The Enlightenment’s Farewell Tour

In the U.S., the Republicans’ sad entourage of the desperate, demented, and enraged are tearing at the Constitution’s exposed achilles tendons. In Russia the gangsters of Prigozhin are battling the siloviki of Putin for control of the spoils of a twice-failed totalitarian state. In India, Hindutva pursues a scorched-earth battle against Islam. In Germany the AfD tidal wave has engulfed the SPD, broken the CDU, and arrived at last in Bavaria, intent on washing away once and for all what little is still left of the CSU’s liberal democratic pretensions.

In Italy a fascist consumerism has sprung full-grown from the brow of Meloni. The trains now run on time, and foreign investors are once again reassured. In Finland and Sweden, the local populists have decided that white people are the only real people after all. In Israel, Syria, Hungary, Belarus, and Turkey, the warlord grifters have outlasted everyone. In Saudi Arabia and the gulf states, the kings, emirs, sultans and satraps of one kind or another are now completely convinced that having more money than Allah the Merciful means not having to apologize to anyone ever.

In Iran, a cabal of wizened religious fanatics calling themselves the Islamic Republic have yet to see any reason to deny themselves the perverse pleasure of beating and imprisoning women at random, and of shooting their own children whenever the kids act like they might be the coming thing. In China, a suspiciously but undeniably prosperous Communist (sic) Party oligarchy has decided that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is nothing more than a confession of the failures and arrogance of so-called Western civilization.

I don’t think Web 3.0 is going to be a lot of help in preserving what’s left of the secular humanism that evolved over four centuries in Europe, and was sealed with the French and American revolutions. Neither will eleven aircraft carrier battle groups or a triad of delivery systems for nuclear weapons, given that both have long been controlled by people who bear no allegiance whatsoever to secular humanism either as a creed or a philosophy of government.

I’m not one to cry O tempora, o mores! every time someone in Washington does something stupid, but I do think that if the last sad road show of the Enlightenment comes to your town, you should go and listen to what was once promised us, and what very shortly we’ll all be missing.

6 thoughts on “The Enlightenment’s Farewell Tour

  1. bystander June 24, 2023 / 3:06 pm

    Do we imagine that there is no coincidence in the evolution of this map to the New Dark Ages and the remnants of the Great 2008 Banking Fuck Up, an abysmally managed pandemic, with H5N1 licking its lips in the wings, and glaring evidence of “weather anomalies” – even if the staunchest of the denialists dare not say her name? As I still engage with the world at large in my N95 – and finally encountered in one of the Reddest western states – an outright hostility to the reminder that Normal ain’t, I get the simmering sense from a public at large that they are unnerved even if they can’t articulate that which bedevils them. I’m not particularly skilled in systems thinking, but I can’t help but get the feeling that a “system” is emerging, it’s dynamic, and when it fully reveals itself I’m not going to be one bit comfortable in its presence.

    • William timberman June 24, 2023 / 4:53 pm

      FWIW, I’m also a member of the Fellowship of N95 Wearers. (I’m improbably old now, so even a mildly virus-laden breeze is likely to carry me off.) Also FWIW, I believe that your instincts are spot on. I have very complex and urgent thoughts about all of this, enough for at least a couple of books, but, see above, I’m too old to have any hope of completing them. Instead, I’m working on two very long essays which, Lord willing and the creek don’t do what creeks are already doing in too effing many places this decade, I will post here. Working titles: “The Last Taxonomer,” and “A Torrent of Simultaneity.”

      For a peek at how far a couple of exceptionally astute people have already gotten with their analysis of the emergent system you refer to, that many of us can feel looming over our hopes, I’d recommend these recent books:

      Roberto Simanowski: The Death Algorithm and Other Digital Dilemmas


      Jeff Jarvis: The Gutenberg Parenthesis, The Age of Print and Its Lessons for the Age of the Internet

      See what you think….

