Salon (Vaclav Belohradsky)

Wednesday 7 March 2012
by  NLLG

How to Survive the Moral Sciences Or Patrik Ourednik’s Century

By Vaclav Belohradsky

(Salon, February 2, 2002

“But other historians maintained that the twentieth century in fact started earlier, that it began with the industrial revolution that disrupted the traditional world… Yet others declare that the twentieth century began when it was discovered that people came from apes and some people used to say that they came from the apes less than others, because they developed faster… At the beginning of the century there was great belief in positivism and electricity and inventions and biology and the development of mammals and psychology and social physics – that was termed sociology… The historians and philosophers used to say that humanism was a documentary culture and enabled society to be administered like a literary community, and that with the coming of radio and television and the technological revolution of the eighties and nineties it was no longer true. And the final blow to humanism was struck by biotechnology. And some used to say that it was well and good, that over the centuries humanism proved incapable of optimising humanity.”

Patrik Ourednik’s book Europeana talks about the summary formulae dreamt up by the “moral sciences”, “Geisteswissenschaften”, “social sciences”, “the humanities”, including philosophy – what might be described as intellectual discourse. Such discourse played a key role in the public life of the modern nation state: transforming people’s irrational loyalty towards the family, the clan, their ethnic group, mythology and their past into a rational loyalty towards an optimising formula called Czech (German, French, British) culture. The major European nations waged wars to assert the historical mission of their culture, and if your culture had a historical mission it meant that mankind must allow itself to be led (for a while at least) by intellectuals of that particular historically important nation. 20th century Europe saw the culmination of the struggle between nation states with a historical mission that ended in catastrophe and marked the beginning of the post-European era.

Europeana consists of piles of exhausted summary formulae left behind in the European public arena by such global projects of national cultures as French rationalism (and the central state), British empiricism and ethnology (and colonialism), the German classical philosophy that Lenin called one of the three sources of communism (and the German lament over the loss of community, the superficiality of the masses and human alienation), the Italian third way or corporatism (and fascism), etc. [...]

The discursive machinery of the humanities incorporated into the apparatus of pastoral power of the modern nation state churns out “europeana” that sum up our experience in summary formulae whereby it at last becomes relevant and meaningful – they provide “facts that belong together”. Intellectuals and journalists then argue over these encapsulations and all students have to make the grade in them as they are the “foundations of education” and the “common basis”. Some of these formulae enjoyed enormous success, such as the “revolution of heads and hearts”, the communists as the “heirs to the best traditions of the national revival”, “blood, sweat and tears”, a state based on “class solidarity and racial togetherness” (ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer) or on the contrary, the “social state”.

Let us call the context within which europeana are generated and expire the “Western discourse”. It is a none to firm hierarchy and an uneasy circumjacence of various summary phrases engendered by principal authors such as Marx, Comte, Durkheim and Bergson and secondary authors such as various interpreters and translators who give academic lectures, write in academic journals and the arts supplements of newspapers, who give evening classes or help write the programmes of political parties. The Western discourse also has as its prime aim to optimise people, free them from alienation and teach them to seize their opportunities.

In Ourednik’s book, Western discursivity uses the impersonal form of speech “man spricht” or “on dit” – “it is said”. In the afterword Vlastimil Hárl writes: “If we take Ourednik’s text as a historical and philosophical essay on 20th-century Europe, (we) are gradually seized with a sense of uneasiness, uncertainty and indignation: can it be that what the vox populi repeats over and over again (what people said, thought, looked forward to) and what the various philosophers, anthropologists, mathematicians, astrophysicists, linguists, sociologists, psychologists, etc. declared, was just a cock-and-bull story, a parody, a fiction?” He puts his finger precisely on the question Ourednik’s remarkable text poses: Are the “optimising formulae” produced in the 20th century by the discursive machinery of the moral sciences simply human angst, superstition, hope and prejudice – “what people say” – expressed in a loftier style? Aren’t these summary formulae hopelessly contaminated with what they summarise? Aren’t professors’ lectures, the critical editions of their writings, the whole of philosophy, sociology and even economics simply absolutised fragments of “what people say”? Is there no way out of the cycle of human speech, so that people might at last optimise themselves through self-knowledge and not simply verbalise their situation? There isn’t. [...]

So long as a summary formula is “loaded”, it attracts events, creates magnetic fields and ensures that we need to convince ourselves of the facts and pass them on; exhausted formulae, on the contrary, jettison facts and they expire; they fail to arouse the energy in people to bear them in mind. Exhausted “summary formulae” are heaped up in our public space as communication waste that is partly destroyed and partly carted off to libraries, museums and archives. Some facts from exhausted formulae escape to formulae that are still alive: critics of social injustice no longer speak in terms of socialism but of “ecological crisis” although not long ago they believed in science, the peaceful uses of nuclear power and economic growth for all.

Ourednik’s text is a compilation of “optimising formulae”, whose over-production was characteristic of the century of moral sciences. The discursive machinery of the humanities still operates and continues to churn out new optimising formulae, such as “the end of history” or “globalisation”, but people don’t trust them any more because they’ve come to the realisation that what is evil is optimisation of people whatever the catch phrase used. We are now in the post-modern era in which facts have mushroomed and no summary formula will manage to create a relevant entity of them. Lecturers in the moral sciences go scavenging at the communications waste tips for summary formulae about which they write academic publications in order to get professorships; in the run up to elections even politicians sometimes discuss these formulae to demonstrate that we live in a education-based society.

The Russian Formalists distinguished between the plot (the objective reality that a work reflects) and the subject (how the author selects and weaves parts of that reality). Let us say that in Ourednik’s view the plot is Western discursivity as a whole: contradictory, full of exhausted “optimising formulae” that entire nations have become trapped in. The facts multiply as the reality shrinks because reality consists of facts summarised in convincing formulae. Post-modern is “anything goes”; everyone can string exhausted formulae onto other chains and mix them into new subjects. [...]

The human sciences as they were constituted in the 20th century within the framework of the nation state and political parties lend scientificity to “what people say and think” and thereby turn people’s ideas into a trap. In her celebrated essay on the relationship of “politics and understanding” Hannah Arendt wrote that the core of totalitarianism is the distortion of opinions, attitudes and ideas into premises from which conclusions have to be drawn and then consistently implemented in history. Totalitarianism is indeed bound up with the myth-making libido that is expressed in the word “Geisteswissenschaften” (not fortuitously German), “moral sciences” (not fortuitously English – it has British colonial arrogance in its genes). Of we take the term “moral sciences” seriously we’re in a trap, because we thereby elevate “what some people say” to a premise with necessary conclusions that must be implemented in history with scientific consistency by the Party or NATO.

The 20th century was the century of the “humanities” or the era of efforts to optimise humanity through the science devoted to it. Ourednik’s narration is liberating; it shows us how to survive the “human sciences”, how to survive a century that was marked by the brutal elevation of something from “what people hoped” and “what people said” into a historical necessity. The formula for survival is simple: not to allow science to consider itself superior to what people say; science too is no more than the verbalisation of our fixations, fragments of a narration that binds people into a single humanity. [...]