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Friday, May 11, 2012

Return to the Future or the Myth of the Eternal Return

One of the themes I find in many good conservatives is a sort of nostalgia for a lost past--e.g. the 50s or time of the greatest generation, the time of the founding of our nation, the 13th the Greatest of Centuries, the moment when Socrates or Jesus or Gautama Buddha walked the earth.

"The best guide to the future is the past," Berman says.  That means many things.

The desire to return to a paradise lost before the sin.  

Before cellphones and iPods for example. Yesterday while jogging, I saw a Mom walking her kids along the creek train hardly noticing, much less talking with them--cellphone or, was it her iPod?, in her ear.  Couples eating lunch texting.  Kids traveling with their families but focused on the video screen.

Before open free sexuality without stable relationships made possible by birth control devices, pornographic media, sex toys, gay rights, and books.

Before the internet, which makes it so easy to shop, barraging us with ads enticing us to buy the latest convenience or entertainment. And my computer which puts me in contact with the total world, all my Facebook friends, without any personal, physical touch.

Before single family homes on cul-de-sacs with electric door-opening garages facing the street where I can enter my car without having to face any other resident and go right to my TV or computer using  energy who cares from where or how it is affecting the water, air, or climate.

So they counsel a return to village life before industrialization and that old time religion. There are indigenous villages in Australia's Outback or deep in African jungles or South American rain forests where we might still experience a past without the evil consequences of industrialization--if there highways on which we can drive our cars, or nearby airports, or trains to take us there.

Learning lessons of the past to guide new social construction.

The Bush Pentagon reviewed the Battle of Algiers to get tips on torture against terrorists.  Bernanke and Geithner studied the Great Depression to get tips on how to get out of our latest.  Many writers are studying the Decline of the Roman (British, Ottoman, etc) Empire to get tips on keeping the American Empire going.  This is one way to use history as our teacher.

Here is another way:  Weber studied China to understand the bureaucratization of the West.  Arendt studied Athens to get a understand the principles of democracy.  Heideggar studied the pre-Socratics to understand ontology.  Jaspers studied the Axial Age to understand the great religions.  Von Bertallanfy studied Newton to understand scientific method.

And in daily communal life:  Want to learn who people are, their character, their personalities, what makes them go?  Listen to their stories.  The same for organizations and civilizations.  Reenact their origin stories with them.  Think Studs Terkel's interviews and books, Story Court on NPR, Living history projects where young people listen to the stories of their elders.  In this kind of learning through history, we learn not only them, but us.

The Past as Foundation

The past we know does not exist except in the present, our presence to our world, to each other, to our selves.  The return to events is really a return to our human being, even Being itself, according to Heidegger.  It is indeed in events that multiplicity in unity, truth and the subject appear, Alan Badiou teaches.  What I think this means is that the return we seek is not chronological.  The return we see is contact with who we have been, who we are, and who we have the possibility of becoming with each other in our universe.

I have called this "integrity" in my own ethical model which I have explained elsewhere.  This stands in between past and future, in judgment of the morality of our present culture, in contradiction to both the absoluteness and the relativism of modernity.  But it appears only in the event--not pure thought, not ceaseless busyness, but thoughtful action.

The answer is not to turn back the clock negating the decisions we have already made nor trying to run from the present into some non-existent space.  Neither nostalgia or narcissism is the answer.  Here in this space, now in this time, and with these persons is the lost past to which we can return.  The original moment is now in our creation of publics.

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