Wed May 18th, 2011 at 10:47:02 AM EST
This is for comments on "l'affaire DSK" from a broader view. It was gently suggested that a how-it-(may)fits-into-a-larger-picture approach would be better done in a separate space from the DSK-Part III thread.
So, if you are one, as am I, of those who are fairly condemned to take a very wide and long perspective on the meaning and import of the news of the day, then this thread is for you--er, us.
Let me just get this out of the way--
I am a person who is congenitally, and by other predilection, always trying to see the import and meaning in contemporary events in part by looking for their context in a larger, longer view of events--much larger, much longer. My current reading illustrates this tendency as I am now reading between (among others) two books. One is Marie-Françoise Baslez's Bible et histoire (Folio/Gallilard, Paris, 2005) and the other, Danilo Martucelli's Sociologies de la modernité (Folio/ Gallimard, Paris, 1999) (which an anglophone reader can probably readily interpret "Bible and History" and Sociologies of Modernity", respectively.)
So, I'm currently shifting between the 3rd/2nd centuries B.C. on one hand and the 20th century (part of which I actually experienced) on the other.
Moreover, in reading Martucelli I've been put on guard by his astute interpretation which informs me that part of the very quintessence of modernity is a peculiar obsession with trying to 'place' one's self in the temporal scheme of things because one feels, in part, that the environment (physical and mental) is in constant flux and need of reinterpretation and, in part, that one is living through what must be humanity's final chapter.
As he puts it in his introduction (and according to Google's translation):
« La conscience de la modernité ne s'est constituée vraiment qu'à l'issue de ce double mouvement, comme conscience d'une appartenance à un temps spécifique et comme volonté de donner un sens à un monde s'éprouvant dans une inquiétude originaire.
« Or, cette réflexion ne manifeste toute l'ampleur de ses significations que lorsque l'expérience sociale des individus est traversée, ou supposée être traversée, par un ensemble d'incertitudes bousculant leur comportement social. Il n'y a pas de compréhension correcte de la modernité si on laisse échapper cette dimension. La sociologie crée et recrée l'idée de la société dans chaque période historique afin de donner sens aux pratiques sociales et aux changements historiques, mais sans jamais apaiser entièrement la conscience de l'incertitude foncière par laquelle elle se représente le monde moderne. La réflexion s'efforce alors, sans y parvenir jamais entièrement, de concilier deux projets : d'un côté, la volonté de produire des modèles stables de la réalité sociale, des représentations plus ou moins immédiatement et directement agissantes dans la réalité, une quête supposant la capacité à dégager des idées vraies ; de l'autre côté, la conscience de l'expérience de situations sociales instables, et sous l'emprise de déceptions multiples, là où le monde n'est perçu, invariablement, qu'en fonction des écarts, plus ou moins grands, mais toujours irrépressibles, avec les interprétations dont disposent les acteurs. La sociologie de la modernité provient de ce double mouvement de construction de représentations globales adéquates et de la conscience immédiate de leur écart avec la réalité. ...
« La modernité est la conscience historique de ces écarts, sources d'aventures et d'anxiétés, et de la perplexité ambivalente qu'ils entraînent. Mais cette dernière ne se dissipe jamais entièrement. L'expérience initiale de l'étrangeté moderne et sa conscience historique, si elle parvient à se transformer en évidence pratique et intellectuelle, ne parvient jamais à créer un horizon d'attentes définitivement familier. ...
« Chaque sociologue croit voir dans sa propre société un nouvel état de la modernité, une transition tendue entre la conscience de la disparition radicale d'un monde et celle de la naissance retardée du nouveau, et de l'émergence de figures inédites de l'individu. C'est dire jusqu'à quel point toute sociologie de la modernité est elle-même inséparable d'une prise de conscience historique du sentiment de rupture d'avec le passé. »
« The consciousness of modernity really comes about only after this double movement, as a consciousness of belonging to a specific time and as commitment to give meaning to a world experienced as an original anxiety.
« But this reflection only shows the full extent of its significance when the social experience of individuals is fraught with or supposedly fraught with a set of uncertainties which trouble their social behavior. There is no correct understanding of modernity if this dimension escapes us. Sociology creates and recreates the idea of society in every historical period in order to give meaning to social practices and historical change, but never fully appeases the consciousness of the deep uncertainty which the modern world represents. Reflection then tries, without ever fully succeeding, to reconcile two projects: on one hand, to seek a stable set of patterns of social reality, representations more or less immediately and directly operative in reality, a quest which presupposes the ability to identify true ideas, and, on the other, to cope with a consciousness of the social instability of experience, and this, under the influence of repeated disillusions by which the world is seen, invariably, distance between expectations and resulting reality which remains, more or less largely unfulfilled, but still irrepressible. The sociology of modernity comes from this double movement of building adequate and comprehensive representations of the immediate consciousness of their divergences with reality. ...
