Culture war is what happens when faith in institutions, and with it the modus vivendi, breaks down. This could be because of the inherent difficulty in sustaining value-pluralist liberalism. As MacIntyre puts it, “On the dominant liberal view, government is to be neutral as between rival conceptions of the human good, yet in fact what liberalism promotes is a kind of institutional order that is inimical to the construction and sustaining of the types of communal relationships required for the best kind of human life.”6 Or it could be because of the particular, concrete failures of political elites over the last decades as they have transferred loyalties from the parochial and the national to the abstract and the global.7 Either way, pluralism has lost out to oscillations between relativism and universalism, which in the end amount to the same thing. All sides come to see politics, the judiciary, and the media as potential means to advance their exclusive account of the good. Some on the religious right see the organs of the state being wielded instrumentally by a progressive elite and wonder why they shouldn’t attempt to do the same. It is a reasonable question to ask (even if those asking it have no shown capacity to achieve or exercise power in this way).
To exert dominance solely through such instrumental means, however, terminates in empty power without hegemony, as today’s liberals are slowly discovering. If there is a way through the culture war, it lies not in one side winning dominance over the other but in the creation of a common good, which is not the same thing as the enforcement of an exclusive or universalist notion of the good. The common good is a product of political action, not abstract reasoning, in which estranged values and interests are reconciled to one another—even if they are not perfectly harmonized. This process creates a self-conscious demos in which there is shared loyalty to the same first‑person plural, the same “we,” even if it contains different values.
This is not just theoretical. A politics of national and cultural renewal cannot be built by giving succor only to a contingent of hardened 1990s culture warriors. But nor is this about some muddling, middling compromise; there is no reason to think the “moderate” center has any particular validity. Instead we need to move entirely beyond the categories and scope of contemporary debate. The starting point for a realignment of cultural politics and thus the creation of a common good—which transcends partisan and value lines—is the recognition that the current settlement fails on both conservative and left-liberal terms. That contemporary politics fails for both sides is perhaps why each side views its opponents as the entrenched power: if it’s not working for us, it must be working for them.
The year 1989 is often viewed as the conclusion of the post-war period: in the long conflict Marxism has finally lost, while the Eastern countries are progressively taking their place in the unified world of freedom, well-being, consumption, democracy. Regarding this victory of the West, however, let us be careful: in the years immediately following 1945 the conflict was thought to be in terms of a struggle between Christian civilization and Marxism; later the opposition of democracy and totalitarianism became prevalent. It has also been said that in the post-war period the struggle between Fascism and anti-Fascism continued, at a different level. Supposedly, the present moment is when Communism is shedding the features it had in common with Fascism.
Now, nothing of this is true. Marxism has fully realized itself, but disproving its premises and promises. It did not do so due to mistakes or to betrayal by its leaders, but by the necessity of its nature. It has not expressed the radical alternative between the thesis represented by capitalism and the antithesis represented by the proletariat, it has not been the creation of an entirely new humanity. Instead, historically, it represented the transition from one stage of the bourgeoisie to another, the ulterior and definitive stage. About it, in his important and original book, Marcello Veneziani cites St. Anselm’s ontological argument, according to which today’s Occidentalism presents itself as the Id quo maius cogitari nequit, that than which nothing greater can be conceived; and he refers to some exponents of the new liberalism, who aim to establish the insuperability of the current stage reached by the neo-bourgeois society, which they conceive as the final stage.
Marxism has been the culture of the transition from the Christian-bourgeois society—of which we find the insuperable example in the work of Benedetto Croce—to the bourgeois society in its pure state. We could even say that Marxism represented the “transition to the worst” in the sense that, through Marxism, bourgeois society has shed every residual moral and religious sense, unburdening itself of all “impurities” that still tied it to traditional society, thus presenting itself as full materialism and full secularism. The West has realized everything of Marxism, except its messianic hope. “Socialism” Veneziani writes “has not inherited capitalist society, but has become included, entangled in capitalism itself; in many respects, it has been the intermediate stop on the journey from capitalism to neo-capitalism.” Veneziani notices that Western society realizes the essence of Marxism: “radical atheism and materialism, internationalism and universal non-belonging, the primacy of praxis and the death of philosophy, the domination of production and the universal manipulation of nature, technological Faustianism and equality that realizes itself as homogenization.” The new globalist liberalism, Veneziani observes, absorbs the lesson of Marxism, purifying it of all prophetic, gnostic and anti-modern slag, and of solidaristic suggestions.
