The following are some thoughts and outlines of theory that aim at encapusalating some of my developing thought on human social order, the dynamics of historical change (particularly in the modern world, as we call it), and so on, which do not really ‘fit’ into my own academic work, but which lie behind how I think about the pre-modern world and my role as an observer and shaper of historical knowledge, which is always knowledge intimately tied up with the present. These are quickly assembled thoughts-out-loud, but I hope they prove of interest and use to the reader who takes the effort to navigate them.
1. On Discontinuities and Disorder: One of the problems that particularly marks our age—by which I mean the last half century or so, though with extensions backwards through the era of Western industrialization—is the problem (which is also a potent problématique) of radically discontinuous time scales within conjunctive social, political, economic, and ecological systems and processes. While technical advances and developments, be they in socio-political organization, economic systems, or actual technology, have moved many aspects of life on this earth into incredibly high-speed trajectories, they have been unable—and are most likely necessarily unable—to effect such transformations across the board. In fact, many of the most salient and vital processes, systems, and exigencies remain on time scales similar to or the same as during any period of post-agricultural revolution human history, and in some cases—particularly ecological and geological aspects—pre-human time scales. If our technics allow, for instance, for rapid, unpredictable socio-political disintegration, it is not clear that they encourage symmetrical forms of re-integration and re-formation, processes which are slow and unsteady, and which tend to require periods of relative stability and, crucially, extended time scales. One of the results of these discontinuities, I think, has been the rapid cyclical processing of global history, with periods of incredibly rapid formation and development along many metrics, followed by equally incredible periods of collapse and destruction. The succeeding periods of re-integration and re-building tend to automatically have the seeds of their dissolution built into them, accelerating the cycle. Of course, different societies have had very different responses to this process due to vastly differing historical circumstances and contingencies, but all societies have been subject to it, and it is possible that we are seeing, in this very historical moment, convergences towards a single unitary period of dissolution, with no clear route forward afterwards. Technics are growing more and more integrated and rapid, obliterating many quotidian time scales, yet proving incapable of shoring up or replacing many of the social systems, ecological processes, and interpersonal relationships that they are helping to either obliterate or destabilize. We are faced with a situation in which stable, resilient systems are necessary more than ever, but the tools and exigencies at our disposal increasingly trend in the very opposite direction.
2. What I am Trying to Do: The sort of theoretical position, the philosophical-political vantage point I am seeking in what I think and write, is a stance that seeks, first of all, to background my own ethical or other concerns, at least for the moment, and to instead to try to understand the composition and movement of human life within existing historical spaces—particularly, in a contemporary political context, the space of ‘modernity’/modernity (see below for the logic of this bifurcation). At the same time I am necessarily engaged in critiques of existing orders and structures, to be sure—the very need for critical discourse implies as much—but I must aim for not so much an objective stance as once that is open across possibilities and that is aware of, to put it hyperbolically, everything.
Such a stance could not hope to rid itself of ideological traces and ethical concerns, of course, but it must strive to first foreground them in awareness and then to place them aside, while being aware as far as possible of their traces on one’s self and one’s observations and analytical conclusions. Also, one might point out—and she would not be inaccurate in the observation—that such a theoretical stance is also a political stance, and that it is a political stance of some privilege, or at least of displaced ethical and political necessity or duty. Not all people can, or are able to, afford themselves the pleasure of observation at a certain distance, of trying to background their ideological drives, which are often borne out of very real and pressing exigencies of daily life and struggle. Yet, I would counter or suggest rather that even the most existential struggle (and sometimes struggles that present themselves as existential in fact are not…) needs the benefit of displaced observation, of attention to what is possible, to what is actually existing, and to the dynamics of human action and situation described without the distortion, at least for the moment, of explicit ethical or ideological configuration.
Human life unfolds within multiplicity, with divergence, displacement, disorder, from the biological level on, all constituting and being constituted in the human person in and through the relationships that each human person, and all persons en toto, form and are formed by. The work of the both each person and of larger societies (and inter-workings of societies, the enfolding of cultures and structures and systems of order and coordination) is to coordinate and to make orderly these seemingly infinite ‘inputs,’ conflicting claims of order, sense datum, discourses, and possibilities. The goal of the theorist observer is to locate the logics—usually un-perceived and un-known to the agents themselves—the strategies, the processes, the rejected possibilities, which humans use and are used by in structuring order into the potentially destructive heterogeneity of life. The best theorists will sense in all of this great wonder: the wonder at the seemingly miraculous continuance of life, the ways in which humans come to structure their lives and multiplicitous relationships even, perhaps especially in, the midst of forces of disorder and destruction, be they extra- or intra-human. It is in this wonder that the border between the work of the social theorist and observer and that of the philosopher proper and theologian is met, I think, a border that is certainly porous (and which is traced elsewhere in the theoretical landscapes in which we labor, borders tending to be not merely etchings in one spatial or imaginal-theoretical place, but visible and reproduced across the landscapes they mark), but which has a defensible ontological basis. If we on the social science side of the humanities are given the task of understanding the workings of the human world (and, increasingly, the non-human world), and of the dynamics and logics underlying those workings, we are still left, at this boundary of wonder, with the metaphysical, as it were, underpinnings of all that we survey. If we become aware of the creative drive, the self-organizing principle, or whatever we wish to call it, that is manifest up and down the cosmos, including our human worlds, then we may wish to identify it and to explore it. But the other side of the border, while we in other capacities may investigate, is terrain not ours to claim. We must have the humility of recognizing the limitations of our particular science, the places to which our investigations can come, the gaps and absences and barricades we will encounter. This is not to say they are unknowable (though some perhaps are, at least for us), but that the technics for knowing them, the epistemic routes, are otherwise.
