History and the Young

As long as the world spins around, I’ll take my time.

I finally got Covid. It’s been a miserable few days, though as I begin to recover, one saving grace is the annihilation of all other distractions; those few words ‘I’ve got Covid’ are enough to get one out of the most insistent commitment. And so after a hiatus of some months, I can read important things again! Two pieces yesterday caught my attention, Nathan Gardels’ The New Nomos of the Planet in Noema Magazine, and Stephen Buranyi’s Do We Need a New Theory of Evolution? in The Guardian. Summarizing Carl Schmitt’s later work The Nomos of the Earth (originally 1950), Gardels argues that of the available options, a multi-polar global geopolitics is emerging with multiple powers, who one the one hand are seeking to become internally self-sufficient, but on the other must collaborate in the face of planetary challenges – like climate change and pandemic (and, I would add, trade and migration).

There’s an interesting question about Gardels’ choice of the word ‘Planet’ in favour of Schmitt’s ‘Earth’. For what it’s worth, it appears to me that ‘Earth’ is a physical, literal thing, or collection of things, resources to be shared or consumed or used or traded (including people). ‘Planet’ on the other hand is a cosmic entity, a uniform singularity. Schmitt’s ‘Earth’ existed in relation to its peoples, though people were a part of his ‘Earth’ and his nomos of 1950 explored those relations. Gardels’ ‘Planet’, on the other hand, is somehow detached from the physical and literal world, and exists in a metaphorical, or superreal zone. ‘Planet’ is politics, and theory, and data and ether, while Schmitt’s ‘Earth’ is gold and blood and war. ‘Planet’ is clean, ‘Earth’ is dirty.

A couple of weeks back, Gardels wrote about The Perils of Smashing the Past, referencing in particular the Italian futurists and their insistence on what we would now refer to as accelerationism. I’ve written about the Furturists a bit – their work on display in MOMA is a constant reminder to me, with some echoes in the British Vorticist movement. I’m not sure I agree with Gardels’ closing comment, however, suggesting that the Italian Futurists didn’t foresee the kind of wars of the 20th century. I believe they did; or at least they were willing to sacrifice a lot of blood in order to see the civilization advance, as they saw it. ‘We want to glorify war,’ Filippo Marinetto wrote, ‘– the only cure for the world.’

More pressingly perhaps, Gardels’ reference to the futurists is a meditation on history and its place. They wanted to dispense with the old and accelerate the new, a one hundred year old version of Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘move fast and break things’, as in Leon Wieseltier’s lament for bookshops in the New York Times in 2015. This dialectic – the old versus the new, the young versus the aged, the fast versus the slow – has played out forever under different names. There’s no Hegelian synthesis in it, however, as only death resolves the tension; but there’s irony, oh there’s irony. The young become the aged; the new becomes old, and the fast become slow. Sometimes the urge for acceleration is more pronounced when the orthodoxy has most obviously failed. Old men who lose wars are neither celebrated for their service, nor tolerated in their dotage; they are shuffled off, invariably without ceremony.

And what is it that these young turks are trying to achieve? What new wisdom do they usher in that can somehow revive an ailing polity? Is there anything truly new? The past is somehow fixed in the eye of the current observer, it’s rigid, unchanging, and devoid of potential. It will never be better than it is – or so it seems – and it will never be worse. The future, on the other hand, can always be better, in the eye of the current observer. There is no sense of permanent process, that the past was process, that the present is process, and that the future too, is process. Nothing is ever fixed. The past is only fixed with that caveat – ‘in the eye of the current observer’ – which means that the past IS also process. We all have experiences of looking back on things differently as we get older; think about the perspectives of others at the same time, perhaps those who were older that we were, or younger, or alternately educated. When we are young, we only have experience of growth, not change. We don’t understand cycles, only progress: we got bigger, stronger, brighter, fitter. We got in every conceivable way better. That experience is overlaid on everything we see – for that is invariably the only experience of the young.

It colors everything, after all. History, I mean. It gives us our immediate ontologies, our politics, our sociology, our reference points, our things to embrace and to rebel against. We get our history first from our parents and family, then from our community, our school, our town, and our ecosystems that we gradually explore, digital and otherwise. We build visions and dreams from those scaffolds and cross-fertilise them with whimsy and desire. Everything too is contingent; maybe we build some things, though other things are inveigled into our being under cover of seeming natural goods: mothering, learning, seduction. Suddenly, we are fully alive and active in the world, doing things with these crafts our development has assembled. We are the reaction to history. We are its consequence. We are making new, and will become ourselves history. Oh sweet youth, what passion courses through those vital limbs, surging towards our great Jerusalem!

So we think about climate change, whether evolution was right, and whether world order is undergoing a shift to a new multi-polarity. As we do so, we think in terms of history. The young think about how they can shape it, reverse climate change, bring world peace, make some new discovery. The old think about they have failed to solve – or even contributed to some of these problems. And then new problems come along that make the old ones seem less pressing. The world turns, round which the moon spins, the two in their dance ellipse the Sun, outside Venus and inside Mars, asteroids sparkling off her atmosphere as she goes, almost winking.

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