Friday 8 August 2014

'We Moderns' versus 'The Moderns'; or, The weight of our ancestors

One persistent source of disagreement during the AIME project was the precise meaning of 'Moderns.' This was captured most notably by Annemarie Mol during her presentation for the final seminars (I believe that this will be made available here but does not appear to be there at present) when she refused to speak in the name of any such entity. She asked that we focus instead on localised, specific issues that require no overarching or underlying group identity. To speak of a Big 'We,' it was suggested, is inherently oppressive and dangerous.

(What follows is one way, one attempt to rationalise ex post facto what actually happened during these events. In the midst of them there was an irreducible uncertainty.)

It seems to me that 'Moderns' has been used in at least two ways within AIME.

First, 'We Moderns' (the 'new nous,' as someone put it) are those who were performatively called into being by the project itself. The aim of AIME, it now seems to me (though I claim no authority on such matters!), was to produce a definition of 'Moderns' to which those assembled by the event would be willing to subscribe -- that is, not to self-identify with an already existing 'we' but to create a new ontological identity to which membership is not at all overarching but, rather, voluntary. This usage of 'Moderns' does not, then, indicate an actually or historically existing population. On the contrary, it is precisely because we have never been modern that such a performative creation is necessary.

However, secondly, Annemarie was right to point to a conflation of this performative and highly localised meaning of 'Moderns' with something rather broader and more historical. 'The Moderns' often seems to be used, additionally, as shorthand for 'those-who-though-they-were-modern'; in other words, 'The Moderns' also means the ancestors and kin of those assembled by the project -- a quite different ontological proposition.

Here is where it gets interesting: We (participants) were attempting to take responsibility for our ancestors. Latour, in his opening remarks, emphasised the importance of the fact that the event was taking place in a lecture theatre named after Albert Caquot, a famous French engineer and ├╝ber-modern. Caquot, of course, echoes the Greek kakos meaning 'bad' or 'evil.' The Moderns, it was suggested, thought that they were building a 'cosmos' (a divine order of existence) but all too often they were establishing a kakosmos (a nasty, broken order).

'We Moderns' (the new nous) and 'The Moderns' (those-who-thought-they-were-modern) converge on this point: We (participants) were obligated, due to our rather ignoble family history, to attempt to formulate a new definition of 'Modern,' a definition to which we would be happy to subscribe -- that was the challenge. We were obligated to perform this act precisely because (a) those-who-thought-they-were-modern were never modern (in the sense that they understood that term) and because (b) we still live in the house that they built.

Here it is important to contrast history with ancestry. To speak of 'ancestors' is to acknowledge a deep debt to and responsibility for those who came before us. To speak of history is, contrariwise, to suggest a broadly impersonal process that we just happen to find ourselves at the end or in the midst of. Ancestry entails an unavoidable familial commitment. History is what has made you; ancestry is, to some degree, what you are.

Here is where I would disagree with Annemarie's refusal to speak the phrase 'We Moderns': we have a responsibility for those who came before us because they still live among, through and around us; we are not free of our ancestors just because they are in the ground. They cannot simply be disavowed; saying 'I am not...' is insufficient.

If a child of disreputable parents were protesting 'but I am not my father, I am not my mother -- I have nothing to do with them' we might have to reply: 'but you still live in their house, they still feed you and put clothes on your back, you still speak their words; you walk like them, you talk like them; you exist through their modes of existence!'

We are children of contemptible predecessors but we still live in the house that they built (when we're in the Amphitheatre Caquot, more or less literally!). They thought that it was a grand, glorious palace; we now know that it was, in many ways, a tumbledown structure built on slavery and brutality. But we live there nevertheless.

We Moderns are unlike The Moderns in one crucial respect: The Moderns believed that they were standing on the shoulders of giants; we fear that we may be standing on the shoulders of tyrants. What we share is the predicament that none of us can dismount; there is no 'down there'; we have, instead, to find a way to modify our precarious situation, to stand a little differently.

We participants of AIME were assembled, first, as descendants of those-who-thought-they-were-modern and, second, as the future ancestors of our own offspring (thanks to Stephen Muecke for this point). The 'We Moderns' invoked by AIME was an opt-in performance of identification. We cannot say that this invitation to subscribe lacked 'informed consent'! Ultimately we failed to produce a definition to which those assembled could all sign up. However, this does not detract from the validity of the effort. An enduring Modern legacy is the pursuit of impossibles...

Permanently opting-out of such identity-challenges might seem superficially progressive and 'right on' but this, I believe, dissolves upon a deeper consideration of the predicament. Such an attitude of 'tune in, drop out, call me when there's something specific to talk about' is quintessentially Modern inasmuch as it implies a supersessive logic of history where we can gesture to a past that makes us but is not us; a past that we can shed like clothing. A logic of ancestry entails a commitment to more thoroughly reconsider the house that our ancestors built, the house in which we have no option but to continue living -- and to gradually renovate, wall by wall, brick by brick.

This is not a conservatism. It is not that we must 'honour' our elders -- far from it! -- but we must recognise that we cannot distance ourselves from them by mere renunciation. The only distance that we can put between ourselves and our less than salubrious predecessors is by differentiation, by becoming otherwise -- and that requires considerable attention to what we are and why we are what we are.

'The progressive composition of the common world'; or, the progressive renovation of our inherited abode. Either way, the important concept here is obligation.

Our burden is not that of the White Men of History. Theirs was not really a 'burden' at all but a gift to be passed on to the underdeveloped 'others,' whether they wanted it or not. Perhaps it is false to say that we are 'standing on the shoulders' of anyone; perhaps it is more like that they are standing on us. We are no longer 'burdened' with the obligation to spread our wisdom freely around a world that is simply open, empty and waiting to be filled by rationality. Instead, the world is now thinkable as being always already meaningful, always already rational but differently rational. Our true burden is finding our place in a world that doesn't need us -- and doing so with full cognisance of our ancestry.

Whatever we choose to name ourselves after we cease to be White Men, we cannot outrun our past. AIME solved nothing but it posed some important questions for what is ahead. A planetary negotiation? Negotiation has an interesting double meaning: the sense of parlay and the sense of navigation. 'Icebergs ahoy!'

To navigate the coming century without shipwreck -- are we not all in the same boat at least in this much?