all there has run the feeling of a growing acceleration of events; and where in the early nineteenth century a figure such as Metternich could still see the task of politics as the reordering of time through managerial restraint of social acceleration, in 2018 politics has either given itself over to the fact of this acceleration—or adopted a standpoint far more classically Protestant in its gleeful apocalypticism.5
Grasping this history will shed light on what may seem a strange remark I made in Catholicism and the gravity of horror, viz.:
Under the compressive impulse of recent modernity, however, the distinctively open future of the Enlightenment seems to be coming to a close. What is characteristic of this “cyberpunk” age is the collapse of the boundaries not just between the future and the present—a “future so close it connects”—but also the past: for progressives as much as conservatives, the future comes to be constituted by the recovery of historical projects prematurely foreclosed.
The question is this: How does one conceive the future? For enlightened man, the future was to be constructed, a supposition embodied in an endless proliferation of utopian schemes. A quite different answer, however, was provided at the start of the twentieth century by Georges Sorel.6 The future, Sorel saw, is the product of myth, of cosmic suppositions that ground and envelop what is merely human. To ‘construct the future’ is therefore to elaborate a myth. The significance of myth is not, in this sense, in its truth or falsehood, but in its social effects: to call the idea of the end of capitalism, as Sorel did, a myth was not to pass judgement on its propositional validity, but rather to point out what sort of effect it had.
This was not in itself a new idea, and it is all too easy to jump from this idea to the cynical notion of natural religion common to Machiavelli, Plato, Hobbes, and Nietzsche, who all see religion as an instrument to be gauged, manipulated, and engineered to produce the most salutary possible effects on society. Yet—and here was Sorel’s critique of the Maurrasian school of integralism, the decisive realisation that distinguished him from Nietzsche and all his predecessors—myth cannot be merely engineered. The fantasy of the speculative philosophe later identified by Koselleck was always just a fantasy, in its full pathological sense. Cynicism itself abolishes the utility of myth; the success of myth depends on the faithfulness of the mystagogue; and fully enlightened man, in fact, even when he imagines he has mastered his mythic ground, sprawls beneath the symbols of a greater myth, which he can barely perceive: the ‘illusion of progress’.
What is more, the illusion of progress is a myth that runs up far too easily against the limits of material production. Already a hundred years ago, Sorel could perceive that this illusion was out of joint with the reality of capitalist development. The determinants of industrial production tend not towards a linear progress up and away from the past—that preeminent, always-disappointed fantasy of liberalism—but to periods of decline and recovery, and finally to a strange recapitulation of the past, a recapturing of previous eras. Grounding himself in an eclectic mix of natural-scientific research, Marxian economics, and syndicalist theory, Sorel foresaw not the indefinite and universal intensification of industrial concentration, but a corresponding tendency of decentralisation, a strange return of the workshop and of the artisan in the context of capitalist technical progress. Against the mainstream of Marxism—and against later theorists such as Schumpeter who would decisively identify the trajectory of capitalism with indefinite industrial concentration—Sorel’s vision of the far future self-abolition of capitalism was one of distribution, the internal development of workshop organisation; we may say, in the tradition of Catholic social thought, subsidiarity.
With this the Enlightenment predicament comes to an end, and Sorel alights on the horizon of modern social thought, beyond which to think of modernity is itself impossible. The reintegration of the past into the future through the tendency of industrial development towards the circuitous recovery of history—what Sorel identified with Vico’s historical ricorso, the moment of renewal after decline—and the simultaneous reintegration of the future into the present through myth, which becomes identical with authentic natural religion, combine to dissociate the characteristic underlying basis of modernity. The horizon of modernity is the horizon of myth, and its line is broken by the temporally unanticipated dawn of something that—to the horror of liberal minds—looks very much premodern.
All this is to show, at the first and basic level, the importance of myth as the limit of modern social thought—but, more than that, it is also to suggest the importance of Christianity, which demands not just submission to a given prior, as Sorel conceives myth, but to the truth, and which in its fullest form counterposes itself more than any other religion in history to the world as a whole. For the moment, that world remains stuck in what looks like a last phase before ricorso, what Sorel termed decadence, and which Fisher identified with the condition of capitalist realism. It is remarkable, from a theological perspective, that this dispensation bears a close similarity to the ‘empty time’ of the final epoch of the Old Testament. In von Balthasar’s analysis, this empty time was a moment of baited breath, in which the Israelites searched desperately for some measure of recovery of the glory of the Lord with which they had had such immediate contact in the distant past: spreading their search across every different field, through introspective mysticism, through apocalypticism, through the desperate reiteration of blood-sacrifice, they sought to recover an aesthetic experience which seemed, terribly, to have disappeared.
Yet this moment was not, as they thought, entirely barren. Indeed, the unbearable night of empty expectation may in fact be pregnant with the light of a future only dimly imaginable: ‘“For that night” (illa enim nox, Wis 18.6) in which at about midnight the work of redemption and the work of annihilation took place simultaneously,’ says Balthasar, ‘this night remains impenetrable. It is absolute judgment, and—in the very heart of this—the incomprehensible superabundance of grace (Rom 5.15–21). It is the ever greater measure of humanity’s failure, which increases the blood-guilt beyond comprehension, and—therein—the ever greater measure of the mercy of God …’7 Here, however, we have entered the realm of theology proper, where secular social theory and the logic of natural religion must fall silent.
8 thoughts on “The limit of modernity at the horizon of myth”
Thank you for the link!
Just watched ‘Imagine’ on BBC1 about the artist Tacita Dean and thought about your article which I had just read, it seemed very ‘timely’!