Therefore we can say that the West is Marxism’s full secularization, as well as its perfect realization. It is Capitalism that absorbs Communism, using it to erase religious sacredness and national sacredness, a goal it could not have reached in any other way.
The material achievements of modern times have been great, but the world has suffered losses in the realm of values and ideals. We have lost contact, says Dr. Wang, with our ancient civilizations—the source of our humanity. This happened a hundred years ago in China and India, fifty years ago in Europe. If we are to maintain our humanity, the connection with our ancient traditions must be restored, and that requires the deep study of classical languages. Humanity can only be maintained by the humanities. Other animals follow natural instinct, which is why there are no dogities or catities (the younger students in the audience giggle at that), but human beings need the humanities to attain their full human potential. By organizing this conference, he hopes to make common cause with others around the world who feel their cultures have lost contact with humanizing traditions.
At Wenli Academy Dr. Wang promotes the study of classical languages from across the globe, Sanskrit as well as Latin and Greek, the great vehicles of humane wisdom. But he is firm that such study should not come at the expense of “our great Chinese culture.” Truth is universal, and the dao is transparent to the universal reason of mankind. Heaven and earth do not change, nor does dao and humanitas. But truth comes to us through our civilizations and their traditions, not through disembodied scientific reason. “In education the only important thing is filling human beings with humanity, actualizing their capacity for goodness. Since humanitas remains eternal and immutable, men have had that as their common bond from ancient to modern times, from East to West; through kinship in the humanities human beings are united. It is fitting, therefore, that all humans recognize the force of humanity as among the causative principles of nature.”2
What is remarkable about today’s oligarchy is not its ruthlessness but its pettiness and purposelessness. An all-consuming megalomania might at least produce some great art as a side-effect. But this collection of mediocrities cannot even do that. Their political activities—whether pushing for a slightly lower tax rate or throwing money at a self-serving brand of faux progressivism—are too small-minded to be anything other than embarrassing. This class has no idea what to do with its wealth, much less the power that results from it. It can only withdraw and extract, socially and economically, while the political justifications for its existence melt away.
Harman claims that the bedrock of OOO, and indeed of all philosophy, is aesthetic. That’s why a book directly addressing issues of art and art criticism is so fundamental to the OOO project. As he writes in a preliminary note in Art and Objects, what Harman means by aesthetics is “namely, the study of the surprisingly loose relationship between objects and their own qualities.… By art I mean the construction of entities or situations reliably equipped to produce beauty, meaning an explicit tension between hidden real objects and their palpable sensual qualities.”
This tension arises from the fundamental autonomy of objects. I’m reminded of the Simone Weil quote about an ugly girl looking in the mirror and realizing instantly that she’s more than she sees. Or the Pound quote that nothing suggests itself. Objects, according to OOO, are always “absent,” and we approach them only obliquely and with the knowledge of the tension that arises between them and their qualities. So what Harman’s latest book is, in fact, is a premodern (his phrase, via Bruno Latour) reclamation of aesthetic formalism. It’s an argument that art exists and engages in relationships with other objects, but that what makes those relationships possible is the fundamental autonomy of the art itself.
A cave like this is so removed from us in terms of time, and yet the discovery of human hand prints on some of the parts of the cave is yet another indication of our connection with the past. This embodiment is imperfect because it’s clear from the print that whomever decided to do this had a crooked pinky finger. As we watch this, we’re communicating with this distant nameless person, and yet we are palpably aware of the hand’s imposition but also invitation to see.
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