      • bystander June 25, 2023 / 6:29 am

        I think you’ve tossed me – if not a crystal ball – then at least a rope to hang on to. Will pursue both books. Will also hope to see both of the essays you’re nurturing. We’ve been on the road in the West for about 8 weeks this summer with another 4 weeks planned in August and, ya know?, people are just not o.k. It’s not that most can’t manage to rise to a bit of polite/helpful/kindly interaction, but it’s offered with a bit of hesitation. An undercurrent of trying to discern our intentions as though they might find them worrisome. Unsettled is the descriptor I keep coming back to. So, I look forward to seeing your recommended books – and your forthcoming essays! Particularly looking to Jarvis; have a feeling Simanowski s going to scare the shit out of me.

        • William Timberman June 25, 2023 / 7:18 am

          I should probably warn you that the authors of these two books don’t concern themselves directly with the external, physical manifestations of these existential threats to our species’ survival—phenomena such as climate change, mass migrations, or the increasing likelihood of nuclear exchanges. Neither are they focused on the political consequences, such as our catastrophic mutual distrust of one another, our knee-jerk conspiracy theories and hysterical battering of minorities, that you’re reacting to here.

          What interests them—and me—are the consequences of the new technologies that are arising simultaneously with these crises, technologies that are reshaping our civilization by reshaping, in a more fundamental way than we realize, any traditional sense of our mutual dependencies. From the end of literacy as the accepted foundation of our epistemology to our evolving sense of history and of time, the evolution of consciousness is the underlying theme of both their efforts.

          To give you the flavor of it, here are a couple of salient quotes from the Simanowski book. (NB: I read it in German. The English translations here are my own, so the official English edition may be diverge slightly from what you see here.)

          “The deeper meaning of the singularity-thesis is the triumph of technology over cultural plurality.”

          “And just as social and technical developments once cast doubt on the sanctity of God, so now they subject the sacralization of humanity to renegotiation.”

          “Beyond any speculation about possible technical solutions and their political foundation, one thing appears to be without question: to the extent that human beings hand on the natural capacity for reason which distinguishes them from all other living creatures to inanimate matter, they will create for themselves a stone which they themselves cannot lift.”

  2. bystander June 26, 2023 / 5:57 am

    Yes. Apologies for getting stuck in my own head. When I think “system” I think of the feedback loops between/among the gestalt in which people find themselves and the people encountering it. Not articulating this well… I’m vibrating on the thought of the the socio-emotional space of the folks I’m encountering and some “stone which they themselves cannot lift.” The notion of resilience is taking kind of a beating having been coopted to be a get-out-of-jail-card for failing institutions; eg; Johnnie struggles being bullied at school and teacher suggests to the parents Johnnie should develop more resilience. Yet, resilience is a real thing that folks do develop over a lifetime and hopefully can keep pace for the times/circumstances in which they find themselves, inadequate institutions, or no. What happens when folks with varying degrees of a battered-by-current/oncoming-disasters resilience encounter “the stone” (or it’s evolution)? Sorry, still not articulating effectively; thoughts still inchoate/raw unproofed, unbaked mush. You’re right. These books will not answer this question, but maybe they will at least give me a glimpse of the “stone”. Thanks for your patience, William!

    • William Timberman June 26, 2023 / 6:27 am

      Believe me, I understand. If coherence is the criterion, my own mental habits can hardly be called exemplary. Yes, I believe resilience will still be a significant factor, but it may well be a resilience none of us would recognize as such. The main point, I guess, is that human consciousness as structured by centuries of literacy is a dependent variable, not an independent one. The tools necessary for our survival may indeed involve some form of human/machine symbiosis and the dominance of a non-linear consciousness not heard of since Lev-Strauss claimed to decode marriage moieties among non-literate cultures. As I’ve said before, what’s in the offing is not necessarily the end of humans, but is almost certainly the end of humanism. Certainly there’s a lot in what we’re seeing now that hints as much, however dimly we perceive it. In any event, promised or not, it’s a land you and I will never get to see. I fear that’s all the comfort we’re going to get.

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