For our attempts at knowledge are themselves a part of the great mesh of the world, in which being and coming into being structured and animated by multiplicity and unicity are mixed up in our constituting and our very observations. This goes without saying, yet we tend to forget it, deliberately sometimes, more often in the breach.
3. The Contradictions of ‘Modernity’/Modernity: Underlying modernity, as one of its key structuring ‘logics’ or rather contradictions (to wrest Marxist language away for my own use here) is the contrast between egalitarian, leveling, often libertarian impulses, ideologies, and sentiments, on the one hand, which reject hierarchy, social, class, and other forms of differentiation, alongside the sorts of political-social structures that also mark modernity and whose generation and sustenance—but also undermining and mutation—are paradoxically bound up with and conditioned by the very sentiments of egalitarianism, social leveling, and personal liberty (themselves not entirely cohesive approaches or sentiments, of course) they are often meant to express and defend. Of course, there are many other logics that give rise to the extreme structuration, hierarchical division, subordination, centralization and monopolization of power, and so on, that characterizes so much of modernity, many of them largely unrelated to the egalitarian and liberal sentiments and ideas that also animate and flow within the body of modernity as it is actually realized in the world. No theory or political ideology or plan of action has been able, or is likely to be able, to resolve this fundamental contradiction, a contradiction which tends, over time, to vitiate every political organization, every ideologically principled platform, regardless of which ideological tradition of modernity it stems from, or under which economic structure it is expressed. Hierarchy inevitably re-emerges, differentiation of power and status not only does not diminish but in fact tends towards acceleration and rigidification and reification, only to provoke a reaction on the part of people and political movements inculcated with a desire for leveling, for the egalitarian, in short, for all the promise of the animating ideological creatures of our age, be they liberal democracy, communistic socialism, anti-colonial nationalism, and so on. Even as the political expressions of these ideological constructions (though construction is probably too strong a word here) transform into socio-political structures and traditions of governance and economic order, their very success in inculcating anti-hierarchical, libertarian, and egalitarian concepts and sentiments and desires in the governed populace tends to ensure their undermining and replacement in time.
This cycle of reaction is not predictable, however, for the simple fact that ‘modernity’ (and here the marking off by quotes is most applicable) is everywhere and always met with deeply heterogenous situations and penetration, its localized and historically contingent manifestations never fulfilling the sort of theoretical neatness and demarcation an observer might desire or an ideologue might strive for. The ways in which discourses of egalitarianism or liberation or individualism are actually expressed and realized in given peoples at given times will never quite match the sort of theoretical, heuristic rendering I have just given. But, because the theoretical construct of ‘modernity’ is not simply heuristic but points to very real, if fluid and heterogeneous, structures, processes, bounded discourses, and traditions, we can identify general tendencies and trends, cyclical (or at least cyclical-seeming) patterns that manifest across historical circumstances. The logics of the modern state, for instance, tend towards reproductability across circumstances, even when those circumstances do not in fact lend themselves to such a reproduction. Codified and hierarchically ordered knowledge and practices have the ‘benefit’ of being, or at least appearing to be, transferable, giving a certain stability to what we call ‘modernity,’ even as the cultural practices and distributed social arrangements and ideological configurations tend towards greater fluidity and less cohesion. Economic structures as well, which are bound up with the political and the ecological, tend to have a stability and reproductability that makes them strong carriers of discourses and practices of modernity. Finally, in any given circumstance modernity/‘modernity,’ with its paradoxical pairing of egalitarian impulse and hierarchically ordered centralization, is not the only operative discourse, or even the most powerful, but tends to be in competition and hybridization with many other discourses, some predating it, some having arisen (or being in the process of generation) concurrent with it, in its orbit but not subordinate. The current locus classicus for this facet of modernity is the rise of Islamic reformism and Islamism, where the discourses and technics of both statist, rationalizing modernity and its egalitarian, leveling twinned impulse, meet within the powerful discourse of Islamic reformism, a discourse with genealogical roots other than those of modernity (at least in the immediate sense—both ultimately can be traced to the dual inheritance of Judaic and Hellenic religion and culture). One could reproduce this example across the globe, each instance taking its own configurations, these shared contradictory impulses and structuring principles appearing again and again, with similar political and social results.
This ‘complex’ of contradictions appears in these very words I have typed: I am simultaneously deploying my individual power of analysis, my self-authorization (or so I and my reader might assume or want to assume), on an ostensibly ‘democratic’ technical platform, open to all (in theory) and open to critique from anyone and everyone. Yet at the same time, in making my argument from a position of personal authority, authorized by my society’s insistence on individualism and egalitarianism, I am also deploying highly structured, highly hierarchicalized discourse—the sorts of words I use, the ways in which my arguments are built, the ways in which I reference or do not reference others and the traditions in which I inhere, and so on. Hence my critique, or my critique presented as an observation, is structured by and indelibly marked by the traces of the very discourse I am critiquing, and it has, so far as it has any power effect at all, a similar effect within the configuration of relationships within which my fragment of discourse exists. Hence the power of ‘modernity,’ and the difficult of speaking it and around it and beyond it. I suspect that it is the very heterogeneity of modernity, and the ultimate limitations of its hegemony, that provide the openings, as it were, for critiques such as this, even as critiques operate very much from within, if not entirely within. There is always a plurality of discursive space, no matter the situation, no matter how seemingly fenced in and hegemonically determined.