« Modernity is the historical consciousness of these divergences, sources of adventures and anxieties, and of the ambivalent perplexity they entail. But it does not dissipate entirely. No matter what the extent to which initial experience of strangeness and its modern historical consciousness may be rendered practically and intellectually evident, there never manages to develop a horizon of expectations which is definitely familiar. ..
« Every sociologist thinks he sees in his own times a new state of modernity, an uneasy transition between a consciousness of the disappearance of a radical world and that of the forestalled birth of a new one, and the emergence of a new and original kind of individual. This shows how far any sociology of modernity is itself inseparable from a historical awareness of the sense of rupture with the past. »
Not the finest of renderings but I hope the gist of it is comprehensible. As moderns, we live a constantly shifting and uncertain existence in which a desired horizon of stability and meaning (otherwise known, I think, as a meaning-giving context) is what is constantly moves away and out of our reach.
To continuously seek and find that context is essential, I think, to having any reasonable hope of dealing adequately with the challenges which confront society.
Every generation is at once obliged to define and interpret a view of reality and obliged to do that with a certain legacy, a cultural and historical inheritance, which inevitably influences to some extent the definition and interpretation. Past generations have met and faced with greater or lesser success all manner of trials and tests of their capacity to surmount threats to societies' continued existence. But none of these past trials can ensure our or our successors' success in meeting the present or future challenges to society's continued survival. The means we now possess, the potentialities under which will live are and always will be and remain unique to contemporary society. It is useless to assert that "We seen worse in the past and survived it -therefore, "we'll get through this, too." It's as though someone or some group, in traversing an ice-bank, or climbing an alpine mountain, reasons that, in having exercised enough care and patience to have arrive thus far, we can now relax our vigilance, we need not maintain the same degree of care since whatever risks and dangers are to come aren't and can't be larger than what has already been met and overcome. Such complacency easily suffices to invite a definitive ruin because we now live in the constant presence of technological means which admit of an ever-narrower margin of error. Yes, human history has spanned millennia, but it has not spanned them in possession of nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles. For decades, an edgy dread of mutual annihilation kept the world's heads of state of nuclear powers from a casualness or worse in their conduct of international politics and the management of conflicts. With the disappearance of the Soviet Union and Bloc, this level of alert caution and consciousness of danger has waned, to give way to attitudes which seem to suggest that we have somehow left such dangerous potentials behind us. That is sheer folly. Moreover, the western industrial world's leadership has spent nearly all of its time and attention on the social and geopolitical risks related to military actions while, in realms of the natural environment and technological innovations, they left practically unnoticed and unquestioned myriad dangers of equal or greater importance grow and worsen. It would be entirely like human nature to have spent enormous quantities of time and effort over decades in keeping mutual nuclear annihilation at bay even as other species-ending habits spread and took firmer root.
Politically, economically, socially, modern industrial societies are practicing the equivalent of driving blind--while drunk--and assuming that, because we haven't yet killed everyone in a cataclysmic wreck, we can assume that the road ahead will remain as manageable as what has been travelled thus far. Such reasoning, in our time, is all we need to hasten a well-deserved end.
Our political institutions, unless we find a way to recover a sense of the importance of our responsibility in keeping watch and check over political leaders charged with their care and management, will deteriorate to lethal states of dysfunction. The moral limits on the behavior of the élite political class come from and can only come from the larger general public and, in particular, a morally alert and responsible middle class which can and does hold the elite accountable. This is now largely lost and, while it might conceivably be recovered with much effort, if it is not recovered, the dangers posed are immense.
All of this figures importantly as "context" without which we shall continue to fail, as we have failed, to properly judge events and give them their due weight and importance to our social well being. The quickening pace of catastrophic events are warnings of our failures to exercise a minimum of care and attention. They are all the warning we can reasonably expect to be allowed before some event or set of events finally overwhelms our capacity to respond and recover.
Behind much of it lies a devil-may-care attitude of acceptance of all technological innovations, no matter how fraught with social dangers and which, taken together, are lethal to society's capacity to find and transmit meaning, value and context which makes society itself sustainable.
We are challenged to grasp these things as nations and people (beyond what a handful of experts and political elites may recognize) and we continue to neglect them as a public at our great peril.